2005-06-03 : The Subtle Rules
This is magic. This is the body and the subtle body. Rules have a soul!
Who here has played Pit? It’s a great game. Far greater than reading its rules would reveal. I remember quite distinctly sitting there in the midst of and between hands of Pit, going “why, why, why is this game so much fun? Why when every hand ends do we whoop and laugh and shuffle and deal again? What is it, what is it, that grips us like this?”
The rules are so simple they’re dumb. Hand of nine cards, you win if you have all the same card, you trade cards blind, no turn taking. So say I have four coffees, two wheats, two oats and a sugar. I hold out my two wheats face down, I shout “two! two! two!” Somebody else is also holding out two cards face down shouting “two! two! two!” When we identify each other, we swap cards. Eventually somebody manages to get all nine of the wheats or whatever and they win.
That’s all there is to it! It’s a compsci101 sorting algorithm. We enact it. Why on EARTH is it so much fun?
You should play this game. If you’re a game designer, you should play this game hard and intently.
Here’s why it’s so much fun: the whole deck in play becomes ordered more or less equally. I start with three coffees. Soon I have four, then six, then seven. I’m throwing other stuff away as fast as I can to get those last two, I know they’re out there circulating, then DING! You’ve got all nine wheats.
I was >this close<. Every single time, everybody who lost was >this close
<. Because the deck becomes ordered more or less equally across everyone's hands.
"Oh man I was this close! Who has those last two coffees, you? Dang! Let's play again!"
The subtle rules. The enlivining principle. When we enact rules, we create a dynamic that's not evident in the rules themselves. It's not enough, as a designer, to create rules that hold together, like corpse parts sewn into person shape. You have to create rules with a
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