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Now, the Twist: The Ties that Bind

Now, the Twist: The Ties that Bind

The Chess GameWelcome to Colin McComb’s Now, the Twist. A dangerous journey, forcing him to take a long, hard look at game design.

Join him, won’t you… in his ongoing struggle to pass Go.



When I talk about games, at least when I’m speaking professionally or professorially, I like to point out the essential similarities among games of all sorts. Mechanically speaking, roller derby has a great deal in common with chess, and if we want to understand games, we need to understand exactly what sorts of underpinnings are common to all our endeavors.

Or, in less high-falutin’ terms, we need to understand how games are all alike…

This is where I’m going to get a little academic. (But not much! Because if you wanted to read some abstruse technical document, you’d head some place that hosts that sort of thing!)

Now, I mentioned way back the field of ludology, or the study of games. The granddaddy of the field is Johan Huizinga’s 1938 book Homo Ludens, or “The Playing Man,” in which he identified the characteristics of play and its purpose, pointing out that even animals play.

The field has diverged a bit since then, so I’ve had to pick an interpretation that seems suitably encompassing and specific enough to fit my own needs. Still, why should I bother?

After all, you can make great music without knowing the specifics of music theory by simply playing music. Likewise, you can make great games without knowing the theory behind them by simply making them. I’m fairly certain the progenitors of our hobby didn’t spend long hours reading academic dissertations; they simply played lots of games, and then wrote the games they wanted to play. This is a good and valid approach.

At the same time, I want to defend the idea that as designers, we should know the elements of games, the pieces that make these disparate activities similar, and we should develop a common language for game design. This allows us to design our games more thoughtfully and with greater precision. With a fuller comprehension of the foundations of our hobby, we won’t spend all our time designing our way around fundamental engineering problems or answering questions that have already been answered. Instead, we can focus on the ultimate goal of gaming: fun.

So I looked at a few different theories, and I’ve settled on a model I modified slightly from the original by USC professor Tracy Fullerton. Without any further preamble, these are the formal elements I consider essential for all games, the things any game must have to be considered a game:

  1. Players
  2. Boundaries
  3. Rules
  4. Procedures
  5. Resources
  6. Objectives
  7. Conflict
  8. Uncertain Outcome

Some of these are fairly obvious. Of course, a game needs players, right? But how would we define players in the first place? What differentiates players from spectators? It turns out that the idea of Players contains some implicit assumptions we need to unpack to understand their role. Players are first and foremost people who are playing the game, but to play the game, they must satisfy a couple of important conditions: they must agree to play the game (or “accept the invitation to play”), and they must agree to abide by the rules of the game.

If someone says they’ll play Axis & Allies and then insists on playing it like Risk, they’re not playing A&A. If they ignore the rules, they’re cheating, unless everyone agrees to operate under these assumptions.

Okay, so we’ve got our players. What are Boundaries? They are what Huizinga calls the Magic Circle, the space in which the game is played. The game boundary could be the tabletop itself, but it’s not confined to the physical. You can stand up from the table and head to the kitchen for some Cheetos and Mountain Dew and still be involved in gameplay. Boundaries are a mindset that encompass the physical, the mental (if you believe you’re playing and others in the game believe you are, you are), and the temporal. That is to say, if your game has a time limit, it has a temporal boundary.

The Rules of the game are the physical laws of the game universe. They tell us what is and is not possible in the game. By permitting certain actions, they necessarily restrict others. They outline all the elements, defining what differentiates this game from others and how the players interact with the game world and each other.

Procedures are how players actually play the game. If rules provide the broad outline of the actions available, procedures define what and how the players perform those actions. Procedures tell us when players take their turns, what actions they can take on their turns, and how, for instance, they can rebuild their health when they’ve taken damage. If you want to overrun an opponent, the rules define the effect. Your part is to announce your intention, to ensure you have the capability to do so, position yourself in such a way to do so, and then roll the dice.

That is, procedures tell us the who, how, where, and when we can take action in a game. The why is up to you.

To complete these actions, and to improve our chances of winning, we have Resources. Resources can be the ultimate goal of our games, but more often than not, they are the means to the end. They can be as concrete and obvious as gold pieces or factories, or they can be as abstruse as hit points. Resources must have both value and scarcity. In general, none of us cares much about dirt or air, but when we’re gardening, we want good quality dirt, and if we’re drowning, we long for a place where the air is non-scarce.

Resources in games might include powers, lives, money, units to command, and more. What’s better, the scarcity of resources gives us an immediate leverage into conflict, which is at the core of gaming. From a design standpoint, resources allow us a quick and easy way to modify the game without changing the rules dramatically.

Objectives are targeted rewards to keeps the player involved in the game. A game without objectives quickly becomes pointless, and while we can generate our own objectives in games, it is not nearly as satisfying to do so as it is to overcome the objectives built into the game. We can have miniature objectives or nesting objectives—that is, objectives that take us closer to our goals as a piece of a larger objective—but we need to feel a sense of progress toward some ultimate goal, or else the game may feel repetitive or worthless. For instance: “The princess isn’t in this castle!”

Conflict arises from the interaction between players, rules, resources, and the game system itself. You might even argue that most game systems encourage a particular type of conflict and the rules of the system implicitly and explicitly establish the types of conflict the system creates.

There are three essential types of conflict: obstacles (whether a maze, a wall, or a puzzle), opponents (that is, other players), and decisions (which enemy should I attack? Where should I allocate my resources? What feats should I choose?).

All of this leads to the Uncertain Outcome, the reason why we play games. If we knew the outcome of a game before we went in, would we bother playing? If we didn’t get that rush of turning the odds in our favor or overcoming obstacles that seemed insurmountable, would we have the same joy in play? If we knew whether we were predestined to win or lose, the game would not hold the same attraction.

We can define the outcome in several ways such as most points, most lives, most kills, or any combination of these in a certain amount of time or on reaching a threshold. Maybe, as in blackjack, our uncertain outcome is how much money you have when you choose to stop playing.


We use these formal elements to create dynamic systems of complex and interrelated parts. Modifying these elements allows us a great measure of control over the play experience, and doing so mindfully gives us a tremendous insight into the potential results of our actions.

Next column: Now that we’ve talked about how games are all the same, we’re going to discuss why they’re all different. In the meantime: What sorts of elements do you think games need? Did I miss any?

10 thoughts on “Now, the Twist: The Ties that Bind”

  1. Uncertain Outcome is an interesting one for RPGs (unlike most other types of games). Some groups play combat focused RPGs where the GM will (semi-)secretly adjust stats / dice rolls to prevent them from losing. For those groups the uncertain outcome must then not be the reason they play that game.

  2. Absolutely true. I’ve been guilty of it myself; when I GM, I like to tell a story, and it’s frustrating to see the careful work put into building a campaign arc destroyed by a TPK that results only from a night of very poor dice. Parties that get wiped because they were being dumb, on the other hand, well, they got what was coming to them.

    But I’d submit that in RPGs, the uncertain outcome is the shared narrative of the campaign. The behaviors of the players change with the events of the game, and a good GM should be able to surprise his players with good stories, good encounters, and good campaigns.

    I’d also point out that a lot of computer games with stories have uncertain outcomes of essentially the same sort. Easy mode means that players can get through the game without any great difficulty, and the only difference they see between themselves and hardcore players is the challenge they face along the way.

  3. There are, however, a certain number of players for whom Uncertain Outcome is almost never an option, because they will cry foul and harass the GM about how hard it was to achieve the game’s objectives (the stories I could tell..oy). Usually, these games have an accommodating GM, though, and the players are never faced with a true uncertainty. They will overcome the opponents, defeat the traps, and win the treasure at the end every time.

  4. The most recent game I ran was Empire of the Petal Throne last weekend. 50% casualty rate, and the party was largely successful in its goals.

    I’d say it was very uncertain outcome, because of the pure lethality of the system. Quite enjoyable all around. The longer I play RPGs, the less committed I am to the long-term campaign style.

  5. Nice breakdown.

    The only part I’d question is the statement on Objectives: A game without objectives quickly becomes pointless, and while we can generate our own objectives in games, it is not nearly as satisfying to do so as it is to overcome the objectives built into the game.

    I’ve seen many cases where players gain far more satisfaction out of their own objectives than out of the objectives the game sets for them. In fact, I would argue the reverse – that in pen & paper at least, players frequently gain more satisfaction from objectives they’ve defined for themselves than the GM has defined for them. (I have also seen the same to occur in very defined video games, but less frequently). I think that while setting up a world that works well with that is harder on the GM, it offers more satisfaction to the players when it feels like a real world, where they can set their own goals and pursue them.

  6. Nicely done, Colin. IMO your elements are comprehensive and complete. You talk about the “shared narrative” – The author may have a particular storyline in mind when the game is written, but ultimately the players write the story as they play. The author is saying “here, run with this” and walks away, although the author’s ideas will be a thread through the story the players tell.

    Good stuff!

  7. Lesley – I need to say at the outset that I largely agree with you, but I also like to argue. In tabletop RPGs, players work with the GM to help set some of those goals, and a wise GM will make his or her objectives enticing–and subtle!–enough that players will seek to overcome those objectives in preference. Alternately, a good GM can take the player’s self-imposed objectives and creating an overarching objective, something that the players must defeat/solve/destroy before they can reach their own objectives. You might even make the overall campaign arc a series of nested objectives that force the players to achieve their objectives before they can tackle the most serious end-boss.
    That is to say, I agree that in tabletop RPGs especially, players need to be invested in developing and providing their objectives. and the GM needs to think a step or a magnitude beyond them, so that the GM can continue to surprise them.

    @Todd – Absolutely. This is one of the difficulties of writing a scripted adventure, because it’s very hard to predict what the players will do next. Some of the earliest adventures (and hell, even into the ’90s) still saw a basic assumption on the part of the designer that the players would have no choice but to follow on rails. One of the great advantages tabletop RPGs have over computer games is that tabletop games have a wide latitude for improvisation, and railroading players in that milieu is a fantastic way to lose a gaming group. When the designers can step back and provide what is essentially a sandbox adventure, players and GMs can respond more freely to the hooks. (and thanks!)

  8. First off: excellent article.
    Now, that said, I want to argue a couple points. first is that you list other players as opponents. while typically true in most games, in pen and paper rpgs this is wholly untrue. the other players are your allies in games such as d&d. this does not cause conflict but rather helps resolve it.
    Next: you only briefly mention interaction, and only as the conflict. while the conflict certainly causes interaction, it is not the only source of interaction between the player and the system or other players. other interactions could be merely introductions, discussion etc, that do not actually cause or resolve conflicts.

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