Tag Archives: Teaching


Tactical [tak-ti-kuh l] (Adjective)

  1. of or relating to a maneuver or plan of action designed as an expedient toward gaining desired end or temporary advantage.

Strategic [struhtee-jik] (Adjective)

  1. pertaining to, characterized by, or of the nature of strategy (1. plan, method, or series of maneuvers or stratagems for obtaining specific goal or result)

Originally, I only had six aesthetic dyads. One of the issues I consistently had, however (as touched upon in my post on Simplicity vs. Complexity), was this: if simplicity and complexity do not speak to a game’s depth, what does? How do you define ‘depth’ as an aesthetic?

The need for a seventh dyad to address this was further inspired by a response from Jose Zagal, a fellow academic, to a post I made in the Role-play Theory Study Group on Facebook. In his response, he shared a paper with me on Gameplay Aesthetics that approached the subject from a lexical examination of common terminology, or as he put it, “by broadly examining how people who play games describe gameplay.”

While our scope, goals and approaches to the subject differ considerably, I did find some similarities between Jose’s work and mine, as well as a few new concepts that provided essential elements for further consideration. In particular, the adjective clusters that defined Cognitive Accessibility and Scope, seemed to speak directly to the concepts I was attempting to define. Further discussions with a local friend of mine, Dr. Adam Brackin, helped me to further refine the concept and, after some noodling, I came up with a set of terms that seem to clearly, and neutrally define my new dyad.


The essential definitions I chose reflect the difference between short-term reaction and long-term planning, which directly affect the perception of ‘depth’ in a game.

In some games, the ability to react to situations on the fly is much more important than making a long term plan. In games at the far end of the Tactical Focus scale, long term plans are essentially meaningless, as the flip of a card, the roll of a die, or the perfidy of an opponent (or ally) can change the game space so thoroughly that you must rethink everything on a regular basis.

Games like this typically are random enough, or the moves powerful enough, to prevent much mitigation through pre-planning (outside of, say, holding a few key cards in your hand until the right moment), and the winner is typically the player who can grasp the immediate situation, and take best advantage of it on a moment to moment basis.

In games that weigh more heavily towards the Strategic Focus end of the scale, the ability to plan ahead, and create contingencies that can mitigate short term losses, is the largest factor in victory. In these types of games, a player can have temporary setbacks, even large ones, but few actions are so powerful as to upset the equilibrium of the game in a single move. It takes a series of moves to really upset a player’s overall strategy, if they have one, of course. If they don’t, they are pretty much doomed to lose, as reactionary play typically allows the opponent to control the flow of the game.


I collected just about every game Games Workshop put out in the 1980’s, and a good deal of the one’s from the early 90’s as well. They ranged quite a bit in quality of design (and Chaos Marauders was a straight up reskin of an existing German game) but one thing they all had in common was a propensity towards really cool themes, weird art, and fun mechanics.

Chaos Marauders was a tongue-in-cheek, Beer & Pretzels style card game that played as chaotically as the title suggested. Players took it in turns to draw cards, one at a time, and placing them into one of three battlelines until they drew a card that ended their turn, or they completed a battleline. When a battleline was complete, it could be used to attack weaker, incomplete lines, by rolling the hilariously monikered Cube of Destruction, a six-sided die with 5 Orcish Eyes and a single Symbol of Chaos. Roll an Eye, and you destroyed the enemy and took their stuff. Roll a Chaos Symbol, and your line broke, and the enemy took your stuff, instead.

First player to complete three battlelines ended the game and points were totted up to determine the final victor.

Although there are a few more mechanical wrinkles (cards with exception based rules, specific procedures for completing battlelines, scoring, etc.), the game is really about taking what you’re given and making the most of it without any real idea of what might turn up next. You do have decisions to make, like how long you want your battleline to be (between short, relatively weak, and quick to complete; or long, strong, and likely to be attacked before you can finish it), or when, where, or even if, you build a war machine, but almost all of them are made in the dark. You just sort of pray to Gork (or Mork) that the right cards come up.

And turnarounds in the game can be very swingy. The best potential scoring line can be kept one card from completion by a steady succession of bad draws, only to be eliminated by an opponent who manages to pull that one card you couldn’t find, giving all your loot to him and forcing you to start (literally) back at square one. But equally, he might roll a Chaos Symbol on the Cube of Destruction and lose everything to you!

All that being said, as with most card based games, card-handling skills come into play as players become familiar with the deck contents, and veteran players can get a feel for the ‘flow’ of the game, making educated guesses about what might pop up based on frequency and what cards are already in play. But still, with 112 cards, play is largely reactionary, making Chaos Marauders a Tactics 3 game.


Wargames run the gamut of ratings, from Tactical to Strategic, typically based upon the scale of the conflict modeled by the mechanics. Something like Bolt Action, with a focus on a small squads of individual soldiers is inherently Tactical in nature, as the units engage in quick exchanges of individual gunfire and brutal hand-to-hand combat, using whatever temporary advantages they can gain from terrain, position and luck to eliminate the enemy. The status of individual soldiers, whether dead, injured, pinned, etc., is of great importance to the player.

In grand-strategic games, like Axis & Allies, however, a single infantry piece attacking into an adjacent country would represent a hundred such games of Bolt Action, all resolved with the roll of a single six-sided die. And there are typically several infantry pieces involved in the average A&A battle. The actions and fate of the individual soldier means little in a battle where thousands of casualties occur with a single roll of the dice.

The Command & Color series, however, has a scale that fluctuates considerably, depending on which battle you are attempting to recreate, from company to division level. What makes it a good balance of Tactical vs. Strategic Focus, however, is the fact that it while it allows for forward planning (Strategic Focus), it also has enough indeterminacy and restrictions on potential action to make sure that those plans occasionally have to be adjusted on the fly (Tactical Focus).

The biggest hindrance to forward planning in the game is the random draw of order cards, which are used to command your troops (move them, fight them, etc.). Any solid strategy revolves around a successive series of pre-planned moves, and this requires playing the the right cards in the right order to command the right troops in the right section of the battlefield. This is actually a fairly accurate portrayal of command and control issues from the period, where trying to coordinate an army through a series of hand-written orders, carried by horseback to the individual commanders, had issues (such as the ‘miscommunication’ that led to the infamous Charge of the Light Brigade).

The ability for a player to hold a number of cards in their hand (the better their in-game general, the more cards they may hold), however, allows the player to plan ahead more effectively by ‘collecting’ cards until a plan can be put into action, while using other cards to feint and probe the enemy positions. The sectional nature of the battlefield along with the inherent restrictions in the order system also forces the player to consider the bigger picture at all times, and to occasionally sacrifice a flank or the center for a gain in another area, if the gains outweigh the losses. This actually encourages strategic play by rewarding the general who waits until the right moment, and the right place, for an all out push, and punishes reactionary players who make piecemeal offensives without the proper resources to follow through or reinforce their units.

On the other hand, the occasional need to counter an enemy push means that the player must also be able to properly read the situation and react accordingly, even if that means upsetting carefully laid plans. For example, it is often worth delaying a major offensive to pull back damaged units and allow them to regroup (or even to pull the enemy in for a counteroffensive). Combine this with the intricate nature of combat (including combined arms combat, forming squares, and the rock/paper/scissors relationship between units), and the game is as tactical as it is strategic.

Finally, the durability of units, mixed with the uncertainty of combat, add both tactical and strategic elements. The ability to survive attacks without loss of offensive capability, and counterattack, means that players are willing to make take more short term risks for long term goals (strategic focus). However, the ability to wipe a unit out with superior force, terrain usage and combined arms (tactical focus) means that sometimes, a player will be forced to react to the loss of important holding units immediately (tactical focus).

So, overall, a balanced game.


It may seem strange that Chess hasn’t already popped up in one of these examples, but while it is a solid 3 in Mechanics, Simplicity, Determinacy, Player Interaction, and Player Skill, it is also the epitome of a game with a Strategic Focus.

Every game of chess can be divided into three distinct phases: the Opening, the first 10-15 moves of the game (and which, due to the beginning game state, has a wide variety of well understood strategies); the Middlegame, when there are still a good number of pieces on the board to threaten the Kings, who have typically castled; and the Endgame, the final phase of the game where the number of pieces has been whittled down considerably to two or three major pieces and some pawns.

Each phase has its own distinct set of strategies, made up of a multitude of small, tactical moves which serve to further the overall push towards a specific game state, but which individually, do not shift the equilibrium of play a great deal, at least not until the late middle, or early endgame. In fact, the individual worth of pieces is so subservient to the overall strategic picture, that it is common Chess practice to ‘sacrifice,’ or intentionally lose a piece, in order to further long term goals. Losing a battle to win a war, in other words, which is the ultimate expression of strategy over tactics (Strategy 3, in game aesthetics terminology).


So how do we determine if a game aesthetic leans one way or the other? And by how much? We’ll look at that in the next installment…


Theme vs. Mechanics

Simplicity vs. Complexity

Determinacy vs. Indeterminacy

Agency vs. Linearity

Interaction vs. Isolation

Player vs. Mechanical Skill

Tactical Focus vs. Strategic Focus


Skill [skil] (Noun)

1. the ability, coming from one’s knowledge, practice, aptitude, etc., to do something well.

3. craft, trade, or job requiring manual dexterity or special training in which person has competence and experience.

In the case of Player Skill vs. Mechanical Skill, we have the same word, skill, but (as is common with the English language) two subtly different meanings.

When speaking of Player Skill, we hew to the first definition, to reflect the personal cognitive or physical capabilities, skills and talents they bring to the game. Ex. A talent for predicting other player’s moves; intuit the value of certain moves; fast reactions, aka Twitch skills, etc.

A game that focuses on Player Skill usually gives more weight to the decisions made during gameplay than the individual strengths and weaknesses of the pieces being used. A good example is Chess. The queen is, nominally, the most powerful piece on the board, but a veteran player could easily defeat a new player every time, even if you took that piece from them. Games like Go and Diplomacy are even more clearly based on Player Skill, as the game pieces all have the same strength and abilities.

First person shooters would be another example, as it is the twitch skills of the individual player that largely determine their overall effectiveness, in-game, regardless of the weapons they carry or the special abilities of their in-game avatar. The reliance on athletic skills in most sports, ESports included, makes them inherently Player Skill oriented.

Player Skill is also evident in games where the pieces have varying mechanical strengths and weaknesses, but the player must earn those pieces through sound strategic, economic and/or diplomatic means. The computer game, Civilization is a perfect example: the difference between a Warrior and a Cavalry unit in Strength and movement capability is significant, but you can’t acquire the latter until you’ve researched Animal Husbandry, found a source of horses, taken the territory, farmed it, and then spent the gold; all player faced decisions.

Mechanical Skill refers to the specific function (definition 3: craft, trade, or specific job) of the playing pieces in the game. In other words, what they do, consistently, for the player. Any player. Regardless of the player’s personal skill. Ex. A King outranks a Queen in Poker; Cavalry trumps Archers in Civilization; Cannons can bombard from adjacent territories in Viktory II; etc.

Games like Magic: the Gathering, are more focused on Mechanical Skill. While the player does use some skill in choosing the right cards to go in their deck, any success after that depends on the cards themselves, and how their specific abilities help the owner and hurt the opponent. Once the deck is in play, the owner is actually limited, by hand size and random card draw (although these can be modified by other card abilities), to a few clear cut choices each turn. A player who can afford a large number of cards, including rarer, more expensive ones, can often dominate opponents with the unique abilities found on those cards, which is why tournaments often ban certain cards or decks, or require the players to create new decks by purchasing starter boxes and booster packs at the event.

But a game need not be that highly complex or variable to be considered a game of Mechanical Skill. Consider the traditional card game: War. The players make no decisions during the game. All they do is flip the top card of their respective decks, and the number on the card, its Mechanical Skill, determines whether it wins or loses.


In TtR, players attempt to connect rail lines between two specific cities, listed on their tickets, using small plastic trains and colored line cards. The trains, themselves have no special abilities, you simply play them on the board when connecting to stops. The line cards tell you what color of line you can place the trains on. You need color cards equal to the number of train spaces, and matching the color of that particular line to claim it.

The majority of the skill in the game is player faced, as one must decide whether to draw more line cards (and which ones to draw), whether to draw a new ticket, or place trains. They must also try to figure out what lines the other players are trying to complete, and determine the best way to block them, while avoiding having your own line blocked. The line cards act as a randomizer, but as everyone has access to the same pile of cards, and they are all pretty much equal in strength (except for the occasional wild card), Mechanical Skill has very little say in the outcome of the game.


Smallworld walks the line between Player and Mechanical Skill. The game revolves around a number of fantasy races that combine with a random power to determine their specific abilities and the number of race counters they possess. While there are some clear mechanical advantages to certain race/power combinations, they are completely random, often set you back victory points to acquire, and most importantly, they are temporary.

After a player chooses a race, they seek to conquer the Smallworld in question. Their reach, however, is limited by the number of counters they have, and eventually, their race will go into decline, losing any special powers, and forcing their owner to find a new race to take their place. A player might start with a particularly powerful combination that is nigh unstoppable, but find the limited counter count forces them to go into decline early, whereas a weaker race might have less punch, but cover a wider territory before leaving the board.


In all these cases, player skill is required to make the most advantage of whatever race/power combo is selected, and tough decisions about whether to attack occupied territories (which requires more counters), when to go into decline, and how much to spend on a useful, but not as readily available race, means that even with a mechanical disadvantage, the experienced player will likely prevail in most games.


The surest sign of Mechanical skill is this: give the best character to the newbie, and the worst character to the veteran player. If the newbie wins every time, you can be pretty sure you’ve got a game based on Mechanical Skill.

Such is the case with the player character avatars in World of Warcraft. A level 20 character so outclasses a level 1, that no amount of player skill is likely to affect the outcome of a conflict between them. And character levels are earned by a slow process of quest grinding and carefully picking raids and instances that are appropriate to the level and abilities of your character.

One need only look at the character screen to see just how important mechanical skill is to the player in WoW. And using those mechanical abilities requires a simple click on the icon, and then on the target, no twitch skills necessary, so that even the most unathletic gamer can compete with a dedicated ESports athlete, if their character levels are comparable.

Of course, the reason behind these design choices is clear: WoW is much more focused on the role-playing and social play aspects of gaming, rather than hyper competitive focus you would find in the typical shooter or RTS game.

Characters are meant to grow and become part of their community, and everyone is welcome to share in the fantasy, regardless of individual player skill. This, again, illustrates, that no particular aesthetic of the scale is inherently bad. It all depends on the design goals of the game, as well as the circumstances and the personal aesthetics of the individual player in question.


We look at the final aesthetic dyad, which focuses on the short and long term planning skills necessary to excel at the game…


Theme vs. Mechanics

Simplicity vs. Complexity

Determinacy vs. Indeterminacy

Agency vs. Linearity

Interaction vs. Isolation

Player vs. Mechanical Skill

Tactical Focus vs. Strategic Focus


Interaction [in-ter-ak-shuh n] (Noun)

  1. reciprocal action, effect, or influence 

Isolation [ahy-suhley-shuh n] (Noun)

  1. the state of being isolated (6. person, thing, or group that is set apart or isolated…)

Read this if you want a first hand account of the Diplomacy experience…

Though fifth in this series, this is, perhaps, the most important question when it comes to game aesthetics: how much do the players interact with each other during the game and how does that interaction affect game-play?  After all, gaming is largely a social activity and it is rare to find solo games that are as satisfying to play as the equivalent N-Player game.

It should be noted that not all games with heavy player interaction are necessarily competitive in nature, and there is a subset of ‘cooperative’ games: games where all the players team up against the game itself. These, by their nature, require a high degree of player interaction as cooperation is paramount to the success of the group as a whole. Arkham Horror, The Lord of the Rings and Shadows Over Camelot (although that particular game includes a traitor mechanic that introduces a small amount of competitive play back in), are all examples of cooperative games.

As with the previously discussed aesthetics, the two ends of the scale represent entirely different styles of play which might be good or bad depending on the tastes of the player, or even the circumstances of the moment. I enjoy games designed around pure player interaction (like Diplomacy, a clear example of an Interaction 3 game), but the constant scheming and intense negotiations, although immensely satisfying, can be tiring. In addition, games with a high player interaction factor allow other players to team up and/or freeze you out due to fear of your gamesmanship, which can make the game a lot less fun to play. As such, my desire to play games at this level of Interaction tends to depend entirely on how much time and energy I have, and who I’m playing with.

Solo games, of course, are excellent for those times when you have no one else to play a game with, and were much more popular in the early days of the hobby, before the internet made instant gaming with others, anywhere, at any time of the day, possible. The downside of the solo game is the procedural generation methods they use to keep the endgame unpredictable because, as we discussed earlier, random chance and human mutability are two very different types of unpredictable.

Of course, computer games are very good at simulating human intelligence, but this requires thousands of lines of code, programmed by a master of the game, to create a decision tree of such complexity that it would be unwieldy to use for a tabletop game. So you’ll find that the most pleasing solo gaming experiences are typically digital, or analog with a digital interface (like X-Com).

Most games fall somewhere along the middle of that scale, with some player interaction, as well as some personal player activity that is isolated from outside interference. In Tiny Epic Galaxies, for example, player activity and the current game state may drive some of your decisions, but what you do with your dice, whether to reroll them and what order to play them in, and how you spend your resources, is entirely up to you, and is cannot be hampered by others.

An important element to consider when judging how strongly a game leans towards the Interaction end of the scale is whether the game allows a player to win without involving other players. The same applies to solo games, but from the opposite perspective: how much power do opponents have to block a player’s path to victory?


Again, we are only going to give examples of the far ends of the scale and the middle, starting with a game at the far end of the Interaction scale: Secret Hitler. This is a game in the style of Werewolf, where one player is secretly the future fuhrer, and the rest are either fascists trying to put Herr Hitler in control, or liberal lawmakers trying to either identify the future dictator and eliminate him, or get a more sane government installed before he can come to power.

There are couple of random elements in the game: the distribution of identity cards appointing players as liberals, fascists and Hitler, before the game; and the random distribution of fascist vs. liberal laws, which serve to sow confusion as to who is a fascist and who is a liberal, during the game. The rest of the game is about trying to figure out who is who, by making accusations, arguments to support those accusations and, eventually, putting bullets in people’s brainpan, all of which is purely based on player interaction.

Now, there is the option to say nothing during the game, and just vote ‘Nien!’ on every proposal put forward, fascist or liberal, but eventually, you will have to pass a law, sometimes not a law you would have liked to pass. Those laws will influence people’s perceptions of you, and these perceptions can be colored by your silence and get you shot as easily as anything you might have said. As the song goes ‘If you choose not to decide You still have made a choice,’ so it’s best to pick a side and get into the fray.

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” ― Edmund Burke.


As mentioned above, and as odd as it sounds, gauging the Interaction level of a game usually boils down to how easy it is to isolate oneself from interaction and still prevail. In games like Diplomacy or Viktory II, there is no possible way to play (much less win) without interacting with at least one other player (Interaction 3). In games like Illuminati, almost every play affects another player, and players can team up on a single opponent and keep them weak the entire game, making victory almost impossible (Interaction 2). These are all high Interaction games.

Civilization (like most Euro-style games), is more balanced. A player can spend the whole game developing culture, technology and/or gold, and never actually interact with the other players directly. But everything they do tends to affect the other players indirectly, typically through the denial of certain unique resources. A player can choose to trade, war or otherwise ignore their opponents as they see fit, and many times, a group of players who love the building aspect more than the competition aspect, will leave each other alone for the whole game, only trading when they need a specific resource.

The ability to pursue victory by a variety of paths helps to minimize conflict, as does the slow acquisition of resources, and high cost of war. But the option to interact is still available, and can strengthen both parties, in the case of trade, or weaken one (or both) in the case of war. It also makes it extremely hard to ‘team up’ against one player effectively until the late game, which rarely benefits all parties concerned, so even if a player chooses (or is forced) to go it alone, they are in with a chance.

As such, Civilization gameplay has a balance between Interaction and Isolation.


Not all Isolation 3 games are single player. Runebound is pretty much a solo game that happens to tangentially involve other people. You go about your turn, encountering spaces and gaining in power, but nothing the other players do can affect your path to glory, outside of scoring important items and experience faster so that they can defeat the big bad first (a process that is painfully random). You live or die by your dice and a few simple decisions.

The other players don’t even get to roll the dice for the monsters you fight, as they would in Talisman (the game that Runebound seems to take its cues from), as they have none: the monsters are completely static and combats are determined by your dice rolls alone. Other players basically sit around and wait for their turn to come along and the only true interaction comes when someone wins and everyone helps clear the game away.


How much of the endgame is determined by your skill, or the power of your pieces? We’ll consider that question in the next installment…


Theme vs. Mechanics

Simplicity vs. Complexity

Determinacy vs. Indeterminacy

Agency vs. Linearity

Interaction vs. Isolation

Player vs. Mechanical Skill

Tactical Focus vs. Strategic Focus


Agency [ey-juhn-see] (Noun)

9: the state of being in action or of exerting power; operation:

Linearity [lin-ee-ar-i-tee] (Noun)

1: the property, quality, or state of being linear (relating to the characteristics of a work of art in which forms and rhythms are defined chiefly in terms of line.)

As I mentioned in the introduction to this series, the only truly defining feature of games that seems to hold up to serious academic scrutiny is that they are interactive, in the sense that you can play them. Not all games are equal in the interactivity department, however, and there is great variation in the range of activity allowed to a player from game to game.

This is not, altogether, a bad thing. By restricting options, a game will often increase focus on those elements that most strongly define it, and improve the gameplay experience. The Firefly boardgame, for example, doesn’t need a detailed combat system, Star Fleet Battles style shp sheets, or role-playing mechanics to handle personal encounters. Too much detail in these areas would just bog down play, lead to other players being bored, and really detract from the main focus of the game: Find a crew. Find a job. Keep flying. The simple systems in place, instead, focus the game towards that goal, while giving the players a taste of what it is like be the Captain of a ship in the Verse.

Problems arise when a game takes this too far, not by necessarily restricting options, but by restricting the effect player decisions have on the actual endgame. Some games take this so far that any player interactivity is reduced to meaningless activity while one awaits an end to the game that they have had absolutely no control over.

Note that this lack of control does not automatically imply indeterminacy, as anyone who has playeda Choose Your Own Adventure book can attest to. Sometimes the lack of data to make informed decisions can lead to seemingly random ends. False choices, where one option is clearly better than the other, can lead the player right where the author-designer (an intentional distinction) wants them to go, regardless of how the player feels about the matter.

So in the case of Game Aesthetics, we would define games with a range of options that allow the player to affect the endgame, as having Agency. Games which restrict that ability to affect the endgame would be described as possessing Linearity.


The definition of Endgame, in this case, is a bit fluid, in that it can encompass a variety of in-game, player-centric goals. In Twilight Imperium, a great deal of fun can be had in creating a sprawling trade empire, and providing options for the player to do that, rather than engage in physical or political conflict, is a form of Agency, even if the player eventually loses (although making it a sub-standard, or ‘False,’ choice reduces the value of that Agency). The player was able to shape their actions to realize their ideal endgame.

And in some cases, the endgame is not the only measure of agency. Role-playing games, for example, don’t really have an endgame, in the traditional sense, as the characters persist and carry on from game to game, but the ability to go anywhere and do anything, within the limits set by the game environment, should rightly be seen as providing the players with a great deal of agency.


The difference between Agency and Linearity should not be construed as a commentary on whether a game is good or bad. In some cases, a game’s design goals go beyond gameplay, especially when a game is created for art (Journey), political commentary (September 12th), or serves a developmental purpose (Candyland). Sometimes it’s not the destination, but the experience, that is important.

And sometimes, folks just want to have a bit of fun without being swamped with Decisions & Data points (which sounds like a really boring RPG about systems analysis). This is why games like Phase 10 are so popular, and why most gamers have at least one quick play, Beer & Pretzels style game sitting in their closet. Sometimes you want to think. Sometimes you want to drink. And that, my friends, is how Beer Pong was born…

Future olympic sport, or preperation for politics: you decide…


When it comes to Agency, you’ll find that role-playing games heavily populate that end of the scale, because their very nature as ‘Theatre of the Mind’ allows the players vast scope to do whatever they can imagine. When confronted with a cave, the payer can enter it, check it for traps, try to find a way around it, have lunch in front of it, whatever they can think of, so long as it doesn’t conflict with the judgement of the referee (“No, you can’t climb the rock-face of the cave, it is too steep and smooth…”).

This extends into the exploration of the world, which, theoretically, has limitless horizons. The referee can throw out adventure hooks left and right, but if the players are curious about a mountain that popped up in the west during their last foray into the wilderness, then they might go there, instead. Combine this sandboxing playstyle with the concept that the characters’ actions have lasting effects on their world, and change it in ways that are persistent and meaningful, and you have the perfect recipe for almost total player agency.

Dungeons & Dragons was, of course, the first published game to fully embrace this play-style, and the original has a DIY nature that ensured that not even the written rules were sacrosanct, and many campaigns were run using house-rules or entirely new rules sets that would eventually evolve into published competitors (Tunnels & Trolls, Runequest). As the first such game, and the one with the loosest structure (so loose that Gygax created AD&D to serve as a Rosetta Stone for tournaments and official play), it stands as the paragon of Agency 3.


I would argue that an RPG cannot be Linear (and I’m sure many would disagree with me). There are games on the market, Descent for example, that adopt RPG tropes and aesthetics, but they lack the extensive Agency of a true RPG and are clearly miniature board-games.

The 4th edition of Dungeons & Dragons is a game that skirts the edge of linearity, however. It’s notthat the players have any less agency than they did with its predecessor; the spirit of role-playing ensures that players with the right attitude and a willing DM can sandbox just as much as their grognard forefathers. But they can also do that with Descent, or any other game for that matter. Role-players gonna role-play, no matter what the rulebook say. That’s how RPGs were born in the first place.

What puts it at the edge of the RPG envelope are the mechanics (remember, we are looking at the game itself, not necessarily the use it is put to). They were heavily focused around two activities: character builds and combat. Both of these (in a bizarre inbreeding of influences) resemble MMOs in many ways, even borrowing terminology from games like World of Warcraft. And great detail was put into making sure those activities were as interesting as possible, with tons of options and mechanical wrinkles, and many more added through expansions as the product life cycle ran its course. The net result was that the rules encouraged these activities above all others, while social interaction and other activities were given short shrift (a common complaint in the early days of 4E).

Due to the mechanical complexities of all the possible power permutations, synergies, creature abilities and environmental rules, character builds, and especially combat, each took a lot of time (sometimes whole sessions) to complete. As such, there was less spontaneity and a tendency for 4E DMs, especially those new to RPGs, to build more linear stories and fill them with set piece battles with limited branching. And because the skill and feat system heavily defined what the characters could and couldn’t do, there was a tendency for players to do less thinking outside the box, stifling their own agency in the process.

In an odd sort of way, with its miniature combat focus and wargaming-like codification of what specific actions the players could attempt, 4th Edition fit the original title of D&D, Rules for Fantastic Medieval Wargames Campaigns Playable with Pencil, Paper and Miniature Figures, much better than the original edition did.


I give a lot of grief to Candyland, but not without good reason. It is, for me, the worst example of game design. It is totally Linear, in that there is not a single decision that you make in the game that affects the end result. In fact, I could just shorten that previous sentence to ‘there is not a single decision you make, period,’ and I would still be accurate.

From the start you draw a card (or spin a spinner in the latest versions, which makes the game even more random). The card tells you where to go. You move your piece there. Continue until someone reaches the end. All the joy of Snakes & Ladders, but with the added fun of being stuck in a molasses swamp for interminable periods of time. The only choice you make is whether to play the game or not (I always choose the latter, and by my reckoning, that means I win without even opening the box).

My personal animus aside, Candyland still sells because, as we discussed above, it has design goals beyond gameplay. In this case, Candyland is a developmental tool for children. It teaches them a few important things:

  1. Color recognition.
  2. How to follow rules.
  3. How to play with others in a friendly fashion, win or lose, i.e. sportsmanship.

Hmm, I’m getting the strong odour of linearity, with a healthy wiff of Indeterminacy. Did some wino pass this before you put it in my glass…?

I would also argue that it teaches real lessons about how life can be arbitrary and unfair, and that you just need to suck it up and keep on truckin’, but I’m probably projecting. Let’s face it, in the case of this game, I’m like a jaded wine snob trying to choke down a bottle of Three Buck Chuck. My tastes have grown well beyond such simple fare, but the tiny rednecks in my house love it, and they are who it was designed for.

Whatever the case, Candyland is clearly an exemplar of the Linearity 3 game.


How much does the game encourage player interaction? We’ll talk about that next…


Theme vs. Mechanics

Simplicity vs. Complexity

Determinacy vs. Indeterminacy

Agency vs. Linearity

Interaction vs. Isolation

Player vs. Mechanical Skill

Tactical Focus vs. Strategic Focus


Determinacy [di-ˈtər-mə-nə-sē] (Noun)

1: the quality or state of being determinate (1: having defined limits).

Indeterminacy [in-di-ˈtər-mə-nə-sē] (Noun)

1: the quality or state of being indeterminate (1b: not known in advance).

Again, I choose my definitions carefully, for there is a specific reason I selected these two words rather than use the much easier, but much more loaded terms, Luck and Skill.

Determinacy, in game aesthetics terms, refers to the ability to determine a game’s outcome through well defined actions with equally well defined results. In Chess, a piece that ends its move within the diagonal attack pattern of a pawn, can be taken by the pawn, regardless of the victim’s rank. There is no chance for the pawn to fail in its assault, even if attacking a mounted knight who, historically, had massive advantage over the hapless peasant.

Likewise, any move made by any piece on the board has a definite result, and can lead to a chain of events with clearly understood parameters and outcomes. There is no random chance in Chess, and the only thing standing between victory and defeat is how many moves the player can think ahead. It is totally Determinate.

Does this mean that every game of Chess is totally predictable? No. The vast combination of board states make it virtually impossible us to predict any game’s end result, outside of saying Bobby Fischer would hand me my butt even on his worst day. But wouldn’t this unpredictability make it indeterminate?

Let’s use OGRE as another example. As with most wargames, there are good, basic strategies that allow the veteran players to whup up on newbies with some frequency. But even the Kasparov of OGRE can lose against a beginner, because with each attack, dice enter into the equation. While the law of averages rewards the experienced over time, the outliers can also screw them over mercilessly at any particular moment.

Take infantry vs. an OGRE. By all accounts, they are dead meat, and they’ll be lucky to take a single weapon or some treads with them before they are reduced to a whiff of hydrogen, ozone and carbon monoxide. But it is entirely possible that, in the right circumstances, with bad dice rolls on the OGRE’s part, and great dice rolls on theirs, they could kill the thing. Highly (highly) unlikely, but possible.

The difference between Chess and OGRE? A loss in Chess is caused by missing an important, but predictable move, like placing your knight in the path of a pawn. A loss in OGRE, however, can come down to a really bad day with the dice, no matter how well you think ahead. This is what we mean by Determinacy and Indeterminacy: the amount by which random chance affects the end result of the game.


Before we go any further let’s just go ahead and address the 200 pound hairless gorilla in the room: those pesky, unpredictable humans. Even in Chess, the unpredictability of human opponents can often throw a monkey-wrench into the best laid plans, and most well-thought out strategies. This is why it is so much more interesting to play another person instead of a computer. Get eight humans around a table playing a game like Twilight Imperium, and the potential for chaos grows exponentially.

So doesn’t this mean that all games that involve 2 or more people are essentially Indeterminate?

I say no, and for a few reasons:

  1. N-Player games which lack true random elements tend to place an emphasis on equilibrium and restricted choice that creates predictable results, even when taking into account human behavior (ex. The Prisoner’s Dilemma, Chess, Tic-Tac-Toe).
  2. Not all N-Player games are competitive (although, as a rule, cooperative games tend to have at least one random element).
  3. Most importantly, this theory of Game Aesthetics is focused on the nature of the game mechanics, not that of the participants, be they human, computer or other.


Because they’re loaded terms, with positive and negative connotations. To say that Chess is about skill, and OGRE is about luck is to sell OGRE short, as in the minds of many, that places it in the same category as Fluxx, or even Candyland. It is also inaccurate. OGRE does involve skill and, as mentioned, on average, the skilled player will trounce the unskilled player. But in the end that is not a certainty, i.e. the result is Indeterminate, because the Combat Results Table allows for at least a 16% possibility to destroy anything on one end, and a 16% chance for minimal effect on the target on the other, no matter what the attack to defense ratio. So let’s just call it that, instead.

Likewise, Tic-Tac-Toe is all skill. There is no randomness. But few (if anyone) would claim it to be a superior game to OGRE, in any way, shape or fashion. Better to say that it is Determinant.


Again, I’m using games at the far ends and middle of the scale as examples, and the best example of a Determinacy 3 game that I can think of is a personal favorite of mine: Diplomacy.

In Diplomacy, all pieces, whether army or fleet, are equal in strength, and there is no random element to give one advantage over the other, i.e. you don’t roll dice to see who wins in a struggle, as is typical with the standard wargame. If two forces meet, they push, unless one force has superior support from armies or fleets adjacent to the contested territory. And the way you gain that support is superior planning and, as the name suggests, diplomacy: making alliances with other players (and then, later, taking advantage of them).

Everything about the game is Determinant. You negotiate with other players, give orders to your units, and moves are resolved based upon a well defined set of interaction rules. No random chance enters the equation at any point in the game (unless you count randomly determining who plays which world power during set-up). You can even blunt the inherent unpredictability of human interaction (which, again, is not actually a factor in considering the Aesthetic qualities of a game) by shoring up your defenses and realizing that, to win, one must not only ally but betray, as well, and that this goes both ways. What comes around, goes around, especially if you’re clearly in the lead.

It is this Determinacy that made Diplomacy (like Chess) popular across the world, as a play-by-mail game in the 60’s and 70’s, and as an online game today.


As a rule, most wargames fall somewhere around the middle of our scale, dipping into Determinacy 1 in some cases (like Free Kriegsspeil or Wings of Glory), and Indeterminacy 1 in others (like Viktory II or Federation Commander), and a similar number in between, with an equilibrium between determinant and indeterminant elements. This is largely due to the heavy influence non-random mechanics (like maneuver, position and combined arms tactics) exert over the results of random elements (like attack and morale rolls) in these sorts of games.

Twilight Imperium is the wargamer’s wargame. It has everything one would expect from a game of intergalactic power struggles, including trade, politics, empire building and, of course, combat. One of the ways Twilight Imperium manges to create equilibrium between determinant and indeterminant elements, is by giving the players many different paths towards victory, including several that do not involve combat (the most indeterminant element in the game).

Like Diplomacy, a players ability to wheel and deal drives a large portion of the game. Unlike Diplomacy, there is no guarantee that an unlucky battle, untimely political agenda card, or even the placement of random tiles at the beginning of the game, won’t scupper your plans. However, unless one is near the endgame, these little setbacks will rarely cost you the game outright, as a host of other decisions and mechanical systems tend to keep their overall knock-on effects in check (unless the player plays over-aggressively or stupidly).

Twilight Imperium is a good example of a game with enough ‘moving parts’ that it can, at times, seem very chaotic and random. But as with Star Fleet Battles, familiarity breeds competency (mostly), which means that the veteran player is much less vulnerable to the vagaries of chance. The balance of systems ensures, however, that even a first time player has a nice sized ‘buffer’ that will keep them in the game long enough to learn their way around, and possibly even win.


“Hey, Blaise, buddy! How about you help me part more fools from their money?” Antoine Gombaud. Probably.

One of the oldest forms of gaming and gambling involves chucking dice. As a matter of fact, Blaise Pascal laid the foundations of Probability Theory while trying to figure out a problem involving dice  for his friend Antoine Gombaud, AKA the Chevalier de Mere. Gombaud was an inveterate gambler looking to invent a new dice game that would give him an advantage that wouldn’t be readily obvious to his opponents (i.e. screw them over with math).

These days, we have Craps. Now, there are folks that say there is some skill involved in Craps, and in the spirit of our friends Pascal and Gombaud, those with a steady grasp of the game’s statistics can win more often than they lose. As with OGRE, the dice don’t always cooperate, but unlike OGRE, there is nothing one can do to really shift the odds in their favor. You can’t add or subtract dice, modify the numbers, throw the dice a certain way, nothing. You just throw the dice and hope they land the right way.

Your only real options are to keep rolling or pass the dice, and determine where to place your bet, and the results of those decisions are entirely dependent on chance. So Craps is the perfect example of an Indeterminate game.


Next we will discuss how much room a player has to affect the endgame, as we investigate Agency vs. Linearity.


Theme vs. Mechanics

Simplicity vs. Complexity

Determinacy vs. Indeterminacy

Agency vs. Linearity

Interaction vs. Isolation

Player vs. Mechanical Skill

Tactical Focus vs. Strategic Focus


Simplicity [sim-plis-i-tee] (Noun)

  1. freedom from complexity, intricacy, or division into parts:an organism of great simplicity.

Complexity [kuh m-plek-si-tee] (Noun)

  1. the state or quality of being complexintricacy

While I plan to start each of the articles in this series with a definition that specifies the particular meaning I am hanging my philosophical hat on, it almost seems pointless in the case of Simplicity and Complexity. I mean, doesn’t anyone with even a smattering of English know what these two words mean?

In the case of games, I’d be inclined to answer that with a question: Is Chess simple?

Now, anyone who plays the game, and has spent years studying openings, endgames and everything in between, would likely answer with a resounding “Heck, no!” “Chess,” they would say “is a game so deep, and with so many possible permutations, that it can take a lifetime to master. It is incredibly complex!”

To this person I would say, “you are confusing Complexity with Depth.” Chess, in itself, is a relatively simple game, by the specific definition given above. It is relatively free from complexity, and its division of parts, mechanically and physically, is relatively small. To learn how to play Chess (not consistently win, just begin playing), you need to learn the movement and attack characteristics of just 6 pieces: King, Queen, Bishop, Knight, Rook, and Pawn.

Yes there are 32 pieces on the board, and 64 squares, and 10120 possible game states, but the actual game mechanics are dead simple. Go is even more simple (and has an even higher number of game states: 10761 according to some calculations, due to the higher number of individual pieces and larger board).

And that is what we are talking about here. How simple or complex are the mechanical systems by which we play the game. When it comes to game mechanics, simplicity is no guarantee of puerility, anymore than complexity is a sign of depth, as Go and The Campaign for North Africa (with its infamous Pasta Points) clearly demonstrate.

The Campaign for North Africa. “An unreasonable game, for unreasonable people.” Richard Berg, Designer.

Additionally, simplicity and complexity do not carry any inherent ‘good’ or ‘bad’ connotations, from a purely aesthetic perspective. Some people enjoy a quick, fun game of Phase 10, or the chaotic simplicity of a game like Fluxx, while others really dig the fiddly mechanics found in Twilight Imperium or Star Fleet Battles. It’s all subjective, but a subjectivity we can measure.


Fluxx is a card game that starts with a simple premise: Draw 1, Play 1. It has a few simple card types: New Rules, Actions, Goals, and Keepers. New rules can change the way the game plays, replacing Draw 1 with Draw 5, for example, but all you need to know to play can be found on a single, small piece of paper.

Specialty versions of Fluxx, like Pirate or Doctor Who, add a few additional card types or rules, but the difficulty of the series mostly remains firmly in the realm of Simplicity 3. While it has fewer distinct mechanical divisions than Chess, the occasional text/rule conflict (a somewhat common issue in exception based games with some degree of randomness) does mean that it might take a few plays to work out rules based misunderstandings.


Ever since Christopher Weichkmann decided to give Chess a major upgrade in 1640 (to make it more ‘realistic’), wargames have tended to lean towards the Complexity side of rules design. There are exceptions (see One Page Bulge), but most of them favor simulation over simplicity.

OGRE, a game about sentient, cybernetic super-tanks fighting entire armor battalions in a post-apocalyptic future, however, manages to find itself somewhere in the center. The basic rules for the game are relatively simple, with a core move-attack-result sequence that works with the three basic unit characteristics to provide a light wargaming experience.

Like Chess, added complexity comes from exception based rules for specific units. GEVs, for example, can move twice, while infantry are reduced in steps, rather than disabled, and the OGRE,  a giant AI tank, has to be whittled away gun by gun, track by track, until it is unable to complete its mission.

The variety of units and special rules grows considerably past the base game, introducing air units, laser towers, specialised infantry, etc., and absorbing these extra mechanical nuances is where the majority of the complexity comes from. A new player would be have a difficult time learning all the rules at once (and the basic scenarios seek to help them absorb a little at a time), but after they get a half dozen games or so under their belt, they could be completely up to speed on even oddball mechanical exceptions.


There have been many jokes about the complexity of Star Fleet Battles over the last 40 years, especially in its current 400 page rulebook version.

“It’s like an engineer and a lawyer got together to design a game.”

“In SFB, the right of way doesn’t go to the biggest guns, but the biggest rules-lawyer with the biggest grasp of the rules loopholes.”

“If I wanted to spend my entire weekend playing out a battle between two ships, I’d join the Naval Reserve.”

Etc. Etc. Ad Nauseum. And, then of course there are the jokes about the players, the grognards who obsess over rules minutia, looking to find some advantage against their opponents in the next game. As a player of both SFB and it’s little brother, Federation Commander, I’ve heard them all. However, there is a great deal of truth behind the jests. The players are even proud of how much time, knowledge and effort it takes to master the game. “It’s the closest you’ll get to actually being a starship captain!” they exclaim as they break out of their Sabre Dance to set themselves up for a Mizia (a small example of the specialist jargon to that goes along with specific rules concepts).

The Complexity rating of 3 comes from a variety of things. Each individual starship is incredibly detailed, with numerous rules sub-systems to handle everything from movement, weapons and shields, down to life support maintenance, and rigging shuttles for a wide variety of tactical uses. Add to that, the fact that each race has a plethora of special systems and rules just for their individual ships, and several dozen ship types, and you can see why this game pushes the limits of complexity. 

Even the basic duel scenario, designed to teach beginners with two simple ships and the most basic concepts, requires that the players learn mechanics enough to actually play other games in their entirety.

This is the ‘Cadet’ ship. For beginners…

There’s a reason they call SFB a ‘Lifestyle Game.’ You don’t just play pick-up games. You study the rulebook between games, and set aside whole days for playing it, or entire weekends where tournaments are concerned. And you don’t win tournaments if you don’t know the rules, all 400 pages of them, intimately.


How much of a factor does skill play in a game? Or luck? Will explore that next, as we talk about Determinacy vs. Indeterminacy


Theme vs. Mechanics

Simplicity vs. Complexity

Determinacy vs. Indeterminacy

Agency vs. Linearity

Interaction vs. Isolation

Player vs. Mechanical Skill

Tactical Focus vs. Strategic Focus


Theme [theem] (Noun)

  1. a unifying or dominant idea, motif, etc., as in a work of art.

Mechanics [muhkan-iks] (Noun)

  1. the technical aspect or working part; mechanism; structure.

I chose these definitions carefully, to delineate the difference between the overarching aesthetic experience versus the underlying game engine that makes gameplay possible. Normally, theme and mechanics work together to provide a complete gameplay experience, especially where licensed properties, like Firefly or Doctor Who, are concerned. But this is not strictly the case in every instance.

There are, for example, games in which the accurate depiction of the theme is the main source of interest for the player, and the mechanics are really only there as a means to reinforce the theme rather than provide ludic interest. The purest form of this (Theme 4, if you will) would be a game of ‘pretend’ like the childhood games of Cops & Robbers or Doctor’s & Daleks, where there are no mechanical underpinnings to the games at all, and play proceeds based upon whatever the group agrees will reinforce the illusion of being a masked bandit, or genocidal cyborg with a plunger and egg whisk for arms.

Too. Darned. Cute…

On the other hand, there are games in which the interesting interplay of game mechanics, and the skill at handling those mechanics determines the ‘fun’ level of the game. In some cases, the mechanics define the gameplay experience so thoroughly that any theme laid over them is only so much window dressing. The pure form of this (again, off the end of our scale at Mechanics 4), would be building a car. Unless the mechanics function in perfect alignment, car no go! And the joy of driving is entirely predicated on the mechanical quality of the car and the driver interaction with it.

A Chevy Nova. It literally “No Go…”

Let’s look at a few examples, one that exemplifies Theme over Mechanics, one at the opposite end of that scale, and one that represents a good balance between the two.


Back in the very early nineties, two years after the original series had bowed out, Ian Marsh and Virgin Publishing released a Doctor Who role-playing game: Time Lord – Create Your Own Adventures in Time and Space.

This was the second such attempt at an RPG based upon the series, and it couldn’t have been more different from its predecessor in design. Whereas the first RPG was simply a restatement of the generic set of RPG rules used in FASA’s previous game, Star Trek, with a Doctor Who make-over, Time Lord was built from the ground up to mechanically reflect the realities of the Doctor Who television series.

Almost every rule reinforced the theme, with little care as to how things worked outside of television reality. Genre Tropes of the series were given mechanical life, like the Screaming special ability, which allowed a companion to cry out for help (and be heard) across any distance, through miles of tunnels and labyrinths, or even across the gulfs of space (someone luckily left a communicator open, or something), so that the Doctor could come to their aid. It could even be used as a weapon, in some cases (as it was in the episode Fury from the Deep). Silly? Possibly, but very in character for the television series.

Another good example existed within the combat system. As long as a character is moving or behind cover, it is exceedingly hard to hit them with gunfire. Even when they are one area away! Again, silly? Not if you take into account the fact that, due to the restrictive size of the studio spaces the production team had to work with, almost all the firefights on the show took place within scant yards of each other, but few people got hit (unless a group of enemies concentrated their fire on a single target, like an extra or tragic supporting character, which is also covered in the rules).

Add extensive rules for scientific research (including an in-game time segment known as the Research Turn), cutting through doors and walls (a common way to create tension in the series), and creating MacGuffins (pseudoscientific devices or solutions that resolve the story), and you can see that Time Lord is an excellent example of a game that can easily be rated Theme 3.


Like a lot of folks, Firefly really pressed all the right aesthetic buttons for me, and I was a might irritated when it was cancelled due to corporate shenanigans at Fox. So when Gale Force 9 released a licensed board game, I was right in line to get a copy.

The issue with licensed properties, from my perspective, is trying to strike that balance between theme and mechanics. I want the game to reflect the goings on in that particular fictional universe, but at the same time, I don’t want Candyland with Browncoats and images from the show instead of gingerbread men and candy themed aesthetics (“Damn! I’m stuck in the Reaver Swamps of Miranda again!”)

The Firefly Board Game, however, manages to hit both sides of the equation pretty equally. The objectives and overall aesthetics do a great job of capturing the theme of the series (“Get a ship, get a crew, keep flying”), but also presents a variety of interesting mechanical twists that keep the game interesting and challenging from a ludic perspective.

One of the key ways I think you can judge the balance of a game like this is to consider how well the mechanics function with a stylistically similar theme. For example, the Firefly mechanics could also, with very few tweaks, be suitable for a game of 18th century piracy on the high seas, or maybe even a mob family type game. They are too linked to the thematic essence of small time transport/smuggling missions and operations to be useful for, say, a global conquest or economics game (not without a great deal of modification, at any rate), but within that limited thematic scheme, you could reskin the game fairly easily.


Monopoly is the board game boogeyman for many folks, and for certain ludologists, it is the perfect example of how not to design a game. I tend to find this opinion over-exaggerated, especially since very few people have ever actually played the game according to its actual rules, relying instead on the oral tradition passed down for generations: the erroneous Free Parking rule alone can be said to account for much of its reputation as an extremely long and frustrating game. And yet, even with that reputation, it is still one of the best selling and most well known board games in the world, having spawned hundreds, if not thousands of variations.

But, just how different, mechanically speaking, are those variations?

For the most part, that answer is: not at all. No matter what version of Monopoly you are playing, whether it’s Star Wars Monopoly, Harry Potter-opoly, or Dallas Cowboys-opoly, you still roll two dice, move your pawn in a clockwise direction around a board separated into exactly the same number of squares, buy, rent or sell property, or draw cards. It doesn’t matter whether the game’s currency is in dollars, Galleons, or Imperial Galactic Credits, you still get 200 of them when you pass “Go,” and the most expensive property on the board, whether it be Hogwarts, the Death Star, or Dallas Cowboy Stadium (which, funnily enough, many of us here in Texas also call the Death Star), is still to the right of that space.

So as you can see, the theme of the game is pretty much inconsequential to the gameplay, itself. There might be minor mechanical variations to an individual version of the game (like Doctor Who’s 60 minute speed play variation), but it is extremely rare for those to make enough of a difference to change the basic play of the game, which is recognizably Monopoly, and is of little mechanical use for anything else. Aesthetically speaking, you don’t ‘feel’ like a wizard/jedi/Dallas Cowboy when playing, and nothing about the buying and selling of property to try and bankrupt your opponents fits particularly well with any of the above, thematically speaking. This makes Monopoly an iconic example of Mechanics 3.


If you have any comments or suggestions on the material covered here, feel free to sound off in the comments section. I’m always open to new points of view on what is, after all, a very complex subject. I’ve already had one commentator on Facebook provide me with some insight that actually changed my perspective on the subject of the next post: Simplicity vs. Complexity, which is actually a much more complex and deep subject than you might imagine…


Theme vs. Mechanics

Simplicity vs. Complexity

Determinacy vs. Indeterminacy

Agency vs. Linearity

Interaction vs. Isolation

Player vs. Mechanical Skill

Tactical Focus vs. Strategic Focus


So, school is out for the summer, and my attention is now (partially) freed up to work on some of my extant projects. I’ve been putting the finishing touches on the second draft of my Donjons & Dragoons RPG experiment, getting prepared to iron out Defensive schemes for my (soon to be done done) Quarterback Blitz boardgame, and am finally ready to continue regular blog updates, starting with this one, the first part of a series on my ever evolving theory of Game Aesthetics.


Well, that is the real question, isn’t it? Aesthetics is all about understanding the principles behind taste and the perception of beauty, and to do that we have to ask ‘why?’ Why do I like this? Why do I hate that? Why do I feel meh about the other?

Why should you care about this? Because understanding the ‘why’ of your aesthetics helps you to make more rational decisions about how you allocate your time and resources. And when it comes to the finer (i.e. more expensive) things in life, this is an invaluable skill.

But to be able to intelligently ask that question, one not only has to understand themselves, but the qualities of the thing that they are passing aesthetic judgement on. “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like” is a valid argument only in so much as it defines what turns you off and on, but does nothing to help you understand how one type of artifact is perfectly acceptable to you but another, seemingly similar one, is not. Furthermore, when you lack understanding of the subject, it hampers your ability when it comes to creating a similar artifact of your own, and tailoring it for specific demographics.


Games, like paintings, or sculpture, or music, or wine, or any other art form, have measurable qualities. Now, the measure of these qualities is subjective, to be sure, and what is slightly nasty to one person might be extremely nasty to another, and heaven on earth to yet another.

However, within some set variation, we can create a basis from which we can more easily estimate whether or not a game might appeal more to player A or player B, and target our design towards one or both.

So, in the end, applying the study of aesthetics towards games is not only good for helping you to become a more informed consumer (think of all the Kickstarter money you could save), it can also make you a better, and more focused, designer (think of all the Kickstarter money you could earn).


One of the big questions that almost every academic in game theory seems obsessed with is the definition of what, exactly, a game is. Seriously, the pursuit for the Ultimate Answer™ to this question seems to spark more unnecessary debate than Gamergate, and several folks are pursuing it as though finding the answer will somehow enlighten humanity as to the true meaning of life, the universe, and everything (or, at least, prove how much smarter they are than everyone else).

And I couldn’t care less.

For the record, the only qualifier for the title ‘game’ that seems to hold up to any kind of prolonged scrutiny or argument is that it needs to be ‘interactive,’ in the sense that you ‘play’ it. Everything else just seems like excessive harping over lingual minutia and general philosophical twaddle. Folks can argue that point all they want, but for me, the pursuit of this Holy Grail of a definition seems to be about the most boring (and ultimately pointless) thing in game theory.

So what I prefer to do is move the conversation away from that and onto the more interesting question of why we play games, and to facilitate that discussion, I’m just going to assume that we all know what a ‘game’ is, in the broadest sense.


When I first started thinking about game aesthetics and trying to isolate some common qualities that could be universally understood as aesthetic in relation to gameplay, it quickly became apparent that many of these qualities existed in opposition to each other. For example, a game can give a player many options for how to proceed during play (agency), but if many of those options are ‘false choices,’ obvious decisions between something obviously good and something glaringly stupid, and/or the results of all of those choices leads you to only a one or two possible endgames/outcomes, isn’t the game actually very linear, with only the illusion of true agency?

This led to my construction of dyadic sets of aesthetics, based on a sliding scale of 1-3 towards one side or the other, with a ♎ indicating both aspects were in balance (I originally used a 0, but that was often misinterpreted as meaning neither quality existed!). This scale presumes that there is one more step beyond each end, that represents some non-game variation on the quality. For example, in an Agency vs. Linearity measurement, Agency 4 would represent endless choices, factors of influence, and endgames beyond the ability of modern game mechanics to properly represent. Linearity 4, however, would represent the total lack of ability to affect the outcome, as one would find in a standard novel.

And again, these ratings are all very subjective: subject to personal opinion, the possible permutations of complex gameplay mechanics, and so on, but that is actually a strength. A game like Rising Sun might be designed with only a few true randomized elements, but the complexity of the system interactions, and the chaos unleashed across the board by certain moves or events, can often make it seem highly indeterminate and hostile to long-term strategy, which might make it extremely unpopular with the Eurogame crowd (and elicit laughter when people try to relate it to Diplomacy). But, despite this skewing of perception by personal experience, there is an average opinion that can be extrapolated from all of this, which can serve as some sort of clue as to how a game ‘feels,’ and that information can be very useful.


I have identified seven aesthetic dyads that seem to hold true for most games (or at least all the ones I have every played). They are:

Theme vs. Mechanics

Simplicity vs. Complexity

Determinacy vs. Indeterminacy

Agency vs. Linearity

Interaction vs. Isolation

Player vs. Mechanical Skill

Tactical Focus vs. Strategic Focus

I’ll discuss the first one in my next post on the subject…

UPDATE: After starting the series, a discussion with another theorist, and a perusal of a paper they had written, inspired me to add a 7th dyad to the set, that of Tactical vs. Strategic Focus. The article above has been modified to take this into account.


When I was 12, I was living in a children’s home in Waco. One of the security guys at the place, Warren, was working there part time as he attended college. Warren took an interest in me and taught me how to play my guitar, made sure I got to play at Church on Sunday, and generally took the role of a ‘big brother’ in my life at a time when my birth mother had all but abandoned me.

One day, when at a flea market somewhere in that area, I had found a copy of the Expert set, still shrink-wrapped, for $2.50. I was fascinated by the game, having heard about it in the past from people who played it, and having seen numerous ads for it in Omni, Games, and other magazines at the time. I had even managed to procure the little pocket electronic game, the one where you had to find a magic arrow and then use the process of elimination to find the dragon and shoot the arrow into its room to kill it. So I was primed, and the cover artwork dragged me in as surely as the grapple in that tiny electronic game.

Of course, it was the Expert set, so I couldn’t make heads or tales of the basic play. Didn’t matter: I was fascinated, and even made a number of dungeons (which were more funhouse sites than anything that made coherent sense), despite not having the full rules to run them. Warren noticed the set one day, and told me that he was a D&D player, and would run a game for me and a few of the boys at the home…

Unfortunately, the administrators caught wind of the game and, having been advised by people from the American Psychiatric Association that D&D could lead to Very Bad Things™, cancelled the game (yes, for those of you who constantly seem to want to drag out and beat Pat Pulling’s corpse on a yearly basis, you can also blame the psychiatrists, who were against it before they were for it).

The point of all of that is to relate my experience, as a middle-schooler back in the early eighties, to that of modern middle schoolers, in particular, the ones I ran the game for, and compare the two.


I admit, I’m a nostalgic old bastard, and I like to stick to the basics. So for a kid’s first game of D&D, I like to start them off with a basic module from the early days of the game. There are a lot of reasons:

  1. They are tried and true. After almost 4 decades, I know them, and can run a game with them at the drop of a hat.
  2. The best examples are not written with any particular ‘story’ in mind, but are, instead, little sandboxes that provide the DM and players with a lot of agency. Many of them, like B2, pack more potential in 32 pages than many modern ‘story’ adventures do in 128. As I told someone recently, it’s all about reading between the lines and being ready to react and roll with whatever the dice and the players’ actions stir up.
  3. I enjoy seeing someone else experience the environment that so enthralled me as a beginner, and then see them put their own spin on it. It’s like seeing it through new eyes, again and again. This is especially relevant when running the game for the modern middle schooler: can I recreate the wonder I experienced for kids who grew up as digital citizens?

Normally, I would go with B2: The Keep on the Borderlands for this, but not knowing how the modern middle schooler would handle the wide open agency of B2, I decided to go with a slightly more linear Mega-Dungeon, or at least, the closest thing B/X offered at the time, B4: The Lost City, to get them familiarized with the basic game tropes and way of doing things.

B4 is, of course, another classic, and a great way to really force the players into the survival mindset that so typifies the 1st through 3rd level experience of B/X. There is no safe haven for them to return to, there is only the desert and the dungeon, and their survival depends on their thoroughly exploring the latter and making alliances with some of the other parties within. That last bit is very important: you can’t just run through the pyramid putting the smack down on everything you meet! You need the Cynidiceans to help you stay alive, and that means learning about their culture and helping them with their problems, which generates at least 6 levels worth of adventures all on its own (if the DM expands the dungeon as suggested).


The initial party was 8 kids strong, with a smattering of every class represented at least once. I carefully explained how gameplay worked, and how to question me about their environment before they made decisions. As with any group of teenagers, there are those who naturally take the lead and those who must be prompted, but after an initial warm-up period in the desert to get everyone making decisions on their own, they found the lost city, and began exploring the top of the pyramid.

The first thing that struck me, was how easily many of them slipped into the investigative mode of dungeon exploration. They took the descriptions I gave them and really started to dissect their environment. Some were curious about the statues at the top of the structure. Others examined the perimeter of its base and discovered the secret door. They then asked about a dozen questions about the hobgoblin corpse (including the inevitable “Is there anything valuable on it”).

You really saw how seriously some of them took this facet of play when you watched the lone thief scout out the way forward. He checked every corner, came up with creative ways to open the door into the inner chamber, and checked the handles of every one of the brass cylinders before finally choosing to turn the handle on one. You would think that, after he missed the pit trap in the floor and plummeted to his doom, he would have soured on playing thieves, but no. His next character, another caravan traveller who wandered in from the desert a bit later, was a thief. This kid truly grokked the spirit of the game.

The second thing that struck me about this batch of kids, is how little they understood the power of teamwork in the game. The gas trap, for example, set them scampering left and right, every man for themselves, in panic mode. Because of of this, at least two more characters died, one from trying to figure out and stop the gas by himself (he didn’t and the gas would plague a number of other unfortunates who came into the room later), the other from going unconscious and being unceremoniously dropped down a ladder without anyone to catch him below.

The battle against the fire beetles below fared little better, but at least half of them made it into the machinery room alive after several flasks of lantern oil were sacrificed to set the little beggars alight.

Now, I have to say at this point that this is almost exactly the same problem we had back in the day. As middle schoolers, our overactive hormones, mixed with our sense of excitement over this new type of game, led to many similar catastrophes. My very first character, a Halfling Thief (Warren used a mix of B/X and AD&D) died at least twice, and only survived due to the generous ‘inheritance’ of 1 healing potion that each of our characters received at the beginning of the game. Why did I keep dying? Because, in my excitement I kept rushing in to bad situations. And there was also that whole ‘Bree Yark!’ thing (and if you’ve played B2, you’ll know what I’m talking about).

Thus ended their first session, with 4 dead party members, and their first true taste of old school gaming. They took to it with enthusiasm and were chomping at the bit for the next session.


After some time exploring the forge area, the party was joined by another group of travelers from the caravan (basically, at this point, I allowed character replacements to come in from the desert in staggered groups) and the exploration continued. They chose the NW door and made their way up and around to the northern hallway, which contained a number of interesting doors for them to explore. They rested in a room full of old crates, and the thief, scouting ahead, discovered the room with green slime (I switch rooms 5 & 8, so they found that one first). He managed to avoid the slime through careful examination before entering the room, guessing that the green goo was not good to walk through, and seeing nothing else of value, closed the door.

It was then that they ran into their first wandering monster party: a band of goblins coming around the bend caught the thief by surprise as he closed the door to the green slime room. To my surprise, the first thing he did was try to negotiate with the critters, offering food in exchange for friendship. Unfortunately, the wee beasties decided (due to a really bad roll on the reaction table) that whatever he had to offer could be had more easily and cheaply off of his dead body. They, of course, didn’t know that he had several comrades around the corner, so when the thief chose the better part of valor and ran, they gave pursuit.

A rare showing of coordination between the members of the party soon put the goblins down, with archers shooting from the rear, and an elf with a 2-handed sword making great account of himself. The kids basked in their victory and looted the bodies, which I actually chose to use a higher treasure type for, as this was their first real wandering encounter and they handled it so well. this gave them some gold and, miraculously enough, a magic item: a crystal ball! Maybe I was a bit too generous, but they never even tried the crystal, and they wouldn’t get nearly so nice a haul off of future goblins, so no harm done. A good end to their second session.


They never got out of that hall.

For some reason, they just couldn’t decide what to do in the next session and, after opening a door that revealed a room with pixies, they argued for a time on what to do. One player was heavily offended that the pixies didn’t like him and spent a great deal of time trying to figure out how to ‘get’ them. They flew into a tiny vent at the top of one of the corners of the room and he spent a good deal of effort stuffing ancient fireworks into the hole to try and smoke them out.

Another group decided to smash everything in the room, including the jars in the hall outside it. This of course, prompted several wandering monster checks and, sure enough, another troupe of goblins came around the corner to investigate. But this time, the cooperation was almost non-existent. The kids went into panic mode, again, all looking to claim the glory, or save their skins, as their personalities dictated, but few coordinated their attacks. The elf with the two-handed sword, emboldened by his previous success, threw himself right into the middle of the goblins and, despite his dexterity and armor, was brought low by a sneaky stab from behind.

That, followed by the felling of the party dwarf, brought them back to their senses, and after a loss of yet one more party member, they managed to finish the little blighters off. They were mighty disappointed at the meager change earned off the goblin corpses, and gained far more by stripping their dead comrades. Damaged and spent, they closed the door to the fireworks room and prepared to rest for the night.

Their lookout, an elf who busied himself with searching for secret doors while the others slept, managed to hear some scuttling noises and whispering outside the door. For whatever reason, he decided to draw his weapon, but didn’t wake the rest of the party up. And as he party had done nothing to keep the door shut, no spiking, no barring, not even moving some boxes in the way, the goblins burst in en masse and started to attack the group.

Like the goblins that attacked them, it was brutish, ugly and short.


The kids learned some valuable lessons about teamwork and general dungeoneering practices (always spike those doors shut!), and had a great time doing it. The view that “kids these days wouldn’t have the patience or imagination for the old school manner of play,” is clearly not borne out by my experience. It might explain why 4E, a more video-gamey experience, didn’t fare so well, and 5E is a (partial) call back to the previous of doing things, with a lot of old school ethos behind its design.

I had a lot of fun sharing my experience with them, and watching them puzzle it out on their own with un-jaded eyes. There are a few things that really stand out about dealing with kids this age, though:

  1. Short sessions are a must. One thing I can say about the modern kid is their attention spans for this sort of thing are much shorter. About an hour in they start to get ‘punchy’ and wound up beyond the ability to play rationally, and an hour and a half is about the limit.
  2. I never understood the wisdom of the ‘Caller’ position before, and I don’t personally know anyone who ever considered using it. After the last three sessions, however, it is clear that this is the only way to go with the modern middle schooler. Take the bickering and shouting back and forth of yesteryear, multiply it by about 5, and add a mental image of me rubbing my eyes with exhaustion (something Warren never did), and you get the picture. Putting the power of the Caller in the hands of the most ‘mature’ player, and giving them a time limit that ends in a wandering monster check, definitely helps to speed the game along.
  3. The design decisions to make D&D characters more survivable, by tripling their HP at first level, healing surges, or what-not to keep the modern gamer interested in the game? Needless. These kids all rolled their starting hit points. Some had 1 to start with. They littered that pyramid with their characters bodies… and they loved it. If anything, the video game generation is quite used to the concept of a character meatgrinder, and took the rolling of a new character as a fun mini-game. I also explained before the game the whole concept of the ‘Greek Gods & Heroes’ paradigm of looking at their characters, the nature of legend (for every Conan, there are 999 failed adventurers whose skeletons serve as the set dressing for the dungeons the PCs are exploring), and how gratifying it is to have that first character reach level 2, not by artificial inflation of stats, HP or XP, but by sheer player cunning (player skill over mechanical skill) and a little bit of luck.


After the TPK, the kids wanted to continue on, but as the school year is about over, I decided to put D&D away (for now) and introduce them to some other old school games. And as Infinity War was around the corner, I chose out TSR’s Marvel Super Heroes RPG. They are loving it. At this early stage, during character introductions, they are spending more time fighting each other than the bad guys, but they’ve just stumbled onto a pawn shop robbery and are starting to focus their attention on the three thieves, Lawrence, Maurice and Curly, and wondering how those knuckleheads managed to get their hands on advanced weaponry.

Next year, I’m planning on splitting up the Game Club into two clubs: the regular board-game club, and The Adventurers Guild: a roleplaying club with a standing Mega-Dungeon in the Gygaxian/Arnesonian paradigm, that anyone can explore on a weekly basis. That should be a lot of fun…



As mentioned previously, I am both a middle school CTE teacher, and adjunct professor, so I’ve been pretty busy, lately, especially as I am also responsible for the school yearbook, which is finally done, hallelujah! So the game club has had another couple of sessions since my last post, and provided me with some interesting perspectives on what it must have been like for my first game master, a college guy named Warren, who worked at the Waco children’s home I lived in, way back in the day.

But before I get in to that, I’ll finish up on the house rules discussion started in part 1.


While INT and WIS bonuses do have a purpose, I’ve always found it odd that they didn’t have an impact on spell casting in B/X. So, while I stick to the rules for most things magical in the game, I allow Wizards a bonus spell and spell slot based on their intelligence bonus. A small boon, but one that makes being an intelligent wizard a bit more advantageous than extra languages and XP bonuses.

Clerics get the same, but only after they pick up their first spell at level 2. I like the idea of an Acolyte not having access to Miracles (what I call cleric spells) at first, especially as they have the combat skills and weaponry to make up for it.

I also use a ‘cantrip’ type rule based on something I once read on Philotomy’s OD&D Musings blog (which is, sadly, no longer online). Basically, while holding a stored spell, the Magic-User may manifest small ‘special effects’ related to it, by making an Intelligence test (see below). For example, if holding fire based spell, a MU might use some of that stored energy to light his pipe with his finger. A person holding a Charm spell could get a +1 to their rolls on personal interaction, and a person with a sleep spell could use a small smidgen of that energy to make a nearby orc guard drowsy and easier to surprise.

Finally, I allow Magic-Users to make scrolls at 1st Level. A simple little rules change that allows them to: a. get more bang for their buck out of their limited spell repertoire; b. make them spend those hard earned coins; and c. gives them a reason to use weird spells, like Ventriloquism, which they would normally ignore due to limited spell slots.


I’m not a big fan of tacking skills systems onto D&D. I like to keep my games fast and loose, without a lot of extra information to keep track of, especially for the players. In addition to that, I find that a lot of mechanical cruft tends to make the players think, well, mechanically. During the 3E and later editions, it drove me to nuts watching players spend more time staring at their character sheets looking for mechanical answers to problems, than trying to imagine the situations their characters were actually involved in and come up with solutions based on that.

It is much simpler, and flavorful, in my mind, to assume that most characters can use their basic attributes to accomplish most basic tasks. For specialized tasks I defer to the class system. A fighter, for example, would be the one to call on to analyze a tactical situation, while a wizard would be versed in legends and lore, and the cleric would be your go-to guy for ecumenical questions. Basically, if the player can justify it, I let them roll for it.

In addition, I allow the players to have a ‘background’ profession, that represents their life before taking up their adventuring career. Anything from blacksmith, to banker, to beggar, to simple farmer. But, to save time and present a sense of mystery, they don’t define that at character creation. They basically come up with it on the fly, as the game goes on, developing the character’s past as they go, and grow. So if they come upon an ancient forge in the depths of a cave, one of the players might say “this reminds me of my youth as a blacksmith’s apprentice.” At that point, they have justified the ability to make skill rolls for that background and better defined their character’s in the process.

Of course, this is all down to DM fiat, and I will quickly nix any attempt to combine backgrounds for every occasion in a random hodgepodge of ‘memories.’ You say you were a glass-blower’s apprentice? Don’t think so, you already said you were a blacksmith’s apprentice.

I do encourage memories to build on each other, however. For example, you say as a blacksmith’s apprentice you worked in a village near a dwarven enclave, so you could recognize basic dwarven runes? That fits, you can roll to see if you can read that runic inscription carved in the wall. You say you had a real problem with Ankeghs in your area when you were a farmer? Well, I’ll give you a roll to remember best how to fight them

As for how the skill rolls work? Simple. I’ve already mentioned how I like bell curves, and attributes are generated using 3D6, so that is what I use for skill rolls. Roll 3D6, add your attribute, and try to score 21+. Again, I an easily make this roll easier or harder, depending on the situation, by adding or subtracting dice from the roll, just like thief skills.


B/X covers weapon & shield, and two-handed weapons already, but what about two-weapon fighting? Again drawing from Philotomy’s well, I like to allow characters with a 13+ Dexterity to gain a +1 to hit when using a weapon in each hand.


Encumbrance is burdensome to most adults, much less middle schoolers, so I’m going with the Stones System. Smaller numbers. Nice medieval flavor. What’s not to like?


Yeah, it took two posts to lay out the changes, but these are minor and few in number, relatively speaking. There are folks who make a lot more extensive changes to the RAW, and with farther reaching consequences. The Attribute/Skill rolls aren’t even discussed in B/X, left as something that DM’s had to figure out on their own.

Next post will be about the kids and their games so far, with a little reflection on how things compare with my middle school games…