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A Simple Guide to Writing Games

Writing Games

Writing GamesI’m a writer. I’m also a game designer, game player and game lover. And, folks, I hate what writers do to games – most writers simply don’t know how to write games.

Let’s take a prime example: Harry Potter’s Quiddich. Harry’s the Seeker of his team, meaning that if he catches the Golden (or Silver, if you’re a fan of the books) Snitch ball his team gains 150 points and instantly wins[note]OK, there’s a plot point in one of the later books where the Bulgarians are 160 points behind when they catch the Snitch and thus lose.[/note].

So what would this do to the game, if it was real? Since catching the Snitch is worth 150 times as much as scoring a goal, why is there only one guy (Harry) chasing it? Well, those are the rules. I buy that. There are plenty of dumber sports[note]Such as competitive cheese rolling. It’s real. And don’t make me mention chess boxing.[/note]. But why should the players at Hogwarts be written as dumb?

There’s Always a Better Way

If the Snitch is worth all that much more, then every focus should be on capturing it. The Chasers, the Beaters, even the Keeper, should be focused on one thing only: helping the Seeker chase the Snitch, or, in contrast, blocking the opposition’s Seeker. So the Beaters should always beat the Bludger at the opposition’s Seeker, etc. Anything else is clearly sub-par.

Which doesn’t mean that the tactics used in the Philosopher’s Stone wouldn’t exist, but in any competitive sport there will come a time when someone adapts a more optimal strategy. Like the Flop in High Jump (you know, turning your back to the bar and jumping ass-forwards instead of trying to hurdle it like normal people used to do). So you write your game and then a reader figures out how to beat it. Like I did above. And your Big-And-Dangerous(TM) game is laughable.

You Don’t Know Games

The key issue with people writing games is that writers generally aren’t game enthusiasts. I’m not saying that they don’t play games – plenty of writers do – but they’re not devoted fans of gaming. They don’t spend hours trying games they’ve got little interest in just to have done it. Or playing a game with strange strategies just to see if they can break it somehow (that’s where you need game breakers). And they certainly don’t try to play a large proportion of the thousands of games that are published each year (there are some 4 000 new analog games published each year, and around 500 video game per day on iOS alone).

So this means that, just like you wouldn’t write competent description of a deep sea fisherman because you once watched Jaws, you wouldn’t be able write a decent game based on the fact that you’ve played Monopoly[note]Monopoly is scorned, rightfully so, as a poor game with bad game mechanics. Also, it’s from 1904.[/note].

So how do you write games?

Know Your Limitations

First off, realize that you haven’t got all the facts. You need to do research. Easiest way is to head for the closest gaming club or board game café. The reason I’m recommending board games is because they’re self-encapsulated – you need to learn them in order to play them, there’s no AI to keep track of everything, no tutorial missions. You need to grasp the game, and see the basic mechanics, in order to play it. Also, you’re less likely to be wooed by fancy graphics and great cut-scenes[note]Also, I love board games. Spread the love, people![/note].

If you’re going to write games, then start by playing some modern games, games that were first published in the past 5 years. I’m saying first published because you can find Simpson’s Monopoly or Star Wars Yahtzee that were published yesterday even though the games themselves are older than sliced bread.

Try both dexterity games, thematic games and Eurogames. Of these, Eurogames (called German or German-style games in some parts) are the ones most likely to give you a good grasp of modern game mechanics. A good place to start looking for game recommendations and gaming clubs is BoardGameGeek, which has an international, and very helpful, membership[note]Also, I’m a member.[/note].

Now, let’s say you’ve done your homework, what do you do next?

You fake it.

How to Fake a Game

It’s as easy as that. Don’t try to create the entire game, with rules, unless you want to use those rules as a crucial plot point (in all honesty, this is what happens in Harry Potter – Quiddich adds to the sense of wonder and shows that Harry is adept at something that’s valuable; it builds him as a both a leader and a cool kid).

Let’s say you’re going to write a Chess match in your novel. I’m using Chess as an example of writing games because everybody knows Chess to some degree. And since you know it you might be tempted to write it as an expert would explain it: Knight to F3[note]BTW, did you spot the error I made here? A real Chess pro would write that as: Nf3 – columns are marked with lowercase letters. Anyone knowledgeable in Chess would have called me out on it.[/note]. Don’t do that. Don’t get into the details.

Instead write the feelings a character has playing the game, and what they’re trying to accomplish:

My palms were moist and I noticed my hand shaking as I reached for my knight. I might not be too late to try for an exchange that would lead to a draw. It might not.

I don’t explain anything about the game, but say everything about the situation: the POV character is afraid and is about to be beaten, or at least in a deep bind in the game. Writing games this way you are likely to get away with a great amount of ignorance.

But what if you want to show off your cool game idea? What if it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread?

Fake it. But do it with details.

Faking the Details

Ian Banks does a great job of this in Complicity (which is an amazing thriller/murder mystery in its own right, read it if you haven’t – you’ll learn a lot about writing POV from it). Banks main character is a mess. He’s addicted to drugs, sex, and computer games. He loves his computer games.

Banks needs to show how great the game is. He needs to show what Cameron Colley does in the game, he needs to show what Cameron thinks about the game, what he feels about the game.

So Banks fakes it. He invents a game but he doesn’t say how it works, only what the actions are and how Cameron interprets them.

The game is clearly based on Sid Meyer’s Civilization, which was popular at the time (Complicity was published in 1993). Banks’ game has got all the the trapping of Civilization with a map, cities, forces. It’s also got a lot of things, such as real time strategy, cultural influence, changing leaders, inheritance, civil war, and more, that made it into later generations of Civilization games. But nowhere does he show how these things work.

All Banks does is let Cameron describe them, either verbally or the feelings he’s got, like when he comes home after being arrested (yeah, yeah, spoiler warning) and finding that the police left his computer on, letting the game run and barbarians wipe out all of Cameron’s game empire. Which Banks uses to illustrate in just how bad a bind Cameron’s found himself – even his computer game is destroyed!

All right, but suppose that you can’t fake it. Suppose you need to have a game, with rules, and the game play itself, as a central part of the plot.

Then you need to break it.

When You Can’t Fake Your Game

You need to take your rules to the extreme. Effectively you’ve now passed the border of being a writer and are now a game designer. Mess it up and anyone who’s played more games than you will instantly see it. Also, if you base your plot on this game and someone figures out how to break it, then your whole plot fails.

Best advice I’ve got here is to go find an experienced game designer, or an experienced gamer, in the genre you’re interested in, who would be willing to talk you through the main pitfalls. And remember to fake as much of the game as you can – you don’t need to deliver an interesting, challenging, tense game, all you need to deliver is the illusion of an interesting, challenging, tense game. There are people who find Go Fish interesting. If you take a game that works, and show it through their eyes, it will become interesting to your readers.

Remember: you’re not trying to write a great game, you’re trying to write a character who thinks the game is great. In order to do that, all you need is a game that isn’t broken, and a character who loves it.

So, write your game. Design enough of it to make sure that it isn’t obviously broken. But what if you can’t? What if you need a game that will be broken, or you don’t know how to test if it is broken?

Why You Should Omit the Details

Don’t give the reader all the details. Remember the faking above? That’s all about not showing the Chess board but the players. So add an element to the game that wouldn’t be obvious to people looking on but would be entirely intuitive to the players.

Take a look at Magic the Gathering, an immensely popular collectible card game that’s made, literally, billions for its parent company Wizards of the Coast[note]OK, WotC is owned by Hasbro since way back. But Magic makes about 20-25% of Hasbro’s bottom line. Yeah, it’s big.[/note].

In Magic there’s a card that’s called “Kird Ape”[note]Yeah, it’s 20 years old by now, but I’m an old player, and I pretty much sold off all of my Magic stuff.[/note], a sort of monster. It’s got a casting cost of 1 red mana, an attack strength of 1/1, and gets +1/+2 if you’ve got a forest in play. Meaning that it’s stronger in a mixed green/red deck.

None of that meant anything to you[note]If it did: busted! ;)[/note]. It wouldn’t mean anything to your readers either and if you needed to make it mean something you’d need to throw in lots and lots of info-dumping, effectively explaining the rules of Magic: The Gathering. Boooooring.

Obfuscate the Stats

So obfuscate it. You can show an overview of Magic (basically summon monsters, attack and defend with them, cast spells to destroy or augment them, kill your opponent) but, when it comes to the play, don’t show the statistics. Obfuscate them. And let your main character translate them for the reader:

I summoned a Kird Ape, slapping the card on the table. Miriam smiled and I bit my cheek to keep from screaming. The ape wouldn’t hold a second against her Phyrexian Colossus but it was all I had in hand.

As a reader I don’t need to know the value of a Kird Ape, nor those of the Colossus. All I need are their effects: the Ape will be able to take a bullet for me, but then the Colossus will eat it for breakfast. Even if writing the game of Magic is important to your story, and you’ve explained all the rules necessary, don’t explain all the rules. Explain their consequences.

So what if your Colossus is overpowered[note]It’s not. It’s a big, strong, dumb, extremely costly card. Yeah, I’m still a nerd.[/note]. Without values your readers will never be able to figure it out.[note]With values it’s a different game. Magic: The Gathering constantly revises its legal card lists when players figure out combos of cards that are plain broken.[/note] Just make sure to make it consistent: if your Colossus turns the Kird Ape into vegan pudding[note]Last year a Scottish shepherd’s lamb’s pie tested for traces of horse DNA showed no traces of any animal products whatsoever. Yay Scotland[/note] the first time, there better be a darn good explanation if the Ape turns it into concrete jelly the next one.

Now you’ve got everything you need to write games. Go do so, and share your experience in the comments.

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  • Noah Dudley

    I’m sure I’m not the first person to note this (or likely the thousandth) but it is ironic to note that in an article about knowing your games before you write about them, you refer to Civilization as a real-time strategy game, when in fact it is anything but. If the police had left a Civilization game running on a computer, the game would finish its part of the turn and patiently wait for the player to get back and go on to the next turn.

    • Filip Wiltgren

      The “Civ-game” in Ian Bank’s novel is a RTS version of Civ. It’s quite clearly described as both having aspects of long term empire building and running in real time, without waiting for the player’s input. When I read it I also got some serious Europa Universalis vibes from the descriptions (although Complicity was written before EU came out), with the way Banks describes politics and inheritance. Banks has a system where the player has an avatar in game, a world leader of sorts, and if you don’t transition to someone else before your leader dies you lose. Also, he has Cameron (the main character) complain that if you transition too early the game will rescue your old leader and beat the crap out of you with it. So it’s an incredibly tough Civ-like as well.

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