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.


Theory: Baroque Game Design

The Babylon 5 CCG was a game about everything.

It’s hard even to begin to explain what players could do in the B5CCG. Each player took the role of an ambassador on a space station, with the goal of accumulating political influence. They could do that through diplomacy, or by intriguing against other players, or via missions of conquest, or with mind-readers who stole valuable secrets, or by generating unrest in opposing factions. Players lent their strength to a budding galactic government, or voluntarily became client-states of ancient powers in return for a portion of their might.

Some strategies revolved around following a single character through his or her story arc–or changing that arc, turning terrible villains into destined heroes or vice-versa. Other strategies were all about building up groups. I mean that literally; there was a card type called “Group,” which gives a sense of just how much was going on in this game.

Votes of the players were common, on every topic from who should gain influence to whether someone should be allowed to play a card from outside the game. Occasionally these votes were rigged through in-game effects. Usually getting a vote passed relied on table-talk.

Games were long, and could be very long. Part of that was just because there was a lot to do; a four-player game might well have five “conflicts” to participate in during a turn, along with playing cards and drawing and otherwise doing card game-y things. Some of the length resulted from the fact that real-life diplomacy wasn’t just encouraged, it was vital. Occasionally a game grew long because of mechanical factors: woe betide anyone who has somewhere else to be if the Shadow War between the ancient powers starts.

In some respects the Babylon 5 CCG is an example of a previous era in game design, when the baroque was more appreciated than the elegant and more detail was considered almost strictly better. This extends from the top-level things one does–even a two-player game involves tracking the influence of five different groups, and basically requires a playmat–to individual cards, a few of which have so much text that they’re difficult even to parse. I still remember a discussion around the table of exactly what “Triple-Cross” did.

Yet, the B5CCG’s intricacies gave it what I can only describe as a rich texture. It felt more like a simulator than like a game, and at its best it was deeply immersive. One plotted and schemed and made deals and broke them, masterminding a rise to power worthy of the television series the game was based on. The mechanics could fall away and be replaced by something more akin to an RPG experience.

One doesn’t really see games like the Babylon 5 CCG anymore. Perhaps that’s for the best; there’s no denying that it was a little frustrating not knowing whether one was sitting down to an hour-and-a-half game or a four-hour one. Still, I sometimes miss that feeling of playing a card game and an RPG at the same time, watching the player to my left manipulate the media while the player to my right tries to keep a fractious alliance of minor worlds together. There’s a lot to be said for simplicity and focus in design. However, the B5CCG taught me that it’s OK to be in the mood sometimes for the ornate.

Theory: The Limits of Rules

In discussing game design postulates, I proposed that one of them should be that a game is defined by its rules. What happens when someone acts in a manner which is plainly objectionable, but is not specifically addressed by the rulebook? Where are the limits of a game’s rules?

The classic example of this, in my mind, was suggested in one of Dave Sirlin’s articles: kicking your opponent in the shin. Obviously that’s not acceptable, but it’s very rare for a game’s rules to cover physically striking the opponent (contact sports aside). Surely games which do not explicitly make hitting illegal do not include hitting–but why?

Another, somewhat murkier example, can be found in a story about the Babylon 5 CCG that made the rounds years ago. For those not familiar with the game, it was based on a TV show which might be very briefly summarized as “the United Nations in space.” Like its namesake, the CCG was heavily political; it was played in a group and everyone was encouraged to wheel and deal.

As I remember it, the story went as follows: a husband and wife were playing in a game with several other people. One of couple offered the other a foot rub in return for attacking another player (or not attacking, or something). The other accepted, and the rest of the table was irked. I think there’s general agreement that this deal was fishy, and I agree, but I’ve never had or heard a really satisfactory explanation as to why.

Sirlin’s discussion of this sort of behavior concludes that “[a]ny reasonable person would consider ‘no cheating from outside the game’ to be part of the default rule set of any game.” That’s fair, but it’s more useful for tournament organizers than for designers. If I were running a tournament I could respond to a cheater who argued a lacuna in the rules by citing Sirlin. As a designer, saying “players shouldn’t cheat” doesn’t tell me when they’re out of bounds, or how far the bounds should extend.

In light of this issue, I’m considering modifying the postulate as follows: a game is defined by its rules and by the resources the rules make available to the players. When a player takes advantage of a resource not permitted him or her as part of the game’s design, the player is playing a different game just the same as if the player were using a mod or following a house rule.

This adequately addresses Sirlin’s example. Street Fighter and similar video games assign to players as resources their respective in-game characters (including special moves, hitboxes, canceling opportunities, and everything else that makes up a fighting game character). They also give players control over those characters, with all the skill, practice, and talent that players may bring to that control. Leg strength and pain tolerance are not resources provided to the players, and hence the game does not include the use of those resources.

I think it also provides a satisfactory answer to the spouses’ deal in the B5CCG. While the right to negotiate was provided by that game’s rules, foot rubs were not. As a result, offering and accepting one were outside the game’s parameters. From the perspective of the game in progress it was poor form and perhaps even cheating; from the perspective of the game’s design the spouses had begun playing a variant where some players begin the game with a special resource not available to others.

I’ve written more drafts of this post than any other, and even now I’m not entirely certain that I’ve reached a good resting place. Are there issues with the new postulate that I haven’t addressed? Situations it doesn’t answer? Let me know what you think.