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  • The Nine Structural Subsystems of Any Game

    - Lewis Pulsipher

  • Objective/victory conditions. In other words, what causes one player to win, or at least causes the game to end, or is the goal ever-pursued but perhaps never reached?  The game ending can be arbitrary ("play five rounds"), yet there will usually be a way to determine the winner at that point.  Role-playing games have no end, and usually don't have winners, but do have objectives: usually to acquire experience points and (magic) items/skills/perks.

    "Data storage". (Information Management) Something has to record the current state of the game. This is often a board/map.  In Tic-Tac-Toe, it's the nine-box layout.  In card games, the layout of the cards on the table, and the cards themselves, store data. Pieces can store data, in particular the traditional cardboard pieces of wargames that contain movement, attack, and defense values. A detailed map stores LOTS of data.  A computer can store vast amounts of data, of course, though early computers were very limited in data storage, which in turn limited the games.

    Sequencing. In what order do things happen? "Simultaneously" can be the answer, but taking turns is the norm in non-video games.

    Movement/Placement. The most typical "piece" in a computer game is an "avatar", a figure/character representing the player. Players generally manipulate something, most often pieces on a board or cards in their hand or on the table. Chess and checkers have movement rules, the Asiatic game Go has placement rules. Movement/placement one at a time is the norm in traditional games, where in wargames a player can typically move all his pieces in one go. Even paper-rock-scissors has movement (as well as sequencing) rules.

    Information availability. What information about the game is available to all players? In traditional boardgames all information is available, but in card games information is largely hidden. Five-card Draw poker has a lower level of information availability than Texas Hold 'Em, because in the latter you see some of the cards "held" by the other players.

    Conflict resolution/interaction of game entities. What happens when an action of a player leads to a conflict? This can be as simple as in Tic-Tac-Toe (conflict is not allowed, you can't place your mark where the other player already has one), or it can be simple as in chess (when a conflict occurs, the moving player always wins).  In checkers you jump a man in a conflict.  In Go you surround stones to capture them.

    You might prefer to say that Tic-Tac-Toe has no conflict rules, that movement rules govern where markers can be placed; but a choice has still been made, that there will be no conflict. It is quite possible to have a game without conflict, such as a race game or many card games (Solitaire) and Euro boardgames.

    "Economy" (resource acquisition). How are new pieces/capabilities acquired? Some games have no way to acquire these, but that is still a decision made about the game. Even games that don't appear to have an Economy have some elements, for example, in chess you can promote ("queen") a pawn, and in checkers you can make a king. Many modern games, especially many computer games, are largely economic/resource management games.

    In video games there are very often ways to obtain new capabilities, whether it involves mining resources and building factories, or just picking up medkits and weapons that sit in convenient spots.

    Am I sure there are just these nine?  No, but I haven't added to the number in more than a year, though I have revised it.  I also have a list of 20 questions that designers ought to think about, but which can generally be ignored when creating the framework of a game.  This will have to wait for another time.

    Very useful for learners is to take simple games and change one of the structural choices.  This is especially easy with traditional games that "everyone knows" such as Tic-Tac-Toe, Chess, Monopoly, Risk.  For example, the well-known hidden-movement chess variant "Kriegspiel" is a case of changing from perfect information to very limited information for the players (system 7). 

    The Monopoly variant where someone on Free Parking collects miscellaneous fees that would normally go to the bank is an example of changing the economy of the game slightly (system 9).  Increase the Tic-Tac-Toe board to four by four, and let a player win with four in a row or four in a square, and you have a much better game: you've changed the data storage and the victory conditions (systems 4 and 3).


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