Concept, the Concept behind it, and the Concept of Game Design

Over the weekend I had the opportunity to try Concept. I’ll be frank: it didn’t grab me at first. However, as time has gone on I’ve started to appreciate it more and more. It’s really forced me to think in detail about the boundaries of what counts as a game.

Concept is a lot different from most other games; it’s sort of like Pictionary with pre-set images. There is a board with pictures, and on your turn you mark various pictures to try to get the other players to guess a word or phrase from a card. For example, at one point a teammate and I had “Mount Rushmore;” we marked a picture with a rock, a picture with an arrow that we hoped would denote “tall,” and put four markers next to a picture of people in historical garb. (We also put down lots of other markers, which proved to be incredibly confusing to the group and generally a bad idea. 😉 ) Those who had played before felt that the scoring system in the game didn’t add much to the experience, so we played without keeping track of who was winning; the only goal was to communicate as effectively as possible.

Immediately after playing I found the game was interesting, but kind of odd. Another player commented that it was more of an activity than a game, and I felt like that was about right. There was a task, and when you completed it you moved on. A fascinating exercise–expressing “heritage” with pictures was not easy–but not a game.

Yet, when I compare Concept to the rules for what-is-a-game, I find it meets all of them. Played for fun? Check. Rules? Nothing complicated, but they’re there. We played without scoring, but measuring victory isn’t a requirement for a game; think about SimCity, or some variations of Minecraft, or 99% of all role-playing games.

Moreover, of all the games I played over the weekend Concept is the one I keep thinking about. It was undeniably interesting, with tough decisions and a lot of thought involved. (Oh man, “heritage.” Don’t get me started.) Concept was also by far the newest experience. One of my tests for “should I buy this game” is “do I already own something that provides similar gameplay;” I don’t have anything on my shelf that’s like Concept.

So why was I cold on it at first? I think it was because I went in expecting . . . well, something that felt like other games. What I got was a really offbeat experience. It wasn’t until I had time to sit and think about Concept that I realized that (a) there’s a game there and (b) for all that it threw me off-balance, I greatly enjoyed it.

At this point, I think the best word for Concept is “refreshing.” Being so different from other games while still being a game and pushing the emotional and intellectual buttons games do is an accomplishment. It renews my faith in game design as a field; it doesn’t have to narrow down to a few valid designs, but can instead open up to many different experiences that all work.

When I taught school, seeing really great teachers made me want to teach like them. As an attorney, watching great lawyers work inspires me to litigate the way they do. In game design, Concept makes me want to try to build something that extends the boundaries of games the way it does. If you’re interested in the field, I would urge you to check it out; I think you’ll find it as interesting as I do.

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