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Bartok: A Game Exercise

I first saw this exercise used by game designer Malcolm Ryan as part of a Game Design Workshop session at the Foundations of Digital Gaming conference. The goal of this exercise is to demonstrate how even a simple change to the rules of a game can have a massive effect on the experience of playing the game.

Bartok is a simple game played with a single deck of cards that is very similar to the commercial game Uno. In the best case scenario, you would play this game with three friends who are also interested in game design; however, I've also made a digital version of the game for you to play solo. Either the paper or digital version will work fine for our purposes.3


Be the first player to get rid of all the cards in your hand.

Getting Started

Here are the basic rules for Bartok:

  • 1. Start with a regular deck of playing cards. Remove the Jokers, leaving you with 52 cards (13 of each suit ranked Ace–King).

  • 2. Shuffle the deck and deal seven cards to each player.

  • 3. Place the rest of the cards face-down in a draw pile.

  • 4. Pick the top card from the draw pile and place it on the table face-up to start the discard pile.

  • 5. Starting with the player to the left of the dealer and proceeding clockwise, each player must play a card onto the discard pile if possible, and if she cannot play a card, the player must draw a single card from the draw pile (see Figure 1.1).


    Figure 1.1 The initial layout of Bartok. In the situation shown, the player can choose to play any one of the cards highlighted with blue borders (7C, JC, 2H, 2S)

  • 6. A player may play a card onto the discard pile if the card is either:

    • a. The same suit as the top card of the discard pile. (For example, if the top card of the discard pile is a 2 of Clubs (2C), any other Club may be played onto the discard pile.)

    • b. The same rank as the top card of the discard pile. (For example, if the top card of the discard pile is a 2C, any other 2 may be played onto the discard pile.)

  • 7. The first player to successfully get rid of all of her cards wins.


Try playing the game a couple of times to get a feel for it. Be sure to thoroughly shuffle the cards between each playthrough. Games will often result in a somewhat sorted discard pile, and without a good shuffle, subsequent games may have results weighted by the nonrandom card distribution.

Analysis: Asking the Right Questions

After each playtest, it's important to ask the right questions. Of course, each game will require slightly different questions, though you can base many of them on these general guidelines:

  • Is the game of the appropriate difficulty for the intended audience? Is it too difficult, too easy, or just right?

  • Is the outcome of the game based more on strategy or chance? Does randomness play too strong a role in the game, or, alternatively, is the game too deterministic so that after one player has taken the lead, the other players are unable to catch up?

  • Does the game have meaningful, interesting decisions? When it's your turn, do you have several choices, and is the decision between those choices an interesting one?

  • Is the game interesting when it's not your turn? Do you have any effect on the other players' turns, or do their turns have any immediate effect on you?

We could ask many other questions, but these are some of the most common.

Take a moment to think about your answers to these questions relative to the games of Bartok you just played and write them down. If you're playing the paper version of this game with other human players, it's worthwhile to ask them to write down their own answers to the questions individually and then discuss the questions as a group afterward. This keeps the responses from being influenced by other players.

Modifying the Rules

As you'll see throughout this book, game design is primarily a process:

  • 1. Incrementally modify the rules, changing very few things between each playtest.

  • 2. Playtest the game with the new rules.

  • 3. Analyze how the feel of the game is altered by the new rules.

  • 4. Design new rules that you think may move the feel of the game in the direction you want.

  • 5. Repeat this process until you're happy with the game.

Iterative design is the term for this repetitive process of deciding on a small change to the game design, implementing that change, playtesting the game, analyzing how the change affected the gameplay, and then starting the process over again by deciding on another small change. Chapter 7, "Acting Like a Designer," covers iterative design in detail.

For the Bartok example, why don't you start by picking one of the following three rule changes and playtesting it:

  • Rule 1: If a player plays a 2, the person to her left must draw two cards instead of playing.

  • Rule 2: If any player has a card that matches the number and color (red or black) of the top card, she may announce "Match card!" and play it out of turn. Play then continues with the player to the left of the one who just played the out-of-turn card. This can lead to players having their turns skipped.

    For example: The first player plays a 3C (three of Clubs). The third player has the 3S, so she calls "Match card!" and plays the 3S on top of the 3C out-of-turn, skipping the second player's turn. Play then continues with the fourth player.

  • Rule 3: A player must announce "Last card" when she has only one card left. If someone else calls it first, she must draw two cards (bringing her total number of cards to three).

Choose only one of the rule changes from the previous listing and play the game through a couple of times with the new rule. Then have each player write their answers to the four playtest questions. You should also try playing with another one of the rules (although I would recommend still only using one of them at a time when trying a new rule for the first time).

If you're playing the digital version of the game, you can use the check boxes on the menu screen to choose various game options.

Analysis: Comparing the Rounds

Now that you've played through the game with some different rule options, it's time to analyze the results from the different rounds. Look back over your notes and see how each different rule set felt to play. As you experienced, even a simple rule change can greatly change the feel of the game. Here are some common reactions to the previously listed rules:

  • The original rules

    Many players find the original version of the game to be pretty boring. There are no interesting choices to make, and as the players remove cards from their hands, the number of possible choices dwindles, as well, often leaving the player with only one valid choice for most of the later turns of the game. The game is largely based on chance, and players have no real reason to pay attention to other players' turns because they don't really have any way of affecting each other.

  • Rule 1: If a player plays a 2, the person to her left must draw two cards instead of playing.

    This rule allows players to directly affect each other, which generally increases interest in the game. However, whether a player has 2s is based entirely on luck, and each player only really has the ability to affect the player on her left, which often seems unfair. However, this does make other players' turns a bit more interesting because other players (or at least the player to your right) have the ability to affect you.

  • Rule 2: If any player has a card that matches the number and color (red or black) of the top card, she may announce "Match card!" and play it out of turn. Play then continues with the player to the left of the one who just played the out-of-turn card.

    This rule often has the greatest effect on player attention. Because any player has the opportunity to interrupt another player's turn, all players tend to pay a lot more attention to each other's turns. Games played with this rule often feel more dramatic and exciting than those played with the other rules.

  • Rule 3: A player must announce "Last card!" when she has only one card left. If someone else calls it first, she must draw two cards.

    This rule only comes into play near the end of the game, so it doesn't have any effect on the majority of gameplay, however, it does change how players behave at the end. This can lead to some interesting tension as players try to jump in and say "last card" before the player who is down to only one card. This is a common rule in both domino and card games where the players are trying to empty everything from their hands because it gives other players a chance to catch up to the lead player if the leader forgets about the rule.

Designing for the Game Feel That You Want

Now that you've seen the effects of a few different rules on Bartok, it's time to do your job as a designer and make the game better. First, decide on the feel that you want the game to have: do you want it to be exciting and cutthroat, do you want it to be leisurely and slow, or do you want it to be based more on strategy than chance?

Once you have a general idea of how you want the game to feel, think about the rules that we tried out and try to come up with additional rules that can push the feel of the game in the direction that you want. Here are some tips to keep in mind as you design new rules for the game:

  • Change only one thing in between each playtest. If you change (or even tweak) a number of rules between each play through the game, it can be difficult to determine which rule is affecting the game in what way. Keep your changes incremental, and you'll be better able to understand the effect that each is having.

  • The bigger change you make, the more playtests it will take to understand how it changes the game feel. If you only make a subtle change to the game, one or two plays can tell you a lot about how that change affects the feel. However, if it's a major rule change, you will need to test it more times to avoid being tricked by a fluke game.

  • Change a number and you change the experience. Even a seemingly small change can have a huge effect on gameplay. For instance, think about how much faster this game would be if there were two discard piles to choose from or if the players started with five cards instead of seven.

Of course, adding new rules is a lot easier to do when playing the card game in person with friends than when working with the digital prototype. That's one of the reasons that paper prototypes can be so important, even when you're designing digital games. The first part of this book discusses both paper and digital design, but most of the examples and design exercises are done with paper games because they can be so much faster to develop and test than digital games.

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