Book review: Characteristics of Games

A few months ago, one of my closest friends gave me a copy of a book for my birthday: Characteristics of Games by Skaff Elias, Richard Garfield and Robert Gutschera.

The quick review: I absolutely love this book. If you have friends who are interested in game design, this would make an excellent gift for them.


The authors spend the book analyzing and comparing games, but doing so in a descriptive manner (Game X has this characteristic, which is different from Game Y) rather than a prescriptive manner (game designers should do Z for a good game). They use copious examples from a wide range of games: classic board games such as chess and go, traditional board games such as Risk and Monopoly, modern board games such as Settlers of Catan and Puerto Rico, card games such as Magic: The Gathering, video games such as World of Warcraft and Mario Kart, sports like basketball, and other “games” such as crossword puzzles and “game theory” games.

I like their approach to definitions; they intentionally avoid saying “X counts as a game, but Y does not.” Instead, anything that people often refer to a game is treated as a game, and sometimes things that people don’t really refer to as a game (such as crossword puzzles) are also treated as games. This makes for a wide-ranging book.

The book assumes that the reader has a passing familiarity with the games it mentions, but there’s also a useful appendix with capsule descriptions of each game. These descriptions also tell you how important understanding the game in question is to understanding the book.

One thing that annoyed me was that the authors made the understanding of the computer game Starcraft very important to understanding many of their examples. I know that it’s a well-known game and that it has a huge following in South Korea, for instance, but having never played the game myself I found myself frustrated more than once at how often Starcraft came up. Ultimately, it’s really about the real-time strategy (RTS) genre in general, with Starcraft as the specific example used, but that’s not a genre I’ve played. Oh well; my fault for not being “well-played” enough!

Quick hit thoughts on individual sections

  • Introduction: I liked the coining of the words “orthogames” (games played for fun with more than one player, with winners and losers) and “agential” (characteristics that arise from the way people play the game, which can differ across groups)
  • Heuristics: Hugely enlightening for me. A good game has ways for new players to quickly pick up some basic strategies to get better at the game, but also ways for more advanced players to continue to get better at the game. Players enjoy this.
  • Player Elimination: I like the way they put concepts into words here, talking about players being strictly eliminated (out of the game entirely), logically or “mathematically” eliminated (literally cannot win, but still in the game) and effectively eliminated (theoretically could win, but really, really unlikely). Players tend to dislike being logically or effectively eliminated even more than they dislike being strictly eliminated.
  • Politics: Any game where you can choose another player and help or harm them will have some degree of politics. This can be good or bad, but many players dislike games that devolve into pure politics. Kingmaking is closely related (and comes out of logical/effective elimination).
  • Rules: The concept of first-order rules (the basics of how the game works) and second-order rules (these don’t often come up, but are useful for the situations where you need them) was enlightening. A good rulebook will make the first-order rules very clear, and de-emphasize the second-order rules for clarity’s sake.
  • Standards: Good games have some familiarity. Being completely novel makes the game hard to learn. It’s okay for players to say, “Ah, this works like Mechanic X in Game Y.”
  • Snowball and Catch Up: ¬†These are very much on my mind as a designer already, and this section was packed with goodness. Randomness is a catch up mechanic. Games with lots of catch up lead to a sort of self-deception where the leader might feel like she’s farther ahead than she really is after taking the catch up mechanics into account; this is not a bad thing! It’s fun for many players.
  • Randomness and Luck: A surprisingly hard concept to nail down; for many players, they know it when they see it.
  • Downtime: One huge insight for me here is that Monopoly handles downtime well. The best things happen to you when it’s NOT your turn – that is, someone landing on your property and paying you money. That’s a fantastic way to keep players engaged when it’s not their turn.
  • Combinatorial Game Theory: Mostly handled in an appendix, I mention this because I knew nothing about it before. I actually hold a Master’s degree in economics with an emphasis in game theory, and the appendix on “Von Neumann” game theory was nothing new to me. But the combinatorial game theory section was totally fresh.

Closing thoughts

As I said, I really love this book. It aims to be useful as a textbook for a game design class; I would be happy to teach from it. As a developing game designer, I learned a ton from reading Characteristics of Games, and it’s a book I plan to keep recommending and to keep re-reading from time to time as well. Kudos to Skaff, Richard and Robert!

-Michael the OnlineDM

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