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Thoughts (pt 3) on Rules of Play – categorizing rules March 20, 2007

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

As mentioned previously, Salen and Zimmerman divide rules into 3 main categories:
* operational : 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
* implicit : the unwritten rules of the game, e.g. a player takes their turn within a reasonable amount of time

They then consider as separate games unique combinations of operational and consituative rule sets, though the boundaries are necessarily a bit fuzzy (is it the same game if you use a die as a randomizer instead of a spinner? Or draw cards? Or keep score with chips rather than on a board? etc.) The question of how much a game has to change before it’s a different game is extremely difficult to answer. However, that particular discussion is one for another day. Back to rules…. Reading this section of the book got me thinking about the un-articulated ways I group rules. I haven’t really bothered to make it clear to myself before, and it’s probably a good exercise to do so.

When I design a game I don’t think too much about the implicit rules. There certainly are some, as well as some amount of assumed vocabulary (e.g. that ‘take turns’, ‘go around the table’, ‘deal cards one at a time’, etc. are terms that don’t need to be explicitly defined in the rules). So, I mostly think about what the authors call constituative and operational rules. However, I don’t mentally put them in those groups. I split them into two large groups, each of which is subdivided into two groups.

The first large group is the rules of meaning. The first subset of rules are the definitions of the parts of the game, which cover things like the attributes of the randomizers, the characteristics of the board (or other play space), the pieces, etc. The second subset of rules are the evaluations, which cover what the parts mean to the players. Basically, these rules allow the players to evaluate the state of the game – who’s ahead, who’s behind, is the game over, did anyone win, etc. The meanings rules cover specific terminology (symbol set maps, whether to words or objects), and underlying structures. The second large group is the rules of transformation. The first subset of these are the mechanics, which deal with how all the parts interact with each other. The second subset are the operations, which cover the way players may manipulate the game state. The transformation rules also deal with both the abstract game system and the representations the players use.

Looking at chess, for example:
meanings – definition: the board, the pieces, where the pieces start on the board, being captured
meanings – evaluations: check, checkmate, stalemate
transformations – mechanics: how each piece may move and capture, special moves (en passant, castling), capturing, promotion
transformations – operations: white first, take turns, dealing with check, castling conditions, resigning, touch-move

My division of rules arises from the way I design games. I don’t [usually] come up with an abstract game system and then lay operational rules on it (nor vice versa). The first rules I usually come up with tend to be mechanics and their related definitions. From there I consider possible related definitions (for what other things could that kind of mechanic be used), related mechanics (what other things can I do with those things I’ve defined). Then the evaluations and operations come into play, giving direction and interest. Also tossed into the mix are the skin (what sort of things do I want the player to be thinking about and doing), the theme (the topic or story, if any, e.g. Pirates, or Escape, or War, or Running With Scissors, or whatever), and the feel (serious, fast, light, silly, deliberate, etc.).

My approach could be considered just a different slice on the same set the authors talk about. One could stick definitions and mechanics together and get something like the constituative rule, and likewise evaluations and operations could be the operational rules. However, it’s not quite an exact match. The operational rules as described in the book lean a little more towards what I think of as the skin of the game (which is also related to the theme of the game…). This gets back into the question of how different do two games have to be to be different games. Basically, when I look at two games I consider them the same if their abstract systems are the same. To use the terms in the book, if two games have the same constituative rules I think of them as the same game.

Clearly, that’s a designer bias. From a player’s perspective, how you play the game can make a huge difference even when the underlying systems are the same. The book has a great example in this regard (Rules of Play page 128-129)-

Consider the standard game of Tic Tac Toe. Then consider the game 3-to-15 by Marc LeBlanc. 3-to-15 works like this:
1. players alternate turns picking a [whole] number from 1 to 9 that has not yet been picked.
2. if a player manages to get a set of three number that sum to 15, that player wins.
3. if all the number have been picked and no one has won then te game is a draw.
From a players perspective they’re completely different games. However, consider this matrix
which illustrates the winning sets of three numbers on the rows, columns, and diagonals, and also demonstrates that the abstracts systems of the two games are identical.

Wearing my player hat I’d consider the two games to be different (at least until I figured out the matrix). Wearing my designer hat I’d consider the games to be the same, but with different skins. Skins are highly relevant in designing a game, not just something that’s thrown on after the abstract system is created. The skin determines in large part how the player feels about the game and type of things the player tries to do, e.g. whether a player thinks about territory control and position or arithmetic and set theory. HOWEVER, I don’t consider myself to have designed a new game if I put a new skin on an existing system, I would probably call it a variant (of a particular kind, more on that when I get around to the what-makes-a-different-game discussion).



1. Trevor - March 21, 2007

It seems that an important operational consideration is determining which player gets to go first. I wonder how much this factor affects popular games. I only know about chess. In chess, the player with the white pieces gets the first move. In all recorded games, white wins about 55% of the time. On the other hand, the player with the Black pieces has the advantage of having one move more information about White’s plans. This doesn’t seem like much at first, but when you try taking a highly successful defense as played by Black and try it with White, it often doesn’t work, even with the extra move! Black will see what is coming and make the famed opening ineffective. That is probably why white only wins 55% of the time. In chess tournaments, players alternate colors each game and there is more than a few pages of the official rules of chess that discuss assigning due colors. World Chess Championships are determined by matches with the players alternating colors each game. Getting to go first is a big deal.

What do Salen and Zimmerman have to say about who goes first?
If you are a game designer, how to you minimize the advantage of the player who goes first?

2. ficial - March 22, 2007

The book hasn’t gotten to this topic yet, and when it does I’m sure I’ll have more to say on the matter. In the mean time here are soe brief thoughts on the matter…

Who goes first is always a tricky question. Some games avoid the question entirely by having players move simultaneously. Others get players to negotiate a fair price (e.g. bidding for the right to go first, where the bid winner gets to go first but has their bid amount subtracted from their final score). Others try to assign some fixed value (e.g. in Go the second mover gets a 6.5 point bonus (Komi) added to their final score – the .5 point breaks ties). Others use a round-robin system (e.g. the tournament chess matches you describe).

When I design games I generally try to balance the first move advantage against some other aspect of the game (whether its a simple point bonus a la Go, some sort of positional advantage, an information advantage, or something else). I’m also a fan of simultaneous movement games (for other reasons besides the first-mover issue, but dealing with that is a not-insignificant side benefit). Real-time games can also deal with it, though not all do. One can also largely get around the problem with un-even forces games (where players each have a mostly separate set of rules by which they play). Separating the end conditions from the win/loss conditions can help, though it usually doesn’t do the trick in itself. As a last resort I’d use a match-based or duplicate-based system.

Determining the exact magnitude of a first-mover advantage can be very tricky and is often more a matter of statistics than deduction – e.g. In chess the first mover has a 10% advantage which is deduced by looking at large numbers of game results, but that would be incredibly hard to predict from the rules (it’s pretty easy to predict there’s some advantage, but very hard to predict how much). The games I’ve designed haven’t received that much play, so sometimes the best I can do is build in some kind of easily adjustable parameter, take a guess at a vaguely appropriate value, and assume that if and when enough games are played to figure out a better value then it will get changed.

3. Thoughts (pt 4) on Rules of Play - digital games « f i c i a l - March 22, 2007

[…] of games and then get back to digital games. Consider the two rule implementations Tic Tac Toe and 3-to-15 (towards the bottom of the post). You could then ask “is that rule set a math and memory game or a territory control […]

4. Trevor - March 24, 2007

We were talking about the imbalance in performance in chess based on who goes first. Other imbalances in chess (taken from Jeremy Silman’s books):
Superior minor piece
Pawn structure
Control of a key file or square
Lead in development
A simplified version of Silman’s thesis is that once you create an imbalance in one of these areas you can convert it into a different imbalance or work it into a won game. If you view chess by only looking at the material, you miss the depth of the game.
Rules ought to allow a variety of imbalances to occur in game play to accommodate more than one winning strategy.

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