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

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Shepherd Spy and the Triangle of Experience

In which I introduce the world to my new game ‘Shepherd Spy’ (see what I did there?) plus the conceivably more useful ‘Experience Triangle’. It’s a possible map of gaming experiences. And it’s a triangle.

I have been thinking a lot recently about the experience of playing games, and in a recent post Jackson Pope has reminded me of something that I failed to report in these pages. Having had a great time playing and discussing games with a gaggle of gregarious game designers I wondered aloud exactly what the mystical ‘secret sauce’ of game design might actually contain, but it was only in a separate email to that self-same gaggle of designers that I said this:

… when game players (hopefully) say “I want to play that game again!” what they mean is that they want to repeat the experience of playing the game, something that is more than simply the sum of the game’s mechanics.

The point is this: we may not know the ingredients of the sauce, but we certainly know what it tastes like! It is this rich, savoury flavour that can both help to create our experience of playing a particular game, and hopefully inspire us to want to repeat it.

However, it seems to me that to mount an effort to define the sauce’s ingredients without first properly defining the depth and nature of its flavour is more than a little doomed. Better to work on the foundations before building the walls. And so it is my intent in this article to propose nothing less than a formal taxonomy of gaming experiences, and also to propose a possible visualization of this possible taxonomy in the form of something I am going to call the ‘Experience Triangle’.

But let us begin at the beginning. Let us begin with sheep.

Introducing ‘Shepherd Spy’

To help me think about this problem and allow me to better explain it, I have designed a new game especially for the purpose. I have called it Shepherd Spy.*

Shepherd Spy is a two-player game in which each player takes the part of a shepherd charged with looking after a flock of seven sheep. Using cunning and tactics to position and move their sheep on the farmer’s field each player’s aim is to outwit his opponent and win the game, although the precise nature of the victory conditions and indeed the rules, remain, for now, shrouded in mystery. Fortunately, knowing the rules is not vital to my argument, although it must be understood that the two protagonists imagined in all later examples comprehend them perfectly.

One possible presentation and configuration of the game is shown here, complete with red and blue flocks of wooden sheep figures placed on an illustrated gameboard. The board and the sheep figures represent all of the game’s components.

* The uninitiated may not know that ‘shepherd’s pie’ is a classic British dish. A layer of stewed mince and onion is covered with a layer of mashed potato and then baked until the mash is golden brown. The dish is also known as ‘cottage pie’, although to be precise a shepherd’s pie is properly made with minced lamb, and cottage pie with beef.

Modes of play

The gameboard and sheep figures in the example above illustrate one possible ‘mode’ in which the game could be played. The experience provided by this mode will be familiar, and matches the sort of experience offered by very many well-known board games, especially many Eurogames.

However, the exact definition of this mode and the type of experience it offers is not important right now. What is important is to appreciate that this is just one of many possible modes, all of which allow exactly the same game to be played. My point is to highlight that although the intellectual model of the ‘game’ is completely defined by its rules and victory conditions, the ‘experience’ of the game, in contrast, is largely defined by its mode of play.

My argument probably needs some clarification, and the very first question to answer is: what other modes exist? My propostition is that there are three (and only three) principal modes, which I have labelled ‘Abstract’, ‘Empirical’ and ‘Imaginary’.

If we apply these three principal modes to Shepherd Spy what does it look like?

Let’s look at each mode in a little more detail. In each case I will explain a little more about the nature of the principal mode, and also define its opposite:

  • The Abstract mode (here defined as the opposite of Realistic) is one in which the game-world has been reduced to an entirely symbolic model, stripped of any resemblance to the real-world objects of the game’s narrative. The game is still played on a board, and the players still directly manipulate the components. The players are still ‘shepherds’, the game pieces still ‘sheep’ and the board still a ‘field’, but all in name only; nothing about the game’s presentation directly communicates these concepts.
  • The Empirical mode (here defined as the oppsite of Descriptive) is one in which the game-world can be directly and tangibly experienced by the players. The game’s ‘sheep’ are represented by actual sheep standing in an actual field. This mode may seem rather fanciful (and indeed, a truly empirical mode would require the players themselves to be real-life shepherds!) but it would certainly be a possible if somewhat impractical way to play Shepherd Spy.
  • The Imaginary mode (here defined as the opposite of Physical) is one in which the game is played without employing any real-world objects at all. Now our players hold the state of the game-world at any time completely in their own minds. The players must each have a clear mental ‘picture’ of the game, and a mental list of the choices each of them make. This mode certainly puts a significant intellectual burden on both players, but such a mode is possible.

But, you might be saying, what about our family-friendly ‘Eurogame’ mode with the little wooden sheep? Where does that fit in? Which mode of play does that represent? My argument is that it is a bit of all three, although not necessarily in equal measure.

Let’s make a map

I said my proposal involved making a ‘map’ of gaming experiences, and we now have most of the pieces to hand. I have illustrated four possible modes of play for Shepherd Spy (the ‘Eurogame’ mode plus the three principal modes) and the next question to answer is: what is the relationship between them?

The first thing to say is that it is not possible to simply place these four modes in a straight line. They do not represent points within a single continuum of experiences that shift from one extreme to its opposite. The three principal modes are qualitatively distinct and each represents a separate way in which we can talk about the characteristics of a particular game.

The second thing to say is that the three measures of gameplay represented by the principal modes cannot be arbitrarily varied. What does this mean? It means that, for example, a game mode that is wholly Empirical, can be neither Abstract nor Imaginary at all (the same statement holds if you switch the names of the principal modes around). This means that the three principal modes are quantitatively dependent. To put this more simply: if you want more of one, you have to have less of one, or both, of the others.

Almost all practical game modes are, just like our Eurogame version of Shepherd Spy, a bit of all three. Most modes lie in the space between our three principal extremes and share some characteristics with each.

Mathematicians already have a name for the visualization of just such a three-way split, where the variables are both qualitatively distinct and quantitatively dependent: it’s called a ternary plot and it is, you guessed it, a triangle. If we now put together everything we have so far, we can not only build a map of the Shepherd Spy modes, but also draw a generalized diagram of their relationship.

Every possible mode of play that we can imagine for Shepherd Spy can be found within the triangle defined by the three principal modes. Each point within it represents a different mix of the Abstract, the Empirical and the Imaginary. And because of the triangular relationship, the closer a particular mode of play is to one of the three corners, the further away it must be from the other two.

Making sense of a ‘ternary plot’ is not difficult, but we can make our job easier by adding the three other labels I have already defined — Realistic, Descriptive and Physical — which represent the opposite of each of the three principal modes.

I am, for example, defining Realistic as the opposite of Abstract. Hence a mode of play that may be said to be wholly Realistic cannot be described as being Abstract in any way. Such a mode, if positioned within the triangle, would lie somewhere on the edge opposite the Abstract corner, and would therefore represent a particular combination of only the Empirical and Imaginary.

These additional labels are not necessary, but they are helpful, since they allow us to use a more easily interpreted vocabulary when talking about or comparing possible game modes. Rather than describing a mode as, say, ‘less Empirical’ than another or perhaps, in itself, as ‘not very Empirical’ we can instead choose to say that it is ‘more Descriptive’ by comparison, or simply that it is ‘highly Descriptive’.

The Experience Triangle

Our map is now complete. We now have a clearly defined relationship between six complementary labels that can be combined to describe all possible modes of play, and hence all gaming experiences, not just for Shepherd Spy, but for all games.

This is my Experience Triangle, and now that we have our map the next question must be: where can it take us? The first thing to do is to leave, for now, the shepherds to their sheep, and take a look at how we can use the Experience Triangle to map out the familiar and, to some, unfamiliar territories of the existing gaming universe.

If we look first at the broadest range of gaming experiences that each of the three principal modes most naturally represents then we can easily define three principal game ‘realms’: board games, live action and role play. The smaller diagram below shows how these realms can be visualized, and where they naturally overlap to create hybrid game modes and experiences.

This high-level view is useful since it helps us to better understand how the lower-level game ‘genres’ fit together. Gamers have already developed a rich vocabulary to describe these and in the larger map I have indicated, in a highly schematic way, how we might begin to place some of the genres into the Experience Triangle.

Each orange bubble very roughly approximates where within the Triangle the common experiences offered by games of that genre may be positioned. Each genre may have within it a wide variety of game modes that in some cases will be common to one or more neighbouring genres, but I want to stress that there is nothing very scientific about exactly where I have positioned the bubbles or drawn their boundaries.

However, I have never seen game modes, genres or experiences visualized or explained in these terms so I hope that by proposing the Experience Triangle, and using it, however crudely, to interpret the relationship between some of the most common gaming genres, I have advanced the cause of game design, if only a little.

The Experience Triangle is, I hope, a tool that I will be able to revisit and refine in future, and one that others may find useful. However, for the game designer it can only ever be the beginning of a journey, not the end.

The map is not the territory.

Alfred Korzybski

I find this fascinating and well-conceived. I was wondering where you might place other games on the map, such as sports, or real-time-strategy computer games. I also thought it was interesting that Ameritrash was the most central on the map. Does this suggest that games like Monopoly are well-balanced experiences?

@Pinebars: I'm glad you enjoyed the post!

Placing 'Sports' is simple - it's right up there in the 'Empirical' corner (although it hadn't occurred to me that it would be a good example of what fits there). Just like my example of the real shepherds with the real sheep. Indeed, in Britain, and probably other countries with lots of sheep (New Zealand?) we actually have something called 'sheep dog trials' in which farmers compete with their own sheep dog to herd sheep. In my youth this was televised sport!

As for computer games: well, that was a genre I was going to think about and see how it fitted. The computer is, in one sense, merely a tool that may make only a small difference, experientially speaking, to the game. But this obviously depends on the game, since computers can facilitate gaming experiences that are otherwise unattainable (at least in most practical senses). There is not a simple or direct relationship, which is why I need to think on the matter a little more(!)

And it's true that the unfortunately monikered 'Ameritrash' genre does fall somewhere near the middle (although my diagram is not necessarily to be interpretted as an exact placement, but rather as a way of highlighting the relative placement of different experiences). Such experiences are 'balanced' in a mathematical sense, but I don't think the populist view of what makes a 'balanced' game necessarily coincides with the middle of the Triangle!

Dan Cassar said...

September 04, 2010 7:54 pm

I'd venture that computer games are 100% descriptive and run the gamut from very abstract to very realistic (and are getting more realistic all of the time).

Another axis one might throw into the mix (making a sort of pyramid, I guess) is "real time" versus "abstract time" (turn-based, action points).

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