A premise sentence is a tool used (mainly) in the scriptwriting or book industries. It’s a one line sentence that, using tropes or common knowledge, summarizes the contents of a creative work while at the same time building excitement about it.
“Die Hard on a buss.” That’s the premise sentence for Speed. The movie actually sold on that single sentence.
“Speed on bicycles.” That’s the premise sentence for Premium Rush. I don’t know if it’s genuine or not but it could be.
In both cases they use common knowledge (previous films in the genre) and add a distinguishing element that didn’t exist in the original.
“A cross between Cinderella and Starsky and Hutch set at a beauty pageant.” That’s Miss Secret Agent (yes, I’ve seen it, unfortunately). Either way, common tropes, emotional appeal, unique content. If you’re interested in how to craft a premise sentence you can read up on it on Randy Ingemarson’s blog.
How about some game premise sentences?
Sample Game Premise Sentences
“Build a civilization from scratch using limited resources.” That’s Through the Ages. It could also be Advanced Civilization but it’s missing something: the thing that defines Adv. Civ. – the map. So for Advanced Civ I’d use “Build a civilization from its humble roots to span the ancient world.” Note that I don’t use the word map anywhere, just the word “span” which carries the connotation of something stretching across vast areas.
Here’s one more: “Collect sets of cards to build trains across sets of routes.” That’s Ticket to Ride. The sentence focuses on the three key concepts: set collection, train theme and switching sets for other sets.
A last one, Axis & Allies: “Fight WWII with toy soldiers for real.” WWII carries imagery, as does toy soldiers. But the for real adds the twist, that you’re not just fighting in a sandbox with human generated audio effects, you’re playing it “for real”, with a real game – but that’s secondary, the primary part is still fight and toy soldiers.
Now, all that’s nice and well but what’s that got to do with game design?
Testing Using a Premise Sentence
Obviously it’s got plenty to do with selling a game. But wait, there’s more: you can use a game premise sentence to design around.
Huh? Isn’t the whole point of a premise sentence to sell? Yes, but you can also use it to test out and create the thing you’re going to use the sentence to sell. Best of all, most of us already do it.
Wouldn’t it be cool if… we could have a Puerto Rico that plays like Dominion and is set in space? … if we could have a hex and counter game that plays like a Hollywood movie? Or a race with flicked disks?
Anytime we get an idea we’re already thinking in terms of a premise sentence. We’re wired that way (or at least I know that I am). The basics of an idea consist of known elements put together in a novel way.
So if we’re doing it, why should we do it formally?
Because having a premise sentence summarizes what you’re trying to do with your design. It lets you know the borders, the limits within which you can roam freely. It tells you when you’re off track and need to either reconsider your idea or the limits you’re putting it under. Yes, it would be cool to have a miniature, Euro, war, LARP with people dressed like Tolkien clones – but would it fit into the design you’re doing right now?
That’s where your premise sentence comes in. Does it explicitly say “Tolkien clones”? No? Then maybe you should consider the clones a darling you need to save for another design (one that does, specifically, say Tolkien clones). Either way you’re on the wrong track.
Increasing Creativity and Productivity
Another, perhaps less obvious use, of premise sentences is to increase our creativity and productivity. Sounds counter intuitive, doesn’t it? How can something that puts restrains on our creative freedom increase our creativity?
I do my best work when I know where I’m heading. If I know that I’ll write about premise sentences then I think about premise sentences and come up with lots of ideas about, you guessed it, premise sentences. I don’t come up with ideas about salmon, or ice cream, or how the fall of Avalon Hill ushered in a new era of board gaming (no, really? let’s save that one for later – if it checks out).
Same with my designs. If I know that I’m designing a light, abstract with a twist mechanism then I won’t be tempted to add theme to it. Will that make the game worse than if I had theme in it? Perhaps, but that’s beside the point: the light, themed abstract is another game. My mission right now is to design the best darn light abstract with a twist that I can. And that’s where restraints help me by telling me “yoohoo, buddy, you’re heading away from your goal”.
Using premise sentences doesn’t preclude me from having a goal, or multiple goals or changing a game design’s goal in the middle of designing it. But they do let me do it in a conscious way, and then I can decide that I want to do something different rather than simply discover that, wow, I’ve created Race for the Galaxy all over again.