Join him, won’t you… in his ongoing struggle to pass Go.
Last column, I wrote about the essential similarities of games across the spectrum, positing that—at a fundamental level—they share qualities that are immutable, without which they would cease to be games.
They might be puzzles, experiments, imaginative play, art, or other ephemera dancing around the edge of games without actively engaging in a full gameplay experience. They might be fun, they might be engrossing, they might be challenging… but without those formal elements, they’re not quite games.
Any arguments? No? Excellent. Well, now that I’ve tied all games together, I’m going to tear them apart again…
You hardly need me to tell you that every game you play—or at least every game that’s worthy of the title—differs significantly from the others in a crowded field. For one thing, too close a copy of another game runs the risk of copyright violation, and for another, someone who rips off another game finds and deserves professional scorn. It’s not that hard to make a different game (though it is hard to do it well).
However, if you’re going to do it, you should know what you’re doing. Knowing the pieces of a system lets you understand the system better. Just as you don’t perform surgery by opening up someone’s chest and guessing what pieces operate which functions, you should have at least a basic understanding of what your formal elements provide your game and how to categorize them accurately. You can go down the list of formal elements (players, rules, boundaries, procedures, resources, objectives, conflicts, uncertain outcome) and alter each of them in ways that would make a new game out of an existing one.
Let’s call the formal elements the basic structure of life in games: we use those elements to recognize the game as a game per se, and we use them to differentiate the games we play into finer and smaller categories. Just as animals differ widely from one another within the animal kingdom, so too do games. It is the nature of the variation that sets them apart. A flatworm is not a bison, but they are both living creatures. Go Fish is not, despite the similar name, anywhere comparable to Go… except that both of them are recognizably games.
Tweaking the Elements
You can change games in two primary ways: through the dramatic elements or through the formal elements. Changing the dramatic elements is easy (though again, not easy to do well): you change the characters, the setting, the emphasis, and the story, essentially re-skinning the thing, and you’re all set.
For instance, take Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. Now look at Star Wars and The Matrix. They’re essentially the same story (please note the word “essentially,” purists of either film!), but they’ve been stripped down to basics and repurposed to bring a new experience.
You can do this with games, too, although it’s far more common in the computer industry than in tabletop (have you noticed that first-person shooters tend to play awfully the same these days?). On the other hand, what’s the d20 System except the common base of an RPG refracted through the dramatic filters of hundreds of designers?
The other way to change a game is through its formal elements. You can do this by changing the number of players, for instance; a solitary or two-person game’s dynamics changes tremendously with the addition of more players. A touch football game between a handful of people on the lawn becomes a vastly different animal when you’ve got a full complement on either side. Suddenly all the procedures you had in place to set up plays and downs and penalties change and become more formal. The dynamic among the players changes. It is inevitable.
Likewise, by changing the conflict, whether in the forms of challenges, puzzles, or competition, you change the game too. If you had a Tetris clone but made it a head-to-head competition, you’d have a vastly different game. If your Pathfinder session started awarding points or bonuses for undercutting other players, you’d see a much more cutthroat Friday evening. If you turned Pandemic into a competitive game, rather than a cooperative one, the style of the game would change dramatically.
Basic Block and Tackle
But the most powerful and obvious way to set your game apart from others is, of course, through the rules. They’re the DNA of the game, the most basic building blocks, the pieces that tell every other element how to fall in line and where to go. Where procedures tell the players how to play the game, rules tell the players what the game is.
Really, to differentiate one game from another, you don’t have to change the rules as much as you might suspect. What you do need to do is figure out your core mechanic—the thing your players will do the most in the game, the action around which your game’s action revolves.
You can make this similar to other games, but you don’t want it to be too similar. In RPGs, d20 System games have the same basic mechanic at their core, but they differ with a host of ancillary rules that set them apart from each other and make them unique. A tiger and lion are both large predatory cats, but they are remarkably different in appearance, behavior, and lifestyle; so too do the secondary rules of games in the system distinguish them: feats, classes, weapons, and so forth.
Armed with this knowledge, you can analyze any game and figure out how to deconstruct it and put it back together in a new way. Try it out. Pick up any favorite game, alter just one of the formal elements, and try playing it with those new constraints. I’m certain that almost every person reading this has made up a house rule at some point; now you have a mandate to explore deeper. Report in the comments how it affected the game, and we can talk about further changes!