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Game Design by Restrictions

Page: DesignArticle.Article-DesignByRestriction - Last Modified : Mon, 13 Aug 12 - 2858 Visits

Author : Eric Pietrocupo

Introduction to the Problem

Let start with and illustration. You want to design the interior of the room. You can put in any furniture, wall color or texture you want and you can even change the size and shape of the room. The problem is that there is so many possible configurations that it becomes very hard to know the optimal configuration.

For example, for a specific room size, there are thousands of possible configuration of furniture and colors. It's possible to define this optimal configuration according to the user needs and tastes. But if you decide to change the size of the room, then there is thousand of NEW configuration possible which creates endless possibilities and makes it very hard to know the optimal configuration. But on the other hand, if the size of the room was fixed, you would not have to bother about the size.

It reminds me of a thread I wrote a long time ago about designing on solid ground. My illustration was trying to make a building in the middle of the ocean. As long as you do not have a solid ground that will float on the sea, it's impossible to actually build anything solid. So in the example above, if the room size always keep changing you can't possibly design the interior of the room.

Experience with restrictions

Another things is that I have always found variants to be easier to design because there was a solid ground that you could already work on. But the reason why variants are easy to design is not because there is a huge amount of stuff already in place, it's because the stuff already in place restricts the development of the variant. Why, because you want to design variants that will not conflict with the components of the game, that will not require extra components, etc. So these restrictions forces the designer to be much more creative in how he is going to design his variant.

Besides variants, my first experience with restrictions was with my world war II pacific game (Project Here). I had an idea to make a pocket version of a pacific ww2 game by converting another game I already had. So I shrink down the map to make sure it fit on a letter page: This was my restrictions. I first thought that the game would be very simple, much more abstract with much less details. I had in mind another small war game called 2 de Mayo. But After working on the game, I realized that I could keep almost all the features and details I wanted in the original game. So shrinking down the board, did not forced me to make the game easier, instead it forced me to find creative ways to implement the same features.

This is when I realized that: Restrictions stimulate creativity.

Self-Restricting design to build on solid ground

So in order to setup a solid ground to build our game, the designer would simply need to set a series of restriction to his game. These boundaries would define the ground available for the designer to build his game on. Now the question is how can a game design be restricted right at the beginning of the design process.

I tried to make a list of possible restrictions according to various categories. This list is probably incomplete and a designer does not necessarily needs to use all of them. Restrictions could be implemented as inclusive or exclusive:

  • I want dice in my game (Inclusive)
  • I don't want combat resolution table in my game (exclusive)

The inclusive method is much more restrictive because you know exactly what must be in the game while the the exclusive only list what you don't want leaving of lot possibilities. But sometimes, it's not easy to determine what will be in the game, so why not define what will not be in the game and refine the list as the design evolves.

Below, there is a list restrictions I have found so far. As you will see, many restrictions are related with each other.


I think components should be the most important restrictions of all because it deals directly with the pieces that the players are going to play with. It is likely to change through the design, but if you can have a good list of components you want to include or exclude right at the beginning of the design, it will place your game in the right direction.

Size: The size of the components will determine the size of the board and the amount of information you can place on the components. If your came consist in placing square tiles on a square grid board, the the bigger your tiles, the bigger the board. Manipulation of the components is also influenced by the size. For example, 5/8" tokens found in many war games are much more harder to manipulate than 1" tokens. There are also very large games like "Battle Master" where the map is so large that it requires the floor of your living room.

Quantity: The amount of components you want will directly influence the production cost of the game. If you want your game to have 1000 plastic miniatures, expect the price to be very high. The more components there are, the more complex the game is likely to be. The more setup time it might required. Shrinking down the number of components is always a good thing.

Type: Some components, like cards, are more likely used to keep hidden information. Tiles and tokens has the advantage to be stacked, which is much harder to do with cubes. It's easier to put information on pieces made of printed cardboard than on pieces made of wood and plastic. So different kind of components have different advantages and disadvantages for certain type of mechanic. So it's a good thing to define what is the best component for the best mechanic.

Space Definition: This is mostly used for board design. You need to determine if it will be a digital or analog space. If digital, how will it be split: with square, with hex. Will these spaces be organized in a certain shape or all will the space connect with each other. When designing a new game, one of the first thing I do is design the board because it's one of the most important restriction to be able to play the game.

Game Stats

This is not a huge set of restrictions, but defining certain elements like the number of player can have a huge impact on the type of game you want to design.

Play Time: The time of the game will impact your target audience. For example, in general girls don't want to play games that last more than 1 hour and kids today do not have a long attention span, so if you design a game for these target audiences, making a game longer than 1 hour is the worst thing you can do. If your game last more than 3 hours, you should probably think about giving your game multiple phases. This means that the beginning of the game must be played differently than the ending of the game. So the players will not have the feeling of repeating the same thing over and over again for 5 hours.

Number of players: It's tricky to make a 2 player game that works well with 3 or more players and also doing the opposite. Certain mechanics, like trading, can only work well if there is 3 or more players. The more players you have, the more components you will need. So if your game require players to have a lot of components, you might want to restrict the number of players to 4 instead of 6.

Playing Age: Age is not a big restriction, it's first related to the complexity and play time of the game. The theme could also restrict the age, but since board games is a medium where gore and violence is not actually experienced, there is less likely to have an age restrictions for these things like it's the case for video games.


Randomness Level: The biggest issue with mechanic are how much randomness there is. Randomness is not only implemented with dice, but can also be done with drawing cards or even with a dice cube tower. There are different level of taste for randomness, and there are various reason to place more or less randomness in a game. If you want to make a intense strategy game, probably randomness will be very low while if you want to make a fluffy kid game, randomness will be high. Remember that kids consider that rolling a die is a skill, so failing because of a bad roll is not seen as badly as an adult would. Personally, I think all game should have a certain element of randomness since it bring surprises, it's just that you need the right doze.

Time Consumption: Each mechanic takes a certain about of time to use and implement. But there is also a certain amount of time that are required for the player to think. A game like chess has a lot of Analysis Paralysis because players put a lot of time in analyzing all the possible movements to determine the best move. But the resolution of the movement of a piece is really fast and takes a few seconds. On the other hand, attacking a enemy in Dungeons and Dragons require an attack roll, a damage roll and modifying the HP level on the enemy's sheet. So not much time is put in the decision to attack, but a lot is placed on the resolution.

Certain mechanics are more likely to take time and it's important to identify these mechanics to know if you should use them in your game. For example, card drafting and role selection can take a lot of time. So if you need to do this a hundred times, consider that it will create a lot of down time. Simultaneous turns are resolved faster than individual turns. So the total length of your game will determine what mechanics should be included or excluded.

Information: As we have seen before, certain components are more likely to be used for hidden information. Not all mechanics can work well with hidden information. A game with hidden information is more likely to have mind games but It could reduce analysis paralysis since there is less information to analyze. Information density is also determined by components. But a game with a lot of information is more likely to be complex and might scare off a few people while too little information might be seen as a fluffy game and not attract certain people.

Complexity: Complexity can come from an high level of information density, but it is also determined by the density of the rules. Even if you have a small board with few space, it's possible to increase the amount of rules to manage these limited spaces to increase complexity. This is what I did with my ww2 war game previously described and I have also seen this is wizard Kings where there is a restriction in the amount of units that can cross an hex side.


I always find theme to be very important, but it's very hard to define how theme could actively restrict a game design. I think thematic restrictions comes after you have done a few play tests and when you start looking at your game on a higher level to realize that it does not make sense with the theme.

Thematically Logical: I think a game should be make sense with the theme. You can allow yourself to diverge a bit from the theme to implement a certain mechanic. But if you diverge too much, it might kick out players from their suspension of disbelief. The mechanics must reflect what the players would be allowed to do if immersed in the theme. If the mechanics does the opposite, the player with not see the relation of the theme with the mechanics.

Representation: The role of the theme is to put a skin on the components and mechanics of your game. It's what makes a cube a metal resources or what makes a token a gold coin. If you want to design a pirate game, there might be a few things that are absolutely required for a pirate experience. For example, most pirates want gold and treasures, so not having this element in you game will not make it feel like a pirate game. But there are different ways to keep track of gold, it can be tokens, cards or even a sliding cube on a gold track. But what ever the mechanic, the restriction that "a pirate game must have gold/treasures" is there.

Objectives: Another area where theme could add restrictions if for game objectives. The theme can determine what a immersed player would actually want to do to feel like he has accomplished something. For a pirate game, it could be "become rich" (most gold), "be the master of the sea" (kill all pirates or all navy). So the theme will restrict the kind of victory conditions the player will be expecting. If the player objective is to reach a certain destination on the board, it does not really fit with a pirate theme, but more like a racing game.


In summary, restriction forces the designer to find new ways to implement mechanics within these limitations. By defining these restriction in the early game design, it helps placing the game in the right direction and accelerate the development of the game.


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