Game design

What game designers should care about

So much of the conversation about a game’s design bounces from the very broad to the very specific without stopping to consider what really matters: the human emotion game dynamics give rise to. But if designers can spend more time at this level they can make more innovative games.  

If there was one maxim every designer should know by now, it’s this: “Different strokes for different folks”: We know that what precisely makes a good game is incredibly subjective. Even when conditions are ideal – a perfect teach, the right amount of space and time for the game to occupy, quantity of noise or quality of ambience and a willing audience – no one game can be guaranteed to please everyone at the table. People are different so they respond differently and they are looking for different experiences at different times.

Commercially, another maxim follows: if you try to please everyone, you are on the right track to pleasing no one. Just like any other form of art or entertainment some people will love it and others will hate it. There’s an audience for Cards Against Humanity and there’s an audience for Brass. Sometimes they are even the same people, but rarely ever are they competing in the same context.

We could leave it there: celebrate the diversity of people’s interests, call it all a big wonderful mystery and park the whole thing. We could all get on with our lives, keeping pumping out random game concepts and fiddling with cool mechanics; all in the hope they stick, while publishers magically try to match them out to viable markets.

But from a designer’s perspective, this is a huge cop out. Beyond the broad warning to resist our “people pleaser” instincts, its not an actionable insight. It’s not actually going to help us make better games. Luckily there is so much more we can say and do.

Because as much as it’s true that people are all different, they aren’t that different.

People are both relatively consistent in their taste across time and have tastes that many others share, even if they are always in some kind of minority together. Fans of logic puzzles will tend to enjoy the process of deductive reasoning in any form they encounter it.  Aspiring actors, from professional to the most unfulfilled amateur, will tend to throw themselves into roleplay whenever the opportunity is presented. Gamblers find any game of luck – an uncertain outcome over which no control can be exercised – somewhat magnetic. The “heavy euro” hardcore will recoil from those very same situations precisely because the player is at the mercy of chance when what they want is control: Present them with a mechanic with output randomness and they are already on the defensive because they are having flashbacks to so many “feels bad” moments in their gaming past.

In short: there are things they like and dislike in the experience of the game that are applicable across many game contexts, regardless of specific type of game in question that are the reason they play. Some of these broad truths are already in common currency as ‘facts’ about the way boardgame markets work and some already hinted at by proxy – in an incredibly haphazard way – in our notions of game genre; like “strategy game” or “party game”. But, despite these taste responses being at the core of why people choose to play on game over another, they get little detailed scrutiny.

The specific type of pleasure (or discomfort) being experienced in a game is rarely subjected to a properly rigorous evaluation that might lead to the discovery of how they  actually work: How much the execution of themeing allows players to slip into light roleplay and banter in an area control game where the only real world representation is a single simple piece moving from one grid hex to another. To what extent the slight and deliberate overload of possible options at a given juncture stimulates the heavy gamer’s sense of a strategy title’s depth; making them feel they are getting to grips with something brilliant. The level of thrill in the “now or never” moment that a player must make an educated guess about a puzzle’s solution in a deduction game; when their opponent looks to only be a turn from a successful guess themselves.

Instead when games are discussed I notice there is often a very curious blending of the highest level cursory analysis with the very specific; a journey which tends to miss the critical middle register of experience and human emotion completely. At a very high level a game is described as “fun” – a word so general as to be close to useless –  or stimulating in very general terms (or very exceptionally when things have gone very badly: “not fun”). Then, in an instant, the assessment dives directly into  specific mechanics, artwork decisions or basic thematic questions. Even in the assessments that are able to move past the merely descriptive, so much is taken for granted that the opportunity to discuss the middle register – where experience is actually formed – is glossed. I see this both in the formal setting of a boardgame review, written or recorded and in many more casual conversations I hear about games among designers.

Why is this crucial layer missed? It seems, to some extent, be merely the result of how domain language tends to work. Our knowledge of the hobby’s genre terms (“worker placement”, “bidding”, “wargame” etc) often leads us explain in  – and eventually think in – in these shortcuts exclusively.

The problem is that these shortcuts, like nearly all genre terms, are only describing the most easily categorised and most concrete elements of these games; like their mechanics or theme. They say almost nothing about the more nebulous and difficult to express business of experiences they create. As a result it’s very possible discuss a game very competently in its nuts and bolts without ever beginning to touch on the question of why or how it makes someone feel a certain way.

That is a huge trap for a designer. Because it risks missing the woods for the trees: the experiences that burn games into people’s memories, the moments that have them hankering to bring them back to the table rather than the mere stuff – both physical and abstract – that makes them up.

Take the deckbuilding game as a genre. When a hobbyist tells you they like games of this class, you could choose to take that at face value. Whenever they hear about a new one they’re interest is piqued. They’ll probably get some pleasure from trying these it just because they tend to like most games in the the category so much. They might even be more prepared to give this new game the benefit of the doubt if it’s less than superbly slick (though such devotion to a style of game might equally go the other way). Clearly as an expectation setting genre label, it has some considerable practical value.

And yet you’re really interested in what is going on, it’s highly unlikely that the real reason they like deck building is just because they are deck building games. The fact that they are deckbuilding games might even be one of the less important things about them. Dive below the surface, venture down into what it is about deckbuilding games they actually enjoy and you find a range of experiences, moments and stimuli that they tend to engender. It’s these that the fans keep coming back for, not the genre for it’s own sake.

Deckbuilding games, for instance, all tend to elicit a strong sense of progression. Players tend to start in a fairly weak position with cards in their decks of obvious limited value. Rapidly, and very tangibly, they improve their position by literally adding better and better cards. This change is underscored by the consistent ‘beat’ of the reshuffle: Each time, it occurs and you draw your new hand you can really see it’s getting better and better – engendering a sense of growing power. When you remove the bad cards through scrapping or trashing mechanics this sense of improvement is felt even more acutely. The weak card is gone, never to be seen again. You know, as you bask in that quiet satisfaction of improved efficiency, you are only going to draw into the ‘good shit’ from now on; you have literally moved the odds in your favour; further driving up your sense of control.

This progression is also, crucially, your progression. The deck you make it unique yours. Even if you choose to copycat another player, you make the choice to craft its identity one way or another. Here and there you make slight alterations and what results is a physical realisation of your way of playing the game. You’re expressing yourself as a player; not just making the right moves but making your moves. The deck you build is in, in an albeit limited way, a creative enterprise on some level because its a literal record of your choices.

Those choices can also be used to do things that are clever. Most deckbuilders feature a wide array of different card effects which can be cleverly combined. Such “combos” when they are pulled off fill you with a sense of intellectual sanctification and achievement; again because its good to feel clever as well as powerful. If you’ve been particularly clever and the game allows it, you might even be able to craft an engine in your deck; a set of consistent combinations which reliably produce a given result to drive you to success. In this, there is a real pleasure in the craft itself of the careful programming and application of strategic thinking to solve a problem.

And yet at the same time, the game is always an exercise in luck where a surprise lurks behind every card draw. The act of drawing cards to see what you get is also innately pleasurable in the same that unwrapping a Christmas present is. You don’t know what you’re doing to get; maybe it will be just the right card to set your turn ablaze, maybe it won’t help you much. But either way the momentary little jolt of anticipation and uncertainty is there.

These pleasures – Surprise, anticipation, self-expression, progression and power – might often result from genre’s typical dynamic – if and only if they are well executed. But none of them are unique to deck building games. Other games have just as much capability to hit these emotional notes.  But if designers don’t dive into these experiential specifics to understand what their appeal is then they’re limited to an understanding of the whole genre as a black box that tends to produce non-specifically desireable results. They have to parrot-out and repeat entire genre mechanics (with at best, random additional variations for the sake of ‘newness’) because they can’t innovate within it in a goal directed way. They can’t say why exactly a game is actually landing (or not) with it’s intended audience: what specific emotional beats a game has and why, as a result it lands with some audiences not for others. They’re only choice is to either collide two known genres at a high level together or simply attempt to do the same thing better than a previous incarnation through relatively random experimentation. Sadly as many Dominion copycats have already proved, this normally means less good than the previous game.

It’s easy to see why this is the case. If you only have genre as a tool its very hard to be innovative because such classifications are the crude approximations of the easily categoriseable, defined by what is already well established. Starting from an understanding of the building blocks of experience, it’s much easier to end up in a place that no one has quite come from before. Not just by randomly throwing stuff at a wall but constantly being guided by the many subtle constituents of  this called “fun”; and bringing them to life in the lives of other human beings.

By James Naylor

I’m James. I’ve always loved boardgames: playing them, analysing them and most of all, designing them. Now, I’m trying to publish my own games.

13 replies on “What game designers should care about”

Thank you for another, very thorough, article. I’m not a game creator myself, but your point about speaking in “game categories”, e.g. “worker placement”, “deck building”, etc., is very true and chimed with me. I think I may have to re-read your article a couple of times to fully absorb it, but it is a very good, interesting read.

Very well done. I can see someone coming up with a ‘personality trait’ test for gamers that helps us understand these things better 🙂
I’m currently working on a two player game for couples, especially concentrating on the idea that so many gaming husbands would love to get their wives more excited about board games. Your article really has me thinking. Thanks so much!

Thank you for the mention. That tool is really good. You tend to know what sort of player you are, before you complete the questions, but it does sometimes come up with interesting details that you wouldn’t have thought about yourself. It would definitely be helpful for others to get some hard numbers though, like during playtesting to help decide why a player might or might not enjoy a game.

This is simply great. Primarily because it is true but not as commonly recognized as it ought to be. You’re thus doing the game designing community (at least me as one of its aspiring members) a favor. Secondarily because it’s one again a pleasure to read. Thank you James!

“Because as much as it’s true that people are all different, they aren’t that different.”

While the article is in the right direction, it’s still suffering from this objective/subjective dichotomy that just isn’t useful for me as a theatre critic. Audience’s subjectivity matters, but also, it doesn’t.

Every art and entertainment piece, every cultural artefact is a dialogue – between the piece and the audience/reader/gamer/etc. To understand a boardgame is to understand the nature of the dialogue. But to understand the dialogue we don’t need to understand the subjectivity of an audience member or their feelings or anything of the sort – we only care about that part of subjectivity which is engaged in the act of dialogue. What we analyse are the modes of engagement – the actions that audience needs to do to elicit response from the work in a way that it evokes its potential.

If you read a story, you fill in the gaps in the text (each reader answers the riddle of “Detective enters the seedy bar after midnight” a bit differently? – what is the bar’s interior like, what is detective wearing?) and understand the rules of the genre it’s written in (dragon flying in the sky is normal for fantasy fiction, but odd for autobiography). Modes of engagements are cultural, they’re not subjective, they’re shared. Though sure, there might be something about psychological preference for this engagement type over the other, but the reason they work is because they’re shared (otherwise only the author might have been able to access their work).

In boardgames modes of engagements would for example be:
– internalising the game’s bits, figuring out synergy between them and optimise for efficiency in order to maximise points and win.
– playing the opponents instead of the game’s system using metagame and psychology
– bluff
– create a narrative in one’s mind
– using memory skill, dexterity skill, etc.
– co-create a story (RPGs, Storytelling games).

Basically what we would ask ourselves is:
– What does the game expect from its players?
(In theatre we would ask “How does the performance see it’s audience?” So in boardgames it would be something akin “How does the boardgame want to play with its players?”)
“The specific type of pleasure (or discomfort) being experienced in a game is rarely subjected to a properly rigorous evaluation that might lead to the discovery of how they actually work”

Well, mostly people design games the way the play them – i.e. they design a game for the type of investment they themselves use.

But the danger of this level is really obvious and simple: people not being aware that they have indeed a taste and they do indeed engage in a boardgame in a specific way. When people are not aware of the engagement they’re making it can lead them to announce that games that are not made for their preferred and often unconscious engagement are “broken” “bad games” “not a game”, etc. It’s a case that’s common to all art fields and genres.

What’s happening in hobby games is that eurogames took over and cemented a specific type of engagement:
– Players expect any game to be a system to be internalised, optimised
– Rules are read as challenges to be games, not guidelines (the letter of the law matters more than spirity of the law). Rules are essentially made to be exploited.
– Games are expected to be about winning. This is tricky – but not every game that has a winning condition cares about the winning condition. Sometimes the win condition is just there so the game ends (TotAN). In ameritrash the important thing is the drama – the win may heighten the drama, but doesn’t matter outside the parameters of this drama/tension.

On the negative side, some modes of engagements are being threatened on endangered.
– Celestia for instance is a case of developers not understanding what made the original game (Cloud 9) tick. In particular they couldn’t grok that in push your luck games psychology enters gameplay and all pushing of luck is depending on reading the table and evaluating how other players evaluate the table. Because of this they missed the asymmetry present in Cloud 9 through psychology of players and decided to replace it with gamey bits and special powers. It was evident to me that whoever was in charge of development did not understand the tools players already had at their disposal (because they were blind to this facet of gaming) and invented new ones, which however are at odds with what makes the game tick.
– Similar case was Cash and Guns 2nd edition. First edition got a lot of tension just from sharing the loot and a danger of being eliminated. 2nd edition irons out most of the tension and makes elimination nigh impossible – instead it adds a sub game of calculable set collection. Seems to me that whoever did this one, did not appreciate or probably even notice how psychology worked in original game. Or maybe this was a case of executive meddling, either way, what made 1st edition tick (tension derived from psychology – danger and uncertainty) was gone. Instead players are now rewarded to game the game’s systems via the new set collection subgame.
– Or one of the early cases – FFG’s take on Condottiere. Their 3rd edition added new cards which added more randomness because they seemed to miss the core premise of the game. The game is not about the cards or the powers of the cards, the game is about passing the buck and letting other players deal with the mess. It’s much more about playing the opponents that the cards themselves – and 1st/2nd ed. card powers reflected this.

Another odd result of the “new bold eurogame era” is that psychology of what makes the boardgames work is so ignored and many players and designers so inept at tackling this issue, the dominant type of game is now one where psychology is not needed. it has been evicted from the hobby gaming (and probably fled to students casually playing social deduction games). Not only can a player beat others by superior internalising of rules and optimising them while ignoring all the social and psychological facets of the group situation they’re in, but the games themselves are seen as objects apart from the players who play them and they are to be looked from afar, taken apart and tinkled with. (Instead of being embraced as events with a dynamic of a dialogue – between the players themselves and the game).

“The specific type of pleasure (or discomfort) being experienced in a game is rarely subjected to a properly rigorous evaluation that might lead to the discovery of how they actually work”

Okay, one simple example – visuals in games.
They broadly serve two main purposes: emotional & functional

– Emotional level is the level of the game being so attractive people will buy it (because positive emotional response will bypass rationality and reach for the wallet). In ameritrash games emotional level is also there to evoke the atmosphere the game needs – and the group is suppose to embrace and support.
– Functional level means that visuals function as user interface, i.e. in order the game to be playable, the important information has to be easily readable.

These two often come in conflict when publishers will prioritise the emotional component to the point of game not being as easily playable as it should be.
– Panic Station (terrible especially as game’s desinger is a graphic designer by trade. The game simply forgot to use icons in order to make special powers more easy to memorise).
– many FFG stuff, like CitOW board (because of “oh kewl it’s human leather” visual effect the boarders of areas on board are not easy to discern, so the had to use arrows to highlight them).
– Compare Yedo to Lords of Waterdeep – LoW does it right, even by being kinda fantasy baroque-ish, the visuals are clean and precise and thus easy to discern. Yedo goes for impressing the viewer and being harder to see what’s where.

And notice I don’t need to use any psychology to figure this two out.
It’s simply a case of:
– in order to discern details players need to focus and use brain power.
– in order to plan a strategy players need to focus and use brain power.
If two facets of the game both need more than half of what an average player is willing to give it’s not going to work.


Or another example – narrative in games. In games of a certain type the narrative is created by a player connecting in their mind the in game situation with the game’s theme with the flavour text and with their own character’s progress. (Arkham Horror, Android).
So, a significant part of the player’s inner process will be devoted to putting together this narrative inside their head.
For this to work:
– the player must be willing to do this / know how to do this (i.e. they must notice and value the option of building a narrative in their own mind. Some players don’t care for this, some don’t know how to do it, but in order for the game to work, it expects players who can and will do this).
– the game must provide material with which this can be done – a sense of progression, visuals, flavour text, etc.
– the game must get out of the way. In Arhkam Horror the skill resolution check is really simple (by rolling dice), so player doesn’t need a lot of focus on the strategy of the game and can devote themselves to the narrative aspect. Another, mechanically very similar game – MIddle Earth Quest – was however strategy focused and instead of dice included a complex card resolution system which asked for hand management and other long term planning, which needed the focus of a player, who couldn’t devote these same capabilities to narrative creation. Another example of this is Android – this game is one I claim “needs players with two brains to be played” – one for the overhead (rules, upkeep) and the strategy, the other one for enjoying the narrative. It’s “underground cult status” (ahem) is due to some players being able to make this work, but most people not really.

There are other examples as well – for instance how theme works in different boardgame design philosphies (Euros, wargames, ameritrash). But would take even longer to explain than stuff above. 🙂

“They’re only choice is to either collide two known genres at a high level together or simply attempt to do the same thing better than a previous incarnation through relatively random experimentation. Sadly as many Dominion copycats have already proved, this normally means less good than the previous game.”

Okay, I’ll do a bit of how-theme-works.

There is one thing Dominion doesn’t do, but it could do. Namely as an euro it doesn’t utilise the theme in the way eurogames can and do. Namely in euros theme can work as user interfacing, connecting separate bits into a cohesive whole making them easier to learn and to play. (Theme is euros isn’t there to be enjoyed on its own, tinkering with cogwheels and competing/winning comes first). Power Grid for instance uses theme in this way – buying power plants, then buying fuel for power plants, then spending money to expand one’s network, then burning said fuel in said powerplants to supply the said network to earn money – it just makes sense. That’s why this relatively heavy game is relatively newbie friendly. Dominion doesn’t do this – it’s just +1 action + 1 card + 1 yadayada and they players are expected to internalise all the data and figure out synergies. Thunderstone and Trains improved on Dominion by adding this level of theme which hints at card synergies – in Thunderstone one knows that heroes go in the dungeon, 1 weapon goes on 1 hero, a light source lights the entire party, rations are 1 per person and feasts feed the entire party. It makes sense. What this causes is a shift of focus. Dominion is a game all about figuring out comboes – it is about hunting for synergies and exploiting them. Trains and Thunderstone are not focused on this, and by not being as good in this, it doesn’t mean they’ve failed, they just have a different focus. Trains seems to be more of a family/causal gamers focused affair (played once or twice years ago, memory hazy) – which means it uses theme to be a more accessible gaming experience. Thunderstone on the other hand embraces the narrative aspect and becomes (sorta kinda) a type of dungeoncrawler.

Wow that last comment is an article in itself (I will be reading it now).

Until then, fantastic article, it really resonated with me and I think is a good inroads to developing a language for boardgames.

Much in the same way that food can be described with so much more depth than just “it’s good”, or “it’s nice” boardgames too can draw on so much nuanced descriptors of emotion and emotional states whilst also pinpointing which aspects elicited those responses.

Thank you, first time I’ve read your work, but will be watching this space in the future.

Thanks Sporky! That’s really great to hear it resonated and a “developing a language for boardgames” is spot on. It’s just like food – there’s so much more we can say about people’s wonderfully subtle array of responses. With that, I hope we can make better games!

I’m going to be giving The Mind this treatment this week. Should be an interesting challenge as that has to be pretty much all about the emotional landscape: Not many mechanics to speak of!

Thanks again!

I just want to pick up on a word you use several times in your post and that is “choices”. A couple of games that I have enjoyed recently are Reef and Cacao. In both of these games, there are a lot of choices and few restrictions. So “Freedom” is a big part of the gaming experience. One of my gaming buddies talks about games he likes in which he says “I want to do this, and I want to do this, and I want to do this…”
I am working on a game that initially had Sagrada as an inspiration (a game that has lots of restrictions). I think the game improved when I eliminated many restrictions. At the last round of game testing, someone wanted me to get rid of one more. It is certainly worth a try….

That’s really interesting! I think the relationship of choice and restriction is very subtle one. For example: often games with very tight resources can be fun because it makes the choice more interesting: you can’t do everything so what do you pick? The choice is rewarding and challenging. Now flip the situation to something where you have the resources to do whatever you want. Now, all you do is go straight for whatever the most optimum thing you can do is. The choice is not really a choice anymore: logically the only thing to do is buy the best building / best upgrade / best unit etc. The freedom of choice was collapsed by no restrictions on resources and the incentive to win.

Obviously that example is somewhat more relevant to games where there are resources. But I think its fascinating how sometimes the greatest freedom comes from when the options are restrictive enough that we have to make tough choices but those choices are meaningful and non-obvious.

Your game sounds interesting! I’d love to learn more.

I do agree with you that restrictions can be useful, but I think I prefer restrictions result from having insufficient resources vs rules which say “You can’t do that” or “You must do this” that in Reef and Cacoa, it is not always obvious what the best choice is, especially considering short vs long term planning.
Here is my game site. It is still obviously a Work in Progress.

Thanks for your interest!

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