Been thinking about poker from a game design point of view, so this looked like a good place to post on it.
The structure of poker is pretty simple. You are given information, a baseline chance of winning. You bet based on that information, then you are given more information. Again your chance of winning. And you bet again. This maybe happens a few times or just twice. Then you show your cards and win or loose.
Your choices each time are extremely simple in comparison to most games. Bet, check or fold. Probably if you designed the game fresh today it would be ignored. So what is it that makes the game popular and robust?
Just a few thoughts.
1.The game rewards long shots. This is the same thing that keeps people playing slot machines. You don't remember all the times that you loose, but you remember the big time that you won. Poker provides lots of ways to lure you into pushing your luck to get the long shot. You keep on betting because you might make the flush. This is probably a good mechanic to slip into a game, in fact it is probably in many games but it is something to consider thinking about.
2.simple mechanics, with complex theory. There is almost no system in the game like we see in many board games. No programmed hoops to jump through to make the game do something, People like the tagline, a moment to learn a lifetime to master. And it applies to many of the great games, like go, chess, poker, backgammon, mancala. Designing a game like this would seem to be trouble though. As many of the people who enjoy this kind of game don't want to learn others. I play Go, I probably wouldn't go back to playing chess in any kind of serious way now. The other thing is that these public domain simple games are honed by essentially thousands of playtesters and they evolve slowly over time. You can see this in the rules of chess with the additions of the castling, and the two spaces on the first move pawn rules, and some piece changes.
3.Player interactions and hidden information. I think this is what makes poker viable for the tv audience and bar league poker tourneys. Open information games reward those that can eliminate possibilities the quickest and arrive at strong moves. Hidden information games remove this advantage from people with strong analysis abilities. This has the additional effect of eliminating analysis paralysis. Some of my favorite war games are the columbia block series because they feature hidden information. This helps both players speed up their turns while adding some tension. It forces you to play the player, or the odds rather than to consider the board positions, or card information. I think in general most people don't consider themselves to have the skills of analysis. While almost everyone thinks they are a good reader of people. That is a skill that most people have. At the same time the game presents itself as a game of skill, while adding a luck element. So the winning player can say, “I won with my superior skill” and the loosing player can still say, “those are the breaks I was lucky or unlucky” leaving everyone happy. Where if someone beats your ass in chess, you just have to admit they are a superior player.
4 many people say that poker wouldn't be a good game without money involved. I think that it is just traditionally played with money But it has several things going for that make it a good money game. Simple widely known rules mean you can find players fairly easy. But I think the real factor in it, is that a game of poker is really something like 50 mini games of poker played in rapid succession. You can win money, you can loose money. There are up and downs, again this applies to slot machines as well. While you can bet money on any game, I think that these minigames within a game lend themselves well to gambling.
5 Theme. Poker is at its face a themeless game. Just cards. But the game itself is the theme at this point. Just as smart people in movies are always seen playing chess. Pokers theme is of daring gamblers and the fish that got away stories, it is all cowboys, and friday night poker with the boys smoking stogies, and now pudgy guys wearing sunglasses playing for millions. It appeals the American ideals of being smarter, and riskier than the other guy and the rewards are big jackpots.
So what does this mean from a game design point of view? I'm not exactly sure.
A hidden information game should be simpler than an open information game. Imagine how boring poker would be played open handed, Notice how nobody plays chess with the doubleblind methods. I think the more interaction you have among discrete pieces or objects in a game the better off you are going with open information.
Coax players into actions with the promises of long shots? Somehow this seems more fitting in a card driven game rather than a dice driven one. A player knows there are 4's in the deck and may stick around to try to see it while the same player might not if it was rolling 8% or less on percentiles.
Just my ramblings as I procrastinate tonight. I would love to hear what you have to think about it.