The Story So Far
The three act structure is fundamental to story creation and to game design. In the first act, players look at their position and are compelled to to respond to the game or one another. In the second act, players develop their game engine, finding new strength. Players push for the endgame in the third act.
This time, we move closer. Part 1 of this piece looked at the forest. Now, we focus on trees.
John Howard Larson in Theory and Technique of Playwriting (1936) noticed that within each play were even smaller cycles of tension and release. “…the principle which underlies the pattern is basic, and can be applied in all cases. The material arranges itself in certain cycles. If we examine each of the cycles, we find that each one is a small replica of the construction of a play, involving exposition, rising action, clash, and climax.”
An overarching three-act structure is not enough. Not by itself, it isn’t. A game needs cycles of tension and release within its main arch. Placing these cycles well will maximize the quality of playtime in your games.
In my design work, I try to build sharp peaks into these cycles. These are the pivotal moments of the game. This is when things happen; big bonuses are scored, territory is seized, major auctions are won, and underdogs rise.
Pivotal moments are not just about making something big happen. They are about the opportunity to make something big happen. You may take a big risk for a big reward, only to have that golden reward turn to ashes. Making that moment approach and resolve is nonetheless dramatic.
Think about the last time you called Grand Tichu. That play was increasingly dramatic up to the point you laid your final card.
Think about your last bidding war in Modern Art. You and your opponent stared each other down, waiting to see who would blink.
Think about that bank shot in 9-ball pool. If you succeeded, the win was yours but if you failed, you would be handing your opponent an easy layup.
Think about the big engine you packed into your deck in Dominion. Now remember the look your opponents had when they realized you’d be buying two provinces each turn for the rest of the game.
These are the essential qualities of a pivotal moment–the release of the build, packed into one sharp moment.
Michael Hauge: Pivotal Moments as Turning Points
Michael Hauge refers to pivotal moments as turning points. Notice how he inserts five turning points into the broad three-act structure. By including these turning, he is able to keep each act active and engaging.
Robin Laws: Pivotal Moments as Beats
Robin Laws refers to each small pivotal moment as a beat. In his text Hamlet’s Hit Points, he identifies 115 such beats in Hamlet, 215 beats in Dr. No, and 175 in Casablanca. In his analysis, Laws describes each beat by its type and by whether the beat points up, down, or laterally. Laws makes a particularly insightful point here–he asserts that not only must bring heroes toward their goals while others must push them away.
Why is this? Why should pivotal moments make players lose as well as win? the answer is subtle but important.
Games are generally two-sided. When I (or my team) advances, you and yours tend to fall behind. For a game to flow well, each player must have an opportunity to experience success. And as each player experiences success, their opponents experience loss (or at least jealousy over a potential loss). Now think of pivotal moments as opportunities for gains and losses. By including plenty of pivotal moments, each player can be kept engaged. In a Eurogame, you might be falling behind in camels but ahead in trade goods. In a wargame, I might be winning all of the skirmishes but failing to capture any of your cities.
Pivotal moments are the key to giving your game life.
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