Book review: Characteristics of Games (George Skaff Elias, Richard Garfield, K. Robert Gutschera)

A “meticulous book about the design of games”, this MIT-published textbook based on a college-level course makes the case that “games are valuable because are a fundamental form of human expression”. The focus here is on “looking critically at games” and “as a framework for game analysis”.

That — or the fact it’s co-written by Richard Garfield, the creator of Magic — might be all you need to buy or rent it on Amazon right now.

Full disclosure: I rented this book with my own money, and links in this post may be affiliate links.

This book needs to be read in the right environment / setup. This is not a breezy, easy read one saves for fleeting moments of inactivity. The language is academic, but not elaborate — at least, not any more so than necessary. You’ll quickly see they have the confidence and depth of knowledge to both create new words and new definitions to fit their created framework. Two early examples include ‘orthogame’ (a “game for two or more players, with rules that result in a ranking or weighting of the players, and done for entertainment.”) and ‘agential’ (essentially, how the players influence the nature or characteristics of the game). Others, like ‘heuristics’ (the “rules of thumb by which players play games”) may have been heard, but are broken down and carefully considered.

In other words, find a comfy chair, grab a coffee or tea, make things quiet, and settle in.

The bad news first

As an academic textbook, it’s on the expensive side. You can rent it from Amazon to keep the cost down, but be aware the this is a PDF-like layout. You can’t change the font or font size, in the name of preserving pagination for classrooms. While the copyright date is 2012 isn’t an issue personally since the examples here are timeless, it does mean they won’t be using many recent examples throughout the book.

The good — and better — news

Seven major sections and three appendices total up to right at 300 pages. Each of these sections can be read independently and in any order, with the sub-sections being different characteristics (over 30 in all). These are pretty deep dives, some of which will be familiar to game designers (player elimination, kingmaking), and some that won’t (positional asymmetry, misbehavior, the appendix on Von Neumann Game Theory).

Some sections need to be read more carefully because when words fail the authors, they create their own terms (a ‘one-and-a-half-player-game’, anyone?). This is consistently done and conscientiously chosen, and when you’re starting at such an elemental / foundational level, you’ll find yourself doing this as well.

Whether used in a classroom or not, the homework exercises throughout the book are worthwhile thought exercises. They’re not for helping you design your own games, but you can (and should!) be thinking about your own games

Who should buy this book?

If you’re just starting out on game design, pass on this for now. Something like Think Like a Game Designer or some of the other books I’ve reviewed has a better focus on the actionable steps to take to develop a game. This is… more cerebral, more analytical, and definitely less ‘fun’. It asks you to see things and connections you probably won’t see when you’re first starting out, or until later in your journey.

The person that’s best served by this book is someone with a few prototypes under their belt. They’re looking to discover what makes a game work, how to tweak elements of their game to better fit their vision. They don’t mind or can handle the more abstract, thinky elements, and can keep their own game(s) in the back of their head.

Give this book the full attention it’s worth, and it’ll feel like a formal education in board games.

Recommended.

Buy or rent Characteristics of Games now.