Thoughts on designing games

Prompted by an online discussion, I had occasion today to think about designing various types of games. Specifically roleplaying games and board games. (By “roleplaying games” I mean things like Dungeons & Dragons – the original RPGs – not video games that many people nowadays seem to think you mean if say “roleplaying games”.)

I remember when the only RPG I owned was Dungeons & Dragons, but I wanted to play a science fiction game. So I did what many young gamers do and tried to design my own game system to support it. The result wasn’t great.

When you try to design something given only one prior example, you can easily get stuck into thinking that things have to be done the same way, and the design space that you explore tends to be very restricted. When you encounter a different example, suddenly whole worlds of new design space are made evident and open up to you. You don’t have to use 20-sided dice. You don’t have to make rolling higher numbers more desirable. You don’t have to have armour make a defender more difficult to hit. You don’t have to assess damage by subtracting points off some numerical total.

To really get good at designing RPGs, you need to be exposed to a wide variety of designs. You need to read different rule sets and play games with different mechanics. You need a breadth of experience. I have something over 20 different RPGs, possibly up to 30 (which is actually not a lot compared to many gamers), and so I now realise the first attempts I made at designing RPGs were laughably narrow-minded and amateurish.

On the plus side, designing a roleplaying game is actually not as complicated a task as what may seem easier: designing a board game. A board game is much more restricted in what the players can do, whereas an RPG is open-ended and allows players to do virtually anything. But paradoxically this very difference is what makes designing an RPG relatively easy. In an RPG, if a player wants to do something and the rules don’t cover it, you can wing it. If you’re experienced enough, you can even wing it so seamlessly that the players never notice.

In a board game, on the other hand, you need a clear cut rule to cover every possible situation that can arise in the game. You can’t just tell the players to “do whatever makes sense” or for one player to decide what happens. You have to design the rules carefully and meticulously enough that this problem never arises. That’s really hard.

Finally, in a tangentially related topic, I was playing Scattergories online with some friends today and needed to name a title that people can have, beginning with W. Other answers included the valid Wazir and Wizard. I opted for Walgraf, which I honestly thought was a noble title from some European culture.

However, searching the internet for confirmation turned up virtually nothing! The only two seemingly confirmatory hits were the rulebook for a LARP (live action RPG) named Blackspire:

12.12 Titles of Nobility

12.12.6 Viscount/Viscountess Recommended title for serving a term with excellence as Champion in addition to winning the kingdom Weaponmaster tourney. Recipient may substitute an equivalent title name for this rank such as Vicomte, Viconte, Visconte, Vizconde, Visconde, Walgraf or Pasha.

And the second is a campaign log for a D&D game set in the Greyhawk campaign setting:

There are a few snickers in the small crowd of nobles, especially from Lord Galans and Walgraf Deleveu. Lord Galans owns lands that now border on the Watchlands, and Walgraf Deleveu holds title to the lands between the Watchlands and Celene.

Now… it’s odd that both of the references to the noble title of “Walgraf” on the net are related to RPGs. I thought it might be possible that the word was invented by an RPG author and I’d learnt the word from some of the old RPG books I own. I checked the World of Greyhawk books, and they have a list of noble titles, which includes “Graf”, but not “Walgraf”.

So this is a mystery. From where did I learn the word “Walgraf” as a noble title? And why does it appear in two places on the net, both of which are related to fantasy roleplaying games? I am truly stumped.

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4 thoughts on “Thoughts on designing games”

  1. I have some ideas where “Walgraf” could be from – nothing definite, though.

    Anyway, “Graf” is a German noble title, usually translated to English as “count”. I’m no expert in European history, but at least from the Wikipedia for “Graf” ( ) there are variations of the title, and one of them is “Waldgraf”. (Though the German page for “Graf” does not mention them, so I’m not certain about the English page). I’d say this means something like “Forest Count”, but I’m not sure.

    The “Wal” part is a bit strange. In German, there’s the word “Wahl” (“die Wahl”), which means “an election”. The same word is also in Swedish (“en val”) and Finnish (“vaalit”), though of course Finnish just borrowed that, not being a Germanic language. I can’t find any references to counts being elected, but there have been many *kings* who have been elected in Middle-Europe. In German they are sometimes called “Wahlk├Ânig”.

    So, I think one of the ways “Walgraf” could come about is combining both the German “Graf” and “Wahl”, from “Wahlk├Ânig” (or related words), and then dropping the “h”. It does lenghten the ‘a’ sound in “Wahl” and could easily be lost in transcribing by English speakers.

    This is of course just speculation for some reason for “Walgraf”. For roleplaying games, I think “graf” is mentioned in Traveller somewhere, but I have too many books to figure out which one it was.

    1. Yeah, that’s almost certainly it – someone must have made a mistake transcribing into an RPG product somewhere.

  2. games don’t have to have a huge set of rules – take checkers for example – how to move forward, what to do when encountering a rival, what to do when getting to the end of the board, new set of movement rules for those pieces. Take these rules and you can play hours without repeating a game.
    It’s been a while since I’ve played board games, but basically if the instructions are more than 1 page, the game is less popular where I come from.
    More complicated doesn’t equal more fun, and more rules don’t mean people will get it better.

    Makes me think of chaos theory – you can get interesting patterns from the shortest rule set, but I guess it’s more fun if you don’t get stuck in patterns at all.

    1. Yeah, many good games are simple, even new(ish) games. Carcassonne, Settlers of Catan and others are not that complicated. It’s still not easy to design a new simple game, especially for more than two players.

      I think there are multiple drivers for game design. One of them is the fact that most companies need to sell new games or expansions, just to keep in business, and those easily add complexity – see for example that Carcassonne. The basic game is quite simple, but each add-on makes it more complex.

      Then there’s what the players want. I kind of like games which are multi-player and complex enough that it’s not usually feasible to calculate the best move. For example checkers, or go, or chess, there are only a few proper options for moves, and the state of the board is visible to both players, and usually in those games the better player wins most of the time. In modern multi-player board games there is usually some allowance for randomness, and some information is hidden, so it’s not that easy to know the ‘best move’. (Of course there are exceptions, like Diplomacy, which I won’t play.)

      Then you can easily make a bad game with simple elements, see for example Monopoly. The rules are not that complex, there’s randomness, but still as a game I still consider it a quite bad game.

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