Tuesday, February 16, 2016

A Rubric for Game Design

Rubrics are one of the most misunderstood tools in teaching, and one of my concerns in working on a rubric for looking at games was that this, too, would be misconstrued. So, before getting to the rubric, I want to talk a little bit about the purpose of this rubric.

(1) The big thing is that there are two kinds of rubrics: definitional rubrics and evaluative (or scoring) rubrics. A definitional rubric is one that’s meant to help people accurately look at a product and talk meaningfully about it with common terminology. Ultimately, you can use the rubric to define the qualities of the product (in this case, a game) – but it doesn’t mean that something is better or worse than another. This rubric, as it’s designed, is a definitional rubric. Its purpose is to help people look more objectively at games.

A scoring rubric, or an evaluative rubric, has a different purpose. While it, too, will seek to define aspects of a product, there will be an additional layer, one that rates the product based on those definitive criteria. This rubric, as it’s designed, is not evaluative. There is no scoring system associated with this rubric, so this is not a way to rank games or reduce the aspects of the design to a mere set of numbers.



(2) Another important consideration when looking at this rubric is that categories on the rubric (like “Attention Required During Gameplay” or “Choice in Gameplay”) are arranged, whenever possible, from most to least. While the majority of these elements are important for a good game, the best games won’t necessarily fit into the top descriptor of each category.  Under “Choice in Gameplay”, for example, the first descriptor describes a game that has all choices being equal, where your decisions don’t actually matter because of how similar all of your choices are. Personally, that’s not the sort of game I’d like to play.

Again, this gets back to the purpose of the rubric. The top descriptor in each category is not the ideal. It’s up to the designer and the player to decide what they want most out of a game.

(3) Like all things worth doing, this rubric is a work in progress. If you have any questions about categories on here, please let me know. Since I’m not notified when there are comments, those might not be the best way to communicate. If you’d like, feel free to send me an email (doug.levandowski@gmail.com).  I’d be especially interested in hearing if you think I’m missing any categories – or if I’ve left out any import descriptors for the existing categories. I’m sure I have, so please let me know if you notice something absent.


However, the idea behind a rubric is that the things measured by the rubric will be objectively measurable (to the extent that’s possible). As such, deeply subjective elements, such as “Fun During Gameplay”, have been intentionally left off of the rubric. Furthermore, the rubric is concerned with the design of the game, not the final product. As such, things like “Quality of Components” have also been left off intentionally.

Now, without further pontificating, here's the rubric. (If you prefer, here's a link to a slightly-more-attractively-laid-out PDF.)

Notes about the language in this rubric
1.    I use “they” as a gender neutral singular.
2.    I use always/usually/typically/sometimes/rarely/never in this rubric as follows:
a.    always – literally 100% of the time, without fail
b.    usually – 75% of the time or more
c.     typically – 50% of the time or more
d.    sometimes – 25% of the time or more
e.    rarely – more than 0% of the time
f.      never – literally 0% of the time, without fail
3.    I use “rewarding” as “moving a player towards their desired goal in the game” since not all games involve “winning” per se.



Attention required during gameplay

“I had to make decisions throughout the whole game.”
The game expects players to pay attention and make meaningful decisions throughout the entire game. As such, it is difficult (if not impossible) to win without doing so.

“I could have made decisions throughout the whole game.”
The game gives players the option to make meaningful decisions throughout the entirety of the game. Largely, this decision will be based on how players choose to play.

“It would have helped a little bit to pay attention throughout the game.”
The game rewards players who pay attention to what occurs at all points in the game, but these rewards are not vital to being successful in the game. Players usually do not have the opportunity to make meaningful decisions during other players’ turns.

“I went to get a soda and didn’t miss much.”
There may be brief periods where players do not need to pay attention at all to what is happening. However, upon returning to the game, they will need to know what the game’s current state is. In addition, they might need to get a brief summary of what other players did while they were gone.

“I could leave the table for Ten minutes.”
There are extended periods of time when players do not need to pay attention to what is happening, though they may need to determine the current game state when they have to perform their actions. However, they will not need even a summary of what other people did.

“Well, That’s it for me.”
Players may be removed from play for an extended period of time when they cannot interact at all with the game.



Choice in gameplay

“All of the decisions seemed equally good.”
When players choose an action, there are always multiple, approximately equally-rewarding choices that they can make. As such, choice always stems from players’ whims. Players can always pursue all available paths to victory simultaneously without detriment to their pursuit of any one of them.

“I always had a lot of compelling decisions to make.”
When players choose an action, there will usually be multiple approximately equally-rewarding choices that a player can make. The degree to which those choices reward players will stem from style of play and players’ previous decisions, which may make later choices more clearly better or worse. However, players can pursue multiple paths to victory simultaneously.

“I usually had a few good options.”
When players choose an action, there will typically be multiple, equally-rewarding choices that the player can make, though there will sometimes be instances where a choice is obviously more rewarding than any others. These advantages of some choices over others may come from previous decisions, other players’ previous decisions, or sometimes but not typically from randomness. Players may find it more difficult to win if they pursue more than one path to victory.

“The One right choice was usually clear.”
When players choose an action, there is usually an obviously most-rewarding choice. These usually obvious choices stem from previous decisions, other players’ previous decisions, or non-random elements in the game. When players choose a path to victory, even in the early stages of the game, they will usually only be able to win if they continue to pursue that path. Occasionally (or less frequently), a most-rewarding choice arising from random factors may be obvious.

“The game didn’t give me many options.”
When players choose an action, there is always an obviously most-rewarding choice, so players do not meaningfully choose their path to victory. Players’ actions may sometimes or rarely be determined entirely randomly or by forces outside of their control.

“In Soviet Russia, game plays you.”
Players make no choices whatsoever in the game. On their turn, there is always a single action that they must perform in a specific way that is determined entirely by rules, randomness, or some combination of the two.


Clarity of Mechanics

“If you can breathe, I can teach you this game in one minute.”
What players are doing is simple to understand from hearing the rules, and all of the mechanics are immediately easy to remember. Because of the simplicity of the rules, players would not need to refer to the rulebook or a player aid, even during the early parts of their first game.

“Don’t worry. You’ll get it in, like, a turn.”
All of the mechanics are easy to remember; after the first round, players will understand most of what they are doing. Players would not need to refer to the rulebook after a few rounds, but they might need to glance occasionally at a player aid throughout their first game and in early rounds of their first few games.

“You’ll have it all by the end of the first game.”
The mechanics are typically easy to remember; after the first few rounds, players will understand what they are doing. However, a few mechanics may require reminders throughout the first game – though they will be clear by the end of the first game. Players would need to refer to the minutiae of the rules during the first game and might need to refer to a player aid throughout their first few games.

“It took me a couple of games to completely get it.”
The mechanics are, at first, difficult to remember. Most of the mechanics will require reminders throughout the first game, and players will need to brush up on rules before their first handful of games. Because of the complexity of the mechanics, players would need to refer to the rulebook about core mechanics during the first game and to the rulebook about minutiae during the first few games. During the first few games, they may frequently need to refer to player aids for refreshers.

“I played it a few times, but let me glance at the rules again.”
The mechanics are typically difficult to remember. Some of the mechanics may require reminders throughout the first few games, and a few of the mechanics may even not be clear after numerous games. Because of the complexity of the rules, players would need to regularly refer to the rulebook and player aids.

“If you’re not the designer, leave the rulebook where we can both reach it.”
The mechanics are usually difficult to remember. Even after many games, players will need the rulebook to understand the core mechanics of the game. They will always need to refer to the rulebook for minutiae. Player aids might mitigate this need to refer to the rulebook, but only marginally.



Co-Operative Player Interactions
Note: For the purpose of this category, I’m lumping full cooperative play, semi-cooperative play, team play, many v. few play together, and any other similar play together. The ways in which players interact under any of these mechanics could be looked at similarly regardless of the precise kind of cooperative play, but I expect that there will be ways in which certain categories work differently (or not at all) based on which kind of co-operative play is present.

“I have no idea what you’re capable of.”
The game requires cooperative play at least at some points. Common problems with co-op games (e.g., alpha players, multi-player solitaire) cannot arise because some or all of a player’s abilities are unknown to the other players, because players must make decisions without any input from other players, or because of other mechanical constraints that prevent these issues.

“That’s not what’s best for me.”
The game requires cooperative play at least at some points. Common problems with co-op games may arise because the game does not have mechanical constraints to prevent these issues. However, there are reward-based reasons that players might not want another player to dictate their actions.

“You might as well take my turn for me.”
The game requires players to play cooperatively throughout the entire game. Common problems with co-op games may arise because the game has neither mechanical constraints to prevent these issues nor reward-based reasons to not let another player dictate your actions. One player could, if inclined, literally play multiple roles without any mechanical changes to the game.

“We could help each other with that.”
The game allows players to choose to play cooperatively at least at some points. Players are still working toward distinct objectives, but the game allows them to work towards common means to victory in ways that are beneficial to participating players (but not necessarily all players in the game).

“There are no friends here.”
The game does not feature any kind of co-operative, semi-cooperative, team play, many v. few play, or any other kind of play where players would work together.


Gameplay Variety

“It’s a totally different game each time.”
Different plays of the game will feel wildly different from the ones before it, radically altering the possible paths to victory. (This does not mean that core mechanics will be different – but it could.) The game is not “solvable” because it is fundamentally different each time.

“You can’t do exactly the same thing each game and win.”
Different plays of the game will feel novel, shifting the players’ optimal choices based on the design of the game, other players’ turn-by-turn choices, or a combination of the two. The game is only partially “solvable” as strategies will change dramatically with each game.

“It kinda depends who you play with.”
Different plays of the game will feel slightly different, nudging players’ optimal choices slightly. This slight variance will usually be the result of players’ broad choices rather than their turn-by-turn choices or the design of the game. Once players have “solved” the game, they will have a significant advantage over other players.

“It’s the same thing every time.”

Different plays will feel the same each time. Optimal choices and paths to victory will be precisely identical from game to game.


Originality of Mechanics

“I have never played anything like this.”
There is at least one core mechanic of the game that is wholly original.

“This is a new twist on this mechanic.”
The core mechanic of the game puts an original twist on an existing mechanic. OR There are wholly original ancillary mechanics in the game.

“I haven’t seen these mechanics used together before.”
The mechanics of the game have all existed before, though not in this grouping. This new combination may cause the mechanics to interact in interesting ways.

“This is a lot like...”
The mechanics of the game are virtually identical to an existing game with changes only to ancillary mechanics.

“Oh, So you re-skinned...”
The game is a mechanic-by-mechanic copy of an existing game.



Originality of Theme

“How did you come up with that theme!?”
The theme is wholly original, perhaps bringing together seemingly-disparate thematic elements or perhaps putting a very different twist on an unusual mechanic in an unexpected way.

“I’ve only seen a few games with this theme.”
The theme has only been used by a few games. OR The theme is common in gaming, but this game deals with a side of the theme that few others have.

“That’s a twist on the theme.”
The theme has been used by many games, but this game puts an original twist on it.

“Oh look. Another Cthulhu game.”
The theme has been used by many games, and this game puts no original spin on it.

“What theme?”
The game is an abstract and thus has no theme.



Player Agency

“Everything that happened was because of us.”
After setup (which might be static, randomized, or some combination thereof), all outcomes are always the result of players’ decisions, not randomness or other unpredictable non-player forces. Any non-player forces that influence outcomes will function according to an established pattern for which players can compensate with their choices. As such, a player’s skill at the game always determines their success.

“I could take a chance, or I could set things up carefully.”
Outcomes are usually the result of players’ decisions, but there are elements of the outcomes that are determined by randomness or other unpredictable non-player forces. Any non-player forces that influence outcomes will function according to a general pattern, and these forces can usually be mitigated. As such, a player’s skill at the game usually predicts their success.

“The trick was to be able to roll with it.”
Outcomes are sometimes the result of players’ decisions, but randomness or other unpredictable forces beyond players’ control will strongly influence outcomes. However, players can typically take measures to mitigate some of the effect of such forces. A player’s skill level typically influences their success.

“There’s no reason to plan. Just roll the dice.”
Outcomes are usually the result of randomness or other non-player forces. Players can rarely if ever mitigate the effect of such forces. A player’s skill level rarely, if ever, affects their success.



Player Interaction

“When you… So I… But she… So they…”
The game requires players to interact in complex, meaningful ways that fundamentally alter the way(s) in which players are rewarded by the game. Players can never win without altering their play style based on player interactions.

“In that case, I should probably…”
The game requires players to interact in meaningful ways that shift the way(s) in which players are rewarded by the game. Players can sometimes win without altering their play style based on player interactions, but it’s difficult to do so.

“I was going to do that – but I can do this instead.”
The game requires players to interact with each other in ways that usually influence how players are rewarded by the game. However, players can typically win without altering their play style based on player interactions.

“I play the same way no matter who’s in the game.”
The game requires players to interact with each other, but these interactions don’t meaningfully influence how players are rewarded by the game. Players can usually win without altering their play style based on player interactions.

“I didn’t want to interact with anyone, so I didn’t.”
The game encourages but does not require players to interact with each other. These interactions rarely if ever influence the way(s) in which players are rewarded by the game. Players can usually or always win without altering their play style based on player interactions.

“I wish there hadn’t been other players.”
The mechanics are such that all interactions between players serve only to slow down gameplay by hampering players’ ability to implement their plans.

“Oh, there were other players?”
The game does not allow for direct player interaction within the rules of the game. Players’ choices never change based on other players’ actions. Players never have to alter their play style based on player interaction – because there is no direct player interaction.





Predictability of Winner

“Once you took the lead, there was nothing I could do.”
Once a player takes a meaningful lead, it will be clear to players that there is no way for them to catch up. There may even be ways in which a player who is successful early in the game accelerates toward victory more quickly than other players.

“Well, if I get really lucky...”
Once a player takes a meaningful lead, any player trying to catch up would need a combination of significant luck and/or significant skill to catch up.

“Sure, you’re ahead, but now I can...”
There are mechanics in place to prevent one player from getting too far into the lead, but these mechanics do not prevent them from continuing to expand their lead if they play carefully. OR There are ways for players to jump quickly toward victory in ways that prevent any player from definitively taking a meaningful lead at any point in the game.

“Why would I want to take the lead?”
There are mechanics in place to prevent one player from getting too far into the lead. In fact, these “catch-up” mechanics are so powerful that it is sometimes mechanically advantageous not to take the lead.

“I think I’m doing pretty well.”
The game has complex scoring and/or secret objectives, making it usually difficult to tell which player is winning. However, players have a clear sense of roughly how they’re doing in the game.

“I guess we’ll see who wins at the end.”
The game’s scoring is so complex and/or objectives are so secretive that it is usually impossible for players to know how well they’re doing until final scoring.


Synthesis of Theme and Mechanics

“These work together so, so well!”
Playing the game always feels like actually taking thematic actions, so the mechanics feel intuitive to players who understand the theme.

“This really feels like doing…”
Usually, playing the game accurately simulates taking thematic actions, so mechanics are easy to remember for players who understand the theme.

“Yeah, it pretty much feels like doing…”
The theme and the mechanics are closely related, so typically, the actions in the game simulate taking thematic actions. It is usually easy to see how the mechanics link with the theme.

“I guess I could see how they work together…”
The theme and the mechanics are linked. However, sometimes, the actions in the game relate to the theme, but sometimes, they do not. However, though some of the links may be strained, none of the mechanics are counter-intuitive based on the theme.

“But, you wouldn’t do that if you were…”
The theme and mechanics usually seem wholly unrelated. Some of the mechanics may even be counter-intuitive based on the theme.

“This theme is slapped on.”
The theme and the mechanics are completely disconnected; any number of themes could be easily substituted for the current one without any changes to the mechanics, and the fit would be equally sensible.

“What theme?”
The game is an abstract and thus has no theme.


Thanks to: Ben Begeal, Matt Holden, Zintis May-Krumins, Daniel Newman, Matthew O’Malley, Diane Sauer, Isaac Shalev, Carol shepherd, Jay Treat, Suzanne & Chris Zinsli, and everyone on Facebook who suggested overarching categories!

Doug Levandowski is a game designer who co-created Gothic Doctor, co-created UnPub: The UnPublished Card Game, and created You're Fired. He has other designs in the works, too - because that's what designers do. When Doug's not designing, writing articles, sleeping, or playing Star Realms on his phone, he's teaching English to a bunch of amazing high schoolers. They're working on Ethan Frome and Maus at the time of publication. You can find him on Twitter at @levzilla and on Star Realms as DougLev, where he'd love to lose to you.