5 Critical Analysis of Games

What is a critical analysis, and why do we care?

Critical analysis is not just a game review. We are not concerned with how many out of five stars, or any numbers from 0 to 10, or whether or not a game is “fun” (whatever that means), or aiding in the consumer decision of whether or not to buy a game.

Critical analysis does not just mean a list of things that are wrong with the game. The word “critical” in this context does not mean “fault-finding” but rather a thorough and unbiased look at the game.

Critical analysis is useful when discussing or comparing games. You can say “I like the card game Bang! because it’s fun” but that does not help us as designers to learn why it is fun. We must look at the parts of games and how they interact in order to understand how each part relates to the player experience. The more we analyze the games we play, the more we understand what makes a game good.

Critical analysis is also useful when examining our own works in progress. For a game that you’re working on, how do you know what to add or remove to make it better?

There are many ways to critically analyze a game, but here is a three-step process that we can begin with:

  1. Describe the game’s formal elements. Do not interpret at this point, simply state what is there.
  2. Describe the results of the formal elements when put in motion. How do the different elements interact? What is the play of the game like? Is it effective?
  3. Try to understand why the designer chose those elements and not others. Why this particular player structure, and why that set of resources? What would have happened if the designer had chosen differently?

Some specific Costikyan-related questions to ask yourself during a critical analysis of a game:

  • Describe the game by answering the following questions
    • What is the name of the game?
    • Who is the audience of the game?
    • What materials are needed to play the game?
    • Is the game turn-based?  If yes, what does a typical turn look like?  If not, how do players begin to play the game?
  • What is the overall goal of the game?  That is, what are the players trying to accomplish?
  • Where does the opposition in the game come from?  That is, what conspires to prevent a player from reaching her goals?
  • What items constitute the game tokens in the game?  Explain why each of these things is a token.
  • What are the decision-making opportunities that the player has?  Be complete in listing these decisions.
    • Which decisions allow a player to manage their resources? In answering this question, list the resources and then explain how the decision relates to the management of a particular resource.
  • What kind of information can players use to make decisions in the game?
    • For each item of information that you list, who has access to it? Is that information available to all players, available to a subset of players or hidden from all players?

As you read through the other chapters in this section, you will learn about more ways to think about games. Asking yourself questions about these various frameworks will help you to better understand what you might change about your game in order to make it better.

This chapter was adapted from Level 3 of Ian Schreiber’s Game Design Concepts course with original material added by Cathie LeBlanc


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Creating Games by Cathie LeBlanc is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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