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


Let’s Play: Why Games Might Not Be What You Think They Are

In which I tackle, once again, the central question of games and game design. My personal realisation of the answer is new, although I cannot claim the answer itself to be. Plus, it might not be the one you were expecting.

First principles, Clarice. Simplicity. Read Marcus Aurelius. Of each particular thing ask: What is it in itself? What is its nature?

Hannibal Lecter, The Silence of the Lambs

What is a game? A long time ago, soon after the beginning of my boardgame blogging career, I wrestled with this question and my proposal for a workable definition was this:

Game (noun): a competition for the acquisition of value.

It isn’t, to be sure, a particularly good definition, but part of its purpose at the time was to support my argument that ‘games’ and ‘puzzles’ were demonstrably different things; I believed that beginning by defining what a game is not might help in the long run. More recently Lewis Pulsipher, writing on his blog, had this to say on the same subject:

Many Euro-style games are actually puzzles. And that is probably one reason why people don’t play them very many times (with exceptions, of course) before they move on to something else, they’ve figured out the puzzle and they are done. A game that cannot be solved by people, such as chess, or Britannia, is one that people can play 500 times and still enjoy, because the major interest in the game is figuring out the other players and how to outdo the other players. In a Eurogame the purpose is rarely to figure out the other players and outdo the other players

Another way to put this is, in puzzle-style Euro and video games players ‘play the system’; in ‘real’ games the players ‘play the other players,’ though they have to be good at the system as well.

It’s easy to disagree with parts of Lewis’ argument, but the observation that some Eurogames are essentially ‘puzzle-like’ in nature is undeniably true. After all, the phrase ‘multiplayer solitaire’ — itself so often used as a stick with which to beat the Eurogame crowd — is an entirely accurate description of games such as Matt Leacock’s Forbidden Island or Knizia’s FITS in which the players, as a group or individually, play the game to ‘solve’ what are unarguably puzzle-like game-states.

Eric Hanuise, writing in a comment on Lewis’ post, offered this rationalisation:

The point seems to be that many eurogames boil down to an optimisation exercise [and that] once a player has explored enough avenues of optimisation, he'll eventually reach a point of diminishing returns between the effort/time invested in mastering the game and the overall improvement in his score from game to game.

I can’t wholly agree with that assessment either, but my argument is not to artificially square-off on one or other side of a ‘Eurogame vs. [insert game genre of your choice]’ debate. Nor to observe that if ‘optimisation exercise’ is indeed a good classification of many Eurogames, then that is only because it is surely a workable classification of almost any competitive endeavour, including every other game.

No, my argument is that the definitions of what constitutes a game that are implicit in Lewis and Eric’s comments suffer from precisely the same flaw that my original definition did. I wanted to draw a line between ‘games’ and ‘puzzles’; Lewis wanted to draw a different line between what he considered to be ‘puzzle-like’ games and ‘real’ games. But the problem with these definitions is not that they lack specificity — that they do not somehow say enough about what is and is not a game — the problem is that they are all far too limiting.

It is a hoary old cliché of the entire subject to quote Benjamin Franklin, but I do so without irony; everyone confronted with this statement understands the truth of it, even if it is, I think, a truth that we sometimes forget.

We do not stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.

When very young children play they do so joyously, with an artless, atavistic freedom. What is curious is how naturally that playful freedom becomes ordered, and how instinctive it is for children to accept limits on play proposed by their peers or elders, or to impose their own. So the child stops merely playing, but rather learns, very quickly, what it is to play ‘by the rules’. And when we, as adults, play a game, we are essentially continuing the tradition of this childhood experience, albeit with the acceptance of often far more deliberate and complex intellectual limits.

None of this is particularly profound, but my reason for rehearsing these arguments is to attempt to highlight something fundamental about games that I think is often lost when we speak of them. I have myself spent much time in these pages talking about games and game design, often in an attempt to analyse and classify their constituent parts. These discussions are valid, as are discussions about what is and is not a game, but too often when I revisit my own words and the words of others I find the words themselves just a little too mundane.

This is what I mean when I say that the definitions are too limiting: they attempt to prescribe the nature of games and the experience of playing them in purely rational, analytical terms, almost as if the very purpose of a game was to allow just such a description. We talk about mechanisms, components, theme and interaction; we talk about perfect and hidden information, balance and optimisation, conflict and cooperation, turn order, role selection, king-making, action points, victory points, resource management, worker placement and multiplayer solitaire.

All of which — to borrow a poet’s derision — is an entirely politic, cautious and meticulous vocabulary, and hardly one that the playful child, if somehow gifted our adult sensibilities, would choose.

What, then, is a game? A game is any activity, or design for an activity, that offers, or has the potential to offer, ‘structured play’.

What this definition means is that the concept of a ‘game’ is far broader and more inclusive than I had thought, and that it can and should be freed of the artificial constraints of our often technical and prosaic language. Games may have objectives, competition, conflict and victory; they may have winners and losers, allow only a single player or a multitude, and be experiences undertaken in the playground, at home or solely in the mind; they may contain any or all of the design elements that I have already listed, but they are not required either to be or to contain any of these things to remain games.

Everyone knows what ‘play’ is, and what it means to them — it is both completely universal and utterly personal. And for ‘play’ to become a ‘game’ it requires only structure: a degree of formalism that may be represented, in some sense, by ‘rules’. The nature of the play and its structure is unimportant; but if you have both, then you have a game.

I am neither the first nor the most eloquent to make this argument, and, indeed, I now realise that I have made parts of it before. When I wrote about how game designers should avoid creating actions without adventure, or made the bold, if curious, statement that no-one eats cake to taste the flour, I was making precisely the same argument, although I didn’t recognise it at the time.

It will be said that, while a little leisure is pleasant, men would not know how to fill their days if they had only four hours of work out of the twenty-four. In so far as this is true in the modern world, it is a condemnation of our civilization; it would not have been true at any earlier period. There was formerly a capacity for light-heartedness and play which has been to some extent inhibited by the cult of efficiency. The modern man thinks that everything ought to be done for the sake of something else, and never for its own sake.

Bertrand Russell, In Praise of Idleness

My plea, then, is this: let us strive to remember something important when we play games; let us remember, truly, to play. Do not confuse, as I have done in the past, the game with the playing of it. Feel free, of course, to ask questions of the game and to interrogate its construction and intent, but do not forget that the answers to those questions and the experience of playing the game are different things.

For the game designer this distinction is everything; I cannot overstate how important I believe it to be. Reiner Knizia has said of playing games that “the goal is to win, but it is the goal that is important, not the winning.” I agree whole-heartedly with his sentiment, but his language, in my extremely humble opinion, exhibits precisely the failing that I have here been seeking to expose.

The goal is indeed important, but it is not to win — it is, quite simply, to play.

Excellent article!
At the end, what is important is how you feel when you play the game. If you have a good time the game is good, regardless the mechanics/components/theme...

Such a long blog entry! Raises so many thoughts! So here they are in no particular order:

In the course of playing tabletop games over the years (includes games that don't have boards or cards but excludes video games) and reviewing and playing unpublished prototypes in competitions and collegial meetings, I think the important distinctions are between puzzles and games and between good games and temporary distractions. ;-)

I frequently use the term "group solitaire" to call out examples of this latter group. Race for the Galaxy is a popular card game, and in it, the only reason that other players are there is to provide a single random element (which activity one may perform on a turn) and to determine the end of the game (someone fills the victory conditions).

Games like Power Grid and Caylus for me are "optimization games," if you want to call them that and don't mind my American spelling. There is a single strategy that leads to a win in both games, and once you learn it, it's just a matter of luck whether you get the cards at the right time. No other competing strategy can beat the single winning strategy, ever.

When I decided to name my game company Strategic Space, there were of course a lot of reasons, but one thing I wanted it to communicate was my interest in games that have enough flexibility in how they are played and won that you are always finding a new strategic point to play from depending on the other players and their choices.

I have been at sort of a quandary about what to do with a game like 4th Corner, one of the first I published. I've found that some people are happy to just play the game, and other people are frustrated that the winning objective isn't known until fairly late in the game. The strategy in the game is in thwarting your opponents and positioning yourself well to be the first out of the maze, wherever the exit ends up appearing. Some players are so conditioned to move toward a goal, they are clueless when forced to just prepare to reach a goal, I suspect.

My business partner recently gave me a challenge -- to design a game that used exactly 6 distinct figurines that were already produced and ready to ship from the UK. Her first design impulse was to make the game a combination of American-style roll-and-move mechanic and trivia testing. I cringed. Roll and move is pure luck, and trivia is knowledge testing, not play. I believe good games need to allow for play.

It became most clear in some games of RoboRally lately. (And in hindsight, I remember calling some players nihilists because they did what I have started doing in RoboRally.) When it seemed clear that I was too far behind to achieve the game's winning condition, I set another achievement goal: To make life hell or eliminate either the current leader or any player who had pissed me off. Strangely, the shift in objective was as fun or more fun, because so much of the ability to win the game is based on the hand of cards you're dealt. If you get a good mix of cards, you can win easily.

So when I can, I'm looking for games that allow for a variety of winning objectives, have only enough luck to balance or enliven the game, and provide new challenges each time I play.

In the meantime, I'll just try to get the timing of my connections and resource buys exactly right in Power Grid, I suppose. ;-)

I like the more inclusive definition - it opens the designer's mind to what is possible, instead of defining what isn't.

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