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by Eric Solomon
A paper delivered at the BGS Colloquium, Oxford 2005

Abstract: As with so many modern enterprises, commercial pressures dictate that manufacturers of board games generally value image above quality. Originality in particular is considered of secondary importance. Nevertheless there are inventors who do strive to create something new. After preliminary discussion of market attitudes this paper proposes a formal approach to ‘generating’ originality in game objectives. For the present, the author admits defeat in finding a similar approach applicable to game mechanics. Some observations are supported by anecdotal evidence from the author’s 35 year involvement in the creation of games and puzzles.

I present this paper as an inventor so naturally it will be concerned with the current games market rather than with games history. This market comprises the inventor, the manufacturer, the purchaser, the player and, I suppose to a minor extent, the games critic. Often the purchaser will be the player, and less often the manufacturer will be the inventor. First, and briefly, I want to discuss the views of these various market components.

In the 1990’s, David Pritchard [former editor of Games & Puzzles magazine] and I paid a visit to Spears [Games] in Enfield at which there was an instructive episode. Our hosts ranked the relative importance of game characteristics from the manufacturer’s perspective. Their list was, so far as I remember, as follows:

  1. Topicality
  2. Beauty
  3. Cost
  4. Simplicity
  5. Playability
  6. Originality
  7. Durability

Obviously, a games inventor who wishes to make a living from his art should adopt a ranking of characteristics that corresponds closely to that of the manufacturer, and some do with great success.

For a thematic game the meaning of TOPICALITY is obvious. What could be more topical than the current block-buster film, and what would be likely to find a bigger market? But current news issues are trickier, because it is so easy to offend those concerned and even, as has happened, attract litigation. BEAUTY relates to the attractiveness of the product, in particular the quality of the artwork. COST relates to production costs and therefore price. SIMPLICITY is roughly defined in terms of the length of the rule-book. The meaning of PLAYABILITY and ORIGINALITY should be fairly obvious, and these constitute the main topics of this paper. DURABILITY relates to the continuance of customer demand. This can be something of an embarrassment to a manufacturer. Rather as electric light and razor blade manufacturers build limited life into their products to boost sales, games companies prefer to offer a new range every year. Games that linger on may tie up production capacity and inhibit profits. However, having said this I doubt whether any inventor has ever approached a manufacturer with the sales pitch that 'This game will fit perfectly into your new range policy. It is so bad that no one will be buying it in a year’s time!'.

What struck David and me was the relatively low rating, from the manufacturer’s point of view, of ‘PLAYABILITY’ and ‘ORIGINALITY’. I derive little enjoyment from re-inventing other people’s wheels. However, there are inventors who are quite happy to use old ideas in a new context because, on the whole, that is what the market requires. Unfortunately for my bank, I am constitutionally unable to work this way. For me, the ranking is:

  1. Playability
  2. Oiginality
  3. Beauty
  4. Simplicity
  5. Durability
  6. Topicality
  7. Cost

And what of the purchaser and the player? At the time of purchase, the customer’s priorities might, one would think, match pretty closely those of the manufacturer. If that were not the case the manufacturer would surely change his priorities. Of course production costs are unlikely to enter the purchaser’s equation except where they affect price. I suggest that his priorities after play would be likely to change to match the latter list much more closely.

To emphasise at least one manufacturer’s attitude to originality may I quote a recent reaction to my game Entropy, for which I have been seeking an English language publisher. Their rejection note included:

'I have played Entropy and enjoyed it a lot. All said, it is a good game, even a classic. But it has the disadvantage that the movement and goals are both a little unusual for the larger market.' In other words: 'The market prefers us to serve up the same old ideas - better the devil you know.'


Although I list ‘PLAYABILITY’ as my top priority, it is difficult to start from there. In game composition one of the first steps is to find some process in which there are competing objectives. This might precede derivation of the game mechanics, but not always. Later I will give an example of the latter sequence. So now let us concentrate on the main subject of this paper– ‘ORIGINALITY’.

At times, I have looked for situations in the real world which embody some element of competition. The specific situation, or theme, is irrelevant at this stage – it is the fundamental nature of the competing interests that should concern an inventor, and this is what determines the game ‘objective(s)’. The world is full of competitive situations but it does not follow that a game suggested by the real world must necessarily be thematic. In fact almost anything from archaeology through marketing to zoology yields them. Quite often, however, it turns out that these are homomorphic so that a game suggested by, for instance, the problems faced by pig farmers could, in principle, turn out to be essentially the same as one inspired by espionage.

The next step is to map the situation into the idealised world of abstract pieces, numbers, board-locations, etc. I believe it is in determining how these objects will interact to model the competition that the greatest degree of originality can be exercised, and this is what determines the game ‘mechanics’.

The quest for ORIGINALITY can lead to the wildest ideas. Why pieces, why boards, why rules?

In fact there is a sound reason why boards and pieces are ubiquitous. In principle, any competitive situation can be mapped to an optimisation problem involving just numbers. That is, a problem in which the objective is to maximise or minimise a numerical parameter subject to constraints imposed by the game mechanics. This may well involve subjective assessments of merit values, but that doesn’t affect the argument.

But then, who wants to play a purely numerical game? Our evolution has conditioned us to best handle number in terms of physical quantities such as distance, weight, height, or strength. So it is perfectly natural to represent number in terms of positions on a board (think of coordinates), piece mobilities and strengths, and so on. The essence of a game is unaltered by such mapping operations and we naturally prefer the representation that is easiest for us.

But, why rules?

Everyone will agree that without rules any game is no game at all. But do these have be fixed for the duration of a game? There are certainly plenty of games where, in a sense, rules are modified when specified states are reached. Piece promotion in Chess and Draughts is an example. But how about games where the players themselves can modify the rules during play? This was the possibility addressed by Peter Suber in his game Nomic. This game was described in a Scientific American article of 1982 [1] written by Douglas Hofstadter. Nomic starts with a kernel of rules governing how the players can introduce, repeal, and amend, the rules during play. But rules in the kernel are themselves liable to these changes, though with greater difficulty. In a way the game models the legislative procedures of a government, and Hofstadter’s interest was in how paradoxes of self-reference can arise in legal systems. Nomic, in its original form, is extremely difficult to play and mentally exhausting, and after the appearance of the article I attempted to produce a much simplified version played on a board. This was called Lawmaker, and it has been with a German company for the last five years. They are still considering it – from time to time! It is certainly 'A little unusual for the larger market' – and irredeemably abstract.

Originality in Objectives

Many people in the world of games speak rather loosely about game ‘principles’, objectives, and ‘mechanics’, and games are usually classified solely by objective class. So, for instance, we have race games, war games, business games, etc. But as an aid to originality it seems useful to define objectives with greater precision and at a more fundamental level, and I propose a preliminary scheme here. Perhaps you can be persuaded that it could assist in ‘generating’ originality.

Rather obviously, it is assumed that the first player to achieve his own objective is the winner. An objective may comprise a number of ‘sub-objectives’ linked by the usual logical connectives AND, OR, XOR, and NOT, denoted by ∩ ∪ ⊻ ˜ respectively.

I have just pointed out the generality of the concepts of ‘piece’ and ‘point’ (or ‘board location’), and I see no need to escape from these. But the concept of a ‘piece’ requires augmentation. Pieces can be owned by a player, or they can be common to all players (or, at least, common to all players before they have acquired them). I call the latter ‘tokens’. Examples of tokens are money in a business game, seeds in Wari, pentominoes in Golomb’s Game, and the building components in Alhambra.

Let us start by attempting to list ‘most’ objectives at a fundamental level. You may well consider this to be an impossible task, but let’s see how far we can get. Consider the following scheme relating to pieces, tokens, and points.

AcquireAllOwn piece(s)
IntroduceSubsetAdversary piece(s)

One line produced by selecting exactly one item from each column constitutes a sub-objective, and the initial letters (chosen to be distinct) may be used as a ‘clause’ in a ‘signature’. Thus, with ‘Acquire’ interpreted as ‘Capture’, Chess has the objective signature comprising the single clause ASA in which the subset of adversary pieces consists of just the King. For most games the objective is common to all players, and consists of just one sub-objective. Thus, for Chess, we do not need to specify more than one clause. But many thematic games have several sub-objectives. For instance in a war game victory may require either the occupation of a given set of points (the enemy headquarters perhaps), or, the elimination of a given set of adversary pieces. Such a game might have the signature RSA  OSP which comprises two clauses linked by logical ‘OR’.

A few of the words in the scheme need a little explanation. ‘Acquire’ implies ‘Capture’ for adversary pieces, ‘Activate’ for own pieces, and ‘Gain or Earn’ for tokens. ‘Remove’ is not identical to ‘Acquire’. The latter may carry a benefit in terms of score or re-use. ‘Locate’ implies ‘Find the position of…’. ‘Surround’ and ‘Wrap’ are not identical. The latter allows no additional space within the surrounding set. ‘Subset’ has a wide interpretation covering everything not implied by the other words in its column. Often a ‘Subset’ will comprise a single object.

Here is a list of ‘objective signatures’ common to all players for a number of well-known games:

HAO Ludo and many similar race games
FSO Go Moku, Tic Tac Toe
OSP Halma, Epaminondas
IFT Golomb’s game
OMP Reversi/Othello
IMO Dominoes (not strictly a board game of course)
AMT Wari

Some games require a little more notation in the form of parentheses. For example:

WM(A∧P) Go (Captured pieces have first to be wrapped)

Objectives which are different for each player in a multi-player game can be represented by a signature containing slashes. Examples are:

HSO/ASA Tafl games (sometimes EAP/ASA) RSA/WAA Fox and Geese type games

An interesting though debatable, opinion was expressed to me by one of the directors of Thomas Nelson, the publishers. He said 'In the very best games, the players wear different hats.' What he meant was that, although players interact, their objectives should be quite different. One can imagine a fantasy game in which one player aims to become a ‘seven-card’ wizard, whilst another strives to gain the throne, and another tries to accumulate the largest quantity of treasure. But success for one player must necessarily subsume a degree of failure for the others. That is, there must generally be some sort of trade-off between measures of objective achievement.

How can the scheme above be used to ‘generate’ originality in a new game’s objective(s)? There are 260 sub-objectives defined in the scheme if we disregard all logical connectives and composite objectives, which might or might not apply to all players. So, as an exercise, I chose to compose a two-player abstract game with the signature:


In other words this is a game in which White, say, aims to cause the most adversary pieces to be introduced onto the board. Black aims to connect all of White’s pieces and introduce the smallest number of his own pieces onto the board. For practical reasons this dictated that White should have only two pieces, and that Black should have a number of pieces related to the size of the board. The result was a game which I called Connecticut [rules were appended to this paper - DP]. The ‘cut’ in Connecticut suggests the rule allowing White to cut through a line of Black pieces under certain circumstances.

Originality in Mechanics

Game mechanics seem much harder to formalise than objectives – they cover a far wider range of possibilities. Consider just a part of a game’s mechanics – how a piece is permitted to move. This may depend on the type of piece, the location of the piece, the positions of other pieces, the stage that the game has reached, and many other parameters. Permitted movement may be orthogonal or diagonal on a squared board, or what David Parlett [2] describes as ‘hippogonal’ for Chess Knights. Many other types of movement are possible. Pieces may be constrained by the presence of other pieces, or they may be permitted to jump. The possibilities seem endless, but inventors must guard against introducing complexity for the sake of originality. One movement mechanic which I thought might have potential was to have each piece as a small copy of the board itself – a sort of fractal game perhaps. Players would use turns either to openly mark a newly permitted move for one piece, or to move one piece. The objective of such a game could be almost anything.

Throughout history there have been creative people who have resorted to mind-altering drugs to fire their imaginations. I suppose the next best thing is to rely on dreams, and indeed my very first game, composed in the late 60’s, resulted from a nightmare. Before that it had never occurred to me to create, let alone market, games. Doing some research under the sponsorship of the Ministry of Supply (now the MoD) I sometimes had to visit the War Office in Whitehall. In this dream I was walking down Whitehall with my briefcase of ‘secrets’ when a man approached me and offered to carry it if I paid him one shilling! Like a complete idiot - or a complete security risk, I acquiesced. Unfortunately I was unable to recover my bag because this fellow handed it to another person for a monetary consideration. Then the latter handed it to someone else, and I was reduced to chasing up and down Whitehall offering increasing sums of money to various passers-by to return my bag - should they happen to have it!

When I woke I realised that the idea could provide the mechanics for a board game. This was an example of mechanics preceding objective, though the latter was fairly obviously HST. That is, the objective was to get the bag to one’s own home base. ‘War Office Papers’, as it was then called, was inflicted on members of my social club. It was quite popular, and around a year later I encountered one Graeme Levin who was about to publish Games   Puzzles Magazine. We took the prototype to Tom Kremer of 7-Towns who saw its potential, and renamed it The Sigma File to my considerable annoyance. Since then it has been republished by various manufacturers under other names such as Conspiracy, Dossier X, Agent, and Casablanca. My only regret is that, when particularly hard up, I sold all my rights in the game to Graeme Levin. But I still have the original ‘War Office Papers’ figures, and am waiting for some museum to purchase them for a huge sum!!

In seeking originality it is hard to escape from one’s knowledge of existing game mechanics, and so what Edward De Bono called ‘lateral thinking’ plays a large part. Years ago I made a habit of retiring to bed with squared or hexagonal paper and pencil, and trying to think of completely new ways of moving pieces and causing them to interact, before drifting off, hopefully to wake with a brilliant new game idea. At that time I frequently played Croquet with a friend who was working on a novel X-ray imaging technique. His aim was to create a better way of seeing hidden structure within the patient, and one night it occurred to me that this objective could be used in a game. I didn’t want to model the human body, which would have been pretty messy, so I abstracted the various organs as game pieces. One player would secretly set a pattern of pieces on a board, and the other would attempt to discover the pattern by shooting notional X-rays along selected rows and columns of the orthogonal board. These rays would suffer deflections or absorptions as they encountered pieces, and the first player would report only where they emerged from the playing area. This game was Black Box which Waddingtons produced in 1977. The objective was simply to locate all the hidden pieces, hence LAT in our signature system. It seemed original at the time, but I suppose it could be said that the old game of Battleships used a roughly similar ‘hide and seek’ principle.

It may be of interest to remark that the friend whose work gave me the basic idea for Black Box was Godfrey Hounsfield who, two years later, was awarded the 1979 Nobel Prize for Medicine for his invention of computer aided tomography – the CAT scanner. It is such a pity that one’s games cannot benefit humanity to the same extent!

The advent of home computers has greatly increased the scope for the games inventor. So many ‘original’ ideas for game mechanics sketched on paper turn out to be impractical with boards and pieces. For example, players of a board game will not generally be happy about having to move very large groups of pieces in their turn - though one might exempt devotees of the old Avalon Hill war games from this. But there are a number of possible games where group-movement becomes feasible on the computer screen. Currently I am working on a crystal-building game/puzzle in which connected groups of ‘sticky’ atoms must be moved to form a shape with a symmetric envelope. If a group of atoms contacts another group they adhere to form a larger group. Playing this on a board would be very laborious. A similar idea involves modelling the movement of an oil slick from a wrecked tanker. Players might compete to protect their own portion of beach from its ravages, or the game could be played cooperatively. Again, the computer makes this practical.


Though not the main topic I should say a few words on PLAYABILITY. Acceptable playability implies some degree of enjoyment, but enjoyment is a matter of personal taste. A teenager may derive more enjoyment from playing a role and less from selecting tactics, whereas those in middle age might prefer the latter.

Apart from the ergonomic and aesthetic qualities which make a game attractive to play, there are important questions of dominance. If a player establishes a lead in some sense, such as being a piece up in Chess, one would not be interested in the game if that lead was always unassailable. Similarly, who would want to play a game where having the lead meant nothing at all? Such games quickly become mere ‘procedures’.

So a playable game will be balanced in some sense and for two-player games there is the potential for an ocean of pseudo-mathematics relating notional quantities such as measures of advantage, ‘catch-up’ probabilities, and so on. But only for games such as Backgammon can such relations mean anything at all, and even for these derivation is extremely laborious. Good games offer many opportunities for ‘brilliances’ making it possible for the apparently disadvantaged player to spring surprises. This is a most desirable feature but one which is unquantifiable.

A playable game will hold the interest of players, and in particular hold the interest of a player who is trailing in terms of position, strength, or whatever. There must be some hope, however small, that he can recover, and one obvious way to build this into a game is to include an element of chance. But for some that is a contentious matter. My game Entropy is an abstract game between two players, one who attempts to produce order or pattern, and one who aims for chaos or randomness. It requires pieces to be drawn blind from a bag. Apart from play on the board, players must assess the probability of drawing a piece of any given colour, and of course that is not difficult. However I occasionally come across opinions that the pieces should be selected openly. This has been tried and the game is universally regarded as much inferior to the version using the bag. But despite the element of chance strong players almost always beat weaker players, just as in Backgammon. In fact the Entropy world championship which is part of the Mind Sports Olympiad, has been won by the same player four times over the seven events held.

References [1] Hofstadter D. R. Sept. 1982. Scientific American.; pp 16-25. [2] Parlett D. 1999. The Oxford History of Board Games.; pp 230-231.


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