3 Formal Elements of Games

What are the most basic building blocks of games?

This depends on who you ask. There are many schemes of classification. Like the definition of “game,” none is perfect, but by looking at all of them we can see some emerging themes that can shed light on the kinds of things that we need to create as game designers if we are to make games.

We refer to these basic building blocks as “formal elements,” not because they have anything to do with wearing a suit and tie, but because they are “formal” in the mathematical and scientific sense: something that can be explicitly defined. Some designers refer to them as “atoms” — in the sense that these are the smallest parts of a game that can be isolated and studied individually.

What follows are some parts of games, and some of the things designers may consider when looking at these formal elements.

Players

How many players does the game support? Must it be an exact number (4 players only), or a variable number (2 to 5 players)? Can players enter or leave during play? How does this affect play?

What is the relationship between players: are there teams, or individuals? Can teams be uneven? Here are some example player structures; this is by no means a complete list:

  • Solitaire (1 player vs. the game system). Examples include the card game Klondike (sometimes just called “Solitaire”) and the video game Minesweeper.
  • Head-to-head (1 player vs. 1 player). Chess and Go are classic examples.
  • “PvE” (multiple players vs. the game system). This is common in MMOs like World of Warcraft. Some purely-cooperative board games exist too, such as Knizia’s Lord of the RingsArkham Horror, and Pandemic.
  • One-against-many (1 player vs. multiple players). The board game Scotland Yard is a great example of this; it pits a single player as Mr. X against a team of detectives.
  • Free-for-all (1 player vs. 1 player vs. 1 player vs. …). Perhaps the most common player structure for multi-player games, this can be found everywhere, from board games like Monopoly to “multiplayer deathmatch” play in most first-person shooter video games.
  • Separate individuals against the system (1 player vs. a series of other players). The casino game Blackjack is an example, where the “House” is playing as a single player against several other players, but those other players are not affecting each other much and do not really help or hinder or play against each other.
  • Team competition (multiple players vs. multiple players [vs. multiple players…]). This is also a common structure, finding its way into most team sports, card games like Bridge and Spades, team-based online games like “Capture the Flag” modes from first-person shooters, and numerous other games.
  • Predator-Prey. Players form a (real or virtual) circle. Everyone’s goal is to attack the player on their left, and defend themselves from the player on their right. The college game Assassination and the trading-card game Vampire: the Eternal Struggle both use this structure.
  • Five-pointed Star. I first saw this in a five-player Magic: the Gathering variant. The goal is to eliminate both of the players who are not on either side of you.

Objectives (goals)

What is the object of the game? What are the players trying to do? This is often one of the first things you can ask yourself when designing a game, if you’re stuck and don’t know where to begin. Once you know the objective, many of the other formal elements will seem to define themselves for you. Some common objectives (again, this is not a complete list):

  • Capture/destroy. Eliminate all of your opponent’s pieces from the game. Chess and Stratego are some well-known examples where you must eliminate the opposing forces to win.
  • Territorial control. The focus is not necessarily on destroying the opponent, but on controlling certain areas of the board. RISK and Diplomacy are examples.
  • Collection. The card game Rummy and its variants involve collecting sets of cards to win. Bohnanza involves collecting sets of beans. Many platformer video games (such as the Spyro series) included levels where you had to collect a certain number of objects scattered throughout the level.
  • Solve. The board game Clue (or Cluedo, depending on where you live) is an example of a game where the objective is to solve a puzzle. Lesser-known (but more interesting) examples are Castle of Magic and Sleuth.
  • Chase/race/escape. Generally, anything where you are running towards or away from something; the playground game Tag and the video game Super Mario Bros. are examples.
  • Spatial alignment. A number of games involve positioning of elements as an objective, including the non-digital games Tic-Tac-Toe and Pente and the video game Tetris.
  • Build. The opposite of “destroy” — your goal is to advance your character(s) or build your resources to a certain point. The Sims has strong elements of this; the board game Settlers of Catan is an example also.
  • Negation of another goal. Some games end when one player performs an act that is forbidden by the rules, and that player loses. Examples are the physical dexterity games Twister and Jenga.

Rules (mechanics)

There are three categories of rules: setup (things you do once at the beginning of the game), progression of play (what happens during the game), and resolution (what conditions cause the game to end, and how is an outcome determined based on the game state).

Some rules are automatic: they are triggered at a certain point in the game without player choices or interaction (“Draw a card at the start of your turn” or “The bonus timer decreases by 100 points every second”). Other rules define the choices or actions that the players can take in the game, and the effects of those actions on the game state.

Let’s dig deeper. Salen & Zimmerman’s Rules of Play classifies three types of rules, which they call operational, constituative, and implied (these are not standard terms in the industry, so the concepts are more important than the terminology in this case). To illustrate, let’s consider the rules of Tic-Tac-Toe:

  • Players: 2
  • Setup: Draw a 3×3 grid. Choose a player to go first as X. Their opponent is designated O.
  • Progression of play: On your turn, mark an empty square with your symbol. Play then passes to your opponent.
  • Resolution: If you get 3 of your symbol in a row (orthogonally or diagonally), you win. If the board is filled and there is no winner, it is a draw.

These are what Rules of Play calls the “operational” rules. Think for a moment: are these the only rules of the game?

At first glance, it seems so. But what if I’m losing and simply refuse to take another turn? The rules do not explicitly give a time limit, so I could “stall” indefinitely to avoid losing and still be operating within the “rules” as they are typically stated. However, in actual play, a reasonable time limit is implied. This is not part of the formal (operational) rules of the game, but it is still part of what Rules of Play calls the “implied” rules. The point here is that there is some kind of unwritten social contract that players make when playing a game, and these are understood even when not stated.

Even within the formal rules there are two layers. The 3×3 board and “X” and “O” symbols are specific to what Costikyan calls the color of this game, but you could strip them away. By reframing the squares as the numbers 1 through 9 and turning spatial alignment into a mathematical property, you can get Three-to-Fifteen. While Tic-Tac-Toe and Three-to-Fifteen have different implementations and appearances, the underlying abstract rules are the same. We do not normally think in these abstract terms when we think of “rules” but they are still there, under the surface. Rules of Play calls these “constituative” rules.

Is it useful to make the distinction between these three types of rules? I think it is important to be aware of them for two reasons:

  • The distinction between “operational” and “constituative” rules helps us understand why one game is fun in relation to other games. The classic arcade game Gauntlet has highly similar gameplay to the first-person shooter DOOM; the largest difference is the position of the camera. For those of you who play modern board games, a similar statement is that Puerto Rico is highly similar to Race for the Galaxy.  The similarity may not be immediately apparent because the games look so different on the surface, unless you are thinking in terms of game states and rules.
  • Many first-person shooters contain a rule where, when a player is killed, they re-appear (“respawn”) in a specific known location. Another player can stand near that location and kill anyone that respawns before they have a chance to react. This is known as “spawn-camping” and can be rather annoying to someone on the receiving end of it. Is spawn-camping part of the game (since it is allowed by the rules)? Is it good strategy, or is it cheating? This depends on who you ask, as it is part of the “implied” rules of the game. When two players are operating under different implied rules, you will eventually get one player accusing the other of cheating (or just “being cheap”) while the other player will get defensive and say that they’re playing by the rules, and there’s no reason for them to handicap themselves when they are playing to win. The lesson here is that it is important for the game designer to define as many of these rules as possible, to avoid rules arguments during play.

Resources and resource management

“Resources” is a broad category, and we use it in this text to mean everything that is under control of a single player. Obviously this includes explicit resources (wood and wheat in Settlers of Catan, health and mana and currency in World of Warcraft), but this can also include other things under player control:

  • Territory in RISK
  • Number of questions remaining in Twenty Questions
  • Objects that can be picked up in video games (weapons, powerups)
  • Time (either game time, or real time, or both)
  • Known information (as the suspects that you have eliminated in Clue)

What kinds of resources do the players control? How are these resources manipulated during play? This is something the game designer must define explicitly.

Game State

Some “resource-like” things are not owned by a single player, but are still part of the game: unowned properties in Monopoly, the common cards in Texas Hold ‘Em. Everything in the game together, including the current player resources and everything else that makes up a snapshot of the game at a single point in time is called the game state.

In board games, explicitly defining the game state is not always necessary, but it is sometimes useful to think about. After all, one way to think about rules is that they are the means by which the game is transformed from one game state to another.

In video games, someone must define the game state, because it includes all of the data that the computer must keep track of. Normally this task falls to a programmer, but if the game designer can explicitly define the entire game state it can greatly aid in the understanding of the game by the programming team.

Information

How much of the game state is visible to each player? Changing the amount of information available to players has a drastic effect on the game, even if all other formal elements are the same. Some examples of information structures in games:

  • A few games offer total information, where all players see the complete game state at all times. Chess and Go are classic board game examples. These games are said to contain perfect information.
  • Games can include some information that is private to each individual. Think of Poker and other card games where each player has a hand of cards that only they can see.
  • One player can have their own privileged information, while other players do not. This is common in one-against-many player structures, like Scotland Yard.
  • The game itself can contain information that is hidden from all players. Games like Clue and Sleuth actually have the victory condition that a player discover this hidden information.
  • These can be combined. Many “real-time strategy” computer games use what is called “fog of war” where certain sections of the map are concealed to any player that does not have a unit in sight range. Some information is therefore hidden from all players. Beyond that, players cannot see each other’s screens, so each player is unaware of what information is and isn’t available to their opponents.

Sequencing

In what order do players take their actions? How does play flow from one action to another? Games can work differently depending on the turn structure that is used:

  • Some games are purely turn-based: at any given time it is a single player’s “turn” on which they may take action. When they are done, it becomes someone else’s turn. Most classic board games and turn-based strategy games work this way.
  • Other games are turn-based, but with simultaneous play (everyone takes their turn at the same time, often by writing down their actions or playing an action card face-down and then simultaneously revealing). The board game Diplomacy works like this. There is also an interesting Chess variant where players write down their turns simultaneously and then resolve (two pieces entering the same square on the same turn are both captured) that adds tension to the game.
  • Still other games are real-time, where actions are taken as fast as players can take them. Most action-oriented video games fall into this category, but even some non-digital games (such as the card games Spit or Speed) work this way.
  • There are additional variations. For a turn-based game, what order do players take their turns? Taking turns in clockwise order is common. Taking turns in clockwise order and then skipping the first player (to reduce the first-player advantage) is a modification found in many modern board games. I’ve also seen games where turn order is randomized for each round of turns, or where players pay other resources in the game for the privilege of going first (or last), or where turn order is determined by player standing (player who is currently winning goes first or last).
  • Turn-based games can be further modified by the addition of an explicit time limit, or other form of time pressure.

Player Interaction

This is an often-neglected but highly important aspect of games to consider. How do players interact with one another? How can they influence one another? Here are some examples of player interactions

  • Direct conflict (“I attack you”)
  • Negotiation (“If you support me to enter the Black Sea, I’ll help you get into Cairo next turn”)
  • Trading (“I’ll give you a wood in exchange for your wheat”)
  • Information sharing (“I looked at that tile last turn and I’m telling you, if you enter it a trap will go off”)

Theme (or narrative, backstory, or setting)

These terms do have distinct meanings for people who are professional story writers, but for our purposes they are used interchangeably to mean the parts of the game that do not directly affect gameplay at all.

If it doesn’t matter in terms of gameplay, why bother with this at all? There are two main reasons. First, the setting provides what Costikyan calls “color” in the game which helps players connect emotionally to the game. Most people find it hard to really care about the pawns on a chessboard the way they care about their Dungeons & Dragons character. And while this doesn’t necessarily make one game “better” than another, it does make it easier for a player to become emotionally invested in the game.

The other reason is that a well-chosen theme can make a game easier to learn and easier to play, because the rules make sense. The piece movement rules in Chess have no relation to the theme and must therefore be memorized by someone learning the game. By contrast, the roles in the board game Puerto Rico have some relation to their game function: the builder lets you build buildings, the mayor recruits new colonists, the captain ships goods off to the Old World, and so on. It is easy to remember what most actions do in the game, because they have some relation to the theme of the game.

This chapter was adapted from Level 3 of Ian Schreiber’s Game Design Concepts course.

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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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