Theory: The Limitations on the Rules

I propound a lot of rules on this blog, and I present them as things you should always do. However, it’s important to recognize that they are not necessarily immutable or universally applicable. While I don’t believe rules are made to be broken, I do believe that they need to be properly understood—and that means giving due weight to their limitations.

One might reasonably ask why it is that game design rules aren’t as reliable as, for example, the laws of physics. I can see at least four reasons:

1. Game design rules are sometimes in tension, and so it might not be possible to follow all of them at once.

Wargames are called upon to provide reasonably accurate simulations of the conflicts they’re based on. That often means putting in some period detail. Fire in the Lake is a good game about the Vietnam War for many reasons, and among them is how it incorporates actual events and issues to create a you-are-there feeling.

At the same time, elegance is usually seen as an important design goal. Just as too much chrome is bad for the look of a car, too many special cases and deviations from the general pattern is bad for a game experience.

Top-flight wargames can balance these two considerations, detail and elegance, but they will always be in conflict. It’s just not possible for such a game to pursue either elegance or historicity to their fullest extents; doing so will prevent the game from achieving its broader goals. The design rules have to bend.

2. Sometimes you get more by breaking a rule than you do from following it.

League of Legends is arguably the most popular game in existence today. It also, as its VP of Game Design points out, breaks the rules sometimes. That’s not because League’s designers don’t know the rules; it’s because they recognize circumstances where they can get more than they give.

As a non-League example, think back to the Babylon 5 CCG. The B5CCG was probably “wrong” to have lots of off-card states to track. However, those states created levers cards used to impact the table-talk at the heart of the game. B5CCG broke a rule because doing so was important to that specific design.

It may be that this is just a subset of the previous situation; the B5CCG may actually have been following a rule (perhaps one as yet unelucidated) when it added meters that had to be tracked on a playmat. However, I think the question of “should I break this rule, given that I’ll get a lot of benefits” comes up often enough to deserve its own entry. If the cost-benefit analysis supports it, the answer is “yes.”

3. We know that some games break rules and get away with it.

An act that contravenes the laws of physics is going to have big problems, but we know from experience that games can break the rules of design and be a lot of fun. Maybe that means they’re following deeper rules than we’ve yet discovered; maybe that means the rules are mere guidelines. Either way, there’s clearly a limit to how much respect the rules of design are due.

4. I don’t know everything.

The fact is that I’m learning as I go. Sometimes I’ll have an incomplete understanding, and thus propound an incomplete rule; sometimes I may just turn out to be wrong. Rules are best when they’re made by the best, and I’m not there yet.

Try letting go

I like rules. I think they’re useful. I’ll even go so far as to say that I believe in their power and utility.

However, the rules of game design aren’t as ironclad as the rules of science. Perhaps that’s because they can’t be; perhaps we simply aren’t as far along in our understanding of them. Either way, it’s always worth keeping in mind that the rules may not be leading you in the right direction. Recognize their limitations, and allow yourself the freedom to—judiciously—break them.

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