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The idea of a game in one sentence

Jeff Warrender
United States
Averill Park
New York
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"You Said This Would Be Fun", a book about game design, available at Amazon and DriveThruRPG
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Conventional design wisdom states that your game must have a hook. We talked about this a little bit a few posts back. This hook is supposed to be your game's unique value proposition, something that justifies its existence in the world and validates the time you invested in creating it, something that tells a publisher why they should care about it and tells the game buying public why they should want to acquire it tout de suite. (Or "toot sweet" as nous Américains say).

If you've ever been to a high school graduation, you've noticed that every speech begins (painfully) with something like this: "I thought for a long time about what I wanted to talk about today. I talked to my family, I read some books, I listened to some music. I wanted to make sure that I knew just what I wanted to say to the San Dimas High School class of 1992". (My H.S. English teacher referred to this kind of thing, aptly, as "clearing one's throat".)

To me, a lot of "hooks" end up sounding like that; you realize you need to say something pithy about your game, so they say the first thing that comes to them about it, which as often as not is the thing that was the original inspiration for the game. "It's a worker placement game except the workers are M&Ms and you eat them as the game progresses." "It's a game about cattle ranching but told from the cow's perspective". These kinds of statements are supposed to pull the listener in and make us want to play the game. But I think this is misguided for the same reason that the "throat-clearing" speech intro is misguided. We aren't interested in how your game project got started, we want to hear what your game is.

In contrast, I assert that what is more valuable and consequential is for a game to have a central idea. This is something I've talked about previously. The hook is the game's selling point; the idea is the game's focal point. It isn't necessarily what got you started on the design -- indeed, I'd say it's something you discover about the game rather than something you impose on the game -- but is what the design ends up pivoting on, the thing that pulls together the game's scoring system, the central fun activity (or "core engagement" as Gil Hova calls it) and the agonizing decisions that players make in pursuit of the game's goal. And you can state it in a single sentence.

I've said elsewhere that good and memorable games have a central idea along these lines but that may be overstating things a bit. For example, I don't think Ticket to Ride really has a central animating idea behind it but there's no question it's well-regarded and wildly successful. Similarly, I don't think Escape has a central idea but man it's a fun game to play and is a successful design. Classic games like Clue or Scrabble don't appear to have central ideas (though maybe I could make a case for Clue having one), and though Yahtzee doesn't it's been heavily influential in the recent advent of dice games; designers often take it as axiomatic that a dice-based game should involve three rolls with set-asides after each roll.

Nevertheless, I stand by my contention that for a designer, having a central idea is a worthwhile and beneficial thing. A hook engages you at a superficial level: "Oh, worker placement but the worker spots decrease as the game progresses, ok, that might be fun, tell me more!" whereas an idea engages you on an intellectual level. "Hmm, a game where the ground you're fighting over is destroyed in the very act of fighting over it (Meltwater), I must understand how the game expresses this!" It suggests that the game you're about to learn about isn't merely going to amuse you but to give you something to think about. Not that there's anything wrong with a game whose sole intent is to amuse, of course.

Anyway, here's my stab at some single-sentence summaries that capture the "ideas" of some games, published and otherwise. In the comments, feel free to tackle this challenge for other games, or propose better ones for the game's I've taken a swing at; or if you're a designer yourself, state in a single sentence what is your game's idea (idea, not hook!).


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tobacco Web of Power is a game about how ecclesiastical power begets political power.

tobacco Puerto Rico is about trying to be as unhelpful as you can when you can't entirely avoid being helpful.

tobacco Chess is a game about knowing what terrain is worth fighting over, and of taking terrain that you know you can hold.

tobacco Lost Cities is about having the wisdom to let go of things that aren't going to succeed so that the things that can succeed, can succeed in a superlative way.

tobacco The Sands of Time is a game about boasting about your civilization's exploits, by doing things worthy of boasting about and establishing enough of a reputation for those things that your boasts will be believed.

tobacco Poetica is a game of synthesizing a coherent thought from a random set of pictures; i.e. of extracting order from chaos.

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Unpublished stuff of mine:

coffee Collusion is a game of cutthroat cooperation.

I think that one is too brief. So maybe:

coffee Collusion is a game of making yourself so useful to your opponents that they give you the victory as a reward.

coffee Downhill Racer is a game about modulating your exposure to risk in a setting where you can never quite play it safe.

coffee Lost Adventures is a game of bold plays, but where the line between bold and reckless is blurry.
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