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Beyond the narrow gate: Games every designer should play

Jeff Warrender
United States
Averill Park
New York
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Last year, we solicited responses at this blog, in a BGG thread, and at twitter, to a simple question: what 3 games would you say that all designers should play? Our intent was to generate some raw data for a podcast discussion. As you can imagine, not only did we get a wide variety of responses, we got a wide variety of meta-responses as well. Reading those threads is worthwhile, as there were a lot of really thoughtful answers.


The consensus picks for the top 5 games were Pandemic, Dominion, Settlers, Ticket to Ride, and [a Knizia game]. There were a variety of Knizia games identified – High Society and Lost Cities were especially popular – but a lot of people had at least one Knizia on their list. Technically our fifth most-often proposed game was Monopoly, as an example of bad design, but I elected to ignore this simply because it's a safe assumption that everyone has played Monopoly at some point. So let's treat the above as the top five.

What we quickly see is that this top 5 tracks reasonably closely with the with our "Big Four" from our gateway series, and these also happen to the most popular games. Thus the implication is that people generally think that designers should play the most popular games!


Some people refused to answer, argued that the question was misguided, or argued against the question. I of course agree with the idea that designers should play more than 3 games, and even perhaps that there are no 3 games that every designer should have played. The point of the question was to study the process by which we arrive at an answer to the question; what is the reasoning that people used to select three games and three games only?

The top 5 are, in addition to being popular games, simple, one-mechanic games. People who chose these games appealed to their simplicity and approachability, and noted that these are design traits we can all aspire to. Others noted that each has been influential in its way: Pandemic as the biggest co-op, Dominion showing the invention of a new mechanic, Settlers basically giving rise to this hobby, and so on. Thus looking at these games that became hits can show us how new ideas can get taken up into the hobby.

But this is actually somewhat congruent with other games that were suggested, multiple-mechanic games like Puerto Rico and even stuff like Root: people noted that these games show what is possible; they show that combining mechanics in thoughtful and clever ways can give rise to compelling experiences.


A slightly different form of "decline to answer" was to suggest that instead of individual games, the list should include genres: a Euro, an Ameritrash (hate that term), a social deduction game, etc. i.e. the purpose should be to inform prospective designers as to what the available genres are, rather than to single out individual games as worthy of study. I didn't find this form of response too actionable, but I can agree that there is some value for a new designer in learning about genres, though I think a designer will be more creative (though perhaps not as successful) by ignoring these boundaries entirely and just creating games that appeal to them.


The original intent was to record an episode of Mike's show The Who What Why cast analyzing the responses, but what we elected to do instead was to have our "three caballeros" (Mike, Jonny, and myself), joined by Ben Maddox, identify our own top 5 "Ur-games".

Part I of the conversation is here. Part II is here.

The entire conversation is quite long, but I think it's good and worthy of a listen. As a score sheet, here's where things ended up:

The discussion may figure in to a couple of forthcoming posts in small ways. And stay tuned for a planned future discussion about "hidden gems of game design", although I think we'll stick to three per person next time!

And, just to be clear, the intent of this list is not to be prescriptive, in the sense of "you're not a real game designer if you haven't played these games". Rather, we tried to each pick games that we thought designers would gain particular insights into good design from playing. I hope our choices, and the discussion about them, will interest you!


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