The Formal Ferret game design manifesto

by Gil Hova

I don’t have a lot of time to write today because I’m tending to my Kickstarter campaign. But in one of the many interviews I’ve done in support of the game, I brought out a manifesto I’d been working on.

Why a manifesto? I wrote it after playing a game that ran counter to everything I love in games. It left me unhappy and agitated, but it also made me wonder what I value in games. So I wrote it down.

  • Games played for recreation should be fun.
    • I’m carving out space for transformative games here, which aren’t played for recreation, and don’t have to be fun to be effective.
  • Games should reward players for accomplishing interesting goals.
    • Sounds obvious, but can never be emphasized enough. Games are about incentivizing players to do cool things.
  • Games should not expect players to target or punish the leader.
    • This is a dynamic I personally detest. My favorite games are about planning and building. There are a few games about bashing other players that I like, but most of them have such an awkward balance between building and attacking that they lose my interest.
  • Players should always feel mostly in control of the game. Never full agency, but never none at all.
    • This goes back to opacity and transparency. I’ve been playing a lot of Camel Up lately, and I find the math behind the race beautifully done. You always have a good idea of who’s leading and who’s trailing, but rarely do you have the full picture, and the mechanisms serve that opacity with incredible precision.
  • Games should have lively, refreshing themes.
    • This is a tough balance to hit. On one hand, I don’t mind playing games with the same retreaded themes (and I feel that a lot of them have those familiar themes for a good reason), but I’d rather not design a game with them. I just don’t find them compelling enough, and I think the theme of bloodless colonization in particular is dangerously disingenuous. On the other hand, if you make a game with a crazy theme, you risk distracting players and losing your game’s focus. But I think it’s possible to walk the line and deliver a game with a fun theme and well-integrated mechanisms.
  • Elegance is useful, but is not a goal in and of itself. Complexity has its place.
    • This is a big one for me, personally. I admire elegance and I try to use it when I can. But a heavier game gives me more flexibility, and I enjoy playing games with interesting wrinkles in their rules. I’d rather have a fun but dense game than a game with a few rules that feels disposable. The first game may appeal to fewer people, but they’ll be much more passionate about it. I want to make something that stirs that passion.
  • All board games should look beautiful. Even stodgy economic games.
    • We’re in a new age now. Economic games don’t have to look like prototypes anymore. I’m so happy that Battle Merchants is an example of a great-looking economic game, and I think we could use more.

I don’t expect other designers to write their own manifestos, or to agree with every item here. But it’s a cool exercise to go through. What’s your own manifesto?