Example of Play

Commentary on Games Design

The Shape of Games


Games, much like stories, often follow a set plot. How the game unfolds or how it builds momentum as it progresses can turn a “yeah-it’s-kinda-fun-I-think” game into a polished, table-top hero. This can be wonderfully illustrated by borrowing one of Kurt Vonnegut’s lectures “The Shapes of Stories”.

Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007) was an American writer and one of my own personal heroes. An early science fiction writer, he wrote with dark humor, satire and intellectualism and famously lectured on writing. His work is often characterized by wild leaps of imagination, mixed with humanism and cynicism. I think that his best stuff came from his uncanny ability to look at something from an exciting, almost childlike point of view. Even simple topics like going to the postoffice were investigated by a mix of unashamed wonder and “what if’s”.

Vonnegut gave a talk on “The Shape of Stories” which broke down story plots into simple curved graphs. Good fortune and happiness is at the top of the Y-axis, with ill fortune and misery at the bottom. The X-axis is made up of the “B.E.” scale; the Beginning, and the End. The first of his story examples is “Man in hole”.

Man in hole

“You will see this story over and over again. People love it, and it is not copyrighted. The story is ‘Man in Hole,’ but the story needn’t be about a man or a hole. It’s: somebody gets into trouble, gets out of it again.” – Kurt Vonnegut on the shapes of stories.

In summary: A man starts on a nice high – everything is ok. Then he falls into a hole and plunges into ill fortune “Oh no!” he shouts from his tiny hole in the ground. “Everything is terrible!”-this is the lowest point of the story. Then he saves himself and climbs out, ending on a point that is better than when he started.


The Shape of Pandemic

Pandemic, the disease-prevention game, is a stellar example of this “Man in hole” plot. The players, acting together start in a pretty good place – they’ve got a fancy new player-role to explore, they are armed with some Epidemic gameplay cards – sure there are a few outbreaks of disease here and there – but overall, the players find themselves in a pretty good condition. After a few turns the diseases build up. More people get sick and Buenos Aires gets infected 3 turns in a row. Then the cubes start mounting into high towers. Then someone forgets to work on Baghdad and the “Blue Cube disease” outbreaks to Moscow, Baghdad, Algier and Kairo. Another outbreak hits in Peking which overflows to Shanghai. People are dying, infection is spreading. The outbreak counter is high and there are only 6 black cubes left. At this point, the players find themselves, much like the man who has fallen into the hole, at the lowest point of the story. If it gets any worse, it’s game over. Then, just as all hope is lost, the medic solves Jakarta’s “Orange cube Disease” and in 3 turns manages to pass the Johannesburg card to the Scientist who discovers the last cure at the final moment – the players win and the man climbs out of the hole. Everyone feels even better than when they started and the Shape of the Game is completed.


Deck Builders

Dominion on the other hand represents a long, smooth incline, each new card your buy and put into your deck building engine pushes you ever further into “good fortune”. Here the very first turn represents your lowest point – it’s all up from here, your hand on turn 1 comprises of a bit of gold and a few “for the hell of it” victory point cards that clog everything up. There comes a point in dominion, and many other deck builders where your engine is at it’s “most efficient” within the constrains of the time frame. Once the game has reached this point, most turns consist of buying Provinces until they run out, shown by a small plateau at the end of the Shape.


Games with two teams

We can give a shape to Werewolf (Mafia, The Resistance etc.) while taking a different view of it. Each opposing team will have a different “unfolding” to their game. In the Shape here, we see it is a very bad match for the villagers and they fail at catching any werewolves. Whereas the werewolves are having the opposite, matching game. Each step here represents a villager being eaten or burned, the villagers sinking lower and lower with each terrible incident. The werewolves on the other hand are getting more and more good fortune as they evade capture. The starting point for the villagers is slightly below the norm also because even from turn 1 the bleak prospect of “You are going to die” is not very comforting for them.

It’s not just Winning and Losing

The simple possibility of “Winning” and “Losing” a game is not an excuse to have the shape of your game finish on a high or a low, after all, many games that you can win don’t leave you with a Good Fortune style outlook. I have played many games where although I have technically ‘won’, the scowl that my wife gives me afterwards does not leave me with a positive vibe. In fact I’m sure that most of us have at least one game that we will simply not play because it makes us feel like shit, Battle Star Galactica – I’m looking at you… (Edit: My copy of Citadels went from a fight to eBay in 24 hours – Matt)

To Sum

Like stories, games have plots or “Shapes”. Games don’t need to start in a certain place, but as long as they have variation in the shape, and end on a high they will be a rewarding experience. Certain styles of games follow certain plots and these Shapes can be a very useful tool in understanding how a game “unfolds”, a key property of your game.






6 thoughts on “The Shape of Games

  1. The Jenga Graph made me snerk.
    This is very helpful, I’ll be trying to think of experience curves in my games from now on.

    • Thank you so much for commenting Robin, it’s great to see that our articles are read and appreciated! The shape of Jenga was a favorite of mine too: starting strong and bold, devolving downward into a plateau state when all the main structure has been “Jenga’d” leaving the players only able to pick blocks from the new upper-levels of the tower, while overall it exists at the same height until it ends in catastrophe to the power of infinity.

  2. Pingback: Today in Board Games Issue #177 - Happy Memorial Day - Today in Board Games

  3. Really cool! I like this concept a lot.

  4. Brilliant! I’ve just now catching up on reading and I love the application of Vonnegut’s shapes and applying it to games. It never would have occurred to me to connect the two and you’ve turned it into a very impressive application for games.

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