Finding and Serving Your Core Engagement, Part 1

You had a game idea.

You threw some bits together to make a prototype.

You shoved these bits onto the table in front of your victims (i.e. playtesters) and ran a test play.

Because you’re lucky, they identified a number of good aspects in the game.

Because they’re honest, they identified a number of weak aspects in the game.

Because they’re helpful, they offered a number of tweaks and variants for you to try out.

Now you have returned to your design workbench–for many of us, the dining table–and begun to sort through the feedback you’ve received.

And that is when you realized you have a problem.

Your playtesters’ suggestions are good but incompatible.  You cannot use them all.  You must determine which ideas to try and which to set aside.

To do that, you must be in touch with your core engagement.

My formal introduction to the concept of core engagement concept came from the Extra Credits videocast.  Understanding this concept directly led to a quantum evolution in my design process.  I urge you to subscribe to their videocast and to review their back catalogue.

Serving core engagement will be a recurrent theme throughout this blog.

Understanding a game’s core engagement addresses the macroscopic questions of design: what do players do in this game? Understanding core engagement also addresses the microscopic: does this specific rule improve the game?

Some designers call this process finding the fun. I suggest that core engagement is much bigger than fun.  Core engagement can be fun but it can be other aspects of play as well.

For my purposes, core engagement comprises the activities players carry out and the sensations these activities provide.

Consider chess.  Modern play of this game seems to me to involve very little fun.  Fun is therefore not part of Chess’ core engagement.  But it has to be, right?  Chess is a game and games exist to be fun, right?  No.  Not right.  Games can offer a greater range of experiences than just fun.  Chess offers player satisfaction by matching intellect against intellect.  Chess offers satisfaction by demonstrating knowledge of classic moves and strategies.  Chess offers perceptual satisfaction by challenging the player to take in as much of the game state as possible, all at one time. These elements make the core engagement of chess.

How about Bridge?  The core engagement in modern Bridge lies primarily in communication through the bidding mechanism–my partner and I must correctly understand each other’s clues. I need to read my opponents’ clues.  We’re losing this hand and must bring the bidding to a close before the opponents get to fully communicate. Bridge also offers the satisfaction of skillful trick-taking card play–making your contract, setting your opponents, leveraging a Queen.

Now consider a modern game. 2013 Spiel des Jares award winner Hanabi by Antoine Bauza offers core engagement of in the same sort of clue-parsing as Bridge–I must give the most informative clue.  I must gain all I can from other players’ clues.  Hanabi also offers the communal satisfaction of a cooperative game–everyone wins together!

Now try a few yourself.

How about Yahtzee?

How about Twilight Struggle?

How about We Didn’t Playtest This At All?

How about your personal favorite game?

While you consider these games and catch up on Extra Credits, I’ll be back on Friday to look at identifying the core engagement in your own designs.


9 thoughts on “Finding and Serving Your Core Engagement, Part 1

  1. Dan Hull says:

    Just curious… which “Extra Credits” episode did your initial Core Engagement exposure come from? Your YouTube link is defunct, and I can’t find any episodes of there’s that mention it in the title.

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