What Chefs Can Teach Us About Game Design

Since the emergence of the celebrity chef concept, we all have a high level of exposure to many of these ideas.  Names like Anthony Bourdain, Alton Brown, Emeril Lagasse and Gordon Ramsay invoke associations in the masses in a way they never did before.

Because I grew up up in the Cajun food Mecca of southern Louisiana, relocated to the fusion Mecca of Houston, it was inevitable that I’d be a foodie.  Its aromas, texture, flavor, science and preparation all intrigue me.

Watching a program on chefs recently led me to wondering how food science could inform game design science.  The concerns of chefs and game designers align in three major areas–Spicing, Coursing, and Presentation.

(A) Control Your Spices

Spices are meant to enhance, not overpower.  Spices stimulate the palette.  Spices make a meal memorable.  Master chefs control and balance each flavor.  They know that overspicing leads to a confused palette and a poor experience for the diner.

We must be the chefs of our games.  Dice, cards, bags of chits, cubes, our own mechanisms–there are so many elements at your fingertips that the urge to add all of them can be almost irresistible.  Remember always that overspicing leads to a poor experience.  Control and balance each element.  Add twists, turns and variation only where variation is needed.  Add exotic mechanisms only where they lift the game experience and stimulate play.  Keep the other elements simple and familiar for your players.

(B)  Plan Your Course

Is your game an appetizer?  Or is it a dessert?  Or should it serve as a main course?

Appetizers should be light and spicy.  They should build anticipation.  In other words, appetizer games will tend to be lighter, shorter, and feature prominent random elements.  A list of appetizers would easily include Easy Come, Easy Go, Can’t Stop, Cthulhu Dice, or TransAmerica.

Main courses can be spicy–featuring multiple new mechanisms–or mild–focusing on the perfection of classic mechanisms–but they must be solid and filling.  They are the center of the day’s gaming and they should be memorable.  Main courses can be longer. They can heavier rules.  They can have deep gameplay.  My list of main course favorites would feature Tichu, Ingenious , and Power Grid.

Desserts should be tranquil and pleasant.  They bring the meal to a close and provide opportunity to reflect.  they feature little, if any, spice.  Dessert games should feature familiar mechanisms and play.  The best ones often include a strong social element as well.  Carcassonne, Say Anything, and 6 Nimmt! are all good dessert games.

(C) Presentation

“You taste with your eyes first” is a common adage among chefs and they are absolutely right.  This means that the dish should visually announce what the diner will experience.  This is why modern American chefs layer ingredients on the plate; to foreshadow the layers of flavor to come.

Our games can similarly announce their flavor.  When elements like the timing track, scoring chart, turn order, or placement effects are prominently labeled on the game components, our players will have a good idea of the game to come well before the first rule is taught.

Eurogames have been particularly good at this kind of foreshadowing. Because language-independent components have remained as a major design objective throughout the last 20 years, their designers and graphic artists are extremely skilled at offering game components which strongly imply their function.
Designers interested in good component design should take a look at Eine Gegen Eine, Ticket To Ride and A Castle for All Seasons.

What do you think of the analogy between chefs and game designers?  What analogy might you have chosen instead?  Why?  Share with your fellow readers in the comments below.  And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, create an account with WordPress and follow this blog.  If you keep reading, I’ll keep writing.

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7 thoughts on “What Chefs Can Teach Us About Game Design

  1. When I teach Game Design, I use a cooking analogy to get students to stop saying a game is “fun”. That is akin to someone saying that food is “tasty”. Instead, I encourage them to talk about games in the same way that a chef talks about food – using descriptive words to explore how different mechanisms engage with social layers to create an experience.

    There were two ways that cooking television influenced Board Games with Scott:

    I always compared Board Games with Scott to a cooking show. Many people wanted me to focus on how I liked the game, but a cooking show is about ingredients, process, and stories. The tasting part of a cooking show is very brief, which usually consists of the hosts taking a bite and saying “mmmmm.. good.” Just as cooking shows don’t focus on bad food, I didn’t focus on bad games in BGWS.

    The second connection is through the show “The Next Food Network Star”. This is great viewing for anyone wanting to do board game videos, as half of each episode is about development of a TV personality. One of the strong messages in that show is to have a culinary point of view. This is what I encourage people to come up with before starting board game media – what is your “gaming point of view”? Without that, it’s just a generic show.

  2. Nathan Tanner says:

    Kevin, great post and great website. I stumbled across it a few weeks ago and have enjoyed catching up on old posts. I also recently learned about Protospiel-Houston and am looking forward to meeting you and others in the area and getting involved in the Houston design scene. Keep up the great work!

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