Design Theory: Game Design Is…

“Getting rid of all the bad problems and keeping all the good ones.”

Bob said this while we were playing Pandora at the weekend and I liked it so much that I wrote it in my notes for the game.

I know what I think, but what’s your take? Can the aims of good game design really be reduced to a single sentence? If they can, is this it? Would it be any easier if it could? Can I think of a whole series of pithy one-liners to define the aims of game design? Can you?


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47 Responses to Design Theory: Game Design Is…

  1. Andrew says:

    …making the rules just robust enough to stand up to 3-4 years new releases, but not so robust that you never need to bring out a new edition.

    Cynical? Perhaps, but it does apply to a lot of things that aren’t games.

    • Quirkworthy says:

      I remember reading about Chrysler spending millions redesigning part of one of their cars because it lasted for 20 years and the rest had a life of only about 4. Clearly needed un-overengineering 😉

      • Andrew says:

        Having worked tech support for the better part of a decade, it’s amazing how many modems break down a week or three after their warranty runs out.

        Here’s another maxim: “Spend more time writing the rules well the first time and you’ll spend less time explaining them later.”

      • Quirkworthy says:

        Stuff breaking down just after a warranty ends is not always chance – it’s often engineering. A family friend of mine worked for many years as a photocopier engineer. He told me that those companies make a lot of their money on repair contracts rather than selling copiers. To ensure customers kept up these contracts, one of the models from the company he worked for was carefully designed with a cheap part that failed regularly. This was then replaced at every service by the official engineer. As long as the contract to service the machine was kept up was maintained, everything was fine. However, if no services were done then the part would soon fail, and it was deliberately placed so that this cheap bit melted, dripped molten plastic down onto other components, and ruined several much more expensive parts below, writing off the copier and demonstrating the value of permanent contracts with the parent company. Apocryphal? Possibly, though personally I would trust that source.

        Is there a game link here? Oddly, there might be. Putting my cynical hat on for a moment, is Andrew’s maxim a good one in a commercial sense? Sure, it makes the design more robust, but is robust what you want when you’re a big business and want to make money, or do you want something where people have to return and purchase more regularly to “fix” (rebalance) the game?

        Answers on a postcard to the usual address…

  2. Ben says:

    No, they can’t but a series of pithy sentences that you keep in mind should help you stay on the right track when designing a game.

    • Quirkworthy says:

      Someone asked me about the Golden Rules of game design when I was doing a seminar for Mantic. Were there any? If so, what were they? Well I had an answer at the time. I’ll try and get a copy of the recording and write it up for you. It was based on a different tack from this though.

  3. Forest Ramsey says:

    “…using the fewest rules possible to encompass the widest variety of play effects.”

  4. Ben says:

    “Here’s another maxim: “Spend more time writing the rules well the first time and you’ll spend less time explaining them later.””

    And bear in mind that people will play the rules you write, not the game in your head.

    • Quirkworthy says:

      For the first part, see my comment above.

      The second bit is why playtesting is critical. What do the rules actually say? Get other people to tell you, then if it’s not what you’re after make the appropriate changes in explanation. Don’t berate people for misunderstanding. Some folk will be deliberately obtuse, but they’re in a small minority. Mostly it’s your fault for not being clear enough.

  5. Don´t rely on common sense and KISS!

    No matter how logical it might seem to everyone testing the game…. There is horde of gamers around the corners that won`t. And keep it simple stupid so YOU in a few years time will be spared a lot of headaches when the game has become so bloated that only a full restart would help.

    • Quirkworthy says:

      There is a balancing act here. On the one side we have the constant demand for more of whatever game is popular from the gaming public. Commercial companies will tend to answer that call with new armies, expansions and the like, regardless of what the original intention was. On the other hand, as André says, bloat = problems for the game as a whole. Personally, I think that the Privateer Press and GW models both cause inevitable (deliberate?) bloat problems and periodically have to be rebooted, almost as part of the original design. Closer to home, Dwarf King’s Hold was originally visualised by me as a larger game than any single box, but even so I can see that we may eventually get to a point where it would be simpler all round to reboot it. We’re years away from that at present – I’m just suggesting that even if you have a plan that includes the expansions it doesn’t necessarily exclude rebooting. After all, I expect to learn more and have better ideas and more tricks up my sleeve in 5 years than I have now. Perhaps I’ll have a slicker and more elegant way to do the same thing. if I do, should I leave a popular design where it is or update it? Tricky.

      • There is nothing wrong with a reboot if done properly or at all ;).

      • Quirkworthy says:

        There’s nothing wrong with a reboot in principle. However, I think it is done far more often than is warranted from a purely design perspective.

      • andymeechan says:

        I suspect a lot of readers here are long-term gamers, so I will keep this brief.

        I have witnessed many terrific game systems bubble then fade. One of the common factors was that the game was not supported with regular shiney things, be that new models, back-filled models, or a reboot of the rules.

        Don’t ask me why, but it’s the Gamers that kill games they love by always chasing the new… magpies. It happens and perhaps the successful companies are the ones who recognise this? (We’re on DK#3 within a year, right? – that comes under the ‘expansion’ and ‘shiney’ categories for me.)

        Game on!,


        • MP7VRN says:

          Frankly it’s not exactly gamers fault, but rather need for challenge. New game is a new challenge, terra incognita, new pain and fluff exploration, multiplied by new shiny things and advertising hype. Like it or not after you mastered one game and have good idea of your opponents style of play you get i bit bored. Computer games have realized that some time ago and gave an answer in the way of trophies and unlock-able achievements. That keeps player for an extra time or play-through thus prolonging products life. Table top has a difficulty due to nature of the medium, hence “im bored and i want a new game”.

      • Quirkworthy says:

        It is DKH3 within a year, which is romping along rather quicker than most things. Surprised me too 🙂

        As to your general point, I agree that many otherwise fine games have been abandoned for the latest shiny thing. Confrontation 3 is a good example, but there are many more. I am not immune to this myself. However, I do try to keep playing things I like. The problem is always that you need at least 2 players, and preferably more to keep a system alive within a group.

        On the other side, you do occasionally hear about people playing old versions of things, for example the group of 3rd edition Warhammer players who decided that the models and game were fine then and simply ignored later releases. I bumped into them when 6th was current, so that’s quite a while after the event. So it does happen, but it’s definitely bucking a trend.

      • Ben says:

        “The problem is always that you need at least 2 players, and preferably more to keep a system alive within a group.”

        This is the major issue for me. My main minis gaming group is hardcore WFB. I’ve managed to get a couple of them to play Malifaux and Uncharted Seas but that’s it. There’s a bunch of other game systems I’d love to play but it isn’t going to happen. Even if I offer to provide both armies I still make no headway, WFB rules.

      • Quirkworthy says:

        If you haven’t tried it, many forums have threads about meeting up with gamers for specific systems, and this is of particular use when it’s something less mainstream. Maybe that would help (if you haven’t tried it). Obviously collecting two sides helps too, allowing you to demo a game to people without them having to spend their own cash first. It is a pain though, and something that holds back many systems. You’ve got to get a critical mass of gamers at a given location to be able to play frequently.

      • Ben says:

        There are a couple of clubs within driving distance though they are WFB/40K and Warmahordes dominated and one has a player base a fair bit younger than myself which is off-putting.

      • Quirkworthy says:

        It’s not always official clubs you need. Most gaming I’ve done has been groups of friends rather than organised clubs. Might be worth checking the home forums of games you were interested in.

  6. Sam Dale says:

    “We’re wargamers. We want to kill things.”

    I played a playtest of Stargrunt 2 at uni many many many years ago. We played for about 4 hours one afternoon, with a platoon or so of models on each side, and eliminated one solitary model from the table…

    • Quirkworthy says:

      That sounds like SGII. I actually like it for that because the casualty rates you get are the ones you see in reality. I can’t think of another game that’s true for.

      On the other hand, I do know what you mean. The mainstream gaming audience, especially nowadays, is raised on video game levels of instant carnage and expects the same on the tabletop (rightly or otherwise). My own tabletop designs generally conform to this expectation. “Brutal” is the most common term to describe the combat system in Tribes of Legend, for example 🙂

      • Ben says:

        A high body count isn’t a selling point for me. The combat system in ToL works because it facilitates the kind of game ToL is supposed to be but tabletop gaming is a broad church with room for all kinds.

      • Sam Dale says:

        Thing is, casualties in a game represent models that are combat ineffective, not just the ones that are dead. The wounded, the routed, and the ones withdrawn cos they’re out of ammo also need taking off the table.

        That SG game, we weren’t playing a cover intensive field. It was pretty much line-em-up-and-open-fire, and while there was the odd short recoil, there wasn’t much else. (And, to be fair, I’ve got no other real SG game sessions to compare it to. It was pretty much just GW systems I’d played at that point.)

        I think casualty rates modelled on WWII make a wargame most interesting to me. Instant carnage is a bit too much. Though, saying that, Hordemachine does tend to gravitate to rapid depletion of assets…

        (I’m playing STALKER: Clear Sky at the moment. And the bit I’m up to is assaulting a rail yard full of Russian bandits. And because the game is a bit vicious, and because I’m using guns I can’t afford to upgrade yet, I’m having to dart forward, drop one guy while under heavy fire, and pull back to heal up each time, if I’ve not been dropped. Again. Not exactly your normal video game instant carnage…)

      • Quirkworthy says:

        @Ben – thanks, I’m glad you find the level of carnage appropriate. I think that’s the word, really: appropriate. The level of carnage (and everything else) should feel appropriate. And give a good game.

        @Sam – you’re quite right, casualties are all manner of things, not just dead. The games of SG I’ve played felt rather like the personal accounts of Vietnam battles I’ve read. Lots of fire for few casualties, but clever focus of weight of fire could and did total whole squads if done properly. Careless attacks got cut down in the open too. Maybe we should have a game sometime and see what happens 😛

        I played a bit of STALKER when it came out, and it was a little different. Many more Russians trying to kill you than normal too, IIRC.

  7. I like bloody games, if the carnage supports the game experience, hence my preference for quick and bloody AT-43 battles that still take their 1-2 hours for the full game

    • Quirkworthy says:

      Personally, I like a mix. SGII provides different challenges and interest from, say, Warhammer. Not being able to kill folks easily makes each loss that much more dramatic and important. It also gives you a new puzzle to unravel (and a much more real one too): how do you move past enemy positions if they are not killable? The answer is to use real small unit tactics of fire and movement, suppression and so on.

  8. andymeechan says:

    Talking about appropriate, how about “A core mechanic which reflects the theme.”

    An example of success would be Warmaster where the command-and-control is a series of choices that challenge, while combat is straightforward. For me this is ideal for a massive battles game as, playing the overall commander, you want to make the decisions that count and not get bogged down in the minutae of the results. There is no “oh well, now we have to roll these combats again… i’ll put on the kettle”.

    Mordheim missed a trick for me as the close combat was overly simplistic and unspectacular for a fantasy skirmish game. You could while away several turns waving handbags at each other. By contrast, the Necromunda system provided heroic and decisive combats.

    The SGII sliding dice mechanic is terrific in principle (an innovative mechanic as Russ Wakelin would have it) and using appropriately coloured dice made it work smoother. However, did this relate to the theme/gist of the game?

    True Line of Sight… a bugbear of mine. If it is to be included, then surely everything else must hang off this central tenet? If it is not fully integrated and you add exceptions or abstractions then I find myself questioning why it was added.



    • Quirkworthy says:

      A good point Andy. To be picky, is it perhaps not so much a core mechanic which reflects the theme, but a mechanical focus on things that support of enhance the theme? What I mean is that it may not be one core rule per se, but a series of things that bring out whatever core theme you’re aiming for by focussing on the bits you want to, and simplifying or de-emphasising the rest

      I happen to think that DBA does a better job than Warmaster at reflecting very similar aims, and it does so with very, very mechanically simple systems.

      Mordheim is an example where perhaps more complexity or grit could have been put in the melee combat as that is the main event, as it were. Or, you could certainly argue for that. There were many other areas that could have been simplified as they were less central. However, this assumes a free hand in design, which is seldom the case in the real world 😉

      As I understand it from the design notes, SGII was intended to reflect the perceived reality that it was the quality of troops and leaders which was central to the effectiveness of units, and not rivet counting on the guns. That’s why the main rules focus is all around that sliding dice mechanic you mentioned (which is a reflection of troop and leader quality). I find it very slightly ungainly in practice, though I also think that it models what he was aiming at well.

      Real LOS? It’s a tricky one as it relies on the terrain you have being entirely 1:1 representational, and that’s very unlikely to be the case. Most people spend very little time on making terrain, and very little of it is really good. We (meaning gamers in general) endlessly debate the quality of a figure and very often ignore the quality of the terrain. Unrealistic terrain means that real LOS is generally unconvincing on most tabletops. If we assume for a moment that the tabletop is covered in perfectly scaled terrain, then we have to deal with the fact that game turns are an entirely artificial construct, and that many of the people our models represent would probably be in motion simultaneously if this were a real combat. So what are we modelling with our LOS rules? Real LOS seems to me to impose a needlessly strict idea of shooting on something that is a random freeze-frame of the middle of an endlessly moving picture. It’s usually argued that it’s more “realistic”, but that’s nonsense when you stand back and look at the turn sequence which it relies on, which is anything but realistic. You can build a realistic rule on the foundation of random supposition and abstraction (DBA’s PIP system does this), but it’s very hard, and in my view real LOS isn’t one of them.

      • real LOS is not aproblem when done right and when a basic level of terrain-building is applied. Which means we have to educate the gamers to focus alittle bit more on terrain.

      • pancake says:

        Its getting the rules accross so the gamers all understand the rule that has been put into words. Games designers dont allways get the correct meaning from rules, and we the gamer dont allways read them how they are in the book. A good design is gettig every one to read the rules and come out with the same result.

      • andymeechan says:

        I haven’t played DBA in such a time that I had forgotten about it! The rules do have an elegance to the way the hang together, but suffer from presentation (well, back in 1.1 anyway). The ‘sweep’ of Warmaster entertained me more. Both good systems presenting the c-n-c in an acceptable and accessible way.

        As for LoS, should we sidestep or start a debate about [ground/model/terrain] scale? Probably worth a seperate article Mr T 😉


      • Quirkworthy says:

        The most common complaint about DBA is the writing style, or Barkerese as it is sometimes known. In fact, he is simply trying to write in a very old fashioned and correct grammatical form (presumably the way he was taught) in order to make things as unequivocal for the rules lawyers at tournaments as he can. The problem is that nobody is taught “correct” grammar any more, and so it seems unnecessarily stilted and confusing. As an editor, I can appreciate some of the subtleties of the nested sub-clauses and so on, and understand that he deliberately picks comma, colon or semi-colon to convey a specific meaning and hierarchy of rule, but it can be hard going. Whilst I can appreciate the slickness and relative accessibility of Warm(h)a(m)ster, I find it a real shame that DBA is less liked (or understood) as I think it is one of the best games ever written.

        LOS? You are right. A new thread beckons.

  9. For companies with a well-established intellectual property, having a system of running out new rules editions on a regular-ish basis isn’t just a question of refreshing the market and making more money. It’s also about responding to how players engage with their game and what they expect from it. It’s one of the reasons we’ve seen such howls of disapproval for WFB8: players in certain sectors (competition tournaments) feel that their particular desires and needs are no longer met by the game. But GW’s designers clearly feel that they are responding to the desires of the casual club/garage gamers (still by far the majority of their customers) who want a game that encapsulates the mad and chaotic (also with a big C) world in which it is set; q.v the controversial new terrain rules and alliance rules.

    For newer, smaller companies (like Precinct Omega!) it makes more sense to develop a set of rules that is completely tight and requires little or no updating in order to establish a reputation for the development of such rules and attract those who seek out such things. In these cases, it may be necessary to pursue alternative methods of exploring and expanding upon proprietary IP settings (such as subsidiary or additional games, expanded miniatures lines and high-quality artwork) over new editions.

    As a company’s IP expands and solidifies, however, it will inevitably be required that new editions be released or the game be quietly abandoned (q.v. Battletech) as a commercial concern.

    As to the original summary of the job of games design, I’d say it hits the nail on the head, but with a widely variable interpretation of what constitutes a “good” problem. A good problem is one which engages with what the players expect of the game: one which meshes with the background, provides an intellectual stimulation but which resolves into more than one possible “correct” answer.

    • Quirkworthy says:

      Thank you Robey – you’ve clearly had a bit of a think about this. I agree that there are differences between large and small companies in terms of the desired or required aims, though I’m not sure about the detail. I think there is always a balance to be struck between responding to the customers and refreshing the market (both of which are, in the end, about making money). In my experience this balance has rarely if ever been even, and the majority of time it has been commercial decisions which have been the final arbiter in the case of any conflict between design and profit. One could argue that the reason why non-creatives are in charge is because they’re good at the bean counting, and what happens if you let creative folk rule is Rackham. On the other hand, this is why the design tends to get ridden rather roughshod over.

      When you have a small company and more limited resources you have fewer bites at the cherry, and are in a much more vicious and competitive shark pit/market place. Clean and elegant design is one tool you can use to stand out. However, I’d question the size of the market of those that are as discerning as you want them to be. Most people do not play a game entirely as intended, and generally this is not a case of badly written rules, (though that contributes), but an inefficiency of learning on the part of the gamer. That’s not a bad thing because it’s about the individual enjoying themselves not slavishly following the Good Word that has been written down. Learning all the ins and outs of a rule set takes a lot of time, and most people are not sufficiently interested or able to invest that time on a single game. So they play an 80 or 90% version of it that has the broad strokes but fudges some of the details. Note that this isn’t intentionally cheating, it’s just unfamiliarity with the rules. Learning from friends rather than from the rules themselves is another major cause of this fuzziness. Perhaps this is why tournament players tend to be the ones who pick up on the exploits – because they’re some of the few who will take the time to really learn the rules.

      So whilst clean and elegant rules is something I’d always strive for and encourage others to aim for too, it does require other means to push your company into the spotlight. Look at TGN, for example, for the myriad new shiny things every day. Easy to get lost.

      Whether a game ever needs to be rewritten or expanded upon depends on the type of game it is, the size of background and how much was done before it was released. games that develop organically as they go along will very probably need tidying up at some stage. The few that are designed in toto* before they meet the public gaze may not need revising, and most board games fall into this category. Most figure games get quite messy and need revisiting.

      Apologies for this rather incoherent ramble. A bit fuzzy myself this morning. For those of you that have made it this far, do have a look at I’d not come across it before myself, and the little I’ve listened to (podcasts) and read has made me want to read more. I look forward to more of Robey’s contributions here 🙂

      * Not the dog.

  10. Poosh says:

    It occurred to me that sometimes a game’s “problem” is a problem for some and a “nice touch” for others (sometimes). GW’s “saving throws” make no sense whatsoever in context (you managed to hit me! AND wound me! Let’s see if my armour retrospectively saved me…) but then the whole build up to the armour save has a kinda of interesting affect on you, and you kinda enjoy it, even though it’s a bit dubious – for some…

    Anyway, “game-design is only as useful as the amount of play-testing you’re willing to do” … or something to that affect!

    • Quirkworthy says:

      Very much so, Poosh. Can’t please all of the people all of the time, and design details are a good example of that maxim. On that specific note, I did have a phase of playing Warhammer so that you rolled the armour save before the wounding, which is more logical a sequence. Although it’s mathematically the same, it’s a bit more fiddly as you have to swap players more often. In the normal sequence most people roll to hit, and then pick up the successes and roll them for the wounds. Nice and quick. Most players won’t use each other’s dice, so putting the opponent’s roll in the middle not the end is a little slower (as people count out dice). It’s also less dramatic. You could, on the other hand, simply remove the step and have the attack mean a potentially wounding hit, not just a hit. Tribes of Legend sort of works like that.

      We might have to rephrase that suggestion a little, but something to do with playtesting is well worth thinking about.

  11. matt Adlard says:

    The whole concept of a piece on game design, would one thinks make for an interesting book. Especially if you took a game from concept to design to finish with in. Seems this is a missed area really.

    Just a thought.

  12. mattadlard says:

    Great, be interesting especially for those of us who tinker but never new how to go the full step towards game design.

  13. Graham Bartram says:

    I’ve always considered that the golden rule for all types of design is “Goods must be fit for purpose”.

  14. One Fabric says:

    Game Design Theory is…having a set of a-b-c mechanics and x-y-z theme correlate to such an extent that you leave 1-2-3 feeling in the chests of your audience.

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