Review: Fundamentals of Role-Playing Game Design by Ernest Adams

Title: Fundamentals of Role-Playing Games
Author: Ernest Adams
Year: 2014

Summary: Very short introductory book on traditional role-playing game design considerations. Not bad if you know nothing about RPGs and need a quick primer, but not recommended for serious reading.

fundamentals of role-playing game design

This will be a short review since the book is rather short.

Fundamentals of Role-Playing Game Design one one of a larger series of short ebooks that Ernest Adams has written covering different genres of games, such as sports, strategy, simulation, puzzles, and so on. The book is very short – a little over 50 pages – and only available in ebook format.

Out of all the books I’ve collected, I have not found any that seek to go into detail on a single genre and dissect that from a design point of view. When I stumbled upon Adams’s collection of titles that seemed to cover exactly that I decided to pick one of them up and review it to see if it was worth diving into the series. After this one, though, I probably won’t pick any of the others up.

Fundamentals of Role-Playing Game Design reads like an introduction to the genre to someone who has never played a role-playing game before but has some knowledge about games or gameplay. It is very basic and only covers fairly traditional role-playing game design conventions (dice rolling, character sheets, magic systems), covering mainstays like Dungeons & Dragons or Planescape: Torment.

The book acts as more of a survey of what is done, why, and when some decisions are better or worse than others – for example, different inventory management strategies or dialogue/story branching structures. The book could have been much longer, and I was hoping it would have a more solid foundation on role-playing games including tabletop and LARPing. The author alludes to these and other considerations but claims that there’s not enough room in this book to cover them in depth.

I wouldn’t recommend the book for active game developers or people who know a lot about the genre. As a student I may have found a book like this on strategy games (which Adams has also written) helpful for getting me up to speed on a genre of games I had practically zero familiarity with at the time. I suspect that the series is meant as individual supplements to follow-up from Adams’s Fundamentals of Game Design, a much larger and more comprehensive textbook.

The book ultimately fails for me because it is just too short to do the topic justice. A book on role-playing game design could easily fill an entire textbook and even knowing the page count ahead of time I found myself disappointed.

Roundup: Reading Game Design in 2015

In November 2014 – just a little over a year ago – I started a project to read and review books on game design and related disciplines. In May I started up a Game Design Book Club for others who wanted to read along with me. It’s worked out pretty well so far so here’s my summary.

In 2015 I read 16 books covering: game design, architecture, psychology, games criticism, history, pop culture, and comics. (This is quite a bit shy of my goal of 25 books – maybe next year).

 

THE BEST

By far the best book I read this year was Homo Ludens. It justified the whole project just by itself. I wasn’t expecting to like it so much but nothing has had such a big impact on the way I view games – and the role of games in society – as this book. It was like a delicious, unexpected game design buffet for my mind. If I had to pick a book that every game developer should read it would be this one. Please read Homo Ludens.

Follow up books are, unsurprising, all written by game designers. Game Feel, the first half of A Game Design Vocabulary, and Playing to Win continue to stick with me and I reference these far more than I initially expected. I carried back new terminology to help describe familiar concepts in my daily work. All these books have made me more thoughtful and literate about game design. I will probably return and reread them again in a few years to help keep my thoughts fresh.

 

THE MIDDLE GROUND

These are all good books that I recommend, they just didn’t quite make the jump into one of the best books I’ve read.

101 Things I Learned in Architecture School is good but I would classify it kind of middling. I didn’t ultimately take much away beyond a few small tips, but I prefer much meatier books. Still, it deserves its accolades, and makes for a nice casual coffee table book.

Understanding Comics is good but a bit overrated in its popularity among game designers. That seems to be a rare controversial opinion, so take my review with a grain of salt. I think it’s better to approach it as a guide on visual design than anything specific to game design.

Surprisingly (to me), I enjoyed both history books I picked up – Videogames: In the Beginning, an autobiographical take on the early design and development of the Magnavox Odyssey, and Generation Xbox: How Videogames Invaded Hollywood. I liked them both as an opportunity to help understand the current industry by seeing how it evolved. I can’t say they are ‘practical’ books, just that they cover their subjects very well and fill in gaps in my knowledge.

I carved out some time to read games criticism toward the end of the year. The best was definitely Shooter, an anthology of essays from a variety of critics that I think is good thoughtful content for game developers. I will admit that I tried reading a couple other books in a similar vein and put them down in disappointment before getting too far, so Shooter definitely stands out for me.

 

GENERAL GAME DESIGN BOOKS

I read several fundamentals books – as in, books about game design in a general sense, often written for a university course. Each has their pros and cons, and they are all good in their own right.

Characteristics of Games stands out as being an excellent book for experienced designers. I am cheating by including it here: I still haven’t finished it and written a proper review, but already know it will be extremely positive. It’s academic and theoretical but yet extremely relevant to industry folk, but it may be difficult for someone new to game design to pick up.

The rest didn’t really work that well for me as a designer in the industry, as they tend to favor breadth over depth and simple introductions over challenging content. Art of Game Design is best for students looking to eventually enter the industry in a traditional way, while A Game Design Vocabulary is my recommendation for self-taught indie designers and has a very system-oriented approach to design. Challenges for Game Designers was maybe the weakest for content, but the exercises more than make up for it.

A Theory of Fun for Game Design stands out as still the perfect pick for someone brand new to game design, regardless of age. I wouldn’t base a curriculum around it, though. It was also worth rereading it now that I have several years of game development experience under my belt.

 

THE DISAPPOINTMENTS

Now this isn’t to say these books are bad just that they really did not fit my tastes and I’ll be avoiding others like them in the future.

I did not like Reality is Broken, though it does have some nuggets of wisdom I appreciated. Ultimately I felt like reading someone all-too-enthusiastic pitch for how games will contribute to world peace, while glossing over any possible contradictions to that utopic vision.

I thought Flow was a complete snore – it is worth reading chapters 3 & 4 and skipping the rest. This was a disappointment considering how important the concept of flow is in game design, and while I don’t recommend it I will say that I have a better understanding of flow then I did before reading the book so it might be worth the effort. Finite and Infinite Games was likewise uninteresting to me as a game designer – though perhaps redeems itself as a philosophy book (…if you like philosophy. I discovered I do not).

Ghosts in the Machine was a fiction anthology that I reviewed. I was on the fence about reviewing it, first because it’s fiction and second because I was really disappointed in it. I might just avoid reviewing fiction from now on. (I also hated Ready Player One and refuse to review it, so my taste is definitely not mass market).

 

TAKEAWAYS

I’ve used some of the techniques and examples in these books to help me with my work. I find myself recalling pattern recognition (Koster) when looking at systems, consistency, and tutorials in games. I tend to use the terms “scene” and “resistance” more often than “level” and “difficulty” (Anthropy & Clark) to compare vastly different types of games. I see patterns of play in many of our social constructs (Huizinga) and often my thoughts go to comparing game behaviors with rituals. I’ve been inspired to actually tackle competitive multiplayer games (Sirlin) through chess, then Counterstrike, and now Hearthstone. I am more articulate about design, and able to express design concepts faster instead of meandering around them until I hit on the right set of words.

I probably irritate people a lot more these by responding to questions by suggesting a book they should read. Eventually I’ll get in the habit of just answering the damn question already.

All told, the reading I’ve done has made me a better designer. but it takes a long time and the signal to noise ratio can be intimidating. Writing about each book has helped me internalize many of their lessons and really aids in recall.

It can be kind of hard to justify the effort that goes into this, especially when most of my peers scoff at game design books as useless, vague, all theory and nothing practical. But everyone has also always followed up to ask if I’ve found anything good. From the beginning, one of my goals has been to help filter through the literature on games for others. Hopefully you all are not disappointed in my reviews.

 

LOOKING FORWARD

I still have 110 unread books. At my current rate that’s another 6.5 years of reading, not including the books I’ll pick up Katamari-style between now and then. It would be a slog except that when I look over my collection I get really excited for all the books I haven’t read yet. Despite narrative being my hobby horse, I haven’t read and reviewed a single book on that topic, and level design and RPGs are woefully absent.

I’ve actually read pieces from a couple Ph.D dissertations this year. I think this will be a category of books that I will only review if I like them. There’s no use reviewing someone’s dissertation if I don’t like it – no one was going to read it unless they sought it out anyway. On the flip side, the two dissertations I’ve read from were absolutely fantastic and I’d like to use my blog to bring attention to them. Expect to hear about them soon.

Speaking of academia, I actually like reading papers printed to traditional academic journals. This kind of work is hiding far away from the eyes of the industry so I’ve been thinking of ways to bring attention to it or review collections of academic papers that cover a specific subject. Not promising anything yet, but I suspect a post every few months might sneak out that rounds up a bunch of academic reading on some niche topic.

And that brings me to my next point: there’s lots of other forms of game design writing that doesn’t take place in a book sold at your local bookstore or favored online retailer. It seems short-sighted to ignore all the articles, design blogs, games criticism, videos, and other smart work being done out there in different media. I don’t really have the time to do it myself but maybe someone, somewhere, who may be reading this blog post right now, has the time to do it. (I’d read it).

Review: Generation Xbox: How Videogames Invaded Hollywood by Jamie Russell

Title: Generation Xbox: How Videogames Invaded Hollywood
Author: Jamie Russell
Year: 2012

Summary: A very detailed history, with tons of direct anecdotes, on the choppy relationship between Hollywood and the game industry.


genxbox-e1451659335214Generation Xbox: How Videogames Invaded Hollywood
has a really unfortunate title that would normally make me dismiss it as sensational out-of-touch clickbait (…readingbait?). The truth is that while the author often makes enthusiastic and grandiose statements about the people and developments outlined in the book, it’s also a really excellent book that does justice to the topic at hand. If the intersection of film and games interests you, this book will serve you well.

This is not a design book: it’s a pop-culture history book that largely focuses on the business deals and technology issues – and more rarely on the artistic intent – behind many well-known games based on films, films adaptations of games, and games that bridge “gameplay” and “cinema” to create various interactive experiences.

It’s an easy read, obviously written to appeal to a popular audience of gamers, film buffs, and anyone in between. I think having some familiarity with the history of games is ideal, though not necessary. (I recommend reading The Ultimate History of Video Games first if you feel you need more background first). The book clocks in at around 330 pages, and each chapter is quite long (with some obvious breaks) and covers a really important topic related to film and games roughly in chronological order.

Generation Xbox begins by discussing the situation leading up to Atari’s infamous E.T. game. Subsequent topics go into great detail on Dragon’s Lair, the FMV craze of the 90’s, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg’s involvement in games, the often disastrous film adaptations like Super Mario Bros and Mortal Kombat, the aborted Halo film, Heavy Rain and the advancements of motion capture that helped make the Avatar film possible. The author goes into a great deal of detail on many of these topics to make sure the reader has proper context (what the state of games or film were at the time) as well as including a wealth of insider information. I don’t think you can find this level of detail on many of the events outside of this book – for example, if you ever wanted to know exactly how the Super Mario Bros film got approved by Nintendo and how it ended up as a post-apocalyptic cyberpunk flick filmed in a warehouse, this book has you covered.

Throughout the book there’s a sense that you’re just reading a series of train wrecks. Example after example shows potential wasted, squandered, or sabotaged by the competing interests of the film and game industries. The author proposes this miscommunication and failed attempts were often due to speaking different languages. Often film industry people who had the opportunity to collaborate with games just did not understand the nature of branching storylines and collaborate authorship with players, while games people didn’t understand the way film has a large hierarchy of people with competing demands (actors, producers, directors, etc.). The film industry tends to work off of celebrity, networking, and negotiation, while the game industry tends to be much more tech and engineer-focused, where results are king.

I am not sure I entirely buy this argument, but there were enough anecdotes on the miscommunication between the industries from people involved in these deals that I can’t deny there was a cultural mismatch and a lot of people speaking past one another. Most of the problems highlighted in the book places blame largely on the film industry, and most of the interviews and stories come from the perspective of people in games rather than in film. I think that’s an important caveat to bring with you as you read it.

Eventually Generation Xbox does end on a high note. After so many disasters and the rare success, it covers the technology behind motion capture that developed as games moved from 2D to 3D. This technology had immediate relevance in the film industry, and while it still took many years before mainstream actors were comfortable wearing spandex suits you can see how important those visual effects are in both film and games today.

Personally I appreciated the FMV chapter best, since I remember playing many of the latter games from this era but didn’t know much about how they came about. This era showed a lot of experimentation that I feel we’ve largely forgotten, mainly because FMV acting was so, so terrible. I enjoyed seeing risky examples of the industries bringing game-like mechanics into movie theaters (Mr. Payback) and films onto consoles, even though all these attempts ultimately failed.

I think it’s important to know about the history of our industry so I’ve seeded my game design book list with several popular nonfiction to help cover the gaps in my knowledge. Despite living in LA, the film industry is cloaked in the same mystique for me that the game industry had for those outside of it. Generation Xbox did a lot to demystify the evolving and often precarious business relationship between these two industries.

Review: Shooter ed. by Reid McCarter and Patrick Lindsey

Title: Shooter
Author: edited by Reid McCarter & Patrick Lindsey, but this is an anthology with many authors
Year: 2015

Summary: an anthology of critical essays on shooters, largely focusing on first person. A good read for anyone who loves the genre and wants to dig into some good, short critical thought on the topic, but also a good entry point for those new to games criticism.

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Shooter is an anthology of fifteen critical essays (sixteen if you count the foreword) on shooters, each from a different author with their own distinct take on the topic and style of writing. The love the authors have for the genre shines through their writing, whether they are singling them out for their flaws or praising them for their successes. Each essay revolves around a single game – from cornerstones like Doom to under-appreciated failures like Haze. Most of these essays jump from analyzing a single work in its own right to the relationship of that work to the history of the genre, the relationship between players and developers, or the role of shooters in our greater cultural landscape.

In a lot of ways this anthology is refreshing. These essays look critically and seriously at a genre of games so often dismissed as mindless entertainment or demonized as mindless violence. The foreword itself helps frame the purpose of this book by pointing out that shooters have cultural and artistic importance and deserve criticism in their own right.

Shooter is fairly short – Amazon suggests it is 127 pages but the book only exists only in digital format. I read it over three evenings, with each essay a short enough to read over a ten or twenty minute chunk of time. Overall I found it a nice mental break from some of the tougher game design theory texts I have been reading through. Shooter is not a challenging read, but it is an interesting one with plenty of ideas worth mulling over, and the essays cover many different styles of criticism, from fairly dry analysis to very personal stories. Keep in mind that almost all the essays contain heavy spoilers for that particular game.

I really enjoyed this anthology, despite some initial misgivings since games criticism can (personally speaking) often disappoint me as a developer. Instead, I thought all the essays in Shooter were really solid, with a few that definitely stood out to me as very worthwhile reads. My fingers are crossed that Shooter gains enough positive traction that it will encourage more critical anthologies like it – I would certainly add them to my reading list. If you don’t read much games criticism, I would consider this an excellent introduction, and if you already love criticism then this collection will be a treat for you. I think Shooter would be a good pick if I were teaching a class on games and needed a collection of articles to introduce students to critical reading of games.

My main caveat is that I haven’t played most of the games written about in this anthology. It’s difficult to disagree with an author about his interpretation of Wolfenstein: A New Order if I’ve never played the game myself. That said, I didn’t find my lack of knowledge an impediment to reading (the essays give plenty of details) and I found each topic interesting even if I have little interest in playing the game itself.

The only negative thing I can really say about Shooter is that it is not critical enough. Most of the essays were easy reading in part because I didn’t find the arguments within particularly challenging. Some of the essays reiterated points to me that I already bought into – though with the caveat that they used very specific examples to showcase those points. I can’t say I walked away from this anthology with a brand new understanding of shooters, but then I am not sure that’s really the point of the collection in the first place. Instead it felt like it filled the niche of “good food for thought”.

Since it’s hard to find detailed information online, and because I enjoyed all of the readings, below is a full list of the essays in the collection along with a short (often incomplete!) summary and initial thoughts. I’ve avoided any specific spoilers in the games.

Chapter 1 – Shooting Things in Public: Battle Garegga and the Arc of a Genre by David S. Heineman

The author goes into detail on the history of shooting games, from carnival games to arcade games, and uses this sort of public sphere gaming to talk about Battle Garegga, one of the last old-school arcade shooters. He then compares these short burst, high-skill oriented, public play with the isolated, singleplayer gameplay that takes precedence in shooters afterwards. I can’t say I entirely buy the premise (especially considering the importance of multiplayer shooters and esports) but appreciated the historical perspective.

Chapter 2 – Action, Death, and Catharsis: Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare by Reid McCarter

This essay (one of my favorites) talks about how war, terrorism, heroism, and the current political climate are portrayed in Call of Duty 4 and serves as an opportunity to “purge our demons through an interactive manifestation of our largest cultural fears”. It goes on to explain how the game falls short of really confronting those fears and argues that we need to move forward to acknowledging the uncertainty and anxiety we have about our future. This essay was very good, and I don’t think I do it justice with my summary.

Chapter 3 – Far Cry 2 and the Dirty Mirror by Patrick Lindsey

This talks about the modern era of critical shooters (specifically starting with Bioshock) that attempt to address the relationship between players, violence, and gameplay. It claims that Far Cry 2 stands out from others by embodying this message in every aspect of the game, instead of overlaying that message in an overwrought plot and with extended cut-scenes that spell it out for the player. (As the author says, “The game’s violence is never explicitly commented on — it simply exists.”) While so much has been written about Far Cry 2 already, this essay seemed to bring a different perspective (albeit one still in line with other critical thought).

Chapter 4 – Fallout 3: If You Can’t Join ‘Em, Beat ‘Em by Holly Green

This was kind of a lovely essay about the author’s hesitation to play first person shooters, and their unforgiving usability curve, and how she used Fallout 3 to learn how to play the genre slowly at her own pace. One of the reasons I liked this is because it resonated with me so much. My first shooter (beside the original Doom and Wolfenstein 3D) was Deus Ex and one day I’ll write about that wonderful/harrowing experience. The author’s hesitation to try shooters, the difficulty in learning very ‘simple’ concepts, the fear of playing with more expert players – all of these mirror my own experiences.

Chapter 5 – To Conquer Pripyat by Alex D. Jones

The author analyzes the role of the environment in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. as a dynamic, active role in the game, with a degree of agency similar to that of a character. This essay was timely since though I have never played S.T.A.L.K.E.R., I did finally watch the Tarkovsky film of the same name and I found myself nodding along as I read. I thought the author’s point was supported by lots and lots of details, and this is one of the essays that has led me to pick up a copy of the game.

Chapter 6 – Paths of Contact: Narrative Friction in Gears of War by Ethan Gach

I think this essay suffered the most from not having played the game in question, Gears of War: Judgment so I found it difficult to really engage with the text. It was a critical look at how the narrative of Judgment attempted to go further and be more meaningful, but ultimately fell flat because it struggled against all the elements that work so well in Gears of War – those elements, essentially, being the pacing and spectacle.

Chapter 7 – The Disempowerment Fantasy of Red Orchestra 2: Rising Storm by Carli Velocci

Argues that games about war generally empower a single heroic player to be the avatar of an entire side of the conflict, which is far from the reality of war in which a soldier is just one set of bullets within a sea of firearms. Red Orchestra 2′s brutal multiplayer, where players die fast, with no respawn and little hope, heroism is shunted aside. It has an “emphasis on avoiding death over acquiring power.” I was won over by the thesis – disempowerment fantasies are rare in games but fascinating to me – and enjoyed the article.

Chapter 8 – Gilded Splinters: BJ Blazkowicz and The New Order by Javy Gwaltney

The author looks at how the main character in Wolfenstein: The New Order appears to represent a old, dying breed of genre, and how this game acts as a kind of monumental send-off to that character and the original design sensibilities of Wolfenstein. He draws a comparison to the latter half of the Beowulf epic throughout the essay. I honestly can’t say much more without spoiling the game, but I enjoyed it a lot, and thought the comparison with Beowulf (one of my favorite pieces of literature) felt very appropriate.

Chapter 9 – Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway: German Representation in World War II by Corey Milne

The essay discusses the representation of allied soldiers – protagonists with unique personalities, portrayed as flawed and complex and undeniably human – with the representation of German soldiers – portrayed only as violent, uncaring, and dehumanized. This essay points out the atrocities of the Allies and the complex issues facing normal German soldiers and asks that games portray these nuances instead of the stereotypical good vs. evil showdown. I actually thought this was the weakest essay in the collection, in part because the issue of faceless Nazis is well-trod ground (perhaps more so in other media than games) and in part because the game itself seemed forgotten halfway through. It’s not that I disagree with the thesis – the opposite, of course – but rather than I gained little from reading it.

Chapter 10 – Truth vs. Propaganda: Fighting Through the Haze by Ed Smith

The author argues that video games aren’t violent enough, and instead game violence is disposable, sanitized, and relies on spectacle instead of being “distressing, disturbing, or provocative”. In it, he looks at the game Haze as a precursor to Spec Ops: The Line and even argues it’s superior (conceptually, maybe not in execution) because it also approaches the concept of developer complicity in video game violence, not just player complicity. Anyone who knows my particular interest in horror will understand why this is my favorite essay in the collection. Just the initial statements on how game violence isn’t really that violent won me over. It was a wonderful surprise, too, to find so much depth in a game that was generally panned and forgotten.

Chapter 11 – The Joys of Projectiles: What We’ve Forgotten About Doom by Steven Wright

This talks about the difference between games of the star-studded past – the time of Doom and Wolfenstein 3D – and how they differ from the current palette of first person shooters. In particular, the author zeroes in on physics projectiles in older games – which afforded for tactics like running and dodging and judging projectile speed on various weapons – and compares that to instant hit detection common in many modern games. While his points about the speed and movement early shooters gave to their protagonists, and how some modern games (Titanfall, for example) have been bringing this agility back, I think tying it to projectile speed is a bit overstated.

Chapter 12 – Perfect Dark: A Bundle of Bones by Kaitlin Tremblay

This essay discusses the ‘male gaze’ and the use of women bodies as props and decorations to be looked at in games, and how Perfect Dark circumvents that by making the main character not just female but also presented in the first person. That perspective prevents the character from being looked at, meaning she can only be judged by her accomplishments and skills. This sets her apart from another major female character at that time – Lara Croft – who exists in third person and is unambiguously evaluated for her body. My only criticism of this piece – and I think it makes its argument very well – is that it covers a lot of ground I am already really familiar with.

Chapter 13 – The Lurking Fear: Firearms in Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth by Robert Rath

The author explores how the game uses guns deliberately in contradiction to the power fantasy of most first person shooters. As a horror game, it focuses on guns as limited tools, full of usability issues (i.e. lack of reticle), with severe consequences (attracting enemies), and even can be turned against the player. I’ve argued on the topic of guns in a horror game before, since they are a tool to empower the player to defeat an enemy and thus undercut its effectiveness at making you afraid. Cthulhu seems to take a similar approach as, say, Alien: Isolation (dangerous and best to be avoided) – except that guns seem to take a much more central role in the game.

Chapter 14 –Kane & Lynch 2: Hell is Other People by Filipe Salgado

In a nutshell, the thesis of this essay is that the game is ugly — not as an insult, but rather the argument is that its aesthetic is ugliness and you can see this in the art design, sound design, handling of weapons, relationship between the characters, and so on. The author sums it up really well with the following sentence, “Its sloppy guns, its nauseating camera, its lack of security and constant chaos — almost everything about the game seems built to repel the player.” This kind of critique (in a larger sense) touches on one of the ways games criticism can be really interesting and engaging: that it doesn’t matter whether these elements are actually intentional, but instead that they exist and a person can find meaning within them.

Chapter 15 –My Brother, Counter-Strike, and Me by Gita Jackson

As you would guess from the title, this is a wandering personal essay about the author’s relationship with her brother and their relationships with games. She compares how her brother’s natural inclination toward discipline, practice, and hard work was reflected in his mastery of a game like Counter-Strike. The author then compares this with her own style of play – gravitating towards natural talents rather than devoting the time to master of skill – and feeling, perhaps, inferior (or perhaps just different?) in her relationship to games. This essay resonated a lot with me, personally, and I feel it does a very good job of showing how a non-competitive player like myself looks at games that demand very high levels of skill. (A prior book I read this year – Playing to Win – convinced me to tackle competitive play head on instead of avoiding it and, incidentally, I have been learning Counter-Strike as part of that goal.)

Review: Challenges for Game Designers by Brenda Brathwaite and Ian Schreiber

Book: Challenges for Game Designers
Author: Brenda Brathwaite and Ian Schreiber, game designers and academics
Year: 2009

Summary: Excellent introduction to game design fundamentals, focusing on board games, but the real value lies in doing the challenges packed throughout the book.

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Challenges for Game Designers is a very solid fundamentals book that covers key design concepts without relying too much on technology. The authors both have a really solid, practical background in game design as well as experience in academia and as a book on teaching game design I think it holds its own nicely next to similar books like The Art of Game Design. It is, though, an introductory book and as such it touches on many familiar aspects of game design without going into any with too much depth.

The book appears to be written with one goal in mind: teach game design through board game practices (“challenges”) in a way that is practical for students, educators, and existing designers all at once. While the first chapter exists to just get readers feet wet in figuring out what game design is and isn’t, all the following chapters cover discrete subjects like puzzle design, chance, strategic skill, multiplayer, sequels, art games, and so on. Though the content of the book often overlaps other introductory game design books, the topics the authors picked for their chapters differ a lot. For example, there’s an entire chapter called “Converting Digital to Physical” and another called “But Make It Multiplayer”. These chapters are obviously written specifically with the challenges in mind, but the side effect was some different content organization and shifting emphasis onto certain topics compared to other books.

At the end of each chapter are five challenges with a range of difficulty and time commitment. These challenges are not just simple statements but also walk readers through them, starting with research and usually ending in either a board game prototype or an in depth design document. Examples of challenges would be to design a sequel to Monopoly, redesign Monopoly for a different IP, modify a game of solitaire to be multiplayer, as well as more open designs such as create a race-to-the-finish style card game. All of these challenges are non-digital, which makes them both very accessible to readers without requiring technical skills and keeps the focus of the challenges on game design, not the art or code required to get the game working. These are also not just game design documents but working prototypes, which avoids the issue of “good on paper” design that can distract a lot of students from exploring the dynamics that arise from actual play.

Personally, I found about one challenge per chapter interesting enough that I plan to set time aside to do them – and I gained a lot of value from the two I did complete on my own before writing this review. The rest of the challenges either didn’t really pull me, or the scope was too large for me to fit it into a reasonable evening. I think the challenges, though, are diverse enough that most designers will find one worth exploring on each topic. Keep in mind that the challenges are obviously written mainly for the classroom, which means a lot of suggestions for organizing or competing teams or different ‘deliverables’ that are more like school assignments. While other books, like A Game Design Vocabulary, also have design exercises at the end of each chapter, I think Challenges for Game Designers comes across much stronger in this area due to the emphasis on those exercises and the way it leads readers through them step by step.

The book is easy to read, fairly short (as far as textbooks go, I read this one over the course of four days) even though it clocks in at a full 300 pages. It has a personable style – but not quite as anecdote heavy as The Art of Game Design. The content favors breadth rather than depth, introducing many key design elements but not really going into them in enough detail. However, I feel that the challenges make up for this since many (perhaps all) of them include a research phase and that is where I feel readers can fill in the missing parts of their knowledge. I think it’s is starting to show its age a bit with lots of references to Facebook games but little on mobile, and it would benefit from a chapter and challenges on free-to-play/monetization design by now. There’s also a chapter on “art games” that, while well written, also feels a bit outdated compared to recent trends in art games, alt-games, experimental games, and the wider indie scene. (It is surprising how much can change in six years).

As someone who has been looking for examples of “deliberate practice” – activities I can engage in as a game designer to improve my skills – Challenges for Game Designers is very useful and I know I will continue to refer back to it for the occasional board game design activity. All the strength of the book lies in its challenges, and if you read it without doing the practices then you are probably wasting your time. If you don’t have time to commit to board game design exercises, then skip it. I am even tempted to describe it as a “workbook” instead of a “textbook” to drive home that this is not really a book you read so much as a book you work through.

I think Challenges for Game Designers would be an excellent choice by aspiring designers as a self-taught course, or used by educators to help develop a game design curriculum. The content outside of the challenges is too rudimentary for me to recommend much to experienced designers as reading material – you will get much better mileage out of a more dense, more advanced book on game design. Personally, while I love the challenges, I was disappointed in the lack of depth, though part of that is driven by the number of intro-to-game-design books I have read already.