For quite some time now, I’ve read and participated in discussions revolving around game design and more precisely about the designer exposing how he intends his game to be played. Among the ideas that bother me are propositions like “I don’t want/need the designer to tell me how to play”, “You could get the same gaming experience with [Game X]” or even “The game itself has nothing to do with the gaming experience being fun: it’s the people at the table that make the experience rewarding.” Let’s take the time to examine these and find out what’s bothering me.

“I don’t want/need the designer to tell me how to play.”

See, part of the reason why I quit playing games like those from the old World of Darkness line, Shadowrun or Cursed Empire is that despite the fact that I really enjoy the setting and the color of these games, I simply don’t know how I’m supposed to play them. Maybe I’m having difficulties understanding the game text or I fail to see how it is a good set of instructions on how to actually play the game. But what if these game texts actually don’t instruct you on how to play? Could it be possible that they assume you know how to play or that by reading the text, you would somehow “get it”?

I mean, the designer of a roleplaying game certainly has an idea about how he intends people to play his game. There must be something he wishes people to do when they sit down at the table. Ideally, this must have something to do with what makes the game fun. “Why is my game fun to play? Why should people want to learn and play it?” These are legitimate questions a designer must bear in mind when he commits himself to writing a game. After all, a game should be a set of rules and techniques that, when used properly, produce a rewarding experience (that wouldn’t be produced reliably otherwise). The question I have now is: Isn’t the purpose of the game text to actually teach us how to produce that gaming experience, the one the designer believes is the reason why we should learn and play? And if the game text fails to do so, what am I supposed to do?

I don’t mind getting better at a game. I do enjoy when you discover more and more what can be done with it. But I should still be able to know how to play from the game text itself. If I have to go on forums, blogs and be taught by someone how to produce a rewarding experience with a game, there’s definitely a problem. Mind you, this is not the same thing as misinterpreting the game text. On one hand, there’s something lacking in the game text itself while on the other hand, the instructions are there but I didn’t understand them correctly.

So, I’m inclined to say that I do want the designer to tell me how his game is supposed to be played. The procedures to produce the kind of play intended should be clear and obvious. Now, if I want to drift the game or change the rules in any way, that’s up to me. But it is the designer’s job to inform me about what he actually wants me to do with his game.  After all, a board game designer wouldn’t simply give you a box containing a board, some tokens and dice while telling you: “Hey, it’s your game! Who am I to tell you how to have fun with it?”

[To be continued…]