Your Game Has More Rules Than You Think

by Clint Miller on Monday, September 28, 2015

Magic player reading cards

The first few times a new design hits the playtest table, you’re bound to run into some balance issues. Great games take months or years to become “balanced.” What’s the best way to avoid this never-ending grind?

Stop designing cards.

Keith Burgun’s excellent new book, Clockwork Game Design, has completely opened my eyes. Every new card is a new rule. Every new rule moves you further away from elegance. A less elegant game is harder to balance and difficult to learn.

Clockwork Game Design Book.

Do you believe in Magic?

Let’s consider the most popular and divisive game in our industry, Magic: The Gathering. Magic has over 10,000 cards in existence. The fun of Magic comes from tactical gameplay: every board state is completely different from the previous one and a player must evaluate what the best move is in any given situation. When you have that many cards, the number of possible interactions is practically infinite.

Is Magic a balanced game? Hell no. Is it easy to learn? Absolutely not. Magic actually has judges: players who have seen more interactions and cards than most, whose job it is to interpret the rules for you. 

The designers of Magic know this is a problem and mitigate it by making formats: ways to play where you must use a smaller card pool. 250 cards is way easier to balance than 10,000, but if everyone just played with those 250 cards, the game would become boring. That’s why new sets constantly have to come out to keep the game fresh.

How I Learned to Stop Writing Cards & Love The Core

Is that the type of game you want to be designing? “Content games” like Magic create a false sense of emergent gameplay by overloading the players with rules and conditions. If your core gameplay is interesting enough, you’ll have a shot at true emergence. It will have less knobs to tweak, which will make it much easier to balance. It will have less rules to learn, which will widen the audience for your game.

When designing a new game, focus on the core gameplay and a very small set of rules and interactions. In the past, I’ve often fallen into the trap of making my game more complicated in hopes of making it “deeper”. It’s fun when you’re just making stuff up alone at the very beginning, but the death march begins immediately after the first, invariably poor playtest. That’s why Clockwork Game Design was such a breath of fresh air.

The first game I designed after reading the book had only 3 card types and 4 possible actions to take on a turn. It was really fun the very first night it hit the table. My design partners and I were able to iterate on the spot and make the game even better. It was fun to work on, and the other designers were actually asking to run it and tweak it some more after everyone’s games had been played that night. Contrast this experience with going back to the workshop and retooling 50 cards while praying for a better outcome at the next playtest, weeks away.

On your next game design, try starting small. Focus on what you do every turn, not on card effects that change your core rules. A small amount of content added later on can make the game more interesting, but if you’re designing 50 cards for your first playtest: you’re doing it wrong.

Take Action

To find out more about “content” games watch Keith Burgun’s 3 Minute Game Design episode “Content” below.

Once you watch it and the other 3 Minute Game Design episodes, buy his book “Clockwork Game Design.” It’s worth every penny and gives you a practical, straight forward process for designing fun emergent game systems.

Compare & Contrast These Games

Skull vs. Android Netrunner

Worker Placement:
Stone Age vs. Caverna

Engine Building:
Splendor vs. Race for The Galaxy

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