In the last column, I defined core engagement as “the activities players carry out and the sensations these activities provide.” I also challenged you to look at several games and identify their core engagement.
Today’s column focuses on identifying the core engagement in your own work. When you know it, you’ll be well-positioned to answer the questions every designer must: what will players experience in this game? and which specific rules reinforce that experience?
Many prototypes start from a place other than core engagement. I generally begin with a game mechanism and then work to build a game around that mechanism. Some designers begin with a theme and then look for the game in that theme. Other designers begin with components and look for interesting things to do with those components.
Work to find your core engagement as quickly as possible no matter where you start.
Because different games will have completely different forms of engagement, you will want to start with broad categories. Even with broad categories, very few games have one single core engagement. Do your best to narrow your design down to only a few however. Doing so will help to focus your design decisions.
Does that game have an unusual mechanism? Could your game be built to highlight this mechanism? Many dexterity games fall into this category as do many auction games.
Do the players do something unusual while playing? Do they interact with one another in unusual ways? Could your game be built to keep the players actively interacting most or all of the time? Many social games and party games are built around activities.
Does each move carry the weight of the world? Do early game decisions heavily impact options later in the game? Could your game be built to highlight the long-term impact of each move? Many abstract games like chess are built around engaging such strategic thinking.
Does the game state change rapidly, sending ripple effects and forcing each player to constantly assess and reassess their plans? Could your game be built to highlight the impact of every moment? Tactical engagement is the keystone of many dice games, racing games, and dexterity games.
Are your decisions in the game influenced by outside knowledge? Does the game allow your players to show off their vocabulary, mental arithmetic, love of literature or love of history? Trivia games are obviously built around engaging knowledge but so are the 10 Days in… series from Out of the Box Publishing.
Is there something unique to your game’s setting? Could your game be built to highlight this setting? Many wargames are built around their setting.
Are your players meant to portray other people? Could your game encourage players to walk the proverbial mile in another person’s shoes? Tabletop roleplaying games often create engaging experiences but so can diplomacy games like Origins of World War II and alliance games like Cosmic Encounter.
Until Next Time…
Now it’s your turn. Take a careful look at each prototype on your workbench. What is its core engagement? Does it have an engaging mechanism? Are players meant to have an engaging experience? How about the tactics in the game? Again, most games have more than one element in their core engagement but it’s generally best to focus on just a few.
When we return Tuesday, we’ll look in greater detail at how to streamline your design process by serving your core engagement. We’ll examine case studies and use them as a guide.