Game-Design Games

I keep meaning to post a long post all about how cool Strange Synergy is, but here's just a little post right now.

One of the things I really like about Strange Synergy is the game-design aspect. In the beginning, you are randomly dealt a number of power cards (things like "Zorch Ball" and "Mental Crush" and "Smoke Bombs" and "Rubber Body"), and you have to assign those powers to your team of three characters. The rules say that you get nine cards and give three to each character, but I've found that I like giving each player fifteen cards, of which they get to give three to each character. This has a few benefits, one of which is evening things out a little bit, as you can sometimes get stuck with a really crappy set of cards and get completely dominated by another player with better cards.

The other benefit is that you actually get to feel like you're doing a bit of game design before you play the game. You get to decide what your characters' powers are, figure out which combinations will work best, how each character will complement the rest of the team, etc. And then you get to test out your design by actually playing the game.

I would like to find more of these kinds of games, where there is a design element incorporated into the game. If there are enough interesting ones, I kind of hope that I can suggest that these all be pulled together as a theme for a future Gameshelf episode.

So, anyone have suggestions for other games to add to this list?

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5 Responses to Game-Design Games

  1. Malcolm Ryan says:

    Players take turns in the game proposing changes to the rules and voting on them. If they get enough votes, the rules are changed. (At least, that's how it works _initially_ but everything is open to change).

    A less full-on game-design game is Bartok ( which is a variant of Crazy Eights (or Uno) in which the winner adds a new rule at the end of every game.You could say that every CCG with a deck-building component is a kind of game-design game.

    A game that is more obviously a game-design game is Nomic ( It was designed by a Philsophy of Law student as an investigation of bodies of law that can amend themselves.

    There are a bunch of other game-design games listed in the Nomic FAQ (

  2. The first thing that comes to mind is ol' Magic: The Gathering, where you've got to build a custom deck using all the cards you personally possess before playing.

    And of course there's tabletop role-playing games where you get to kit out your PC however you'd like before setting off, but that's perhaps two steps away from the kind of game you're asking about.

  3. Jon F says:

    This topic has a lot of fuzzy edges, so I'll try to stick to what I think you mean. (For example, way too many miniatures and other wargames begin with selecting an army given a specific number of "build points", which is one way of not being exactly what you mean, I think.)

    I think more overall per gamer time was spent on Car Wars (Steve Jackson) designing the cars than playing the actual game.

    In Clash of the Gladiators (Hans im Gluck) you choose your gladiator abilities from a common bank (somewhat reducing the random draw effect) and the ability tokens themselves are the gladiators' hit points.

    You begin American Megafauna (Sierra Madre) by choosing your "dentition", which affects which creatures you can evolve into. This choice eventually disappears into the noise, as this game is famous for being more of a fascinating simulation than a player contest.

    Careers (Parker Bros., et al.) begins with each player choosing their secret goals, and this mechanism was borrowed by many other games thereafter. This is getting a bit far afield from a "design" choice, though in a different direction from the above.

    As the previous commenter suggested, the entire genre of CCGs is based around standardized rules for a huge set of options in fielding your one deck.

    Many sets of house rules for Cosmic Encounter (Eon, other publishers ignored) begin with a pre-game game for choosing which powers each player will play the real game with.

    Programmed movement on a turn-by-turn basis (a la Roborally) is, yet again, not really what you mean, but both Gunslinger (AH) and Magic Realm (AH) define characters by the sets of actions they may choose their program from, which *is* what you mean.

    More later.

  4. Kevin Jackson-Mead says:

    Due to the comment problem, I didn't know that most of these comments were here until just recently (apparently comments that are removed from spam don't generate a notification email?).

    Anyway, thanks for all the suggestions.

    Jon F, thanks for the impressive list of games that I've never heard of (with the exceptions of Car Wars and Cosmic Encounter). I will definitely have to check some of them out.

    So, yes, there are the rule-changing games. Ones where you keep rules hidden from the players (like Mao and to some extent Bartok) just leave a bad taste in my mouth. However, Nomic sounds like it could be really interesting. Not exactly what I was looking for, but now I want to try a game of Nomic (and I'll bet a shortened live version of Nomic could possibly be used for the show).

    Deck-building games, such as most CCGs, definitely fit into the kind of thing I was thinking of. Back when I was playing Magic, the deck-building aspect was probably what I got the most enjoyment out of, and it certainly has the same feelings associated with it as building a Strange Synergy team. I stopped playing them mostly because I moved away from my group of people who played, but I never took it up again mostly because it seemed like way too much work to keep up with all of the expansions (not to mention the expense). An example of a non-collectible deck-building game is Blue Moon, although you do need to buy more sets in order to really build decks (the sets are complete, so there is no collectible aspect). I own the basic set and one expansion set, but I've only played the game a few times, and I've never done deck-building with it. This would probably be a good game to go along with Strange Synergy on the show. I'm sure there must be other non-collectible deck-building games out there.

    And then there are miniatures games, where you have a cerain number of points with which to assemble an army. I've only ever played Battletech, where you don't generally assemble huge armies. I think I might like those types of games. What I really liked, though, was designing my own 'Mechs in Battletech. I don't think I every really played with 'Mechs I designed, but I spent quite a bit of time playing around with different designs. I remember doing some interesting minmaxing with many small 'Mechs with no armor, a couple of lasers, and very fast movement. Their fast movement made them hard to hit, somewhat compensating for having no armor, and also let them get around behind other 'Mechs, where they could open up on the less protected back with their lasers. This definitely had some of the same game-design feel that Strange Synergy has for me.

    I could totally see a Gameshelf episode with Strange Synergy, Blue Moon, and possibly Battletech. Still not sure what computer game might fit into this.

  5. Andrew Plotkin says:

    Nomic is the moral grandfather of all rule-changing games. (I like Jake Davenport's "Pure Nomic" variant, which starts with exactly one rule. Suber's original conception of Nomic started with an fairly complex legal system already in place.) But doing it on the show... possibly not exciting enough. Or, possibly, dull as mud. :) Historically, most Nomic has been play-by-email, with games lasting weeks (and then generally petering out rather than coming to any conclusion).

    But your original description seemed to be about *strategy* design rather than game design. Or maybe the phase of game design where the basic rules are in place, and you're balancing the roles and cards and such.

    Except the aims are quite different... The player is trying to make his team *win*. Whereas the game designer is trying to make sure that that no one strategy is dominant -- i.e., that different players will try to make their teams win in different ways. So playing the game only feels like game design if I ignore the *actual* game design that went into the system, which is a bit too much cognitive dissonance for me. :)

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