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How I Teach Game Design. (Lesson 2: Broken games and meaningful play)
by Eric Zimmerman on 08/11/14 05:30:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


How I Teach Game Design.
Lesson 2: Broken games and meaningful play

designing meaningful choices + an exercise in fixing a “broken” game


The Game Modification assignment

In the last post of this series, I discussed some of the principles of iteration. The Tic-Tac-Toe exercise is a good way to get a beginning sense of the game design process, but iterative design really kicks in only when students get take-home assignments that they need to evolve over a longer period of time.

The assignment below is the first take-home project I give to students. It’s a 1-week project, which means the week after I assign it, students bring their finished games into class to share with everyone else.

          RSP: Crossfire! by Craig Donahue, Andrew Jajja, Lyle Sterne, John Xiao

1-week assignment

Modify a “broken game” into a more meaningful play experience

 practice in iterating a game design
• understanding what makes a game “broken”
• analyzing the core mechanic and designing meaningful play

In small groups, students are given a “broken game” to play. The games I have used in the past include:

the traditional card game

the classic hand gesture folk game

The Dice Game
roll a die, add the number to your total, and pass it to your left - 
the first player to 20 points wins

The Number Guessing Game
think of a number from 1 to 100 - someone else tries to guess it -
if they guess wrong, they lose

Matching Pennies
two players each have a penny, and choose either heads or tails
both players reveal their pennies simultaneously - if they match,
player A wins – otherwise, player B wins

Students analyze their game to figure out what about it is “broken.” Then they design a variation of the game that attempts to fix the broken aspects of the design they identified.

How broken is broken? The games that are the starting point for this assignment vary in just how broken they are. War and Rock-Paper-Scissors can actually be fun games to play, even though they do have the problem of being more or less random. The other three games are much worse: they’re mind-numbingly dull to play. But all five of the games lack a sense of meaningful choice for players. And this should be the focus as the games are redesigned.

This assignment is similar to the Tic-Tac-Toe exercise from the last post in this series, except that there is a full week to complete it. In fact, the Tic-Tac-Toe exercise is very much a warm-up for this first take-home assignment.

How far is too far? In a game modification exercise, the question arises: at what point has a modified game strayed so far away from the original game that it is in fact a completely new and different design? I want the students making variations, not completely new games. My rule of thumb is that an outside observer, who knew nothing about the assignment, should be able to recognize the new design as a variation of the original. If someone couldn’t reasonably see that Hamsters-Cheese-Chocolate isn’t a modification of Rock-Paper-Scissors, then the design has strayed too far away from the original. However, the most important thing is to make a game that provides players with meaningful choice – I try not to split hairs on whether a design has strayed too far away from the original, and generally give students the benefit of the doubt.

What do they turn in? As outlined in the syllabus, each time students complete an assignment, they turn in a standard set of materials:

• the actual game materials (cards, board, pieces, etc)
• a title page that includes the names of the designers as well as an “abstract”
   that gives an overview description of the game in a few sentences

• a set of complete and edited game rules
• photos of the game being played
• a design process statement – a 1-page description of the group’s process
   in getting to the final design

• peer reviews

Some of these items, like the rules and list of materials, are just a basic part of making a game. Others, like the abstract and photos, are documentation for the NYU Game Center archive, where we store student projects. The design process statement plays a different role – it gives me insight into how the design evolved, providing context to help evaluate the finished game.

The peer reviews are a chance for students to grade each others’ performance as collaborators. Peer reviews are a more complicated matter and I’ll be addressing them in detail in a future post. In any case, I often don’t have students complete peer reviews on their first assignment, so that they are a little less self-conscious as they try and wrap their heads this “game design” thing for the first time.

Ugly but clear. My classes are not visual design classes, and I so do not expect anyone to express themselves with detailed illustrations, expert typography, or polished visual design. In general, I would rather that students spent their time iterating on the rules of their game rather than the art direction. For a prototype, ugly is beautiful! That said, the dividing line between visual design and game design is blurry, and designers do need to create materials that are visually clear and have good play ergonomics.

For example, in the case of a card game, I will expect that thought has been put into the card layout. Is the most important information clearly visible? When the cards are being held in hand, can players see everything they need to see? I don’t mind unpolished prototype materials, but game designers do need to be able to think visually and produce clear and usable game prototypes. This is an important skill not just for a student in a class, but for any working designer.

          from the rules for Veto Dice by Winnie Song, Jeremy White, Zack Zhang

The Core Mechanic and Meaningful play

The Game Modification assignment raises a number of fundamental issues about how games become meaningful for players. In preparation for this assignment – and during the critique of the projects that it produces – I like to talk about core mechanics and meaningful play. Below are the kinds of issues I bring up with the class.

What are players actually doing? Designing a game is designing an activity – something that fills up the time your players spend for seconds, minutes, hours, days, even years. While some may think about games in terms of their visual aesthetics or narrative content, the fact that a game is a dynamic system with which players interact defines what is unique about games as an expressive form. Game designers have to create an activity with which players engage, from moment to moment, over time. A question designers need to ask themselves is: what are your players actually doing to fill their time as they play?

A repeated activity. For most games, the activity of play boils down to a fairly repetitive activity or set of activities – the core mechanics of a game. The core mechanic of the sport of Sculling is rowing a boat. The core mechanics of Poker are drawing cards, playing cards, and betting. The core mechanic of Starcraft is using the mouse and keyboard to issue commands to your units. When I worked at R/GA in the 90s and real-time strategy games like Dune II, Warcraft, and Command & Conquer were just emerging, we used to call them “Photoshop games.” The graphic designers who were fluent with Photoshop’s command-key shift-alt-clicking had lots of practice in the core mechanics of RTS games and dominated the office tournaments.

Making activity meaningful. An important part of game design is to make the core mechanic of your particular game meaningful. Whether it is reading text and clicking on links, moving through a 3D space, or moving pawns on a gameboard grid – how can you make that activity meaningful? Giving a player meaningful choice means providing a context for players to know what their choices are, to be able to choose one option out of several, and to understand how their choice has affected the state of the game.

Action -> Outcome. As players play a game, they make many small decisions – whether the decisions are made in real-time, as in a sport or action videogame, or whether they are happening discretely, as in a strategy game where play happens in  turns. Each action a player takes has some kind of outcome in the game. These action/outcome moments are the molecules of meaningful play. Gameplay is the moment-to-moment experience of these small pearls of decisions, strung together to extend across longer periods of play.

Designing a context of meaning. A game design should provide a context in which every player choice is meaningful. If a Chess set is sitting on a coffee table as merely a conversation piece, moving one of the pieces on the grid doesn’t really change that much. But if a game is in session, it suddenly matters very much exactly which piece you move, and when, and where. What does an action mean in the game – how does its outcome ramify over time? A player’s action becomes meaningful in the context of the game. The game is the context that helps to provide meaning for the action.

Breakdowns in meaning. Meaningful play is often most evident when it doesn’t work. You have a hand of cards and it seems like it doesn’t matter which one you play; you raise taxes on your virtual city and you never really understand the outcome of that choice; your character died and you don’t know why – all of these moments represent breakdowns when a game fails to provide meaningful play.

A space of possibility. When it does work, meaningful play gives players expansive spaces of possibility – sets of choices and outcomes that represent interesting possible ways to play the game. This is what makes players want to try a game again – to see how their choices might play out differently if they attempt new approaches. A game design should give players spaces of possibility that they can explore in their own individual ways.

The Game Modification assignment is a great way to begin exploring all of these key game design issues. Designers must first understand the core mechanic of their “broken game” and why it is failing to provide meaningful play. Then they need to redesign the core mechanic in order to tease out more meaningful play experiences for players. The idea of meaningful choice is so fundamental to game design that in fact every exercise and assignment in my class addresses it in some way or another.

Further reading

Meaningful play is probably the central concept in Rules of Play, the game design textbook I co-authored with Katie Salen. A good place to start reading about it is Chapter 3: Meaningful Play.


This series is dedicated to my co-teaching collaborators and other game design instructors who have taught me so much, including Frank Lantz, Katie Salen, Nathalie Pozzi, Naomi Clark, Colleen Macklin, John Sharp, Tracy Fullerton, Jesper Juul, Nick Fortugno, Marc LeBlanc, Stone Librande, and Steve Swink, and the NYU Game Center faculty.

I also want to thank some of the many many teachers that have inspired me throughout my life, including Gilbert Clark, Enid Zimmerman, Weezie Smith, Susan Leites, Gwynn Roberts, Pat Gleeson, Janet Stockhouse, Janice Bizarri, Sensei Robert Hodes, and Sifu Shi Yan Ming.

Special thanks to Frank Lantz, Nathalie Pozzi, John Sharp, and Gamasutra editor Christian Nutt for their input on this essay series.

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Daniel Jovanov
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I learned about meaningful play in my design class, but my professor told us that a tedious game like War can still be meaningful because each action has a different outcome, but because there is no choice involved in the action, I have to disagree with my professor and ahree with this article. To be fair, this professor of mine ruined Tony Hawk games, so no wonder I don't have a game job today!

Luis Guimaraes
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Meaningful, meaningful, meaningful.

I have a drinking-game for everytime I read this word in a Game Design context, but it's too early in the morning to pass out.

However, I see now – only now – that it's only used to work around the problematic homonyms "play" and "game" in English. So, "meaningful play" doesn't mean "meaningful" in any intangible and pretentious way worth playing a drinking-game to. It really just means "game".

James Margaris
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It's being used here to mean "non-trivial" or "not degenerate."

Unfortunately Rock Paper Scissors is neither trivial nor degenerate, so the piece sort of falls apart immediately. Rock Paper Scissors does not need fixing at all, and I'd be willing to bet that every single "fixed" RPS is worse than the original.

TC Weidner
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Broken? why use words like broken, those games mechanic mentioned like war, dice game, rock paper scissors, are not broken. Why use dumb words like that. Tic Tac Toe mechanic is a broken mechanic as it has a major flaw, these other ones are complete time tested and definitely not broken. They are solid and thus they can be built upon. I agree they can be modified and taken and made into more interesting but they are not "broken", quite the contrary.

Words matter.

Fabian Fischer
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As the strategy games they seemingly want to be, they're indeed quite broken. RPS for example is basically a guessing game. There are no actual decisions to be made. Watch this panel for more elaboration (especially the second talk):

Tyler King
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I'm going to have to agree with at least RPS and being broken. RPS has nothing to do with guessing and all about learning how to read your opponent. Much the same way that poker has very little to do with the cards you are dealt compared to how well you can bluff and read your opponent. If it were 2 computers playing then it simply would be guessing and thus broken, however 2 human opponents are quite different.

War on the other hand I would consider broken, because the only thing that matters is what you are dealt. No decisions to be made, no reading your opponent, no strategy. Just plain and simple play your next card and see who wins. There is 0 difference between 2 computers playing and 2 humans playing.

James Margaris
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"War on the other hand I would consider broken, because the only thing that matters is what you are dealt."


It's not broken. It works exactly as intended. War is not intended to be a strategy game. It's a silly time-waster that can be played by people of all ages.

Sam Stephens
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@ Fabian Fischer

"As the strategy games they seemingly want to be, they're indeed quite broken. RPS for example is basically a guessing game. There are no actual decisions to be made."

Just because a game doesn't feature meaningful choices doesn't mean it's broken. Rock Paper Scissors is quite the opposite of broken. It's a game of perfectly balanced interplay. The game isn't very engaging or compelling, at least not without a tournament-level metagame or external stakes, but it functions as it was intended to.

Tic-tac-toe, as TC Weidner stated above, is a different case. The game is much more breakable because the dominant strategies are completely obvious. It gets to the point where there is no strategy and two knowledgeable players will reach a draw every time.

Like Weidner, my only caveat with the article is the use of the word "broken". Broken implies a game is imbalanced or unplayable do to a flaw in the system. The issue with the games mentioned in the article is not that they are broken, but that they lack informed or meaningful choices and therefore are only compelling in a specific context or to individuals in a certain period of cognitive development (i.e. children).

Other than that, this was a great write-up Eric. The NYU Game Center is certainly at the forefront of excellent game design education and I hope it continues to be successful.

TC Weidner
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All strategy games are guessing games, the strategy is basing your next moves using your knowledge of your opponent,probabilities, and his/her past tendencies, etc..

Again there is nothing broken about using randomization, statistic probabilities, and user tendencies as a basic foundation, in fact it is good practice to do so. It is anything but broken.

Broken is a word used in the software world to mean, it doesnt work. ( ie. if your code is broken, it doesnt work.) These games and mechanics may be wanting of perhaps greater scale and more robust choices, but they work, they are not broken.

Tic tac toe= broken mechanic
RPS etc= Time tested mechanics which have proven to be fair and balanced ( fair and balanced, the two most important aspects of any mechanic)

Words matter

E Zachary Knight
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"RPS etc= Time tested mechanics which have proven to be fair and balanced ( fair and balanced, the two most important aspects of any mechanic)"

Yet, RPS is still incredibly boring to play as is. The idea of changing it up is to make it less boring. If you could change it so that it is still "RPS" but not as boring, then you have "fixed" the game.

TC Weidner
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no you may have a better more complex game, but you cant fix what isnt broken.

Put 100 dollar bill on a table for the winner of each round and play RPS and you'll soon find out that the game isnt so boring after all. Suddenly you'll have the whole office surrounding the game, watching, hooting and hollering.

Fact remains, everything gets boring after awhile. Boring doesnt mean broken.

E Zachary Knight
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Congratulations, you just "fixed" RPS. That is the whole point of the exercise in the above article. To find some way to make the games better.

Sure, your change was simple, the game is still RPS, but now the choices you make, the strategy you use has been altered by the introduction of a new element.

TC Weidner
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um, no. First off I didnt change the game one iota. Winning and losing was all ready part of the game of RPS. Adding or changing prizes awarded to a winner doesn't change the game itself at all. No one bit. The rules and mechanics have not changed.

on the contrary , what this prize money shows is that the game is actually very well done. In that it allows for such a fun group dynamic to happen almost anywhere.

Ex. Put 100 dollars down and say the winner of the next 5 tic tac toe games each get 100.... since tic tac toe is broken, no one will play crowds wont form, fun wont be had .

BUT since RPS is NOT a broken game, but rather an easy to learn, fun, balance and fair game, crowds will gather and fun will be had.

The same can be said of the card game war. Someone mentioned its "broken" because the luck of the draw, I counter that, that same element is the genius of the game. The reason its been played longer than anything we will ever make. It allows me to play my 4 year old nephew in a game, playable almost anywhere, and its fair and balanced and we both have fun.

Luis Guimaraes
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While I agree with TTT and RPS, War is really not a game in any form, it's just a time-killer akin to throwing dice and see who gets the biggest number.

I had a discussion about top-decking just yesterday, and War is pretty much pure top-decking on a set, symmetric ans shuffle deck. There's zero input from the player pre-game or mid game. No strategy, no planning, and no action based on evaluation of the game state.

If two shuffled french decks sit next to each other in a forest, with nobody there to play War with them... yeah, you get it.

Make it so each player has two decks instead of one, either by adding two french decks in the mix of splitting black and red decks apart, shuffle them normally, and then allow them to pick which deck they'll draw from each turn.

Now you have a game.

Sure, a computer would likely beat a person almost every single time, but as long as one person is playing, it's a game. That's because a person is already a package of game mechanics every game designer has to work with, and every game will automatically include as long as it includes one or more human players. That's also why RPS is a game.

TTT, however, a game. A broken one if played after a certain age or intelligence level that allows the player brain to see the optimal strategy with such clarity that the player-mechanics lose all their weight.

Anyway, for some fun lunch-time reading:

TC Weidner
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Are Dice and War strategy games needing input from the competitors? no. But are they time tested and fun games played for generations? yep. They are indeed games which have stood the test of time, and for a good reason. As mentioned, War allows for fair games across generations, and dice allows for all sorts fair game play and results, allowing for all sorts of prizes/gambling betting on outcomes.

On many extended family get togethers our family likes to play LRC ( Left right center dice game) and your telling me, one of my families favorite games, isnt a game and that its broken because its based on luck. The very same element that makes it fun for all, since it allows for everyone to have the same chance of winning, is the reason you consider it broken?? Gee who knew, I guess its so popular by mistake then?

E Zachary Knight
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"On many extended family get togethers our family likes to play LRC ( Left right center dice game) and your telling me, one of my families favorite games, isnt a game and that its broken because its based on luck."

I think you are taking this waaaaay to personally.

Also, I didn't see anyone in this article or discussion say that any of the games listed are "not games".

TC Weidner
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not taken it personally at all. Its called a personal observation. LCR is a very popular game right now, and it fits the topic. The game uses "luck" as its main mechanic, and it doesnt break the game, just the contrary, its what makes the game fun, easy, accessible and popular.

I dont get where you think this is personal, its called a discussion.

Lance McKee
profile image that provide value to many, many people while not providing value to certain individuals are broken? Even Tic Tac To is a very fun game for most children. Seems kind of arrogant to suggest that a game is "broken" if you don't find it interesting, and "fixed" when it's more fitting to your tastes.

James Margaris
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Anthony Becker
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Great article with some concrete ideas as to how to approach game design. Might just have to pick up the book! I wonder: does the author ever design a game that is broken on purpose and let the students tease out why? Or are there just so many broken games that it's not necessary. I also really like that the author includes traditional games in the process to give a holistic view of game design.

Aaron Abilez
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Something to consider and what the OP didn't mention is perhaps the game needs to be changed for a certain audience. That is somewhat implied given that the reasons most of those games "don't work" (using that as opposed to the term broken) is because the audience the OP wants to target are too old to enjoy the games to their fullest in their current state.

I think with this minor and explicit change the issue of RPC/TTT/WAR "not working" is easier to accept. If your target audience is avg 24 yrs of age.

I agree with everyone here that the intent of the game is key. If you're rolling dice for fun with your family and luck is the only mechanic then that may be perfectly fine. But it changes as soon as the setting and intent of the game changes focus.

With this in mind I do believe the focus of this exercise is for the students to learn how to fulfill the task's requirements in building/modifying a game and overcoming the challenges that come with doing so throughout the entire process. Instead of nitpicking on the OP's choice of words (even if he could have worded it better) focus on the idea he is trying to make and discuss that - How to provide more meaning to a game and thus the player's experience when given a pre-existing framework.

Lance McKee
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I agree with you completely. I do feel that the wording is very important though, as it changes the whole point from being "These games are wrong." to "These games aren't a good fit for this group."

Sheng TAO
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Great article of meaningful play, remind me of my old days reading the book Rules of Play!

Dan Felder
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I think some of these comments are a great example of how no matter what you say, someone's going to disagree with it.

Eric Zimmerman
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Hey everyone. Thanks for your comments on the article.

Just to clarify the discussion about "broken" games... no game is ever completely broken, for all people, in all situations. A "solved" game like Tic-Tac-Toe can be challenging and rewarding for young kids. Completely random games like War can be very enjoyable in the right context. And there are hardcore tournament cultures around Rock-Paper-Scissors, so there is definitely something interesting going on with that game! This is why I put the word "broken" in quotation marks throughout the essay.

The games I call "broken" for the purposes of this exercise are broken from a very classical point of view - they don't provide players with what we normally think of as meaningful choices. Typically as game designers, we don't want to make games that are completely solved or 100% random. For this very introductory assignment, I want students to understand why that is.

The great thing about design is that we can do what we want. There are no immutable design rules that we must always follow as we create our games. In fact, the most interesting game designs are those that bend, twist, or break the proper rules of "good design." For an introductory class, however, my main focus is teaching students those classical rules of "good design" so that they can go on to question them as their creative work matures. That's why my treatment of "broken games" is intentionally a bit narrow here.

I hope that helps clarify some of my intentions.
Thanks again for the great discussion and critical comments!