Structure, Hierarchy, Winning and Losing

I’m going to be trying something new here for a little bit. I have to read, every day, for my study. It’s just a rule. I also want to take notes on that reading, to connect what I’m doing and make a history of that work easier to track. As I work on my PhD, expect more of these posts to show up, as I put my work in a broader academic context, and hopefully, make game-writing academia a bit more approachable.

With that in mind, today’s reading was Game Design Workshop, chapter 2, The Structure of Games, by Tracy Fullerton. This chapter seeks to induce designers to dig down into what I’ve called the base assumptions of the game they’re making, with a series of exercises. The first exercise is to compare the videogame Quake and the card game Go Fish.

This kind of comparison means you have to dig pretty deep to find points of commonality, which is kind of the purpose of this sort of comparison. Both games have goals, both games have players, both games have objects in their play space, and we get to talk about Huizinga and the magic circle again. When talking about players, we move on to Bernard Suits, and the lusury attitude, which I haven’t made a shirt about but maybe I should have.

One of the interesting ideas here is that Fullerton – via Chris Crawford, the author of Chris Crawford on Game Design (Crawf0rd, 2003), – suggests that a game lives in a hierarchy with stories, puzzles, and toys. Now, I know, as a person who’s spoken about intertextuality and paratext that I’m technically kinda a Gerard Geanette style structuralist, but this hierarchy really bugs me. I’ve said, in the past, that a game is a machine that makes stories. This hierarchal view is an interesting one because of how players can manipulate and push the boundaries between them, but I don’t think of it as relating nearly like this. After all, stories are almost always interacted with by the audience and the teller – that’s kind of what Barthes was getting at.

During this though I did get this gem: the notion that one of the defining traits of a puzzle is that it has a right answer. That’s an interesting thing, especially when you consider in light of David Price, the Magic The Gathering pro and King of Beatdown’s words:

There are no wrong threats, only wrong answers

When you’re playing a game with people, you are in many cases creating a puzzle for them to solve, for them to oppose. That is, you are forwarding a threat, and they have to find an answer, a solution to what you’re doing. This isn’t to say games are always about questions and answers – sometimes a better question is an answer. Sometimes they’re going to change the position of things by making your threat irrelevant and presenting you with a different, better threat, or a threat that can win the game before yours can, putting you in the position to find an answer.

Finally, Crawford suggests that one detail that games have is they’re designed around a winner. Not sure about that, myself. I can think of five rudimentary axes for a game to work on for victory:

  • One player wins (Magic: The Gathering duels)
  • Multiple players win (Werewolf)
  • Multiple players lose (Starcraft 2 Free-For-All)
  • One player loses (Cockroach Poker)
  • No players win (Tag)

And that’s just a rudimentary thought on that. Cooperative games add the dimension of ‘multiple, meaning all‘ and asymmetrical games include ‘one, or all the others win.’ Are winning and losing directly entangled in your design?


This blog post represents my notes on my PhD reading of Tracy Fullerton’s Game Design Workshop, chapter 2, The Structure of Games, and the images are sourced from same.

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