Commandment #3: Player First!

This post is part of a series of articles detailing the BrainGoodGames Design Commandments. You can see the full list here.

This commandment is one that I’ve basically adopted in whole cloth from Sid Meier (the game designer behind Pirates, Railroad Tycoon and Civilization among others)! To see some more thoughts on the originator of the idea, check out this sweet design article by Soren Johnson.

This idea is fundamentally tied to a management of complexity/elegance of design. Many games (such as Sid Meier’s!) take their cues as at least partially a simulation of real-world systems. This has the twofold advantage of giving the player a reason to play your game (if they’re already interested in the subject matter) and some basic idea of the way things will work, without you having to explain them (related: Mark Rosewater’s thoughts on Piggybacking and Keith Burgun’s thoughts on theme).

However, strategy game designers need to be include to select only those elements which make for interesting player-facing decision-making. For example, in a war simulation, it may be tempting to include mechanics that revolve around supply lines, solider morale, etc etc. And then you may think that hey (!) I can tie the solider morale into the combat by giving certain bonuses, and cross compare that with the unique background of each solider, and so on and so forth.

How does this even work? What should I care about?

While this may provide value in the exploratory framework of a simulation game like Dwarf Fortress, where the value largely comes from discovering what the mechanics are and what emergent results they produce, it does not provide efficient value in terms of strategy game decision making. It may be very interesting for the designer as they set up the various status tables, modifiers and relationships between them, but so long as the player is not aware of or not considering them as an aspect of their decision, they are not a part of strategy (and therefore the fun/value of playing a strategy game, for its strategic merits).

By including a smaller and more carefully curated set of mechanics in your strategy game, you allow the player to get done with learning the rules as quickly as possible (as fun as they are to design and tweak) and move on to the joy of strategic play! (See also article 1 about Known Rules)

The Most Fun Way To Play (And The Most Strategic)

(The Kickstarter for SkyBoats is live right now, and we just passed 50% funding! We’d love it if you’d check it out and consider backing! We would also love your support on Greenlight)

I think its been said before that the best way to play a game (strategically) should also be the most fun. I’m not sure who first came up with that, but I think they are mostly right. When most players sit down to play a game they would like to get into the world of the game and make choices they feel fit the game. I am sure there are some players who just think about the strategy, and don’t care about the world the game is set it, but likely most of us want to make choices that seem “cool” or fun.

It often seems that the most memorable gaming experiences are when you played a game and you did something that created a cool story. Some games do a lot to enable this sort of experience by creating extremely thematic worlds, so that almost any way the game is played it comes out as a cool story. For example, War of the Ring is dripping with theme, and it is hard to make a choice that doesn’t feel perfect for Middle-Earth. This becomes more difficult when you are playing a game that is less theme-focused.

war of the ring

There are also times where a certain strategy is very effective, but is also very boring. DotA 2 has this issue some of the time in high-level matches. The best play is often to sit back and farm, growing your advantage, but many players find this strategy boring and so they run into fights and end up losing an otherwise winnable game. Ideally, the most fun way to play a game would also be the best strategic choice. This is ideal because it would mean players are constantly encouraged to have fun.

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In SkyBoats we thought about this when we were designing the game. SkyBoats is exciting and gives you a great feeling of adventure as you fly around the map, and we’ve done our best to try and tie strategic choices to fun choices. One of the main mechanisms we used to do this was to reward players for making the plays we found the most fun. In early development we realized it was exciting to pick up goods in a far corner of the board, and find a way to sail them across the sky to a city demanding that good. Even better if it was the last points you needed on the last round! The game now rewards players for sailing along winds, and for taking goods long distances! I will discuss our wind mechanics in more depth in my next post!

I would love to hear what you think about how fun and strategy tie together in games!


Mechanics vs Theme – Game Design Discussions


Here at BrainGoodGames we have thus far put a focus on mechanics in our games. We feel that mechanics are what keep games interesting over a long period of time. Mechanics are the core of most games, and are what makes you think when you are playing. Strategy games in particular rely heavily on mechanics to create ambiguous situations for the players to ponder. Manipulation of the mechanics in various situations create varied situations which the players may find more or less familiar. This is all part of building a heuristics tree for the game, and for games in general. I think this sort of thinking and heuristics generation is what makes many strategy games so satisfying for people. While theme can be very immersive it will give you a different sort of satisfaction.

Some games have extremely engaging stories or themes that can create intense feelings of immersion. This can be extremely enjoyable, and in fact I think many people play games mostly for that sense of immersion or for a feeling of escapism. The theme of a game will probably not be enough to keep someone playing a game for a long period of time. A story is never the same as the first time you experience it. Some stories are very interesting and can stand up to multiple playthroughs, but in my opinion the games that will keep players coming back over and over are games with interesting mechanics. This is not to say however, that theme isn’t important.

Immersion and engagement of players is part of most games and can be extremely enjoyable. A great theme can do wonders covering up lacklustre gameplay. Ideally though a game will not need its gameplay to be covered up. In my opinion the best games are those where the gameplay and theme work together, reinforcing each other. Some games have mechanics that feel thematic – they remind you of the theme and feel like an accurate representation of the action depicted. This method helps to immerse players in the game, but also makes the rules of the game more memorable and intuitive. If a game has a series of actions players must take, with a bunch of little rules they must follow it can be very confusing. If however all of these actions and rules relate to ideas a player already has, then they may more easily remember the rules.

theme vs mechanics

Mechanics also come from themes in some ways. Many game mechanics are based on real world situations. This is especially a popular method in the design of Eurogames. For example in Puerto Rico the game is based on creating and shipping goods. There are a lot of steps to go from having nothing to shipping a good. You must first harvest materials, turn the materials into the goods, find a boat that will hold all the goods you want to ship, negotiate a price for the goods and so on. Puerto Rico focuses on some of these steps and they create a wide variety of situations which players must navigate. The mechanics of Puerto Rico are representative of the theme of shipping goods and they tie together nicely. Most people have a general understanding of the process and this helps players remember the rules. Certainly, many people will find the theme or storyline to be quite dry, but the mechanics create extremely interesting strategic decisions.

Further, sometimes when a game has mechanics and theme that are very tightly intertwined sometimes you can encounter something I like to call emergent theme. The way some thematic mechanics interact can create situations that feel very true to the theme of the game. This is a rare situation in my experience, but is very valuable. If a game could regularly create emergent theme it could create its own stories without the creators of the game adding extra content. In theory you could create a game that had satisfying mechanics and a new story every time you played. Some day I hope to make a game like this!

Once again I would love it if anyone had any comments or would like to discuss any part of this post. Reply here or tweet @BrainGoodGames!

Caleb Friesen