It Has to Be That Way

Sometimes, in a game design, there's a rule or system that's clunky, complex, un-thematic, laborious, or otherwise detracts from the game. However, this rule is necessary, in order for the game to function.

A story

Recently, I played another designer's game. Like so many other games, it was a simple puzzle, buried under a mountain of complexity, components, and work. I told the designer this. He wasn't happy about it. He asked me what I'd do, to fix things, if I didn't like them. I thought about it, but there wasn't anything that could be easily lopped off this game. Every system was adding a little bit of gameplay, but a lot of components, rules, and work. The system couldn't be whittled back to the core, because the core was too simple on its own, with the other 90% of the game removed. The game would simply fall apart.

I couldn't think of any way to fix these problems. The game designer was right. Those things probably couldn't be fixed. They'd need to be left as they were.

Maybe your game contains things that have to be the way they are. It's unfortunate, but you just have to live with them. Right?


Players and publishers don't care why there's some flaw or kludge in your game. There may be a perfectly good reason why it's there. The publisher is still not going to accept your game. They can just publish a great game that doesn't have such problems.

You're the game designer. Your job is to fix your game's problems. If you can't fix them, for whatever reason, allow me to help. I'll hold the rubbish bin open, while you put your game in.

Now, start working on a new game. Your problem has been solved.

I've abandoned most of the games I've ever made, because they had problems I couldn't fix. With the rest of my games, I've found ways to fix the problems. Until the problems are fixed, a game is not finished.

Human nature

If people keep doing something the wrong way, or understand a rule the wrong way, change the rule, so that it's the right way.

The alternative is to change human nature, which is impossible.

I'm not big on procedures, but if your game contains a procedure that players often forget, it must be removed.

People are people, and they're the ones playing your game. It doesn't matter how incompetent or ignorant they may or may not be, if they don't have fun, your game has failed.

The same goes for things that just don't feel right. Players' feelings are never wrong. If more than a few players feel a certain way, there's a problem.

Some games are based around a weird kind of behaviour. It's a big downside, and it takes a while to get the hang of.

In Hanabi, you can see everyone else's hand of cards, but not your own. The game is based around this weird rule, so it's unavoidable. It's a good game, but everyone accidentally looks at their own hand many times, when they're starting out.

What do Players Expect?

When either option is fine, I often ask players how they believe something works, and then I make it work that way.

As a player, I don't care why things are jarringly different to what I expect. I don't want to play a game that feels weird. It's your job as a designer to make your game work, and also not feel weird.

Start at the end

You can shortcut your game design process, by just starting where you know you'll end up.

That complex bit will be gone. That inconsistent bit will be gone. That bit that everyone misunderstands will be gone.

The fact that you don't know how you'll get there is irrelevant. If your game ends up being publishable, those things will all be fixed, and if you can't fix them, your game is probably not publishable.

To fix an intractable problem, you may have to change other parts of your game. A good designer finds ways to make that work. A poor designer says "I don't want to do that. Therefore, the problem has to stay."

I will often look at a part of my game, and come up with a wishlist for how it would work. Maybe I want it to require no new rules, occupy no more than three cards, be super-simple, and not add a step to the turn. I will then design that part of the game, to conform to the wish list. I'll have to make adjustments to other parts of the game, but the end result is in a way a "perfect" answer (or thereabouts), which is what I'm always aiming for. You can't get better than perfect.

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