Example of Play

Commentary on Games Design

Game design secrets #2 – Reaffirm your motif.


Do one thing and do it well.

T’were there ever a more important formula in design? No. There t’werent. I like to call it “Reaffirming your Motif” because one of my friends hates it when I say it, so I shall be repeating it the entire way through this article.

What a pretty, peaceful, pertinent pagoda.

mo·tif  [moh-teef] noun 1. a recurring subject, theme, idea. A perceivable or salient recurring fragment; dominant idea or feature

All games have an overall “thing”. This is mostly what people use to reference them long after they have been played it. When the guys come over and one of them brings Hive (p.s. What’s up John?), and someone says “Hey, what’s this about again?”, “Oh that’s the insect one with hexagon pieces – kinda like chess?”. Some would say this is hives “thing”:  Insects with hexagon pieces kinda like chess. We don’t need to explain anything about the mounting mechanics for the Beetle pieces, we don’t need to explain the whimsy of the “One Hive” rule, or extol that there have been two recent expansions and there is a thriving online game community. The motif here is that it is: The hexagon Insect one like chess. You would instantly know what game I am talking about if I told you that.

Now of course this is wrong. Hive is not an “insect based game” as of course one of the pieces is a spider which, as we all know, are not insects. They make up the Arachnida class of Animal, wheras insects (or Insecta) are an entirely different class. Hive could be argued to also be, quite unlike chess. There is no fixed board to speak of and of course the game plays out quite differently. But none the less, the “Motif” that our friend used to remind us of the game worked. We can easily “get” what he’s talking about, the memory is triggered. This leads us to our first point.

Choose a “Motif” that people will remember.

There are many games that people forget. These are not necessarily bad games, but they leave a wet vaccum in your mind where a memory of them should otherwise be. When these games come up in retrospect they tend to bare uninspiring tags like “Another Dungeon Crawler” or “Go-like” or “Basically Dominion” . As said, this doesn’t make the game bad. These games tend to be safe to design, they all have their dedicated fans and some are so routed in their chosen Motif that they are essentially derivatives of one game (18xx and the likes).  If you are making a game, you should choose a memorable motif.

Step 1:  Choose a memorable motif

  • “Tile Laying & Meeples”
  • “Each card is a bean!”
  • “Deep space exploration and combat, but with LOADS of bits”
  • “Hidden traitor space robots”
  • “Rolling dice, building roads: wood for sheep”

We are now halfway through: if you would like to go to the restrooms or help yourself to some Tea and biscuits out in the hall, we will reconvene in about 3 lines.


Step 2: Reaffirm your motif.

Let’s choose our goal to help explanation. An idea picked out of the aether; “Players are spirits and can inhabit the body of anything else” … huh … *A Pencil scrawls on a notebook*, you then have the hard task of keeping to your original design. Let’s in fact use this as our work-through example. We will try to make each point reinforce the motif:

1. Players are spirits. We want to reaffirm our motif: so this should probably take place in a graveyard. Graveyard to spooky? Ok let’s go for Dungeon – there are spirits in a dungeon right? So far: Spirits & Dungeons

2. Players are dungeon spirits. Well, what would the reason be for a dungeon spirit to exist? To protect the ancient dungeon from desecration! Ok, so they are protective. So far: Protective Dungeon Spirits

3. Now they are protective – what will they protect from? Invaders that have come to steal the old artifacts and treasure of course! So far: Protective Dungeon Spirits guarding the tomb against fortune hunting adventurers. Players can inhabit the bodies of standard dungeon horrors (imps, skeletons, etc) and ALSO the bodies of invaders.

4. The adventurers are here to ransack the tomb. Therefore the tomb must have things of value. Items lets say. Powerful weapons, artifacts and gold that make the adventurers harder to defeat if they wield them. You know what would be cool? If the adventurers have stolen a powerful sword, then a player inhabits him to deter other invaders, the players will get to use the powerful sword AGAINST other invaders.

5. Gold did we say? Ahh yes, ok well this obviously comes down to how brave an explorer is. The more gold they have bagged, the braver they are – making it harder for them to be inhabited by the player spirits. Let’s call it “Conviction”. We now come to the first game mechanic that has been created from this process : The “Conviction” mechanic.

I will stop here, but you can see how every step has been put in place to reaffirm the previous point, which ALL come from the original goal; the motif. We are reaffirming our motif. So when “Dungeon Spirits” gets published and played on tables throughout the world, then Martin comes over and asks “What’s Dungeon spirits about again?” you can tell him: “It’s the one where players are spirits and inhabit the bodies of other things”

Do one thing. Do it well. Don’t muddy your goal. Reaffirm your motif.


2 thoughts on “Game design secrets #2 – Reaffirm your motif.

  1. So when is Protective Dungeon Spirits gaming going to be released? I want to play it now.

  2. On retrospect – it does sound cool. The players could inhabit the bodies of things AND the dungeon itself why not? So like, you could inhabit the big oak creaky door and slam shut to spook the invaders and maybe do damage if they are in the wrong place as you lay the hinge down on their asses. You could inhabit the spooky old paintings too why6 not, to give you”eyes” about the tomb to increase your visibility. Any other ideas?

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