Note: This page is a work in progress. The content is subject to change. If the topic interests you, you may want to check back periodically for any updates.
Another note: I am mostly talking about games other than video games. A lot of the same principles apply, but not entirely.
I want to start off by saying that this manifesto is a statement of what I consider to be the ideal game. There is no game in existence that is an ideal game. It is not possible to create an ideal game. These principles are goals to strive for. I believe a game is better the closer it comes to lining up with these principles.
The core of any game is its mechanics — the stuff that makes the game tick. This can be a combination of many elements: rules, text on cards, layout of the board, etc. Without the mechanics, the game is not a game at all. The mechanics are what make or break a game. They are what make the game interesting and fun. A game that is not designed around its mechanics will usually fail to be a game worth playing.
Games are not an attractive box or a zippy write-up in an online catalog. Games are not the pictures in the rulebook. I can design an awful, torturous game but hire good advertisers and fantastic graphic designers. Cool artwork will most definitely add to the coolness and fun of the game, but it cannot breathe life into a game that is lacking in a solid core.
There at least four principles that are essential to creating a good game. All of the other principles are subject to these four and/or flow out from them. These principles can trump anything else that I say, and I will sometimes remark on how some principle can be trumped by one of the big four. I have listed them in order of their importance.
All good games have a focus. There is some objective that lies behind the game’s creation. For instance, the game could be intended as a fun party game that stimulates laughter and friendly interaction. Or a game could be intended as a full-on world domination military strategy game. The focus of the game guides all of the game design decisions. This principle can trump all others.
Of course a game has to be fun. No matter how perfectly a game is designed, why would you play it if you don’t find it fun? This can be disheartening for a game designer – you spend hours designing a particular game, only to discover upon playing it that it is not very enjoyable.
Fun is hard to quantify, and what is fun for one person is not necessarily fun for another. This is why focus is so important. Focus can define which type of fun the game is aiming for and who is the target player.
Focus can also trump fun. For instance, an educational game often cannot be as fun, since its main purpose is to educate. However, I think educational games should strive to be as fun as possible. Otherwise, why call it a game? If it is not at all fun, call it homework.
A good game should be one that you want to play over and over. You should not feel like you exhausted all of its possibilities on the first time around. You should not come away from it thinking, “OK, that was pretty fun, but not fun enough to play again.”
Again, this principle can be trumped by the first two. For instance, murder mystery games usually can only be played once. After you have played it, you know the answer. That has to do with both the focus and the fun. The fun part is figuring out the mystery. The focus is the goal of having a game with a mystery to solve. When you purchase the game, you know that it is a one-play only game.
And this leads me to my first big soap box moment. Games today are being designed without the principle of replayability in mind. Why? It is the capitalistic tendency towards creating consumable and disposable goods. The game companies make more money if you only play your games once. In order to have fun, you find that you have to keep buying more games. When games are $40-$60 a shot, this is unacceptable. If I spend that much on a game, I expect it to be a game that I want to play more than once or twice. It’s an investment.
It wouldn’t be so bad if game companies were open about it. Why not say in the write-up, “This is a large-scale strategy game that will take all day to play. Suitable for playing once or twice…”? You are thinking that no one will buy the game. Perhaps fewer people would. What I have seen, though, is that savvy game buyers are starting to wise up and are no longer willing to shell out that kind of dough for games that they are not absolutely certain will provide repeatable fun, or they are consciously making the choice to spend that kind of money feeling like it is worth it for a single game session with their friends.
A good game should promote interaction between friends. For some games (like many party games), this is the main focus of the game. But even for other games, the game should leave room for the players to interact with each other.
There are several different ways to accomplish this. The game can make interaction a necessity or have some in-game mechanism for interaction. For instance, some games require player-to-player diplomacy. The game can also be designed to provide moments of rest and chatter. For instance, in a game like chess, both players are usually straining to think at all times, but if they are friends, they will often pause to talk. The game can also provide enough of a storyline that players cannot resist rehashing it after the game is over. “Wasn’t it incredible how Jim’s puny army destroyed Bill’s superior force?” “Jim, how did you do that?” “It was my choice of units. I focused on a balance of offense and defense…” (OK, so that did not sound exactly like a real conversation, but gamers know what I mean by the post-game rehash.)
There are some game design flaws that can kill interaction. The game can be designed in such a way that it isolates players. This can be done by having lengthy turns that require a player’s full attention. Jim has a lot to do and think about on his turn. He spends fifteen minutes calculating resources, buying and placing units, moving units, setting up for battle, etc. During that time pretty much everyone else ignores Jim. They all talk amongst themselves. Jim may never consciously think about it, but he begins to feel isolated.
Another way a game can isolate is by allowing players to grow so big that they become self-sufficient, or they even become enemy number one. Jim has already conquered a third of the world. His army is huge, and his resources are abundant. Everyone begins to work together against Jim. No one will have any diplomatic talks with him. They begin to openly discuss plans to take him down, and there are thinly disguised undercurrents of jealousy and resentment. Jim begins to ignore everybody else. His empire is so vast that it takes all of his attention. He does not have the time to chat.
A final big way that a game can kill interaction is by fostering the wrong kind of interaction. Some games allow for and even promote lying, backstabbing, and other not-nice behaviors. No matter how much some players try to tell themselves it is just a game, these negative interactions can actually hurt. Seeds of distrust can be sown in a game that continue to grow outside of the game. The subtle subconscious thought is “Wow! I never knew that Jim could lie so well. He totally had me fooled. If he is that good at lying to me, how else has he lied to me? Can I trust him?”
To me this is no longer fun, and it is no longer a good game. A good game should give me a good time with my friends in such a way that I am better friends with them after the game is over.
Again, this principle can be trumped by the first three, but I think the main acceptable way it can be trumped is by games that have a focus of being a one-person game, like solitaire.
There are many principles that I believe flow out of the foundationals. The best games are stuffed with a healthy mix of these elements. Not all elements may be in every game, and games will weight the elements differently. The appropriate mixture for a game is determined by the focus, fun, etc.
The best games are creative. I love it when I pick up a box for a new game, read the summary, and think, “Huh, what a great idea!” The idea of the game strikes you immediately as being creative. The board is laid out creatively. The mechanics employ creative solutions to common problems. Etc., etc.
A big part of a game’s creativeness is its uniqueness. Sometimes you read a write-up or review of a game and it says something like, “This game is just like Settlers of Catan, but with a cool new twist!” Is it a new game, or is it plagiarism? If it is just like Settlers of Catan with a cool new twist, just release it as yet another expansion set to Settlers of Catan.
Games within a particular genre have trouble establishing a unique identity. Oftentimes they are just a remix of pieces of multiple different games. It is like watching a montage of clips from reruns.
Again, it comes back to the game company’s need to make money. It is risky to try something new. They would rather put out the tried-and-true in a newly decorated box.
A good game stirs the imagination. It pulls you into its world. You begin to feel like a general commanding armies or a captain sailing a ship. When playing as a pirate you should be tempted to let out an “Arrrr!” or an “Ahoy!”
I believe a good game should represent something. The board should represent a map, or a timeline, or a money-tracker, etc. The pieces should represent armies, or individual people, or trains, etc.
The things that the game represents do not need to be real. They could be from science fiction or fantasy. They just have to be things that the player can relate to. It helps if the things in the game are designed to look like what they represent.
A good example of this principle is the difference between chess and checkers. What is a checker before it becomes a king? I have no idea. I am just moving circles around a board. But in chess the pieces have names. My knight can take down your castle. My bishop can sneak up behind your queen. I don’t think chess does a very good job being representative, but it certainly does a better job than checkers. This may be part of the reason I know who Kasparov is, but I have no idea of the name of anyone who is good at playing checkers.
But remember that a game is its mechanics. So many games today do a great job making the pieces look like sailing vessels, but they lack in good mechanics.
A good example is a game I just played recently for the first time. Something about exploration and colonization. So the point of the game is to represent the competition between private companies in the days of the explorers as they raced to explore and colonize. I am not a big history buff, but I remember a little bit about how the whole colonization process happened. I foolishly made decisions based on how such a private corporation would have pulled ahead in the colonization race a few hundred years ago. It quickly became apparent that by various means the game thwarted attempts to conduct reasonably realistic exploration/colonization.
Of course, you don’t want a game that is perfectly representative. At that point the game would just be real life. However, the game mechanics need to allow for the player to make “realistic” choices and obtain expected outcomes.
The most important factor governing replayability is game-to-game variation. The players need to believe that the game has a strong possibility of being significantly different the next time they play it. Otherwise, why would they want to play it again?
There are many things that can kill a sense of game-to-game variation. Games can have an obvious dominant strategy. The players who always win employ this particular strategy. The game is not about playing creatively. It is about who can most efficiently utilize the correct strategy. Every time you play this game all of the players who want to win do the same things. All of the players who are bored try new things and are punished for it.
More generally, a game can favor a particular style player. For instance, the game might favor being aggressive or defensive. Games like this will generally have the same member of your gaming group winning the game over and over. Eventually, no one else will want to play it. Sure, it can be good for people to learn different styles of play, but games that are balanced offer more variety for repeated play.
There are many other factors that can kill game-to-game variation, but how do you encourage it? There are a few methods that can be used to great effect.
The simplest method to grasp is providing a method for variations in initial game setup. One of the most popular strategy games in history is Axis and Allies, but the Achilles heel of this game is that there is no variation in game setup. The map is always the same. The same pieces are always placed in the same locations. This is of course due to the focus and representative nature of the game. It is trying to emulate a particular moment in history. Unfortunately, this does not much allow for creatively varied strategy and game outcomes. Students of the game recognize the fact that there are only a few viable strategies for each player and for each side (Axis or Allies). You pick your strategy and hope the dice rolls are in your favor. Once your gaming group understands this, Axis and Allies returns to the shelf and collects dust.
A second method of game-to-game variation that is hard to envision is providing for and encouraging a wide range of player choices. The preeminent game to demonstrate this method is the game of chess. The setup for this game is identical every time. The rules and pieces are simple. The board is small. And yet, almost every game is different, and the players certainly come away feeling that the game will be very different the next time they play it. Game-to-game variation is accomplished purely by variation in player choice and strategy. There are a mind-boggling number of mathematically possible chess games which provides for the possibility of a wide range of player choices. But that is not the only key element. Chess has built-in mechanics for encouraging players to make different choices. If you play the same opponent over and over, both you and your opponent are forced to change things up or risk being too predictable. If you play a different opponent, they will often try new things that you have never encountered before. The game-to-game variation is completely provided for by the players’ own voluntary variations in strategy!
A third major method of creating game-to-game variation is introducing mechanics for randomization in game events — a randomization that is independent of player choices. I will deal with randomization at length below. Let me point out here some different ways of randomizing game events. There can be generalized game conditions that affect all players. For instance, the more realistic military strategy games have means of representing weather conditions. The weather conditions vary from game to game. Many games randomize the outcomes of certain player choices. When one army attacks another army in a game like Risk, the outcome of the battle is determined by dice roll. Another prime means of randomization is providing individual players with random elements that they must turn to their advantage. This is the case in most card games. The player draws random cards and has to make choices from then on. Many party games implement this method of randomization — for example, charades, in which the word to be acted out is often randomly selected. Again, I will speak more on the subject of randomization, but for now, let me say that randomization needs to be used judiciously. Randomization can kill a game.
More could be said on this subject, but I shall move on. I will just conclude by pointing out that the idea of game-to-game variation must be built into the mechanics of the game. This is best accomplished when game designers intentionally set out to create a game with variation built in. I have played many games that are too caught up in their game concept to give thought to the principle of game-to-game variation. Yes, the principle of focus can override the principle of game-to-game variation, but it takes a lot of work to design a game that can overcome inherent repetitiveness.
The Game Is the Battlefield, Not the Enemy
By this principle I am not referring to military strategy games only. Most games, even lighthearted party games, are competitive in nature. You want to be competing against the other players, not the game. If you win, you want to feel responsible. If you lose, you want to feel like you were outplayed by the winning player. You do not want to feel like you won or lost due to some flaw in the game itself.
(Savvy gamers will immediately wonder how all of this applies to cooperative games. I will deal with cooperative games below.)
Here are some ways that the game becomes the enemy:
1) The Unfair Advantage: Some games provide a significant unfair advantage to a particular player. Sometimes there is an unfair advantage in who goes first or last in turn order. For example, the player who goes first is able to get a jump on everyone else, or the player who goes last is able to see and counter everyone else’s strategy. Sometimes there is an unfair advantage in initial game setup. For example, the player who always begins in a certain position on the game board usually wins. The game designer has to identify possible unfair advantages and take steps to avoid them or balance them out. I will deal with turn order specifically later.
2) The Silly Rule: Many, many, many, many, many games have at least one Silly Rule. (Please note that I am using the word “silly” to be kind. Other words I could use are obnoxious, stupid, annoying, irritating, frustrating, mind-blowingly idiotic, etc.) I feel like most games I play today have their token Silly Rule. It is that rule that no one who plays it can really understand. You question why the rule exists. That rule seems to thwart you at every turn. Every good idea, every brilliant strategy, falls victim to the Silly Rule. It prevents you from making the most reasonable of game decisions.
I find that usually the Silly Rule is a cover-up. The Silly Rule is not the real problem. It merely masks the real problem. As an experiment take a Silly Rule in a game you know well, and discuss it with your gaming buddies. Why did the game creators write that rule? If you apply your mind to it, argue about it long enough, eventually you will uncover the real issue.
The essence of a Silly Rule is that the game designers are trying to accomplish by a rule what they should accomplish by game design.
For instance, a Silly Rule is often meant to curb certain strategies or behaviors that will imbalance the game. A good example of this is unit limits. Many military strategy games prevent you from purchasing an infinite number of units or an infinite number of any particular unit (e.g., you can only purchase 25 cavalry and 50 infantry). These games give you a certain number of pieces of your color, and once you purchase all of those pieces, you have to spend your in-game resources on other things. The point of this is to force the players to have a balanced strategy. You can’t just buy cavalry. You have to buy infantry too. You can’t just buy military units. You have to invest in technological research as well.
But no player wants to be told that they MUST make certain choices. They want to come to those decisions on their own. They want to figure it out for themselves. They want to be free to strategize and make choices.
If a game designer wants to encourage balanced strategy, then it needs to be more subtly woven into the fabric of the game mechanics. The game needs to be set up in such a way that it rewards balanced strategy and punishes imbalanced strategy. This may not be obvious on the first time playing the game, but as the gaming group experiments with different strategies they discover that in order to have a better chance of success they need to be more balanced. The player who only spends money on units is defeated by the player who has fewer units but better technology. The player who only buys cavalry because they are “better” is defeated by the player who has discovered how to make use of both cavalry and infantry. Gradually, the more times the game is played, the more the players see the advantages of making different choices. They expand their strategic repertoire.
3) Excessive Randomization: If you want someone to hate your game, make it heavy in the randomization department. Nothing turns players against your game like being defeated by a series of bad dice rolls, or the repeated drawing of useless cards. I am going to discuss randomization in detail, but for this discussion, let me point out that randomization should be an element that a good player has to account for in his strategy and game play. However, it should not be the thing that consistently defeats you. Anybody who has frequently played the game Risk knows what I am talking about.
4) Impossible Odds: The game should not consistently create hopeless situations. I should not feel like the game created circumstances which were impossible for me to overcome. Take, for instance, the game charades. I should not be given the word or phrase that is impossible to act out. If I get the word “antidisestablishmentarianism” and my opponent gets “butterfly,” I am not defeated by my opponent, but by the game.
I’d like to take some time to discuss how this principle applies to cooperative games. I love the concept of cooperative games. A cooperative game has tremendous potential for create positive interaction between players.
But cooperative games appear to violate this principle by definition. In cooperative games the players work together to accomplish a task or defeat a game-mechanic-controlled opponent. Is not making the game the enemy? There are two main ways that I know of of overcoming this problem.
1) Make One Player the Opponent: A lot of cooperative games make this decision. One of the players is given the task of being the opponent. All the other players work together to defeat the one player. The advantage is that it at least can give the appearance that the game is not your enemy. Another advantage is that it gives a place for that one gamer in your group who is just awesome at games and always wins. You all end up ganging up on him anyway, so why not make it official?
However, in the end I think this method is a cop-out. The game designers could not come up with good game mechanics to govern the phantom opponent, so they make you appoint a stand-in. And then this type of game usually violates the principle of interaction. The one player who is the bad guy ends up being isolated. Oftentimes serious gamers get jealous because they want to play the bad guy.
2) Make the Opponent Mechanic Separate from Game Rules: This is the best method for creating cooperative games, but it is also nearly impossible. Somehow in the game mechanics there has to be a clear distinction between the mechanics governing the opponent/task and the mechanics/rules by which everyone must abide. The more blurred the lines are, the more the players will blame the game. If this is done, then the other rules above apply. The opponent/task cannot feel impossible. The randomization cannot turn against you too consistently. The game opponent/task cannot have an unfair advantage, and along with that, there cannot be a Silly Rule in the favor of the game opponent/task.
Sense of Player Control
The correlative principle to the last one is that players need to have the sense that they are largely in control of their own destiny. This is especially important for the losing player. When I lose I want to feel like I lost because I made poor choices, or I am not as skilled at the game, or I am just inexperienced. I want to be able to shake the winner’s hand and honestly tell him that he played a better game.
This principle is very important for replayability. If I am convinced that it is my fault that I lost, then I have some hope of winning next time I play. I can learn from my mistakes and do better next time.
Of course, this principle has to be used in conjunction with other principles. For instance, if a game is designed for a single style or strategy and it is a style or strategy that goes against my mental grain, then I may never enjoy playing this game again especially if I am convinced that I lost due to my own inadequacies.
Randomization Principle #1: Randomization Has Pros and Cons
Randomization in games can be very useful – even necessary. Randomization can be used to provide game-to-game variation. It can add the element of surprise. It can make the game unpredictable and unexpected. Randomization can also aid in making the game representative. Real life does not turn out the same way every time. Many times things in real life do not appear to follow consistent simplistic rules. Often the things a game is trying to represent can appear random on the surface.
An easy real life example is ocean waves. Now, of course, waves follow strict scientific laws, and if we had all of the necessary information (water temperature, air temperature, water currents, air currents, atmospheric conditions, underwater topography, etc.) and equations, we could predict the frequency, size, and shape of ocean waves. However, to a casual observer waves appear random, and, more importantly, there is no way that we could have all of the necessary information at our disposal or the necessary computing power to be able to accurately predict waves. So in a game, waves are best represented by a system of randomization.
Another major use for randomization is the representation of human error. It is easy for a gamer sitting in a chair to choose to do thus-and-so. However, the gamer is not actually having to attempt the action himself. If he were to attempt it, he would most likely fail. Nowhere is this more clear than in role-playing games (RPGs). In RPGs players control the actions of a particular character who has skills that the player could never dream of acquiring. The character could be an archer or a pickpocket. When a player wants to attempt a task that has room for human error, the game needs to introduce some means of randomization. For instance, the player wants to pick a lock in order to open a door. There has to be some means for deciding whether or not the character succeeds in the task or the character falls prey to human error.
However, randomization is far less useful than game designers often realize. It has already been discussed how the excessive use of randomization can make the game the enemy. Players feel like they are competing against the dice instead of each other. Too much randomization can make the players feel like they have very little control over the outcome. Most players do not enjoy the feeling of being at the mercy of random chance. Furthermore, if the situation of the game fluctuates too widely and too randomly, then any attempts at strategy are futile.
Of course, it must be recognized that some players enjoy the thrill of a gamble. They like being spectators of lady luck. There will always be those kinds of games where players bite their nails in agony waiting for the outcome of a dice roll or card draw. These types of games will always have their place, but if the goal is to design a game that has wide appeal and replayability, then randomization cannot be as strong a factor.
Putting randomization in a game is like putting fire in a house. If safely controlled in a fireplace, wood stove, oil burner, etc., fire can be extremely beneficial and even necessary for life. However, if fire is allowed to act uncontrolled, it will ruin the house.
Randomization Principle #2: Randomization Is Often Unnecessary
Games need randomization far less often than people realize. It is important to remember the foundational principle of focus. What is the focus of the game? Some games by definition should not include any random elements. For instance, pure strategy games like chess have intentionally eliminated the random elements from the game. The game is intended to be a pure battle of wits. It is mind against mind. Randomization would only interfere with the enjoyment of the game. As has already been mentioned above, chess achieves game-to-game variation by the voluntary strategic choices of the players who vary up their strategy in order to remain unpredictable.
A common flaw in a game is to use randomization for elements of the game that are outside of the focus of the game. For instance, in many world-domination-style strategy games, the players are making choices based on large-scale army movements. Those elements are not randomized. They are completely decided by the players. However, battles between the armies are What is usually randomized in these games are the battles between the armies. This is to take into account the variations in small-scale tactics, battle conditions, troop morale, etc. However, none of these elements are important to the focus of the game. The game is about large-scale strategy. It is not about tactics or troop morale.
If the game is about large-scale strategy, let it be about large-scale strategy. Why not assume that the other factors are equal? Why not assume that the generals and commanders on the field are all equally competent? Why not assume that both sides are equally capable in dealing with variable battle conditions such as weather and terrain? If the goal of the game is to be the best large-scale strategist, then let the best large-scale strategist win without any interference from factors that the game leaves outside of his control. A player who consistently employs impeccable strategy and yet is defeated by dice rolls will eventually tire of the game and play something else.
The idea of eliminating the battle dice roll is not strange or outlandish. In fact, this is a trend in the newer world-domination strategy games. More and more of these games are not using dice rolls to decide battles. Often battles are simply decided by a head count of troops.
This can seem overly-simplistic to a lot of people. How can battle be reduced to a head count? Smaller forces can overcome larger ones. Some generals are better than others. Besides, one of the main skills of a large-scale strategist is dealing with the tides of fortune. Eliminating these aspects of warfare reduces the representative nature of the game. At some point there has to be limits on representation, but there can be difference of opinion as to where to draw the line.
There are other options for providing for representation without randomization. Taking the example of a world-domination strategy game, the elements of battle normally represented by a dice roll could also be represented by some kind of minimal game mechanic, allowing the large-scale strategist to make minimal tactical choices.
Randomization can be useful, and it can be fun. However, it need not be the first resort when designing a game. It is wiser to seek other means of achieving the same ends first.
Randomization Principle #3: Randomization Is Subjectively Perceived
This is a principle that is hard for many people to understand. When playing a game, players perceive probabilities subjectively, rather than mathematically. Most players do not care whether or not the randomized elements of the game are actually fair. What they care about is whether or not the randomized elements feel fair to them.
This has at least two major effects (I had thought of a third, but I can’t remember it). First, players’ perceptions of randomized outcomes are skewed by their desire to win. If a game uses a coin toss to decide something, and if heads is favorable to the player, players will subconsciously expect the coin to turn up heads slightly more than it will turn up tails. If the coin turns up tails more than it turns up heads, the player will feel gypped, even though the coin toss is fair. In fact, players will probably feel gypped if the coin tosses in the game are split evenly 50/50.
Second, players expect to see probabilities hold true within a single game, or at least over the course of a small number of games. If they toss a coin 6 times in a game, they expect to see 3 heads and 3 tails. The more reasonable players will be willing to accept 4 heads and 2 tails (especially if heads is good for them, as noted above), but 1 and 5 or 0 and 6 will be hard to swallow. Of course, any of these outcomes are mathematically possible, and anybody who is familiar with the mathematics of probability understands that it is hard to guarantee an even spread of outcomes over a small number of coin tosses. It takes hundreds, even thousands of coin tosses to be confident that you will see the outcomes approach a 50/50 split. But players don’t usually care about the mathematics of probability. They want to have a good, fun game. To them that means having reliable probabilities.
Nowhere is this more evident than in book and paper RPGs. Anything of importance in an RPG is decided by dice roll. Characters have multiple skills, and they will use only a few of their skills frequently. Most characters have some skills that they will only use a handful of times. The players will expect to see outcomes of those few dice rolls reflect the probabilities of success and failure. No player will complain about a streak of successes, but if they fall into a streak of failures, they will begin to grumble. The game will no longer be enjoyable. Certainly, the decisions by dice roll were fair and mathematically possible, but the outcomes produced were not enjoyable for the player. What good is a diplomacy skill if the character can never persuade another character to do anything? If the character does not succeed with some regular frequency, then how could they be said to be skilled in that area? What good are fair probabilities if no one is having a good time?
Randomization Principle #4: Randomization Is a Spectrum from Soft to Strict
When we think of randomization in games, we normally think about strict randomization. By this I mean randomization that has clear probabilities that are strictly enforced. Dice rolling is the prime example of strict randomization. To succeed the player must achieve a certain roll on the die. The probability is clear and finite. It is easy for any with simple math skills to calculate it. There is no wiggle room, no mercy. Your chances are what they are and nothing different.
Most people either consciously or subconsciously find strict randomization to be lacking. It is so harsh and unforgiving. Strict randomization does not represent life well. The probabilities of events in real life are harder to determine. In real life, you can fudge things. You can try a little harder. You can sharpen your focus. There are gradations of success and failure that are not represented in cases of strict randomization. And then, as has already been mentioned, it is very difficult for probabilities to be consistently expressed in a small sample of instances.
Randomization is better if it is softened. Softening makes the There are many ways to soften randomization.
One method is obfuscation. You have to remember that randomization is perceived subjectively. The game’s randomization can be as strict as you want as long as it is not perceived that way. If you can use a method of randomization that is too complex to be quickly calculated. For instance, instead of rolling one or two dice, a game can call for larger pools of dice. The pools can be constructed to produce any desired probability, but the casual player will have trouble calculating them.
Other methods allow for some kind of interaction between players and the randomization. For one thing a game can give players options with different probabilities. For instance, games can offer higher rewards for greater risks with the players deciding the level of risk they are comfortable with.
A game can allow players to make choices with the results of randomization. A great example of this is the game of Yahtzee. Players roll the dice and then choose which dice to keep and which dice to reroll. They can see how the dice rolling is turning out and respond to it how they see fit. This process definitely softens the randomization. I can attest to this, since I consistently lose at Yahtzee. There must be more to this game than luck. The randomization system allows for enough strategy that someone like me who fails to understand the strategy will consistently lose.
A game can also allow players to assist in determining the probabilities. This can be seen in collectible card games. The player actually chooses which cards and how many of each go in their deck. This allows them to determine the probabilities of drawing each individual card. This has been expanded to a new type of game called deck-building games in which the game centers around the player constructing their deck as the game progresses, effectively crafting probabilities to their liking in response to the changing circumstances of the game. Another common example of determining probabilities is an RPG, in which the player determines the skills of their character and thereby determines the probability of attempting different tasks.
A final softening method I will mention is merely that of using a more palatable means of randomization. Again we must remember that randomization is perceived subjectively. Some means of randomization feel more palatable than others. Dice rolls and spins of a wheel are often too mathematical, and not enough like life. Cards can be more palatable in people’s perception. Some of this has to do with the fact that cards do not represent independent probability. The more cards you draw, the fewer cards that remain. The probability of drawing one of the remaining cards continuously increases. If you were to draw all of the cards in the deck, it is 100% guaranteed that you will draw the card you desire. Cards definitely do a fine job of representing a probability within a particular game. Draw enough cards and all the probabilities become apparent.
Randomization Principle #5:Do the Math
Even with complex the probabilities and softened the randomization, a game designer should do the math. In this age of computers there is little excuse for not calculating out the probabilities of all outcomes. This is how to ensure balance in the game.
Balancing Turn Order
Turn order can have a great impact on a game. In some games there is an advantage to going first. In other games there is an advantage to going last. Also, in many games the play goes in a circle dependent on the seating arrangement of the players. Therefore, one player’s turn always follows the same player.
There are three main methods for compensating for the advantages and disadvantages of turn order. The first method is just to assign turn order by some “fair” random method. This is usually done at the beginning of the game. From then on the first position in turn order might rotate around the table, or there may be a continuous circling around the table with no distinct rounds, or the turn order might be decided randomly every round. Randomly deciding turn order does not actually compensate for the imbalance of turn order. It only provides a fair method of determining who receives advantage and disadvantage.
Another method of compensating for turn order is to make the arrangement of turn order part of the game itself. Players can bid on a particular position in the turn order. Or they win an advantageous position through some other means within the game. Turn order then becomes an integral part of the game strategy to be manipulated along with everything else.
The last main method is to do away with turn order altogether. This is very difficult to achieve in a game of any complexity. Some games naturally lend themselves to no turn order, such as card games that are all about the speed at which a player can play all of his cards on shared piles in the center of the playing surface. However, other games are hard to conceive of without turn order, but even in these there is room for reducing the use of turn order. Some portions of the game might have to be played out in turn order, but other portions of the game could be played simultaneously. Again to use the example of world-domination strategy games (since they are often some of the most complex games on the market), players can purchase units, make trades, conduct diplomacy, etc. all simultaneously, whereas other elements may have to be handled in turn order.
Reasonable Victory Conditions
A game must have victory conditions that are reasonably achievable and that make sense. Furthermore, the victory conditions must be placed at the point of no return rather than at the point of total victory. In most games it becomes apparent who is going to win long before the end of the game. There is a point at which you can be about 90% certain that the player in the lead is the player who is going to win. Some games are fast-paced enough that there is little harm in playing the game out, but in other games, the last few turns can be agony for the loser(s). If the winner has already been decided, then there is no point in continuing play. The job of the game designer is to determine where that point of no return is and what victory conditions accurately express that game situation.
Reasonable and Relatively Predictable Game Length
Attention spans are continually decreasing. People’s lives are getting busier. Game designers are becoming more aware of the need to make games of a more reasonable length. Most games appear to be aiming for around 45 minutes. This length appears to make the game feel like a significant event without sucking the life out of your day.
Of course, there is always a place for games that are both longer and shorter than 45 minutes. Sometimes you hanker for a quick game. Sometimes you want an all day epic game. The most important thing is for the game box to have an accurate estimate of the time it takes to play. Players need to know what they are getting themselves into. Time estimates need to include time for setup, and if setup time is considerable, then that needs to be expressed. It is best for game length to be relatively predictable, but if that is not possible, then the box needs to express a wide variance in possible game length.
Simple, Clear, Easy-to-Learn, Reasonable, Intuitive Rules
It must be taken into account that a lot of people (myself included) find epic, complicated games really fun, but even complicated games need to avoid overcomplication. And truthfully, complicated games will never have wide appeal. Games with wide appeal have to have simple rules. The rulebook should be clearly written. There should be no possibility of misinterpretation. Every eventuality should have been considered and accounted for in the rules. A newcomer to the game should be able to pick up the rules quickly.
Again, a great example is the game of chess. People are frightened by the perceived complexity of chess, but actually the rules can be learned in a short time. The complexity is all in the game-play. What chess is lacking is intuitive rules. The rules of chess do not immediately make sense. For example, why does the knight jump in an “L” shape when it moves? This makes no sense to the beginner chess player.
The ideal game would have rules that when first read immediately evoke the reaction, “But of course, that is clearly the best way it could be done.” Or at the very least, the reasons for rules should be readily understandable and apparent.
A Variety of Feasible Strategies
A game should allow for a variety of strategies. Sometimes games will go as far as providing multiple possible victory conditions. But even if there is only one set of victory conditions, there should be multiple strategies to achieving it. The strategies may all be similar, but the differences should be significant enough to allow for variety in personality and game-play.
Allowing for a variety of strategies is not enough. Often games will allow for multiple strategies, and yet players will generally gravitate towards one main strategy. Often this is because the game rewards a particular strategy or makes it easier to play with that particular strategy. Many games provide rule options, unit types, cards, etc. that never really get used. The game is unintentionally designed so that those strategies do not get used. I would rather that the game did not include them in the first place than to render them useless.
A Variety of Skill Levels
The game should provide for a variety of skill levels. There should be built-in mechanics for changing the difficulty level of the game. In some games it is even possible for to assign some handicap to an experienced player. However, if a game is easy to learn, if it is intuitive, if it allows for a variety of strategy, etc., then it will be easy for a beginner to pick up the game and compete with experienced players.