To Avoid Failing, Read This: Characteristics of Games

Some of you, maybe at least one of you, might have noticed that I didn’t post yesterday as scheduled. The reasons for this are twofold. First, I was busy playtesting games with a friend of mine, one of his and one of mine. This took up the majority of my high functioning time. Second, when I started to write the article it felt scripted.

It’s easy to fall into routines and for work to become rote. This isn’t what I want and I’m sure it’s not what you want either. I don’t want the stories I tell to ever feel scripted. I want them to feel organic and full of human frailty. If I can’t tell you about Game Design #6: Shogun Must Die! in the way it should be told then I’m not going to tell you at all.

9780262017138That being said, I did want to keep up the tradition of a weekly reading recommendation, which for some reason has traditionally fallen at the end of the week. Today’s reading is Characteristics of Games by George Skaff Elias, Richard Mu’Frakking Garfield, and K. Robert Gutschera.

This is one of the recent additions to my design library and I feel very fortunate to have discovered it. It isn’t, strictly speaking, a design book. More, it is a guide to what games look like and how they relate to those who play them.

This isn’t light reading but it’s not entirely academic either. It has as much for the advanced game player or game critic as it does for the game designer. Discussions range from king-making and game politics to sub games and game as systems. It’s a very rich text which is leant a great deal of credence by the one very well known game designer who’s appears in the author’s credits.

Everytime I picked up the book I felt that I was refining my understanding of some topic. That’s rare to find in a book. All too often we find the same content rehashed and retold over and again until we’re convinced that there’s nothing new under the sun.

One thing that’s really nice about Characteristics of Games is that the Appendix gives a brief overview of some game theory games—in general less fun than most regular games—and goes on to give references to other great texts. It also has a comprehensive list of the games mentioned throughout the text with abstracts for each game. This gives the explorative game designer hundreds of branches which to climb.

In short you should read this.

Thanks for reading and, as long as I have something to say, I’ll see you next week.


4 thoughts on “To Avoid Failing, Read This: Characteristics of Games

  1. This is a book that I have been dipping into for some time and have finally nearly finished it. There’s a lot of good stuff in there, and I really should have blogged a few things about it by now.

    For me, the only real downside to the book is that the terms of reference are rather US-centric. A lot of the examples and exercises relate to sports that are not common on this side of the Atlantic (primarily American Football and Baseball), so an exercise about tweaking a rule in one of those sports is not one I have a starting point for. Still, you can usually translate the point to something more familiar.

    Excellent and enlightening book, though.


    1. That’s an excellent point Rob. I think sometimes those of us that live in the US make assumptions about our audience. Though it is probably good for us as game designers to learn the rules for any popular sport around the world as they might possibly be translated into usable mechanics in our own designs.

      Now, I’m off to learn cricket. I should’ve learned it by now, but growing up during the Krikkit Wars was a particularly stressful time. I think I might have some issues with the game because of Douglas Adams sadistic urge to rehash something many of us would just as soon forget.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. 🙂 Figuring out cricket is a great challenge. A game that can take up to five days, have scores in the high hundreds, and still end in a draw! Good luck. Actually you have just missed one of the big cricket events: the Ashes series between England and Australia. Though it wasn’t exactly a classic this year. Maybe a better reflection of the passage of the Krikkit wars, though.

        I guess it is probably worthwhile for game designers to learn about as great a variety of games as possible, whether sports, tabletop or computer/video. Sometimes I feel I’m at a disadvantage as I don’t actually have much interest in most sports or video games. Still, there’s a whole heap of tabletop games to study/play.


      2. I’m with you on sports and video games. The last console I owned was a Sega Genesis in the 90s (I lied, the kids have an X-Box 360 now) and I can’t remember the last sporting event I actually watched. But yeah, I guess knowing how and why the systems work makes it worth watching/learning/playing.


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