Andrew Looney's Eleven Principles of Game Design
By Andrew Looney
January 2003

Rule #0: Don't Expect to Make Money

Before even talking about what makes for a good game, I want to dash your hopes of becoming rich by inventing the next big hit. This is a very competitive and difficult business to break into, and what it takes to succeed, more than anything else, is a LOT of hard work. The task of designing a game is easy compared to the tasks of getting it into production and getting people to even look at it, let alone buy a copy. Those who've succeeded are the exceptions, and no one succeeds without years upon years of hard work. The fact that we're actually making a living at this now is still hard to believe.

That said, inventing a game can be fun, and if you enjoy playing games and feel the urge to create your own, you might as well give it a try. I used to think of game design as being more an act of magical discovery than creative craftsmanship. When I first described Icehouse, I didn't think of games as something I could really create myself. Even after John Cooper developed a game based on my ideas, I continued to regard game inventing as something that happened only by luck or accident. But eventually I came to realize that it's not so mystical. Game design is just another creative form, like poetry, painting, or film-making: anyone with enough creative drive and energy can set about creating a game. The question is, what does it take to come up with a really good game?

Pre-Req #A: Join a Gaming Group

Before you ever even think about inventing your own games, you should be getting together with friends and playing as many existing games as you can work into your schedule. There are many important reasons for this. First, it's fun. It's called having a life, and everyone should do that. Secondly, you can't begin to come up with a cool new idea for a game unless you have a working knowledge of the state of the industry. An awful lot of people have gone before you, and what might seem new and original to you has probably already been done. Repeatedly. Plus, it's like any art form - if you want to write music, you must first develop your musical tastes, and study the works of the masters who've gone before you. Thirdly, you'll need a group of dedicated gamers who you get together with often, because they will be your playtesters. If you treat them nicely and train them right, they will become invaluable to you.

Pre-Req #B: Cherish Your Playtesters

Don't be too pushy when it comes to asking folks to playtest. Remember, they are your friends first, and guinea pigs second. Make sure they're having a good time. Start the evening with known winners and suggest your experimental special only after some Other Fun has been had and people are looking for something new. Listen to *all* reactions and criticisms, say Thank You a lot, and pull the plug on the session as soon as you realize the game is broken, rather than letting it drag on past the point of being fun. Better to stop quickly and leave them interested in trying again someday than to leave them hating the experience and thus not wanting to let you try again. Just say "Thanks, I've learned what I need to from this test, I'll let you know when I have an improved version to try out."

Pre-Req #C: Encourage Honest Criticism

Assuming you have a playtesting group, you must now ask them to do something that can be both difficult and painful: give you criticism.

It can be a tricky thing, asking for the opinions of friends and family. Loved ones are notoriously unwilling to give negative feedback on any creative project, and game design is no different. But you can't hope to satsify strangers until you've learned to entertain the home team.

To become skilled, you will need to learn from your failures, and you can only appreciate the lessons of those failures if your trusted advisors feel they can speak freely and say things like "this was not fun" or even "that totally sucked." Far from suffering hurt feelings, you must go beyond merely accepting such remarks, and actively encourage negative criticism. It is only through such feedback that you will learn and grow. You must listen to it, face it, and respond to it with new innovations.

Rule #1: Gratify Yourself

Your first and most important critic should always be yourself. You must expect to play your game more than anyone else in the world. I suppose there could be people out there who've played more Fluxx than me, but if so, there can't be very many of them. Even if you create a massively addictive game, you will still need to play it constantly in order to get others interested in it. If you are to have any success at all with your game, it will be because you've taught lots of other people how to play, usually by example. So if you don't enjoy the experience of playing your own game, again and again and again, then you've got problems. You can't expect anyone else to like your game if you yourself don't want to play it every chance you get.

Don't be embarrassed about playing with yourself. What can *really* be embarrassing is showing off an incomplete work prematurely. So just close the door and embrace schizophrenia. Start with a known favorite and train yourself to play a game first as one player, then as the other. Ignore what you know about the "other player's" hand and make the best decision for the active player that you can. Get a stuffed animal to stand in as your competitor if that helps, and try rolling dice to come up with enemy decisions. Human competitors are obviously best, but imaginary friends will always have their place.

Rule #2: First Attempts Are Always Lame

In any artistic discipline, one's first few works will always be an embarrassment later, and so it is with game design. You will learn invaluable lessons from the first game you invent, but don't imagine for a moment that it will be a winner. Don't go into a playtesting session with any expectations of success... the players will ask things you never anticipated, attempt things you couldn't have imagined, and break rules in ways you will find amazing. You must take it all in stride, explain what you had intended, and either enforce or adapt the rules as needed. Don't be afraid to change the rules in the middle of a game you are playtesting... playtesters need to understand at the outset that this might happen. If you realize an existing rule isn't working, don't continue with the game. Either change it and keep going, or change it and start over. The key thing is, you must be prepared to let go of early ideas as soon as they are proven to be either lame or unworkable.

Rule #3: Keep the Rules Short

Anyone who's tried to teach me a new game knows that if the rules briefing goes on too long, I'll start saying "Enough Rules, Let's Play!" I consider the worst part of gaming to be that tedious phase at the beginning where you have to explain everything, so the sooner we can get started, the better. Try to structure your game so that play can begin quickly, with rules that aren't required until later being introduced as needed. (Obviously there's no better example of this in my own work than Fluxx...)

Keeping the ruleset short and sweet does more than provide for a fast startup. You should seek to eliminate every unnecessary rule you can. More rules = more to explain = more to remember = more to argue about. Consider the need for each rule you add and see if you can't solve the problem another way, by refining an existing rule, say, instead of adding a new one.

If possible, study computer programming. Designing a game is quite similar in many ways to writing software, and in particular, the task of optimizing a sub-routine has a lot in common with simplifying a set of game rules.

Rule #4: Keep It Exciting

Anyone who's played Monopoly knows that the only thing worse than being eliminated from the game is NOT being eliminated when you have no chance of making a comeback.

Once it becomes obvious who will win, the game is effectively over, even if it takes a few turns (or more) to reach the actual conclusion. Similarly, once it becomes obvious that you will lose, the game is over for you, and it is only good sportsmanship that keeps you participating to the end. In my opinion, both of these situations are to be avoided: All players should feel like they still have a chance of winning the game, right up until the very end. This is something I've sought to do in all of my games, but no where is it more obvious than in Fluxx, in which victory is so unpredictable as to cause people to sometimes complain that it's "too random".

One of the best ways to engender this feeling (of still being able to win in the latter stages of the game) is to have multiple routes to victory. My favorite example of this is Hearts, which challenges you to take as few points as possible, or instead to take them all. Obviously, I've used this principle myself many times, from the trio of ways you can win in Chrononauts, to the 23 ways to win Fluxx.

Rule #5: Don't Forget to Play

Here's another saying of mine: I learn by playing. (Remember the immortal words of Captain James T. Kirk, who once said "The more complex the mind, the greater the need for the simplicity of play.")

At the most fundamental level, "play" has nothing to do with the competitive nature of most games. As kids, "going outside to play" was all about doing whatever you wanted, not trying to "win." Sometimes the most important form of play, whether by a kid or an adult, is the simple act of messing about with something. For example, the first "game" most people play with a set of icehouse pieces is that of simply goofing around with the pyramids, stacking them up in various ways, and watching them fall over.

So it is with playtesting a new game. Often, when I sit down with my group to test something new, it will just be an experiment, never intended to be a fully-playable game, but simply a piece of one. "I just want to see if this mechanism works at all," I'll say, as we deal out a set of prototype cards I just created. Often, at the end of such a test, I'll throw it all away, because it just didn't work. Other times it will confirm my hopes and become part of something else I'm developing.

Rule #6: Pay Attention to the Germans

Anyone who's been monitoring the games market knows that a lot of the coolest new stuff these days is being imported to us from Germany. (That's because Germans in general play parlor games a lot more than we Americans do.) As noted under Pre-Req A, you should be checking these out anyway, as there are many game design lessons to be had by studying the works of Reiner Knizia and his ilk.

But as long as I'm on the subject of Deutschland, I want to mention a pair of German words which I find interesting. Both of these words represent concepts that we don't have our own words for in English (i.e. they are untranslatable) and both represent emotions which are useful in thinking about game design. These words are Gemütlich and Schadenfreude.

The meaning of Gemütlich is comfort in one's surroundings. If the place is Gemütlich, then it is cozy, comfortable, pleasant, and warm. There's a place for everything, and everything is in its place.

Schadenfreude, on the other hand, is a malicious satisfaction in the misfortunes of others. It is the finding of enjoyment in the failures and sufferings of someone else.

The feelings of Gemütlich and Schadenfreude are both small rewards which can be enjoyed by the players of a game. When you've captured all the territories you seek and feel you have well-built defenses, the situation feels Gemütlich. When you overwhelm and defeat your opponents, you feel Schadenfreude. Why don't we have words for these excellent concepts in English?

There are many different ways to have fun, and different people enjoy different things. For some, fun can be found through the Gemütlich accomplishment of construction; for others, the real fun is the Schadenfreude of watching (or better still, bringing about) the defeat of the opponents.

Rule #7: Game Pieces Should be Beautiful

I can't stand to play with ugly game pieces any more than I could live in a house without art on the walls or wearing clothing of just one color. At Looney Labs, we pride ourselves on producing game equipment that is not only fun to use, but enjoyable to look at. (Of course, the "game pieces" is meant to include all components, be they ordinary cards or fancy schmancy player tokens.) If you aren't an artist yourself, find one to hire or team up with.

Caveat: Think About Production Issues

One of the biggest mistakes I made in this business was also my first: inventing an extremely difficult-to-make game piece. Those pesky little pyramids I imagined, in the context of writing a wacky short story (rather than trying to invent a marketable product) gave Kristin and I many fits over the decade it took us to finally get them really and truly into production. The reason we did finally succeed is that we gave up on it for awhile and focused on game pieces which don't cost a fortune to get produced (i.e. playing cards).

Rule #8: Downtime: All Or Nothing

This one is strictly a matter of preference, but I mention it because of Rule #1. I don't like having to pay attention to the game during other players' turns. When the only thing happening is that someone else is thinking, I like being free to let my own mind wander. Perhaps I'll look at a magazine, or talk quietly with someone else, or perhaps, if I think I have time, I'll slip out to the kitchen to get a slice of toast. One thing I particularly enjoy doing is using the downtime from one game to take my turn in another game.

I'm so prone to wandering off when it isn't my turn that it has become traditional at my house for someone to hit the gong (yes, we have a giant gong in our house... doesn't everybody?) when it's my turn and I've disappeared from the table. And wherever I am in the house, I come running back when I hear that gong. In fact, people now know just to yell out the word "Gong!" when my turn rolls around.

I think of my brain as being like a computer, running multiple software applications at once. A computer's operating system juggles many tasks simultaneously through a process called multi-tasking, in which each of many programs gets a moment's use of the processor. Similarly, when my turn is over, I want to be able to shut that area of thought down entirely until I need to wake it up again for my next turn. I can use that time to accomplish something else.

This is one reason why I myself don't play a lot of Zendo, even though it's one of the most popular Icehouse games around today: I just don't like having to pay attention to everything everyone else does during their turns.

Of course, a better solution to the downtime problem is to eliminate it completely, by making your game real-time. I won't be thinking about what to do during my downtime if there isn't any... in a turnless game, it's always your turn! That's why IceTowers and Icehouse are both in the top 5 on my list of favorite Icehouse games.

Rule #9: Know Your Audience

Remember always that different folks have different tastes and nothing will please everyone. Consider the types of gamers who might be drawn to your game, figure out whose interests you most wish to cater to, and tailor your game to suit those tastes. Consider carefully, for example, the amount of luck you want to introduce into your game. Serious games will want more strategy and less luck; casual gamers who favor party games will prefer plenty of luck. What's the right balance for *your* game? Listen to Rule #1.

Rule #10: Keep Working Until You Hear Those 3 Magic Words: "Let's Play Again!"

The ultimate test of a game's worth occurs as soon as the game ends: if the players genuinely and unhesitatingly want to play more, you've got a winner. If not, then go back into your game design cave and tinker with your design some more.


Copyright © 2003 by Andrew Looney.


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Last Modified: Dec 22 2014 at 01:06