Monday, August 2, 2010

A Review of "Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals"

Here is a link to this book's entry at Amazon if you want to buy it.

There are a small number of books that consistently get brought up whenever game design is being discussed - partly because there are so few books at present that directly deal with game design as a topic - and "Rules of Play" is one of these books. A friend of mine had a copy and, in skimming through it, I took notice of the guest essay and game design contributions from the likes of Reiner Knizia, Richard Garfield, and James Ernest. The chapter summaries, the variety of topics that were covered, and the overall organization of the book all looked very promising. I then went on Amazon and read lots of reviews. There were a few short negative reviews that really didn't say much while most of the reviews praised the book in various ways. The only consistent caveat I encountered from review to review was that the book was more "theoretical" than what you might expect (i.e. if you're looking for a "how to" manual, look else where). So, my wife got me a copy as a gift and I began eagerly reading.

I will confess that the book was not what I expected, but this was due to some significant problems that I didn't really see adequately addressed in any of the reviews I read on Amazon. I haven't gone back to check if any new reviews have been added since that time so it's possible that that's no longer the case. However, some of the problems I wouldn't have expected to be in a book like this. So, if you are interested in game design, particularly board game design, then I hope my review might be of some use to you in helping you decided if the book is for you or not.


This book has enough virtues that I do recommend it. My initial impression of the organization of the book proved to be accurate. Each topic is addressed in a very logical, sequential manner and every chapter has suggested readings at the end with excellent chapter summaries provided. Overall, you can tell that the authors really did their research in putting the book together as their sources come from a variety of places and cover a significant number of topics. Also, the last chapter of the book was particularly strong in that they tied in a lot of their previous material into the last few game examples. So, if you're on the fence, I would suggest getting this book.


The Subject Matter and the "Subtitle"

To help illustrate my first line of criticism, let's consider a hypothetical scenario. Suppose for a moment that you saw there was a class being offered called "Basketball: Dribbling and Shooting Fundamentals" and that it just so happened that you were interested in improving your basketball skills. Before registering for the class, you decided to read some reviews on it and they told you that the class was more "theoretical" than what you might think. Undeterred, you registered for the class and you showed up on the first day ready to learn. The teacher began to lecture and you found yourself being told about all kinds of things like friction coefficients, air resistance equations, vectors, the chemical composition of the material in a basketball, and the varieties of wood types used on most basketball floors along with the types of varnishes used to provide the protective coating. You also learned about the anatomy of the eye, the human hand, different muscle groups, nerve endings, and how the brain processes information.

Now, is all of that information interesting? Potentially (depending on your disposition). Is it more theoretical in nature? Yes. Is this a problem? Well, this is where one confronts the implications of the title of the class. Claiming that you will be covering "Dribbling and Shooting Fundamentals" creates an expectation that the class will be about, well, "Dribbling and Shooting Fundamentals". Is all of that information I mentioned connected to the dribbling and shooting of a basketball? Absolutely. The laws and principles of physics, chemistry and anatomy are present in every situation where people are dribbling and shooting. So, in one sense, the class description is technically accurate depending on how you define "fundamentals". However, in another sense, our theoretical class was really about physics, chemistry, and anatomy that just so happened to be involved in basketball situations and, in fact, wasn't actually about dribbling and shooting at all. What's more, does a study of those topics help a person in any sort of practical way with respect to their dribbling and shooting? Not really. Why not? Because the information is too theoretically removed from the activity to be of any immediate practical use. Unless the course instructor accompanies all of that theory with some strong examples that help make some tangible connections as to how the concepts being discussed can actually help a person in relation to the acts of dribbling and shooting a basketball, he runs the risk of the class's title actually misleading his potential audience.

How does this relate to "Rules of Play"? Well, the subtitle of the book is "Game Design Fundamentals". A more accurate subtitle would have been "Theoretical, Metaphysical, and Ontological Considerations about Games". Note that my proposed subtitle spells out that the book will discuss "games" - not "game design". This is important because the two subjects are not necessarily synonymous topics and this distinction, though a subtle one, is real. For example, one of the concepts discussed in the book is how meaningful play cannot happen without recognizable input and output (i.e. you're able to tell when the game has given or received information). This concept can be helpful in evaluating why a game may feel arbitrary but, at the same time, knowing this concept does not mean that you know the "design fundamentals" of how to bring about such recognizable in-out streams in a game. As another example, the concept of "emergent play" (meaning that a satisfying game often has a large space of possibilities for how the inputs and outputs can affect it) is discussed and it's a useful concept and term to help evaluate why a game may not have "it" so to speak. However, knowing this concept doesn't automatically mean that you know the "game design fundamentals" of how to actually bring about meaningful play in the context of a game design.

The authors were trying to create in "Rules of Play" a quasi universal text about games in general and that's fine. But, to truly discuss "game design fundamentals", the authors would have had to have been willing to step down one abstraction notch a lot more times than they did during the course of the book to discuss some specifics for different genres of games as each genre will have its own set of fundamentals (i.e. creating effective input-output information streams will have its own set of fundamentals for video game design as compared to board game design). They wouldn't have had to go into every single specific instance of how to apply the principles they discussed in order to establish practical tie-ins for the concepts in the book (i.e. there was no need to create a "how to" manual) but what they did was not enough to me to justify using the subtitle of "Game Design Fundamentals" (even though it is technically an accurate title). Instead, they often settled for making very general statements that honestly didn't say very much or they opted for broad rhetorical questions on the order of "How can this help you with your game design?"

I personally find it ironic that so many Amazon reviewers felt the need to point out how the book might not be what you would expect but, at the same time, were willing to give the authors a pass on this point without pointing out the culpability of using a subtitle that helps create those misplaced expectations in the first place for potential readers.


Do you remember those essays and game design examples from game designers that I talked about? They were, for the most part, pretty good and represented a prime opportunity to make practical connections with the theories being discussed. However, the essays felt very disconnected from the chapters surrounding them. What I mean by this is that the game designers who wrote the essays and game design examples never mentioned or even alluded to how any material being discussed in the surrounding chapters helped them or even influenced them in the process of trying to make or improve their games - and this is in spite of the fact that some of these essays and game designs were specifically made to be included in "Rules of Play". This is probably because there was no such conceptual influence (though that's only speculation on my part). The result is a feeling that these inclusions "just so happened" to be in the same book as the other material. The lone "exception" (if you can call it that) was the game design example of "Sneak" but this was just because parts of the game were printed in the margins of the following chapters (thus using the book as a tool to actually play the game). However, mere proximity does not on its own produce true conceptual integration.

In fact, in spite of how well the book was organized, it felt much more like a series of parts where one jumped from one fragmented literature review section to the next rather than a truely cohesive whole. The authors tried to account for this by framing the organization of the book under different "schemas" but even within chapters that were within the same "schema" a very fragmented feel was present. One exception to this was the very last chapter because of the extent of referencing that took place to previous concepts addressed in the book.

The Use of Game Examples

In the "Case Study" examples and general game examples in the chapters, the authors (to their credit) did take principles they had previously discussed and then applied them to specific games. However, with these one sees the authors only truly using a few games as more detailed examples early on and they kept coming back to those same few games over and over and over again even over several chapters and even when other games they referenced off hand would have better illustrated their points. When they finally come to the chapter on "narrative" in games they actually do use a sufficiently diverse number of examples to illustrate their points effectively (but, in that chapter, I think they actually used a few too many examples). The examples in the final chapter were pretty well utilized but, for the first two thirds of the book, expect to read references to Breakout, Centipede, a German dice game called "Thunderstorm", and Chutes and Ladders A LOT. If you happen to be an aspiring board game designer, you should know that, though the authors mention games like "The Settlers of Catan", for the first two thirds of the book such references are mainly in passing and feel more like a series of name-dropping references rather than any sort of substantive use of a variety of games to help make the points clear.

The Writing

To help you get a feel for the types of writing problems I encountered, suppose for a moment that you were reading a book on "dogs" and the following was a paragraph from that book:

"In this chapter, we will discuss dogs and fleas. Though dogs have many things and there are many things that dogs do not have, some dogs do in fact have fleas. Dr. X in his book 'The Secret Life of Dogs' stated the following about dogs and fleas: 'There are many dogs that are very clean and, thus, do not have fleas. But, as is sometimes the case, some dogs do in fact have fleas.' What Dr. X is pointing out to us, among other things, is that many of us who may have dogs or who may know people who have dogs may not know that some of them actually have fleas. In summary, we have looked at Dr. X's book on dogs and fleas and at some of the implications of that for dogs that some of us may know or may have known."

What do you think? Pretty ridiculous isn't it? It's so unnecessarily repetitive and long winded compared to what it needs to be. It's the sort of writing you would expect in a school paper where a student is trying to "stretch" out his or her material to fulfill some sort of word requirement for the assignment. Well, dear reader, the same problems in my little caricature of an example permeate "Rules of Play". It was so common to see the authors explain a concept and then provide a bulky block quote from the source where they got the concept (with the block quote not providing anything significantly different from the explanation the authors gave immediately prior to the quote). Then the discussion after the quote would, again, repeat the same notion. Even without the block quotes feeding in to the repetition, there were often concepts or notions that were repeated in the form of introductory sentences to paragraphs that would have felt very out of place in those paragraphs even without being repetitive in nature.

Even if you removed the repetition from the equation completely, there was still a disproportionate amount of innocuous filler sentences and even filler paragraphs that often took the form of telling-you-what-is-about-to-be-discussed instead of just going ahead and discussing the points. To be completely fair, there are some key definitions the authors contributed that were important in framing their discussions. However, this repetition/bloated-writing problem I'm talking about was so pervasive that my credulity is strained by the fact that no review I encountered on Amazon bothered to point this out. The only explanation I can come up with is that very few of the reviewers actually bothered to read the entire book through. It's more likely that they read through the outlines and chapter summaries and then maybe read a few sections and then based their reviews on those. What I'm here to tell you is that, at the risk of hyperbole, this 600+ page book could possibly have been somewhere in the neighborhood of 350 pages and not lost any of its critical or aesthetic content. To make matters worse, there were a number of instances (I think somewhere between 10 and 15 if I remember correctly) where sentences were simply missing words, where words were misspelled, or where words were added by mistake.

I'm left with a few theories as to why these writing problems ended up in the book. One is that the authors didn't quite know what to do with much of the material that they found in their research other than quoting it and then repeating it in different ways. This would also account for the out-of-place beginning sentences to paragraphs as the authors simply didn't know how to bridge the gap from one concept to the next other than just repeating themselves. Another possibility is that the authors or the editors didn't put much time into editorial oversight. Thus, early versions that should have been looked upon merely as rough drafts were actually green-lighted for inclusion in the final version (this would account for the misspelled words and grammar errors and somewhat for the repetition). Another possibility is that, regardless of their researching and organizational capabilities, the authors may just simply be lousy writers.


I really had high hopes for this book and I have to admit that I'm more than a little disappointed. The type of review I've just given you was the last thing I thought I would find myself writing based on my initial research. On the surface, the organization and the topics outlined along with the included essays and guest contributors all create the appearance of a much more promising read than what I think you'll find as you actually work your way through the book. My suggestion would be to read the guest essay contributions and game designs and then, with respect to the chapters themselves, for the most part just read through the chapter summaries. There is some good material here - enough to make the book worth having - and the authors do contribute some key definitions, but much of the material is actually not discussed very well or, at least, not as well as I thought it could have been.


Okie said...

Nice review. I've been looking at this book off and on for a while. It's one of those things I eventually want to read but haven't ever gotten around to.

Anonymous said...

Hi Mike,
I've enjoyed spending time reading your blog! From what you've said, I probably would have bought this book off Amazon and been totally frustrated with it. Let's be honest, there is a lot of written material that belongs at the bottom of a kitty litter box.

Thanks for suffering through this book so I don't have too. What game design books would you recommend? (If they are already posted and I missed them, my apologies.)

Take Care,