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.

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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5 Responses

    1. Thanks Lee, your feedback is much appreciated and I’m glad you enjoyed! Are you a designer yourself?

  1. Bevan,

    Amazing article – made me think of three things:

    1.) I first interpreted intuition in terms of the subconscious process that can guide game design (as opposed to designing games via spreadsheets and number crunching). I think allowing yourself to design intuitive and inductively can be powerful – so long as you back it up wtih solid play-testing. Also – there’s this interesting 538 article about Twilight Struggle, where they admit to designing by “horse sense:”

    2.) Second – I realized you were referring to the power of intuition in the player-experience. The first thing I thought of was 7 Wonders, which has an amazing pictographic form of instructions that are almost implicitly understood just by looking at them. I wonder what your opinion is on graphic design (in addition to just the board game design itself) in creating an ‘intuitive’ game?

    3.) Finally – this quote stuck out to me: “rules are a poor way to paper over the cracks in a design.” I’ve come to a very similar conclusion in my game design; that the rules and the game itself are actually two separate entities, even though the game is defined by the set of rules that make it up. In my blog, I define the core ‘soul’ of the game as your vision. It’s absolutely critical, in my opinion to get your vision as refined and concise as possible before you start drafting and play testing – it’ll allow you to iterate quickly and move from one mechanic to another (and one rule to another) without losing the soul of your project:

    Awesome read though – I’ve subscribed and look forward to what comes next!

    1. Hi A.J., thanks for the feedback.
      I think graphic design is essential for making an intuitive game; any game using symbols to convey complex rules (Hyperborea comes to mind here) needs to make it super clear what your intent is. It’s really annoying to have to keep looking something up, plus it slows down the game and ruins the immersion you’re trying to achieve in game play.
      Your idea of two separate entities is intriguing; it sounds like you start with theme first and get this absolutely perfect before you go to the rules side of the game. I work in a similar way, theme begetting mechanics, but I tend to let one feed the other. If an idea for a mechanic reminds me of a theme, I’ll plug it in and see how it goes.
      I love your attention to detail though, how much do you expand on a theme before you put mechanics to it?