No-Nonsense Rules for Engaging Game Design

I’m John Teasdale, a serial game designer. Most recently, I created The Contender: The Game of Presidential Debate. My friends and I raised $142,000 to create it on Kickstarter. Now we have the highest average review of any physical game on Amazon….that isn’t named Cards Against Humanity.

There are a lot of think-pieces on game design. Most are too abstract to be useful. The takeaway from the first game design talk about I attended was “Make sure your game is engaging”. I saw an article that lists “make a good game” as a rule. This makes me feel like I’m single and my friends are offering the advice “Be yourself.” Correct, but it doesn’t give you a way forward. Think of this article as a toolkit for improving your game now.

Game Design is a nebulous field, so I’ll narrow down what I’m trying to do.

  • The following rules support player engagement in competitive offline games.
  • Breaking these rules will create moments of dis-engagement.
  • Following all these rules doesn’t mean your game will be good.
  • Many great games break these rules. I argue that they would be more engaging if they didn’t.

Sometimes you’ll break one of these rules, trading some player engagement for another goal. If I can think of a game that breaks a rule to achieve another goal, I mention it. If you can think of one, let me know @JohnTeasdale_

No more nonsense; here are the rules:

Don’t eliminate players.

The best way to dis-engage your players is to have half of them sit around not playing.

Good Example: Battlestar Galactica

It’s not the best survival or social deduction game, but BSG merges the two genres. When discovered, the Cylon takes control of the environmental effects. The ‘losing’ player continues to interact with the game, albeit in a reduced capacity. The rest of the players continue trying to survive, now with a human opponent.

Bad Example: Werewolf (aka Mafia)

Werewolf is an amazing game. It is fun for huge groups regardless of age or experience. One of its weak points is how many people get eliminated. It can take a long time, and isn’t super interesting to watch. Removing elimination is a reason One Night Ultimate Werewolf has been a successful remake.

Rule Breaker: Super Smash Brothers

SSB is a fighting game that relies on player elimination. It works because it contains fast-paced action and rounds are short. Short term human attention span is 8 seconds. The game needs conflict or surprise every 8 seconds or spectators will start tune out. Sustained human attention span is 5 minutes. No matter how interesting a mechanic is, we’ll tune it out after 5 minutes.

Every action has significance to all players.

Players disengage when turns are long and other players’ actions don’t affect them. Taken to the extreme, you have a group of people playing solitaire. This doesn’t mean all actions have equal significance, or that the significance has to be obvious. Hidden actions should leave hints to the player’s strategy. Visible actions should restrict options, create new opportunities, or both.

Having players perform simultaneous actions doesn’t always solve this problem. Players will still finish deciding at different times. Those who finish first will have to wait while the slow players perform actions that don’t apply to them.

This also means that players should not have to repeat actions back and forth. If players repeatedly go through an action, block, counter-block dance, they might as well just do the action. You can combat this by making sure all actions have an appropriate cost. It’s ok to block actions, if it costs the player something to do it.

Good Example: Scrabble.

Every play opens and closes possibilities.

Bad Example: The Game of Life

The Game of Life has almost zero inter-player interaction.

Rule Breaker: 7 Wonders

7 Wonders breaks this rule to support large groups. By having players only interact with their neighbors, the game can support more players. This is a large part of the game’s success; few board games provide a good experience to groups of 5–7. However, the most common complaint I hear is that you can’t interact with everyone.

Promote oscillation.

Players should swing between winning and losing throughout the game. Each time a player get ahead, they feel a sense of victory. Try making player actions more powerful, or creating more options as the game progresses.

Good Example: Hearthstone.

An extra mana and card each round expands the number of options throughout the game.

Games should not repeat their state.

Every decision a player makes, even similar decisions, should have unique context. If the game repeats itself once, it can repeat itself forever. This denies all players any feelings of progress or achievement. Try regularly injecting inexhaustible resources (cards, mana, tiles) into the game.

Good Example: Jenga

In a single play through, Jenga never gets easier. Ever-increasing height and diminishing support build tension towards the inevitable end.

Bad Example: Risk

Risk feels like it lasts forever. Theoretically it can. You can take a territory only to have it snatched back the next turn. This creates a feeling of stagnation in an already long game.

Be careful with randomness.

Randomness is an element in almost every game. It’s tempting to solve game problems with dice or cards or, but there are usually better ways to handle them. Only use randomness when you use it enough for players to rely on the law of large numbers. For a 6 sided dice, it takes 385 rolls to have a 95% change of stable probability. Significant random events should only provide opportunities that any player can take advantage of.

Good Example: Settlers of Catan

To collect resources, players build settlements on locations with known yield probabilities. All players collect when their number comes up on all die rolls. They compete for good positions, but getting one doesn’t guarantee victory. For reference, there are about 60 die rolls in an average game of Catan.

Bad Example: Monopoly

Players move a fixed number of spaces based on probability that only affects them.

Stick to your theme.

Suspension of disbelief plays its role in game engagement. Every decision you make should tie into your theme. The name, graphics, pace, rewards, and consequences should support each other. Players will notice inconsistencies and it will bring them out the the fantasy.

Good Example: Betrayal at the House on the Hill

This game oozes theme. Absolutely everything plays into the ‘spend the night at your dead uncle’s spooky mansion to gain his inheritance’ trope.

Bad Example: Exploding Kittens

The cards and theme are silly and playful, but Exploding Kittens plays like a thriller. Turns out, it was originally called Bomb Squad. The creators applied The Oatmeal’s exploding kitten theme when the game was almost complete. The game is a smashing success, but you can tell that the mechanics don’t support the theme.

End the game with a bang.

People remember experiences based on a combination of how they feel during the most intense moment, and how they feel at the end. Flubbing the endgame takes a huge toll on the remembered experience, even if your game has an amazing climax.

Unfortunately, this rule is a little wishy-washy. I can’t think of any absolute requirements for how to end a game, but here are some suggestions.

End the game with a player revealing hidden information. Collecting and acting on hidden data throughout the game means the final reveal will be a guaranteed release of tension.

Speed up towards the end. If the pace of play accelerates, the game will never hit a point when the winner is all but decided and everyone is just going through the motions.

To Be Continued…

This is a living list. As I learn by playing and developing games, I’ll make modifications as I see fit. If you strongly disagree with anything here, let me know @JohnTeasdale_. I’ve made major edits before.