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Game Design Essentials: 20 Real-World Games

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.

[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.


1. Go

Cultural game

Type: Two-player abstract strategic territory claiming

Depth: Extreme

Designed by: Unknown (lost to time)

Luck factor: None

Description: Two players alternate placing stone on a grid, claiming territory and attacking groups of opposing stones.

Play Summary

At its core Go is a territory acquisition game. The players take turns placing stones, either white or black -- with each player placing one, on the intersections, or points, of a 19 x 19 grid.

A basic means of interaction between the players is capturing pieces, which is done by surrounding a contiguous group of enemy stones completely with your own so they have no liberties, or adjacent free points. Then the enemy stones are removed from the board and score the capturing player points. These essentially score twice: once for each captured piece, and again for the now-empty, surrounded territory left by them.

This generally means that players are penalized less for not contesting un-winnable regions, since trying to save them spends doomed stones and turns, but the question of what is and isn't winnable isn't always obvious. Any unoccupied space is legal for placement, with two exceptions; you cannot place a piece where it would be immediately captured (unless it captures in the process, saving itself), and you can't make a move that recreates a prior board state (which prevents capture loops).

Adjacent stones of the same color live (remain on the board) or die (are captured) together, as a unit. Larger clumps are more difficult to capture, but not proportionately so. Think on this: a single stone in the middle of the board requires four opponent stones to capture it, but a pair requires six, only 50 percent more. Strung-out groups are generally more viable than concentrated clumps.

However, single stones cannot capture territory, and larger groups can be harder to capture for other reasons. Notably, a group that is close to being captured can often saved if it can be joined with another, freer, group, combining their liberties

Territory is claimed by surrounding it with your color stones, but it isn't enough just to surround it; if the other player has stones within a field of territory that are viable, then the territory is contested and doesn't yet score. Territory is contested when it's possible for the opponent to form two eyes within it, contained liberties surrounded by stones. In practice this involves agreement between the players; if the players don't agree, then they must play out the situation until it's obvious whether the invading group will survive or must perish.

A consequence of the capturing rules is that a group of stones containing two eyes is impossible to capture unless the defender foolishly fills in one of the spaces himself. To make eyes requires space for the stones that define the eye and turns in which to place them, which may be interfered with by the defending player.

More advanced topics are the questions of whether a given region is large enough that an eye-containing cluster of stones can be made inside, how to go about forming that cluster, attacking the opponent's attempts to make such safe groups in your own territory, and high-level strategic play concerning staking out regions of the board and defending them from intrusion.

What can we draw from this game?

Go is one of the great classics. There remains almost an air of the exotic around it today; the first task of a non-Japanese learning to play is to get over that. It is substantially different from more Western-style board games, and is extremely deep, but it is not that hard to learn the basics.

Go is infamously difficult for computer programs to play well. While chess software has won against grandmasters, the best Go programs are routinely beaten by intermediate human players. One reason is that the combinatorial explosion of possible moves is even greater than that of chess, making it difficult to exhaust positions through brute force. Another part might be due to the importance of high-level strategy in the early game setting up the character of the board for the battle to come.

Further reading: The Interactive Way to Go is an excellent way to learn to play.


2. Chess

Cultural game

Type: Two-player abstract tactical piece-taking

Depth: Extreme

Designed by: Unknown (lost to time)

Luck factor: None

Description: Two players alternate moving pieces, with different movement and attack patterns, around a checkerboard to try to threaten the opposing side's king.

Play Summary

On a checkerboard of eight by eight squares two players engage in an abstract tactical battle. They each have 16 pieces of six different types. Each has a certain simple movement pattern unique to it.

On each turn, a player moves one, and only one, of his pieces. (There are a couple of exceptions to this, but they are beyond the scope of this interview. There are plenty of places to learn about Chess anyway.)

These are the pieces in the game:

  • Pawns only move forward, across the board. They are halted if any piece stands in its way, but they can capture by moving diagonally forward. This is the only way they can move other than straight ahead. If a pawn makes it to the other end of the board, it promotes, turning into any other kind of piece besides king. (90 percent of the time, this means Queen.)
  • Rooks move as many spaces as they have room horizontally or vertically. They are powerful pieces, but are difficult to effectively bring into play due to starting in the corner.
  • Bishops move only diagonally. They are less powerful than rooks generally, but can enter play much faster. A consequence of their movement pattern is that a bishop can never enter a board space of the color opposite the one it started on; if it begins on black, it can never move onto white. In consequence, a bishop can only ever attack half the spaces on the board.
  • Knights are strange pieces. They jump as they move, two spaces in one cardinal direction and one to the side. They "pass over" any intervening pieces. They are the only type of piece that doesn't have to worry about being blocked by intervening pieces, but this is balanced by their limited range and movement options. It requires a knight a minimum of three turns to move to an adjacent space. Knights are the only kind of piece that can make moves a queen cannot duplicate, which makes them an alternate choice for pawn promotion. On the first turn of the game all the pieces are behind a wall of pawns, but this doesn't hinder knights.
  • Queens are the most powerful pieces on the board, combining the movement options of rooks and bishops. Each side only gets one, barring pawn promotion. Losing the Queen is a major setback unless great advantage is earned in compensation.
  • Kings move like queens, except they move at most one space at a time. This makes them only a bit more powerful then pawns. Since losing the king loses the game, protecting this piece is essential.

Moving a piece into the same space as an opponent's piece "captures" it, removing it from the game and so reducing its owner's arsenal. No piece may move through another, which sometimes creates instances where one's own pieces limit movement and capturing options by getting in the way. This is especially the case at the beginning of the game, where the line of pawns at the front of each player's army block the attacks of the more-powerful pieces behind them.

The king is a weak piece in movement range and attack potential, but it is of great importance because its loss means losing the game. In practice the king is never actually captured; the game ends when it gets in a situation of inescapable danger.

The emphasis, thus, is not to capture the king through opponent error, hoping he does not notice a threat. Instead it is on engineering situations, covering escape routes and pinning down defenders. This emphasis on situations, creating and surviving them, as opposed to meta-game distractions, is an important distinction for serious gameplay. Chess enthusiasts take this to unequaled heights.

The various other pieces have their own movement styles, and studying how they interact and comparing their value is the core of the game. Ultimately chess is a game of tactics, of the worth of individual moves, but a good strategic sense of the game can greatly expand one's options.

What can we draw from this game?

If you're making a tactical wargame, then you can't go wrong from making a study of Chess, to which they owe a great debt. To pick a simple example: many video wargames give players a unit whose loss means immediate loss. Most of the time this unit is like the king in Chess -- fairly weak and so best left off the front lines.

Much has been made lately of the great strides made by computer chess programs. Their greatest strength is providing an immensely strong tactical machine, being able to search for strong moves by brute-force computation rather than human insight, but the sheer number of moves a tactics engine would have to examine to exhaust even a simple situation means that, even now, the best chess programs make use of heuristic, strategic play as well.

Another great advantage possessed by these programs is having a vast database of pre-considered situations to work from, histories of pre-played games stored in a database. This is of the greatest value at the beginning of a game, in which the situations encountered are common to many different games.

It has been observed that Chess has become somewhat mired in its vast history of play. Most multiplayer computer games, when you come down to it, have game-breaking strategies that become evident only after a lot of study. A key aim of the multiplayer game designer is to minimize the chances of this, which is difficult without the benefit of an extensive play history to study. No game has as extensive a play history as Chess; it is probably the most studied game in the world, and has innumerable lessons to teach.


3. Parcheesi

American adaptation of an Indian game

Type: Two to four player "Cross And Circle" race

Depth: Low

Designed by: Unknown (lost to time)

Luck factor: High

Description: From two to four players roll to have pieces enter a circular track. They attempt to get them around one complete circle and inter them home before other players capture them, while trying to capture opposing pieces themselves.

Play Summary

A variant of the Indian game Pachisi, which is played on a similar board. There are other games that take inspiration from Pachisi, such as the British game Ludo. They are both what is referred to as race games, where the players attempt to move their pieces along a track in order to get "home."

These games are usually played with dice, and because the number of spaces moves is determined through this random process, if poor rolls are made there is not much players can do to win. To some people this is actually a strength of the game, because it allows even children to win sometimes against experienced players. For more advanced players wishing to test their strategic mettle and master a game, it is annoying.

Parcheesi is called a Cross and Circle game, named such due to the shape of the board and off-sides areas. They give each of (typically) four players staggered start and home locations along a cyclic track. The way player pieces proceed, and how their paths intersect with those of opponent pieces, adds a little strategic interest to what is mostly a simple category of games.

In play, the players take turns rolling two dice and moving clockwise around the board, trying to get their pieces from a start location to a home location slightly counter-clockwise from it, so they end up traversing almost the whole board. Each side is trying to do this with multiple pieces, and the piece that is moved can be selected from those out on the journey, which adds a little more strategy.

The dice can be "split" between two different pieces as well; if a three and a five are rolled, one piece may be moved three spaces and another five, or one can be moved eight. In the event that doubles (both dice the same number) are rolled, then additionally the player may move the numbers of the reverse of the dice (which are always seven minus that number). Two threes, thus, would be supplemented by two fours.

If a piece can be made to land on an opponent's piece's space with an exact count of the dice, the other piece is captured and returned to that opponent's start, where it must be returned to the board before it can resume its journey. A roll of five, or a total of five, must be made in order to introduce pieces, so this makes the players even more vulnerable to bad die rolls.

A piece that is gotten home is safe and is an important step towards winning, but can no longer land on other pieces and hinder opponents. This puts an emphasis on having one's pieces slightly behind others on the track, giving the player the opportunity to capture pieces, and not have others' pieces behind his own, making his pieces vulnerable to capture.

Having multiple pieces on the board gives a player more capture options and allows him to better position pieces (since a roll can be given to any piece on the track), but also makes him more vulnerable to capture.

What can we draw from this game?

Parcheesi is ultimately too dependent on luck. Before you can even enter a piece you have to roll the right number, and if a piece gets captured you must roll it again. Nothing guarantees you'll be able to enter any pieces at all in your game, although the chances of that happening are slim.

I would not suggest that all randomness weakens a game. Also, while randomness can give a weak player an edge in some cases, this helps encourage those people to play and thus, maybe, get better. Over successive games it is rare for lucky streaks to hold. And in the games that use luck the best, even excellent die rolls are not enough to overcome a strong strategic player. Unfortunately, Parcheesi is not that good of a game by these standards.

Ancestors & descendants: The ancient Indian game of Ashta-kashte is a forerunner to Pachisi. Pachisi is an ancestor of both important cultural games like Backgammon and commercial games like Hasbro's Sorry!


4. Backgammon

Cultural game

Type: Two-player highly competitive race game

Depth: High

Designed by: Unknown (lost to time)

Luck factor: Moderate

Description: A race game, like Parcheesi. Unlike Parcheesi there are only two players, there are lots of pieces to move instead of four, they are all in play from the start, blocking opponent movement is an important part of the game, and the game offers a diabolical betting system. The result is a game with much more strategy than may first appear.

Play Summary

At a glance backgammon appears to have nothing in common with Circle and Cross games like Parcheesi, but the basic play is similar. The two players take turns rolling pairs of dice to move pawns around a linear track. They can split up the dice and move two pieces separately, or move one piece twice.

Unlike Parcheesi, the players move around the board in opposite directions, by each other. Multiple pieces of one player may rest on a single space, and these pieces are immune to capture and block enemy movement onto (but not beyond) that spot. Doubles count as four dice of the same number, facilitating extra movement.

All pieces begin on the board at various positions already along the way, which helps to remedy Parcheesi's game-slowing, luck-dependent initial introduction of pieces. When a capture is made, called a blot in the game's lingo, the enemy piece is sent to a storage location called the bar, and on the next turn the penalized player must use one of his dice to return that checker to the board on his opponent's home area, on the space matching the die's number, so it can resume its movement around the board.

Blots tend to be inevitable eventually, though careful movement of checkers can greatly minimize them. Returns are mandatory when available. It is possible for a return to be blocked by enemy pieces that have made it home, and if both numbers are blocked no return is possible and the player loses his turn.

This is called dancing. With careful play and a bit of luck, the entire home area can be so blocked, guaranteeing a perpetual dance until the home area is sufficiently cleared. There is no immunity for returning pieces, which are open to attack like any others, but returning pieces can blot single checkers.

When pieces are brought to the home board, the six spots closest to their destination, they may be borne off by rolling a die matching its space. The winner is the player who first bears off all his checkers.

The warring aspects of luck and strategy make Backgammon a favorite game for betting, and most sets come with an infernal little device called a doubling cube. The cube is usually an ordinary die with the powers of 2 on its sides, up to 64. If in use, then before a player's turn, if he is reasonably confident of winning, he may place the cube on the table and set it to 2.

This raises the stakes for the game; any wagered amount is doubled, or if the game is worth points towards a match, those are doubled. The other player must either concede immediately, giving the win to the doubling player at original stakes, or agree to the increased stakes. The player accepting the double may later double it again if he thinks his chances are good. There are many other rules surrounding the doubling cube; it is a source of continued innovation in the rules to Backgammon.

What can we draw from this game?

It might not seem so at first, but the increase in number of pieces, blocking play, and counter movement directions makes Backgammon much more strategic than the Circle and Cross games. Careful placement of blocks, made while mindful of the limits of piece ranges, can force opposing checkers to moving separately, opening up opportunities for blots, or even preventing movement altogether, wasting turns.

Although luck plays an inescapable role, high-level play can make a player appear luckier. The idea is to place your checkers so that fewer possible numbers rolled will be useful to the opponent, and more are useful to yourself, thus requiring good luck from the enemy while hedging against bad luck for yourself.

The doubling aspect helps to hurry the game. In cases where a player is strongly favored to win, it is in his best interest to double, potentially ending the game immediately. This helps keep up the game's pace; when it becomes obvious one player will win, the incentive is to end immediately instead of drawing it out. There are a wide array of house and tournament rules regarding use of the cube. These make for interesting reading; the Wikipedia page on Backgammon lists some popular variations.

It is a trend in board game circles to avoid games with a luck component, or minimize its presence in designs, but Backgammon shows that luck can play a strong role in a highly strategic game. The presence of dice need not restrict the game to being an immediate examination of tactics. A consideration of the odds of the dice may add tremendous strategic depth to a game.


5. Monopoly

Published by Hasbro

Type: Two to six player financial trading (three required for a good game, better with more)

Depth: Low to medium

Designed by: Charles Darrow, deriving from the work of Elizabeth J. Magie Phillips. (There is some degree of confusion -- even outright misinformation -- concerning the game's origins.)

Popularity: High

Luck factor: Large

Description: Players take turns rolling dice and moving around a square board, first buying properties, then more often paying rent as the game continues.

Once a property is purchased it brings money to the owner every time an opponent lands on it, but the amounts only become significant once an entire group is owned and houses are built on it.

Usually the players will not be able to acquire an entire group by themselves, so trading between players is important. The winner is the last player in the game after everyone else runs out of money.

Play Summary

Monopoly is the most popular commercial board game in the world, but many board game enthusiasts look down on it as being overly ruled by luck and taking much too long to play. They have a good point, but there are also things to like about it.

The game board is square, and cyclical, with various spaces marked out along the edges. Each player moves a token around the edge, according to die rolls. Completing a cycle by passing Go awards a modest money award, called salary. Most of the spaces on the board list the name of a property, along with a purchase value. Landing on one grants the player the opportunity to buy it from the bank (which owns everything not owned by players), granting the player its title deed card as mark of ownership.

Owning a property brings money to the player whenever another player lands on it; if it is not purchased, it is auctioned to the other players. Die rolls basically simulate the passage of time. Early in a game they are a source of opportunity, but later they are dangerous.

Players begin with $1,500 in game currency, and in the true capitalist spirit this money is best spent in order to obtain opportunities for making more. Since opportunities are awarded from landing on unowned spaces, they are quasi-randomly distributed throughout the early game. The intent is to generate interesting trading situations, which are the heart of Monopoly. These situations are the real "game" here; the following hours of die rolling and movement that are a test that proves their quality.

Players may trade properties between each other for any in-game sum agreed upon, including trading properties for properties, or a combination of properties and cash. Properties can also be mortgaged to the bank for funds. Mortgaging can be done at a moment's notice to pay rent, get money for trading, or to meet the purchase (or auction) price of a property.

The deeds of mortgaged properties are turned over on the table; nothing can be built on these properties and they earn no rent. Properties can be returned to profitability by unmortgaging them, paying the bank the mortgage sum plus ten percent. Mortgaging instead of trading keeps one's options open, but mortgages only pay half the purchase value of a property. Mortgaged properties can be traded, but the buyer must immediately pay 10 percent interest and can't make use of the property without paying it off, so they are of degraded value as trade goods.

The gold mine of Monopoly is when, through trading or luck, a player manages to obtain all the properties in a given color group. Then that player may improve the group by buying houses for them. Rents for various numbers of houses are listed on each title deed card, and go up rapidly with houses built.

Even a single house greatly increases the charged rent for a property, but the third house provides a huge increase. The fifth and last house is called a hotel. Landing on a three-house space can be an emergency for a player; landing on a hotel is often fatal. A player who runs out of money and can't (or won't) raise the money through mortgages, house sales or trades is bankrupt, and leaves the game. All his property goes to the player who was owed, who often at this point acquires a game-winning advantage.

What can we draw from this game?

If you read this description and think it sounds more like a condemnation of capitalism than a celebration of it, you might be on to something. The early version of the game Charles Darrow cribbed from to create Monopoly, called The Landlord's Game, was rather more critical in tone.

Monopoly is somewhat burdened by its popular

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