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Breaking player assumptions.

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zmobie's picture
Joined: 11/19/2008

I wrote this all out on a blog here, MY BLOG!

But my blog is new, so people don't generally go there and talk to me about stuff... so I am re-posting this here so I can talk to you guys about it...

Here it is!

A podcast I listen to, Building the Game recently aired their episode 74: Expectations and Guns dot Blazin'. In it, Rob Couch, one of the hosts, introduces a topic about breaking some of the expectations we have about game design. Not just taking game mechanics themselves, and turning them on their heads, but taking some of the core elements of what makes something a game, and breaking those long held expectations players have. This is not taking the elements of a game, and rearranging them. This would just be regular ole' game design. What this podcast started talking about was taking the very definition of a game, and poking at its edges.

The BTG Podcast proposed two different assumptions about games that would be interesting to break.

Assumption 1: Games must be fun.

Jason Slingerland proposed that one long held assumption about games is that they must be fun. This is an interesting premise to tear down, and has lots of parallels in other forms of art. It was a long held assumption that visual art forms would be informative or beautiful, but a lot of modern art eschews this goal for other visual experiences... and that is the important word in this, experience.

Many formal or academic definitions of games include the word 'fun' , and when I play a game, I most certainly am looking to enjoy myself and have fun, but fun is a hard word to pin down. Defining a game using the word fun strange, because it is difficult to define the word fun itself, but at its core, it is an entertaining and enjoyable experience... but there are many other types of experiences. There is pain, and sorrow. There is memorable, or annoying, or spiritual. What does a game look like when it you don't have fun, but have another type of experience altogether.

A sad movie is a good experience, when you empathize with the characters and feel sad yourself. Could a game evoke the same emotion? Staring at an ancient fresco is moving and memorable. Could a game evoke that experience? I think many games do a good job of varying the user experience, and that is where we get such a variety of games, but are there any that truly step outside of what we think of as a game now? It's hard to imagine, but there's value in thinking of it because it kind of underpins all the other assumptions listed here. If we want games to give people new experiences, you need new types of games.

Assumption 2: Games must have a defined end state.

Rob Couch proposed the idea of a game with no end state. It's not hard to think of a lot of games without defined end states. There are plenty of examples in the digital world. When have you reached the end of World of Warcraft, Minecraft or Eve Online? These games break this assumption masterfully by giving you an endless buffet of goals, and a sandbox to accomplish them in. They even offer frameworks for building your own goals and accomplishing those.

For a game to not have a defined end state it must do one of two things.

**1. It has goals, but when they are reached, play continues anyway. **

You see this in Sid Meier's Civilization (the computer game, not the board game). You can continue to play with your civilization after a winner has been determined. This works well in this case because the end condition is somewhat arbitrary, and the narrative of the game is interesting at any point during the game.

This would not work as well in a game like Dominion, where proceeding past the end state would just make certain winning decks less efficient because part of the strategy of the game is to start purchasing victory points at the perfect time.

**2. It has no goals, so there is no way to define an end state. **

Many definitions of games say that a game without goals is a toy. I say that this doesn't mean that making game-like toys isn't a worthwhile design activity. When the player is free from concrete goals, he is free to create his own goals. Just because the rules of the game don't specify a win condition, doesn't mean that a meaningful play experience can't be had by those involved.

Think of a game with face down tiles that comprise a board, and the four players pieces are in the corner of the board together. The players are provided with rules that allow them to flip over pieces and engage in encounters. The rules provide ways for them to fight each other, or fight together against the monsters in the dungeons they find. The rules provide them with ways to build or destroy castles... but no where in the book does it ever say how you win the game. The game would unfold differently for every play group. It might be a very negative experience depending on who you are playing with, but you might end up building beautiful worlds with your friends. Or in an arms race against fortified kingdoms, or in an all out war across the terrain of the modular board. Play ends when you have had your fill.

Assumption 3: Games must be fair.

This topic wasn't brought up on the BTG Podcast, but one assumption a lot of gamers bring to the table is that games must be fair. Players assume that the game rules themselves will not give any single player an advantage over the other players in winning, and when this is perceived, there is often much wailing and gnashing of teeth. Gamers hate it when things aren't fair, even though there are scarce little examples in real life of fairness.

Some historical games, in order to offer a fair, yet realistic game scenario will make the scenario point based. So you play the losing side of the battle, but if you do better than the real life losers, you've won the game. This is a neat asymmetric trick to create fairness, but is not an unfair game.

Often, games with asymmetry in them (where each player has a different start state), will just be 'bad games' and one faction, or side will have an advantage over the other. The designer always tries to minimize this situation as much as they can, but play testing is difficult and things get through the cracks. Game designers rightfully don't actually want players to set their game boards on fire in the parking lot of their FLGS., so any lack of fairness in these situations will be minimal.

But what if a game was blatantly and unreasonably unfair for certain players? For instance a deck of really broken cards in a deck building game that were only available to one player. Or a roll and move where one player always gets to roll a d12 instead of a d6. Or a war game where one player has tanks, helicopters, missiles, and drones, and the other player has small arms, no leaders, and is on the run.

In all of these situations, the thought occurs to me... you don't need a balancing mechanism once it becomes aware who the game is tilted toward. Players are smart enough to play to the challenge and create their own goals, even if they can't win. You just need to provide a framework for play that allows them to accomplish their self made goals. In the roll and move where one player gets a d12, you need rules that allow players to interfere with each others movement. In the unfair war game, you need rules that make just trying to survive a challenging and interesting experience.

Assumption 4: The number of players in a game is either constant or decreasing.

Most games try to keep all the players in the game until the end. When you start a game with 4 players, it is assumed that all 4 players will be there at the end of that game. Lots of other games have elimination mechanics where there is only one player left at the end, and he is the winner. Throughout the course of the game players are eliminated.

So a games with constant or decreasing numbers of players are quite common, but I don't think I've ever seen a game where players can join at any time. In games where this is even possible to do, it often throws a monkey wrench into the other players plans and can be frustrating. What if there was a game that allowed players to join in the middle without a problem, and not only that, encouraged you to try to get people to join on your team?

I think a game like this would go over well when playing at conventions or game stores. Imagine a game where players are allowed to draft people onto their teams as they are walking by. You offer them your supplies, points, and various other in game effects as incentive for joining the game on your team.

What if the game also assumed that a player didn't need to be present in order to have an effect in game. Maybe you could text or call your friends, and their responses had an effect on the game. Getting someone to join in person would always be some larger effect, but getting folks on your side, even with a Facebook message would give your side some kind of boon?

I love this idea because its a way for gaming to be more inclusive rather than exclusive. It has the potential to bring total strangers into a game group, and possibly new people into gaming.

Assumption 5: Winning is the Goal.

When you are writing your rules, one of the most important you will write is "Players win the game by...". It defines the parameters of the race to all players. We've explored a little what it would be like to completely lack this parameter, but winning is sometimes such a weak inspiration. Why do I want to win in the first place? I trust the game designers intent when he tells me "Try to achieve this goal. If everyone tries to do this one thing, you'll have a really interesting experience". OK, I can get on board with that motivation... But sometimes, especially when I know I'm not able to win a game because another player has come out way ahead, it's hard to remain motivated and go through the motions on that last turn.

What if there were goals in the game that didn't win you the game, but were interesting experiences in their own right. What if, as a player you always had two choices on your turn. One choice will allow you to take some actions that will get you closer to the end state of the game. One choice allows you to draw a mystery card and add it to your hand.

Mystery cards have very little in-game effect. Players drawing the cards will quickly realize that drawing them is a sub-optimal play... but if you draw enough cards, you may draw the one that says "Keep drawing cards from this pile. You won't be disappointed. Don't show this to other players". You keep drawing from this pile, and everyone at the table wonders what is wrong with you.

"Why are you throwing the game? You are giving the game to so and so. We hate playing games with you!"

Draw another card. "You are almost there. I promise this will pay off".

You get to the second to last card and it says, "The next card has a url on it, but it looks like a promotional marketing card. Ask the games owner if you can have it".

When you go to the url, you enter a secret code from the card and you are now invited to a forum of other users who bravely dug to the bottom of the deck. Your friends all think you're crazy now, but now you know a secret.

It's a crazy idea, but if someone put me through that experience in a board game, I'd give them all of my money.

Assumption 6: Games must have rules, and they must be followed by the players.

The game rulebook is the source of truth for the game. Whenever players have a question about a specific game state, they look to the rulebook to guide their actions and tell them how to continue play and keep marching toward victory, but what if the rulebook wasn't the sole arbiter of truth. What if the rulebook is lying to you?

Imagine a game that takes place in future dystopia, where all the players are laborers toiling under an oppressive regime. The rules of the game are as follows.

  1. Roll a 6 sided die and move that many spaces.

  2. Draw a yellow card.

  3. When you have circled the board back to start, collect one point.

  4. When the players have collected 10 points, the players win the game.

  5. When 30 points are gathered in the middle of the board, the players lose the game.

N. Never draw a red card.

The yellow cards say something like, "Move one more space as a reward for all your hard work", or "If you rolled a 3 or lower this turn, move back one space. You are being punished for not working hard enough".

Sometimes you land on a space that gives you a point, but the game is rigged. There are tons of yellow cards that say "Please put all your points in the center of the board as tribute to your dear leader. Your contribution will be rewarded".

There is also a pile of red cards, as is indicated by the rules. Red cards you are never supposed to draw according to the rules. What rule was that again? Rule N? That's funny. All the other rules are numbered, but this rule is rule N, and it's in italic. What if one brave player did draw a red card?

"Take 3 points from the center of the board, move to any space". Finally, players make some headway! Breaking the rules apparently has a huge payoff in this game. What other rules in the rulebook are suspicious and unfair? How else can we break the rules and beat the evil overlord?

This approach, having an unreliable rulebook, is somewhat like the approach of having an unreliable narrator in fiction. At some point you realize that one source of information is completely suspect. Then you start looking elsewhere for truth. Much like the previous example of the Mystery Cards I don't think this kind of game works for multiple plays, but it would be an interesting introductory experience. Maybe as the first scenario of a game that builds and changes over time like Risk Legacy.


This is just the beginning of long held preconceptions players bring to a game. By understanding where the imaginary edges of games are, we can poke these edges a bit, and find new and exciting forms of game play. By making new games, we can make new experiences, and with that, draw in new players.

Joined: 10/09/2013
Just one idea!

I believe adding new players into a wargame with a map (that doesn't have victory points but objectives) would be very easy. It's almost like the Golden Hoarde in old Medieval Total War where they just appear off the side of the map with a huge army.

Another cool game would be a game without any victory conditions, and you have a map of Europe or the world, and people try to build the best nation. If players want to join, through some mechanic a region is picked and they "rebel" there and attempt to create their own nation. If it fails they can attempt to rebel somewhere else.

One genre of game that is basically everything you just listed is that of the RPG. RPG's don't end. There is no real player elimination. Players can join in whenever they'd like. You don't win RPG games and sometimes they're frustrating instead of fun (If you get a jerk DM).

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