Level 3: Formal Elements of Games

Today marks the last day that we continue in building a critical vocabulary from which to discuss games; this Thursday we will dive right in to the game design process. Today I want the last pieces to fall into place: we need a way to dissect and analyze a game by discussing its component parts and how they all fit together. This can be useful when discussing other people’s games (it would be nice if, for example, more professional game reviews could do this properly), but it is also useful in designing our own games. After all, how can you design a game if you don’t know how all the different parts fit together?

Course Announcements

As usual, there are a few things I’d like to announce and clarify:

  • I’m happy to announce that the course wiki is now open to the public (read-only access). This wiki is pretty much entirely run by the participants who registered for this course. Among other things, the blog posts here have already been translated into five different languages. I am impressed and humbled at the level of participation going on there, and encourage casual viewers to stop by and check it out.
  • I noticed some confusion on this so I would like to clarify: for readings in the Challenges text, you do not have to actually do all of the challenges at the end of the chapter. You certainly can if you want, but most chapters have five long challenges and ten short ones, and I would call that an extreme workload for a class of this pace. Repeat, you do not have to do all of the challenges (except where expressly noted on this blog).

A note on the reading for today

One of the readings for today was Doug Church’s Formal Abstract Design Tools. I want to mention a few things about this. First, he mentions three aspects of games that are worth putting in our design toolbox:

  • Player intention is defined as the ability of the player to devise and carry out their own plans and goals. We will come back to this later on in this course, but for now just realize that it can be important in many games to allow the player to form a plan of action.
  • Perceivable consequence is defined in the reading as a clear reaction of the game to the player’s actions. Clarity is important here: if the game reacts but you don’t know how the game state has changed, then you may have difficulty linking your actions to the consequences of those actions. I’ll point out that “perceivable consequence” is known by a more common name: feedback.
  • Story is the narrative thread of the game. Note that a game can contain two different types of story: the “embedded” story (created by the designer) and the “emergent” story (created by players). Emergent story happens, for example, when you tell your friends about a recent game you played and what happened to you during the play: “I had taken over all of Africa, but I just couldn’t keep the Blue player out of Zaire.” Embedded story is what we normally think of as the “narrative” of the game: “You are playing a brave knight venturing into the castle of an evil wizard.” Doug’s point is that embedded story competes with intention and consequence — that is, the more the game is “on rails”, the less the player can affect the outcome. When Costikyan said in “I Have No Words” that games are not stories, Doug provides what I think is a better way of saying what Costikyan meant.

Here is an example of why player intention and perceivable consequence are important. Consider this situation: you are playing a first-person shooter game. You walk up to a wall that has a switch on it. You flip the switch. Nothing happens. Well, actually something did happen, but the game gives you no indication of what happened. Maybe a door somewhere else in the level opened. Maybe you just unleashed a bunch of monsters into the area, and you’ll run into them as soon as you exit the current room. Maybe there are a series of switches, and they all have to be in exactly the right pattern of on and off (or they have to be triggered in the right order) in order to open up the path to the level exit. But you have no way of knowing, and so you feel frustrated that you must now do a thorough search of everywhere you’ve already been… just to see if the switch did anything.

How could you fix this? Add better feedback. One way would be to provide a map to the player, and show them a location on the map when the switch was pulled. Or, show a brief cut scene that shows a door opening somewhere. I’m sure you can think of other methods as well.

On another subject, Doug also included an interesting note at the end of the article about how he values beta testing, and half of his readers found the first two pages slow, so start at page 3 if you’re in that half. This would be an example of iteration in the design of this essay, of exactly the sort we talked about.

Now, I’m sure this note was partly in jest, but let’s take it at face value. There’s a slight problem with this fix: you don’t see the note until you’ve already read all of the way through the article, and it’s too late to do anything about it. If Doug were to iterate on his design a second time, what would you suggest he do? (I’ve heard many suggestions from my students in the past.)

Qualities of Games

It was rightly pointed out in the comments of this blog that on the first day of this course, I contradicted myself: I insisted that a critical vocabulary was important, and then I went on to say that completely defining the word “game” is impossible. Let’s reconcile this apparent paradox.

Take a quick look at the definitions listed on the first day. Separate out all of the qualities listed from each definition that may apply to games. We see some recurring themes: games have rules, conflict, goals, decision-making, and an uncertain outcome. Games are activities, they are artificial / safe / outside ordinary life, they are voluntary, they contain elements of make-believe / representation / simulation, they are inefficient, they are art, and they are closed systems. Think for a moment about what other things are common to all (or most) games. This provides a starting point for us to identify individual game elements.

I refer to these as “formal elements” again, not because they have anything to do with wearing a suit and tie, but because they are “formal” in the mathematical and scientific sense: something that can be explicitly defined. Challenges refers to them as “atoms” — in the sense that these are the smallest parts of a game that can be isolated and studied individually.

What are atomic elements of games?

This depends on who you ask. I have seen several schemes of classification. Like the definition of “game,” none is perfect, but by looking at all of them we can see some emerging themes that can shed light on the kinds of things that we need to create as game designers if we are to make games.

What follows are some parts of games, and some of the things designers may consider when looking at these atoms.


How many players does the game support? Must it be an exact number (4 players only), or a variable number (2 to 5 players)? Can players enter or leave during play? How does this affect play?

What is the relationship between players: are there teams, or individuals? Can teams be uneven? Here are some example player structures; this is by no means a complete list:

  • Solitaire (1 player vs. the game system). Examples include the card game Klondike (sometimes just called “Solitaire”) and the video game Minesweeper.
  • Head-to-head (1 player vs. 1 player). Chess and Go are classic examples.
  • “PvE” (multiple players vs. the game system). This is common in MMOs like World of Warcraft. Some purely-cooperative board games exist too, such as Knizia’s Lord of the Rings, Arkham Horror, and Pandemic.
  • One-against-many (1 player vs. multiple players). The board game Scotland Yard is a great example of this; it pits a single player as Mr. X against a team of detectives.
  • Free-for-all (1 player vs. 1 player vs. 1 player vs. …). Perhaps the most common player structure for multi-player games, this can be found everywhere, from board games like Monopoly to “multiplayer deathmatch” play in most first-person shooter video games.
  • Separate individuals against the system (1 player vs. a series of other players). The casino game Blackjack is an example, where the “House” is playing as a single player against several other players, but those other players are not affecting each other much and do not really help or hinder or play against each other.
  • Team competition (multiple players vs. multiple players [vs. multiple players…]). This is also a common structure, finding its way into most team sports, card games like Bridge and Spades, team-based online games like “Capture the Flag” modes from first-person shooters, and numerous other games.
  • Predator-Prey. Players form a (real or virtual) circle. Everyone’s goal is to attack the player on their left, and defend themselves from the player on their right. The college game Assassination and the trading-card game Vampire: the Eternal Struggle both use this structure.
  • Five-pointed Star. I first saw this in a five-player Magic: the Gathering variant. The goal is to eliminate both of the players who are not on either side of you.

Objectives (goals)

What is the object of the game? What are the players trying to do? This is often one of the first things you can ask yourself when designing a game, if you’re stuck and don’t know where to begin. Once you know the objective, many of the other formal elements will seem to define themselves for you. Some common objectives (again, this is not a complete list):

  • Capture/destroy. Eliminate all of your opponent’s pieces from the game. Chess and Stratego are some well-known examples where you must eliminate the opposing forces to win.
  • Territorial control. The focus is not necessarily on destroying the opponent, but on controlling certain areas of the board. RISK and Diplomacy are examples.
  • Collection. The card game Rummy and its variants involve collecting sets of cards to win. Bohnanza involves collecting sets of beans. Many platformer video games (such as the Spyro series) included levels where you had to collect a certain number of objects scattered throughout the level.
  • Solve. The board game Clue (or Cluedo, depending on where you live) is an example of a game where the objective is to solve a puzzle. Lesser-known (but more interesting) examples are Castle of Magic and Sleuth.
  • Chase/race/escape. Generally, anything where you are running towards or away from something; the playground game Tag and the video game Super Mario Bros. are examples.
  • Spatial alignment. A number of games involve positioning of elements as an objective, including the non-digital games Tic-Tac-Toe and Pente and the video game Tetris.
  • Build. The opposite of “destroy” — your goal is to advance your character(s) or build your resources to a certain point. The Sims has strong elements of this; the board game Settlers of Catan is an example also.
  • Negation of another goal. Some games end when one player performs an act that is forbiden by the rules, and that player loses. Examples are the physical dexterity games Twister and Jenga.

Rules (mechanics)

As mentioned last week, there are three categories of rules: setup (things you do once at the beginning of the game), progression of play (what happens during the game), and resolution (what conditions cause the game to end, and how is an outcome determined based on the game state).

Some rules are automatic: they are triggered at a certain point in the game without player choices or interaction (“Draw a card at the start of your turn” or “The bonus timer decreases by 100 points every second”). Other rules define the choices or actions that the players can take in the game, and the effects of those actions on the game state.

Let’s dig deeper. Salen & Zimmerman’s Rules of Play classifies three types of rules, which they call operational, constituative, and implied (these are not standard terms in the industry, so the concepts are more important than the terminology in this case). To illustrate, let’s consider the rules of Tic-Tac-Toe:

  • Players: 2
  • Setup: Draw a 3×3 grid. Choose a player to go first as X. Their opponent is designated O.
  • Progression of play: On your turn, mark an empty square with your symbol. Play then passes to your opponent.
  • Resolution: If you get 3 of your symbol in a row (orthogonally or diagonally), you win. If the board is filled and there is no winner, it is a draw.

These are what Rules of Play calls the “operational” rules. Think for a moment: are these the only rules of the game?

At first glance, it seems so. But what if I’m losing and simply refuse to take another turn? The rules do not explicitly give a time limit, so I could “stall” indefinitely to avoid losing and still be operating within the “rules” as they are typically stated. However, in actual play, a reasonable time limit is implied. This is not part of the formal (operational) rules of the game, but it is still part of what Rules of Play calls the “implied” rules. The point here is that there is some kind of unwritten social contract that players make when playing a game, and these are understood even when not stated.

Even within the formal rules there are two layers. The 3×3 board and “X” and “O” symbols are specific to the “flavor” of this game, but you could strip them away. By reframing the squares as the numbers 1 through 9 and turning spatial alignment into a mathematical property, you can get Three-to-Fifteen. While Tic-Tac-Toe and Three-to-Fifteen have different implementations and appearances, the underlying abstract rules are the same. We do not normally think in these abstract terms when we think of “rules” but they are still there, under the surface. Rules of Play calls these “constituative” rules.

Is it useful to make the distinction between these three types of rules? I think it is important to be aware of them for two reasons:

  • The distinction between “operational” and “constituative” rules helps us understand why one game is fun in relation to other games. The classic arcade game Gauntlet has highly similar gameplay to the first-person shooter DOOM; the largest difference is the position of the camera. For those of you who play modern board games, a similar statement is that Puerto Rico is highly similar to Race for the Galaxy.  The similarity may not be immediately apparent because the games look so different on the surface, unless you are thinking in terms of game states and rules.
  • Many first-person shooters contain a rule where, when a player is killed, they re-appear (“respawn”) in a specific known location. Another player can stand near that location and kill anyone that respawns before they have a chance to react. This is known as “spawn-camping” and can be rather annoying to someone on the receiving end of it. Is spawn-camping part of the game (since it is allowed by the rules)? Is it good strategy, or is it cheating? This depends on who you ask, as it is part of the “implied” rules of the game. When two players are operating under different implied rules, you will eventually get one player accusing the other of cheating (or just “being cheap”) while the other player will get defensive and say that they’re playing by the rules, and there’s no reason for them to handicap themselves when they are playing to win. The lesson here is that it is important for the game designer to define as many of these rules as possible, to avoid rules arguments during play.

Resources and resource management

“Resources” is a broad category, and I use it to mean everything that is under control of a single player. Obviously this includes explicit resources (Wood and Wheat in Settlers of Catan, health and mana and currency in World of Warcraft), but this can also include other things under player control:

  • Territory in RISK
  • Number of questions remaining in Twenty Questions
  • Objects that can be picked up in video games (weapons, powerups)
  • Time (either game time, or real time, or both)
  • Known information (as the suspects that you have eliminated in Clue)

What kinds of resources do the players control? How are these resources manipulated during play? This is something the game designer must define explicitly.

Game State

Some “resource-like” things are not owned by a single player, but are still part of the game: unowned properties in Monopoly, the common cards in Texas Hold ‘Em. Everything in the game together, including the current player resources and everything else that makes up a snapshot of the game at a single point in time is called the game state.

In board games, explicitly defining the game state is not always necessary, but it is sometimes useful to think about. After all, what are rules, but the means by which the game is transformed from one game state to another?

In video games, someone must define the game state, because it includes all of the data that the computer must keep track of. Normally this task falls to a programmer, but if the game designer can explicitly define the entire game state it can greatly aid in the understanding of the game by the programming team.


How much of the game state is visible to each player? Changing the amount of information available to players has a drastic effect on the game, even if all other formal elements are the same. Some examples of information structures in games:

  • A few games offer total information, where all players see the complete game state at all times. Chess and Go are classic board game examples.
  • Games can include some information that is private to each individual. Think of Poker and other card games where each player has a hand of cards that only they can see.
  • One player can have their own privileged information, while other players do not. This is common in one-against-many player structures, like Scotland Yard.
  • The game itself can contain information that is hidden from all players. Games like Clue and Sleuth actually have the victory condition that a player discover this hidden information.
  • These can be combined. Many “real-time strategy” computer games use what is called “fog of war” where certain sections of the map are concealed to any player that does not have a unit in sight range. Some information is therefore hidden from all players. Beyond that, players cannot see each other’s screens, so each player is unaware of what information is and isn’t available to their opponents.


In what order do players take their actions? How does play flow from one action to another? Games can work differently depending on the turn structure that is used:

  • Some games are purely turn-based: at any given time it is a single player’s “turn” on which they may take action. When they are done, it becomes someone else’s turn. Most classic board games and turn-based strategy games work this way.
  • Other games are turn-based, but with simultaneous play (everyone takes their turn at the same time, often by writing down their actions or playing an action card face-down and then simultaneously revealing). The board game Diplomacy works like this. There is also an interesting Chess variant where players write down their turns simultaneously and then resolve (two pieces entering the same square on the same turn are both captured) that adds tension to the game.
  • Still other games are real-time, where actions are taken as fast as players can take them. Most action-oriented video games fall into this category, but even some non-digital games (such as the card games Spit or Speed) work this way.
  • There are additional variations. For a turn-based game, what order do players take their turns? Taking turns in clockwise order is common. Taking turns in clockwise order and then skipping the first player (to reduce the first-player advantage) is a modification found in many modern board games. I’ve also seen games where turn order is randomized for each round of turns, or where players pay other resources in the game for the privilege of going first (or last), or where turn order is determined by player standing (player who is currently winning goes first or last).
  • Turn-based games can be further modified by the addition of an explicit time limit, or other form of time pressure.

Player Interaction

This is an often-neglected but highly important aspect of games to consider. How do players interact with one another? How can they influence one another? Here are some examples of player interactions

  • Direct conflict (“I attack you”)
  • Negotiation (“If you support me to enter the Black Sea, I’ll help you get into Cairo next turn”)
  • Trading (“I’ll give you a Wood in exchange for your Wheat”)
  • Information sharing (“I looked at that tile last turn and I’m telling you, if you enter it a trap will go off”)

Theme (or narrative, backstory, or setting)

These terms do have distinct meanings for people who are professional story writers, but for our purposes they are used interchangeably to mean the parts of the game that do not directly affect gameplay at all.

If it doesn’t matter in terms of gameplay, why bother with this at all? There are two main reasons. First, the setting provides an emotional connection to the game. I find it hard to really care about the pawns on my chessboard the way I care about my Dungeons & Dragons character. And while this doesn’t necessarily make one game “better” than another, it does make it easier for a player to become emotionally invested in the game.

The other reason is that a well-chosen theme can make a game easier to learn and easier to play, because the rules make sense. The piece movement rules in Chess have no relation to the theme and must therefore be memorized by someone learning the game. By contrast, the roles in the board game Puerto Rico have some relation to their game function: the builder lets you build buildings, the mayor recruits new colonists, the captain ships goods off to the Old World, and so on. It is easy to remember what most actions do in the game, because they have some relation to the theme of the game.

Games as Systems

I’d like to call two things about these formal elements to your attention.

First, if you change even one formal element, it can make for a very different game. Each formal element of a game contributes in a deep way to the player experience. When designing a game, give thought to each of these elements, and make sure that each is a deliberate choice.

Second, note that these elements are interrelated, and changing one can affect others. Rules govern changes in Game State. Information can sometimes become a Resource. Sequencing can lead to different kinds of Player Interaction. Changing the number of Players can affect what kinds of Objectives can be defined. And so on.

Because of the interrelated nature of these parts, you can frame any game as a system. (One dictionary definition of the word “system” is: a combination of things or parts that form a complex whole.)

In fact, a single game can contain several systems. World of Warcraft has a combat system, a quest system, a guild system, a chat system, and so on…

Another property of systems is that it is hard to fully understand or predict them just by defining them; you gain a far deeper understanding by seeing the system in action. Consider the physical system of projectile motion. I can give you a mathematical equation to define the path of a ball being thrown, and you could even predict its behavior… but the whole thing makes a lot more sense if you see someone actually throwing a ball.

Games are like this, too. You can read the rules and define all the formal elements of a game, but to truly understand a game you need to play it. This is why most people do not immediately see the parallel between Tic-Tac-Toe and Three-to-Fifteen until they have played them.

Critical Analysis of Games

What is a critical analysis, and why do we care?

Critical analysis is not just a game review. We are not concerned with how many out of five stars, or any numbers from 0 to 10, or whether or not a game is “fun” (whatever that means), or aiding in the consumer decision of whether or not to buy a game.

Critical analysis does not just mean a list of things that are wrong with the game. The word “critical” in this context does not mean “fault-finding” but rather a thorough and unbiased look at the game.

Critical analysis is useful when discussing or comparing games. You can say “I like the card game Bang! because it’s fun” but that does not help us as designers to learn why it is fun. We must look at the parts of games and how they interact in order to understand how each part relates to the play experience.

Critical analysis is also useful when examining our own works in progress. For a game that you’re working on, how do you know what to add or remove to make it better?

There are many ways to critically analyze a game, but I offer a three-step process:

  1. Describe the game’s formal elements. Do not interpret at this point, simply state what is there.
  2. Describe the results of the formal elements when put in motion. How do the different elements interact? What is the play of the game like? Is it effective?
  3. Try to understand why the designer chose those elements and not others. Why this particular player structure, and why that set of resources? What would have happened if the designer had chosen differently?

Some questions to ask yourself during a critical analysis at various stages:

  • What challenges do the players face? What actions can players take to overcome those challenges?
  • How do players affect each other?
  • Is the game perceived by the players as fair? (Note that it may or may not actually be fair. Perception and reality often differ.)
  • Is the game replayable? Are there multiple paths to victory, varied start positions, or optional rules that cause the experience to be different each time?
  • What is the game’s intended audience? Is the game appropriate for that audience?
  • What is the “core” of the game — the one thing you do over and over that represents the main “fun” part?

Lessons Learned

We covered a lot of content today. The main takeaways I offer:

  • Games are systems.
  • Understanding a game is much easier if you have played it.
  • Analyzing a game requires looking at all of the game’s working parts, and figuring out how they fit together and how a play experience arises from them.
  • Designing a game requires the creation of all of the game’s parts. If you haven’t defined the formal elements of your game in some way, then you don’t really have a game… you just have the seed of an idea. This is fine, but to make it into a game you must actually design it.


It was brought to my attention that I have been using the word “homeplay” to refer to the reading, and that reading is not play no matter how I dress it up. This criticism is valid; normally in my classroom courses I use “homeplay” to refer to actual game design assignments and not readings, and I mixed the terms up here. I will make an attempt to avoid this confusion in the future, because I believe that trying to treat learning as an inherently Not-Fun activity (as evidenced by the need to use fancy fun-sounding words to describe it) is damaging to our collective long-term well being. As we will see when we get into flow theory, the reality is actually the opposite.

With that said, here is an activity that I hope you will find fun. It is based off of Challenge 2-5 in the Challenges text, with some minor changes just to keep you on your toes.

Here’s how it works. First, choose your difficulty level based on your previous experience with game design. Skiiers may find this familiar:


Here is your challenge:

Most war-themed games have an objective of either territorial control or capture/destroy (as described earlier). For this challenge, you’ll be pushing beyond these traditional boundaries. You should design a non-digital game that includes the following:


The theme must relate to World War I. The primary objective of players cannot be territorial control, or capture/destroy.


You cannot use territorial control or capture/destroy as game dynamics. That is, your game is not allowed to contain the concepts of territory or death in any form.


As above, and the players may not engage in direct conflict, only indirect.

I have created three new areas on the forums (one for each difficulty level). Post your game rules in the appropriate forum by Thursday, July 9, noon GMT. You are encouraged to post earlier if possible.

Then, after you have posted, read at least two other posts from your difficulty level and offer a constructive analysis and critique. If you are at blue-square or black-diamond difficulty, also read at least two other posts from the difficulty level immediately below yours and offer the benefit of your experience to those who you could mentor. Try to choose posts that have no responses already, so that everyone can get at least some feedback. Also complete this by Thursday, noon GMT.

A note about research…

Note that you may have to do some actual research to complete this project (even if only looking to Wikipedia for inspiration). This is typical of much game design in the field. Many laypersons imagine game designers as these people that just sit and think at their desk all day, then eventually stand up and proclaim, “I have this Great Idea for a game! Ninjas… and lasers… in space! Go forth and build it, my army of programmer and art lackeys. I shall sit here now until I come up with another Great Idea, while collecting royalties from my last five ideas.” This is not even close to reality. A great deal of design is the details: defining the rules, certainly, but also doing research to make sure that the rules fit the constraints and are appropriate for the project.

A note about IP law…

At this point, some of you may be thinking that by posting your game to the forum, you run the risk that someone will Steal Your Great Idea. How can you protect yourself from the threat of someone taking your basic idea, turning it into a working, sellable game, and leaving you with nothing?

One of the participants of this course, Dan Rosenthal, has kindly written an article that details the basics of IP (intellectual property) law as it pertains to games. The article admits to being US-centric, but the core idea (which is worth repeating here) should be sound no matter where you are:

Remember, ideas are not copyrightable, they’re not trademarkable, not trade secretable, and both difficult and prohibitively expensive to patent. You can’t protect them anyway, and you shouldn’t try — instead you should try to come up with new ones, and start working on the good ones.  Don’t freak out when you see things like Game Jams, or this course and think “Ian says I should post my work to the discussion forum, but I came up with a Great Idea(tm) and I don’t want other people to steal it.” Ideas are commonplace in games, and the value of your idea is nothing compared to the value of the implementation of that idea, your expertise and hard work in developing it into something that’s going to make you real money. But most importantly, our industry is very lateral, very tight-knit, very collaborative. You’ll find people sharing their ideas at GDC, doing collaborative projects between studios, or using inspiration from one game’s mechanics to improve another. Don’t fight it. That’s the way things work, and by embracing that open atmosphere, you’ll be far better off.


66 Responses to “Level 3: Formal Elements of Games”

  1. daveseidner Says:

    Ian – I understand what you’re getting at with “homeplay”, but are you not going to assign chapters to read from the Challenges text moving forward? I want to read the book, but I’d like to keep it in sync with the lessons where necessary. If you aren’t going to assing reading from this point forward, that’s fine and I’ll read at my own pace. If you are, I’ll hold off and read assigned or suggested chapters when you ask us to. Please advise.

    • ai864 Says:

      Dave: Sorry for the confusion. I will certainly be assigning readings moving forward, I will just put them in a section that is labeled “Reading” and not “Homeplay”. There is no reading for this lesson, is all. There will be next lesson.

  2. Seth Says:

    Ha! Thanks for clarifying that point about the book challenges. I was getting all worried because I only had time to do the first challenge this weekend.

  3. Raphael Aleixo Says:

    About the “fog-of-war”, Dr. Pulsipher wrote this week a great article on this subject, and it’s relation with board games. Stratego’s hidden troops are a good example of this mechanics working on board games.

  4. Raphael Aleixo Says:

    Here goes the link:


  5. Mavis Says:

    Sorry after some clarification for the challanges. Regaring the more difficult level….

    When you say…

    “You cannot use territorial control or capture/destroy as game dynamics. That is, your game is not allowed to contain the concepts of territory or death in any form.”

    Would that disallow something that used the “theme” of death in some manner – rather then a mechanic based around destruction/death….

    • ai864 Says:

      Writing these challenges is always a challenge in and of itself 🙂

      In general, it is up to your interpretation. It’s not like I’m grading you. However, my intent was simply that you cannot use these things as mechanics or dynamics (that is, “kill the enemy troops” can’t be your primary objective, and in blue-square difficulty it can’t be something that players can do at all).

      • Mavis Says:

        Thank you for the clarification. That’s what I thought you meant but it’s worth checking.

  6. Dr. Mike Reddy Says:

    My question too. Is prohibiting Death in the form of interaction or mechanic?in a world war one game it might be hard to do without death completely, assuming that the three levels of difficulty build from one another.

    I plan, Ian willing, to do a game based on conscientious objectors and stretcher bearers

  7. Level 3: Formal Elements of Games « Game Design Concepts : pokerlearning.info Says:

    […] Read more here: Level 3: Formal Elements of Games « Game Design Concepts […]

  8. Martin Nerurkar Says:

    Heh. You namechecked “Vampire: the Eternal Struggle”. I have to say I loved the predator prey dynamic in that game. It made for some great strategies but tended to break down somewhat once only 3 or 2 players were left.

  9. Guy Shalev Says:

    I know it’s not the same, but I’m going to indulge a bit and link to my definition of Story.

    Note, this is meant to be an inclusive as possible definition of Story, and it brought something interesting up; Humans as Pattern-Creating Engines will create a story after the fact out of nearly any string of events/occurances that are present.

    In regards to a game, the thing is, that if they don’t think of the events as a meaningful sequence, then the story will not get formed, so if your game and/or players have a reason to retell of their play experience and what happened (including in-“fiction”) to other people, there will be an “emergent” story, regardless of any inherent quality of the game.

    Though, the more abstract the game, the less likely it’d be, and harder the players would have to work. But for many other games, the “emergent” story can take care of itself.

  10. Mendel Schmiedekamp Says:

    Alas, I already have a nearly finished RPG which meets all of the black diamond requirements, all it needs is a little more research to flesh it out.

    But, we’re doing board games…

    • Guy Shalev Says:

      *Waves at Mendel! :)*

    • Kalysren Says:

      hmm, I thought D&D fell into the category for board games….. :p

      • Larry Liang Says:

        I wouldn’t say that tabletop is the same as board game.

      • ai864 Says:

        This is why I use the broader term “non-digital” when trying to encompass all of these 🙂

        But I assume Kalsyren’s comment is meant facetiously, given D&D 4E’s apparent similarity to tabletop miniatures wargaming…

      • Larry Liang Says:

        D&D 4E also threw a lot of classic D&D rules out the window, but that’s a discussion for a different place. =D

        Someone on the forums mentioned using “analog” instead of “non-digital”. It does have some appeal (mostly in being shorter).

  11. Kevin G. Says:

    I haven’t read through the post, yet, but will later. I skimmed it and read the last part about copyrights and IP.

    “If you can think it, someone else can think it, too.”

    When designing games, don’t hold back your ideas because you’re afraid someone else will steal it. They’ll already have that idea. What you SHOULD be focusing on is polish.

    Take a look at the recent games published. The ones that do good are the ones that are the most polished, not the ones that sound super cool or have super nice graphics.

    Polish refers to production quality. Production quality is a standard usually set by the producer of a project. They decide what is ‘good enough’.

  12. Kate Says:

    Two thoughts:

    With regards to defining the word “game”, I’m not sure it’s possible to completely define any category. There are always weird edges cases, where something mostly fits in the category, but doesn’t meet some part of the definition.

    Another thing to consider about players: how do game dynamics change with the number of players? Do the rules need to change if the number of players changes? What consistutes a good hand in poker is going to be different with 2 players than with 8. A capture the flag game with a few players is able to be a stealth game in a way that it typically isn’t with many players. A lot of games typically played by a group have alternate rules for 2 players: San Juan, Race for the Galaxy, Bohnanza, Power Grid, etc. Even without rules changes, dynamic changes due to player number are pretty common and a designer should be aware of these changes.

  13. agj Says:

    I believe that ‘constituative’ should actually be spelled ‘constitutive’, unless it’s a made up word by the authors of Rules of Play.

    A question: Does every difficulty above ‘easier’ include the ones below it? I.e., must every game be about World War I, no matter the difficulty chosen?

    • ai864 Says:

      AGJ: “Constituative” is the spelling given in Rules of Play.

      And yes, the intent is that each difficulty level is an additional constraint on top of the others.

  14. Raphael Aleixo Says:

    Hi, Ian.
    I have one doubt about the Homeplay. Actually, is a doubt I always have when thinking about history-based games: Does it MUST have the same “real” outcome, to be history accurated?

    If you make a Napoleonic War’s themed game, and let people play with France in the Waterloo battle, does them need to always lose? Or, if they understand why the real outcome happened that way, the game was successful?

    • ai864 Says:

      Raphael: There is a fine line here. Remember that one of the qualities that games have (according to some definitions, at least) is an uncertain outcome. If the outcome is already known, then what you have is more of a story than a game, to an extent. There are certainly counterexamples to this, but I’m speaking for the general case.

      In the context of war games, usually this means that the systems are historically accurate, but the outcome may not be. For your Napoleonic example, the game is not about forcing France to lose at Waterloo, but rather to say: given the systems in play at the time of the start of that battle, what would the outcome be if Napoleon had made different choices? Could he have won? (The answer is probably yes… and if not, then it wouldn’t make for much of a game.)

      This is not so problematic for game designers. It can be an issue for history teachers who try to use historical games in their classes — after all, if the students play “Waterloo” and France wins, did they “learn” the wrong thing? I would say that depends entirely on the course goals. If the goal is to have students memorize a bunch of rote facts, then a game with an uncertain outcome is probably a poor teaching method to meet that goal. But if instead you are trying to have the students understand the systems in play that caused the historical outcome, so that they can understand why the real outcome happened and also pontificate on what might have happend if some of the variables were slightly different… well, that is a situation where a game can teach far better than most other forms of instruction. Provided the game is designed well, of course.

  15. Mitchell Allen Says:

    Hi Ian!
    I’m enjoying the course. I’d like to discuss a point you made in this lesson:

    “The casino game Blackjack is an example, where the “House” is playing as a single player against several other players, but those other players are not affecting each other much and do not really help or hinder or play against each other.”

    I would heartily disagree with this assertion, giving this example:

    In Blackjack, proper play can be inadvertently thwarted by a player who consistently ignores (or doesn’t understand) the dealer’s up card and the number of remaining cards. If you follow such a player, you may be hindered if you were hoping to get some of those cards he should have NOT taken 🙂

    I suggest that “Separate individuals against the system” is a mirror-image of PvE and, therefore shares the same interference issues.

    In PvE, aren’t griefers who prey on newbies hindering those players?
    In Blackjack, isn’t the “house” an environment (a rather hostile one, at that!) ?



    • ai864 Says:

      Mitchell: You are correct, of course, that in Blackjack the choices made by one player can help or hurt the other players. My point was that the players are not playing “against” each other — as a Blackjack player, your goal is not to help or hinder the other players, but to beat the House. Whether or not you “beat” the other players is of no significance to the outcome. This makes it different from a purely-cooperative or purely-competitive game. The fact that each player can win or lose individually also makes it different from the typical one-versus-many player structure.

      • Mitchell Allen Says:

        Ok, Ian. Point taken. Thanks for clarifying the categorization.

        I fear there will be many more misinterpretations as we go along 🙂



  16. Dr. Mike Reddy Says:

    My take on Blackjack is reminiscent of PvE (player v environment) with the casino dealer being the MMO Server. Other players can take all the health packs and misuse resources. Players following altruistic behaviours are like a raiding party. Blackjack is the ONLY game that is not balanced in favour of the House.

  17. James Hutchings Says:

    Your point about players with different ‘unwritten rules’ getting into conflict is unfortunately a big problem in pen-and-paper role-playing games.

  18. Jason Tam Says:

    gg =] just a few questions. Would getting from point A to point B without a time limit be considered a Chase/race/escape objective? Also, what type of sequening is time bending such as rewind, slow down, pause etc..?

    • ai864 Says:

      I did say the list of objectives is not all-encompassing, nor are these strict, rigorous definitions… rather, they are examples. So don’t get too caught up in distinctions of whether a certain objective is in one category or another — all the categories are artificial anyway 🙂

      That said, I would personally say “get from point A to point B without a time limit” would fall somewhere under the chase/race/escape umbrella. To illustrate, the board game Formula De is a car racing game around a track; the objective is to be the first to complete some number of laps. So, it’s obviously a race… but, there is no strict time limit on your turn.

      As for the question of sequencing, your examples show that there is more to real-time games than just “is in real time” — as you point out, just about every one of the “atoms” listed in this lesson can really be pushed to extremes. One of the more interesting alterations in a real-time game is Speed Up: going faster than your opponents is obviously beneficial, but if you go TOO fast then the game can become difficult to control, so there is a tradeoff between speed and precision.

  19. Sara Pickell Says:

    Unfortunately, I’m not registered for the course, but I still decided to take on the Black Diamond Challenge. I’m not sure I’m entirely clear on what you consider direct vs. indirect confrontation, so if you don’t mind, I’d like to give you the basic rundown of what I’ve come up in the last few hours since I finished reading the challenge.

    players are reporters – 2 – 4 recommended
    players begin with $10 and no fame points and no informant cards
    shuffled Common Informant cards are placed in a face down stack to the right
    shuffled Command Informant cards are placed in a face down stack to the left of that
    shuffled Front Lines Informant cards are placed in a face down stack to the left of that
    the deck of event cards in chronological order is placed above those three stacks on the table
    Players cut the deck of Command Informant cards, whoever gets the highest value going first. The deck is reshuffled and play then proceeds clockwise from there.
    At the beginning of a turn, a player may choose to invest in an informant
    To draw from the Common Informant cards costs $10
    To draw from the Command Informant cards costs $50 and requires 5 fame
    To draw from the Front Lines Informant cards costs $50 and requires 10 fame
    In the middle of your turn, you can choose to write a regular story, gaining 1 fame and $5 per star of your current informants
    or you can choose to write an exploitation piece, gaining double the worth of one of your informants, but forcing you to discard them.
    Players can then end their turn
    A set of turns beginning from the first players turn and ending with the last players turn is called a round.
    Starting on the first round, an event card is uncovered at the end of every other round. Players gain two extra fame if they can meet the requirements on the card before another event card is turned up.
    Event cards begin with “The Resignation of Bismark” (End a turn with $10 and 1 informant), ending in “All’s Quiet on the Western Front” (Have at least six Front Lines Informants, or over 80 fame)
    Play ends when all event cards have left play.
    The winner is the player with the most fame at the end.

    I have more details written down, but I’m not really looking for in-depth criticism of final game-play yet.

  20. Hakubak Says:

    Making a WWI game without territorial control or conflict. Hmmm. I was thinking about a political game, but that’s really the same – territory being replaced by political allies and the conflict is still there.

    I guess I could come up with a card game about designing coolest helmets.
    Or a race to make planes with the best features.
    Or blimp navigation.
    Or chemical weapon formulation.
    How about a tile game about digging trenches without being surrounded? Would that still count? No shots fired.

  21. Sirrus Says:

    Hi there. Enjoying the course so far.

    A small point: when you say that “A few games offer total information”, what do you mean by “a few”? Surely you realize that there are thousands of games with completely open information, especially among abstract games. Maybe you should say “some” rather than “a few”?

    I also caught a small typo here: “In what order to players take their actions?” To should be do.

    • ai864 Says:

      Typo fixed. Thanks!

      Fair point; given the total number of games that have been created since the dawn of time, any mechanic is something that has been done many times. When I say “a few” I mean relative to all games out there. The reason for this, I think, is that total-information games can (theoretically) be mathematically solved, and so they have to have a far deeper strategy with more permutations for them to remain interesting. If the game has any kind of hidden info or random elements, it can be a little more shallow in terms of the total number of brute-force decisions, and still be just as interesting. This makes partial-information games easier to design, so you tend to see more of those in comparison. The textbook gets into this a bit in the section on luck and skill (chapters 5-8), if you want to read ahead 🙂

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  24. Will Jennings Says:

    I’m a bit confused by the use of “dynamics” in this lecture and in the “Challenges for Game Designers” book. The context in the book, and the initial definition — “the pattern of play that comes from the mechanics once they’re set in motion…” — suggests Hunicke / LeBlanc / Zubek’s MDA framework. But the examples, and the way the concept is spun out, don’t match that framework.

    “Territorial acquisition” for example, isn’t a dynamic in the MDA framework as I understand it: it’s a layer of fiction applied either to a mechanic (as in Risk, where it’s a metaphor for what you’re doing when you move armies into a region after eliminating the enemy armies) or a dynamic (as in Chess or Go, where pieces control territory in an imprecise sense that emerges organically from the rules). “Race to the end” probably isn’t a dynamic; it might be a way of classifying victory conditions or game themes. “Death” isn’t a dynamic, either: it doesn’t emerge from the formal rules, but from the game’s fiction (or from the culture surrounding the game) — it’s definitely “death” in single-player Halo when you’re sent back to the last checkpoint, and it’s not “death” when you’re knocked out in Punch-Out, even though they have some things in common, mechanically (a “health” bar that depletes and there’s some penalty when it runs out) and the penalty in Punch-Out is more severe (you lose the whole game rather than being sent back to a checkpoint).

    Could you say more about what you mean by a dynamic, and how it’s differently useful than the MDA definition?

    • ai864 Says:

      When I use the term “dynamic” I mean it in the sense of MDA (for anyone reading this who is confused, we will cover MDA later in this course). I will do my best to clarify the terms at that point.

      That said, when designers start discussing dynamics, it often gets confusing for this very reason. You would not believe the heated arguments Brenda and I had when writing the book over the terminology in Chapter 2 🙂

      The book does use it a little differently than MDA (I think it uses it interchangeably with “objective”) which is, in retrospect, probably a bit confusing.

  25. tripclaw Says:

    Hello, I have question regarding the assignment. Most of my game experience is digital video games, I’m pretty new to the board-game genre and I’m not sure I understand the difference between direct and indirect combat in a board game. Could somebody give me an example of some indirect combat or non-digital games that use it?

    • ai864 Says:

      Direct = I take an action where the primary effect is to harm another player in some way (taking damage, loss of resources, lose a turn, etc.)
      Indirect = I take an action that modifies the game state, without actually modifying things that belong to another player. Players interact indirectly through the game state.

      Here are some examples of indirect conflict:
      * A standard foot race. I can run faster, but I can’t do anything like cut you off or trip you up.
      * Leaderboards and high-score lists. I’m trying to play the game as effectively as possible, but my play does not affect yours.
      * The card game “Rummy” and most of its variants. All of the actions I take are with the deck, discard pile and my hand. At no point can I affect YOUR hand. (Note that you can still make life harder for your opponent by discarding cards that you don’t think they’ll need, but your immediate interaction is still with the discard pile and not the opponent.)

      • Dr. Mike Reddy Says:

        The last example is interesting as holding back cards often prevents opponents from releasing ones you needs – indirectly affecting self – and that can be purely by accidentally collecting the same thing as much as blocking what you think the opponent wants.

  26. Sirrus Says:

    One question: I assume that the assignment is to design a complete game, and not just an outline of one, right? I’m asking because I see that some people have presented things like card games, saying that the game would probably contain cards for this and that, but not actually specifying what those cards are. I suppose that if you do design a card game, you’d need to specify the exact composition of the deck and the text and rules for all of the cards that it contains. Am I correct in this?

    One thing that puzzles me about the assignment is that the medium difficulty assignment doesn’t appear to be much more difficult than the easy one. I mean, I find it hard to think of any games that involve combat or territory acquisition, without those being central mechanics to the game. Can you give any examples of this?

    • ai864 Says:

      Sirrus: You are correct that the goal here is to have a complete game, with all rules and components designed. It can be in rough-draft form (no playtesting or iteration) but it should be in a state that is playable.

      Anyone who did some kind of “oh, and there should be some cards here” handwaving has not completed the challenge 🙂

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  28. noah Says:

    Hi, Id like to post my game to the forum but my account hasn’t been activated yet… help!

  29. Jose G Presa Says:


    I’ve my game ready, more or less :), but I’m still waiting for the activation of the forum acount, so I can’t post it in the forum yet. The problem is that I go to work in five minutes, and I can’t see this blog or the forum there. The next time I could try to post my game is about ten or eleven hours, when I’ll come back from work.

    I apologize.

    • ai864 Says:

      Jose and Noah (and others in a similar predicament): I apologize for the delay. Apparently there was a mad rush to create forum accounts just before the deadline this week. I’ve made it through the current batch, so if you created a forum account you should soon receive an activation if you haven’t already.

      If you created an account and it was rejected, all that means is that I could not find your email in the registration list. If you registered for the course (and received email confirmation from me), check to make sure that the email you used to create the forum account is the same one you sent to me. If you can’t do that for some reason, at least include enough identifying information when you create a forum account that I can find you some other way (by searching on part of your email address, or your name, or username, or something). With 1400 people in this course, I can’t spend more than a few seconds doing a quick search through my Excel sheet of registration info, so if I can’t find you easily, I just cancel the account and wait for you to try again (with some easier-to-locate info next time, hopefully).

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  33. Modran Says:

    It’s a bit late, but I did the first challenge “race to the end” game. Took me way more than 15 minutes, however.

    I have done a territory acquisition one this week end that we tested with a friend and my significant other. Just need to take the time to write it down too…

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  35. Gustavo Says:

    Just a little correction (and I know I’m kinda late here)

    The game you talked about on One-against-many, it’s not scotland yard, it is Interpol!

    • ai864 Says:

      It goes by both names, although I wasn’t aware of that until you gave me the other name and I looked it up: http://www.boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/438/scotland-yard

      A number of board games do this, releasing the same game with different names (usually in different countries). A more well-known example is the mystery board game that goes by the name “Clue” in the USA and “Cluedo” in the UK.

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  42. Aleksander Says:

    A bit late, but since you encouraged late comments, here it is!

    I’ve just started learning game design, and can see the need for accurate language when analysing games. I liked Miguel Sicart’s take on defining the term “game mechanics” (article found here: http://gamestudies.org/0802/articles/sicart), where he explicitly differentiates between game rules and game mechanics. As I’m a noob, I have no idea how professionals and experienced game designers regard Sicart’s definition. I mention this because I saw you used these terms interchangeably. Do you think the need to differentiate is less important?

    Btw, I can’t thank you enough for sharing your experience and insights! This course is a fantastic resource for aspiring game designers. I haven’t started it “for real” yet, but I’m going to buy the books and start properly after christmas.

    • ai864 Says:

      I would tend to agree with Miguel’s article that the word “mechanics” is used a lot, even without being sharply defined (it’s kind of like the word “game” in that respect). I do use “mechanics” and “rules” interchangeably here, and admit that was a bit sloppy – the two are mostly the same, but not exactly. As for whether it’s important to understand the clear dividing line between them… well, for practical purposes if you’re designing your own game (or even communicating with other designers), probably not – just like you could probably use “dynamics” and “mechanics” interchangeably and still the other person will probably understand what you mean. Correcting someone else (“that’s not a rule, that’s a mechanic”) when you know full well what they mean is kind of like correcting someone’s spelling/grammar on the internet: you may be correct, but you’re also derailing an otherwise perfectly good conversation to nitpick.

      That said, it’s still important for the same reason that learning ANY critical vocabulary is important: understanding the underlying concepts helps you think more clearly about game design, and about what your role is as a game designer, and this may give more insight into ways to make your games better. What about Miguel’s definition specifically? As Miguel points out, there have been several attempts to define “mechanics” in the past (not just his own) so I would think of this kind of like trying to define “game”: all of these definitions have some truth to them, even if they don’t all agree, but understanding the different elements of the various definitions lets you break down the concept of game design into smaller, more distinct pieces. And while I don’t think there’s an accepted definition across working professionals (and if there were, it probably wouldn’t be this one – this article is in an academic journal on game studies, after all), it’s still worth reading and considering.

      There is one other (mostly unrelated) purpose for trying to define terms like that, and that’s in the field of game studies, as opposed to game design. If you are going to analyze games and then write about them to other people who are studying games, in that case it is much more important to have clear writing (since communicating complex ideas about games is your entire goal). For this field, having a consistent critical vocabulary is vital, which is why articles such as this one that attempt to create a clear definition of a common term, are very important in that field. If you want to know how well accepted Miguel’s definition is within academic circles, I believe the way to do that is to do a literature search to see how often this article is cited in the references/bibliography of other books and papers…

      • Aleksander Says:

        I hadn’t considered the distinction between games studies and game design. Thanks for your thorough reply!

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