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Games Canon from Creating Games

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.)

Homebrew tabletop mashups

I have many clever and creative friends who like games. One or another of them will regularly host game-playing gatherings at their homes, where we sink a few hours or more into various tabletop contests. But sometimes, some of these clever and creative people will find themselves a little tired of the well-worn titles, and that's when the combinatory experimentation starts.

quiddler_texas_holdem.jpgI took this photo last weekend, during one such event. The card-based word game Quiddler (published by Set Enterprises) is an old favorite of many-perhaps-most of my gamer friends. My pal Marc, one of the weekend-long game-gathering's hosts, led a groggy Sunday-morning group in inventing the mashup of Quiddler and Texas Hold Em depicted here. Players each held two of Quiddler's letter-cards, and as community cards appeared according to the standard flop-turn-river pattern, players bet on wether they held the highest-scoring Quiddler hand. This photo shows the final round's winning hand in the lower left; it allowed Marc to spell ZITHERS.

One especially memorable mashup I enjoyed several years ago, via the same group of friends, was "Apples to Ideas", a collision of the increasingly well-known party game Apples to Apples (Out of the Box Publishing) with the rather more obscure party game The Big Idea (Cheapass Games). It essentially involved pitching pairs of the green and red apple cards instead of using the standard Big Idea cards, and otherwise playing according to the The Big Idea's rules, which involves rapid-fire pitching of cockamamie startup-company ideas based on the cards you play. We found that this not only led to a much larger pool of cards, but players had to get more creative coming up with (at least vaguely) legitimate-sounding business models based on cards not tuned for this purpose. During this one game, I scored big by playing the card pair [Industrious] [Industrial Revolution], selling it with the slogan The socioeconomic paradigm shift so nice, we named it twice!™

Have you seen, pondered, or even invented and playtested any game-mashup ideas, yourself?

Aquarius drifting into the ether

According to the game's official mailing list, Looney Labs is letting Aquarius drift out of print for the time being, so that they can concentrate more on their core products, like Fluxx and Icehouse Treehouse.

This is kind of a bummer; when I first became a Looney fan around 1999, the game was their most recent release, and so it's always been closely tied to the company itself in my mind. It's the single game that best visually personifies the Looneys' "Hippie Game Company" self-image, with its colorful, Peter Max-esque artwork. And, while a lot of hobbyist-gamers I know roll their eyes at its many random factors, it's definintely the only Looney game that I can consistently get anyone in my family to play!

But, business is business, and I totally understand their decision. In the meantime, you can take Aquarius for a spin online at, or via Kory Heath's Javaquarius. If you dig it enough to want your own real-life deck, your best bet is to grab one from the Labs' online store, since they've stopped distributing it to retailers.

Episode #5 - Hidden Roles

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This episode's games:

This show was produced between September 2006 and and March 2007, and prior to that we hadn't done any shooting since the end of 2005! I hope to pick up the pace quite a bit in 2007, producing at least four or five full shows. I think we've gotten better at it; you can see a real jump in quality between this episode and the last one, and I think that the next episode will be better still.

Episode #4 - Tile Games

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[info]prog and [info]mrmorse look at three tile-placement games.

  • Carcassonne, a game of communal map-building and sneaky claim-jumping. We look at the basic set, which was published in the United States in 2000 and remains widely available.

  • The Very Clever Pipe Game, a Cheapass "Hip Pocket" entry that delivers on its title for under five bucks. The two- and four- player variants play quite differently, and we examine both.

  • Pipe Dream (et al), a classic computer game about laying pipe on a grid against a liquid timer. It was a commercial title in the 1980s, but due to its simple concept it's seen many shareware and freeware clones since then. The ones featured on the show include Federico Filipponi's MacPipes and Adam Doppelt's untitled Java applet (which you can find all over the place, in case that link ever goes bad).

The players inlcude [info]cthulhia, [info]ruthling, [info]rikchik, [info]grr_plus1, [info]radiotelescope, marymary, and [info]prog.

This episode features even more music ripped off from Star Control II / The Ur-Quan Masters (a game we reviewed two episodes ago). Our opening song is once again the goofy Orz Theme, and the clangy-bangy number that plays while Matt introduces The Very Clever Pipe Game is the Zot-Foq-Pik Theme. Frungy frungy frungy etc.

The airy music underscoring the opening skit is a composition by the great video game soundtrack composer Yuzo Koshiro for a version of Zork that was released only in Japan for the Sega Saturn. You can find the game's entire soundtrack here.

So, you may have noticed a nine-month gap between this episode and the previous one. The short explanation is that I launched a startup company based around the Volity Network last year, and in December got so deeply involved with it that work on it pretty much precluded every other activity, including any Gameshelf work. All the live footage from this episode was shot at the beginning of December, right before things became crazy.

I would have at least completed editing this episode that month, but at the time I was quite discouraged by the quality of the footage, especially the host segments. Matt and I were mediocre at best in our attempts at scripted skits or game introductions - if we want to keep doing this, we need to either practice more or have a better cueing system. Also, I was dressed terribly; that T-shirt managed to accentuate my programmer's gut, while the clip-mic's drag delicately exposes an off-center hint of pasty white throat-flesh.

While the content of the gameplay segments was great, they also made me sad due to technical problems. The sound levels were way off and at some points barely audible, and sometimes the light was off as well, giving a weird grainy appearance to the Carcassone footage. I fixed what I could in editing but I am not an expert in either, so it's still not very good. You can also hear the players' voices "skipping" during some scenes. At least some of these problems were probably due to the fact that the camcorder I use to export footage onto my computer had been accidentally dropped during one of the shoots, rendering it still working but a bit cockeyed and possibly wonky. So, yes, many small sadnesses.

What's next for The Gameshelf? I'm not sure. I'm still running the company, but have a better handle on my time than I did at the start of the year. On the other hand, I'm going to be taking a day job of some sort soon because the startup ain't paying the bills. I will therefore say nothing now, except that I very much want to continue the show, and am full of ideas about how to make it better. I'll figure something out. Stay tuned. Better yet, stay subscribed through iTunes or something, and you'll get a pleasant surprise sometime in the future. (Which, indeed, may have been the case with this very episode for you.)

If you'd like to watch a video blog about games in the meantime, there is Board Games With Scott. It is different from my show in many ways - it concentrates solely on board games, for one thing, and also focuses more on explaining gameplay than actually showing it in action. But he does a much better job at explanations than we've done so far. Look for future Gameshelfs to gleefully rip off techniques from him.

Episode #3 - Wargames

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Jmac and guest host Joe Johnston take a look at some fairly recent wargames.

  • Memoir '44, an accessible yet rich modular game of tactical engagements between Allied and German forces in World War II.

  • Gnostica, an abstract wargame played on a shifting deck of Tarot cards. Players use colorful Icehouse pieces to represent their forces.

    The players on the show use my copy of the Aquarian Tarot, which, with its pretty but low-key imagery, is my favorite deck for gaming. I marked up this deck with Gnostica stickers [pdf link], which helps tremendously in remembering all the cards' powers and point values in this game.

  • Warsong, a very deep, story-driven wargame released for the Sega Genesis video game system in 1991. I spent much of the summer of 1993 playing this, and now you too can while away the hours on your computer through a Sega Genesis emulator. Finding the ROM is an exercise left to the viewer cough cough.

I did not like this episode as much as a the previous one, mainly because our regular director, Joe Constantine, had to miss the game shoot. (We currently split the show's footage collection over two shoots: one for games, another for the host segments.) Lee Stewart, who usally does camera, did an admirable job filling it as director for that shoot, and I took over camera duties. My camerawork was rather mediocre, though -- check out the vertigo-inducing focal plane misplacement in some of the Memoir '44 shots -- and I didn't get to play any games!

I need to position the cue cards closer to the camera -- that's why I keep looking to the side -- and have a better idea of what I'm going to say. Until then it's the Umm uhh uhhhhm show, at least during my monologues.

Other than all these technical complaints, I think that the episode content is pretty good. And hey, we used the green screen correctly for the first time (for that intro bit with me yelling at the camera). Looking forward to having more fun with that later.

Episode #2 - Space Games

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Jmac and guest host Joe Johnston take a look at space-themed games.

This episode looks a lot better than the previous one, don't you think? It was entirely shot in the SCAT studio with an excellent crew. It actually doesn't make use of a "board-cam" we rigged up to continuously film an overhead shot of the table during games. Maybe I'll edit some of those shots in later, but Joe Constantine did such a good job directing the player-cameras that I didn't really feel the need to do the extra work.

I also mention The Interactive Fiction Competition, a.k.a. the IFComp, as an aside before the first segment. If you want to see (and maybe help judge) the latest efforts from the amateur text adventure creation community, do have a look.

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