Premise and Implementation: Understanding the Difference

I know, my last blog was supposed to be my final blog, but now I’m just going to post every time I come up with something interesting to write. I have no idea when the next one will be. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe never. I don’t know.

Most of this blog is about fixing the implementation of a game, but these methods can break down when the game has premise issues. Understanding the nature of the game’s problem can save you many hours of ineffective play testing.

What is the difference? Not everything fits easily into “premise” and “implementation” categories, but once you can see the difference between the extremes, you should at least be able to spot which shade of grey everything is. A loose and vague definition I’ll start you off with before I dive deeper is, “The premise is everything your game wants to be, and the implementation is everything it is.”

Suppose I’m working on a party game that requires 30 to 45 people to play, takes 5 hours to play in which everyone gets to pretend to be a veterinarian that specialises in fish. So there are three features of the game so far. Play time: 5 hours. People required: 30 to 45. Theme: Fish veterinarians.

Each of those features could either be part of the premise or the implementation.

I may have woken up one morning and thought “There is not enough 5 hour fish veterinarian games for 30 to 45 players.” If so, then they are all part of the premise.

I may have spent years working on designing the game and thought “The only way I can get this game to work, is if I require 30 players, let it go for 5 hours, and make all the players be fish veterinarians.” If so, then they are all part of the implementation.

Even though both could result in the exact same game, the difference between the two radically changes the approach to developing it.

If the premise is bad, the game should be destroyed, not fixed. A game built on a bad premise is much like a house built on bad foundation. It can be tempting to build a new foundation and try to lift the house onto it, but it will probably destroy the house in the process. Likewise, a game built on a bad premise was built for that premise. Reworking a game to fit a new premise will be no more successful than reworking a sledge hammer to turn a screw.

Good ideas can still be salvaged. There is a difference between salvaging and fixing. Your destroyed game may have a clever way of interpreting dice, or a new purpose for a classic game piece. Fixing is when you replace a bad feature in a good game. Salvaging is when you keep a good feature, but destroy the bad game it came from.

Testing a premise. If you’ve read the rest of my blog, you should know plenty about testing implementation. I want you to forget all that. None of it works for testing a premise.

To test a premise, simply describe it to someone. If they say something to the effect of, “That sounds like a horrible game,” you have just saved yourself many hours of play testing. That’s probably all the useful advice they could’ve given you. If they say, “I don’t know how you’d get it to work, but I think it could be a lot of fun,” your premise is excellent, for that person. That is, if your game was finished and printed, that one person is a potential customer.

The test of a premise is how many potential customers there are out there. If there aren’t enough, your game will never be a commercial success. If there aren’t anyone beside yourself, you’d better make sure it has a solitaire version, because that’s all you’ll ever see of it.

It’s a matter of fit. In my example earlier, I deliberately invented the worst premise I could think of. Still, you may have 29 friends who regularly meet up with you for five hours and have nothing to do with them. Perhaps they are all members of your weekly fish veterinarian enthusiast club, where they hang pictures on the wall of the world’s greatest fish veterinarians, and they all stare at them longingly, wishing they could be one. If so, they would be ideal play testers for this game.

On the other side, I know I would be a horrible play tester for complex miniatures war games. I know this because I have played and disliked some of the greatest complex miniatures war games in the world. So if the premise of your game is “complex miniatures war game”, you should probably make sure your play testers love the premise before continuing further.

Testing games you don’t fit. As a designer, you should play test other people’s games as often as you can. This helps you a lot in understanding the play testing process, but it also means you’ll have people who are knowledgeable about game design who owe you a favour.

For non-designers, I’d say “never test games you don’t fit”, or you might find yourself doing something silly like complaining that the murder mystery contained a murder, and was too mysterious.

For designers, test games you don’t fit, but be honest and up front. If you asked me to test your complex miniatures war game, I would start by letting you know I’m not personally a fan. They’d need to know that I like my complex games without randomness and my random games without complexity.

Once I began playing the game, I need to pretend I’m a war gamer. War gamers don’t say “this is too random” or “these rules are too detailed”. They say things like, “that’s not what would happen in real life” or “how does this choice reflect the real choices a soldier or commander face?”

Personally, I’m not bothered by these things. I don’t mind playing a game that’s a little divorced from reality so long as the rules are easy to remember. However, playing a war game, I need to pretend I’m a war gamer and pretend those things upset me.

I would still give my true opinions also. I’d say it felt too random for my taste, and the rules were too complex for my taste, but I’d say it knowing it’s my personal taste. I wouldn’t let the designer feel discouraged by such things. I’d recommend they get more opinions on those things before making the game simpler and less random.


All Good Things Must Come to an End

This will be my last article, so on that note, I decided to finish it off by talking about designing games to end.

Decide How Long Your Game Should Take

You don’t have to decide straight away, but eventually you will need to tell people how long the game will take. “Too long” is a common and valid criticism of a game, and if the game is too short, you may not be able to get your players to the point where the game gets good.

A good rule of thumb is to let your game get good, then end it. If the game tends to get at its best in 25 minutes, try to make it end in 30.

A game like Pathfinder or Dungeons and Dragons really starts to shine perhaps 40 hours in. (Usually not done in one sitting, but I’ve heard stories.) Because of this, these games are designed to never end. Players play for as long as they choose, sometimes by deciding ahead of time, or sometimes aiming to last as long as possible.

Many games are not designed with an end time in mind. A game of Flux could be over in 5 minutes, or still be going 3 hours later. Although Flux is an otherwise brilliant game, I will be using it as an example of what not to do, or at the very least, what to try to avoid if you can but otherwise do full knowingly.

Ending the Game is Your Job

Try to think back to the last time you’ve had this experience. You are playing a game and deciding between two options, let’s say A and B. Option A is no better for you than option B, but you choose option A because it will have the game end faster.

This is a very bad dilemma to put a player in, and the mark of poor design. That said, it comes up even in good games, but the difference is, in a good game, even if everyone plays to make the game take as long as possible, the game will still end in a timely manner. In a bad game, it will just keep going. Remember that the role of the player is to try to win at all costs. Prolonging the game until the opponent becomes bored is always a valid strategy, and one that must be countered by the designer, not the opponent.

Fortunately, this problem isn’t too strong in Flux. Playing hard to win at all costs can actually make the game end earlier, rather than later. (But there are still some choices that could potentially extend or shorten the game, and the choice to shorten isn’t always the best.)

Give Your Game Inertia

This may be a word that game designers are already using, and if I’m very lucky they may even define it the same way I’m about to. If not, get ready to learn a new term I made up.

A game has inertia when it naturally progresses from early game states to mid game states to end game states, and rarely progresses backwards.

For example, Chess starts with many pieces on the board and most moves result in there being fewer pieces on the board. Sometimes a pawn is replaced by another piece, but the total number of pieces always goes down, not up. Fewer pieces means fewer options, and fewer options means escaping Check Mate is more difficult. Thus, with every passing move, the game ending becomes more likely.

In Connect 4, there is initially no pieces, but as more pieces are added, the probability of 4 of them being in a row gets higher. Once 4 are in a row, the game is over. No one ever has a turn that ends in there being less pieces.

In Monopoly, it’s the number of hotels on the board. It’s quite common for hotels to be built and uncommon for them to be destroyed. A game with a hotel on every space is far more likely to suddenly end than a game with no houses or hotels anywhere.

It’s possible to imagine a much more complex example. Perhaps the number of red pieces divided by the number of blue pieces plus the number of green pieces always goes up and never down. If having lots of red pieces divided by blue pieces plus green pieces made the game more likely to end, then such a game would also have inertia.

Different Levels of Inertia

Games cannot be easily defined into categories of having and not having inertia. Rather there must be a way of measuring inertia, so I’ve chosen a measure that will give very few games an ultimately all or nothing score. The best measure is by how predictable play time is. Most being a game that is played with a timer. Least being a game that could finish instantaneously or never.

Inertia is measured by the variance in play times assuming experienced players. So, if you want to get all statistical on it, you could get a list of play times and calculate the standard deviation, and maybe divide it by the average play time if you want to get extra fancy. Going to that level of measurement may not be very helpful, but it is helpful to imagine what sort of result your game might get if you were to measure it.

That’s All Folks

When I first started this blog, I imagined getting lots of followers and lots of long discussions on game design. It seems my expectations were unrealistic, and it’s all gotten too hard. That said, if any reader takes the time to ask me a detailed question, I’ll write another article answering it. Deal?

What is Metagaming?

You’ll often hear this word used, but whenever you ask someone to explain it to you, they’ll use a different definition each time. Normally, it will be spoken of as a bad thing. Something that results from bad game design or cheating players. What makes this particularly confusing, is whenever the same thing results in a more enjoyable game for all, people will defend it as “not metagaming”. With this mentality, what is and isn’t metagaming all comes down to personal taste.

However, the way I use the word, metagaming doesn’t need to be bad. Understanding examples of when it’s good will help you understand what it is overall.


In Greek, beginning a word with “meta” is similar to beginning a word with “post” in English. Meta means “after”, “beyond” or “outside”. In English, “meta” slowly evolved into “outside its self” or “about its self”. So data about data is metadata. Programming a program to program is “metaprogramming”. Any form of media is considered “meta” if the topic is the form of media used. That is, a book about book making, a journalistic article about journalism, a painted picture of someone painting or a documentary about how documentaries are made.

The term “metagame analysis” later appeared in game theory. This was the idea of looking at a real world scenario, describing it as if it were a game between multiple players, then predicting what would happen if all players made the best possible moves.

In Board and Card Games

Metagaming is playing the game outside the game.

In a game about earning and breaking trust, someone who has been untrustworthy in past games will more likely be untrustworthy in this game.

In a game about helping and hindering others, if you know you will lose you can help the person in second place win. By doing this, that player will owe you a favour in future games.

In a heavy European style game, you may notice a move that seems weak in all situations, but seems slightly less weak in this situation. Knowing that such games are heavily tested, you’d know that any move that is weak in all situations will always be deleted by the designer. You could then infer that any move that’s always weak except now, must be very very powerful now. This is metagaming as you are using your knowledge of deliberately balanced game design to win, rather than figuring out what the best move would be if the game were poorly designed.

In Role Playing Games

The concept of Role Playing Games is that each person is determining the actions of a character in a story based on the circumstances they face.

Excessive discussion about dice probability is metagaming as the orc barbarian is unlikely to bring out a calculator and calculate the greatest damage per move assuming each foe can only take 10 points of damage before dying.

Knowing that an object frequently described must be vital to progressing the story is another example. If the game master says “You see two paintings, one is smaller than the other,” you can safely guess that the large painting is unimportant and useless, but the small painting either depicts a vital clue or is hiding a hidden compartment. If the big painting was more important, then the description would be “one is larger than the other”.

Using out of game knowledge. You may know things about dragons based on things you’ve read about them before the game began. Acting on such information is metagaming.

You may know what the other players are up to, even if your character cannot see or hear their character. This is another example.

Always trusting that things will work out well in the end. If a poorly dressed and bad smelling man approached you with a map, promising you riches beyond your wildest dreams if you can defeat the monsters in the cave at the end of it, you’d probably call the police. If this happens in a game, you think “I know he’ll probably betray me in the end, but I can use the equipment in the place he’s told me about to defeat him in battle when he does.” In a role playing game, the only behaviour likely to get you killed, is wondering off and looking at things the Game Master hasn’t written anything about. If he has written about it, it’s probably safe.

In Collectable Games

The metagame of a collectable game is in building your deck/army/character based on what you know is popular. For example, collecting water Pokemon if you think everyone likes fire Pokemon.

It’s Not Always Bad

The design of any game is to be enjoyable. If the metagame is enjoyable also, that is an added bonus. If the metagame is tedious, flawed or sucks the life out of the game in anyway, you must redesign your game accordingly. The metagame doesn’t necessarily need to be removed, it just needs to be fun.

What Do You Think?

Do people even read my blog? Should I keep writing or give up now?

Good Games Are Meaningful

Remember back to your first dice rolling game. I’m guessing you were probably four years old and you were probably playing something with similar rules to “snakes and ladders”.

You quickly learned that more dots means greater chance of victory but you were still struggling to learn which dice rolling technique produces the most dots.

Fast forward a year. You are a year older and far more experienced in the mathematical arts of counting and far more developed in telekinesis. You can now read the board and, simply by focusing your mind on the optimal number, roll it more than a sixth of the time! Sure, you have your off days, as the novice of any sport would, but you have great potential. You even remember outperforming your own father once. With time and practice, you will one day become unbeatable at this game!

Then one day, you learn more about dice. Your dream of one day rolling perfect games every time is shattered. The game has lost its meaning.

What Is Meaning?
Humans are incapable of interacting with the world as it really is. Our sense organs are imperfect and our brain makes up most of what we think we know.

In reality, there are collections of atoms known as people, sitting around collections of atoms known as a table, interacting with collections of atoms known as paper, cardboard, printer toner and plastic. Not very exciting when you think of it like that.

Add some meaning:

Sarah is trying to take an interest in her boyfriend Jason’s new game. She is struggling to understand the rules, but Jason is helping her.

Simon is losing, and resents Sarah and Jason for working together to crush him. They wouldn’t think they are. In reality, “working together” doesn’t exist. It’s just a bunch of atoms different people interpret different ways.

Paul isn’t doing too well either, but he’s really getting into the game. Rather than sitting home alone eating noodles in his tiny apartment, he’s the CEO of a large company ordering thousands of employees around. Occasionally a silly rule will take him back to reality and remind him it’s all just a game, but he forgives those rules and understands they’re required to make the game work.

Betty is Paul’s Mum. She doesn’t see him often and treasures every moment of it. The game isn’t quite to her taste but she’d never tell Paul that. This is the closest thing to a common interest she has.

Jason is winning, in the game. In real life, he’s lost his job for not meeting quota; his last girlfriend left him for failing to understand her; and he’s not certain how long he’ll hold on to Sarah before she does the same. But in the game, he’s a winner.

So What?
Meaning is what sells printed cardboard and molded plastic for $80.

Meaning isn’t what the game means to you, it’s what it means to the customer. As a designer, you need to be aware of the meaning your players will create as they play.

It can be tempting to only consider math, optimal strategy and component quality. Those things are all good, but don’t forget to spend time looking at your game through the meaning of its players.

What Do You Think?
People rarely comment on my stuff. Why is that?

What They Don’t Know Can’t Hurt

Loopdy, my game that’s currently in development, has been play tested many times. One common complaint is that in the 6 player game, player 6 is at a significant disadvantage to everyone else.

Easy fix, just give player 6 some bonus points and all is good. So, I got to testing. I played the game 10 times over, calculating averages. My best estimate is a 3 point bonus to player 6, and I am certain the correct number exists between 2 and 5.

However, in my research I also found many other advantages and disadvantages in player position. The disadvantage of player 6 is no more significant than some of the others I’ve found, but the most appropriate thing to do now, is pretend I didn’t see it.

What the Eye Don’t See, the Chef Gets Away With

Player 6’s disadvantage is obvious. In a game where everyone gets 6 turns, player 6 only gets 5 turns. As for the other positions, you’d think they’d be the same. They’re not, but it took me ten games of playing against myself to see it.

Suppose I were to fix all the problems. Suppose I added a complex chart determining which player should have what point advantage depending on the number of players, as well as the most appropriate order for breaking ties in each case. Would it really be worth it? In Chess, white wins 55% of the time, but this problem never seemed to bother anyone, because it doesn’t look like white would win 55% of the time. Such a complex chart turns something that was once a fun and simple game into a mathematical game with pauses to look things up. Imagine everything was set up for a 4 player game and an extra player wanted to join, forcing everyone to look up the new chart for how to make the game fair.

Another advantage of my game that would be lost is age accessibility. My game is perfect for people who can count but not read, (providing you have someone who can read to teach you the rules.) Suppose I had a setup chart, the age of reading charts comes much later than the age of reading numbers and playing games. Now the game requires adult supervision to set up.

Suppose I Fixed Nothing. But player 6 clearly has a huge disadvantage! Can’t you see!? Having one tile less, that could cost him 16 points perhaps! How does he have any hope of catching up? Have you considered that? Did you put any effort into design when you made this game at all? Shouldn’t player 6 just give up now?

In my 10 sessions playing against myself, player 6 won once which is no more than I’d expect in 10 games, but reviewers don’t know that and customers don’t know that. I imagine a noteworthy reviewer saying, “The designer hadn’t considered that player 6 essentially has no chance of winning. I played it three times with my group and the person who was stuck with player 6 didn’t win any of them! I like what the designer is trying to do, but clearly more polish is required.”

By adding a point bonus to player 6, I’m saying to the players “I know player 6 is at a disadvantage, but it’s nowhere near as big as you think. Also, because of this rule, it no longer exists at all.” Sure, other players have a big advantage/disadvantage you don’t know about, I’ll mentally add to myself, but they haven’t received any complaints yet.

Moral of the Story

Perceived problems are worse than real problems. Real problems, no one will ever know exist, but perceived problems will hurt sales, cheapen victories and render the whole experience meaningless. Sometimes, instead of spending ages lecturing your child about the probability of monsters under the bed being the least life threatening risk he takes every night, it’s much easier to wave a stick under the bed and have him sleep comfortably knowing any monsters that could’ve been there are now scared away.

Writing Rules

Writing rules is hard, and I’m not going to pretend I’m perfect at it. This skill alone, you could devote decades of your life to, and still find yourself learning new things.

The Basics

Always proof read whatever you write.

Read out loud and slowly.

If you make any change at all, even adding or removing a comma, you’re not finished yet.

If you can read through the entire document, slowly, without wanting to change anything, look at it again tomorrow.

If you can read through the entire document for the first time of a new day and you can’t see any changes to make, show it to someone else. You’ve probably missed something.

Remember, this is a published document, not an editable blog. Printed rules don’t have as many features as WordPress, so get it right the first time.

Things To Look For While Editing

Excess flavour or humour. It can be nice reading “knight” instead of “cube”, but when paragraphs are devoted to making the reader laugh or setting the right tone of the rules, it’s time to ask yourself if they’re really necessary. You need to imagine a group of very impatient players who only have enough space in their heads to remember the important stuff.

That said, if I can’t talk you out of it, as it’s clearly a heavily themed game or your joke made everyone who read it laugh so uncontrollably that they cried, then at least write it in italics. A reader can quickly understand that anything in italics won’t help him learn the rules better.

Trying To Explain the Rules. A good example is Settlers of Catan. Players can, at any time, trade four identical resources for a resource of choice with the bank. Think about this a moment. Who set up the bank of Catan? How is it that there is always someone willing to trade 4 brick for wheat, even when there has clearly been a wheat drought since the start of the game? Is it a bank as we understand banks, or is the bank a metaphor? Maybe it’s a series of individual self interested traders travelling from place to place, or maybe citizens have their own private supply of resources which are distinct from the government owned resources that you control.

Settlers could’ve explained the economics here, and it’s quite likely that Klaus Teuber thought of a perfectly logical reason why 4 for 1 trades would always be possible on this island. Still, he didn’t write it.

Likewise, don’t explain your rules unless you are absolutely certain doing so will make them easier to learn. Don’t be afraid to just let rules not make sense. People prefer a simple nonsensical rule to the same rule with a detailed paragraph explaining why it should make sense.

Wrong Font Size. 9-16pt is appropriate for rules depending on the sort of game and audience. When determining the size of anything small for print, I always send a copy to my phone. Your average smart phone can display small images much more clearly than your average computer monitor. Once you’re sure you viewing it at the correct size, your phone won’t give you any loss of quality. (Unless you’re printing well beyond 300 ppi)

Using Words Instead of a Picture. I know, pictures are hard to make and they take lots of time. However, if you don’t have lots of time, consider finding a different hobby. When writing rules, you need to consider how much space a clearly readable picture takes up. If a picture can explain a concept in less space than words can, explain it with a picture.

Over-Clarifying. You may move the rook any number of spaces. The rook must land on a space, and cannot land in such a way that causes the base to overlap two, three our four distinct spaces. Moving is performed by placing either the left or right hand anywhere along the shaft of the rook, griping tightly, raising it at least a millimetre off the chess board then with an outward, inward or sideways motion of your arm…

Over clarifying causes people to doubt things they thought they had understood, as well as giving too many unnecessary words to read. Often over-clarifying happens because you used words where you should’ve used a picture.

Repeating Yourself. If you must explain the same thing in a second way, use “i.e.” or “therefore” and write both ways next to each other. If you find yourself having to say anything the same way twice in different parts of the rules, your rules need a radical restructuring.

Too Many Defined Terms. Often words must be made up to describe rules. Perhaps you have an “action phase”, “set up round”, “resource gathering action”, “defence mode” or “base attack modifier”.

Every term you make up, players must learn. This is why some of the more complex games can feel like learning a second language. If you can avoid making up a term and instead explain a concept by using a word they already know, your rules will be better for it.

What Do You Think?

Any other sneaky things to watch out for? How do you improve your rules?

Where Does a Game Designer Begin?

No More Daily Blogs

As I lay in bed, trying to think of something blogworthy to thumb into my iPhone before my self-imposed deadline hits, I realise, perhaps I’ve taken my hobby too far. So for now, I’ll only be posting once a week.

I may return to daily updates if my audience grows, but until then, I’ll update once per week end.

Where to begin?

Short answer is “anywhere you like”.

Long answer is the same as the short answer with the phrase “including, but not limited to…” attached.

The best place to start is with the feature that excites you most. The sort of thing you’d see written on a game box that has you reaching for your wallet.

Including, But Not Limited To…

A mechanic. The mechanics are the features that govern what the game does. Whether you are playing chess on a computer, a physical board or drawing it on a blackboard, all of the mechanics of chess stay the same. How many mechanics chess has, is not an important distinction. Chess could be defined in a number of long rules or even more short rules, but regardless, each rule can be considered a mechanic. Even a vague concept about the rules can be a mechanic. Although no one ever would, there’s no reason why all the rules of chess in their entirety can’t be considered a mechanic.

So, perhaps you have invented a mechanic, or found one in an otherwise poorly made game, and you’d like to create a good game out of it. Great, start there.

A theme/narrative. Sometimes, you just know the fantasy you want to provoke. Perhaps you want to feel the struggles of a rushed hair dresser, destroy waves of aliens trying to attack an orbital satellite or maybe advise a great king about how to improve the economy. You might even want a game where you can do all three at once. Whatever it is that inspires you, you may start there.

Social dynamics. Sometimes it’s best to start with the emotion you want and work backwards from there. Do you want to excite people? Relax them? Scare them? Confuse them? Frustrate them? Humour them?

How do you want them to treat each other? Do they have secrets? Are they mistrusting each other? Are they trying to entertain each other? Are they exploiting each other’s mistakes? Are they helping each other? Are they getting to know each other on a deeper emotional level? Are they exacting vengeance?

Components. This could be a certain object you want a game about, or even a certain size or budget. Perhaps you want your game pocket sized. Now you can frame the rest of your design concepts around those constraints.

Circumstance. Perhaps you can think of a situation that no game seems appropriate for. Maybe because of the number of players, or the amount of room, or the diversity of player age/skill/taste. You may remember the circumstance as you think of how a game could’ve improved it. Go for it!

What Do You Think?
Where do you start? Did I miss any good places to start?What do you want me to write about next week?