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.


Landmark Games Part 7: Can’t Stop

CantStopPress-your-luck is a venerable category among games with many distinguished entries. King among these is the 1980 Can’t Stop by the also venerated Sid Sackson. It is a must-play for those with an interest in dice rollers like Yahtzee, Pickomino, or Plucky Pilots and those with a similar interest in other luck-pressing games like Duck, Duck, Bruce.

Can’t Stop’s roots lie in intriguing mathematical concepts that have engaged many minds. Sugar Pill Studios posted an extensive analysis of Can’t Stop probabilities while giving gamer and Boardgamegeek member Rob Igo created a handy reference sheet, and Michael Keller’s analysis advises us to invoke his Rule of 28.

Can’t stop is educational without being “edumacational;” It can teach basic arithmetic and basic combinations, It can teach nonuniform distributions and conditional probability.

For all these mathematical implications, its key concepts are still easily accessible.  Its key rules are elegant and easily parsed by non-gamers:

  1. Roll all four dice.
  2. Divide them into two pairs and add the numbers.
  3. Place/advance markers on these numbers if you can. If you can’t, remove your progress and pass the dice.
  4. Would you like to roll again?

The essential constraints come from rules 2 and 3.

Rule 2 dictates that the four dice must be summed into two pairs and no other configuration. For the casual player, this keeps the number of configurations small and manageable–3 at most. For the gamer, this gives us the kinds of limited options we simultaneously dread and adore.

Rule 3 transforms rule 4 from a trivial decision to an agonizing one. Look how far I’ve gone! Surely I can go to the top! Or can I? One failed roll could cost me everything I’ve accomplished! The gambler in us says to keep rolling while our inner pessimist screams to stop!

One other element makes Can’t Stop stand out from many of its luck pressing peers–it can be won on a single turn.  This element should be mandatory to any game designed in the genre.  No matter how remote the odds may be at any moment, no matter how bad your placement, it is always possible to hit a hot streak and pull a win.  This is the key–that knowledge that you could win on your next turn if your luck is with you–that will keep you in the game right to the last moment. How some luck pressers choose to omit this element is quite honestly beyond me.


Closing Thoughts

Can’t Stop is the avatar of press-your-luck games.  It is accessible and yet deep.  It is clear and yet confounding.  It gives us the thrills and the agonizing decisions to keep us bringing it back to the table for years, long after many of its contemporaries have been consigned away in garage sales and second-hand stores.  It is excellent.


What are the landmark games?  Which titles should every game enthusiast play at least once?  Can’t Stop is my suggestion.

Have you played Can’t Stop?  What do you think of it as a landmark game?  What other games do you see as notable ancestors to newer games?  Share with your fellow readers in the comments below.  And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, create and account with WordPress and follow this blog.  If you keep reading, I’ll keep writing.


Landmark Games, Part 2

Last column related buddy Walter Hunt’s assertion that some games are essential to every gamer’s education.  While he takes the position a bit more strongly than I, he does also have something of a point.  Playing off of his assertion, I put forward Advanced Civilization as a landmark game.  Some of you wrote in with your own lists of landmark games.  It was reassuring to see how many were also on my list and simultaneously exciting to see how many hadn’t occurred to me.

Or maybe Walter and I are full of beans.  Several readers called me out for holding Advanced Civilization above so many other worthy titles.  Some readers asserted that its play time outstays its welcome on the table.  Some stated that the end is anticlimactic.  Some stated that playing its descendants is sufficient to appreciate its contributions.  The goal of every post on this blog is to encourage debate and so I thank each of you for challenging my views and for taking the debate further.

The brilliant PBS Idea Channel expounded recently on the nature of nostalgia with the claim “you name it; someone thinks that the thing that came before it was better.”  And they’re right.  I would like to believe that it is altruism which leads me to write this series on landmark games. It may however be this particular flavor of nostalgia instead.

Whether speaking from my desire to educate or from my nostalgia, I do feel that certain games demand to be played.  Some are exalted because they are pivotal ludographic ancestors many others.  Others, because they changed the game market.  Today, we take a look at…


Trivial Pursuit

Turn Mr. Peabody’s WABAC machine to the year 1984.  That year reminds me of three things–a certain George Orwell book, a certain Van Halen album and a certain game by Abbott, Haney, Haney and Werner.  I spent many hours of that high school junior year playing Trivial Pursuit. We played it with friends.  We played it with family.  We bought over 20 million units that year.  For the rest of our lives, we would value trivia in a way no previous generation ever had.

Apart from astounding sales figures, what makes Trivial Pursuit a landmark game?  What can it teach us about modern game design?

trivial pursuit thingyLet’s start with the scoring track.  Trivial Pursuit folded its scoring track into the pawns.  Each time you collect a color, you gain that wedge and put it into your pawn. It would be great to see more games implement this idea.

Trivial Pursuit CardTrivial Pursuit also did an incredible job of tuning in to its target market.  Ray Winninger points out in his essay for Family Games: The 100 Best that Trivial Pursuit questions appear to have been written backwards. The answers are rarely unusual or unheard of. It is the facts about them which are unusual.  Players can take the answers along in their heads and drop them in casual conversation.   Take as an example, the last question from this sample card.  Although you may not be a culinary expert, encountering this question today empowers you tomorrow to drop that Vichyssoise is a creamy leek and potato soup served cold the next time you’re surrounded by foodies.

Writing its questions backwards allows players to leave the game table feeling as if they’ve achieved something more than winning or losing.  It leaves its players with a sense of accomplishment and a sense of success, even after a loss.  No wonder it took the market by storm!

Cant StopWe hear regularly that modern game design is characterized by always giving every player an opportunity to win right to the end.  Trivial Pursuit achieved this as well.  Like SId Sackson’s amazing classic Can’t Stop (column coming soon), it is always theoretically possible to win the game in a single turn.  I actually came quite close to this feat myself once, while playing the Star Wars edition of Trivial Pursuit.  Because it is always possible–even if unlikely–to win in any turn, players are constantly motivated to stay engaged in the game.  Even casual players who have fallen behind know they still have a chance, that a good run of questions could bring an upset win.  This is a feature I truly wish more party games emphasized.


What are the landmark games?  Which titles should every game enthusiast play at least once?  Trivial Pursuit is my second suggestion.  Return Friday to see what you think of the third.

Have you played Trivial Pursuit?  What do you think of it as a landmark game?  What other games do you see as notable ancestors to newer games?  Which ones were the (ha-ha) game changers? Share with your fellow readers in the comments below.  And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, create and account with WordPress and follow this blog.  If you keep reading, I’ll keep writing.