Book Review – Game Design

Game Design – How to Create Video and Tabletop Games, Start to Finish
By Lewis Pulsipher
Published by McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2012
268 pages
ISBN 978-0-7864-6952-9

Publisher website:
Publisher order line: 800-253-2187

Disclaimer – I received a review copy of this book.  This was provided courtesy of Lewis Pulsipher and McFarland & Company, Inc.

The most important thing to realize, relative to Pulsipher’s book, is that the title is entirely accurate – the emphasis of the book is on videogame design, even though the book spends considerable energy on tabletop game design.  Furthermore, the book recommends tabletop game design as a method to growth and improvement as a videogame designer.  The aspiring boardgame designer will find plenty of information focused on her pursuit – just inst and amongst the videogame-specific information.

Pulsipher has applied what he has learned in the design of boardgames – his most famous being Britannia – to teach the theory of game design for a number of years.  As a result, his book has the feel of a college text more than other comparable books.  There are a couple of significant advantages gained by this approach.  First, the book is full of external references, to other books, web articles, and other materials.  And even more importantly, one primary emphasis of many books on game design – finding a route to publication – is nearly completely dropped in preference for a much greater depth of material on the process of designing a good game.  As a result of both of these advantages, Game Design is designed to be a key book in a prospective game designer’s library, rather than a do-it-all manual.

Game Design is divided into ten chapters, with most of the critical information for tabletop game designers packed into the first four chapters, and the sixth chapter on effective playtesting.  The book opens with an introduction, containing what might be my favorite sentence in the book: “My favorite game is that of designing games.”  While the love of designing games is certainly not sufficient to make one successful at designing games, enjoying the process is an excellent – arguably the best – reason to do so.  And it most certainly is a game.  It’s a very open ended game – there are no built-in rules to keep a designer from doing something stupid.  And just as with games, doing something unusual and innovative can lead to great success – or a large step backwards.

The first chapter of the book is “The Process of Game Design”.  Of particular note in this chapter is the section on the origin of games.  I appreciate that he highlights “constraints” as an origin, as I’ve so frequently found that designers have used constraints as a major inspiration.  For example, Power Grid was originated by applying additional constraints to Funkenschlag, a game which was already successful in its own right.

One key method of the book – emphasizing critical points by introducing them from various viewpoints and angles – is used to open the second chapter.  In this case, the notion emphasized is that an idea for a game is the easiest – and therefore the least valuable – element of the game design process.  But the focus of the chapter is an interesting one, and one that most game design books leave aside – how to learn to design games.  There are really two keys to the advice offered.  First, there is the recommendation to perspective videogame designers to start with tabletop games.  I’m not familiar enough with the modern videogame industry to judge the value of this advice, but it certainly seems reasonable.  Later, Pulsipher breaks down many common traditional games, challenging the reader to do likewise with other games and even to find ways to improve them in one of a variety of dimensions, perhaps the best suggestion for practice at game design I’ve seen.

The third chapter gets to the heart of answering of one my favorite game design questions, which I learned from Tom Lehmann.  At the end of a playtest, he’ll ask two questions: “Is there a game in here, and have I found it?”.  These are very useful in setting an appropriate direction for further development of a game – but I believe Game Design, in this chapter, does a great job of getting the reader through the question of what constitutes a game, and thus in a much better position to answer Tom’s questions.  This is followed by an informative chapter focused on the audience for a game.  This is a critical concept, and again Pulsipher does a fine job in giving the prospective game designer a model in which to consider the problem.  I particularly appreciate this chapter, after much experience with games which seem to be aimed towards multiple, vastly different audiences, often from one phase to the next.

The next two chapters focus on prototyping.  The fifth chapter focuses on making a playable prototype.   In part because of the dual audience of videogame and tabletop game designers,  this ends up being a somewhat weaker chapter; Keith Meyers covers the subject more effectively for boardgames in his book, “Paid to Play”, which is referenced.  But the sixth chapter, focused on getting the most out of playtesting, will again draw the boardgame designer back in full force.  I particularly enjoyed the section on how to most effectively utilize feedback from playtest sessions, as I found it aligned closely with my own experiences.  After a pair of chapters primarily of interest to videogame designers, the book closes with some specific advice for designing in particular genres, and a large amount of additional reference material.

So summing it all up, Game Design does an excellent job of providing a path to become an effective game designer.  It’s certainly not the only path – it’s not the way I design games, for instance, though there are definitely overlaps – but I think it’s a very reasonable direction for an aspiring game designer to follow.  Unfortunately, I’m not in a good position to effectively judge one of the goals of the book – the use of tabletop game design experience to become a more effective videogame designer.  The advice Pulsipher provides seems well reasoned; I don’t know how successful his students have been in applying the concepts.  The book does effectively tie all of the ideas presented to videogame design, in spite of the author’s greater experience with boardgames.

Of course, since the book doesn’t cover the process of selling one’s designs – a field which has been changed significantly in the advent of crowdsourcing – Game Design does not represent a complete set of steps necessary to become a commercially successful game designer.  But the design portion of the process – admittedly, for me at least, the fun portion of the process – is covered very effectively, and therefore I would recommend this book to any aspiring game designer, or to established game designers looking for some new insights.  Finally, Game Design is an ideal book for anyone who wishes to focus solely on the design portion of the process, without looking to sell the results of their efforts.

P.S. I have been informed by Pulsipher that this book is available in electronic form via Books-A-Million.

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1 Response to Book Review – Game Design

  1. Scott Duncan says:

    I bought the electronic version from BAM as it was advertyized as PDF. It was not PDF but a special format that requires a particular (albeit free) reader. The problem is that this reader, as opposed to Adobe Acrobat (which I have the full edition of) does not allow annotations, etc. So if you like to annotate your books, don’t by this elecftronic version.

    The book, itself, is quite interesting, however, so buy the print version.

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