Break the Rules of a Game to Improve it

In The Well-Played Game, Bernard DeKoven advocates a fundamental adjustment in players' attitudes towards the rules of a game:

You're not changing the game for the sake of changing it. You're changing it for the sake of finding a game that works.

Once this freedom is established, once we have established why we want to change a game and how we go about it, a remarkable thing happens to us: We become the authorities.

No matter what game we create, no matter how well we are able to play it, it is our game, and we can change it when we need to. We don't need permission or approval from anyone outside our community. We play our games as we see fit. Which means that now we have at our disposal the means whereby we can always fit the game to the way we want to play.

This is an incredible freedom, a freedom that does more than any game can, a freedom with which we nurture the play community. The search for the well-played game is what holds the community together. But the freedom to change the game is what gives the community its power.

Rather than obeying game rules as an ultimate authority, DeKoven would like players to assume authority over the rules. Once they feel confident and in control of the rules, players can break them and modify them in the course of playing a game. They do so not out of a mischievous desire to disrupt the authority of the rules, but out of a directed attempt to create a deeper experience of play. This beautiful vision for games does not describe the way that most people normally play. However, there is one type of game player that already has this attitude: game designers. Game designers, particularly those that design through an iterative process, already posses a methodology in which playing a game means breaking, tweaking, and modifying rules. In a sense, DeKoven is advocating that game players become more like game designers.

How are game designers rule-breakers? Being a game designer means that you are constantly testing the limits of a game you are creating. Which aspects of the rules are working and which are not? Do you need to add a feedback loop, or modify the amount of randomness in the game? Are players being faced with meaningful decisions at every moment? The best way to answer these game design questions is by changing the rules of your game, trying out new variations, and seeing what happens.

Of course, DeKoven's vision for dethroning the authority of a game extends beyond just professional game designers. He would like to see all game players adopt this attitude toward play. What would it mean if all players felt free to break the rules of a game, to play not just inside the space of a game, but to modify and change the shape of that space itself? One answer to this important question is that it would require a fundamental alteration in the attitudes of game players and game designers. If players regularly break the rules, are they really rules at all? If players no longer stay inside the magic circle, are they really playing a game? Making this shift might be liberating, but it would certainly change the way we conceive games, game play, and game design.


Like adding a push-your-luck component to Candyland or how SFR took Dragon Dice and refactored the rules to make it work.

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 Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals
Books, Brochures, and Chapters>Book:  Salen, Katie (2003925), Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals, Retrieved on 2018-07-27
Folksonomies: games game design gameplay