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

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Think ‘DGIQSXZ’ is a Terrible Scrabble Rack? Think Again!

Now this is not, to be sure, a situation likely to come up in tournament play, but Scrabulizer reports this new theoretical highscoring Scrabble move (they actually reported this in May last year, so it’s hardly breaking news). [via MetaFilter]

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Handwriting Game, 1955

Image: A handwriting game being analysed by members of the Ideal Toy panel on Inventor’s Day at the Ideal Toy Company in Hollis, New York. Credit: Orlando/Getty Images, January 1st 1955.

This image, apparently showing a prototype of a ‘handwriting game’ (whatever one of those might be) being demonstrated to an eager playtesting panel, originally appeared in LIFE magazine in the 1950s. I just found it, after following some labyrinthine internet byway, in a slideshow of ‘30 Dumb Inventions’. Ouch!

One wonders what the story is. Perhaps the gentleman at the chalkboard is the inventor (and Marilyn Monroe fanatic) who, having put on his Sunday best and excitedly made his way to the Ideal Toy Company’s front door on ‘Inventor’s Day’, is captured in the photograph in the middle of a make-or-break presentation of his new-fangled prototype. As if in a scene from a 1950’s edition of Dragons’ Den.

A man in a white coat scribbles notes while a test panel consisting of two children chosen specificially for the neatness of their hair look on with ill-concealed indifference. A game about handwriting you say? In which players have to write lines on a chalkboard and then score points based on the clarity of their cursive script? I’m out!

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Game Design 101: The Price of Magic

In which I consider rules — the thorniest issue in all of game design! — muse on the nature of them, and propose my ‘Five Cs’ of good rule writing.

In the episodic graphic novel Gossamer Commons, Eric A. Burns set out to tell the story of a writer who, having saved the life of a fairy child is, somewhat ungratefully you might argue, marked for death. But before he can die, he is owed a Boon by the fairies and asks for the one thing all writers desire: the ability to write a truly significant novel, something the fairies are ill-equipped to provide.

The story was published online in 2005 and 2006 and is, as yet, unfinished, but at each step the author provided a commentary both on the project and his philosophy of writing, a commentary which included the following fantastic quote:

It’s not enough to create magic. You have to create a price for magic, too. You have to create rules.

Eric A. Burns

The author is talking of the need to create boundaries within fantasy fiction. Fiction is of course the realm of the impossible but the author’s thesis is that if no limits are placed on the power or authority of the supernatural then the storytelling itself will fail. Actions require consequence. Resolution can only follow from genuine tension. And with great power — to use an oft-repeated caveat from an entirely different fantasy franchise — must come great responsibility.

In short, the fantasy world needs rules; its magic needs a price.

What are rules?

That may may seem a trivial question, and a trivial answer might be to suggest that the rules of a game are simply the things that stop the players doing whatever the hell they like. This is true, but not particularly enlightening.

A more interesting answer might be to describe rules as the interface between two experiences: the one the designer intends the players to have, and the one the players actually experience. The designer’s hope, of course, is that these two experiences are identical, but it is the quality of the rules that will decide this. Players can never directly know the designer’s ideal. Their experience of a game is always an interpretation of that ideal, and one that is governed solely by the rules.

There are, then, two very important things to say about rules:

  1. Rules are vitally important! Without them a game would be little more than a box of colourful bits and pieces, which at best might be described as an intriguing toy. Rules are a necessary codification of everything the designer has spent months or years creating, and for the designer not to give them as much care and attention as was given to the game itself would be an act of hubristic foolishness of the highest order.
  2. Rules are largely futile! Players, being only human, are flawed, capricious beings who as a breed can rarely read with absolute attention nor be relied upon to understand what they have read with absolute precision. This is simply a statement of human nature and its accuracy and veracity cannot be disputed. Unfortunately, this means that the creation of rules is an act of hubristic foolishness of the highest order.

So it seems we have a problem, albeit one I am exaggerating for comic effect. Since these statements appear to be both true and contradictory then the truth must inevitably lie someplace else. You can, after all, never please everyone all of the time, much less teach them; and as a designer you share precisely the same flaws as everybody else. The best I think we can do is to acknowledge the following conclusion and move on:

All rule sets are imperfect, and all will be interpreted imperfectly.

The ‘Five Cs’ of good rule writing

Having accepted the folly of our endeavour, I think it’s time we got on with it, to which end I am here proposing my ‘Five Cs’ of good, or at least better, rule writing.

The first thing to say is that my intent is to formulate a cribsheet of useful and succinct ‘ways of thinking’, and not to espouse a set of prescriptive or doctrinaire ‘ways of doing’ nor some universal standard of language, structure or tone. It is important to realise that each game will have different requirements and limitations, and that each game genre a different set of stylistic and linguistic conventions.

The second thing to say is that writing rules is essentially an exercise in communication design. The purpose, then, of a rule set is to effectively communicate a game’s principles and regulations. Rule sets may do other things too — provide historical background to a war-game or a sense of narrative fantasy to a eurogame — but these are secondary concerns.

I think then that it is both possible and fair to say that a rule set is meaningfully and empirically ‘bad’ if it fails in any way to fulfil its primary objective, that of communicating the aforementioned principles and regulations. And I think too that there isn’t a ‘bad’ rule set out there that would not have been improved if the designer or rules editor had given the following five ‘ways of thinking’ just a little more thought.

Clarity

There are two ways in which the game designer needs to demonstrate clarity. It is of course always important to write clearly about the game, but for the designer there is a more important imperative: to have first thought clearly about the game.

All games have an internal logic and structure, a narrative that either originally inspired the designer or emerged as the game developed. The logic at work may be entirely personal to the designer — and quite labyrinthine and opaque to anyone else! — but no game can exist without it.

But the written rule set is not a direct translation of this logic and structure; rather, it is itself an interpretation of this deeper, and often hidden narrative. There are, in this sense, always rules behind the rules, and it is the designer’s duty to be clear on both!

Consistency

For me consistency is one of the most valuable ‘ways of thinking’, although I realise that many consider it a sort of grim addiction to an artless and rather futile pedantry. It’s true that simply being consistent certainly requires a degree of pedantry (a skill that will come more easily to some!) but within game design there is nothing simple or futile about the results.

To fail to be consistent is to introduce the possibility of confusion and error to the players. To refer to a single game piece as, for example, a ‘pawn’ in one place and a ‘man’ in another is to create an illusion of complexity that has absolutely no place in the well-designed game. How are players to interpret this apparent ‘choice’ of language? Is the disparate terminology intended to imply some semantic difference? If not, why was the different language used? Simply to create the space in which players might ask such questions is a failure on the part of the writer. A lack of consistency shows a lack of engineering nous which will do nothing to further the success of a game.

Part of the joy of game design is finding names for things; there is something profoundly rewarding and essentially creative about doing so. So choose your terminology wisely. And stick with it!

Concision

Or, to be blunt, be blunt. Be careful never to talk at unnecessary length about some aspect of the rules, or to introduce needless repetition. Note that I use the words ‘unnecessary’ and ‘needless’: lengthy or repetitious explanations are sometimes required or useful, but a written rule set is most likely to succeed in its primary objective — that of communicating a game’s principles and regulations — if the language used is as direct as possible.

The designer must consider every word of a rule set, and decide whether its inclusion or exclusion better serves the goal of effective communication.

As a native speaker I know that English is at once both a remarkably abundant language and a remarkably economical one. There are typically myriad ways to express a single idea, and whichever you choose there will usually be a shorter one. The mileage of other languages may vary, of course, but the principle is the same.

Completeness

You might think that it goes without saying that a written rule set should aim to contain all of a game’s rules. If so then it is notable that this is the one aspect of game design where commercial products often fail.

However, it is probably fair to point out that achieving completeness is not as simple as it sounds, and may often be a near-impossible goal. Game rules often need to rule as many things out as they rule in, and is it ever possible to rule out everything that a player might conceive of doing? Even the simplest games can generate ‘edge cases’ where the consequence of a sequence of actions is unclear. More complex games may generate so many that it would, at best, be impracticable to cater to all of them in a printed rule set.

The designer is therefore charged with trying to second-guess every player that may ever experience a game and provide a rule set that will satisfy most of their questions most of the time. And unfortunately this is the one directive that designers themselves will find most difficult to police. To the creator every nook and cranny of the theoretical rule set is familiar, which makes them all too easy to overlook when the theoretical rule set is transposed to a written one.

Coherence

This is perhaps the ‘The Big C’, since to me the goal of coherence represents the need to view each rule set as a single piece of communication design that ideally amounts to rather more than the sum of its parts. It is quite possible for a rule set to be complete without being particularly consistent, or to be clear without being terribly concise, but I think for a rule set to be genuinely considered all of these things — clear, consistent, concise and complete — requires it to be, in an holistic sense, coherent.

Genuine coherence combines clarity, consistency, concision and completeness with something else: an elegance and thoughtfulness in the expression of the rules that reflects the elegance and thoughtfulness of the game itself. A rule set’s language, structure and tone — the three things that I am deliberately not attempting to define here — must still be made to work seamlessly together to effectively communicate what a game is, how it is played and what it is about.

Paying the price

There are many ways to approach writing and designing a rule set, but if I am saying anything at all, then I am making a plea for writers and designers to simply take care when they do so. Anybody smart enough to design a game is smart enough to understand and apply my ‘Five Cs’, and I may have said that all rule sets are imperfect, but that’s no reason not to strain every mental sinew to improve them. If you care about your game, you must care just as passionately about your rules. That effort is the true price of magic.

And, if at the heart of that bargain, there is both necessity and futility, then there is irony too. I dismissed as trivial the notion that rules are simply the things that stop players doing whatever the hell like like. The twist is that they don’t even do that.

Players are always free to create their own magic, and it won’t cost them a penny.

This article is part of a series examining various aspects of board game design. The story so far can be found at the following locations:

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Rubik’s 360: It’s No Cube

I recall the quite phenomenal success of the original Rubik’s Cube way back in the good ol’ 1980s, and as a toy and as a genuinely classic piece of design it lives on, and doubtless will do for years, if not centuries.

I’m afraid history will likely be rather less kind to the Rubik’s 360, which is not very much more than a cunningly designed child’s rattle. Six coloured balls are imprisoned within three concentric, transparent spheres. The central sphere has one hole, the middle two, and the outer six coloured cups into which the balls must be manoeuvred. By tilting and turning the device the aim is to put the right balls in the right cups, but the two inner spheres spin on offset axes and are weighted in a way that means the balls, the holes and the cups do not straightforwardly line up.

Now, that might sound like fun to you, and as an object the Rubik’s 360 is certainly intriguing, but as a puzzle (and it is only barely a puzzle), or even simply as a dexterity challenge, it’s not much fun. I have succeeded, after a few hours fiddling, in getting the six coloured balls into the six coloured cups, and I can report that I feel absolutely no sense of accomplishment whatsoever.

So if I were you I’d save your pennies, or simply go out and buy a brand new Cube.

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The Design of Other Things: Bloom, Trope & Air iPhone Apps

In which I get out my trumpet and give it a blow, if you get my meaning.

As much as I might wish to be regarded as a game designer, the truth requires a little more finesse. Professionally I am ‘just’ a designer, and that means that from time to time I design other things too. This is one of those times.

If you have an iPhone or iPod touch then you might be familiar with Bloom, a generative music app created by musicians Brian Eno and Peter Chilvers. It’s been a big hit on the App Store since its release last year and has very recently been joined by two new sister apps: Trope and Air.

Peter Chilvers, the co-creator and developer of all three apps, is an old friend of mine and asked me to help him do the interface design work for the apps, and design the application icons (and their website). It was a fun challenge, and it has been rewarding to find the Bloom icon artwork featured in Apple Stores in the UK; it can even be glimpsed in some of the TV adverts for the iPhone aired in the US!

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Game Preview: Tobago

I’ve had my eye on this one for a while now, and yesterday I was alerted by the ever-vigilant gamers on BGG to the fact that Zoch have now posted more details on their website, including full rules in English, German and French. Before that all I had seen were a few shots of the board, which had been enough to pique my interest.

See more: Game Reviews…

The game is, it turns out, a rather clever treasure hunt set on a jungle-bound island. The modular board looks amazing, as do all the 3D elements — the huts, statues, palm trees and player vehicles.

Image: Look at all those lovely bits! The board comes in three double-sided panels that lock together to make 32 possible configurations. Cunning!

I am, it must be said, something of a sucker for such richly illustrated games, but a thorough reading of the rules reveals that the game offers a thoroughly new twist on the notion of treasure hunting.

The game has two core mechanisms, both of which appear innovative to me. First there is a collaborative deduction engine that means that the players together progressively narrow down the possible treasure locations. And second there’s a neat little push-your-luck procedure for deciding who gets the loot when the mysterious — and possibly cursed! — treasure is finally dug up.

Image: Each clue card represents a scrap of a treasure map that helps to locate each treasure. These cards specify a location that is in the river, not by the ocean, next to palm tree and not within sight of a statue. If that means the treasure can only be in one place, go get it!

The only slightly jarring part of the rules was the bit that described how the statues, from time to time, miraculously scatter the coastline with magical amulets, which of course have a variety of possible power-plays associated with them. However, this mechanism does give the players other targets to aim at on the island, other than the treasures themselves that is, and doubtless helps to add variety to the game, as well as speed things up.

Overall though the game looks and feels like a very solid, family-friendly strategy game that has a lot to offer. If I ever get a chance to try it out I’ll let you know!

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Writer’s Brick

Given the tenet of my last post, and my general love all things LEGO, this MOC (that’s LEGO-speak for ‘My Own Creation’) by LEGO virtuoso Ley Ward ticked all the boxes when I spotted it in The Brothers Brick RSS feed. Pure, simple, genius.

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Writer’s Block

In which I write something, after having not written something for a while. And why might that be?

Things have been a bit quiet at BrettSpiel Towers recently, but I shan’t insult my readers by offering empty excuses. Suffice it to say: I’ve been away and now I’m back. [Small smattering of applause.]

One thing I can say — and I imagine any readers who themselves write a blog have already realized this — is that keeping the writing up, and not allowing yourself to be completely distracted by other things, is actually pretty tricky. Bouts of international and domestic travel probably don’t help, nor do a variety of familial commitments, but the one thing that has hamstrung my writing efforts more than any other has been a failure of technology. My old MacBook died a little death a few weeks ago (its screen failed) and what with the aforementioned one thing and another it has taken me until now to get back in the technological swing of things.

Which is say that, after some prevarication, I bought a shiny new MacBook. Go me!

The thing is, I have a perfectly capable, ir rather workmanlike, PC at home upon which a myriad of new blog posts could, theoretically, have been written. However, trying to write and think while perched at my PC was such an unattractive prospect that I never even tried. The essential joy of the laptop is that I can take it with me and sit and think and write ‘someplace else’. The PC is tethered and brick-like and dull; the wrong tool in the wrong place.

At least, that is how it feels. And this is not, lest anyone think otherwise, a Mac-vs-PC argument. I happen to have a Mac laptop and a PC desktop, but I think my experience would be exactly the same if the technological platforms were reversed. Part of this is, no doubt, conditioning. I have almost always written this blog ‘someplace else’ and so now associate these other locations with successful writing (and thinking). It may just be habit.

But I wonder if there is another, more essential factor at work too. Most people, one imagines, divide their world primarily into two: ‘home’ and ‘everywhere else’. Everyone’s notion of exactly what the term ‘home’ represents may be very different, but each will necessarily come with a host of associations and conditions.

My thesis then, is that for some, perhaps for many, those associations and conditions make ‘home’, wherever and whatever it is, essentially unfit for creative endeavour. Writers have studies; artists have studios. These spaces may be in the spare bedroom, the shed at the bottom of the garden or a rented warehouse in another city, but my guess is that regardless of location, they are, literally or intellectually, separate from the writer’s or artist’s idea of ‘home’.

It’s just a thought. But one that I am having here, now, in a coffee shop in Cambridge, with my fingers gently caressing the subtly illuminated keyboard of my shiny new MacBook.

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