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Analyzing Games from a Systems View

Working as a game designer doesn’t just mean designing your own games; it also means playing and analyzing a lot of other people’s games. It’s important to be able to understand what makes other games work—or not work in particular areas.

You can follow the same systemic structure for analysis as for design. It involves looking at the whole experience, including how you build your mental model of the game; the game’s internal and interactive loops; and the rules and tokens that make those up. By carefully identifying and separating these, you can gain insight into the decisions made by the game’s designer and improve your own designs as a result.

When beginning to play a game for the first time, examine how you go about building your own mental model of it: Do you understand the setting and theme? What surprises you about it? What concepts about the game did you find to be important, incomplete, or hard to understand as you learned the game? How might the game have increased your engagement early on?

While playing and after playing, think about the whole of the experience you had. What kind of experience and feelings do you think the game designer was trying to elicit in you as a player? Were there particular aspects of the game that supported or detracted from your experience?

What visual and interactive elements of the game support its theme and the desired player experience? What can you infer about the game designer’s intent for the game, based on the art style and interactive aspects?

What specific game systems can you identify in the game? Are there systems that operate independently of the players, or do they all rely on the players doing something first? The board game Power Grid is a great example of a (nondigital) game that has systems that operate mostly outside player control. For example, in this game there is a simple but highly effective depiction of supply-and-demand economics: as players buy more of any one kind of fuel, the price for it goes up until its supply is replenished on the next turn (see Figure 5.3).

Figure 5.3

Figure 5.3 The board game Power Grid, showing the track representing prices for the resources coal, oil, trash, and nuclear fuel. As players purchase each and supply decreases, its price rises. Supply is replenished each turn, driving prices lower if the fuel is not used

Continuing with the analysis overview, as a player in a game, how do you progress, and what reinforcing loops can you identify? What balancing loops are there that push back against player advancement or that keep one player who outstrips others early on from simply winning the game?

What are the primary forms of interactivity in the game? How does the game allocate its interactivity budget? Is this a game of strategy and socializing, or one of quick thinking and fast action? Do the ways you as a player interact with the game help establish the game’s theme, or do they work against it?

Finally, what are the particular tokens and rules—the atomic parts of the game with their values and behaviors? Do they support the desired gameplay experience or get in its way? Having learned one system in the game, can you transfer how that works to another part of the game, or are there lots of rules to learn, each with its own exceptions—so that you have to spend a lot of time thinking about how to play the game?

Often the art style of a game is expressed in its individual tokens, sometimes in surprising ways. For example, the tabletop game Splendor is about building up your business as a gem merchant, starting with individual mines and ending with courting the favor of various nobles. The physical pieces in the game are like poker chips. They represent individual gems, and each has an unusual amount of heft. Their weight subtly adds to the desired experience of the game, even though, like the rest of the art (and most art in games), it is nonfunctional.

As you analyze games by examining their parts, loops, and wholes, you will begin to see commonalities across them, as well as how each is unique. Understanding the similarities and differences will help you improve your own designs—avoiding the mistakes of others, springboarding off their good ideas, and keeping your game design fresh and engaging.

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