Design Principles of Raph Koster

Raph Koster has undoubtedly changed the world of gaming. He was the lead designer of the legendary Ultima Online and the creative director behind Star Wars Galaxies. In 2004, he wrote A Theory of Fun for Game Design which highlights our desire to learn as the driving force behind why we play games and what makes games fun. He speaks all over the world on the subject of game design and I’m super excited to have him here with us to share his knowledge on the latest episode of Think Like a Game Designer.

Check out this episode and the previous ones here.

Much of what Raph said resonated with me as a fellow game designer, but there are a few particular sections I wanted to point out for those of you who want to skip ahead:

“The faster you can get through the iteration process, the better your games are going to be.”

Raph is right. Every game can be improved. Variants can be tested, components can be tweaked, and strategy can be developed. Through repeated iterations of your game you can test, get feedback, and refine your core concepts and all the concepts that spring from it.

Raph’s process is fast. He describes how he breaks it down step-by-step at 50:00 for both analog and digital games.

“I’m one of those people that believes that constraints breed creativity.”

By setting constraints on your game, which could be a story, a mechanic, an experience, can focus you on your task of game development. It’s easy to drown in your own creativity when there’s no boundary to your work or point to focus on.

For a real treat, skip ahead to 16:45 to hear an awesome example of how this constraint process might look as Raph develops a new game on the spot. Pay attention to the way Raph breaks down the experience into potential game elements.

“I often draw inspiration, not from other games, but from real-world things that have systems.”

When it comes to looking for mechanics or developing concepts for new games, Raph speaks about doing two things: Reading game manuals (not necessarily playing the games), and looking to systems in your daily life that you can break down into game elements.

His example is a fish tank.

Think about all the systems, for a household fish tank, that need to be in order for the fish to survive. Things like PH, temperature, and light. What kinds of game mechanics would work to simulate these systems and how could something as common as a fish tank be expressed in game design? You can hear more about our thoughts on this at 56:40.

Feel free to reach out if there any other game design ah-ha! moments you pick up from this episode – Thanks for listening!


Welcome to the final part of a 6 part series on Collectible Game Design.  If you are just joining us, here are the other parts:

Part 1: Overview

Part 2: Engine Design

Part 3: Engine Development

Part 4: Component Design

Part 5: Component Development

If you’ve come with us this far, you’ve got a pretty awesome game.  You’ve crafted your vision, defined your parameters, brainstormed countless ideas, prototyped and iterated on them repeatedly.  With each phase of design, your cycles got tighter and tighter, focusing on more minutiae until the entire system hummed.  Now is the time to put the final touches on your game and make it ready for sale.



This week, our new game You Gotta Be Kitten Me is hitting stores.    The core game mechanics are pretty simple- Players bid on the number of a given symbol or color they think are in everyone’s hands.  Each player must in turn raise the bid or challenge the previous bidder.  If you lose a challenge, you lose a card for the next hand.  The last player with cards left wins.

The game took about 18 months to develop, but the game mechanics were complete within the first 6 months of development.  What took so long was figuring out that final polish – the theme and look for the game.   The game is light, social and quick to play, making it appropriate for families. It also has strategic bluffing and hand-reading elements that appeal to more traditional gamers.  We wanted a theme that could help us reach both audiences.  We went through many iterations before settling on the final design.

Here are some never before seen behind-the-scenes looks at the themes we developed along the way

8-bit-card-mockup-3-a-d bowler-red-2 wild_ideas_1 yeti-card-mockup-3-a-d

The above themes in order: “8-bit Crook”, “Schrodinger’s Hats”, “Liar’s Cards”, “Are We There Yeti?”

As you can see, each has a very different look and feel, potentially appealing to different audiences.  We even took the Shrodinger’s Hat prototype to a convention to get direct feedback from customers before finally deciding on You Gotta Be Kitten Me.  Designing a theme is just like designing a game.  You need to go through the Core Design Loop to brainstorm ideas, prototype, and test them until you find the right one.


Once you’ve decided on a theme, the next step is to commission the art and flesh out each component into a full character in whatever world you’ve created.   This is where the 6 cost creature with 6 attack and 4 health becomes a “Craw Wurm” and where abstract numbers and effects become dragons, spaceships, and kittens.

Much like when building structure during your initial design process, when building a collectible game, try to connect and build structure in your characters, art and background story.

This helps your world come alive and gives players things to discover as they dig deeper into your universe.  Some tips include:

  • Have a bigger story in mind.  Put your characters into context and set expectations that can payoff later.
  • Have key characters recur to reinforce their importance (e.g. in art pieces, names, etc.)
  • Create cycles with names and art that parallel mechanics (e.g. The Apprentice cycle in Ascension are all 1 cost heroes that show a novice training in their respective faction)
  • Seed evocative references in your names and story text.  The players may not know what these mean, but they will be intrigued to learn more. (e.g. Oros, Deepwood’s Chosen; Freyalise, Llanowar’s Fury, etc.)

When building my games, I try to have at least 3 years of story sketched out before the first release. This helps as I design future releases and keeps the world coherent.  Even if you never deliver on the complete story, the structure is valuable to guide your decisions.


Spend time iterating on the specific layout of information for each of your components.  Many designs end up cluttered and confusing.  Here are a few tips to help focus your graphic design process:

1. Priority rank each piece of information in order (e.g. Card cost, attack, health, textbox, name).  Make sure that your design emphasizes the right information

2. Avoid clutter as much as possible. Avoid adding extra flourishes, symbols, and components that don’t serve a purpose to the player. Less is more.

3. Draw the eye to the most important information. Good layout should naturally make the player want to do what they are supposed to do.  


For me, building out story, characters, and art is a really fun process.  It reminds me of my old days of playing Dungeons and Dragons.  Creating worlds, characters, and epic plots are some of the things I love most about my job.

The last piece of polish, however, is a bit more of a grind.  When first working on a game, I will use a lot of shorthand for what a card does.  Everyone in my playgroup knows what I mean and if they don’t I can always clarify.

In the real world, players won’t have your same background assumptions and you won’t be in the room to answer their questions.   This is why it is important to have a clear consistent template for your text backed up by comprehensive rules that help avoid confusion.


Comprehensive rules are read by only a small part of your player base, but they provide the foundation for resolving disputes and making sure the whole game “works” even after hundreds or thousands of cards or components get created.  This article doesn’t have time to go too in depth on comprehensive rules writing (let me know if you want to see an article on that). For now, think of comprehensive rules as the underlying code upon which your game “program” runs.   


The beauty of a collectible game is that each card and component is able to change the rules and thus create an ever-changing play experience.  But, when each card can change the rules, it is more important than ever to be clear and precise when describing each card’s effect.  Being precise with your templating helps players access your game and understand what is going on.

For physical games, precision of language is about answering four basic questions:

Target: Who does the effect apply to?

Timing: When does the effect happen?

Script: What does the effect do?

Source: Who/what is the originator of the effect and what traits does he/it have?

Answering these questions thoroughly can lead to some long and cumbersome text boxes and you will often have to make difficult trade-offs when deciding how to template your effects and rules.  Here are some considerations to keep in mind

Concision vs. Clarity- Answering the above questions in detail and with precision can be cumbersome.  Consider the following example of two templates of the same effect:

TEMPLATE 1- Deal 3, Draw 3

TEMPLATE 2- First, this card deals 3 damage to target creature or player of your choice.  Then, you draw 3 cards from your deck.

The second text is 5 times as long, but more clear.  Which template is better?  That depends a lot on your audience and the nature of your game.  How relevant is each piece of information? How likely are your players to infer information you don’t want to spell out?  Can you imagine game scenarios where this template would be confusing?

Wrestling with these questions has lead to many heated debates around the office because, as silly as the distinction may seem, your early decisions in templating will have long-reaching effects on the types of cards you can create and how your audience relates to them.  If you choose to never identify Source, for example, it will be harder to create future mechanics that reference it.

Keywords and Text Compression– A common tactic in collectible games that introduce a mechanic used multiple times is to compress the rules text into a keyword.  Keywords are special game jargon that stand in place of a bunch of regular text.  The best keywords compress a lot of text into a word that is evocative of the effect.

A great example of this is the keyword “Flying” in Magic: the Gathering.  Here are the comprehensive rules for Flying:

702.9. Flying

  • 702.9a Flying is an evasion ability.
  • 702.9b A creature with flying can’t be blocked except by creatures with flying and/or reach. A creature with flying can block a creature with or without flying. (See rule 509, “Declare Blockers Step,” and rule 702.17, “Reach.”)
  • 702.9c Multiple instances of flying on the same creature are redundant.

That is a mouthful!  For most players, however, they will simply intuit what flying means- creatures with flying can fly over creatures without flying.  That one word compresses a lot of text in a way that doesn’t confuse the player.  Try whenever possible to use keywords that evoke the feeling of the effects you are trying to describe.

Physical vs. Digital Game-  Because digital games enforce the rules for you, the importance of consistency and clarity in templating is reduced (though not eliminated).  In digital games, it is generally preferable to use less precise but more readable language.  Players will learn the ins and outs of the game by playing.

Ship it!


One of the biggest challenges with any game design process is deciding when your game is “done.”  There is always more time that can be spent refining, polishing, and improving your design.  It is worth spending time to make your game as good as it can be, but be careful not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good.  A good, completed game is infinitely better than a theoretical “perfect” game that never gets published.

The most powerful way to ensure your game gets completed is to set a deadline.  When you have a boss or a design contract, this is often done for you.  If you are working on your own, set one for yourself.  Work towards that date as though you were delivering it to a client or your boss and you’ll be amazed at how quickly you can get things done.  If you have a game you are working on, post a note in the comments with your committed date to get it ready!  I’ll follow up with anyone who commits and offer some support.  Good luck and have fun!

Component Design

Welcome to Part 4 in a 6 part series on the phases of collectible game design. Here are parts 1, 2, and 3

Today we are going to dig into Component Design. During component design, you will be filling in the pieces that finally make the game playable.  Returning to our analogy of building a house, component design is when the house finally begins to look like a home, with rooms, walls and furniture.

Successful component design is all about creating structure so that everything has a proper place. If your game is successful, you will be creating hundreds or thousands of collectible components. The only hope for you to wrap your head around that many items is to create a solid structure.

There is a pervasive myth that creativity is about being free from constraint. The opposite is true- creativity can only thrive in a world with solid structure upon which the creative impulse can be unleashed. The key to component design is defining and enforcing categories that provide structure to your designs.



At the highest level, you need to break down your components into categories. Examples of categories are:

  • Colors in Magic: The Gathering
  • Classes in World of Warcraft
  • Roles in League of Legends

Defining Categories


Categories are defined by story as well as mechanical function. The easiest way to define these is to answer questions about the extremes.


  1. What is this category best at?
  2. What is this category worst at?


  1. What is this category care about or want the most?
  2. What does this category hate or fear the most?

By answering these questions, you will begin to get a feel for what belongs in a category and what doesn’t. You will inevitably flesh out more details over time, but the big picture questions above are enough to get started.

Magic Lead Designer Mark Rosewater has written extensively on the topic of Magic’s “color pie” which illustrates the enormous amount of thinking that goes into breaking down Magic’s categories. I highly recommend reading through this entire series.

Enforcing Categories



In addition to breaking down your factions, you need to decide how strict you will be in enforcing their separation. By forcing players to make tradeoff choices between categories, you create valuable strategic tension and enable a greater variety of viable strategic choices. The main question to answer here is how much freedom will you give your players to customize?

No Enforcement


If you do not enforce categories in your game, then the category is primarily a thematic guide and not a game mechanic. This makes things easy on the player, but doesn’t do much work to differentiate your game experience and will make it very difficult to incentivize different strategies. Games like Yu-Gi-Oh suffer from this problem. Cards from any faction may be played together and there is no rules-based reason to play cards within the same category.

To make games like this work, you will need to put a lot of explicit synergies into your components (e.g. +3 Attack if you play another green card this turn). This approach can be great for very simple or non-collectible games, but I don’t recommend it for any advanced collectible game.

Soft Enforcement


Players can use whichever combination of categories they want, but the game rules pressure you to stay within a limited number of categories. Magic is a great example of this. You can play as many colors as you like in your deck, but the more you diversify, the more you run the risk of not having the right resource at the right time.

This system is a big part of why my college notebook is filled with Magic decks scribbled in the margins. Soft enforcement has the advantage of giving the player lots of freedom to customize their experience and thus lots of variety in play. This limitless possibility is very exciting for an advanced player. The downsides of soft enforcement are that it is the most difficult to balance properly and the open-ended nature of customization may be intimidating for some players.

Strict Enforcement


Players can only play with one faction at a time. Hearthstone is an example of this type of restriction- you pick a class and can only select cards from that class and a generic pool. Strict enforcement is the easiest for a player to understand and the easiest for a designer to balance. On the flipside, the lack of freedom in customization leads to a less robust overall experience.

Hybrid Enforcement


Players are given a limited ability to combine factions. Solforge is an example of hybrid enforcement. Players are allowed to select any two factions they want, but can never combine three or more. Hybrid systems come in many forms, but they all try to find the balance between freedom to customize and complexity.



Sub-categories (aka subtypes, themes) give you more ways to divide your collectible components. Think of your categories as Russian Nesting Dolls of structure. Each layer can contain within it increasingly refined levels of detail. Once you have defined the top level, repeat the same process to create some subthemes within each faction.

In Solforge, Nekrium is the faction of death and destruction, but each “tribe” of creatures has its own particular focus. Abominations generally sacrifice themselves and others for beneficial effect, while Zombies continue to return from the dead. In Magic’s green color, which is about growth and nature, Elves tend to provide additional mana while Beasts tend to be larger creatures intended for attacking.



A cycle is a single theme or pattern that repeats itself across multiple categories. You can also have cycles within a faction to highlight a key feature (e.g. Have a small, medium, and large version of a core faction effect). Cycles are one of the best ways to establish your themes and communicate them to players.

One of the most famous trading card game cycles is from Magic’s very first set. The cycle was all 1 cost instants that provided 3 of something.


From looking at the above cards alone, you can instantly learn a lot about what defines each faction. Cycles are powerful because by keeping so many elements the same, you draw a player’s attention to the differences. This reinforces the structure you have built. In addition, when a player sees 2 or 3 pieces of this cycle, they will want to look for the final pieces. This helps drive excitement as players speculate about what the final piece of the puzzle will look like.

When in doubt, add more cycles and structure. It is hard to over do it.

Breaking Structure


Game design is an art form, and like all rules in art, the structural rules above are meant to be broken. You will regularly encounter specific designs or sub-themes that break from your initial direction, but you shouldn’t break rules until you’ve spent time working within them.

Breaking structure should be done with purpose to draw particular attention to a feature. For example, in Magic, the color green doesn’t typically have any flying creatures. When a green flying dragon is introduced, however, it highlights how rare and special that creature is. Judicious use of broken structures is a powerful tool, but only if you spend effort building up those structures in the first place.

Filling in the Skeleton



Once you’ve built out your structure, you now have a basic map of what your completed set of components should look like. It is at this point that I will typically break out a spreadsheet and start filling it in with designs. Create a skeleton outline with the number of components you want in each faction. Then block off time and start filling in the gaps. Now that you know the structure, your creative mind will instinctively start to fill in designs and the process for creating your first set of components should flow smoothly. If you get stuck, fall back on creating more cycles or try adding a new sub-category to help move you forward.

Once your components are designed, it is time to get to the development process, which we will cover in Part 5.

Core Engine Development


This is Part 3 in a series on the phases of collectible game design. Here is Part 1 and Part 2.

If the core engine design is laying the foundation of your game “house,” core engine development is the framing upon which everything else will hang.  At the end of this phase, your collectible game should basically “work” with a limited set of components.  The game should be fun and meet your design parameters, though it will not be balanced or polished.

Here are some key areas of focus during Core Engine Development.

1. Define Fundamental Components


Build the Basics



Your goal in this phase is not to design all the components of your game!  You will, however, need to have at least some of your components in place to properly develop the engine.

In a fighting game, have at least 3-4 characters with relatively defined traits. In a trading card game, have 2-3 pre-built decks to test with. The key is a small number of permutations that highlight a few of the strategies available in your game.

You do not need to worry about the strategies being fully fleshed out or balanced. You can include a few things that push the boundaries of the engine (i.e. very wacky effects and extremes of power level), but for the most part you just want nuts and bolts effects at this stage. Too many wacky components can make it harder to see what is going on at the fundamental engine level.


Outline Collection Requirements


When determining components for a collectible game, you need to decide how many a player needs to play. Do you need 3 miniatures, 60 cards, or one Champion?  Think about what the player experience will be like when they have a small collection vs. a large collection. Is it still fun to play when you don’t have a lot of options? Is it still exciting to collect after you already have a few?  You can drive this excitement by ensuring your engine supports a variety of strategies and synergies between different subsets of the total available collection.


Target Collection Variation in Game


In addition to determining how many components a player needs to play the game, you should also think about how many components show up in a given game.

If you always have all your components available each game (e.g. A miniatures game where all the figures start on the board), then games will tend to play out more similarly during repeat play.1 If you have too few components show up in a game (e.g. Drawing only 7 cards from a 60 card deck) then players may not feel enough agency in their customization.2  There is no objectively right or wrong answer here. Play around with these numbers to find the balance between variance and predictability appropriate for your game and audience.

2. Define Game Rules

By the time you leave this phase, you should be able to write up the rules for your game (though they may still change).  How do units move? At what rate do players draw cards? What are the rules for line of site and stun effects? How can players transfer one game resource into another? Try out a variety of answers to these questions in this phase as you iterate. By iterating on a variety of possible complete rule sets, you can see how your fundamental components interact with those rules to make a game that is fun and not completely broken.


Write Things Down!


I cannot stress enough the importance of writing things down during this phase. Writing things down has a few advantages. Most importantly, it prevents you from forgetting the work you’ve done.

Written rules also make collaboration with other designers and playtesters much easier. The sooner you can get people testing your game from written rules, the better your rules will be at the end of the process.

Old written down rules are also a great tool for writing design articles and talking about your process after the game releases. Writing down rules early makes everything better in the long run. If you take one lesson from this article, make it this one.


Use Rejected Rules to Aid Design Later


Almost every rejected rule during your iteration process can assist you in your design down the road. Collectible game design is all about using your components to break the engine rules. In Solforge, for example, creatures originally only attacked during a player’s turn. For a variety of reasons, the game ended up working better when creatures attacked on both players’ turns. However, we designed multiple cards that don’t attack during the opponents turn, because we knew the advantages of that system from earlier testing.

3. Create Proper Incentives


Fundamentally, what does the player want to do when playing your game? What behaviors does the core play loop encourage? If players are systemically avoiding interacting with each other in a board game, your core loop may have a problem. Game incentives should generally reward people for doing things that are natural and fun, with more layers of options being revealed over time. Watch player behavior and see how your core game loop pushes them to behave.


Make Player Instincts Correct


Try and make a player’s natural instincts be (most of the time) the correct thing to do. If players of your game are constantly taking a certain course of action, embrace it.

In my deckbuilding game, Ascension, most casual players immediately started buying heavy infantry cards in order to attack monsters. The original game engine made this almost a sure-fire losing strategy against a player who first bought cards to improve their deck.

After many playtest sessions, I rebalanced the engine to make an early monster attack strategy viable.  This took me a long time to figure out because my personal instinct was always to improve my deck first and then defeat monsters.   Keep an eye out for when your personal playstyle doesn’t match that of your average player.


Times 2 or Divided by 2


When in doubt, double it or cut it in half. Since developing a game engine requires you to set your number ranges, experiment in big chunks to learn more quickly. If a system is not working right, try doubling the numbers to push it more or cut numbers in half to reduce the importance.

These new numbers likely won’t be exactly right, but they will inform you if you are moving in the right direction far more quickly than making many subtle changes along the way (there is time for that later). Solforge creatures were originally on a much smaller scale than they are now, but we found that creatures all felt too similar.  We doubled the range of numbers for attack and defense (and quadrupled player health) and that gave us far more room to design cards that felt different from each other.    Experiment with radical shifts to help shake things up and break your preconceived notions of how the game “should” go.  

4. Find the Fun

player experience is the only metric that matters

It is easy to get lost in the minutiae of mechanics, but player experience is the only metric that matters.  Does the game evoke the feelings you are generally looking for? Is the game length approximately where you want it to be? Are you staying true to your initial vision or has your vision changed?

Ideally, when you leave this phase, the fundamentals of your game are relatively stable. If you aren’t happy with the feel of the game (knowing that things like balance and polish are still to come), now is the time to try and fix any issues that arise. You can shore up problems with good component design and development, but the engine level decisions will have long reaching impacts for the life of your game, so take the time to get this part right.

In my experience, it takes several months to get the Core Engine Design and Development for a collectible game to a place that you are ready to move. Rushing through this phase will only cost you more time and headaches down the road, so take the time and do it right. Once your game feels right, you are ready for the next step of component design.

The Fundamental Building Blocks of Games

Every game is built on the foundation of resources, victory conditions, and player interaction.  I discussed the principles behind these here, but today I want to go into some more specific examples and categories of each.   Mix and match these systems (or add your own) to create an endless variety of games.


Types of Resources



Scaling resources start off small at the beginning of the game and get more plentiful as the game progresses. These resources replenish every turn regardless of whether they are used or not.1 Examples of scaling resources include playing 1 land per turn in Magic, or gaining one energy per turn in Hearthstone.  Pretty much every RPG has a scaling resource represented in new and improved abilities gained while leveling up.

Scaling resources have the advantage of creating a sense of progression throughout the game. Small effects are relevant in the early game, with bigger effects showing up later. This sense of progress is psychologically rewarding and the tension of choosing to focus on late game vs. early game often creates a depth of strategy.



Fixed resources don’t change throughout the game. If a fixed resource is not spent, it is lost and reset the following turn. Solforge allows players to play two cards per turn. Most miniatures games have figures in play who all get to move and act once each turn.

Fixed resources have the advantage of being simple and easy to understand. When using fixed resources, however, you need to find other ways to create a sense of progression.



Accumulating resources are those that store up from turn to turn if you don’t spend them. Any card game where you draw a fixed number of cards each turn has an accumulating resource. The accumulating elixir in Supercell’s Clash Royale and gold in World of Warcraft are other examples of accumulating resources.

Since accumulating resources are not lost if unspent, there is less pressure on each turn to spend them. Player decisions involving accumulating resources tend to be very complicated, as players must evaluate spending a resource not just in the context of this turn, but also for all possible future turns.

One way to combat the complexity of an accumulating resource is to put a restriction on how many resources can be kept from turn to turn (e.g. a maximum hand limit or mana limit).  The smaller the maximum relative to the resources accumulated each turn, the closer this gets to a fixed resource.


Types of Interaction

Shared Resource


A shared resource is any limited resource that multiple players have access to.  In my deckbuilding game Ascension, most of the interaction takes place in the center row of cards.  Players try to get the best cards for themselves, while denying key cards to their opponents. In the real time strategy game Starcraft, key resources are located around the map that players battle to control.

I find it useful to further subdivide Shared Resources into “Hot” and “Cold” shared resources.

Hot shared resources are those that make it very clear when a player takes something from another player. This is prevalent in territory control games like Settlers of Catan and Ticket to Ride. Hot shared resources create more tension and excitement, but can also lead to anxiety and hostility when players visibly lose out on a resource they really wanted.

Cold Shared resources are more subtle. Players drafting cards from hidden packs and then passing them to other players are still taking resources from each other, but the hidden nature of the selection removes some of the tension and emotional charge from the decision.  Even as small a distinction as shifting from taking spaces on a map to taking from a shared pool of cards can have a dramatic impact on the feeling of the game, even if the abstract mechanics are the same.

Direct Attack


Direct attacking games are those where players attempt to attack or destroy opposing players’ resources. Examples of this are attacking a player’s life total in magic, attacking creatures directly in Hearthstone, or capturing pieces in a game of chess.

Direct attacking makes a game feel very interactive. The biggest challenge to look out for is a runaway leader advantage if the resource being attacked is critical to playing the game. Attacking a player’s life total in magic doesn’t have this problem (typically) because life total is not used to play the game. Attacking another player’s creatures or cards in hand, however, does tend to create this kind of negative tension.



Deduction games require you to assess the other players for some key piece of information.  Examples of this include Apples to Apples, Poker, and Pictionary.

Deduction games interact on a psychological level, where getting to know the other players is key to playing well.  They have the advantage of triggering our need to understand other people (who are incredibly complex) and thus can create deep gameplay without a lot of complex rules.  The key to setting up good deduction interactions is to structure the game so each player reveals bits and pieces of information over time, thus forcing the other players to “fill in the gaps” and get to the information they want.


Types of Victory Conditions

Player Elimination


The most obvious of victory conditions is the simple removal of all other players from the game. This is simple and easy to understand and a solid choice for any two player game. In multiplayer games, however, be careful of eliminating players too early as forcing people to sit around and watch other’s play can be a drag. Games like Magic the Gathering and Warhammer utilize this type of victory condition.

Time Limit


The game lasts a certain amount of time based on either an explicit timer or an implicit depleting resource. At the end of the allotted time, whoever has done the best according to some key metric is then declared the winner. Games like Bejeweled, Ascension and Ra utilize this type of victory condition.  Time limit games are often at their best when you get a sense that time is running short, but you don’t exactly know when the game will end.

Goal Achieving


The game lasts until a player achieves some specific goal. This gives players a clear direction in the game, but can often constrain your design space down the road.  Citadels, Settlers of Catan, and most single player games use this type of victory conditions.  It is often useful to hide information about how close players are to achieving their goal until the very end.  This helps maintain tension and excitement even if one player is far ahead.


Hopefully the above items help better illustrate how you can answer questions during your game’s core engine design.  Games can use multiple systems from each of the above categories and there are endless permutations.  Have fun experimenting and laying the groundwork for your next design!

We’ll be back with the next phase of design- Core Engine Development!

The 3 Key Questions of Core Engine Design

We are back with a deep dive into Collectible Game Core Engine Design. For an overview of collectible game design, click here.

Core Engine Design is the starting point for building collectible games, and it can be intimidating to try and build a system with so many moving parts. Don’t let the open ended nature of this phase intimidate you! Your goal  is to answer a few key questions to help give shape to your game. You will have plenty of time later to work out details and refine your concept. Stay focused on these big picture questions to get your core engine running.


1. What is the Core Play Loop?

game loop


A core play loop is the basic pattern of play at the heart of your game. The core game loop should almost always be describable in a sentence or two. In Go, the core game loop is placing stones one at a time and trying to capture territory. In Call of Duty, the core game loop is Getting Weapons/Ammo, looking for enemies, and killing enemies before they kill you.

You will need to have other elements defined to properly test the core game loop (e.g. how does a player move, what are the damage ranges of various weapons, how high can my character jump, etc.) but these elements should be loosely defined and flexible. The goal is for all the peripheral rules and elements to be only “good enough” to test the core loop. You will have time to improve all the peripherals later.

There will be many broken things about your game in this phase. Strategies are not balanced, pieces are ugly, and many fundamental elements are still in motion. A designer has to see through all of that and see if there is a diamond of fun in the rough prototype. Training your instincts to find the fun and ignore the rough patches in early testing is critical.

While working on our digital collectible game Solforge, we had to do all of our initial prototyping on paper while still trying to design a game that worked best in digital. This required a lot of ugly “hacks” to make the game work. A single playtest game could take well over an hour! After that, we would usually change many things which could take several more hours to update and set up. After going through several failed systems including some that included terrain, fog of war, NPC monsters, and more, we settled on the basic core loop of cards that level up as you play them.

When you have a basic core play loop that is fun, you are ready to move on to the next phase.

2. What is the Fundamental Tension of the Game?


Your job as a game designer is to frustrate your players. Every game gives players a goal and then puts roadblocks in their way. Your goal in chess, for example, is to capture the opponent’s king, but the game wouldn’t be any fun if you could just reach across the table and grab it! 1

The design of good games puts restrictions on how you are allowed to act to make the goal challenging to reach. The “fun” of play is the process of navigating through obstacles to move towards your objective. You need to be conscious of what the tensions are, as this is what your game is really “about.”

In the tile-laying game Carcassone, players alternate placing tiles and “Meeples” to claim territory and score points for finishing roads, castles, and other structures. The tension of the game comes from having access to only one tile each turn. Finding the right tile to finish your structures while tactically using tile placement to protect yourself or make things more difficult for your opponents is the heart of the game.

In Solforge, the fundamental tension is around the core leveling system. Since each card levels when you play it, you need to consider both the current effect and the future impact of the leveled card. Players must decide whether to play cards that are good right now but don’t level as well vs. cards that are weaker now but are strong in the late game. This decision then in turn informs the opponent’s decision about which cards to play.

Almost all games have multiple layers of tension, not just one. For example, Carcassone has a limited number of Meeples you can use to claim territory, so deciding when to use and when to hold back Meeples is a key tension. Solforge also has lane based combat, creating a tension of whether to place your creatures defensively to stop opposing creatures or offensively in empty lanes.

It is valuable to identify all the tensions in your game, but it is most important to identify the fundamental tension. Whenever making decisions about your game, always ask “Does this reinforce or weaken the fundamental tension of this game?” If a new mechanic, component, a feature removes focus from the fundamental tension of the game, you should think twice about adding it.

There are many hard to answer questions throughout the process of game design. Identifying the fundamental tension early in the process will help guide you in answering those questions.

3. What are the Resources, Victory Conditions, and Axes of Interaction?

game resources
Every game design has to answer the following questions

  • What resources does the player have access to? (e.g. cards, gold, action points, one play per turn)
  • How does the player win the game? (e.g. eliminate other players, score X points, score the most points when time runs out)
  • How does the player interact with other players and the environment? (e.g. vying to control the same territory, Attacking a fundamental resource, racing on the same track)

Your core design isn’t finished until each of these questions has an answer. At this stage, the goal is to focus on how your game rules manage these systems- not how your individual components handle it. For example, having cards in your card game that specifically reference new victory conditions (e.g. you win the game if your opponent gets 10 or more poison counters) player interactions (e.g. Destroy an enemy tower) or new resources (e.g. Gain an insight token whenever you acquire this card) doesn’t count.

In collectible games, you can always add new rules with new components. You can’t, however, rely on those components to provide the gameplay you want because you can’t always guarantee what components will be present in each game.

There are countless possible variations of resources, victory conditions, and axes of interaction.  To help make things more concrete, in the next article I’ll go through a few basic examples and talk about the implications of each.


Putting it all Together


Core Engine Design is when you first take your inspiration and turn it into something that can actually be prototyped.  Finding answers to the inevitable questions that come up during design isn’t going to be easy, but  you can’t get the right answers until you ask the right questions. Use the questions above to help focus and bring your vision to life.

Want to know more about the building blocks of a game engine?  Click here.

The 5 Phases of Collectible Game Design


For anyone who wants to design a collectible game, this is the series for you. Whether you want to make a collectible card game, miniatures game, or if you just want to add collectible components into your designs, these principles are here to guide you.

What is A Collectible Game? 

I define a collectible game by the following criteria

  • The game is not contained in one purchase
  • Items in the game have scarcity 1
  • Contents of the game are not fixed 2

Each collectible game must support countless individual items and thus is best thought of as a platform upon which you will make many other games.

In the coming weeks, we are going to dig deep into the mechanics and process for building a collectible game from start to finish. For those of you who are more into my philosophical posts and aren’t into game design, you might want to skip this one. For everyone else, let’s get to work!


Process Overview

Building a game is a lot like building a house. You need to build things in the proper order and with the proper emphasis in order to make a game that will stand the test of time. Many designers I speak to spend a lot of time worrying about the paint color while the foundation is still unsound. Don’t fall into this trap!

I break collectible game design into five distinct stages.

1. Engine Design
2. Engine Development
3. Component Design
4. Component Development
5. Polish

Before we get too deep into analyzing each of these phases, there are two rules to keep in mind.

1. Design Phases are Fluid

There is usually not a hard line between when you work on one phase vs. another. You can’t, for example, properly test a game engine without at least some defined components. Similarly, you will often discover engine improvements while working on component development. Each phase shifts the emphasis of your testing, not the essential nature of the process.

2. The Core Design Loop is Still King

The Core Design Loop is at the foundation of all good design.3 Each of the five phases above represents a different focus as you go through the Core Design Loop. You should expect to complete at least one loop during each phase (and most likely far more than one). As a reminder, the steps of the Core Design Loop are:

1. Find Inspiration
2. Set Parameters
3. Brainstorm
4. Prototype
5. Test
6. Iterate

Master the concept of the Core Design Loop before worrying about the collectible design phases.  

The 5 Phases Overview

Now that we have that out of the way, let’s look at an overview of each of the collectible design phases.  We will dig deeper into these phases in the future parts of this series.

Engine Design

The engine is the foundation of your game “house” At this phase, the main purpose is to take your core inspiration and find out how it will be expressed in your game.  I call this engine design because it is what makes the whole game run at a deep level.  This is the period where you take your big ideas and turn them into testable realities.  What is the main resource of the game?  What is the objective? Why is it going to be fun? Don’t get bogged down in minutiae during this phase.  Look past the superficial and focus on fundamentals.  The key questions to ask are:

  • What is the core play loop?
  • What is the fundamental tension of the game?
  • What are the resources, victory conditions, and methods of interaction with other players?

Engine Development

During engine development, you are finishing the basic framework for your game. This is where you shape your game design house with walls and a roof. At this point your core game loop should be clearly defined as additional rules are added, tweaked and removed to hit your objectives. Key questions at answer are

  • What is the average game length ?
  • How many collectible objects are required per player (both in collection and during a single game)?
  • What are the number ranges used in the game (max-min ranges for collectible objects, fixed numbers like victory points, health, etc.)?
  • What are the exchange rates between different game resources?

Component Design

Component Design is where you decide what goes into your house, picking out the furniture, curtains, and appliances.  The focus is on making sure the different pieces of each room fit your purposes and make sense together.  Here is where you begin to flesh out all of the elements of your game, be they cards, figures, loot drops, or anything else. When doing initial component design, it is important to build in systems that support the player in understanding the dozens, hundreds, or thousands of collectible items you will create over time.  These systems give players the ability to process all this information by “chunking” the objects into larger groups. To do this, you need to establish:

  • Categories / Factions
  • Themes
  • Cycles and Structures

Component Development 

Component Development is where your game design house becomes livable, placing all the furniture, tables, chairs, etc. exactly where you want them. This is where you focus on the strength of different strategies and ensure that players are incentivized to do the things you want them to do. Most designers place too much emphasis on this phase too early, but now is the time to

  • Balance the Available Strategies
  • Establish Silver Bullets
  • Emphasize the Fun Play Patterns


Polish is the final layer of paint and decoration to make your game design house beautiful and attractive. This is what separates professional games from amateur prototypes. As great as your game may be, if it doesn’t look good and make sense to the consumer, it will never succeed. This is where you can let your inner OCD run rampant. During this phase, the focus is on:

  • Comprehensive Rules
  • Templating
  • Art, Names, Story

I hope you found this basic overview helpful. Next week, I’ll dig in more detail to Phase 1: Core Engine Design.

Core Design Loop Step 2: Set Parameters

Once you have your Inspiration, you need to set parameters for your design.  One of the biggest challenges of designing a game is how open-ended the process can feel.  Especially at early stages, everything feels in flux and the limitless possibility can be very intimidating. To solve this problem, you need to set parameters.

Create More by Changing Less

Game systems are delicate creatures- changing one part can have ripple effects on the whole design, so it is helpful to define parameters that keep you focused.  Deciding to hold some things constant allows you to be most effective with the changes you do make.  Staring at a blank page with no limitations can be very daunting, but knowing that you want to make, for example, a $14.99 retail card game for 8-12 year olds, can immediately start you down a path.  Limitations breed creativity.

Be Your Own (Tough) Boss

One of the benefits of designing games for hire is that parameters are often set for you.  You will usually be told who your game is for, what the theme will be, and when the game needs to be complete.  These things (especially the deadline) do a wonderful job of focusing your attention on what really matters.  When you are just starting out or designing games on your own, you need to be your own boss and define these parameters for yourself.

Key Questions to Set Parameters

Here are some helpful questions that can guide you in this process.  Answer the below questions for your game and hold those answers constant through your first design cycle.  You can change them later if need be, but there is value in wrestling with the limitations you set for yourself before you relax them. 

1. Who is your target audience?

While we all would love to design games enjoyed by everyone, you need to pick a smaller target to aim at when designing your game.  What key attributes define members of your ideal player group? Try to think about their age, hobbies, interests, etc.  Create a mental picture in your mind of someone in this group. What activities do they engage in?  What motivates them?  What types of things do they buy?  What kind of games do they play now?  Why do they play those games?

Answering these questions and keeping a mental picture of your target audience in your head will help guide your design process.  Don’t try to make your audience too broad, especially at first.  It is a common mistake amongst designers to think their game is for everyone- if you are trying to design something for everyone, you are really not designing for anyone.  Keep your focus small- envision one member of your target audience and design a game for them specifically.

The easiest target audience to design for is yourself. Being able to create games that you yourself love to play has the wonderful advantage of it being obvious when you succeed or fail.  Even if you are targeting yourself, however, make sure that you find others who also fall within your target audience to playtest your game and provide feedback.  We are often blind to our own shortcomings and only the harsh reality of playtesters outside of your design team can truly give you the feedback you need.

2. What is your hook?

Every great game has a hook. Each year, hundreds of games are released and available online and on store shelves.  What makes yours stand out?  There are lots of possible answers to this question, and hopefully you have developed yours during the inspiration step, but its worth thinking out and writing down explicitly. 

There is a principle in business called the “elevator pitch”- imagine that you just so happen to be in an elevator with a wealthy game investor.  You only have a minute to convince this person that you are worth their time after the doors open.  How do you do this?  There are many approaches, but the easiest is to connect two exciting things in a unique way (e.g. Angry Birds with Star Wars characters, Digital Trading Card game plus Tactical RPG, Deckbuilding Game using Dice instead of cards, etc.).  

The same principle will apply with your customer as they browse past your game in a store or ad.  How would you describe your game in one or two sentences?  What differentiates it from other games?  Note that this doesn’t mean your whole game needs to be described in two sentences, just the unique hook that gets someone interested.  If answering this question takes more than two sentences, you need to refine further.

3. What restrictions do you have?

Every design process has to have some restrictions- some of them more severe than others.  Think about what you must work around and what will constrain your design.  Do you have a deadline? Do you have a brand or intellectual property you have to design for?  Do you have cost limitations? A programming language or platform you must use?  As counterintuitive as it is, even if you are designing for yourself and have no immediate restrictions of time and cost, it can be very helpful to artificially create these restrictions.  Remember, limitations breed creativity.  Placing deadlines on yourself 1 forces you to focus on what matters and helps you to rapidly move a game forward, rather than endlessly refining and tweaking and procrastinating.  Write down your restrictions and use them as guidance for the next phase- you can always come back and change them later.

Forging a Path

For my own design, Solforge, I knew I wanted to create a digital card game that was playable on PC, tablets, and phones.  Since I partnered with Richard Garfield, creator of Magic: The Gathering, the pitch was “Magic, for mobile, for free.” 

I wanted to take advantage of the cool things that could only be done in digital gaming, but I self-imposed a restriction to make mechanics that could still be tested with paper cards.  This was in many ways a paradoxical and challenging restriction to work under: Do things that only digital cards can do, but find a way to playtest them in physical-only format.  This forced our design team to come up with clever ideas that let us quickly prototype and iterate without all the expense of implementing a digital version before we were ready.  We came up with the primary mechanic of cards leveling as you played them, which was a big hit with our players. 

To test the game physically, we used “stacked” papers in a protective card sleeve, that could be changed out as the card was played to show that it had leveled up.  The playtesting process was painful (especially having to “reset” all the cards after the game). We knew that once we had something that was fun, even with all the pain of physical testing, that the game would be great once the digital took care of all the hard parts.  Once we took the idea to kickstarter and had backers, suddenly an enormous number of restrictions and deadlines pushed us forward.

Remember, parameters you create are not set in stone, but they are going to help you through the rest of your first design cycle.  The above example illustrates how holding some variables constant can help drive your creativity and move you quickly into the prototype phase.  Those creative leaps forward come during the next phase of the design cycle 2Brainstorming.   

This article has been updated and posted on steemit!

An Ascension Design Inspiration Story

Last week I posted an article on the first part of the Core Design Loop: Inspiration.  Today, I wanted to add a personal story about my own design inspiration that lead to the founding of my company, Stone Blade Entertainment.

Deck Building vs. Company Building

It was 2009 and I had recently quit my job to start my own game company.  The funny thing about starting a company is that until you start making money and working with other people, the difference between “CEO/Game Designer” and “Guy Sitting on his Couch” is a very subtle one.  Its more attitude than reality.

In any case, I had spent some time playing the deckbuilding game Dominion.  OK, some time may be an understatement- I played hundreds of games in a few months.  Dominion introduced the deckbuilding game category, which itself is inspired by the collectible card games category.  It’s elevator pitch is something like “The fun of deckbuilding, without the hassle of collecting cards” 

I liked that you could get the feeling of constructing your own deck and strategy without all the hassle of buying packs of cards and filtering through a collection.  After playing a bunch of games, however, things became pretty predictable.  Once the available cards are determined at the beginning of the game, there was very little variation in how a game would play out and thus optimal strategies began to emerge.  This reminded me a lot of playing a “constructed” format of a collectible card game (where you have a fixed set of cards to build your deck from before the event begins).  At first, there is a lot to explore, but over time the same strategies emerge again and again. 

One way collectible card games solved this problem is by introducing “limited” formats, where players receive a random set of cards that they must build their deck from at the event itself.  The random assortment of cards both serves to make the game easier to access (I don’t need to build a collection from home) and forces players to adapt to different situations every time, making the game more varied and fun.

Just like Dominion got the fun of constructed formats into a single boxed game, I wanted to get the fun of limited formats without having to open random packs of cards.  Thus, the main mechanic of Ascension, the center deck, was formed.  At first, I took exact Dominion cards with only a few variations and just shuffled them up and dealt them out in an ever changing set of available cards.  By not changing much, I was able to test my idea quickly to see if it worked.  I played this just for fun with some friends and got a great response.  I made up my own set of cards and rules variations and tinkered with it for a few weeks.

A Whole New Ballgame

Despite having a fun to play prototype, it never occurred to me to turn this into my first self-published game until a close friend, Rob Dougherty, smacked some sense into me.  “You have the ball.  Run with it!”  I didn’t feel creative enough just combining two things I loved into something new.  I didn’t think that it was “ok” to make a game like that. 

Once I removed that mental block, I could really start to work on something special.  Months of work went into designing new cards, prototyping, refining mechanics, getting feedback, and repeating the cycle, but it all began with one basic concept, and the realization that one great idea well executed is all it takes.  Ascension has gone on to sell hundreds of thousands of copies in both physical and digital form.

Don’t be afraid to run with the ball and make your dreams come true.

Core Design Loop Step 1: Inspiration

While many people would love to make their own games, most don’t even know where to begin.  If you are someone who has always wanted to make games but doesn’t know where to start, this is the article for you.  Moreover, even if you have made games before but want a process for coming up with more ideas, then you’ve come to the right place. 1

The Art of the Steal

All creation is theft. Creativity is about taking concepts you have encountered before and combining them in new and innovative ways.  Don’t be afraid (especially when just starting out) to borrow liberally from other creative works you admire.  The key to creative design is to unite two concepts and present them in a way that is novel and creates a new experience.  So how do you best go about this?

1. Review the games that you love– Hopefully, if you are interested in designing games, you’ve played a lot of them. Find what got you passionate about gaming in the first place and bring it to your first creations.  Take a piece of paper and create as long a list as possible of your favorite games and gaming genres.  Spend at least 20 minutes on this and try to make your list as complete as possible. Include games you played as a child and categories of play you wouldn’t generally think of (video games, board games, role-playing games, drinking games, etc.)

2. Review the games you hate– Any game that has some popularity has something to teach you and has some core elements that may be valuable in design. Think about popular games you’ve played or games your friend’s play that didn’t hit the mark for you.  Take a few minutes and add these next to the list of games you love.

2. Find the gems– Spend time thinking more granularly than a player does.  What features of your favorite games really bring them to life for you?  What mechanics, components, themes, and external factors lead to the experiences and feelings that you most enjoyed? Create a new list of as many of these elements as possible, and highlight the ones that most intrigue you.  Pay close attention to your intense feelings during play – try and identify what about the game triggered those emotions.

3. Find the crap– Now think about the elements you don’t like.  Look not just at games you don’t like overall, but look for ways that the games you love fail.  Think about ways that these games could be better.  There is a tendency for new designers to want to add components to their favorite games, but think also about what could be subtracted.  The best designers are focussed not on adding new things, but removing that which gets in the way of the true core of the design.  Add this list of crap next to your list of gems.

4. Look for patterns– If you’ve followed the above steps, you should have two pieces of paper in front of you, one with a column of games you love and one with a column of games you don’t love as much.  The second paper should list specific mechanics that you love or don’t love.  Glance over these lists and see what jumps out at you.  Is there anything that you can combine that hasn’t been combined before?  Is there anything you can remove to make a game or formula more successful?  Spend 20 minutes jotting down 1-2 sentence ideas for a game concept.  Don’t censor yourself, just keep writing during this period so you can get as many ideas on paper as possible.  If you stop moving your pen for more than 30 seconds, you are doing it wrong.

5. Pick your favorite concept and start working on it!- The next steps of the Core Design Loop are where you begin to refine your concept and bring it to life.  Choose 1 of the ideas above and begin fleshing it out. This is the soul of design- get yourself into a state where you can prototype and test as quickly as possible so you can start learning and improving. I’ll talk more about how to do this in the next articles of this series.

The key to finding good inspiration is to have a lot of raw material to draw from.  The more games you play, the more gristle for the mill of creativity you will have.  As you can see above, the goal is more than just to play your favorite games, but also to play games in categories you don’t necessarily like.

Inspiration can come from anywhere– not just games!  Explore your passions in unrelated industries and use them to find inspiration in making games.  Do you love sewing?  How would the mechanics of sewing turn into a game?  Perhaps an exotic destination you travel to can provide the setting for your next game.  Even experiences you hate can provide inspiration.  Next time you are stuck in traffic, think about making a “racing” game where you race to work at rush hour.  Is there a rage meter you have to manage to survive the trip?

Inspiration is all around us, and as a designer you need to train your eye to pull out the little elements that make games (and other aspects of life) tick.  Keep a journal and take down notes whenever you think of them to add to your lists and review them periodically.  With the above tips, coming up with ideas for games should never be a road-block to you.

The idea, however, is only a small part of the overall picture.  Driving your game through the core design loop takes courage, determination, and a willingness to sacrifice the parts of your design that you love, but that don’t serve the overall game.  Now that we have our inspiration, we need to start setting some limitations to direct our efforts.

Check Out Part 2: Setting Parameters

(This blog has been updated and posted on steemit!  Check it out here.)