How to Teach Your Game

Post by: Jay Treat

While few teachers get the respect or compensation that would support this claim, teaching isn’t easy and it’s not something most people can do well without some training. And yet, you can’t get people to play games with you—or sell your game design—if you can’t teach them how to play it. The good news is, unlike flying a plane, teaching isn’t an all-or-nothing skill and you can teach even if you’re not an expert. The bad news is, teaching a game poorly falls somewhere between boring and frustrating, which reduces the chances those players will let you teach them more games in the future. And certainly doesn’t qualify as putting your best foot forward when trying to impress a publisher.

I can help.

Teaching, like so many things, is all about empathy. The more you can put yourself in your students’ shoes, the better you can teach them. It’s all about knowing what they could understand, what they do understand, and what questions they’re keeping to themselves. If you know all of that, you’ll know what to explain next and, if you know your students, how best to explain it.

I wrote about a few methods to become more empathetic that I recommend you check out before continuing. Some of them are pretty out-there, but these methods are directly applicable to other aspects of game design, and life in general:

  • Compartmentalization
  • Self-Assimilation

You might also check out Games to Play to Become a Better Game Designer, a geeklist with several entries that will help you become more empathetic, and thus, a better teacher.

As with everything, there’s no one right way to teach. Duh. What I share now is my method, what makes sense to me, and what seems to work in my experience.

Start at the Top

Starting with details, in medias res, is disorienting. It can be a powerful tool for storytelling, but the point of teaching a game is understanding, so we want to start from a bird’s eye view. What is this game about? “It’s a trick-taking game with spies” and “It’s a cooperative game where players are trying to escape a crumbling space station under attack from aliens” are good starts. “You’re bidding not to take numbers” is not.

The first two take advantage of things the players already know to jump-start the process. Players know what trick-taking games are, and they know what spies are, and they’re already starting to imagine the combination and building expectations. If what you tell them next fits those expectations, you’re going to see a lot of nodding heads and the rest will come fairly easily.

I’ve had more than a few games explained to me that made no sense until the teacher was finished and someone asked, “Wait, is this game… cooperative?” Men assume unknown people are male, people assume the “Spot” you’re talking about is a dog, and gamers assume your game is competitive. It’s what makes a game different that you need to call out immediately, because everything you leave out or save for later will be filled in with default assumptions until you do, and that can seriously throw people off the scent.

No Thanks! is a game where players are trying to keep their scores as low as possible by guessing what the breaking point is for each number card that goes around. You spend a limited personal supply of chips to avoid taking a number, but eventually you’ll run out of chips and be forced to take whatever comes your way. The only way to get more chips is to take a number card (all of which are bad, but some are much worse than others). Each turn, you’re evaluating whether you’d rather pass on a card or suck it up and take it now to improve your future standing. In essence, “You’re bidding not to take numbers…” but that statement only makes sense now that you’ve got the big picture.

Get to the Heart of it

You’ve got the very high-level concept of the game in place. Players are looking at the game components and starting to predict how they relate to that, how they might be used, what kinds of things they’re going to get to do. Now is when you hook them. Give them the heart of the game. Tell them what makes the game tick; how they’re going to be spending the next hour.

“Each player shares one of the six factions vying for control of the city with another player. Each round, you’ll have to work with one of your opponents in order to score. You’ll deploy agents from all the factions, trying to play the ones that are good for you when they’re best for you, and the ones that are bad for you, when they’re least bad. Scheming, collusion and manipulation are your bread and butter.”

“The space station has been messed up after the alien ship neutralized it with their lasers. We’re trying to navigate the twisted wreckage while we look for the escape teleporter. We’ll need to open these tech modules to find it, and our Mechanic and Engineer will be patching the station up to form rooms so that we can access them. We’ve got to be quick, though, because one of the station’s systems fails every turn and aliens are boarding from these four locations. The Marine is the only one that can fight them back. And its up to the Smuggler to go outside in her space suit to access the modules we don’t have time to rearrange. We’ve got to work together or we’re all doomed, and so are our families back on Earth.”

What’s the Point

Explain the goal. If it’s simply to earn the most points, say that. It may be obvious, but it’s too quick not to say when the alternative is confusion.

With all these high-level items laid out, you can explain turn structure, the component lexicon, and any other must-know items in whatever order feels natural.

Turn Structure

Assuming players take turns (if it’s real-time, you should’ve mentioned that in the introduction), are there rounds and phases? Is there a strict phase structure, or can players do different things at different times? Overview the whole structure before detailing any one part.

“We take turns individually until someone wins. On your turn, you can research, build, or research and build.”

“Each round will have three phases. The first phase is upkeep where we all move our bits along this track. Next is the action phase, where we’ll each take one of three actions in turn order. Finally we resolve conflicts. If the game hasn’t ended, we start a new round.”

Notice how I don’t describe the individual actions just yet. Think of it as if you were looking at a map of america on the computer, and it’s loading in via nine chunks in a 3×3 grid. Would you rather see Alaska load in full detail first, down to the smallest roads and such before you see Montana or Oregon, or would you rather see the country’s full outline and all the states first before you start to see more and more details as they load? You might prefer the former if you already understand the layout of the country and are looking for the path between Skagway and Victoria BC, but players learning a new game don’t have that layout in their heads yet, nor would they even know to look for the game’s Skagway at this point.

Component Lexicon

There are a few games whose pieces are so few or so self-explanatory, you don’t need to explain what they are, but most games require a little show and tell. “These cubes are resources, the meeples are workers, the red number on the cards is ‘power’ and these three symbols indicate whether the card’s animal, vegetable or mineral.” For games with a large dictionary of symbols, like Race for the Galaxy, what each and every symbol means is the last thing you want to teach your players, but you still want to give them the basics. “Each card can be played for its cost or discarded to pay the cost of another card. The hex shows how many victory points it’s worth in play. Down the left side are abilities that will trigger during different phases of each round.”

For Dominion: “These are victory point cards which you’ll earn during the game and will determine the winner at the end. These are action cards; you can only play one action each turn normally. These are gold cards which you can combine to buy new cards. All of them have a cost, here, and an effect/value here.”

The Rest

Once the only layer left is the nitty-gritty details, share them.

Or don’t, depending on how nitty and/or gritty they are.


Abstract games are harder to learn because all the rules are new, and will seem arbitrary at first. Games with a strong theme (more specifically, games whose theme is integrated seamlessly into the rules) are easier to learn because you’re not learning new things, you’re just mapping old things together. If humans move 1 space each turn, but horses move 2 spaces, players will remember that because they already know that horses are faster. Dissonance will make learning even harder than arbitrary rules: Humans are size 3, but faeries are size 5… makes no sense; everyone knows faeries are smaller than humans!

While teaching a game, the rules and theme are already in place, and you have no control over how resonant they are, but you can capitalize on resonance to help you teach. Why can’t monsters heal while occupying Tokyo? Obviously they’re on full-rampage and there’s no time to sit and relax for a while. If you offer that bit of flavor, that window into the game-world, while explaining this seemingly arbitrary exception, more players will understand and remember it.

Omit Details

Sometimes a friend asks if you’ve heard from Bob Shmacky and you’re like, “Who’s Bob Shmacky?” and he responds, “You know. Bob!” And then you instantly know he’s talking about your mutual friend, Bob. If he had just said ‘Bob’ in the first place, there would have been no confusion, but the extra detail triggered your brain to expect him to be talking about someone new.

You may be tempted to explain a detail that’s relevant to what you’re talking about now to get it out of the way. Perhaps you’re explaining the flow of the game from setup, to the round and turn structure to the end of the game, all chronologically. While there are players who refuse to start playing a game until they know every rule, no matter how small, most players would rather start as soon as they have the gist, expecting for the rules they just heard to “click” once they’ve taken a turn or so. You can reiterate how things work as they come up in the game and then explain the little details and exceptions. Most people need hands-on practice to internalize a concept, and most need some amount of repetition of explanation. This method does both.

Ask for Questions

The surest way to make sure no one asks you questions, and that at least some of your students remain confused about something, is to imply that only stupid people would need to ask questions. That sounds like something you’d have to actively do and easy to avoid, but just the opposite is true. If you don’t explicitly ask for questions, or if you tie questions to misunderstanding, or if you look at a specific person when you ask, you’re doing it. Try to phrase it in a way that suggests of course there are questions. “What did I miss?” “Can I clarify anything?” “I went through combat pretty quickly. Was anything unclear?”

An Example

From start to finish, here’s how I might explain The Last Planet.

The Last Planet is a tactical tile-laying game with a StarCraft theme. Each player is one of three alien races that just discovered the last inhabitable planet in their war-ravaged galaxy. You will establish your presence on this planet by building outward from your starting base. Each tile represents a structure or unit you can build. They have a cost to build and you can only build a tile if it fits against a piece you already have. These worker units will help you gather resources from these natural resource areas, so that you can build your army and conquer the planet.

On your turn, you’ll gather resources first, then adjust or advance any number of tile chains, and finally resolve combat. In the first phase, take one mineral for each base you own, and then each of your workers can take any resource from a natural resource area it’s touching.

A ‘chain’ is one or more tiles in a line, not counting your base. In the second phase, you can adjust the outermost unit of each chain by rotating it against the next piece. You can advance a chain by buying a new tile that fits and placing it at the end of the chain (and you can create new chains by attaching it to your base). You can also advance a chain by picking up the unit at the start of the chain and placing it at the end, but that breaks the chain from the base which means you can’t buy new tiles at the end of that chain unless it’s reconnected to your base.

When you’re done moving your units, we’ll resolve conflicts in groups. Choose any group of enemy units that overlap your own to handle first. The effects of combat are simultaneous, but the order you resolve dice rolls in could affect your choices. Choose one of your units and decide which of its attack dice you’re rolling against the enemy units its touching. Then your opponent will do the same and so on, until every unit in the group has attacked. For each die result against a unit that matches its defense, it takes one damage. Remove each unit that’s taken as much damage as it has defense.

You win when all your opponents’ bases are destroyed. You may concede at any time; remove all your pieces from play when you do.


I’m pretty sure it’s harder to teach how to teach games than to teach games, so I’m confident there must be questions. What do I need to explain differently or in more detail? Did I skip something important? Do you smell contradictions I can try to clear up?

How do you teach games? I’m sure my perspective is neither the only perspective, nor the best. I hope you’ll share yours below for the benefit of the other readers.

Designer Diary: Intrigue

Guest Column by: Jay Treat

My oldest lasting game idea is a trick-taking card game where each suit belongs to a player. I’ve been working on variations of this game for over a decade. If that doesn’t sound like a very long time, you’re probably old like me. It was originally named Lords of the Realm, until I made a game for which that title was clearly a better fit. Then it was Shatterpact. In both cases, the theme was an epic Fantasy battle featuring heroes with personalities.

What Was

Shatterpact was a card game inspired by more traditional trick-taking games with three significant twists. Firstly, each player is the Lord or Lady of one of the races—all the cards of that suit benefit that player directly. The deck is dealt out randomly so you’ll have a hand full of enemy heroes as well as allied ones. The core of the gameplay revolves around playing the cards that help you when they help you the most and the cards that hurt you when they hurt you the least.

Secondly, your hand changes over the course of the game. You play two cards each round, then after scoring, you pick back up any one card. You can pick up heroes of your realm that other players have tossed out and shape your hand for future victory. You can also claim your enemy’s cards (so they can’t) or your ally’s cards. Which leads us to the third new idea: Each player wants to help the player to her left, but you have no stake in the player to your right. These one-sided alliances lead to numerous interesting decisions about when to help your ally, when to push for your own victory, and when to accept defeat—and how to mitigate the results.

What Could Have Been

In 2012, AEG (Alderac Entertainment Group) announced their Tempest IP: A game universe centered in the city-state of the same name, effectively Renaissance Venice. They announced it with three games lined up (Dominare, Courtier & Mercante) and an open call for further submissions. They’ve since released Love Letter and Guildhall. The former is pretty innovative in both form and function and the latter is hands-down my favorite game of the year. It would be an honor to be published in the same line.

As I read the design documents for Tempest, I was struck by a listing of characteristics that some of the games had already used and new games were encouraged to use if appropriate: Power, Wealth, Guile, and Influence. These lined up surprisingly well to the traits of characters from Shatterpact and I suddenly began mentally recasting the game as one of subtle intrigue and hidden power battles, rather than straight-up violence in yet another meaningless war. The mechanics and gameplay of Shatterpact turn out to make more sense as a Machiavellian game of manipulation.

It was never clear in Shatterpact why you were sending heroes of enemy realms to the battlefield, but manipulating enemy agents is exactly what the shadowy figures of Tempest do. How does one win an invisible conflict? By pulling strings that no one can see: manipulation, blackmail, and deceit. I submitted the idea and by a giant stroke of luck I had the opportunity to demonstrate the game in its pre-Tempest-ized state to the team at GenCon. I wouldn’t say it bombed, but the game we played did illuminate some of the game’s weaknesses:

The nature of the game makes it reasonable to imagine that many games will end in ties. While I know from hundreds of games of experience that’s not true, it doesn’t change the appearance and games are sold on appearance. It also happened that the last game ended with a player in a king-making position. He couldn’t win himself, but his play determined which of two other players would. I hate situations like that as much as anyone, and while the game doesn’t push toward that state, it doesn’t push away from it either.

What I Tried

I was determined to improve the game. On the flight home, I thought about the way allies and points worked. It was interesting and simple enough, but it wasn’t intuitive. Explaining it usually raised eyebrows, which is a warning sign that something’s a little off. I didn’t want to give up that aspect, because I am obsessed with games where players have to help each other in order to claim victory, but how could I make them care without hamfisting it the way I had been? What if each player needed to advance multiple agendas…Agendas shared with other players?

If a player cares about one side of three different conflicts, then the game becomes a series of ever-changing alliances because each player shares one agenda in common with each other player. I might work with Bob this turn to support the monarchy against the senate, but Anne next turn to fight for science over religion. After all, if I help any one player too much, they might score more than I do. This model lacks the novel asymmetry of Shatterpact, but instead sports a much more organic alliance mechanism, and one that has proven more dynamic as well.

I did a bunch of math to figure out how many cards the deck would have, how many factions would be present, and how many agendas they’d iterate between. There are 8 permutations on three dichotomies, so I found 8 factions in the Tempest IP that could headline the game (not to mention the three pairs of agendas that could define them). While a 60 card deck is always nice (because you can deal it evenly between 1-6 players), 15-card hands seem a bit much to ask for a 4-player game, so I went with a 48 card deck to support 3-4 players (and our 8 factions).

I found a piece of art for each faction (all by Levente Peterffy) that fit the setting and mocked up some cards. Originally, each card had one symbol for each of the three agendas that agent’s faction cares about and nothing else (because removing the rank simplifies the card). We would count up all the A symbols, compare them to the B symbols and determine which half of the A/B conflict won that round. It only took one test game to show that was way too much adding. We were playing cards simultaneously, but we had to reorient the cards to ease counting such that it was hard to track who played what or why. The game was miserable.

Don’t Forget Your Roots

I tried a couple more small variations of Intrigue that were nearly as poor before bringing Shatterpact out of storage for a refresher. Playing the original reminded me what was great about it that the new game was lacking. While it’s slower than the simultaneous turns I’d tried for Intrigue, playing cards in turn order led to much more interesting card play. The ranks on the cards helped stratify them, making each choice more meaningful. Finally, I had simplified the play-two-keep-one play style Shatterpact uses (into a series of overlapping rounds) and in so doing lost the ability for players to craft their hands over the course of the game. I played Shatterpact as the Lord of the Dwarves and started without a single Dwarf yet managed to win the game by playing what I did have well and picking up Dwarves from other players along the way. It was awesome.

And so I set out to make Intrigue more like Shatterpact. Or, if you prefer, to re-theme Shatterpact, but using the new shared-agenda model in place of asymmetrical allies.

I gave each agent a rank and changed the scoring method from counting the symbols across all the cards to simply determining which faction has the highest total rank and then scoring the three agendas that faction supports. Much simpler. In Shatterpact, the winning player captures an enemy agent (representing her victory point) before everyone chooses a card to put back in their hand. Under this new model, it is a faction that wins a round—not a player—so that option was out. I tried a couple games and the revision was playing much better, but the endgame was populated by only the highest ranked cards.

With no predation in the game ecosystem, the game would inevitably end that way every time. I was slowly working toward a solution when one of my playtesters, Josh IIRC, suggested an awesome one: Each player must kill one agent and keep one during the resolution phase, but the order she does it is up to her. It takes a bit more thought, but this keeps the game dynamic and offers an abundance of interesting choices. Do you kill an enemy 8 or save a friendly 7? Do you count on the next player to do what’s best for the pair of you? Can you force an opponent to save an agent friendly to you? The starting player for the current round chooses first and that can factor into which cards you’re willing to risk as well as mitigating the last-play advantage the ending player has.

Spicing it Up

With the core gameplay looking much better, I took a look at the advanced game. In Shatterpact, the advanced layer comes in the form of quests. At the beginning of each battle, you reveal the top card of the quest deck and it details the conditions for winning that card as another point, separate from winning the round. Most quests key off of character traits like Brave, Cunning or Swift. The characters with lower ranks have more of these traits so that cards that were strictly worse in the base game become better for this alternate strategy.

For Intrigue, I knew we would need an additional layer to really hammer home the flavor of secret plots and schemes, of quiet power struggles rippling throughout the city, of back-alley deals, and deadly double-crosses. A set of scenarios you could choose for each game and a board/map for each scenario would offer a variety of play and allow me to tell stories.

In one scenario, the Queen has just been accused of treason and is trying to escape. Those sworn to protect her are trying to secret her away while those set on imprisoning the Queen must catch her. A faction that supports the monarchy places cubes on a map trying to reach the escape boat whenever they win, while the factions supporting the senate place cubes that block and eventually trap her.

Another scenario was more generic, but requires players to play their cards to specific spaces on the board, each of which have a unique ability. One space doubled its faction’s score if they win, while another increases your agent’s rank and yet another lets you swap cards that have been played. That was neat but foreshadowed a long road of balance testing.

The Penultimate Version

The last major flaw in the design was that having 6 cards per suit across 8 suits meant that it was often hard to keep the cards most relevant in the endgame. At the same time, I was trying to figure out how to remove the agenda icons from the agent cards so that there would be room to reintroduce traits. Even if the game didn’t need traits, having played with generic agents versus fleshed-out heroes showed that a big part of the fun of the game is learning about the characters and creating memorable stories about them through play. Getting individual card art as well as helping define their personalities through game-relevant traits was paramount to making that happen. (Sorry, I won’t share the art the prototype is currently using, out of respect for AEG’s IP guidelines.)

As is often the case in design, the best solutions answer multiple questions. Eliminating agendas gave the agents room for traits. Without agendas, the players have to key off of factions instead and the math that lets each player care about one faction that each other player cares about in a four-player game results in six factions. A few playtests convinced me this is a great setup to force the players to work together while making their choices simpler and more relevant. The traits inspired a set of scheme cards, not entirely unlike the old quest cards.

Each player chooses one of two secret schemes at the start of each trick and if the scheme’s condition is met, she can reveal it for an effect. Many trigger at the end of the trick and score you an extra point, but some trigger when agents of a particular faction or with a particular trait are deployed, letting you actively mess with the game-state. It feels very spy-ish without adding much time to the game and players seem delighted to scheme and gamble and keep secrets from each other. I may still introduce scenarios/maps as an add-on at some point, but I’m quite happy with the schemes for now. Ideally, schemes are one layer and maps could be another, letting you use either or both as you please.

I took the game to Metatopia where at least 12 players gave me more positive feedback than I’ve had before, to the extent that one of them told an attending publisher to get a demo of the game. I submitted the prototype to AEG at BGG Con, but they decided to pass on it.

The Game Today

I’ve played hundreds of games of Intrigue and I’m quite pleased with the depth of play, and the hilarious moments that can arise when players reveal their schemes. The core game has been stable for some time, but I iterated on the schemes quite a bit; I’ve printed up six different sets of ~50 scheme cards by now, removing the ones that don’t enhance the play experience and keeping the one that do. I want cards that are fun, flavorful, and interesting or that shore up weaknesses some players feel the core game has. For instance, there are a tons of schemes that score points, allowing players who have fallen behind in the very tight core game a chance to come back. A few cards offer as many as three points, but are much harder to pull off. That’s one place where having a flip side really shines—You can always choose a smaller, more reliably alternative if you’re not in the mood to gamble. Some cards offer rewards for long-term strategies and some shake up players’ hands to help you get out of a rut you may have slipped into.

There are a couple modes of play I still think have potential: Playing with hidden affiliations is really interesting; and I might still bring back maps/scenarios, but they’re clearly not necessary for the initial game. I think I’ll save them as bonus content once the game is out there.

I’ve sent Intrigue out for two blind playtests so far, and I’m really glad I did because they exposed a very serious problem with the rules presentation. What I’ve learned is that while casual players enjoy the core game, hardcore gamers dismiss it as trivial because the simple rules don’t seem interesting enough. They don’t even try the advanced game because they’ve already decided to hate the core game. I’ve never had this problem when teaching the game in person, and the difference is that I explain the game differently than the rules, highlighting the subtle strategies that make it play so differently from traditional trick-taking card games. I’ve done a few things to combat this:

Firstly, I added a strategy section to the back of the rulebook, plainly explaining the top layer of strategies that players tend to miss initially when left to their own devices. Next, I recommend that hardcore gamers add the scheme cards after just a few tricks. I find that the schemes are quirky and flavorful enough that they keep players engaged long enough to start noticing the intricacies of the core game. Finally, because I don’t expect every group to read the strategy section in the back of the rules, I’ve made an Explainer; a sheet separate from the rules that is meant to introduce the gameplay enough to get players started quickly as well as informally hinting at the sideways play that will help you to succeed in this game of manipulation. I just sent out a new copy with these tweaks, so I’m eager to see if that’ll do the trick.

I’ve never been so confident that I will find a publisher for this game. After over a decade, dozens of versions and hundreds of games, that’ll be nice.

How to Use Feedback

Jay is fresh from Unpub 3 where he took a few of his new prototypes to test with a flood of designers and gamers alike. He’s also been participating in the PPP program. Therefore, Jay’s input on gathering and using testing feedback is useful and should be read!

Guest Column by: Jay Treat

You’re more likely to be struck by lightning twice than you are to design a flawless game without any playtesting. Yet, figuring out how to improve your game after a playtesting session is often a mystery. How can you turn your playtesters’ nebulous comments, insane ideas, and bad advice into useful feedback? I’ll share a few tricks with you and I hope you’ll share yours in the comments.

Ask the Right Questions

“Yeah, that was pretty good.”

The first piece of useless feedback every designer hears is the patronizing reassurance that your game isn’t 100% crap. You ask, “What did you think?” or “How did you like it?” and 99/100 people will answer the same way. What they’re really saying is “It wasn’t good enough. I can imagine a worse way to spend as much time, but it involves fire and shackles. I can’t tell you exactly how bad it was because I was taught if I can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”

While you will get more pointed feedback from your peers in the industry who know what you need to hear, and you must seek that level of feedback out at some point, you need the perspective of real players first. If you want more useful responses, you have to ask better questions. Crap in, crap out.

Be as specific as you can. If you’re aware of any points that might be less than perfect, call them out and ask for opinions. “What did you think of mechanic X? Was it fun? Balanced? Confusing? In-Theme?” Once players realize you know there might be a problem, they’re no longer the messenger and are more willing to discuss it.

There are other staple questions that can lead to more useful information. “Was the game too long?” “How much would you pay for this?” “Who do you think would enjoy this?” There’s a subtle difference between these questions and the following: “Was anything confusing?” “Would you buy this?” “Was the game too hard?” Take a moment and think about why the first three might be good and the last three might not.

“Was the game too long?” Unlike “Did you like the pacing?”, this question acknowledges that the game might be too long. Answering “a bit” doesn’t make the respondent a villain, it lets them confirm your line of reasoning. More on what that answer means soon.

“Would you buy this?” is a binary and personal decision. The player only has two answers to give; one of which will be a lie and the other will hurt your feelings.

“How much would you pay for this?” gives them a scale to grade on, the upper and lower bounds of which are not clearly defined, so whatever they answer can’t be interpreted as an insult. Even though ‘you’ is the same word, this question feels more like an abstract question where the ‘you’ is more of a general ‘one.’ I might not buy your game for $40, but I know people who would. Note that this question is less to help you set a price point and more as a secret gauge for how good your game is.

“Was anything confusing?” is an attack. Your player hears “Are you too stupid to play this game?” They will always answer ‘no,’ unless they made a bad play during the game and would rather pawn off responsibility for it to the game. A better question is “Where can I improve rules or game text to be more clear?” Or “Can anyone word this better?” Or “Did scoring seem cumbersome?”

“Was the game too hard?” Also an attack:. “Was the game too hard for you?” Instead ask, “What felt imbalanced?” or “The game is meant to be a challenge. Do you think I should increase or decrease [some element]?”

“Who do you think would enjoy this?” allows the player to give you a positive response without committing themselves to a lie about how much they hate your game. They might say “hardcore gamers” which tells you the game is too complicated or “kids” which tells you it’s too simple or luck-based. If they say “my play group back home” you can do a little dance inside.

Under the Veil

Very few of the comments your testers give you will be directly applicable in tweaking your design, but all of it is useful data. Your job is to interpret what they’re saying (the hard part) and decide how to use that information (the other hard part).

“The game was too long.”

Your player(s) weren’t engaged the whole time. While we all prefer short games, that’s a learned defense mechanism against bad games. No one who enjoys Cards Against Humanity minds playing for two hours straight or D&D for four or more hours. A game is only too long when it’s boring.

The more players there are in your turn-based game, the longer a player has to wait before her next turn comes around again. If the game isn’t highly interactive, all of that time is boring. Try to make turns shorter by giving players less to do and preventing analysis-paralysis by limiting their options. Try to keep players engaged when it’s not their turn by giving them stuff to do out of turn, or making sure they care desperately how the current player takes his turn.

If a player feels overwhelmed or doesn’t get the game, they will tune out. “I don’t know how to improve my score/position because I don’t understand everything” leads almost instantly to “I don’t care. Please let me stop.” You probably need to simplify your game. Consider making a basic/introductory game or improving your initial presentation, but probably, you need to simplify your game.

If a player feels they can no longer win the game, or that there’s so much luck that their choices don’t matter, they will disengage and want to escape. Make sure that you have an appropriate amount of luck in your game for the length and gravity of the game (they’re inversely proportional) and that the amount of work a player has to do to take their turn (analyze the situation, make a decision, move pieces around) doesn’t exceed the impact of their choice on the game. It’s fine if your game is mostly luck, provided it’s short, light-hearted and easy.

“I didn’t like this mechanic.”

Many comments mean very different things depending on who said them and the context. You have to be reading your players throughout the game so that you will know how they mean what they say afterward. Honestly, you shouldn’t even need to ask “did you like the game?” If your players were laughing and smiling, they definitely did* and if they were checking their watches or nodding off, they definitely didn’t.

*Good company can make a game the same way bad company can ruin a game, but you can tell how much of the fun was just friends joking with each other as if they weren’t playing at all.

If a player lost the game because he misplayed or because another player leveraged a mechanic against them well, “I didn’t like this mechanic” often just means “I didn’t get this mechanic” or “I lost to this mechanic and I don’t like losing.” If they play again (good luck with that) and have the same opinion, consider upgrading them from ‘sore loser’ to ‘onto something.’

If a casual player hates your mechanic, it’s probably too novel/complicated for him. Reconsider your audience, or simplify your game.

If a hardcore player hates your mechanic, it’s probably too old/shallow for her. Reconsider your audience, or look for a unique twist to cast a new light on this classic mechanic. If you weren’t aware the mechanic was old, ask for at least two games that use it and go play them. Also, play more games. Musicians don’t not listen to music. Boxers don’t not watch boxing.

If an industry peer hates your mechanic, ask them why. They could fall into any of the above categories, but if not, they probably have a really good reason and whether you agree or not, you need to understand their reason.

“There’s too much luck.”

Funny how you almost never hear the opposite. The reason is that in a game with luck, players can blame their loss on something other than themselves; in a game with no luck, your only recourse is to blame the game balance or complexity; it is a rare player that acknowledges their own mistakes.

That said, there’s probably too much luck. We game designers love our dice and cards and rarely do the math to see exactly how much impact they have on the game. It’s okay, that’s what playtesting is for. Just don’t be afraid to make some big tweaks (always start with big tweaks and iterate your way down to small tweaks—it’ll save you time, guaranteed). Editor’s Note: Famous video game designer Sid Meier of Civilization fame has a classic rule for tuning: double it, or cut it in half. I’ve been using this for years and it has served me well.

Games need variance in order to create suspense, so don’t remove all the luck. Just make sure players can’t invest more work into the game than you can guarantee they will be rewarded for. Again, shorter and easier games can have more luck, but longer and harder games can’t. Think of a bell-curve. If your game is 5 minutes, it’s okay if the more skilled player only wins 60% of the time, but if your game is 5 hours, it’s not okay if the player who played best doesn’t win at least 95% of the time.

Note that luck and skill are not opposite ends of a single axis. There are games with low luck and low skill (Tic Tac Toe) and games with high luck and high skill (Poker). One does not preclude the other. There are also vastly different sorts of variance. That’s a whole other article, but consider for one example the difference between Candy Land and To Court the King. Candy Land’s dice decide who wins the game, while To Court the King’s dice usually just push toward one strategy or another.

“Have you considered X?”

Players will suggest ways to change your game or things to add. Especially industry peers. Some of these suggestions will be so dumb, you have to lock off the part of your brain that heard them so it doesn’t infect what’s left. Some of these will be so brilliant, they turn your game from “ehhh” to “yeahhh.” You have to listen to these suggestions and even harder, you have to consider them.

Suggestions like these are to be treated like a brainstorm. No matter how bad they sounds, you must not criticize or dismiss them, or it will be the last suggestion you get from that playtester. You can either write them down and promise to think about them later (which you should actually do) or talk them through on the spot. Make sure you understand both the core concept of the proposal as well as the reason the suggester thinks it might improve the game. Often, his solution will be unusable, but the problem he’s trying to solve will be a very real problem that you need to address.

This actually tends to be the easiest way to tease out a problem from your testers. “What would you change/add/remove?” will often lead to terrible ideas that pinpoint with laser accuracy a deficiency in your game. For example, “I would make separate cards for cowboys’ horses” :: “You haven’t integrated the Western theme enough.” And “eliminate the bidding step” :: “the bidding is unoriginal and doesn’t really impact the game.”

Remember that no one understands your design or your vision as well as you do. Just because Richard Garfield would add powers to your character cards, doesn’t mean you should. But if you don’t understand exactly why he suggested that (the game’s too simple) and exactly why you shouldn’t (your audience is the elderly), then you need to find out.

Is there another comment you’ve gotten you’re not sure how to interpret? Let’s discuss it in the comments.

What Next

You’ve got your feedback. You think you know what it means. How should you change your game? Try all of it—one at a time. So many of man’s greatest achievements have come from accidents or from crazy ideas that someone wouldn’t give up on. Don’t let your instinct throw away an idea because it doesn’t sound helpful. If you don’t know exactly how that would work out in every possible situation, you owe it to yourself to find out. Most of what you try won’t improve the game, but everything will improve your understanding of the game.

Design is an exploration. You are entering an unknown reality where you don’t even know the rules of physics. You can only discover the boundaries by pushing ahead in a direction until you hit a wall. The more you push, the better intuition you have of what’s possible and what’s not, but if you stop pushing when you find something good, you’ll never know if you missed a secret passage to something vastly better.

Design with the intention of failing, or you’ll never have the perspective at the end to know if you’ve truly succeeded or merely stopped designing.**

That said, don’t try everything at once. If you try three changes at the same time, and the game improves, how do you know if all three helped or if one helped a lot and the other two held it back. If the game worsens, how do you know all three changes were bad? More importantly, how do you understand how each change impacts your game and what that means about your game? Editor’s Note: The scientific method will treat you well.

You don’t have to prototype every change. Most games and most changes have to playtested with other humans to see their true impact, but sometimes you can do that without making new playing pieces. Just tell the players X is Y this time. Some changes you can eliminate socratically: What if players could pay $10 to the bank to roll an extra die in Monopoly? They wouldn’t bother in the early game, and would know exactly when to use it in the late game. Does the mid-game matter? Do you want players paying marginal amounts to the bank to completely bypass their opponents’ hotel chains? You have to be really careful with this type of thought because it’s ridiculously easy to miss important details and still be 100% certain your right. If you are going to skip this test, at least run it by another player to see if they agree with your conclusion.

**How do you know when you’re done? If you blind playtest the game with at least three new groups of your target audience and they all love it, and you can’t find any way to make the game better (without making it worse), you’re probably done.

Multiple Paths

You’ll often reach a fork in the road. Perhaps your game is half-way between a party game for gamers and a fun party activity for non-gamers. You have to go one way or the other because the split won’t please anyone, but how do you choose? This is the other other hard part.

Sometimes, you have to go back to your original vision for the game. If you set out to make the fastest, lightest tactical wargame ever and you have the chance to instead make a meatier game that really stands on its own, maybe you should stick with your vision and complete your original goal. Put your thumb in the page of this choose-your-own-adventure, because you can always go back and explore the other path when you finish this one.

Sometimes, I’m thinking most of the time, you have to forget where you were coming from and listen to what the game wants to be. Like carving stone, of course you have to start with a plan in mind but you might get half way there and just see something else waiting to be revealed. Something better. It’s rare that the act of executing one game idea doesn’t lead me to discover something different, something a little more natural and unique. Unlike carving stone, you can always undo a change and go back to what worked better.

Ultimately the decision is yours and yours alone to make, but remember that you can always ask friends and peers for their opinion. The value of another perspective is immeasurable.

Calm Down

As a parting note, I wanted to touch briefly on designer ego. It’s impossible not to be invested in your game. It’s your baby and if you aren’t invested in it, it’s going to be trash and you’re wasting the playtesters’ time. What you have to learn to do, though, is to divorce the quality of your game in its current state from your self-confidence as a designer. A bad playtest doesn’t make you a bad designer. It doesn’t even make the game bad, because your game isn’t finished. It just means you’ve learned something and found a way to make your game better.

The only way to be a bad designer is to release only bad games, and the only way to do that is to ignore your playtesters when they tell you what’s wrong with your game. Or to not playtest.

Away to the Last Planet

Folks often stress the importance of mechanics and note that “presentation isn’t everything.” Rightfully so, but when a prototype like Jay Treat’s Lost Planet comes along, the presentation alone piqued my curiosity and more than once has gotten me to ask “what is that?” Jay kindly wrote this post to dive deeper into the game and I couldn’t be more excited. If the picture above doesn’t get you to ask for more details, you’re a boring gamer!

Guest Column by: Jay Treat

In November, I wrote about a StarCraft deck-building game that I’d brought to Metatopia and was a spectacular failure. I mentioned that I would continue to try to make a StarCraft-inspired tabletop game but that I wasn’t sure it would end up in the form of a card game. Something that kept coming back to me as I considered possibilities was trying to somehow capture the dexterity element of the video game, that is the ability to click quickly between units and command a large army across the map while continuing to develop your resource and unit production.

I enjoy flicking games like Crokinole and Elk Fest, and am excited about recent nerdy advances in the genre like Ascending Empires and Catacombs. Similarly, there’s great potential demonstrated by Micro Mutants (formerly X-Bugs). Ultimately, I decided that Micro Mutants is already practically StarCraft with a bug theme in place of space and far too good to warrant recreating. Flicking might still be an option, but my brief exploration of the idea hinted that it probably isn’t the right fit. The common conflict between precise flicking and hard flicking, combined with the need to evaluate a turn by the final result and not what may or may not have happened during the split-second the discs were ricocheting around is a bit of a turn-off.

I still wanted something very tactile, something that really takes advantage of the physical nature of the game and lets players get really hands-on with their zerglings and zealots. What if you could place units on the table and move them about in some intuitive manner? How do you handle how far a unit can move without the awkward rulers of so many miniature wargames (or the patented Attacktix system)?

My solution was to create playing pieces with physical properties that defined as many of their characteristics as possible. Their length determines how quickly the unit moves and their ends are unique so that you can only build a zergling from a breeding pool… or another zergling. Since moving each piece every turn would be a pain, you can ‘advance’ a chain by adding a unit of the same type to the end of it, effectively replicating movement and replacement of the old unit.

I was aiming to keep things as simple as possible, so originally each unit just has a static number to represent its prowess in combat. When two or more enemy units overlap, they each deal their damage to each other. I think I’d been planning for damage to last between rounds at that time, which gets tricky when you advance a unit. Do you move the damage up the chain?

I did a Versus Self test and quickly learned that the game was deterministic. With nothing random, every game would play out exactly the same once players figured out the optimal setup. Different strategies would require different counter-strategies, but I’ve never been interested in recreating Chess.

I needed variance and added it in two places: The proportion of gas and minerals available at each resource site became a die roll; You can’t always rely on the same strategy since some require more minerals or more gas. I also added dice to combat.

Each unit attacks with so many dice (to show how effective an attacker it is) and requires higher or lower results to be damaged (to show how big/armored it is). I played this version against the skilled and patient Mr. Edwards of Board Game Reviews by Josh. It was much better and validated the direction I was going in. We identified a few hurdles in the game system and a whole lot of balance issues. For instance, air units were far too easy to build and invalidated any ground strategy that didn’t lean heavily on ranged units.

You can see Zerg and Protoss forces pictured above. I waited to work on the Terrans because I didn’t want to make any more pieces than I had to; these things take an unholy amount of work to make. That forces me to be more conservative with physical iteration on the game, something I’m usually quite liberal about. This test went well enough that I started the design (both game- and graphic-) for the Terrans.

But that night, I was kept up by concerns about the current dice system. While it’s possible to make tough units with weak attacks, vulnerable with weak, and tough with strong, an idiosyncracy of my solution (putting defense values on the dice images themselves) meant that I couldn’t make vulnerable units with strong attacks. There was also no distinction, other than numbers, between normal ground units and armored ones; something the video game makes a pretty big deal of, but I’d accepted as another abstraction from the original.

Except that it’s harder to make Rock-Paper-Scissors triangles of units when units are just big or small. So I kept thinking about simple ways to represent that until I realized that I could do it very easily with custom dice. Each unit is destroyed when hit with a number of a certain symbol: ground units would have an infantry symbol, armored units a tank symbol and air units an aircraft symbol. There would be four types of dice. Zerglings get green dice which are very good against ground units, potentially useful against armor and useless against air. Immortals would get red dice which are good against both ground and armor units. Photon Cannons would get blue dice which are good against air. And all the ranged units that can hit both ground and air units would get white dice which aren’t great against everything but are never useless.

Realizing your game needs custom dice isn’t ideal the week before a convention, but fortunately the game design community is full of awesome people like Grant and Jason who got my back. I’ll be stickering the morning of Unpub 3, but my game will also be at its (theoretical) best.

I’m excited to show Last Planet off and see if it stands up to more diverse opinion. It’s still very raw and will require months and months of iteration to balance, but so far it seems like I’m on the right path to make a legitimately tactile experience that may just do StarCraft’s theme justice.

What did you think about Lost Planet? Leave comments and ask questions below. 

Convergent Design

Guest Column by: Jay Treat

A friend of mine has been thinking about a game for years that lets your group play as the crew of a starship bridge. Each player would play his own mini-game that determines his station’s performance and the group’s individual successes would add up to determine how successful the mission is for the whole team. And then Stronghold Games printed Space Cadets. It’s not just the same theme and execution, there are even specific mini-games in common. He was understandably disappointed and I knew exactly how he felt because I’ve been there. A lot.

I was able to console him with the reassurance that this happens all the time. I’d be surprised if every one of you hasn’t experienced something like this yourself. Which is why I want to reassure you that’s it not just you. I call this phenomenon Convergent Design, after Convergent Evolution, the idea that animals with little-to-no evolutionary relationship have developed distinctly similar features through unrelated paths, largely because those features are fairly optimal and their development inevitable.

Joseph Swan and Thomas Edison independently invented the lightbulb within five years of each other. Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, and Pixel Lincoln were all released within a year of each other. The same year I finally got publisher traction for Assault on Khyber Station, I found Escape from the Aliens in Outer Space on a dealer’s table and a week later I heard people raving about Escape, which turned out to be The Curse of the Temple. While that last one is more coincidence than a duplicated idea, you can still see a clear trend. Even Space Cadets isn’t alone: Artemis is the same idea for the PC and Spaceteam for iOS.

I attribute it all to the global zeitgeist. While every human is as unique as a snowflake, we all consume the same media and participate in the same culture. Modern communication has reduced the latency of this effect from years to mere minutes and even mitigates the previously large cultural differences between nations and continents. With several billion people laughing at Seinfeld and holding their breath for Harry Potter, it’s no wonder that a few of us are going to wonder “Hey, what if you could set reminders by location instead of time?” all at once.

In the Unpub zone at GenCon this year I watched a Rick Collins game, Scrapbots, in which players build robots from junk and battle them against each other. Each robot’s abilities and well-being are defined by card slots in their hit locations (head, chest, arms, legs). In one fell swoop, I saw two of my designs preempted. I might have been crushed, but I’ve been in this position often enough to know not to take it personally. Instead, I laughed that I never did get around to developing either of those games, so if my goal was to see those ideas realized, I just got a present. I save hours of headache and hard work while someone else does it all for me, and I’ll get to just buy his game and enjoy it already completed. Thanks!

Now, I am being optimistic here. If the game does get published and is as awesome as it can be, then all is well. If, on the other hand, the game fails to be published, not only am I back to square one, but I basically have no chance selling the game to the publishers that turned down the original. And if Scrapbots does get published but turns out to be bad, then I’m really screwed: I won’t have a sweet game to play, I won’t have my desire sated to see those ideas well-realized, and making the game myself to do it right would be a fool’s errand because no publisher will want to touch a game seemingly derivative of a well-known flop.

When I was 15, Wizards of the Coast was accepting external Magic set submissions. I put together something I’d be too embarrassed to show anyone today, but with a few solid ideas in it just the same. The same year I mailed that off, they announced the big policy change and stopped accepting anything. I never got a response whether they even read my stuff. But that Summer, they released a bunch of new cards and mechanics that they obviously stole from me.

Except they didn’t steal them. I know this because it takes considerably longer to develop, template and print a card than the time they had to steal my idea.

Last year, I led a team that designed a Magic set that I am quite proud of. Not only were there a half-dozen nearly identical cards printed in Wizards’ version of the “same” set, there were cards released while we were still working that matched brand new designs and forced us to remove or drastically change them.

And that wasn’t surprising, because not only were we working in the same medium (this ubiquitous magepunk TCG) with the same frame of reference (the preceding 18 years of Magic sets), but we were even working within the same parameters (to design a flavorful core set that’s easy for new players to learn but interesting for established players to draft) toward the same goal (to lead into a multicolor-themed fall set named Return to Ravnica). In fact, one of the reasons I consider the project successful is the number of solutions our team shared in common with the Wizards’ team. If we hadn’t hit some of the same touchstones, it would have been a sign that we were off in our understanding of where Magic is and where it’s going.

When I go back and apply the same logic two decades ago, my old anger at having my ideas “stolen” is replaced by pride that even as bad a designer I was at the time, I was still on track enough to come up with the same things the professionals did. When Jason Tagmire learned about concurrent Lincoln movies, he used that as fuel to help market Pixel Lincoln. When Edison learned about Swan’s work, he sent goons to eliminate his competition. Wait, bad example…

The point is, it’s up to you how to respond when someone beats you to the punch with your own idea. You can throw a fit and let it eat you up inside. You can take it as validation. You can thank them for saving you the effort. And you can even team up with them and use it to your advantage.

You might even reevaluate what it means to ‘own’ an idea. But that’s another article.

Form Versus Function

Guest Column by: Jay Treat

I learned several valuable lessons at Metatopia a few weekends ago.

Firstly, there is no such thing as bed-time. You will be up late. Every night. And you will love it.

Secondly, making connections—the kind that lead to dream jobs—isn’t as hard as I thought. Basically, you just need to show up, be friendly, and be generous. There are tricks and nuances, of course, that’s true of everything. And, as with any attempt, you can’t succeed if you don’t try.

Thirdly is a theme that came up three times across three different games over the weekend. I tweeted about, but it’s worth discussing in-depth.

The Last Planet

I’ve hinted several times on Twitter that I’ve been working on a StarCraft deck-building game. I played Fantasy Flight’s StarCraft board game with some friends earlier this year and was reminded quite viscerally how painfully slow the game is. So I set out to make a StarCraft game that better captured the video game’s feel, primarily by playing faster. I somehow latched onto the idea of a DBG being an interesting expression of base development and built an intentionally very literal interpretation of the game. As expected, it worked but not particularly well. I intended to recreate it, but got distracted with other projects.

Last month, my friend Josh pushed me to pick it back up. I had one new idea to try before completely rebuilding it so I brought that to Metatopia. The fix helped, but was like a drop-in-the-bucket. It took easily 100 minutes before one player successfully attacked another. The game is too complex and has too many steps to accomplish by a complete order of magnitude. And that’s really not surprising: It’s a complex video game with millions of moving parts all being handled seamlessly by the computer. Take out that super-fast helper and it’s up to the players to handle everything. Even simplified as it was, it’s still preposterous.

Despite that massive problem, there is fun in the game and I have not given up. I will rebuild from scratch, divorcing myself from StarCraft and creating a new SciFi theme, not because I know I’ll never win the game rights, but because I can’t let the conceits of the video game dictate the paper game’s path. I know if I keep this exact theme that I will be distracted from the better possible game by what StarCraft has done and how.

It’s entirely possible the end result won’t be a DBG, but a real-time puzzle or who knows what.


After that, I saw some of my designer friends playing with an early game prototype. Kevin’s game has an awesome theme: The players are experimental test subjects of a mad scientist trying to escape his dark labyrinth before he kills them. The game starts with an interesting mechanic where you play cards to form the edge of the dungeon and your character moves like a magnet to cards that match your player color. Once you reach the inner dungeon, you instead lay dungeon tiles that dictate the directions you can move from that space. Because the dungeon is dark, you don’t decide how to orient the tiles, you just place them however you flip them.

This leaves the end-game entirely up to chance. It does fit the theme and really puts you in your character’s shoes. On the other hand, you’re suddenly not playing the game you started and probably not enjoying feeling your character’s frustration so personally. The reason for placing the tiles with a random orientation was to fit the theme of a dark dungeon, but it removes the fun from the game. My suggestion was to let players choose the tile’s orientation to improve the play, and then modify the theme to justify the change. Maybe the dungeon isn’t pitch-black or maybe the doctor gave them infrared vision as part of his experimentation. The former doesn’t really hurt the core theme and the latter fits it pretty well.

I know Kevin is working on this game because I saw a very nice graphical tease for it, so I’m eager to see what the next version brings.


The next day I joined what turned out to be a brainstorming session rather than a playtest. You might be pretty disappointed at such a thing elsewhere, but at Metatopia it was cool. Yeah, let’s bounce ideas off each other to help the designer—Jim—reach a good starting point. Honestly, that’s almost more fun for me than actually playing. The premise is that the players are corporations competing to alter a planet’s atmosphere so that it’s ready for colonization. Jim had the kernel of a pretty neat mechanic for this part of the game as well as a dice mechanism to determine player order and the amount of resources available each turn.

As we were proposing possible directions for the game, we occasionally hit a hard stop in the form of a pre-established theme. What if there’s a conflict with resident aliens? There are no aliens. How can we add variance to building placement? Wind. There’s no wind on Mars! There is on Venus. Are dice the best way to determine how much a player can do each turn? They represent the fickle budgets of your corporate overlords. (Note that one of those over-wrought preconceptions was mine, not the designer’s.)

Form vs Function

If you’ve read my earlier stuff, you know that I’m a huge advocate for theme in games. There are great games with no theme, but there are so many more great games with theme. Ultimately, a game can’t fire on all cylinders without an engaging theme. The flip-side is that you can make a game great through the theme alone, but it’s much more likely to be garbage without fun mechanics. And a thematic game can’t reach it’s greatest potential without awesome gameplay.

Some designers approach games from the bottom-up, completing the game by perfecting the gameplay and mechanics, and then finally pasting on whatever theme seems to fit best. Some approach design top-down, finding a neat theme and bringing it to life, going with whatever mechanics express that theme more fully. A lot of designers are versatile enough to use whichever technique feels right for a new game. I put it to you that none of these are ideal.

Integration through iteration is the holy grail. Start where you like, whether it’s bottom-up with a clever mechanic and some fun gameplay, or top-down with an engaging story and a gripping atmosphere. Just don’t go too far without switching hats. Even if you’re idea is still amorphous enough that you need a quick test to figure out where to go with it, you should already be imagining how to express your idea from the other side of the camp. After your first test, when you understand the basic game well enough to start the next step, shift your focus and ask how the theme could best serve the mechanics, and vice-versa. If something needs to change, change it. Kill your sacred cows or they will eat your game.

If you do this throughout the design process, the final result will be so tightly integrated that players won’t be able to imagine your mechanics with any other theme, nor will they wonder if the flavor could have been stronger with a few more/less dice.

A fantastic example to demonstrate this is Magic: The Gathering because the game has been remade so many times using every model we’ve discussed. A big part of what made the game take-off was the excellent fusion of flavor and mechanics in the original design. There were many years of bottom-up designs to follow where the designers were exploring mechanical possibilities and the theme suffered. Many years later, they let the creative team dictate the world and built the set around that, but the gameplay wasn’t satisfying. They rebooted the core set with Magic 2010 using a new strategy—the original one: Make cards that are fun to play and deeply resonant. It was a huge success and breathed new life into the game. They haven’t looked back since and they have done amazing things that just weren’t possible in the old model.

StarCraft is a video game because it can’t be done as a board game. It can’t be done as a board game because it’s a video game. The Zerg are what they are because they play differently from the Terrans and Protoss. And they play so differently because they are the Zerg. These sound like poser-wise tautologies, but the point is that both sides were developed toward this state together and couldn’t have done otherwise. I can make a game that plays like StarCraft, but with a different theme or I can make a game with StarCraft’s theme but plays differently, but the vast differences in the media prevent me from making the same game. And ultimately, what would be the value in that if I succeeded? Why play StarCraft the board game, when you can play the same game with better graphics on your computer? That was the impetus for adding the deck-building-game conceit but I didn’t go far enough. DBGs don’t have a tech tree or, if they do, it’s nowhere near as deep, specific or complex as StarCraft’s.

My work on Intrigue (Editor’s Note: This is another game of Jay’s) is another interesting example. In theory, all I had to do to convert the theme from Fantasy war to Renaissance spycraft was to change some art and names. But where quests are perfect for Middle Earth, they make no sense in Venice. Scoring points by killing your enemies is natural in war, but would attract a bit too much heat in a political race. And where’s the scheming? Spies scheme! So I changed some mechanics to fit the new theme. Playtesting proved that the mechanics could be better, so I fixed them and then adjusted the theme to fit the new mechanics. Having agendas is great, but being invested in particular factions is good too. It’s a give and take where everybody wins in the end.

You have examples of successes and failures along these lines. Let’s hear them.

Hidden Depth

If you’ve been reading this blog, Jay Treat should need no introduction at this point. He’s my most frequent guest columnist and I’m quite glad for his help. Here’s another great column I’m sure you’ll enjoy!

Guest Column by: Jay Treat

Hello again, game design friends. Today I’d like to discuss hidden depth in games. All manner of games are purchased for the fun that they promise, but it’s the fun you can’t see until you play that keeps players coming back (and telling their friends). Some of the greatest games come in tiny boxes with short rules, yet offer heaping amounts of rewarding gameplay.

Let me tell you about a pair of very deep games you may not have heard of with very simple rules. So simple, I can teach both games in this post without breaking flow or going overly long.


Hanabi (by Antoine Bauza) is a cooperative card game with a deck made of five suits with ten cards each: three 1s, two 2s, 3s & 4s, and a single 5. Deal four cards to each player (five with fewer players). Here’s the gimmick: You don’t see your own hand. Players hold their cards facing everyone else so that their own cards are the only ones they don’t see.

On your turn, you must take one of three actions:

  • You can play a card to the table
  • Spend one of the team’s 8 starting clue tokens to give another player some information about her hand
  • Discard a card to buy back a spent clue token.

The goal is to build five fireworks displays by playing a 1 and then a 2, and a 3, a 4, and hopefully even the 5 in order for each suit.

It sounds easy, but the game is very tight. So much so, that the goal isn’t really to score 25 points by completing all five piles, just to score as high as you can. Hopefully higher than previous scores. It’s that difficult. 23 is a thoroughly impressive score. The trick is that there’s more information that needs to be given to play correctly than you’ll have the time to give.

When you tell a player about her hand, you can choose a suit or a rank and point out all the cards in her hand of that suit or rank. “This is your only red card.” “These are your 3s.” As such, the game requires some memory (which card in my hand was a non-red, non-blue 3 again?) and deduction (I can see the other 9 yellow cards between my partners’ hands, the display and the discard pile, so I know this yellow card in my hand must be the 5), but the real meat of the game is innuendo.

There’s no table talk allowed, obviously, so the ability to communicate more through your plays, and to intuit other players’ subtle hints is crucial to a successful game. “These are your 1s” means something completely different on the first turn of the game (you should play any/all of them) than it does halfway through (you can discard them …unless we’re still missing a suit). “This is your only 2” is a hint to go ahead and play it when there are four fireworks displays stuck on 1, even if you don’t yet know for a fact the suit doesn’t belong to that fifth stack.

You can misplay, by the way. If you misread a clue and played a blue 3 while the blue fireworks display is still at 1, the card is discarded (you don’t earn a clue token for it) and the team earns a strike. If you get three strikes, the game ends immediately in total failure. That’s bad and to be avoided, but sometimes it’s worth the risk to go for the gold when you have incomplete information on the theory that a third 17 is no better than a 0 and you’d rather have a chance at scoring 18 or better this game.

I haven’t been able to find a copy of Hanabi until I checked while writing this. Looks like the collector’s tin is available right now and I just heard a new edition is on its way.

Kakerlaken Poker

Kakerlaken Poker (by Jacques Zeimet) is a competitive card game of bluffing with a deck of 8 suits, each with 8 rankless cards (each card within a suit is functionally identical but sports different art, which was a classy move on the publisher’s part). You deal the deck out to start, and then on each player’s turn he chooses a card from his hand, plays it face-down in front of another player and names a suit: “It’s a Rat.” (The suits are various pests and insects like spiders and stinkbugs.)

The player can accept the card, declaring whether your assertion was true or not. She reveals the card and if she’s wrong, she keeps it. It goes face-up in front of her for the rest of the game. But if she’s right, it goes face-up in front of you. That’s a bad thing, because the game ends when one player gets four copies of a single pest. At which point that player loses and everyone else wins. Fun, right?

Here’s the twist: instead of accepting the card, she can look at it and then pass it along to another player, declaring its suit again. She can name the same suit you did or another. The player she passed it to now has all the same options she did. The card can continue to be passed until there’s only one player that hasn’t seen it, at which point he must accept it, declaring whether he believes it is the last suit named or not.

Like Hanabi, this game might sound way too simple to be interesting, but it’s not. It’s absolutely fascinating because there’s so much subtle communication, human interaction and good old bluffing happening. When you slide a card at me claiming it’s a fly, my initial response is entirely dependant on the known fly population. If you have three flies in front of you, I will suspect it is not a fly, because you would be taking a huge chance of losing the game if it is. If I have three flies, though, it becomes rather likely that it really is a fly, since accepting the card has a 50/50 chance of ending the game in everyone else’s favor. Unless I also have a few scorpions, in which case you may be counting on my heightened fly-aversion to trick me into gaining another deadly scorpion.

But wait, what if another player has a fly in front of her and no one else does? You probably don’t want me to accept one way or another. You want the card to make its way to Anna through me. I could pass the card along to her and try to get her to keep it …but why should I take the risk you didn’t? So I pass it to Bob, with the understanding that he should pass it to Anna. Maybe he will and maybe he won’t. This whole time, people are adding more information to the claim. Perhaps I looked at the card and said “it’s not a fly, but it eats them for breakfast: It’s a frog”, but Bob looked at and said “Don’t listen to him, Anne, it really is a fly!”

What if instead, I passed the card to Bob without looking at it (you can do that) and said “fly.” My claim isn’t based on an actual observation of the card, I’m just preserving your original statement. What does that mean? It could be that I don’t care, or perhaps I’m preventing myself from displaying a tell. Or maybe I’ve figured out some subtle play that you haven’t. Goodness knows that happens often enough in this game.

Cockroach Poker” is also known as Eight Curses, where the suits are replaced with enchantments with the curse subtype from Magic: the Gathering’s Innistrad block. I can’t support playing a game without buying it from the publisher so that the designer is rewarded for his or her effort, but I will grant that Eight Curses is an entirely appropriate retheme.

What’s going on here?

Designers spend so much time crafting rules and interactions (cards, markers, rondels, turns, whoknowswhat). But, so often the real joy of a game is the rich human interaction that you could never fabricate yet falls into place naturally if you leave room for it. Most party games are powered entirely through the intricacies of social interaction. Werewolf and Celebrities are all about subtle communication. Even seemingly mindless games like Apples to Apples and Cards Against Humanity are fun purely because of the way they cause you to interact with the other players.

So what, don’t all games have this? I would argue that all good games have some hidden depth, whether it’s more social or mechanical. If a player can find a reason to take a move other than those spelled out in the rules or on the cards, she has discovered a nugget of hidden depth. If your game is chock full of such things, you’re offering your players more of the “ah-ha” moments that make them feel clever and enjoy your game.

Note that granting your players more freedom doesn’t usually help the way you might think. Players are often paralyzed when presented with too many choices. For example, I played a political simulation many years ago at Origins in which each player had some global political office and they set us loose for four hours to see what would happen. A few players leveraged their resources, wheeled and dealed, and caused some interesting results. However, the bulk of us just milled about with no clue what to do next. That was too much freedom.

It is when your choices as a player are limited that you are most challenged to play optimally, and it is because of those restrictions that you are forced to think outside the box, prompting you to discover clever solutions.

It’s quite apropos that these few thoughts only scratch the surface of how to add hidden depth to your game, and that I’m quite certain there’s much more to it that I simply haven’t uncovered yet. It’s that inkling that there’s more to discover yet that will keep me thinking about this subject and that’s the exact same motivation that keeps players coming back to games like Hanabi and Kakerlaken Poker.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this subject. Have you gleaned any insights about when a game or mechanic will have hidden depth, or won’t?

Assault on Khyber Station

I was delighted when Jay Treat emailed me with a new guest column. If you recall, he wrote an excellent and thorough post on rule writing. One of the purposes of Hyperbole Games is to let good designers showcase good designs. This post does that, exposes some of Jay’s process, and caps off with some great feedback for every designer. 

Guest Column by: Jay Treat

I’ve been telling people about Assault on Khyber Station for a while, but I have yet to go into much detail about the game. Of the dozens of games I’ve designed over the years, most fall squarely between unpublishable and trash (even if each had some worthy idea buried beneath the garbage somewhere), which is why I’m so enthusiastic about this one. I’d like to share my baby with you today and discuss one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make as a game designer. It’s the decision that made Assault possible.

Welcome to space. Population 4 and dropping…

Assault is a cooperative game in which players are trying to escape a crumbling space station as it’s overrun by voracious aliens. The board is different every game and is generated by 25 tiles whose placement and orientation determine what paths and rooms are accessible. The setup is entirely random! The space station starts in bad shape as it was just been blasted apart by an attacking alien warship.

It’s up to the players, each with a unique and vital ability, to work together to navigate the wreck, prioritize repairs, avoid deadly aliens,  and find the escape teleporter (which has been misplaced). The four roles in the base game are:

  • The Mechanic: He can rotate a tile each turn
  • The Engineer: He can swap adjacent tiles
  • The Marine: He can fight the otherwise-ubiquitously-deadly aliens
  • The Smuggler:  Her space suit allows her to wander outside the safe corridors of the station to investigate otherwise inaccessible tool chests.

The team needs to access as many of these tool chests as possible to determine the location of the escape teleporter. Reshaping the board is critical to that goal. The ravenous aliens flooding your extrastellar home aren’t the only thing making life difficult. Khyber Station has suffered critical damage and is actively falling apart. Every turn, a new system failure is revealed, throwing wrenches in the best of plans. As frustrating as these system failures are, you’ll miss them when they’re gone, because when the deck runs out, all life support fails and everyone left on board is killed instantly. In a four player game, you only use 7 of the game’s ~60 possible system failure cards.

What makes it special?

Part of the inspiration for the different roles in Assault is the party game Cranium. In the same way that the different Cranium categories play to different players’ strengths, Assault intentionally includes roles with abilities that will appeal to different types of players. The Mechanic and Engineer are for the spatial thinkers, the puzzle players, and the generally clever. The Marine is for the action gamer and hack-and-slash combat enthusiast. The Smuggler is for the finesse player, the end-zone touch-down guy, and the rogue with her own agenda.

Even though each player interacts with the game in a very different way, every player can and usually must interact with the other players. Sometimes the Engineer needs the Marine to clear out an alien-infested corridor so she can swap tiles on the other side. A tool chest in the corner of the map is accessible by the Smuggler, but only if the Mechanic rotates it first. The Engineer and the Mechanic commonly need to work in tandem to form bigger rooms everyone can access. There are more points of interaction than I can list, and that unique interdependence really sells this “Team of Misfits” experience.

The tile system is simple, but it provides a lot of interesting gameplay and was the original impetus for Assault. It is the only significant mechanic of the game I ripped apart to fuel Assault’s genesis (more on that soon). The light corridors are always accessible (if you line them up correctly), but the grey areas (with the grated floors) are off limits until you arrange a group of tiles such that they’re entirely closed on all sides, forming a room (at which point an air-lock will get you in). I’ve been playing with game-worthy maze concepts like this for a long time and I’m excited to finally present one that’s both intuitive and interesting.

In order to find the escape teleporter that makes victory possible, players must open tool chests. There’s one tool chest on every tile, but they’re all arranged such that you cannot reach them from the corridors without first completing the room that contains them. When you open a tool chest, the player obtains a random tool that might give her the edge she needs later in the game. But, more importantly, a deduction card is also drawn that lets you mark off some of the tool chests, which reduces the possible locations you have to check for the teleporter. When you’ve opened or marked every tool chest but one, you’ve found the escape teleporter!

Despite being themed as deduction, this is really induction and it was inspired by the very good island game, Tobago. This solution is critical to keeping every game challenging because you can never randomly stumble upon the goal on the first or second turn.

What came before?

I created Assault on Khyber Station as an entirely new attempt to use the core mechanic and principle of an earlier design that I’d scrapped. Delve was a fantasy-themed dungeon crawler in which players moved through corridors of the dungeon and revealed and placed new tiles as they went. When you placed a tile that finally enclosed a room, you also found the door to it and placed it so that you could enter and find the treasure within.

Like any good co-op dungeon crawler, each player had a different character: Elf, Dwarf, Wizard, and Warrior. I wasn’t trying to blow anyone’s mind here. The game used four different colors of dice and each character specialized in one. It also used a neat hit location / gear mechanic that was fun and relatively innovative. Unfortunately, the game was very long and careful scrutiny showed that the handfuls of dice you rolled and their different effects, while fun, weren’t really worth the mental effort they required. While there were some interesting new mechanics, the game played at a high level like most any other dungeon crawler. I made the difficult decision to stop working on it.

From the Ashes

Not all was lost, because apart from the length, most players enjoyed most of the playtests. I set out to find the core elements that were fun and interesting to create a new game. As is too often the case with games new designers make, the dungeon crawler wasn’t one game so much as an epic amalgamation of several. I’m certain I’ll explore a game featuring lots of dice with different effects again, and a game based off the hit location / gear body chart, but those mechanics weren’t as inspiring as the tiles or the idea of a cooperative game with specialized characters.

Without the dice to differentiate the heroes, how could I make each feel unique? The warrior should be better at fighting, the wizard capable of weird stuff, the elf should be mobile somehow, and the dwarf should be better at opening treasure. Or something. Truth be told, this happened more than a year ago and I’m reconstructing the transition from memory. The haze of time has obscured the order of events, but I know I also wanted to re-theme the game to something less ubiquitous than the universal go-to that is Fantasy. I considered several options, but when I considered Fantasy’s closest cousin, Science Fiction, I think that’s when it occurred to me the board could start with all the tiles already placed and instead of needing to find the doors to rooms, it would be up the players (starting with the wizard) to manipulate the tiles and complete rooms.

Because I wanted to make this cooperative puzzle-esque game with as little mechanical overhead as possible (excess mechanisms being Delve’s primary cause of death), I eliminated damage and hit tracking for the simplest combat system possible: Aliens kill players, with the lone exception that Marines kill Aliens. Take that, math! It also became immediately apparent that players would need to both move and rotate tiles. Relocating tiles without limit was clearly absurd, so swapping adjacent tiles was born. With the Mechanic and Engineer in place, I still needed a mobile Elf, sneaky Rogue or trap-breaking Dwarf. What fun is a game set in space if everyone stays inside the whole time? Adding a spacesuit was perfect for the theme and enabled this fourth character, which actually plays a very important role in the game.

A New Hope

The game in its new form came together quickly. There were important changes after the first few tests, of course, but it showed promise immediately and wrapped interesting gameplay with compelling teamwork and a solid theme. The standard barrage of playtesting suggested numerous tweaks and helped us explore and reject some alternatives. Throughout, it was important to me that the game be hard enough that victory is never certain and that players remain legitimately challenged throughout. I figured out the minimum number of turns a given playgroup needed to beat the game just over half the time and made that the target.

Not all of the alternatives we tested were duds, and several of them led to real ideas that were either integrated into the base game or set aside for some sort of expansion or advanced mode. I’ve been conflicted with how to present these. Does it make more sense to try to sell them as an official expansion or should they be included in the original box? If so, should they be presented as standard parts of the game, or roped off with a sign: “Don’t open until you’re bored with the main game?”

There are four new roles that will appeal to more types of players and offer substantially different game experiences (the Crafter, the Builder, the Security Chief and the Warp Technician), but the addition I most want to talk about is motivations.

Group Solitaire vs the Traitor

One of the most common problems with cooperative games is the group solitaire problem in which one player tells the others what to do so much that he might as well be playing solitaire. A game with no private information between players is particularly prone to this defect and Assault is no exception. I recommend never playing with people like that as a general rule, but games that are only fun if played in the spirit of the game (story-telling games spring to mind), while far from worthless, are certainly less than ideal. Gamers gonna game, and your game can’t break when they do.

I needed to add private information. Cooperative games like Pandemic and The Hobbit depend on each player having a card of hands only they can see to combat the solitaire problem, but necessarily lax communication rules undermine that solution. For me, the better answer was clearly to have some kind of a traitor like Shadows over Camelot. Trouble is, Assault is difficult enough when all the players are working together: there’s no way the good guys could succeed with a player actively sabotaging them, at least not without re-engineering the game from the ground up. This wasn’t an option as I wanted this addition to be entirely optional.

Fortunately, the wording of the actual win condition in the core game inspired a reasonable solution. Every player wins if any player escapes (because that person warns Earth and prevents the aliens from conquering the planet and enslaving or eating your family). What if every player didn’t have a family? What if there was a loner who could only win if he personally escaped? The Loner isn’t so evil that he wouldn’t warn Earth, meaning the parents still win if only the loner escapes. What if there was a hero who insisted on getting two or more other players out first? Because it’s vital that the teamwork core to the game experience never be compromised, there are no motivations that win by preventing other players from escaping. The closest is the Opportunist who, like the Loner, needs to escape to win, but unlike the Loner won’t warn Earth and so his escape doesn’t cause anyone else to win by itself.

It’s still possible for everyone to win, of course, if more than one players escapes in time, but you can no longer assume that any one player is trustworthy enough to assure your victory. Because the motivations are private, you need a little something to help you figure out what motivations other players might have (or else it’s just a crap shoot). Therefore, different roles have different maximum movement rates. Normally, everyone can move up to five spaces each turn, but some motivations allow you to move up to six or limit you to four. Carefully watching how your teammates move each turn can exonerate or cast suspicion on them to help you decide who to trust in those final hair-biting turns.

The Future and Beyyyond

The game’s in good shape*. Publishably good shape, if my years of trying and failing to design a publishable game have taught me anything. I had great success showcasing it at an UnpubMini not too long ago and it pitched well enough to at least be considered by Asmodee and AEG (and ultimately rejected for who-knows-what-reason, hopefully business needs). I’m excited to Kickstart a game, but I wouldn’t Kickstart Assault on Khyber Station as my first project because it involves tiles and miniatures — two things my lack of manufacturing experience could botch pretty badly. Ideally, I’d Kickstart a card game (working on that) and then leverage that success to find an established publisher for Assault.

I’ll be at GenCon this year and will try to talk to more publishers then, but I know from last year how hard it is to get an ear. Most publishers have enough on their plates that they’re just not interested in talking to new designers. Blah blah catch-22, you know the drill.

*I do still think about the game. Until a project is locked in by a deadline of some sort, it’s impossible for an invested creator not to keep tweaking and wondering. The biggest question that remains in my head is if there’s any way to streamline the game even further. The core of the game works without tools and that’s probably reason enough to eject them (or save them for the expansion), but they’re so much fun and it’s amazing when they give a player a clever play to turn around a seemingly hopeless game at the last moment. Ah, the questions designers must ask themselves!

Game Design, Pruning, and Reconstruction

The design tool I want you to walk away with today is an understanding of when you would be better served by destroying one of your creations than continuing to tweak it in its current form. This is a hard question and I can’t give you a single hard-and-fast rule that will answer it for you. Even worse, the information you need to make that decision is worthy of an article all to itself. Until then, I’ll tell you what I can.

What is the core of your game? You need a theme, a mechanic, and a play experience. If you answer that question with more than one answer for these three aspects, you’re almost certainly cramming too much in and should consider jettisoning extraneous parts or breaking the game up into two or more simpler games. For example, “Assault on Khyber Station is a SciFi tile game with interdependent team play.” Simple enough and it says everything I really need to about the game. My answer for Delve is something more like, “it’s a Fantasy tile-laying dungeon-crawler with loot that affects clever dice-based combat and team play.” Even massaging it down, it’s still fairly unwieldy.

I played a sim-city-esque board game recently with a very neat zoning/building/value mechanic and a fun and interactive political simulation where players bid for actions. The two were tied together in a couple ways, but both felt like the heart of their own game and the combination just made a complex whole with less focus and longer games. Not a lot of players are going to love that, but making two separate games would preserve both ideas and generate two games instead of one, each with a stronger identity and tighter gameplay.

So you’ve figured out your game has too much going on. How do you decide whether to trim the fat, split your baby into two, or trash the entire thing? If you’re just trimming, how do you decide what to keep and what to toss? This is where understanding your game’s identity becomes crucial. The marketplace has no room for aimless hybrids. Your quiz/flicking game might be unique, but if those elements aren’t married together so intimately that divorcing them would ruin the whole thing, your innovation is a liability, not a feature.

Some of the mechanics in your game are going to be cleverer than others, some more fun, and some more thematic. Those qualities can guide your decision, but ultimately you have to choose what will be best for this game and that depends on the nature of the game. If you’re making a war game, preserve tactical choice over simplicity; if you’re making a party game, prioritize the wildest moments over team play; if you’re making a real-time game, clarity trumps replayability. For Delve, the tiles trumped the dice and teamwork trumped monsters/treasure/etc, leaving Assault focused on things that make it fun and unique, rather than burdened with the trappings of the original genre.

I can’t find a better abstract explanation or concrete example, so I’ll try one last method: Analogy. You know when you’re building a Magic deck around a card that you’d really like to play with? If you don’t, go play now. Magic is required reading for game designers. You find the cards that best support your pet card, shuffle them up, and start tweaking the deck as you learn how it plays. And maybe half the time as you replace card after card to hone your deck into a lean beast of wizardly destruction, you realize that you need to cut your pet card. The very impetus for the deck no longer does enough to warrant its own inclusion. It hurts to pull it out, but the end result is a better deck that would never have found through another path.

How many of History’s greatest success stories end with the hero finding something far greater than what they’d set out for? Columbus, Pasteur, Gygax; All these and countless more have achieved beyond their wildest dreams by accepting that it is the journey, not the destination. Don’t miss your success just because it wasn’t what you were trying for.

Make Good Rules

Jay Treat is a really smart designer. If you follow him, interact with him, or attend an UnPub to play his games, you’ll quickly agree. He’s thoughtful, and direct. I wrote a post about rules writing on my old blog. I intended to update it and improve it for this site, but then Jay sent me his submission and I saw that my work was unnecessary. Read, enjoy, and learn!

Guest Column by: Jay Treat

One of the most common mistakes new designers make is underestimating the importance of rules. Obviously, you made the rules that make the game, but did you write them down? I often forego that step for initial playtests because they’re so primordial at that stage you’re more likely to change everything than not. However, once you’ve arrived at the point where you basically know what your game is and are just working out the kinks, you absolutely need to sit down and write the rules. This is important, not just because the finished game will need a rulebook, but to help codify the exact wording you want. Details like determining the starting player and tie breakers may not have a big impact on how your game plays, but they do make a difference and you can’t fudge them once your game is shrink-wrapped. You’ll also need to have playtesters learn the game by reading the rules (to make sure they make sense) and you can’t do that if there are no rules for them to read.

I want to take a moment today to walk you through some tips that will help you produce readable, functional, and flawless rules.

Making Rules :: Programming


Establishing the rules for a game is a lot like programming. A lot. It’s not enough to know how things are going to go in the ideal situation or the most common situations, you need to understand exactly what will happen in every possible situation — no matter how unlikely it may be — and your game can’t break under any of them. Every board game has corner cases, but they become exponentially more common as complexity increases. Games like Cosmic Encounter with pieces that trump the rules of the game are littered with combinations that are ambiguous at best. Ambiguous rules cause arguments and very few gamers enjoy real-life confrontation.

While the first stage of playtesting is about finding the fun of the game and making things generally click, the second and third stages are going to require a lot of bug-hunting. Make play choices that seem suboptimal so that you can check previously unseen combinations and verify that the rules don’t fall apart. If there are two many permutations to try them all, make a spreadsheet and do the math to make sure scenario 13 and scenario 74 don’t result in an unfinishable game.

Also like programming, syntax can be the devil. Missing a semicolon? Your code may not compile. Got an ‘and’ where you wanted an ‘or’? Players who learn the game from the rules might be learning a different — hopefully worse — game. This is another reason you want multiple foreign eyes going over your rules; these kinds of mistakes are usually invisible to their author.

Ad Absurdum

The best way to make sure your game always plays as expected is to test the extremes. If a player can roll all 1’s in your dice game and is guaranteed to come in last place, that doesn’t just indicate that one in a million games will be an auto-loss, it strongly suggests that many games could be skewed to the point of being unfun. If, on the other hand, there is no combination of luck that can guarantee a loss, perhaps given a particular strategy, then you can be confident that no game in the possible spectrum will be ruined for that reason.

You have to check both extremes too, of course. In particular, watch out for a dominant strategy. If there’s any one path a player can take that will always yield the best chance of winning, you can be sure that everyone who figures it out will use it every time and that nobody will be interested in playing again. Similarly, if there’s a strategy that’s guaranteed to lose, no one will ever take it and it’s just adding clutter to your game. Fix it or pitch it.

Every Rule Has an Exception*

You can’t break the law. Unless you’re a cop, politician, or diplomat. Or unless you don’t get caught. Or unless you’ve accepted the legal repercussions. Once you’re in jail, you can’t leave before you’ve served your sentence. Unless you’re well-behaved. Or well-connected. Or escape.

As much as every game must have rules, games almost universally are made interesting by the exceptions to those rules. Small World is a great example. Everyone follows the same rules of playing tokens and attacking regions, but what makes the game worth playing are the races and the abilities that break those rules. Exceptions are so central to the identity of rules that you could argue a rule is defined by its exceptions. Games like Magic: the Gathering are so defined by their exceptions, that the exceptions have their own exceptions.

Not sure where to go with your next game project? Make a rule. Ideally, a stifling, prohibitive rule. How much can you build within the constraints of that rule? (Restrictions breed creativity, but that’s a whole other article. Aaand here it is.) Once you’ve reached the limits within that rule, break it. Not completely, of course; you’d lose everything. Just make one little exception. I can’t guarantee this exercise will produce anything fun, but chances are good it will be interesting and the challenge enlightening.

*Except those that don’t.

Less Isn’t Worse

It’s entirely natural to keep adding cool new things to your game. A is cool, therefore wouldn’t A+B and A+C be even cooler? Whether they are or not, you need to seriously consider whether those additions are needed to make the game fun or if they just add more bulk to the rules and thus length and difficulty to learning the game.

It’s so natural to keep adding more things to your game, that you’re often not even aware of it. You produce your first prototype or your last and say this is the game and nothing extra, but you’ve been playing with parts for so long that they feel inseparable to you, even though they’re not. One of the hardest parts of game design is knowing what to exclude from your game and trimming legitimately fun things away from a working game. But it’s important because the best games are always tight packages, metaphorically, presenting only the bare minimum components and rules needed to enjoy the game and nothing else.

Failing to trim your game into a lean mean fun machine will almost invariably cost you publication because extra parts make the game more expensive, extra rules make the game less accessible, and the combination makes a game no one wants to take a chance on. Can you save these cool bits for an expansion? Tuck them at the bottom of the box with a note that says “don’t open until your fifth game?” Often times, getting the core game published, played, and reviewed gives you the perspective to inform sequels and expansions that will validate some of your excised ideas, mutate others, completely negate the bulk of them, and then add new, better ones. It’s hard to see when you’re cutting your darlings, but in the end, it really is for the best.

Unenforceable Rules

Sometimes a game knowingly includes a rule that’s impossible for other players to verify for correctness, and sometimes these tricky situations just sneak in. “Draw two cards, then put one back on the top of your deck.” If you put the cards you drew into your hand, your opponent can’t be sure that the card you put back was part of that pair or had already been in your hand. If you’re not paying attention, you may not even be able to tell.

I love flicking games, but they often involve keeping track of what hit what and considering the number of pieces that can be involved and the speed at which many flicks happen. It’s often highly debatable (if not a complete mystery) whether my piece hit your piece before or after it hit my other piece, or whether it was my other piece that the first knocked into yours. Rules that depend on knowing these things are flawed.

This is actually the biggest problem with the holy grail of simultaneous real-time play. Woe to the new designer who wants to brilliantly eliminate all downtime from her multiplayer games by making them real-time. It is a path fraught with peril. Every game like this that I’ve played requires so much attention to your own area of interest that you’d be lucky to have a passing idea what your immediate neighbors are doing, much less the players further away. That ultimately means it’s up to you to make sure you play correctly. Even if you assume everyone in your game is 100% honorable and would never intentionally cheat, the chances that everyone understands the rules well enough to play without error while things get fast-paced and hairy are usually nil.

You want to avoid ambiguous situations and those that require the honor code whenever possible. Outside of tournaments, the vast majority of players will never cheat. Not only is it wrong, it defeats the joy of besting your pals in a friendly battle of wits. But there are always exceptions. It’s not just the twisted players who take more joy from cheating without being caught than they do from winning. I know people who will break a game just to demonstrate that the game is breakable, with no intention of profiting from it themselves. And when it comes to tournaments where real pride and sometimes real money is on the line, I wouldn’t be surprised if a third of the room would cheat given the opportunity.

Learning a Game
I don’t have any stats, but from my own experience and from my various playgroups, I’d estimate that on average, a player learns ten games by playing with someone who already knows the rules for every one that they buckle down and read the rules themselves. Even if it’s not 10:1, it’s 4:1 at the very bare minimum. The rules for some games have never been read because they’ve never been written — consider folk games like Charades, Celebrities, Werewolf, Ring around the Rosy, and The Paper Game. Granted, many of these have been published after the fact, but the point stands.

It’s vitally important that your rules are clear enough and readable enough (simple, fun language that isn’t ten pages long) that the first person who reads them understands them well enough to teach them, and it’s equally important that your rules are short and resonant enough to be passed along orally.

A lot of players, particularly the sort I gravitate toward, would prefer to start playing a game as soon as possible and learn the details of the game as we play and make mistakes rather than sit through an entire reading before getting to do anything at all. Consider the possibility of writing the rules to your game in a way that supports this kind of play. It’s not always possible, but it adds a lot of value for the people who enjoy that. Sometimes, it’s as simple as telling the reader the objective, the basic flow of the game (what you’ll be doing and the major mechanics you’ll be using) and how to set up. From there, players can read each step of the game as they get to it. Again, this doesn’t work for every game, but when it does, it’s a beautiful thing.

Intuitive Rules / Game Kinesthetics
A good science fiction story asks its viewer to accept a new reality. It can be anything from, “it’s the future, we can travel faster than light, and there are other humanoid lifeforms with advanced technology” all the way to “everyone’s a different freaky alien, there’s technology that’s basically magic, and a bunch of us have superpowers to boot” and beyond. The viewer accepts that reality, and the power of suspension of disbelief prevents their natural “that’s not real!” instincts from rejecting the experience. It’s very engrossing… until the story breaks its own rules. How many riots would there be if Captain Picard force-lifted Deanna Troi and dropped her down the core shaft? All of them, that’s correct. All the riots.

The point is that whatever absurd reality you create for your game, every single entity must remain as true as possible to that reality. This is what I mean by ‘resonance’ or it will kill the illusion and your players might as well be playing an abstract game with no theme at all. If you’ve got a battle game where everything has a size stat, you can’t give your killer housecat a 3 while your german shepherd has a 2, even if the housecat has laser claws that’ll make it win every time. If you’ve got an Animal House game in which anthropomorphic animals party together, don’t make the spiders more sociable than the pigs. We’ve accepted that cats can have laser claws and that spiders can talk and dance, but we haven’t forgotten that we already know that dogs are bigger than cats and pigs aren’t creepy eight-eyed monsters that eat their own. (Don’t you hate spiders?)

You also need to ensure that playing your game is what it sounds like it will be from the box. Have you ever mistakenly put sugar on your food when you wanted salt? You like sugar, it might not even be a bad combination with your meal, but when you first taste it and it’s not what you were expecting, you’ll spit it out. Sugar is good at being sugar, but it’s terrible at being salt. If your box looks light and silly, don’t give your players a three-hour epic strategy. If your box shows a robotic firefight, don’t make your players trade robot parts in a marketplace. They expect fierce metallic combat.

This extends beyond Box versus High-Level Gameplay all the way down to the individual components. If players find dice in the box, they’re going to want to roll them. If it turns out you’re just using them to count from 1-6, your players will be disappointed. If they open a deck of cards, someone’s going to shuffle it before the person reading the rules can get to “lay the cards out in order” and they’ll be annoyed. If you give them plastic pieces that stack well and never let them stack, expect angry letters. In the ideal situation, your components should be so obvious that players can basically play the game without reading any rules. I’m not saying that’s often achievable, but it is the ideal and you want to get as close to it as you can while preserving the unique fun of your game.

In Summary
Make good rules.