July 15, 2014

Towards a Grand Unified Theory of Boardgamery

There has been an interesting series of articles on the League of Game Makers about the whole mechanics-first or theme-first approach to designing games (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3); and in turn how important theme is or isn't in terms of shaping a game's overall experience and long-term success or failure. That debate is always interesting and illuminating, and arguments for or against one approach over the other simply underscores the diversity of approaches and methods for working on a design.

Part 3 of the series, Theme vs. Mechanics: The False Dichotomy, presented an interesting Venn diagram showing how "theme" manifests in relation to a game's rules, its components, and what we imagine about the game at hard. The blog post I'm writing today started off as a desire to refine the concept Mark Major proposed; but consequently has cascaded into a watershed moment for me. This moment has coalesced a number of threads of game design and theory I've been wrestling with since starting this blog. For my thinking at least, this moves me a few steps closer towards a Grand Unified Theory of Game-Stuff. No way! you say? Yes way!

A Critique of a Starting Point

Mark Major's Original Diagram
Mark Major's Diagram (I'm always a fan of diagrams!) considers the relationship between "Imagined", "Virtual", and "Physical" aspects of tabletop games. The diagram opens up a Pandora's box of thought with a number of interesting insights.

Yet I'm not convinced it hits the mark either. The associations and terms don't quite feel right to me; it isn't tangible enough (e.g. what does "virtual mean" and how is that different from "imagined?) and moreover it seams to repeat itself internally a bit. The notion of "context" being at the heart of the diagram, in the inside or middle, seems backwards to me (context is on the outside), and as a consequence it felt like the discussion of context was vague and too multi-faceted to be a useful notion.

So here are some revisions, along the lines of tweaking, to Mark's game framework diagram.

(1) The entire circle of Imagined could alternatively just be called "Theme". Theme, we presume, connects to something bigger that does or could existing outside of the game itself. We can talk about the theme in term of "subject matter" and "player roles" etc.

(2) The virtual circle can just be called "Rules/Mechanics" - that's what it is, and the need for a double name just muddies the waters.

(3) Similarly, the 3rd circle "Physical" can just be called the "Physical Components"

So reexamining the intersection you get things like this:
- Rules & Components = "Ergonomics" of a game. Is the game fiddly or streamlined?
- Components & Theme = "Representation" of the theme. How does the artwork or physical design of the components convey or represent the theme?
- Rules & Theme = Congruency between the theme and the mechanics. Are the mechanics simulating/modeling the subject of the theme? Or is there a disconnect?
- Rules & Theme & Components = Narrative & Dynamics = The "net experience" of the game.

Another piece of the theme puzzle is from an idea of qwertymartin proposed in his post How do you wear your theme, sir? about different functions of theme. This included:

- Theme as decoration
- Theme as mnemonic
- Theme as mechanic
- Theme as dynamic

In looking at the diagram, I can see how theme can function as decoration (overlap with components + art) and how it can function as mnemonic (overlap with rules), but I was curious where the others fell. It is possible they fall somewhere in the middle, the nebulous 'net experience' realm, but I was interested in seeing if those dimensions could be articulated more intentionally in the framework.

Towards a Science of Boardgames - Part II

Stepping back, I feel the core elements of Rules, Theme, and Components made a certain amount of sense as the discrete and understandable building blocks of a game. But on further consideration, I felt that something was missing, which would call for a 4th dimension to be added to the mix: The Players.

All too often our frameworks for understanding games from a design or analytical standpoint occurs by looking at the "game" as only the rules, theme, and components. And much of the time it appears people aren't even bothering much with theme, given the fascination with mechanics of late. So the relationship of the players themselves as a part the framework is often not formally acknowledged. But games don't exist as just the rules, a pile of components, and a (possible) theme. Much of what shapes the experience that emerges from a game only does so when it is actually played by people - so the people matter.

With that, I set out to devise a four-dimensional Venn diagram with the following core elements:

(1) Theme - The "Why" (setting, subject matter, etc.)
(2) Players - The "Who" (target audience)
(3) Rules - The "How" (mechanics/genre)
(4) Components - The "What" (playing pieces) and board state

This framework allows more complex aspects of games to be pinpointed as we consider the overlaps and interactions between the various elements. The Who/What/How/Why notion frames these in terms of potential design questions and goals. The "Why" might suggest a game's victory conditions and objectives from a thematic standpoint - but more practically why are we playing this game? The "Who" is a consideration of the players as the audience and what their expectations and motives might be for playing the game. The "How" and the "What" are the more typical realms of game design - working with mechanics and their physical manifestation.

If we want to be complete, we could also consider the "Where" to be the context and environment in which we are actually playing the game; and hence encompassing the entire diagram/framework. This probably does have a bearing across all of the four primary elements and merits further discussion, particularly in relation to the meta-game. But for now I'm leaving the thought aside.

What was most revelatory for me though in this, was that in making the diagram it forced me to reflect on the new intersection zones. And what do I call them? Some of them were straightforward (theme + components is the realm of "representation"), but others were tricky. What's the relationship between rules, components, AND players? What realm of design or boardgame theory does that represent?

Let's examine the overlaps in more detail:

1st order overlaps:

Players & Rules = Interactivity (socialization, competitiveness)
I've discussed key aspects of interactivity previously in terms of Competitiveness and types of conflict and the Game Format. Interaction can manifest "on the board" in terms of competitiveness; and can range from minimally interactive (multi-player solitaire) contest or puzzle-like games to those that require high degrees of conflict and interaction. Interaction also manifests "above the board" in terms of table-talk, diplomacy/negotiation, bluffing, double-think, cajoling, merry-making, and so on. It's a hugely important facet of games. But it is the rules AND the players that define the nature and boundaries of a game's interactions.

Theme & Players = Roles (associations)
If the theme itself delineates the subject matter and setting (e.g. farming in medieval Europe or trading in the Mediterranean or empire building in a distant galaxy), adding in the players relates to how players view themselves within that setting. Are you the head of a farming family, or the manager of a trade network, or the ruler of a space empire? How players see and associate themselves within the theme is an important consideration for design but also for the type of experience a game makes with the players.

Theme & Rules = Legibility (understanding, mnemonics)
Theme is often discussed (and used) in terms of its ability to make the rules of a game easier to understand, comprehend, remember, and name. Theme can provide an effective shorthand for referring to otherwise abstract rule constructs and physical components in a thematically unified way. Theme gives us a mnemonic for the rules.

Theme & Components = Representation (artwork, mood)
This is fairly straightforward: it's how the theme is actually conveyed through the physical components of the game; from the box and rulebook down to the shape of the meeples. The artwork of a game and its style are vital for setting the right "mood" of a game. I've talked before about the "intent" of a game and what it is trying to achieve and what it signals to potential players about the type of experience they should expect. Artwork is critical for establishing the proper mood and expectations for a game.

Rules & Components = Complexity (mechanical intricacy)
I've previously tried to clarify "complexity" in a game, as it relates to the rules and components, and the ergonomics of a game (below), as how they relate to physical manipulation. Complexity is about the mechanics themselves, how interlinked they are (or aren't) and how that complexity translates into physical design needs.

Players & Components = Ergonomics (fiddlyness vs. streamlined)
Ergonomics is related to, but different than Complexity, and has to do with how fiddly or streamlined the physical play experience is. It has to do with the player's physical manipulation of the components.

2nd order overlaps:

Players, Rules, Components = Depth (strategy/tactics, elegance)
Following from Complexity + Ergonomics is a consideration of "depth" in terms of a game's strategy and tactics. Depth hinges on players and the interactions between them (in most games) to shape interesting decision spaces. I've discussed depth & complexity in detail previously (See Searching the Depths). The other aspect I wanted to mention is "elegance" (also discussed previously), which is the relationship between a game's mechanical complexity and the amount of depth it provides. The depth of a particular situation in a game is a function of the current board state (the physical arrangement of pieces), the disposition and past history of other players, and the player's heuristics in navigating the decision space. The skills and Modes of Thinking also have a bearing on how we navigate depth.

Theme, Players, Rules = Dynamics (modeling, simulation)
Dynamics are a term often tossed around without much regard for what it may actually be referring too. The understanding of dynamics that I gravitate towards is the extent to which the game evolves and changes in response to player actions and that does so in ways that is (or perhaps isn't!) predictable in relation to the theme and subject matter of the game. We could be talking about the dynamics of infantry combat and the fidelity with which it is simulated in a wargame, or whether the game is striving to model a dynamic market system of supply and demand. There are a lot of ways that a game's dynamics can manifest in relation to its theme.

Theme, Rules, Components = Immersion (congruency, coherence, chrome)
Immersion is an often discussed notion for boardgames (and videogames), and it is multifaceted. On one hand, we can consider Immersion from the standpoint of congruency or coherence between the mechanics and theme. Do the mechanics make sense within the context of the theme or are they arbitrary seeming? Do the decisions players have at their disposal make sense or are they artificial? Games that are more immersive let players project themselves into their assumed "role" and make decisions in a thematically appropriate and internally consistent manner. Games with giant illogical situations aren't generally immerseive. And aesthetically, the physical components play a role in drawing players into the game's thematic setting.

Theme, Players, Components = Narrative (drama, story-telling, role-playing)
The narrative or the story a game tells transcends the rules. When we talk about the story that comes out of a game session it is often in relationship to the theme and the players and how it played out physically on the board.

3rd order overlap:

All Four = Net Experience (meaning, emergence, impact/ efficacy/legacy)
The "net experience" of a game is where all four elements come together. These are often the hardest ideas to describe and articulate because they result from a layering of all the other elements. A few notions that come to mind when I try to articulate high-order experiential aspects of a game includes meaning, emergence, and impact.

- Meaning: what was the lesson learned about the game's strategy, about the other players, about the theme's subject matter, or about ourselves? Meaning is about learning (discussed here) and discovery and comes out of the total experience we had in learning a game.

- Emergence: In what ways is the net experience greater than the sum-total of all the individual elements? What kinds of dynamics, or strategies/depths, or narratives, or immersions grew organically out of the experience in a unique way that will never quite be that way again. Articulating what emergence is in a defensible way is a challenge, and I'm inclined to think that while we might have a vague notion of what it is, and can point to some examples where we think it exists, we don't yet have quite the right vocabulary to talk about it in a defensible manner.

- Impact/Efficacy/Legacy: How have players left their mark on game session in terms of shaping its outcome. Did players feel like empowered agents within the game or were they adrift on the seas of fate? What memories or legacies are created by playing a game?

Back to Theme (for a Moment)

Martin's post about theme considered theme's function in terms of decoration, mnemonic, mechanic, and dynamic. It is worth noting that that these functions shouldn't be mutually exclusive. Theme can function as mnemonic as well as dynamic (for example). More interestingly, the 4-dimensional framework diagram shows that all of these functions of theme can and likely are present in games to one degree or another. Some games might use theme mostly as decoration, others as mnemonic (an aid to understanding the rules) or as a 1:1 mechanical analog (simulation), but something can be said about each function of theme.

Applications, Theoretically Speaking

As always, I get asked about what the point of all of these cerebral speculations is. Curiously, the resulting points/ideas here galvanizes nearly all of the terms and notions I've been kicking around since the first "Science of Boardgames" post started my inquiry. This diagram provides a framework that organizes all of them into something more logical and better articulated than I've managed before. A few of the realms of application follow.

Understanding Motives for Play & Schools of Design

The framework diagram highlights and emphasizes the different attributes of games that players might gravitate towards as a motive for play, perhaps even tying into the whole Schools of Design concept discussed previously. Different combinations and levels of emphasis across the elements and their intersections start to drive the schools of design in their own unique directions.

For example, the Eurogame emphasis on "Challenge" results in games with higher complexity (rules & mechanics) but often with funneled/controlled forms of interactivity (rules & players) and with less importance placed on thematic Congruency. Wargames & Ameritrash games might both be seeking high levels of Dynamics and Immersion, but the roles players assume are often very different and the form of the Representation is quite distinct. One emphasis fidelity across these same factors, the other drama.

Another interesting article that considered motives for playing in terms of the type of experience players are seeking is this:
MDA: A Formal Approach to Game Design and Game Research. This approached identified 8 key motivations for playing a game that player's might have:

1.Sensation: Game as sense-pleasure (representation, ergonomics)
2.Fantasy: Game as make-believe (roles, associations)
3.Narrative: Game as drama (narrative, role)
4.Challenge: Game as obstacle course (complexity, depth)
5.Fellowship: Game as social framework (interaction)
6.Discovery: Game as uncharted territory (challenge)
7.Expression: Game as self-discovery (net experience: meaning, learning)
8.Submission: Game as pastime (interaction/socialization)

In the parenthesis is my attempt at mapping these motives to the framework. It's not a perfect 1-to-1 relationship, but it starts to get at the idea that perhaps, as designers, we can start to focus in on the elements that most appropriate given how we believe our intended players would want to play the game.

A Toolbox for Critical Analysis

The Framework Diagram can also provide a useful approach and nomenclature for the critical analysis of games, and in giving game criticism in a more understood language to utilize. So many reviews of games tend to skip across the surface, touching on the 4 main elements (who, what, how, and why) and maybe some the 1st order elements. Not many reviews get into the 2nd order elements (Depth, Immersion, Dynamics, Narrative), and fewer still into the net experience realm.

Another Starting Point...

The first Science of Boardgames post ended with a diagram, here it is for reference. That diagram, on further reflection, only considering a a few of the elements described in this post, mostly related to the intersection of mechanics and components with a little bit of player input (not acknowledged) as it relates to depth. There is more to it than that diagram I'm glad to say!

The first post also started the Game Genome Project, and effort to map all of the traits/characteristics of games and the multitude of expressions within each. The framework presented here provides a missing link in that work; an organizing framework.

Now it's your turn! What of this did you find insightful or off-base? And do you see and validity in it and applications? Cheers!


  1. This is amazing! Definitely going to keep this one to review as I develop my games.

    1. You win the first prize for being the first to comment on the blog! I'm not sure what the prize is though beyond my congratulations!

  2. I don't know how to break it to you, but this is way, way, out in the weeds of thinking about games. I mentioned this on Twitter, but you should go out and buy Robin D. Laws Hamlet's Hit Points, and a book on basic music theory (or harmony, as it was called when I studied it) - The Complete Idiot's Guide to Music Theory is quite good, highly readable, and (obviously) geared to the novice. The study of literature and music has a *ton* of overlap with games and how they work. Once you have a basic grasp of those structures, and can start to think about the structure of games in similar terms, you can start making a go of this.

    1. Is being out in the weeds a bad thing? I'd also contest that games have a lot to do with art, with architecture/design, and with scientific methods as well.

      But regardless of that, I'd be more inclined to have a discussion with you about your specific critiques or reactions to the article. What isn't working for you? What lessons from other media might be illuminating?

      This blog is mostly me throwing things at the wall to see what sticks and to start a discussion. The first "Towards a Theory of Boardgames" post started a lot of discussion, and much of it isn't relevant or valid after 2+ years of reflection on it, but if I didn't go through that effort I wouldn't be here at this one.

      Thanks for your consideration - I'm keen to here more of your thoughts.

  3. Chris, Oliver is certainly not a novice. While some of these Venn diagrams seem to be slightly forced into symmetry, I find Oliver Kiley's boardgame essays to always be extremely insightful. He has been posting for years now on BGG, and his posts are held in quite a high regard. Also, your comment is extremely condescending.

  4. Thank you for writing this, Oliver. It was very insightful. I'm already considering getting a poster printed of this diagram to have over my desk to help keep me on track in my game design. Thank you very much.

    Chris, thinking about games this deeply is exactly what Game Designers need to be doing. This is how we differentiate our art form. I am a Theme-First designer, but it is imperative that we understand the theory beneath the designs we are working on, or we're just floundering in mud.
    -Andrew Meredith

  5. Very interesting article!
    Good work with this blog, here there are a lot of inspiring articles

  6. Great piece Oliver! Getting tons of positive attention on the Facebook Card and Board Game Designer's Guild! I'll certainly be reading your posts from now on.

  7. Really enjoyed the lecture. Keep up te good work!