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  • Writer's pictureAaron Hodgin

Game Design is UX to Accomplish Nothing (Journal Entry 2)

In my last post, I called game design “UX in its purest form,” because the goal of game design is to create an experience that is enjoyable for the user in and of itself. Responding to my last post, Redditor u/eljimbobo said they have always thought of game design as “UX to accomplish nothing,” and I think that’s another great way to frame it!

In typical UX, the goal is to help the user accomplish something- buy movie tickets, track a shipment, read an article- often balancing other needs, such as business goals or marketing strategies. From a designer’s perspective, a game should not have any relevance to a player’s real-world needs. Sure, some games are played in tournaments with cash prizes, and some individuals might derive a sense of self-worth from their performance in a game, but those aspects of real-world relevance shouldn't impact the design of the game itself.

Mark Rosewater defines a game as “​a thing with a goal (or goals), restrictions, agency, and a lack of real-world relevance.” Here’s a link to the article, but to summarize the idea, a person playing a game is actively engaging (by making decisions) with artificial restrictions (agreeing not to break the rules) to accomplish an arbitrary task (that does not impact the world outside of the game).

If you paid your rent by winning at Monopoly, that wouldn't be a game; it would be a job. And all the losers would be completely screwed. And designer Elizabeth Magie, who designed the game to illustrate the negative impacts of land monopolies, would be like, "Yeah, that's the point. #eattherich." But I digress.

Does this example of a game designed to teach a lesson work as a counter-example to my point? Yeah, probably. Anyways, let's get into this game I'm working on.

If you need a run down of the rules, check out my last post.

Abstracting the Design

This journal entry is going to feel pretty math-y, but fortunately, I do not identify as a "math guy." In school, I always leaned towards the arts and humanities and away from hard sciences. In my adult life, I’ve realized that I enjoyed the technical side of the humanities, like writing using literary forms, or learning about linguistics to analyze how people use language. I’ve also realized that I enjoy the more creative side of math, like using geometry to create art, or combining statistics and social science to figure out the optimal strategy in rock, paper, scissors.

I haven’t taken a math class since high school, so my analysis of this stuff isn’t going to get too crazy. With that said, I am going to use words like “variable” and “node clusters,” because I think it’s the easiest way to discuss this topic.

When I say “abstracting the design,” what I mean is breaking it down into abstract components, which will allow me to explore the many different directions the design could take. If I do this early in the process, during the exploration phase, I can explore lots of possibilities before narrowing down my options.

Currently, the game is about players, who represent primary colors, moving cards around to complete circles that contain their color. Each card has four "nodes," one at each corner. The central circles where players score points, are clusters of nodes that appear any time four cards intersect.

I’m going to call our primary colors “primary variables.” In the current design, each node contains a positive value for two variables and a negative value for the other. The combination of these three values generates a secondary color, which I’ll start calling a “secondary variable.”

OK, let’s take away the colors. For now, we’re going to call our three variables A, B, and C. Now each node can be expressed as:

  • AB

  • AC

  • BC

With this notation, each expression tells you which two primary values are positive, but they can also be viewed as an expression of their secondary variable. If Yellow is A, Blue is B, and Red is C, than Green is AB, Orange is AC, and Purple is BC (ok, no more colors for real now).

Here’s what the board looks like when we remove the colors and label the nodes with these abstract values.

It’s super boring, but you could still play this game. Player A wants to create clusters of nodes that all contain A as a positive value, and scores extra points if the entire cluster is either AB or AC.

Are you with me so far? You can’t answer me, blogging is a one-way medium. Anyways, now that we have turned the colors into abstract variables, let’s explore some of the things that this allows us to do.


When we talk about a game's "flavor," we're basically talking about its theme- medieval knights, aliens and space ships, forest preservation, etc. To reflavor, or "reskin," a game means to apply a new theme to the same underlying mechanics.

Now that my idea is abstract, I can use some other variable instead of color. In this example, the three primary variables are texture, color, and shape, and instead of a yes or no, there are two distinct values.

Here’s what this would look like on the game board. Gameplay would technically be identical- each player attempts to align their preferred primary variable and gets extra points for aligning two variables.

But to help players understand the goal, I think the framing would need to be different:

  • Player A wants a solid texture. They don’t care if it’s pink or white, round or square, but they don’t score if a striped texture is included in the node cluster.

  • Player B wants round shapes. Color and texture don’t matter, but they can’t score on squares.

  • Player C wants white colors. Any shape or texture is fine, but they can’t score on pink.

Here’s another example, this time with a more concrete flavor. Instead of abstract shapes and textures, players are now making pizzas.

  • Player A loves Pepperoni.

  • Player B loves Mushrooms.

  • Player C loves Bell Peppers.

Each quarter pizza has two toppings, and players attempt to complete pizzas that contain their favorite topping.

In both of the above examples, gameplay is mechanically identical. But these version of the game could affect the way the rules are framed, the way players view their roles, and the way players visualize the board. By playtesting each version, we could measure which one provides the best overall experience for players.

Next, let's return to the abstraction we made earlier to determine how we could actually expand on the gameplay.

Playing With the Variables

We could add variables and extend the design, but if we move beyond three primary variables, we start to increase the number of possible secondary variables by a lot.

With three primary variables (A, B, C) in paired combinations, there are three possible secondary variables (AB, AC, BC).

With four primary variables in paired combinations, we get six secondary variables:

  • Primary: A, B, C, D

  • Secondary: AB, AC, AD, BC, BD, CD

With five primary variables in paired combinations, we get 10 secondary variables:

  • Primary: A, B, C, D, E

  • Secondary: AB, AC, AD, AE, BC, BD, BE, CD, CE, DE

Both of these examples assume that each node only contains two positive variables and the rest are negative. What if we change that too? What if each secondary variable now has 3 positive variables and one negative?

With four primary variables, that’s ABC, ABD, ACD, BCD.

With five primary variables, it becomes ABC, ABD, ABE, ACD, ACE, ADE, BCD, BCE, BDE, CDE.

I’m sure there’s a formula that you could use to determine how many secondary variables are generated from a given number of primary variables in a set number of combinations, but we’ve reached the end of my math powers.

Here's an example of a board that uses four primary variables. In this example, some nodes have two positive primary variables, and others have three.

In contrast to the reflavor, where the game was mechanically identical for each version, this change has major implications for the gameplay:

  • Is it now a four-player game by default? Can it still be played with three?

  • Does the availability of more options increase or decrease cognitive load?

  • With three primary variables, there was a set number of possibilities for the layout of individual cards. How many possibilities are there now? Should the same cards be used each time, or could they be changed out between games?

  • How is scoring changed? Is it harder to avoid giving points away? Does the scoring system need to be rebalanced?


When I originally came up with the design for this game, I was not thinking about primary variables and secondary variables and node clusters. I was thinking about purple, green, and orange. The underlying math-stuff was there, but I had to discover it after the design was formed. Abstracting the design is work, and for me, it's a step in the process.

This time, I didn't make any decisions. I just wanted to explore some possibilities and explain the abstraction process.

Next time, I'm going to talk about some insights I've gathered through playtesting, and show some things I'm thinking for Version 2.0.



(P.S. Any of the images in this blog can be downloaded and printed for playtesting. Help yourself, but don't forget to give me some feedback!)

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