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Thoughts (pt 2) on Rules of Play – what are rules March 19, 2007

Posted by ficial in brain dump, games, Rules of Play.

Salen and Zimmerman consider game rules to have these characteristics:
– limit player action
– explicit (more regarding this in a moment)
– unambiguous
– shared by all players
– fixed (on some level, even if fluid on others)
– binding
– repeatable

The first point is to them the most important one: “Rules Limit Player Action. The chief way that rules operate is to limit the activities of players.” For me that doesn’t work. I understand what they’re getting, but when I consider rules from that perspective I find it doesn’t help me in designing a game. To discuss why I have a problem with it I need to get into the discussion of kinds of rules.

Salen and Zimmerman break rules into three categories: operational rules (how the players play the game, e.g. mark an X or O in any box in the grid), constituative (the underlying formal structure of the game, e.g. given a set of 9 elements and two empty sets, elements are removed from the first set and added alternately in the second and third), and implicit (the unwritten rules of the game, e.g. a player takes their turn within a reasonable amount of time). Those categories aren’t exactly what I would have used (thoughts on my rules categories are for a later post), but they’re close enough. Reconciling the category of ‘implicit rules’ with the the trait ‘rules are explicit’ is… tricky. It’s not explored yet in the book, but for now I’m just going to use the simple distinction that operative and constituitive rules are explicit, and implicit ones aren’t.

The relevant complication arises in the interaction between the category of implicit rules and the idea that rules limit player action. While it’s true that rules do in fact limit player action, by counting everything that limits player action as an implicit rule in the game one quickly gets an unbounded list of rules, ranging from ‘players may not take too long on their turn’ to ‘players shall not shoot their opponents’ and beyond. By defining game rule in such an open ended manner the list of implicit rules ends up including every potential action that is not limited by physics alone. There are a number of problems I have with that. The biggest problem is that thinking of game rules as having such a broad extent is detrimental to my design process.

For my thinking, game rules have all the qualities that the authors state, EXCEPT, the first is replaced with this narrower concept:
Rules define meaningful actions. The chief way that rules operate is to define the actions that a player may do that affect the state of the game.

In my mind this gets much more at the idea of what is a game rule. Much of what Salen and Zimmerman would consider the implicit rules of a game is excluded by this. They use an example that in Yahtzee players don’t eat the dice because there’s a Yahtzee rule (implicit) that says ‘players may not eat the dice’. In my understanding that wouldn’t be a rule, implicit or otherwise. Most of that kind of thing I’d put under the general heading of what it means to play a game, with sidetracks into etiquette, sportsmanship, and nutrition.

One difficult thing with my approach is that strictly defining cheating is a little trickier, but far from impossible. For example, in most games of Monopoly stealing money from the bank would be cheating. With the authors’ definition of game rules, stealing would be cheating because there’s an implicit (or sometimes explicit) rule that a player may not steal (IMPORTANT NOTE: I haven’t yet gotten to the book’s discussion of play and cheating, I’m just inferring that’s how cheating is defined based on the definitions and framework the book has so far presented). With my definition stealing would be cheating because it would not be listed as one of the ways a player may manipulate the state of the game. In the authors’ version cheating is breaking a rule (and there are many, many implicit rules, proscribing the various ways that players might otherwise cheat). In my version cheating is manipulating the state of the game in a way that’s not listed in the rules (which is my general definition of ‘cheat’, and then there’s a single implicit rule of ‘a player may not cheat’).

I expect this very low level split in thinking about the purpose and definition of game rules will lead to many more divides as the book goes on. However, I have faith that there’s a good reason for the authors’ particular approach – I expect it will lead to some approaches to game design I have not considered (and likewise I expect some of my approaches to game design are excluded by the authors’ definitions).



1. Trevor - March 20, 2007

I don’t know a lot about game theory, but I think of rules as enabling action. They tell you what you can do. I also think the slippery topic of fun is connected to the rules in that having a choice on your turn that will affect the outcome of the game is part of engagement, which is part of fun.
In our house we have Candy Land. In Candy Land, you pick a random card on your turn and go to the square indicated. Your goal is to get to the finish line, but you have no input that will change the course of the game. The winner is predetermined once you shuffle the cards and decide on who goes first. Your only choice is to play or not play. Over the course of sitting there taking turns, it becomes evident who won. Even our 5 year old doesn’t see it as much fun.
We also have Max the Cat. In Max the Cat you try to get three small animals to their homes before the cat eats them. Much like Candy Land, you have a trail of squares to follow. The cat starts at the beginning and the animals have a head start. On your turn you roll the dice indicating to move the cat 0, 1, or 2 squares and to move an animal 0, 1, or 2 squares. The player decides which animal to move, but has no choice about moving the cat. Because there is only one Max and three animals, Max tends to move 3 times as fast as the group of animals. In addition, on a player’s turn, a player may send Max home with one of 4 snacks. Your decision on your turn directly affects the outcome of the game. Call Max home too early and too often and he will catch up with and eat the animals. Advance the bird and put the mouse and chipmunk at risk. Sometimes you try to save all three animals and end up losing them all. Even our 2 year old enjoys this game. We play it over and over. Sometimes Max stuffs himself again and again and sometimes all the animals make it home. Sometimes Max can be way, way, way, behind and sneak right up in the end and get the animals. Other times he is a constant threat and yet goes hungry. Max the Cat is a very interesting and engaging game.
If given a choice our family opts for Max the Cat over Candy Land. The rules allow us to have a say in how the game turns out, a variety of strategies are accommodated, and the game’s outcome can still be surprising each time we play.

2. ficial - March 21, 2007

Max the Cat sounds like a wonderful game. Your story is a great example of what people in my game group call meaningful choices. Meaningful choices aren’t necessary to make a game, but they’re required to make a GOOD game. I’ll probably end up making a longer post about them later, but in brief a meaningful choice is a situation where a player can choose what happens and each potential option has a different, discernable, predictable, and significant effect on the state of the game (with high precision in the near term and lower precision as the term gets longer). Candyland fails as a good game because it presents no meaningful choices. Max the Cat sounds like it presents many meaningful choices.

Candyland does present some interesting challenges if players are at a point where matching colors and figuring out what’s closest ahead are significant chores. However, even in those cases I wouldn’t call it a good game. A good game (and perhaps even implied in the definition of game, period) has player choices affect the outcome of the game.

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