Games Canon from <em>Creating Games</em>

Disclaimer:I am an editor at A K Peters, the publisher of this book. Sales of this book help my company; thus, I benefit from the sale of this book. However, I don't get any kind of commission or bonus based on sales of this book, so the benefit is not a direct one. Besides being an employee of the company, I also worked on this book, so I am not necessarily unbiased about it.

9781568813059.jpgA K Peters is publishing a book called Creating Games: Mechanics, Content, and Technology by Morgan McGuire and Odest Chadwicke Jenkins. From the authors' website for the book (which contains a full TOC):

"This book is a comprehensive introduction to the process and theories of game development. It is written for academic games courses, professionals new to the games industry, and indie development teams. The book includes worksheets and exercises that cumulate in a game design document."
Basically, it talks about each area of video game development (much of which can be, and explicitly is in parts of the book, applied to board games), in enough detail so that you know what's going on in that area and are able to talk to the people who do work in that area. There's a lot of good stuff in there (I've read the whole book word-for-word, which, contrary to what might be generally believed, is not something an editor in technical publishing does for every book he or she works on), and I think it's something that might be interesting to people who read this blog, even if they never intend to develop a video game.

So, I wanted to put an excerpt up here, and I debated putting one of the meaty chapters of the book up, but I decided that the games canon that appears as an appendix of the book might actually be more interesting for the blog. So, here's the canon. I'll just note that this book is copyrighted by A K Peters, 2008, and used by permission (I asked the publisher). All rights reserved. The book should be out around Thanksgiving, and you can preorder it from the A K Peters website or from Amazon.

The Games Canon
(Appendix F from Creating Games: Mechanics, Content, and Technology by Morgan McGuire and Odest Chadwicke Jenkins)

Famous, infamous, radically innovative, critically acclaimed, or blockbuster successes, these are games everyone in the field should know about. They form the base of prior art. In any field, professionals work within a mainstream culture that references important previous work. These form the critical jargon (e.g., "this painting references Van Gogh's Starry Night") and the cultural context for new ideas.

Research is important in any field. It is how we build on the successes of the past and avoid their failures. You wouldn't try to write a book or create a car without first learning about the ones that preceded yours. When creating a game, you should research previous games. This list summarizes some of the most important games. It is intended as a jumping-off point for further research if a game sounds like one you'd like to make. Read through it to familiarize yourself with the previous work. No game designer would be taken seriously without at least passing familiarity with these titles, and most designers have studied several of them in depth.

For brevity, only the most critically acclaimed (or derided) and popular games are listed. In many cases, a previous game introduced a concept (e.g., Crystal Caverns predated Wolfenstein) but had a minor impact. These also include the games that designers often list as their major influences.

For additional cannon lists, see Lowder's book for an excellent recent review of major board games by famous game designers, for up-to-date Internet ratings, and Wikipedia's best-selling (if not best) video game list at


The minicanon contains the bare minimum set of games that you should be familiar with to appreciate the examples in this book and start making your own games. A games course should offer these or equivalents to students at a minimum, and anyone serious about games should own them. Most of these games are explained in more depth in the following sections and referenced throughout the text (see the index for references). Note that these aren't necessarily the absolute best games in their class, according to one specific design criterion, but they are likely the most widely acclaimed, easiest to acquire, and successful.

  • Carcassonne by Klaus-Juergen Wrede is a board game that features tile-laying and semicooperative mechanics. It has multiple ways of earning points, relatively low variance, and deep strategy and is supported by a series of expansions and alternative rule sets.

  • Settlers of Catan by Klaus Teuber is a board game with trading and building mechanics. Settlers and Carcassonne cover most of the mechanics found in modern strategic German board games and clarify the differences in mechanics and business models that distinguish them from ancient games and twentieth-century American games. They have also both successfully been converted to Xbox 360 video games. Puerto Rico is a good substitute for Settlers and features similar mechanics and theme but more advanced play and better balance.

  • Chess is representative of ancient strategy games. It is played internationally from casual to tournament levels and features rich emergent play. Almost everyone is immediately familiar with the basics of the game, and the knight and king playing pieces are challenged only by the six-sided die for the iconic status as the symbol of gaming in general.

  • Go beats chess in complexity (due to the large board), age, and elegance (there are only two rules to the game!). Although less popular in America than chess, many classic mechanics and strategies arise directly from the rules of go, including encirclement, flanking, captures, and variable board size.

  • Poker is a gambling card game that rivals all other games in terms of tournament popularity and purse size. It is exemplary as a classic card game and relies almost exclusively on bidding mechanics, which can be studied in depth through the many variants on this game. Poker is familiar to most gamers and requires only a standard deck of cards to play.

  • StarCraft, or any other major RTS/TBS video game (e.g., Warcraft, Civilization, Populous, Master of Orion, Empire Earth), is a requirement for any game developer. We have a slight preference for the Age of Empires series, which combines some modern RTS UI conventions and elements of casual gameplay to make the games more accessible to new players (and also has a free demo of the latest version). These play like a board game but with mechanics so complex that you need a computer to resolve them, nicely showing the transition from strategy to tabletop wargame to computer game. The character-building RPG mechanics made famous by Diablo and Dungeons & Dragons all appear in RTS games, but the "character" is the army or civilization. Mechanics are at the forefront of RTS games, and these are a celebration of complexity.

  • Half-Life 2 stands out among FPS games. It is exemplary as a shooter, and the engine supports the other popular shooters Counter-Strike and Team Fortress, but HL2 also pushes farther toward storytelling than any other FPS and is among the most technically sophisticated of its time in terms of technology and Internet distribution business model. We believe that the original Half-Life had a better quality balance (HL2's graphics and physics advanced substantially, but the puzzles, mechanics, and story were at the same level as HL1) but believe that new gamers would appreciate HL2 more because they are accustomed to modern graphics and audio.

  • Tetris is iconic as a puzzle and casual game, and decades after its introduction is still considered the standard to meet. The elegant gameplay, tremendous commercial success, and geometric twist on dominoes meets Connect Four make this game a classic. Bejeweled, Hexen, Maki, and other popular arcade puzzle games are directly inspired by Tetris.

  • Guitar Hero and its sequels were neither the first rhythm games nor the first guitar games, but they took the genre to perhaps its natural acme. Guitar Hero 2 and Rock Band (by the same developer, Harmonix, and the moral sequel to GH2) are the best of the series. By combining a physical prop with popular music, these games offer broad casual gamer appeal and have consistently been among the best sellers every year since their introduction. Reasonable substitutes are Dance Dance Revolution (DDR), Karaoke Revolution, PaRappa the Rapper, and Guitar Freaks, although these do not have the same mass appeal.

  • Super Mario Bros. and its many sequels (e.g., Mario 64, Super Mario 3, Super Mario Galaxy) stand out as best-of-breed platformers. These have tight arcade controls for hardcore gamers combined with cartoony content for casual players. They are polished to a shine by Nintendo's development team and feature a Japanese experiential aesthetic that is still grounded enough for mainstream Western audiences. The Mario games are consistently among the best-selling games of all time, and Mario is probably the most recognizable (and longest lived) video game character—the video game equivalent of Mickey Mouse. As with most of Nintendo's most popular games, the Mario games were designed by Shigeru Miyamoto.

  • The Sims 2 and its sequels and expansions are the best of breed (and best-selling) of the god game/pet-raising genre games. These feature most of the mechanical complexity of an RTS, but that complexity is buried behind fiction so compelling that the player's mental model invariably aligns with the artificial characters and not the mechanics. The Sims series is often considered the best-selling video game of all time, taking sequels and expansion packs into account. The game was designed by industry veteran Will Wright, who dedicated it to the memory of Dan Bunten, author of M.U.L.E.

  • Indigo Prophecy is deeply flawed in its action sequences, and the plot goes haywire halfway through the game, yet it is one of the best examples of the potential for interactive fiction. This arcane mystery game features characters that the player will really empathize with and scenes that inspire true anxiety, fear, desire, and awe. Although few narrative games can touch Indigo Prophecy, some other well-respected narrative games include Dreamfall and Jade Empire. The older Lucas Arts games (many by Tim Schafer and with writing by Orson Scott Card) feature rich characterization, humor, and fantastic scenes but only occasionally gripping narratives: The Secret of Monkey Island, Grim Fandango, Full Throttle, and The Dig.

(Read the rest of the games canon, which lists games by category.)

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6 Responses to Games Canon from <em>Creating Games</em>

  1. sneJ says:

    This is a really fun list that I enjoyed reading. But a few nits...

    A typo in the full canon: it calls German board games "late twenty-first century strategy games" which is of course 100 years off! (Also, "Eurogames" might be a more inclusive name, since two of the games on that list aren't by German designers.)

    Also: "Pente is rare in that it is a simple (it has only two rules), abstract board game that is relatively young (circa 1978). There are actually zillions of recent abstract board games; it's just that most of them are not commercially published so they aren't well known. The well-known designer Sid Sackson invented quite a few, as did mathematicians like John H Conway; also check out the websites of Christian Freeling, Mark Steere, Cameron Browne, Dieter Stein, et al.

    "Dogs in the Vineyard is a pen-and-paper RPG that resolves conflict by bidding for control of the narrative." The RPG "Universalis" does this, and goes even further against the grain by having the characters and NPCs be controlled jointly by all the players, and eliminating the role of GM. Well worth checking out.

    "DOOM was the first major success of the shareware business model. It introduced first-person 3D perspective, the "looking over your gun" view, mouse-look, ... competitive network multiplayer..." DOOM may have popularized these, but "introduced" is too strong a term. All of the elements above appeared in games such as "MazeWars" developed at Xerox PARC on the groundbreaking Alto systems (which were not publicly release, but then neither was the original 1962 Space Wars game also in the list.)

  2. Andrew Plotkin says:

    I could add quibbles of my own (Puerto Rico's role mechanic owes not a damn thing to Cosmic, although Cosmic might deserve a slot in its own right) but really I comment just to say "Werewolf! Woot!"

  3. Kevin Jackson-Mead says:

    sneJ, thanks for the catch on German board games. I've corrected it now to read "Late twentieth and early twenty-first century". :-)

    I'll leave it to the authors to discuss the rest of the points, if they so choose.

  4. misuba says:

    Good list, refreshingly light on things that can't be had for love or money. (But that is a really odd way of characterizing Dogs in the Vineyard... not strictly inaccurate, but misleading.)

  5. Joan says:

    The link to the full canon appears to be broken. Presumably the link should be either fixed or removed.

  6. Kevin Jackson-Mead says:

    Thanks, Joan. It looks like it got lost in the shuffle when we changed blogging platforms. I've rescued it via the Wayback Machine, so I think everything should work now (any bad links in the document itself are just going to stay that way, because I'm not going to chase down four-year-old links).

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