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Game Design Essentials: 20 Real-World Games

August 12, 2010 Article Start Page 1 of 21 Next

[Game Design Essentials returns with an extensive review of some of the most interesting non-electronic games, from traditional cultural games like Chess and Go through pen-and-paper role playing titles like Call of Cthulhu, European games like The Settlers of Catan, and much more -- each with a unique design lesson.]

I have a pet peeve when it comes to the fans, press, and developers of video and computer games. It's pedantic, but I don't care. The issue is this: so often they will refer to "gaming" as something that relates to the focus of their hobby alone. When you talk about gaming in such a manner, you are ignoring a rich tradition of culture, commercial games, and even sports, as if they were somehow of no account.

I'm not talking about cases where the meaning is obvious form context; I'm talking about people calling themselves "gamers". Long before Pong, there was a healthy wargaming community. Professional sports has existed for centuries, and Chess has been played for thousands of years. Using the term "game" as if it related only to computer software is gross chauvinism.

A symptom of this chauvinism is that, often, video game designers' influences come from a very small list. It seems almost like most designers have done little with their lives besides play games, read comics, and watch Hollywood movies.

Whether this is true or not, it is true that there is a super-abundance of pop cultural influence on game design. I consider this to be a grievous error, for it means that "hardcore" gaming has become insular.

I am of the opinion, and I think I could back it up if pressed, that the rising popularity of "casual" gaming is actually a rejection of the insular tropes that fuel most big-budget releases. It is a matter of particular concern to me because, back in 1983, I consider that it may have been just such an insularity helped accelerate the Great Video Game Crash and the death of the arcade scene that had chugged along until then for a decade.

Here is a great secret truth about creativity: it doesn't come from thin air. Like Francesco Redi's flies, it cannot arise spontaneously from nothing. To a degree, originality is a sham: all ideas are built out of other ideas. The more you know, the more you can invent. The key is in what you draw from, and how you draw from it.

The best designers, notably Shigeru Miyamoto himself, purposely cultivate outside influences like gardening, and look hard at what they can adapt to the computer game sphere. If movies and comic books are all that you know, then all you will ever create will look like a movie or a comic book. If all you do is play video games, then your game will look just like all the others. This is inescapable.

Previous Game Design Essentials entries have concentrated on the work of developers such as Atari Games or genres like open world games. Our concern this time is the wide field of non-computer gaming! Board games, card games, role-playing games and puzzles. A list of twenty such games each of which a game designer, looking to extend his interests and influences away from the growing wasteland of video gaming culture, can mine for ideas, to spark his ingenuity, to build from and mutate into something new.

Many of the games listed here have undergone extensive playtesting, to put it mildly, between me and a number of friends. Games are made of the players; the decisions made by the participants make each session of a well-designed game unique.

I feel I would be remiss to present this article to you without mentioning them by name and offering them thanks, both for helping me with my research and for putting up with my, at times, obsessive devotion to the letter of the rules. My playtesters were: Bryan Ricks, Larry Trowell, Amy Quirrel, Trevor Carroll, Ray "Tiny" Ginel, Ryan Downie, Matthew Chew, Dr. Julia Griffin, Jarrod Love, Sammiriah Guttmann, and Kati Berhow.

About These Write-ups

The most challenging thing about writing these has been to provide a synopsis of the rules. I have tried to give readers who have never seen a game a basic understanding of what it's like without spilling too many words on the subject. For some games this has maybe been a fool's errand, but I have done as good a job as I can.

In each write-up, some words are in italics. This is generally saved for when important game terms are introduced. If a word is italicized it'll probably come up again, so pay attention. I have refrained from describing terms that are not required to understand a game; this matters a lot in the piece on Contract Bridge, which has a large body of terminology and theory I do not describe. One of the distracting things about learning Bridge is swimming through the language, so this may help you to grasp the game if you have found it daunting before.

Of course, there are far more than 20 games of interest to computer game designers. These are games that are interesting, for one reason or another, but this list doesn't pretend to be definitive. A different article with 20 other games could be just as useful -- and it's a possibility.

Article Start Page 1 of 21 Next

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