Thursday, December 22, 2005

Schools of Game Design

Last week I talked about three game designers, and classified and categorized their works. This week I want to move a step up the food chain, and instead talk about schools of game design, to once more try to categorize, classify, and index.

The central idea is that game designs can, as with most creative works, be grouped into schools of design, each with their own character and their own quirks. In the modern gaming world, I believe there are four broad schools of design--mainstream, Anglo-American, Euro, and hybrid--though each of those schools also has sub-schools within them.

Mainstream Games

Mainstream games are those ones that you probably grew up with. They appear in Toys R' Us, Wal-Mart, and the closets of many American families. Most mainstream games: have a superficial or no theme; have little concern for the actual mechanics, which tend to be rudimentary or monotone at best; and have little opportunity for real strategy (with the notable exception of the abstracts).

Abstract Games: These are largely traditional games that have been around for hundreds or thousands of years. This category includes Chess, Checkers, Go, Backgammon, Othello, and others. Unlike most mainstream games, these ones are well-designed, and do allow for strategy. They're the only real gamers' games to hit the mainstream, and probably have only achieved their success due to their long history.

Some twentieth-century designs like Alex Randolph's Twixt did manage the same mainstream appeal. More recent games, like the GIPF project clearly fit into this categorization, but haven't necessarily penetrated the larger markets.

Besides their other characteristics, most mainstream abstracts are two-player.

Examples. Backgammon, Checkers, Chess, GIPF, Go, Othello, Twixt

Family Games: Of the three types of mainstream games, family games are the ones that are most likely to actually have some theme behind them. However, looking at them from a modern perspective, I think the theme for a Stratego or a Monopoly is actually much more tenuous than even Knizia's most transparent themings. Sure, the themings exist, but they usually don't have much or any interaction with the rules. This low attention to theming probably bespeaks the evolution of family games from abstract mainstreams.

Family games otherwise meet the general classifications for mainstream games, including rudimentary mechanics and low strategy. They support surprisingly large numbers of people, with Monopoly running to 8, Boggle to 6, and Mille Bornes to 6. Thus their main differentiation from party games tends to be that they require more concentration.

(I could further separate family games into couple games, family games, and kid games, but have elected not to, mainly because I don't find the category at all interesting. The only big difference is that theming usually increases as the age of the players decreases.)

Examples. Boggle, Mille Bornes, Monopoly, Scrabble, Stratego

Party Games: Finally, party games meet every one of the critera I laid out for mainstream games, and perhaps are the definitive mainstream game as a result. In addition they tend to have one other characteristic: they allow for, and perhaps even support, conversation.

Many party games allow for this by the fact that there's no ability to plan ahead for your next turn. They're entirely tactical. Trivial Pursuit, or almost any other trivia game, fits into this category. So do some creative games like Cranium, where each player takes a turn based solely on the card draw that turn.

Alternatively party games may have little downtime, but instead constantly support conversation and interaction. Most of the other creative games work like this, including Win, Lose, or Draw!, or any other game where lots of people are trying to figure out what one person is doing.

Examples. Cranium, Trivial Pursuit, Win, Lose, or Draw!

Anglo-American Games

Anglo-American games as we now recognize started really appearing in the sixties and seventies. Their genesis seems to have been from the hobby game market, first appearing from miniatures game manufacturers (and thus Avalon Hill) and later roleplaying game manufacturers (and thus TSR, Steve Jackson Games, and many others). (Miniatures and RPGs are two more Anglo-American games that I've avoided in this essay.)

As with mass-market games there really isn't much emphasis on mechanics. However, the themes are often much tighter to the game, which isn't a surprise given that many miniatures games and roleplaying games alike are heavily simulationistic, and so the same companies would be offering up similar design philosophies.

Together these form what I call a "top-down" design philosophy: building from theming down to mechanics.

Wargames: I'd count pretty old games like Diplomacy and Risk as the first Anglo-American wargames. They really took off in the eighties with games like Conquest of the Empires and Axis & Allies, and in the more specialist field, Kingmaker, Dune, and History of the World, and are seeing another resurgence now primarily due to the efforts of Eagle Games.

Besides holding to the general characteristics of Anglo-American games, including good theming and simplistic mechanics, most Anglo-American wargames are fairly long (4-12 hours being typical, but they're still shorter than the miniatures battles they descended from) and they often depend upon very agressive players. (Some of the designs fall apart if one or more persons casually waits for the other players to eat each other.)

Examples. Attack!, Axis & Allies, Conquest of the Empire, Diplomacy, Dune, History of the World, Kingmaker, Risk, Wizard's Quest

Beer & Pretzels: If anything beer & pretzels games have even more solid theme than the rest of the Anglo-American genre, and they also often try and be funny. There's still not much attention to mechanics and many older beer & pretzels games are pretty fatally flawed, most often in endgame resolution which frequently drags and drags and then eventually awards a pseudo-random winner.

The name "beer & pretzels" generally refers to the fact that these games are meant to be light and funny, the type of thing you'd play while screwing around with your friends. Although the game lengths don't always support those ideals (since beer & pretzel games can run from an hour up to several) the mechanics often do, because they tend to be simplistic, low strategy, and somewhat random. Beer & pretzels also often contain a "take that" mechanic where you actively attack the other players, most frequently with an arbitrary card draw. (For whatever reasons, more beer & pretzels games are card games than anything else.)

Examples. Hacker, Illuminati, Kings & Things, WizWar

Other Designs: Although a great number of Anglo-American designs seem to fit into one of these former two categories, there are still a large scattering of other releases. As with all Anglo-American designs they tend to be top down, and are often heavily simulationistic. The goal is to mirror some real-world situation, often in excrutiating detail, and often without a lot of concern for game length or game design.

The main differentiation between these, and the afore-mentioned beer & pretzels games which also cover many genres, is that these other designs are by no means light and can be even longer than the average beer & pretzels. (I've literally never completed a game of Source of the Nile, and not for lack of trying.)

Examples. Age of Exploration, Empire Builder, Source of the Nile


Whereas Anglo-American games tend to be top-down designs, Eurogames tend to be bottom-up, starting with mechanics and building upward toward theme. Alan Moon and Reiner Knizia are perhaps two of the designers who show this tendency most obviously, since we've seen their games transform in different printings--or have heard stories of the same. A game of Egyptian mythology (Ra) became a gangster game (Razzia) while Through the Desert was apparently about manor grounds or somesuch before the pastel camels showed up. And with Moon we can see the different variants: Clippers vs. Sante Fe Rails or Union Pacific vs. Airlines.

The Eurogames seem to share the goals of some Anglo-American games: creating real gamers' games that we geeks enjoy to play. However, besides the increased attention paid to mechanics Eurogames also tend to be a lot shorter. Most run in 60-90 minutes. 2 hours is notable, and anything greater is way outside the norm. (However in the last year Eurogames seem to have bifurcated with designs going either simpler or longer, a trend that I'll look at more in my yearly review in two weeks' time.)

German Design: The Eurogames movement really originated in Germany, and so the games there most closely reflect the ideals of the movement generally. The themes of German games can be really thin, especially when compared to the more simulationistic Anglo-American releases, but contrariwise the mechanics can be really strong.

Though we talk about German designs, I think there are many people of other nationalities who fall straight into the category, including the aforementioned Alan Moon, as well as Richard Borg--two American designers. Leo Colovini, an Italian designer, is also very abstract yet mechanistic (though for more on the Italian design dilemma, see below). As I mentioned in my last article, I don't really find the founder of the current Eurogames movement, Klaus Teuber, to produce games that are that German. His games are too openly random and too well themed to really fit into the category.

It's also worth noting that games actually coming out of Germany don't tend to be war-oriented, a pretty big change from Anglo-American games where that's a major focus. I still think games like Memoir '44 meet all the criteria for a German design, despite their basis in conflict, but you don't see that sort of thing coming out of Germany itself very often, due to the country's history.

Examples. El Grande, Memoir '44, Ra, Ticket to Ride, Torres, Tigris & Euphrates

French Design: I'd like to believe that different countries have different national characters for the games they design; it fulfills my natural belief in order. It's also clearly not entirely true, as evidenced by my earlier discussion of American & Italian designers who fit right into the German mold. In addition, as the Internet continues to evolve, it continues to erode national identities, creating a more homogeneous whole.

Nonetheless, I do think French designs tend to have some features in common more often then not. First, their themes seem to commonly be sturdier and more integrated than those of German designs. I don't know if their designs are top-down or bottom-up, but both the mechanics and the themes seem to come off pretty well. Second, their designs seem to place a much greater emphasis on randomness. You're more likely to find dice in a French game, but you're also more likely to find cards, tiles, or powers that allow for pretty abrupt & massive upheavals.

I think Dungeon Twister is a somewhat interesting example of the genre because it calls itself "luckless", but there's actually a lot of randomness based upon how blind placements occur at game start and how blind bids occur in combats. It might not be a roll of a die, but there are a lot of different types of randomness.

Finally, the French seem more willing to create wargames. If you see a solid wargame design that runs in two hours or less, it's probably French.

As I wrote last week, though a definitive German design, I feel like The Settlers of Catan falls squarely into the norm of the French design movement.

Examples. Citadels, Condotierre, Dungeon Twister, Fist of Dragonstones, Mall of Horror, Mare Nostrum

Italian Design: I actually have no idea if there's a national character for Italian designs. I feel like I should be able to spot one because I've been somewhere between a dozen and a score Italian games at this point, but I haven't been able to turn anything up. Leo Colovini's games are entirely German in design. Some of daVinci's game play like American beer & pretzels games (Bang), some like mainstream family games (Dancing Dice), and some like hybrid party games (Ostrakon, Word Jam).

The one thing that I can say about many Italian designs is that I find a lot of them non-intuitive when I first examine them. I can't see how they're going to work. That goes for Colovini and daVinci designs alike. But, whether that's a start to an answer as to what the Italian game character is, I dunno.

Examples. Bang!, Cartagena, Clans, Dancing Dice, Ostrakon, Word Jam


As you'd expect, hybrid games are those which mix together two different schools of game design.

Anglo-American-German Design: These are the most common mix. They mix Anglo-American design with German sensibilities. As a result you end up with games that are a bit on the long side (often 3-6 hours), but which have solid German mechanics, often including auctions and sometimes dipping into majority-control or other mechanics that you wouldn't find in traditional Anglo-American games. Most of these games are wargames, but Age of Steam is an example of a more general Anglo-American game that has been built with German sensibilities.

There are two design houses pushing hard on this area right now: Warfrog and Fantasy Flight. Eagle Games may be moving in this direction too.

Examples. Age of Steam, Conquest of the Empire II, A Game of Thrones, Railroad Tycoon, Struggle of Empires

Other Hybrids: Clearly, any of these categories could be hybridized. The other pretty big category of hybrids are Eurodesigns which are actually family games or party games. I already mentioned a few daVinci gams that fit into this category. I think some of the Kramer and Knizia designs that we hardcore gamers don't like might fit into the same category.

Examples. Barbarossa, Ostrakon

Final Notes

By the time you folks read this, I'm going to be out of town. My parents are taking me on vacation to Kauai, the place where they plan to retire in a couple of years. It's been a really hard year, and my wife & I couldn't have afforded this vacation on our own, so thanks guys!

I'd love to see your comments when I get back, so please tell me what you think about these classifications and tell me where I'm wrong (or right). If you can, tell me what holds together Italian game design that I couldn't see, and what national characters I missed. I'll follow up on the comments in about a week, so check back by a week from Friday if you want to see what I thought about what you thought.

I'm going to be barely back in town next Thursday, but I'm not going to try and get a column out. Hopefully there will be someone to fill in. I've already got plans for next year: a review of the year 2005 in gaming; an article about winning games; some more articles on designers with Alan Moon, Bruno Faidutti, and Michael Schacht a few of the people I really want to write about; and eventually some longer articles about designers with some neat diagrams of game relationships. I'm also considering whether to revise a series of article I wrote about game design two years ago (or whether there's a book someone might want to publish in there).

A few final thanks for the year. Thanks to Coldfoot for inviting me to write in this blog, even after I originally ignored his mail for a bit because my email box was overwhelmed at the time. And thanks to all of you for reading and for commenting. I've read every comment made here, even when it was well after the fact, and even if I didn't respond. Some of those comments have definitely influenced my thinking.

As as for the rest: Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and all the rest. I'll be thinking of you when I'm sipping a margarita in a beach chair. And if you miss me next week, take a look at this article that I wrote last time I was on Kauai, four years ago. It has some pictures of me & my wife on the island, and of course thoughts on games.


Anonymous said...

I think one recent game that fits into the Mainstream Abstract catagory is Blokus. While it is more well known among gamers, ToysRUs and others have been picking this one up. I expect in the next year or two it will be as well known as Cranium.

Anonymous said...

I think it's worth separating 'military history games' from wargames in the Anglo-American category. You touch on the heavy simulation aspects in your 'other' category, but the descendants of Avalon Hill and SPI have really become a genre very separate from the example wargames you cite. Their own development path has included shortening game length and streamlining rules, much more drastically changing their playtime and commitment than the current crop of Eagle Games has changed the playtime of the GameMaster series.

Some historically based games have backed through their own genre around into the attention of eurogame fans, such as the card driven series that began with We the People, and the Block games pioneered by Columbia Games.

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