Every game should tests players’ skills in one way or another, or else it doesn’t have meaningful decisions baked into it. Skills that are common to many games include being able to gauge probabilities and calculate expected values, to be able to convert in-game currencies like money, goods and victory points, and to be able to use spatial reasoning in a variety of settings.
All of this feels somehow different to me from today’s design pattern, which is the idea that the game is actually built on knowledge from a different domain. A brief digression. One model for trying to change a person’s behavior at their job is the ASK model: behavior is controlled by Attitude, Skills, and Knowledge. To change how people act, you need to move the needle on at least one, and often all three of these things. I bring this up to sharpen the distinction between skills and knowledge. One way to think of it is that skill is the ability to accurately execute that task which knowledge told you is the right one to execute, but I think that approach focuses too much on knowledge as strategy, rather than knowledge as information, and it’s really the latter that I’m focused on.
In many games there isn’t much role for knowledge. There may be some cards, or special events that are good to know, but in essence, knowledge is the rules. If you know the rules, you can play. The question now is who can operate the machinery best, who is most skilled at driving the game engine. Yet, there are a number of games that insist that knowledge from outside the game will help you win the game.
The entire genre of trivia games is born out of this design pattern. Games like Timeline and Trivial pursuit fall squarely in this category. More subtly, games like Codenames, Taboo and Dixit, which call upon players to make associations to things not in the game, also feature this design pattern. While straight trivia games are difficult to improve at without actually studying and learning more facts, association games tend to offer more room for improvement as players construct more shared associations and common languages.
Scrabble and other language games are another place to find this design pattern. Having a rich vocabulary will help you score well in Wordsy and Boggle, and knowing about letter frequencies helps in Paperback.
The design pattern of privileging outside knowledge within a game can also be found in historical games or games based on other intellectual property. For example, in 1960: The Making of the President, players who are unaware of the Southern Strategy may overestimate Kennedy’s ability to carry southern states, and may allocate resources poorly relative to the game’s preference for historically plausible outcomes that more closely model the actual election. Similarly, knowing the story of Dune will lead players to use their factions and their powers more effectively from the outset.
Using this design patterns presents significant challenges for a designer. Lean on it too much outside of the trivia genre and players may be dismayed that outside knowledge has too great an influence on the game. Players like to believe that games present a roughly even challenge, and while varying skill levels are considered acceptable variables to impact on the outcome, differences in knowledge are simply not as welcome.
Maybe this is part of why educational and historical games are so hard to design as good games. When a game lesson is actually a dominant strategy, the game is, from a design perspective, broken. It is simply a demonstration of why one particular strategy is effective, rather than an exploration of strategies or a contest of skills. Historical war game and war-themed games have to face this challenge constantly. Simluation-based games tend to focus on battles that were seen as very close affairs so that they can focus on realism without losing the competitive balance required for enjoyable gameplay. War-themed games have a bit more leeway. Memoir ’44, for example, presents a balanced set of scenarios representing the drive from Normandy to Berlin, and takes some liberty with troop dispositions and positioning.
Another area where designers have to be especially mindful of the information players bring to the game is when designing license and IP games. For players who are deeply familiar with the source material, the game will not be satisfying if strategies employed in the source are ineffective in the game, or if key characters are presented in an undifferentiated or not especially powerful way. On the other hand, for players who are less familiar with the source, it can be quite frustrating if obscure strategies from the source are effective despite seeming weak or far-fetched. At their best, IP-based games feel like alternate realities, not a replay of the original narrative.
Stretched to its utmost, one could argue that this design pattern is present in every design. The background information about what a game is, how to take turns, and the social conventions surrounding a game could all ostensibly qualify here – and I’m not going to draw a hard line either. To my mind, games like Candyland are critical parts of our game curriculum because they teach those aspects of core gameplay and initiate players into gaming culture. In the end, we can’t make games that are fully bounded by their own four corners. Games are part of our culture, and that’s something to acknowledge and design with more intentionally.