A Layman’s Thoughts on Game Design – #1

Terms & Definitions

In order to talk with someone about any subject, there needs to be common ground when it comes to the words or phrases they use. If the two people think about the same word in different ways they will not be on the same page. This will lead to confusion and they may not reach an understanding in their communication. I feel like in the discussion of game design this is a real barrier for people who want to become part of the hobby.

Game design, like many other subjects, starts in the mind with the way we think and form ideas. There is a tendency among designers to use terms interchangeably when talking about design ideas. This is not done with any evil motivation but instead, comes from the fact that designers… well, they are just people who need to form words in order to express the ideas in their heads. To start us out on the right foot, here are a few definitions that should help to keep confusion to a minimum. Please keep in mind that the author is also just a person, and you might not find all of these definitions in a dictionary.

For instance in order to talk about game design theory we should define theory. The dictionary has several to pick from:

Theory #1: “An uncertain belief or a system of ideas intended to explain something.”

Theory #2: “A set of principles on which the practice of an activity is based.”

For the purpose of our talk about game design we will use this hybrid definition:

Theory #3: “A person’s unique perspective on the practice of game design presented to explain their point of view or opinion.”

I define it this way so that you as the reader will understand that when you hear any designer is talking about how they make games they are mostly talking about their personal game design theory. However, sometimes they are talking about the method they used to design one game. This means that the next term to understand is, yep you guessed it method. For this one, we only throw out the dictionary version because like most thing in the dictionary the definitions themselves are sometimes hard to truly understand in the context they are being used. This is also one of the times that a word inside a phrase takes on a slightly different meaning from when the word is used in other ways.

Dictionary Version for Method: “A particular form of procedure for accomplishing or approaching something, especially a systematic or established one.”

Design Method: “The sometimes unique way or order a designer does things to create a game while still using steps from well-established game theory.”

Here is the other way I will use the word method, and while it is very similar I thought seeing the two versions might help you to see my method for defining terms.

Method: “The way someone changes or modifies any well-established way of doing something.”

I should point out that what I am doing here is designing new definitions for words using my theories about life and how to communicate ideas, and in so doing, established a new method for communicating those ideas.

In the design of anything, these are important things to keep in mind. First, you need to develop your own theory of design and then a method for how you will use that theory to make games. In doing these two things you will be well on your way to having your own style of design. This, of course, has nothing to do with what style of games you will make. I said style in two ways to point out that yet again we find a word that is used in a few different way in the world of game design. Here are the three definitions, mostly just so we are all on the same page (as they each come right out of the dictionary).

Style #1: “A distinctive appearance, typically determined by the principles according to which something is designed”

Style #2: “A manner of doing something”

Style #3: “Elegance and sophistication”

Synonyms for style: manner, way, technique, method, methodology, approach, system, genre.

Which do we mean when we use the term style in the context of a game? Well, we use them both. Sometimes we use it the same way the first definitions suggest, and that is to directly reference the physical appearance (primarily of the artwork) of the game. The synonyms list gives one possible answer for the word most people mean when they use style for what type of game. That word is genre.

Type or Genre #1: “A category of artistic composition, as in music or literature, characterized by similarities in form, style, or subject matter.”

Type or Genre #2: “A category of games, characterized by similarities in component types, gameplay mechanics, or Themes.”

Now that you get the basics of what I am trying to do, here are some new (or just clarified) term definitions in rapid fire:

Type: “A category of things having common characteristics.”

Theme: “The subject of a talk, a piece of writing, a person’s thoughts, or an exhibition; a topic.”

In our case, type has more to do with the physical components and mechanical workings of a game and not as much to do with the theme. The type of game answers the question “what type of game is it?” the answer is normally a list of game mechanics. The question “What is the game about?” normally is more of a theme related version of the type, for this use genre instead of type.

You as the designer do need to think about what type or style of game you want to make and what genre it will fit into in the board game marketplace based on theme and type of gameplay it has.

Pattern: “A model or design used as a guide in design.” or “A repeated “normally” decorative design.”

If you use someone else’s method (or way of doing something) you would be using their method as a pattern. Also, if you made several games that had the same design characteristics that would be a pattern of design. Try not to confuse pattern with sequence.

Sequence: “A particular order in which related events, movements, or things follow each other.”

Procedure: “An established or official way of doing something.”

This is very close to the definition of game rule… but is not the exact same thing.

Rule: “One of a set of explicit or understood regulations or principles governing conduct within a particular activity or sphere.”

So you can think of one rule as just a part of building a procedure for how a game is played, much like a component is just one part of a mechanic.

Component: “A part or element of a larger whole, especially a part of a machine.”

Mechanism: “A system of parts working together in a machine; a piece of machinery.”

Mechanics #1: “The machinery or working parts of something.”

Game Mechanics #2: “A rule or action (or set of rules and actions) that come together to form a procedure of interaction with game components used by players to play a game.”

System #1: “A set of connected things or parts forming a complex whole.”

If you have listened to people talk about games or game design you know that these four terms are used in many ways but the main thing to keep in mind is that they are all just levels of complexity within the same design concept. There are many ways to describe things in this concept and more terms than can be covered in a short amount of time. Just try and remember to order your thoughts smallest to largest and you should be fine. Terms like, Subsystems or sub-mechanics, and interconnected or interdependent systems or mechanics just form a hierarchy of parts that will help to keep things from becoming too confusing if used correctly. The ideas of nesting or combining parts of mechanics to build ever more complex systems within games will become clearer the more you use them. We will go deeper into these ideas later.

Note: System, as defined above, should not be confused with a games system like PlayStation or Xbox, or a board or card game system. This use of system will be discussed later when we talk about how a standard deck of cards is in fact, a card game system, because it can be used to play many different games.

System #2: A set of shared components or mechanics that can be used to play more than one game.”


As designers, we do not always have access to an infinite supply of components, artwork, imagination, raw talent, time, money or other things we are said to need. This lack of things is known as a:

Constraint: “A limitation or restriction.”

But when it comes to game design there are also self-imposed constraints. You will need to think about how, when, and why to impose other types of constraints as you work through design. In this case, it is not so much a matter of a word having a bad or vague definition. It is more a matter of our need to expand the way we think about the term and decide for ourselves whether or not it is a “bad” thing to have in our designs. The subjective nature of life makes this a hard choice at times, so it will be covered in more detail later.

Experience: “Practical contact with and observation of facts or events.” Or “Encounter or undergo (an event or occurrence).”

Experience: “Having knowledge or skill in a particular field, especially a profession or job, gained over a period of time.”

Experience: “An aspect of character development or progression, referring to an element used in games used to acquire or gain knowledge or skills in a general or specific way.”

The Game Experience: “Is the way players interact with the game, its components, rules, other players, and the overall feelings and impressions the game gives to players.”

As a designer, you need to be mainly concerned with that last definition. However, all of them will come up when talking about games and game design. We might, therefore, talk about the “level of experience” a player needs in real life in order to use a mechanic in a more complicated game. We can also, talk about “experience” as a mechanic or component within games. The context of how this term is use will be vital to understanding the differences.

Wrap Up

So, why am I bothering to create all these new unofficial definitions and connections between terms and their different meanings? Because I want you to be able to go out into the world of game design and hear someone say this:

“This means that you can make any style of game using your own style and give the game some style.”

However, you will understand it to mean this:

“This means, that you can use your own methods based on any theory of game design to craft any type or genre of game and give it some style.”

I hope you can see now that it is important to build a common frame of reference for how we communicate ideas. If you just, jump right into talking about theories, methods, and design concepts without finding this common ground, the conversation will be less productive and harder to follow. With the framework of terms we have now, I hope the rest of our conversation will be easier to understand and you will be able to make better use of the ramblings that follow. We will keep defining more terms as we go (should it become necessary).

This is intended only as “Food for Thought”. Please let me know what you think, I am by no means the authority on this subject so any input from other designers is greatly appreciated.

“Remember to think outside the box so your games will fit inside!”


“I want to help you embrace the bright hope for your future.”


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