Game Development Theory

If I say (write, type, whatever) “game theory” and you leap to concepts like Nash Equilibria, zero-sum, minimax, or maximin, then you’re not quite in the right place, but I encourage you to stick around. You may learn something. For those of us more concerned with having an enjoyable game night than we are with Mutual Assured Destruction, we do a number of things to make sure that gameplay does not degenerate like this


A balanced game is one in which no player overall has a strong advantage of disadvantage compared to the others. Balance problems frequently occur in role-playing games when it comes time for players to choose a class for their character. Since most games want a variety of choices when it comes to choose character abilities and fundamental characteristics, it can be difficult to ensure that the game is enjoyable for everyone, regardless of the choices they make. MMORPGs are continuously rebalancing the attributes of the characters in their games to try to achieve this ideal of every player (of a given level, to compare apples to apples) has an equal share of the fun and adventure. As you might expect, those who see their abilities fall in comparison to everyone else (called getting nerfed) complain a bit, but overall gameplay improves.

When designing a tabletop game without the opportunity for frequent tweaking, you have a few tools you can apply to keep your game balanced. The first is symmetry, the primary balancing characteristic we use for Curses! In a symmetric game, as you might be able to guess, all the players start off in identical conditions. Each person may have a different set of cards in their starting hand, but the chance of getting a particular card is the same for all the players at the table.

Another technique for balancing a game is to structure the mechanics to deliver a lot of variety without a lot of difference. The 4th edition of Dungeons and Dragons did this by recasting progression within each class to be much more parallel. There was a lot more variety in the flavor text (the descriptions of how events occur), but the outcomes possible with each type of character were much more standardized than in previous editions.

A third balancing technique is to allow for, and encourage, collaboration among the players. If one player starts getting too far ahead of the rest, they can gang up to either improve their own fortunes or retard the progress of the frontrunner. Curses! allows for this in two ways. Firstly, each player must play one card on someone else each turn, so if anyone’s fortunes are starting to look a little too rosy, the rest can gang up with the Curse cards. Secondly, many of the Sacrifice cards target other players, sometimes with a much larger impact than a single Curse could generate.


When we say that a game is predictable, we don’t mean that it is predetermined. Anyone can win and crazy stuff like someone ripping off their shirt in the middle of a Munchkin game to reveal a +1 T-shirt underneath is awesome. What you want to avoid is someone winning from last place with a coup de grace that relies on an alternate interpretation of the word “the” in the second footnote on the first page of Appendix C of the rulebook. I hyperbolize, but you get the idea. To paraphrase Albert Einstein, the rules to your game should be as simple as they can be, but no simpler. Once you’ve played through a couple times, each player should be able to hold the rules in their cranium and run through scenarios to determine what impact different plays by themselves or others would have on the game.

Curses! has very simple core mechanics (one on yourself, one on someone else, sacrifice one, draw back to five), which makes it easy to get the rules out of everyone’s way and get on with the fun. We’ve also designed the cards to make it simple to divine any player’s state at a glance (color coding plus standardized positions of all the fortunes). You’ll always know where you stand relative to everyone else and roughly how many turns of horribleness would need to descend upon you before you’re eliminated.


Have you ever been in a Scrabble game where all but one player get up from the table and wander around, get more beer, turn on the TV, etc. because that one person can’t come up with a decent word, but refuses to sacrifice a turn by swapping tiles? It is my biggest complaint about the game, even though I’m often the one left at the table trying to make something out of AAEIOUU. A well designed game will have some way of either keeping players engaged as play goes around the table or keeping a high enough tempo than anything longer than a bathroom break would be disruptive.

The brute force method of keeping game play moving is to insert a timer. Unless an element of time is crucial to your design (e.g. Boggle), resist the temptation to force your players to move faster. If you can help the players out by removing some common, repetitive tasks, like counting how many points everyone has, that will improve response times without enforcing artificial constraints.

More challenging, but more rewarding, is developing mechanics that keep all the players engaged with the game and each other no matter whose turn it is. Curses! has fairly quick turnover, but some of the rules changes allow interference in gameplay even when it is not your turn. For games with longer turns, make sure players have side channels for wheeling and dealing. Risk
is a great example of a game where this happens spontaneously. The rules don’t say anything one way or the other about make “treaties” with other players, forming and breaking alliances, etc. but it almost always happens, because it allows the players to remain interested and productive when they aren’t on the offensive.


Of course, there are many other qualities that you’d like to see in a well designed game. It is highly genre-specific and is a lot of art (but a little science remains!). If you are just starting out with a design, the best thing you can do is get other people to play it. Ideally, get some people to play it while you watch, so you can see how others interpret your directions. Look for any signs that someone is bored or thinks some facet of the game was unfair and focus like a laser beam (see! science!) on fixing that. The best artwork and most intriguing backstory won’t make up for an unfun game.

In future posts on this theme, we will look into different types of games and prominent characteristics like playercount, game length, and complexity (usually measured by age range).

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