Gödel, Escher, Bach, from a Game Developer’s Perspective, David Sirlin, and new deck-building games

Gödel, Escher, Bach (GEB) is one of those non-fiction books I’ve had on my shelf for years, but never really read. I tend to start non-fiction books, get a few pages or chapters in, and then let them rot. Mostly I just get rid of them after a while, but this is a book that I’ve always really wanted to read. I’m genuinely interested in the subject matter, being fascinated with the nature of self-reference, infinity, looping, and meta-fiction. (Hofstadter lumps a lot of these concepts together into what he calls “strange loops”.) So a couple of months ago I dove in for the second or probably third time, claiming that I was going to force myself to read this book, no matter what.

Turns out, the first chapter of the book was the most interesting part for me. (At least, of what I’ve read so far.) I ended up petering-out again after I’d only read only about 1/3rd of the book. There are weird zen-like short stories in between chapters, and those are interesting, but I haven’t (yet) skipped ahead to just read those. (And anyway, they tend to deal with concepts that were discussed in the preceding chapters, so I’m not sure that would be a worthwhile read.)

Most of what I read (and find mostly boring) after that first chapter is dealing with, and introducing more and more complex formal systems. I think one of the concepts that Hofstadter is trying to get at is that most everything can be expressed as a formal system.

This morning I had a sort of revelation. All games are also formal systems. A game’s instructions are the expression of the rules of the system. As a game designer, I sort of want to go back and read more of those “boring” chapters with an eye toward how they apply to game design. Especially with an eye toward how the rules of the system are expressed. It’s possible that I won’t find them any more interesting the second time around, but it’s also possible that this different perspective will give me new zeal, renewing my commitment to finish the book. (Realistically, I probably won’t go back and re-read, but maybe I’ll put the book back in my backpack. We’ll see.)

This revelation may have come after yesterday reading David Sirlin’s article on designing/balancing his game Puzzle Strike. This is a really interesting article and insight into the process of his game’s design. I also started reading some of Sirlin’s book Playing To Win, which talks about how playing to win is actually less common than you might (intuitively) imagine, even among so-called gamers! One argument that really rang true for me is essentially that lots of gaming groups play with unwritten rules like “don’t screw your neighbor”, or “don’t make moves that are ‘cheap’ or ‘mean'”. I think when my group of friends first started playing a lot of board games (maybe in 2005 or so), we almost always had these special rules. In fact, I remember distinctly getting a reputation as particularly cutthroat because I often didn’t abide by them. Sirlin’s argument is that playing by these unwritten rules isn’t playing to win, and people who let those rules get in the way will never be able to compete with people who don’t.

I was only on Sirlin’s site because I am designing a deck-building game right now, and someone I work with suggested that Puzzle Strike is one that I should check out. I finally got it in the mail yesterday, and hope to play some games of it this weekend. Other deck building games I’ve been playing as “research” include Ascension, Thunderstone, and of course the granddaddy of them all, Dominion (we also have many of the expansions). I’ve ordered a copy of Eminent Domain, but it doesn’t sound like that’ll ship until sometime in October or November.

Playing Ascension on my iPhone/iPad was probably what pushed me over the edge into doing something about this particular game idea, but deck-building is only the latest aspect of the game’s design. Some other aspects of the game had been floating around in my head for months. I’ve definitely been wanting to design my own card game since I got my copy of (and subsequently played A LOT of) Glory to Rome in the last year. Another inspiration was simply noting an absence of (and wanting to play) deck-building games with science-fiction themes.

Eminent Domain also has a science-fiction theme, and I read somewhere that Glory to Rome and Dominion were both inspirations, so I was at first afraid it would share too many game mechanics with my game. But I’ve since read the rules — they’re on the game’s website — and there are definitely enough differences that I should be fine. It’s also worth noting that the game’s designer, Seth Jaffee, also has a blog where he posts interesting things about game design. In particular, I found this post on deckbuilding game theory to be particularly insightful. It made me think about whether my own game will have a viable (distinct) beginning, middle, and endgame.

I will definitely be posting more about the new game as it continues to be refined, and as it nears completion. So far I’ve only playtested a few times, but that led to some pretty major revisions. I’ve got a lot of work to do!