4 How to Improve a Game

Recall that Greg Costikyan articulated six elements that an activity must contain if it is to be considered a game. In his article, “I Have No Words and I Must Design,” he also articulated some things that we can think about adding to a game if we want to more fully engage the player.

Variety of Encounter

When we play a game, we typically repeat certain actions over and over. The action that the player repeats most often is called the core mechanic (which will be discussed more in a later chapter). For example, the core mechanic in Monopoly is that we roll the dice and move our piece that many spaces on the board. A number of different possibilities for our action arise when we land on a particular space. If the property that the space represents is not already owned by someone, we have a decision to make: should we buy the property or not? If the property is already owned, we must pay rent to the owner. If the space is not a property, we must follow the instructions on the space–pick up a Community Chest card or go directly to jail, for example. Costikyan calls this variety of encounter.

If the variety of encounter is not great enough, a game will quickly become boring. Think about the game Tic Tac Toe, for example. Little kids typically love the game until they suddenly don’t. This is because there is actually little variety of encounter and once children learn the patterns for how to play the game optimally so that it always ends in a draw, they grow bored and no longer want to play. We might be tempted to say that’s because the core mechanic is just one simple action–mark your symbol in a spot. But having a good variety of encounter doesn’t always mean that the core mechanic is more than one simple action. Tic Tac Toe becomes boring because once the player marks their symbol in a spot, there are a limited number of possibilities for what happens next. There are fairly small number configurations of the 3×3 board and after you have played the game for a while, you have seen all of those configurations numerous times.

Contrast this with Chess which also has just one simple action as its core mechanic–move one of your pieces to a new spot on the board. Like Tic Tac Toe, Chess is a game of perfect information, that is, none of the information about the game is hidden from the player. Like Tic Tac Toe, there is no randomness in Chess. And yet, Chess is a game that takes a lifetime to master and provides endless fodder for analysis. No one would ever say something similar about Tic Tac Toe. This is because the variety of encounter in Chess is much higher than Tic Tac Toe. The variety of movement rules for each Chess piece moves in a different way, the much larger board, and the goal of capturing the King result in a much higher variety of encounter in Chess than in Tic Tac Toe. These factors mean that the number of possible configurations of the game after a player takes their turn is very large and so it takes a lifetime of play to have encountered all of the possibilities. As Costikyan says, “[P]layers like to encounter the unexpected.” This is the essence of variety of encounter.

When we think about variety of encounter in a game, Costikyan tells us to ask questions like: What things do the players encounter in this game? Are there enough things for them to explore and discover? What provides variety? How can we increase the variety of encounter?


Not everything in a game needs to be totally good for one player while being totally bad for another. Costikyan argues that “Whenever multiple players are involved, games are
strengthened if they permit, and encourage, diplomacy.” Diplomacy is the idea that players can combine their efforts on some kind of action that is mutually beneficial. This might involve a trade that benefits both parties or ganging up on a mutual opponent. The decision of whether to engage in a temporary alliance is inherently engaging. As alliances form and dissolve, the game become more interesting.

For example, in Monopoly, two players might trade properties so that they each form a monopoly. The damage cause by the opponent gaining a monopoly is outweighed by the player gaining their own monopoly. Both sides benefit from the trade even though both sides are also harmed. Monopoly allows this kind of trading but the rules of the game don’t actually encourage it. The game might be strengthened if the rules were changed to encourage trading and bargaining.

Costikyan tells us to ask questions such as: How can players help or hinder each other? What incentives do they have to do so? What resources can they trade?


Why is the card game War called War? (For the moment, ignore the fact that Costikyan would not consider it a game because it provides no decision-making opportunities for the player.) Each round of flipping over the top card of the deck is a battle between the two cards with the highest ranked card winning the battle. When the two cards are of equal rank, the players must each risk even more cards in what the rules call a “war.” But the war metaphor in the game goes no further than this. What if we extended the metaphor by using a deck of cards that had drawings of different types of soldiers, each with a particular rank? Such a deck, although functionally equivalent to the regular deck of cards, adds color to the game.

Color is that set of things in a game that helps the player become immersed in what the game is about. Color adds to the setting or sense of place in the game. These details add to the game’s emotional appeal. For example, Monopoly isn’t really about anything. But calling the squares on the board properties and giving each of them a real place name provides the player with a sense that the game is about buying and selling real estate. The paper money, plastic houses and hotels, collection of rent, and so on add to the sense that the game is about real estate. All of this is part of the color of the game and helps to emotionally engage the player.

Costikyan tells us to ask the following questions about color: How does the game evoke the ethos and atmosphere and pageantry of its setting? What can you do to make it more colorful?

Position Identification

Have you ever been a spectator of a team sport and said “We won!” when the team won? If so, you already understand what Costikyan calls position identification. To strengthen a game, to increase its emotional impact, encourage the player to identify with their “side” in the game.

One way to encourage player to identify with their side is to allow them to control a single token in the game. For example, some players get quite invested in the particular token they use in Monopoly. But it might be more challenging when the player controls multiple tokens. In Chess, for example, few players are saddened when they lose a pawn. But in Chess, each side has a color for their pieces to help them clearly identify their side. In addition, Chess doesn’t take the metaphors of the player’s pieces to a level of detail that weakens the player’s focus on their overall goal. For example, even though one piece is called a knight, the player doesn’t have to worry about whether the knight is getting enough food to eat. Instead, the player’s point of view in the game focuses on using the special properties of the knight to capture the opponent’s king. To strengthen a game, the game designer should think about how to help the player clearly identify their point of view within the game.

Costikyan tells us to ask the following questions: What can you do to make the player care about his position? Is there a single game token that’s more important than others to the player, and what can be done to strengthen identification with it? If not, what is the overall emotional appeal of the position, and what can be done to strengthen that appeal? Who “is” the player in the game? What is his point of view?

Other Ways to Strengthen a Game

Costikyan also talks about simulation, role-playing, and socializing as ways to improve a game. Simulation means having the game simulate some real world situation. Role-playing is a specific way of increasing a player’s position identification by having them play a particular role. Socialization is encouraging players to interact with one another as they play the game. You can read more about these in Costikyan’s original article.

This chapter was written specifically for this book.


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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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