Primal Games

Primal games are so clean, so clear, that they seem ancient even when they’re new.  

Go is primal.  Its rules are immeasurably concise while its components are simplicity itself.  So are Blokus, GIPF, and Qwirkle–AKA Scrabble for cavemen.

Chess is not primal.  Its rules are littered with patches–en passant springs to mind.  Furthermore, its components fail to justify their existence–consider how many equally good abstract games start by changing the pieces of chess.

Primal games needn’t be trivial or simple however.  Consider for instance that while Deep Blue defeated Yuri Kasparov in 1997, organic Go masters are still undefeated by their silicon counterparts.

It can be difficult to overcome the desire to add a twist here or a wrinkle there.  Nobody But Us Chickens has been my best attempt so at this style far and even it has a few too many twists to truly call it primal.

Or is it that no one truly creates primal games?  Have they truly always existed?  Are their designers uncovering them rather than creating them?  Modern artists in the twentieth century faced such dismissive accusations as well.  Elegance is hard work.  It’s even harder work to make things look easy.

So where do we begin?  Where does a person begin when setting out to create primal games?  Dominic Crapuchettes once asserted that every rule in a game should fight to justify its existence.  What if you took that attitude further–to insist that every game element, every rule, every component–justify its existence?  I believe this would be right way to start.

Adopting this mindset can be a major challenge.  Us designers generally start charmed by game structures.  We want to create our own structures, to impress other game aficionados with our clever mechanisms, to spread our flourishes across the hobby like magic dust.  But to create a primal game is to deliberately step into the background, to create an experience so pure that it feel more as if it always existed rather than being a contemporary product.

I’m absolute rubbish at writing primal games but I enjoy playing them and admire the style of any designer that can pull them off.  Please show me how it’s done.

How about you?  What’s your favorite primal game?  What game came close but didn’t quite make it?  Have you created a primal game?  what was your process?  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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16 thoughts on “Primal Games

  1. Primal games are generally so abstract that they don’t provide the richness of experience I seek–they seem to be triumphs of mechanics over theme, to revive that endless (and perhaps pointless) debate–but I do admire their elegance.

    One of my favorite games, Once Upon a Time, has an elegance that borders on the primal: the players each try to steer a shared story toward their preferred conclusion, but they must first empty their hands of story element cards by including those elements in the story. Only the interrupt mechanism fails to match the elegance of the rest of the game.

    Knizia’s Lost Cities and Loco (aka Wildlife Safari, Thor, etc.) both strike me as having a primal level of elegance. Simple components, simple rules, compelling gameplay.

    Zendo is another game with elegance and depth: The master shows a simple sculpture that demonstrates a rule (“the buddha nature”), and the students create a series of sculptures in an attempt to also demonstrate the rule, and ultimately to identify it.

  2. A subject near and dear to my heart. Folks in my circles tend to call these “minimalist games”, but same idea. I’d also put Lost Cities on the list, and Hanabi. Some great video-game examples out there as well…

  3. My favorite primal games — Hive and Ta Yu spearhead the list, followed by the GIPF series. Shogi holds a special place in my heart, even though it’s been years since I’ve played any Shogi variants and I always kinda suck at the game anyways.

    Primal games would seem to preclude theme, or at least any strong representation of it. I’m trying to think of a primal game that has a deep theme and am coming up blank. Hmm.

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