My general design goals

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I have during some time collected notes about what I think make good or great games. Not specific mechanisms or themes, but overall qualities or properties that I want to strive towards when creating games. In this blog post I try to summarize these general design goals. I expect that they will evolve, so this is a snapshot of my thoughts in early 2022.

Photo by PIXNIO.

The big things

Great games give great experiences

I view board games as enablers of experiences. A “great experience” necessarily mean that the game is fun. It can be rewarding in terms of giving new perspectives on things, getting closer to persons you love, helping to get to know new people, helping to get to know yourself, or in other ways creating memorable moments.

As a math and board game geek I tend to overfocus on game mechanics. I’ve written before about the immense joy I had while playing Talisman as kid – a game where mechanics and balance could be improved (to say the least), but still a great game because it gave great experiences and great memories. This is humbling. Experience trumps mechanics every day of the week. Actually, experience trumps everything.

Theme, mechanics and components should support each other

This is about creating immersion, which is closely connected to game experience and also the “magic circle” – the unspoken worlds and agreements that exist between players while playing.

In great games, theme, mechanics and components are fused together in a way that sometimes makes it difficult to tell what is what. Rules feels like a natural consequence of the game world. Terminology and the physical parts of the game just fit, and build natural restrictions (i.e. rules) as well as game atmosphere.

Also: In great games, all parts of the game make a meaningful contribution. There are no exception rules or special cases just to balance something that otherwise get out of hand. If the game ends at sunset, it is because it fits with the game world – not just because the game needed to be limited to twelve rounds. All parts of the game have multiple purposes. Thematic parts contribute to mechanics and components. Components contribute to mechanics and theme. Mechanics blend with components and theme.

Players should always have meaningful choices

This about agency, which is something that in my view separates games from many other art forms. Agency and meaningful choices help building engagement, which in turn help building experiences.

In great games, players always have meaningful choices. The word meaningful is key – unless there are more than one option that is tempting, there isn’t really a choice. This means that games should not have a dominant strategy, and choices early in the game should not make the game devoid of meaningful choices later on.

Great games have exciting ends, and are worth playing to the last round. Player elimination should be avoided, unless the game is really short. King making should also be avoided. The choices players make should be based on things inside the game, not who you’re playing with. Strong king making opportunities risks creating a meta game, which I think is a bad thing (unless it is intentional in the game design).

People who know their stuff say that 3–4 alternatives is the optimal amount – more than that risks causing analysis paralysis or that players just pick something without thinking it through. While great games could have more alternatives than 4, there are only a few that stand out as attractive. Deciding on short term or long term gains is often an ever-present choice.

Games should create engagement

Great games make you engaged at a personal level. A basic engagement comes from the strive to win (individually or collectively), which can be complemented by becoming engaged in the game story, developing a player’s character, or building something that the player experiences ownership of. Different sorts of engine building games make use of that feeling of building and improving something you have ownership of.

Strong engagement make players want to play agan when the game is finished. Engagement gives a good experience also when you end up dead last.

It might be worth noting that strong engagement introduces a risk in games – taking away something the player value gives negative experiences.

Strive for elegance: Simple parts, emergent complexity

This is partly the math and board game geek in me talking. I like the esthetics of simple parts coming together to create a beautiful whole. But there are also functional reasons to strive for elegance.

Elegant mechanics means few rules and high (emergent) complexity. No ugly exceptions or special cases. Games with elegant mechanics are easy to learn.

Elegant representations means that components or art are easy to use and understand, and fit all functionality in a natural way. A card turned upside down does something else. When you run out of workers, you cannot place any more. The slider shows that when you increase your speed, you lose in sneak.

The rest

The sections above describe, I think, what I aim for when creating a game. Below are some other guidelines I have written down for myself that are not as fundamental or general, but still present.

  • All players should have the same chance for winning when the game starts, unless the game has a handicap mechanism. In particular, first and last player should not have advantages or disadvantages. How players are seated around the table should also not matter – sitting next to a novice should ideally give the same chances as sitting next to an expert.
  • Games should have a high replayability factor. (Unless they are legacy games, obviously.) This can for example be obtained by input randomness in game setup or having unique player abilities that can vary between games. But it could also be a result of a great depth in a game with static setup and perfect information (like go).
  • It should be difficult to forget rules. If easily forgotten rules cannot be removed, they need to be supported by theme or components to make them a natural part of the game flow. A special case of this is that it should be difficult to cheat. Cheating is ten miles away when I play games with friends, but not all players are the same. Rules that can accidentally be forgotten might also “accidentally” be forgotten. A friend of mine complains whenever card backs are asymmetrical, making it possible to tell face-down cards apart by their orientation, and he has a point. Better to take that possibility out of the game, so players don’t even have to worry about it.
  • Shorter playing time is better than longer, assuming it does not lessen the experience. It makes it possible to play more games in the same time, if nothing else.
  • Downtime should be minimized. Players should ideally always have something to do or plan during other player’s turn. If planning ahead should be useful, there are limits on how much the game state can change on a round. At the same time, randomness or hidden information reduces the risk for analysis paralysis. Simultaneous actions are usually a plus.
  • It is preferable that games are easy to set up, take down and carry around. Unless it lessens the playing experience.

Thanks for reading. Feel free to add your thoughts in comments. What did I miss? What do I overvalue or undervalue?

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