The Great Game Designer

Allow me to dive in over my head here-- countless BB readers know way more about games than I do, and I want to learn from them/you. I'm fascinated at how complexity emerges from certain initial conditions, and independent actors competing within those conditions-- i.e. from a game's rules and its players. It's a magic meta-formula that underlies a zillion things.

Some day we may discover a formal test for playability-- whether a setup will go nowhere or explode into interestingness. (Which is probably also a function of mental capacity-- a greater intelligence might find chess as boring as we find Tic-Tac-Toe.) If and when these meta-rules are understood, and we can do things like simulate evolution to levels of real-life complexity, it should convince at least a few more evolution deniers. In Darwin's day, when timekeeping was a leading geek-magnet, theologists described God as the Great Watchmaker. If there is a God, I think "The Great Game Designer" would be more accurate.

I'm mainly talking about paper games here. In the same way that mathematical formulas distill and express universal laws of nature, simple board/card games capture essential social phenomena-- this is a major avenue of research in Economics right? Is there a game like "Monopoly" that distills the phenomenon of an investment bubble growing and bursting? Or a game in which competition between players creates an ever-expanding complex that grows to require all available resources, and constantly presses to extract more? If so, the rules of this game should inform legislation that might increase the efficiency of medical insurers, military contractors, and the like (which is what competition is supposed to do, but in these cases, there seems to be a rule or two missing that takes the systems into another direction).

There are many phenomena I would love to see or come up with essentializing games for, and most of them seem to fall under the categories of consensus, hierarchy, group affiliation, and mating. For different aspects of these, I have numerous half-baked notions about what a group of players in a room could do. For example, draw a new Tarot card every round, and then have to agree on a single narrative that includes all of them in order. Or build the most accurate model of what other teams know and don't know about a selectively concealed array of random numbers, communicating only through severely limited bandwidth.

Hopefully I'll get serious and actually create and try some such games, and although much can be done with things like cards, dice, and paper, I've also been dreaming up a simple platform that would enable more party games and related experiments. My current notion is a small microprocessor-controlled, programmable device that has one knob, an internal clock, a physical contact detector (just a 9V battery clip for clicking into someone else's), a visible LED and a hidden/secret LED. Zigbee for the wireless and Arduino for the control. The contact detector and clock could automatically measure things like "face time" in games where that's a valuable resource, for example, and the hidden and visible LED status indicators could be just that-- status indicators. Or anything else. You could also use the platforms for other things. Like, you could run "dial groups" the way political consultants get focus-group feedback on campaign ads. Or you could run some fun interactive theater experiments. Does anyone know if something like this already exists?


  1. I am a long time game player and enthusiast of the theory, but I would hardly call myself an expert. I can say however that a number of your ideas about games are an oft discussed topic. In particular, the independent tabletop role play game community regularly digs into this stuff. There is a constant attempt to devise new mechanics that pick at the strings between the players and get involved with how decisions are made and the game progresses. is probably the largest site for this kind of thing, but it’s got a pretty loud signal to noise ratio. For a more personal look, I recommend which is the game review blog of Greg Costikiyan. Most of the reviews are for computer games, which aren’t my cup of tea, but there are a number of more general essays and such. The reviews of the tabletop games are usually quite interesting.

    One last thing: there is an existing game that has a similar mechanic to the tarot card idea you mention. It’s called Everway and it’s out of print and hard to find, but very neat. Rather than use a tarot deck, the game designers developed their own deck of illustrative, evocative cards. The game is intended to be a fairly standard tabletop rpg (there are ‘gates’ that let people travel between worlds, and this is the place where they all come together. Places to loot, people to fight.), but there are no dice. The cards are intended to be used for all decision resolution, from generating a character to resolving a shoot-out. There are no numbers or text on the cards, so interpretation of the cards is highly subjective. It’s a fascinating system, but I’ve never found the right group to play it with!

  2. If you haven’t already discovered it, you might find some of the stuff at interesting. It’s written by a guy geared a bit more towards video games, but he likes to talk about a lot of the underlying concepts of game design, things like player motivation, action-reward sequences, etc. Good stuff.

  3. You should check out the wonderful community at There’s a whole world of games out there that few people know about about, and this is a great place to start learning about them. There are many games that explore the themes you mention.

  4. Forget pencil and paper and get into digital worlds. Altitude is an original game that will make fans of shooters drool.

    Don’t forget! Pencil and paper is for social gamers only…unless it’s an MMO. Embrace the future.

  5. Second the reference to Boardgamegeek. Social gaming has only advanced in Europe, especially their board games: Google “Hetman-style games” and the ESSEN Game Fair, and you will discover that, just as Japan has been doing to advance animation over the past 30 years, Europeans have been putting their creative thinking into board games. The effect on the American game markets has been similar to that of backlog manga flooding the bookstores. There’s a vast amount of excellence and experimentation already out there to sample.

    As for Everway, it’s rarity is superceded by a personal ‘tarot’ devised by Brian Eno years before, which had an excruciatingly limited run. Think it was called Oblique Strategies. I’d look its name up, but I’m alternate-side parking with my iPhone just at the moment.

  6. Computer scientists use various formal systems for analysing concurrent processes, such as the pi calculus,

    Games can be formalised in such systems, and software can be used to identify deadlocks or no-win conditions and various dependencies.

    Pi calculus is also being used in newer project management systems

    The pi calculus is already being applied to analyse biochemical systems. It’s a rather topic in systems biology now. (The possibility if developing some kind of mathematical foundation to describe biology is pretty exciting.)

    As for a higher intelligence finding chess as boring as tic tac toe, I don’t buy that. Tic tac toe is a simple games with limited choices where you can only win if the other player makes a stupid move. There’s no strategy.

  7. Y’know, I’m getting just a little bit tired of Boing’s militant (and a slightly hysterical) anti-religion bias. When you can’t even talk about game design without snide little anti-religious remarks meant to sound sophisticated but barely passing muster as irrelevant and purile non-sequiturs, then what little patience I had left is no longer enough to sift through the piles of crap for anything worth reading.
    Some eloquent and obviously highbrow poster with literary aspirations once said here, “If you don’t like it, then f**k off.”
    Fair enough.
    There being an almost infinite variety of quality content available online, this is one reader effing off.

    1. When you can’t even talk about game design without snide little anti-religious remarks meant to sound sophisticated but barely passing muster as irrelevant and purile non-sequiturs

      Citation please. I have no idea what the crap you’re complaining about here. I see nothing snide nor anti-religious in this post. Unless you’re objecting to “If I were religious” which if you find THAT snide or anti-religious, I’m amazed you can get out of the house in the morning.

  8. Nasty: “Don’t forget! Pencil and paper is for social gamers only…unless it’s an MMO. Embrace the future.”

    ahem. Anyway, there’s also, and the inevitable mention of TBP, the latter has CRAZY signal-to-noise, and the former is “tabletop gaming as campfire story”.

    as for weird game designs, there are many. one of the more interesting imho is Dread ( )which is a suspense/horror role-playing game that uses Jenga to determine success/failure. an interesting concept, and a perfectly tense mechanic.


  9. The thought of “god as the great game designer” evokes early memories of the sims for me. From merely benevolently creating the world my sims occupy to actively trying to kill my sims, the whole idea working to make your sims “grow” as it were, like butterflies I guess (or squashing them like ants).

    The tarot game you mention makes me think of a game called Fluxx where the rules change every turn and each player has his or her own goals to accomplish to win the game. Personally I haven’t played it, but I have seen a few derivatives of Fluxx (zombie fluxx and monty python fluxx to name a couple).

    I have discovered the joys of playing Munchkin, teaming up to progress, then teaming up to stop each other from winning.

  10. Ah, a topic near and dear to my heart. I could talk about this one all day, but I’ll try and restrict myself to a few germane comments.

    I can think of one absolutely essentializing game for human interaction with the universe, rather than with each other. Zendo is the best capture of the scientific method, and the experience of using it, that I’ve ever encountered. (It’s also great fun even played with non-scientists, but that’s not the topic.)

    For examining how groups build narratives of myths or history, I think you could do worse than to take a look at Microscope. I’ve been doing some playtesting and it’s capable of some very interesting things. The designer discusses some interesting play sessions at the site.

    It’s been inactive for a while now, but the RPG Theory Review blog still has some nice ideas in past editorials. Indie-RPGs has already been mentioned, and I occasionally pick up useful ideas from Countermoves and Game Chef.

    Moving to more conventional board games, you might want to take a look at the political subsystems in Twilight Imperium. In that game, politics (when it happens, as it’s a mixed game of war and diplomacy) consists of voting on whether to implement agendas chosen by other players, using voting strengths that very much depend on the military / colonization successes of the players… a player who controls a large area will usually (but not always) have corresponding political clout. The full game’s not a good candidate for your uber-simulation-game, however, as its has no place for a sophisticated trade mechanism; it’s all about diplomacy and warfare.

    Whew. I’ll stop there for now.

    P.S. Nasty @ #5: You are confusing the medium and the message. Even ignoring the obvious ad, this is still nonsense.

  11. Even better as an example of “draw a new Tarot card every round, and then have to agree on a single narrative that includes all of them in order” is the card game Once Upon a Time.

  12. In my game design, I’ve come to realize that games are essentially parables — educational narratives in the first person. They have an introduction (where you learn the rules), rising action (where you implement the rules and might fail), climax (where you face ultimate failure or success), and denouement (when you learn the lesson). They teach you something (not only in the implementation of the rules for success, but in the very existence of rules, and the carrot/stick of success and failure). The essential nature of a game is to teach the player to do something in exchange for a reward. It’s pigeon psychology. The rules are imposed on us.

    Games are art: they are methods of learning about and communicating with the world. They are also inherently artificial and abstracted (a picture of a pipe is not a pipe, as Magritte reminds us, and Monopoly can only approximate the world of real estate development). Just as Proust doesn’t detail the firing of each neuron when he bites into a cookie, a game about mating won’t tell us how Darwinian evolution actually works. It might help us understand it on a different level, though.

  13. I for one always play vs. God.

    God is the RNG.

    Just try and play any roguelike (Dungeon Crawl – Stone Soup is a good start), to learn what it thinks of mortals.

    (answer: it hates us all, but keep playing and it will become a little easier to beat every time as you learn the Game!)

  14. Sounds like you want to dig into game theory, of which there already exists a large body of work. Game theory is all about predicting and modeling behavior. Also, there are tons of economic style games in which users generate resources to in turn generate even more resources in order to generate income–which is mostly used as a thematic substitute for points. There are a couple of games that also simulate economic bubbles and bursts, a lot of stock games like the 18XX series do this to some degree.

  15. ghanburighan – perhaps the constant barrage of religious disrespect is a test of your faith. Is it right to flee such a test, or should you suffer it in hopes that you will emerge stronger? I would think someone strong in faith would just laugh and say “Oh, you rascals! You’re all doomed to Hell, but I find you amusing nonetheless.” Come on! Some of your saints put up with much worse!

  16. Jonathan Tweet’s Everway, mentioned by MikeP, does use a deck of image cards, derived from the Major Arcana, for resolution, but it’s generally just the gamemaster drawing a card and deciding something.

    Five Card Nancy, a game invented by cartoonist and art theorist Scott McCloud, consists of laying down five random panels clipped out of Ernie Bushmiller’s comic strip Nancy and building a narrative out of them.

    In Zendo, played with Icehouse pyramids, one player (the “master”) chooses a secret rule which the other players then have to deduce by composing arrangements of pieces and asking if the rule describes them.

    In Sid Sackson’s Acquire, players compete to control hotel chains. There’s a real-estate value-increase mechanic, but not really anything to represent the bursting of a bubble. It was first published as part of 3M’s Bookshelf Games series, which also included a game called Stocks & Bonds, which I’ve never played.

  17. As a game designer of more than a decade I routinely go back to Sid Meier’s axiom, “A game is a series of interesting choices.”

  18. I’ve come across many anti-religious statements on the interwebs, but this post is quite tame in comparison. Paul saying “If there is a God” is just a declaration of his faith – agnostic, perhaps? It’s as appropriate as me saying, “God knows I love board games!” Which I do.

    So, getting back on track here – I have what I consider some rare, unused mechanics for board and specialty card games, and I feel that I could create something very fresh. Then again, I hear that the market for such a thing is competitive, glutted, and I feel that i do not have the resources to pursue my ideas. What then?

  19. This may be only tangentially related (and grammar school fare for inveterate gamers and the theorists among them), but the post brought to mind something I read a year or so ago, maybe in NYTimes, wherein someone posited that, given the rate of progress toward some kind of mechanical singularity, or at least granting a continuation in scale of increased complexity of programming and/or tech, that we are infinitely more likely to currently be avatars in some sort of MMORPG designed by our descendants (or their robot overlords), than not. If I could find the article, I’d link to it.

    Anyway, it relates to this post, because it suggests, too, that our notion of God, creator, ruler, whatever, is akin to game designer (and might also be thought of as… our children?). And then, of course, we carry on with our lives, trying to figure out the rules of the game, same as ever. Some buy the bumper sticker, “Whoever dies with the most stuff, wins!”, and meanwhile, we all try to draw analogies from the simpler rules in the games within the game…

    1. Alright, so months have passed, the thread’s well dead, and my original comment was somewhat off-topic anyway, but nonetheless: I was searching for an email chain wherein some friends were making a date to go see Avatar, and my search for keyword “avatar” pulled up an email I’d sent some friends, a couple years ago, referencing the NYTimes article I mention above, “Our Lives, Controlled From Some Guy’s Couch“, an introduction to philosopher Nick Bostrom’s ideas about the likelihood of our living in an environment built by our descendants, or “post-humans”:

      Dr. Bostrom’s simulation hypothesis [is] simply a different metaphysical explanation of our world[…]. You still have the desire to live as long as you can in this virtual world — and in any simulated afterlife that the designer of this world might bestow on you. Maybe that means following traditional moral principles, if you think the post-human designer shares those morals and would reward you for being a good person. Or maybe […] you should try to be as interesting as possible, on the theory that the designer is more likely to keep you around for the next simulation. Of course, it’s tough to guess what the designer would be like.”

      Of course, now I see, too, where Boing Boing has mentioned or linked to this article and discussions of ideas like Bostrom’s, elsewhere. For the… what, maybe 2 (if even that?) people in the world who are interested in any of this, but missed all of that, yet scrolled to the bottom of this post’s comments: you are welcome!

  20. IMO, MMOs sort of reproduce the most tedious aspects of tabletop RPGs and make them the entire thing. That sort of makes them a poor replacement, as well as not being able to choose who you game with. Griefers make gaming online not an option for me, who tends to be extremely choosy about who I interact with.

  21. “Essential” is a problematic term. The truths of science aren’t true because they correspond with the essential nature of reality, but because they have predictive value. Science doesn’t tell us what the universe IS, it just gives us strong hints about what it’s going to DO.

    So, it’s certainly possible to construct rule sets that model real-world human interactions. And those rule sets may give us strong hints about how the interaction will play out. But that doesn’t mean that the interaction is “nothing but” the rule set. The map is not the territory, after all. And no matter how good your map it will always fail to capture some essential elements of the territory that it makes predictions about.

  22. I’ve only really thought about this in the context of the addictiveness of computer games – so it’s not much to do with quality of satisfaction – but it’s worth considering basic behaviourism.

    What are the payoff(s) players get – up to and inculding flashing lights, but social interaction also works – and how often do they get it? In what pattern?

    (IIRC the most reinforcing of game-playing behaviour would be frequent but irregular)

    And how do you control that in a human-driven game?

  23. I know this might not be going in the right direction for this discussion, but I feel it has some relevance, so here goes:

    The simplest yet still marginally compelling computer game I’ve ever seen and played is the “Guess the secret number” game, where the game tells you it’s chosen a number between A and B at random, and to try to guess the number, with the game telling you if your guess is above or below the number it has chosen.

    I have yet to find a simpler computer game that is actually fun for at least a short while.

    I’m thinking that, by cataloguing more of these extremely simple games, such as Tic Tac Toe, Rock-Paper-Scissors, and so forth, we might be able to find the axioms of gaming, which might then lead us to new game concepts that would flow from these axioms.

  24. small matter but you say the writer has Catholic interests…that should be catholic with a lower case “c”.

    I know it is a small thing and I try not to be a spelling troll but they really do have VERY different meanings.

  25. You need to check out Flow. It was a neat flash concept game about how difficulty should match the level of the player. If it’s too easy, the player feels bored. If it’s too hard the player is frustrated. In-between exists the concept of flow.

  26. I haven’t played it, but there’s a recent board game called “Tulipmania” that’s about economic bubbles. “…You are playing one of those wily investors. You have a network of buyers and colleagues, all of whom are also trying to become wealthy. Your goal is to make smart investments, artificially raise prices, fleece your network at the best time, and then make your escape from Tulipmania with the most money.”

    I’m not sure about games “in which competition between players creates an ever-expanding complex that grows to require all available resources, and constantly presses to extract more”. There’s an entire subgenre of board games where players create complex processes over the course of many turns that take resources and generate victory points — “Puerto Rico” is the canonical one, “Race For The Galaxy” is recent and very popular — but I don’t know if any of them have anything resembling an ecological crisis.

    “build the most accurate model of what other teams know and don’t know about a selectively concealed array of random numbers” — this reminds me of a party game that Sid Sackson designed (can’t remember the name) that uses a deck of cards and a set of a dozen or so made-up rules for how to score hands of cards. Everyone gets a couple of cards, and one of the rules on a slip of paper. During the play time people trade cards and rules with each other, trying to accumulate the highest scoring hand. (This is described in his terrific but out-of-print book “A Gamut Of Games”.)

  27. Yes, my guess is that the author is unaware of the more recent developments in board and role-playing games that have enabled designers to explore subjects in unexpected ways.

    For instance Terra is a card game in which the players have to co-operate to Save The World, but in as selfish a way as possible. If you don’t manage to surmount the escalating series of crises then everyone loses. But in the unlikely event that you do, then it’s the player with the most resources left over who “wins”. A terrific “repeated Prisoner’s Dilemma” game with lovely elements of bluff. (For me, it works better than Pandemic as a model of human behaviour albeit a less successful as an actual game.)

  28. Second the reference to Boardgamegeek. Social gaming has only advanced in Europe, especially their board games: Google “Hetman-style games” and the ESSEN Game Fair, and you will discover that, just as Japan has been doing to advance animation over the past 30 years, Europeans have been putting their creative thinking into board games.

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