Theory: Eras of Game Design?

Are principles of good game design timeless?

In the last post we talked about how the Babylon 5 CCG was a lot of fun, even though it did a lot of things differently from how most games work today. It eschewed elegance in favor of a baroque ruleset, and the game’s cards are text-heavy, more so than is usual in current card games. Was the game fun in spite of its diversions from now-accepted design principles, or was it complying with the standards of a different era?

I’ve been turning that issue over in my mind, and I’ve only ended up with more questions:

1. Has technology created a new era? Imbalances in a game are much more likely to be detected, and optimal solutions are arrived at much more quickly, now that players worldwide can pool data and compare notes. Problems with a game’s design that might never have needed to be addressed in the past can show up very quickly in the internet age. We have seen this dynamic at play with Magic: the Gathering, which actually reduced the amount of information coming out of online tournaments because it was becoming too easy to home in on the best decks.

Yet, it’s always been possible to solve games, or at least to find optimal strategies. The Russian Campaign, a classic Avalon Hill wargame, cheerfully provides the optimal opening positions for the Russians in its rulebook. Players of Starfleet Battles were certain that getting the alpha strike was critical until someone showed that precisely managing one’s weapons to maximize damage over several turns led to better results. Did the internet change the situation for designers, or just contribute to one that always existed?

2. Where is the necessary information? Some game design principles might be contingent on historical factors outside the game rules. For example, I think it’s broadly agreed today that cards should have as much information as possible along the sides, so that the information is visible when the cards are held in a fan. That’s only a rule, however, because most people hold cards that way. Were cards held differently in other times and places? For example, cards might be held vertically so that the tops are visible instead of the sides, leading to a different standard for how cards should be laid out. Where would one find that out? How would one even know to look for it?

3. How universally should the rules be stated? Suppose the rule for cards was not “put information on the sides,” but rather, “put information where it will be visible when the cards are held naturally.” At that point the design rule becomes flexible, able to accommodate regional and temporal variations in how people organize cards in their hands. What design principles can be put in such broad terms? Where they can be, should they be? Or are the idiosyncrasies of each time and place part of what denotes eras of game design?

4. Which rules of design can define eras? “The game should involve interesting decisions” has probably been an important standard for many games throughout history. If there was a time when everyone agreed that games should be boring, it seems like that would represent a distinct era, and we might have to evaluate games from it very differently. What, though, about the information-on-the-sides-of-cards rule? Is that important enough that a change in it would represent a distinct period in game design history?

5. What work has already been done in this area? At times I feel the limits on my knowledge of the academic work in game design keenly. This is one of those times; I’m sure I’m not the first person to think about this, and I wonder what conclusions others have reached.

2 thoughts on “Theory: Eras of Game Design?

  1. There are no rules of design, for many of the reasons you expressed.

    There are trends and guidelines, but as soon as you codify a rule, there’s an exception.

    Even “put information where it will be visible when the cards are held naturally” is a flawed rule because you might have a game where players are meant to get incidental glimpses at each other’s hands.

    Players identify game shortcuts that work 90+% of the time, but the vigilant player reevaluates that shortcut in each new context, applying the goal behind it rather than the rhetoric. Designers do well to do the same.

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