Theory: Game Design Postulates

I said last time that “awkward rules are bad” felt like a postulate. After some further consideration, I believe I was mistaken in seeing a postulate there. However, it did get me thinking about underlying ideas in game design; just because awkardness-is-bad might not be a postulate doesn’t mean there aren’t any.

Now, I haven’t taken a math course for a very long time. However, in my memory (and a very brief internet search seems to agree), a postulate is something that can’t be proven through logic, but is so self-evident that it can be assumed as a foundational matter. In Euclidian geometry, a line can be drawn between any two points because it’s sensible for that to be true; one can’t prove it by building up from something else, but it’s so intuitive that there’s no cause to dispute it.

By contrast, “awkward rules are bad” is not as foundational as the properties of a line in geometry. A game can work with awkward rules. Furthermore, it’s not self-evident that awkwardness in rules is a problem. I grew up playing Avalon Hill wargames, and at the time I found their somewhat arcane rules charming. I enjoyed the challenge of figuring the game out, and when I had succeeded I felt like I had joined a select group who were initiated into a secret (admittedly the secrets were things like “how the wind rules interact with artillery smoke to block line of sight over the battlefield,” but still). Nor can I say that the proposition is inherently unprovable. If awkward rules are a problem, there ought to be reasons why and examples showing it.

With that said, I would like to lay down two things that I think really are postulates:

1. Fun is the goal. My interest here is in creating fun games. This blog isn’t about things like the prisoner’s dilemma; that’s a game, true, and it has fascinating implications for the field of game theory, but it’s not meant to be entertaining. My objective is to make fun games, and to understand better how one goes about doing so.

2. A game is defined by its rules. When one plays by different rules, intentionally or unintentionally, one is playing a different game. Monopoly is an enormously different experience when one puts money under Free Parking; strategies that work in a fighting game played without a timer will surely fail when the timer is turned on. (Seriously, turn the timer on. The designers included it for a reason. I can tell you from experience that the game will be better.) To participate in, understand, evaluate, and ultimately learn from a game one must play it by its rules; otherwise one is studying some other game.

The second postulate shows why the rulebook for Over the Next Dune needs to reflect how it is actually played, an idea I tripped on a bit in the last post. If OtND has any value (and I hope it does!), I want people to play it. If they are playing some other game they are not getting the value I want them to receive. In fact, I am concerned that they will get much less, because the game they are playing has not been tested and may very well be terrible. (OK, Over the Next Dune might also currently be terrible; part of the project here is to make it better!) Making sure that the rulebook is correct will help guide players to what I anticipate will be a good experience.

Neither of these postulates, however, directly addresses the issue of awkward rules. We’ll take that up in the future.

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