BrettSpiel is a blog about board game design, written by game designer Brett J. Gilbert.

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Game Design 101: What is a Game?

This is the first in a series of posts in which I will attempt to discuss my thoughts about aspects of board game design. That’s a big subject, so it might take some time to cover everything(!), but it seems the best place to start is at the beginning, and to try to answer that most essential of questions: What, exactly, is a game?

I’ll start this article by proposing a tentative definition of what a ‘game’ might be and then go on to explore how I am choosing to interpret it, and my reasons for doing so. As a philosophical exercise I am fully prepared for this to go horribly wrong, so let us together light the blue touch-paper and stand well back…

Game (noun):
‘A competition for the acquisition of value.’

Now, this may seem sublime or ridiculous — profound or blindingly obvious — at first sight. EIther way, it does at least have the benefit of being short. It is also deliberately general. My interest may be focused on board games, but clearly those are a but a small subset of all possible games. They have their own design constraints and goals, their own conventions and vocabulary, and they create their own expectations in their own audience, but I think all games must have at their core a simple, common concept.

The notion of what a game is may be easy to intuit for most people but is perhaps less easy to describe accurately and succinctly. However I’m going to give it go. I’m game.

Let’s define terms

The definition contains just seven words, and of those only three carry any weight: ‘competition’, ‘acquisition’ and ‘value’.

‘Competition’

I think any game must a priori (as the Romans might have put it) be competitive, and the most straightforward interpretation of this is that there has to be at least two people playing it. Now, this is a more contentious statement than it might appear to be; after all, there are plenty of pastimes that might commonly be called a ‘game’ that can also be labelled as ‘solitaire’ (there are literally thousands of different solitaire card games playable with a standard deck of cards). So am I excluding these games from my definition? Actually, yes I am!

So-called ‘solitaire games’ are, I would suggest, ‘puzzles’ not ‘games’. When you play a game of Klondike (to pick a familiar example from the universe of solitaire card games) there is no intelligent agent at work against you and hence there is no competition. Each time you play you shuffle the cards and that randomized deck presents a puzzle for you to solve; it might not even be a very good puzzle since there are many different ways the cards can be ordered and some of those can never be played out (that is, ‘solved’) regardless of the choices you make. (In those cases I wouldn’t even call the endeavour a puzzle, since I think a puzzle must a priori have a solution, but that’s another story!)

Does this mean there are no games that you can play on your own? No, not at all. We are all surrounded by ‘intelligent agents’ that we can happily, and quite legitimately, play a game against. Playing Connect 4 on your mobile phone (indeed, with your mobile phone) is clearly a competition, and one that your mobile phone can quite happily win. If you play a solitaire card game and ‘lose’, it doesn't make sense to say that the deck of cards ‘won’; what happened was that you failed to solve the particular puzzle presented to you by that particular sequence of cards.

So, in short, games and puzzles are different things, and for something to be called a ‘game’ it needs to have at least two players (otherwise known as ‘intelligent agents’, although, like me, you might struggle to apply that epithet to some of the people you play games with!). When it comes to the specific case of a physical board game (the sort that comes in a box and you can play on your dining room table) this means two or more actual people. Anything less and you are, quite literally, on your own.

‘Acquisition’ & ‘Value’

I’m going to talk about these two concepts together, since to me they represent the ‘how’ and ‘why’ — or, if you like, the ‘means’ and the ‘motive’ — of a game.

When you play a game you and your opponents are not free to do anything you like, and nor are your actions without purpose. You play (most of the time) by the rules and you are generally all trying to achieve the same thing: namely to win. Hence any game must come equipped with definitions of these methods and objectives.

The victory conditions of individual games are many and various, and the way in which a game ascribes ‘value’ to the results of your actions is key. If as a game progresses you gain points, and eventually the player with the most points wins, then the notion of value is a simple one. Just ask yourself: ‘How many points do I have?’

Not all games are this literal, however. The object of the game Uno is to get rid of all your cards in each round, and the first person to do so scores precisely zero points. All the other players score positive points based on the cards left in their hands, and the winner is the player with the least number of points at the end of the game.

Does this mean that my definition is too limiting? No, but it does mean that we need to consider the term ‘value’ as an abstract and flexible concept, and one that each game is free to define in its own way. The player who has acquired the greatest value by the end of the game will always be the winner, but in the case of Uno we simply need to understand that the ‘value’ of our actions decreases when we score more points.

And how we as players ‘acquire’ that value is simply the sum of all the possible actions (in all possible circumstances) that the rules allow us to take.

So, just to be clear…

This may indeed all seem a rather tortuous way of explaining the blindingly obvious, but I think there is value in being thorough. This is a way for me to start from first principles, so that when I begin to consider more specific aspects of game design I have something solid to work from.

I may well be forced in the future to revisit my definition of a game, or at the very least refine my interpretation of it; if so it will doubtless be an educational experience!

Happy gaming!

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