Playability and Game Design (Bill Jordan)

[ This is an article from the Play-By-Electronic-Mail Fanzine, v9701, which was published on February 22, 1997. ]

I have recently submitted 2 new free games to the PBM list. I have had many years experience with games of all types and I have played a few PBM games (and moderated one) in the 1980s. In the drive for more complexity, designers sometimes cannot see the woods for the trees. I would like to share what I felt were some drawbacks of some PBMs (which are likely to be common with some existing games) and some ideas for game design.

Sooner or later some players will not be able to submit turn orders in time. In one game, missing a turn ruined your chances and was even worse than not moving at all, as default orders caused absolute havoc. Game designs should have reasonable default orders or incur only a slight disadvantage for missing a turn.

A good game should allow players to quickly make a move (e.g. in 15 minutes or less) if they are pressed for time. It might be desirable for a game to be complex enough to allow hours of pondering for a turn, but players should have an option to play a quick turn. Ideally turn orders shouldn't exceed a fixed size (e.g. 1 sheet of paper or the electronic equivalent.)

A game should encourage player interaction. Players should not be so far apart that a player has to venture 3 or more turns in the same direction to reach another player, especially if it is a space game. In a strategy game, a player who sits back and does not get involved should not benefit while others fight it out. As well as gaining resources, one suggestion is that a player's units increase in strength with experience.

Ideally, a game could be played with or without diplomacy. Some players cannot afford long distance calls, and some players may have less time for wading through huge amounts of email, but diplomacy should be there for those who want it.

Rules should not be a struggle to learn. Ideally, players could jump straight into the rules immediately. This is possible even if the game is complex, if all needed player information and all his possible choices are provided at each point. The game should NOT be able to be decided by knowledge of a small technical point.

It should not be essential for players to view previous turn info; players can lose turn sheets or it can be a drag searching through old turns. Games tend to grow larger as they continue, potentially becoming cumbersome. A good design can avoid sprawling turn reports and order sheets.

One example: A player might start with units representing 10 warriors each; later in the game the same player might be using units representing 1000 warriors each, so the total number of units might not increase all that much.

Tasks which may be necessary early in the game might be replaced by others later in the game. Ideally, turn orders should be roughly the same length, regardless of the player's position or point in game (unless they are doing very badly or very well.)

Games with a winner might be best with a fixed length, say a year. Open ended games should not make it too difficult for players coming in late.

It is possible for a simple game to be enjoyable. The game Diplomacy is a good example, and chess is very good. There seems to be huge numbers of space and fantasy strategy games and not a lot else. Given that there are lots of new people coming onto the net who may not have played PBM games before, I have opted for the simple approach in my 2 games.

Bill Jordan <>

(Edited by Greg Lindahl) (