Intuition in gameplay and design

Intuition in gameplay and design-01

This week I’d like to talk about an article from my new board game design go-to book, the Kobold Guide. In this article, Rob Daviau (designer and co-designer of Risk 2219 A.D., Heroscape, Axis & Allies:Pacific, Risk Legacy, SeaFall and more!) talks about intuitiveness in game design.

The example Rob uses is an experiment he tried at during his time at MIT. He asked a room of crazy-smart people to pair off and take one of the board games he’d brought along, then told them that in five minutes they would be presenting how to play it to the rest of the group. The kicker was, he’d removed the rulebook from every game.

Now, Rob does concede that the people he used for his experiment are some of the smartest people in the world, but it is a testament to the design of each game that in most cases the participants were able to give fairly accurate accounts of the rules of their chosen game, all from just the components and the box cover.

Mouse Trap is a classic example of a game that can be played without a rulebook
Mouse Trap is a classic example of a game that can be played without a rulebook

Now this resonated with me in two ways. Firstly, it speaks of something that all designers, in my humble opinion, should strive for in their games. If you demo your game and someone misinterprets a card,you can call it a fluke and move on. But if game after game the same misconception arises, maybe there’s more to it. Maybe you should consider giving that element of the game a review as you may find an organic solution that in turn improves your design. It’s awesome when you explain a rule out to a new play group and each nods sagely as if ‘this is elementary Watson!’ People will often bring pre-conceptions to the table and sometimes, just sometimes, it’s better to feed those pre-conceptions than fight them.

Secondly, I’ve always found intuitiveness should be included at the outset of any design I make. This leads me to spend a great deal of time ‘theory crafting’ the game in my head before I put pen to paper. Once I’m happy, I then tend to create a prototype that is as user friendly as possible, using clipart and editing software to produce a more ‘finished’ prototype. The downside of this is the extra time spent and the resources used to print such a prototype can often be wasted if the game is awful. I know plenty of designers prefer to start with very basic blank cards and scraps of paper, but my weakness is the need to fully realise the design before I show it to my playtesting group.

In the latter part of the article, Rob goes on to discuss the use of rulebook as cementing what the players have already figured out by looking at the game. I did find this a little heavy handed; many of the games from Hasbro tend to be at the simpler end of the difficulty scale and as such it’s easier to figure out how they work. This doesn’t cheapen the lesson Rob is discussing here, but I think that if every game could be 90% learned without cracking open the rulebook, the depth of several of the bigger and more complex games would suffer.

could you olay Settlers right out of the box?
Could you play Settlers right out of the box?

That said, I do agree that rules are a poor way to paper over the cracks in a design. If you need War and Peace to explain a small element of your game because of some odd and rare interaction with another rule, I’d definitely consider either removing or redesigning it to recapture your game’s flow and instinctual rules.

  • Do you work with intuitive game play from the start of your design, or do you build it in later?
  • Do you spend more time on your prototype to get it closer to a ‘finished article’ before unleashing it on the general public?
  • How do you address repeated misinterpretation of your design during play testing?

As always, we’d love to hear from you! contact me on twitter: @zombevan and send me your thoughts, or send us an email:

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