Game Design by “Particles”

Something I’ve been toying with lately, is the idea of game design I’ve been calling “particles”; different than when Gil Hova describes gameplay in terms of “atoms”, where a discrete unit of play can’t be split; but a game design system perhaps orthogonal to the ideas of theme-first / mechanics-first, or experience-first.

A little backstory…

A few months back, I was reading some article about politics, which made reference to “revanchist” policies… intrigued, I googled, and read up on the concept, eventually finding my way to the wikipedia article on Revanchism.

A game concept sprang to mind, wherein players might fight over territories on a map, but would be incentivized such that territories they used to own but had lost would be more valuable than new or held territories. To test out the concept, I borrowed the combat cards from Scythe, intending to use that card system to proxy for “some kind of combat to be figured out later”, and took it to Denver Prototopia, scribbling a map on a sheet of 8×11 at the bar ahead of the meetup, the new ‘game’ was called “The Revanchists”.

It played alright — players were actually quite intrigued by the system, and were interested in there being more ‘meat’, i.e., other mechanisms, either an engine to build to fuel their army, or something contrary which presented an interesting decisions about how to prioritize against their military forces. (Some players suggested I theme this as major world religions each claiming/vying for control of Jerusalem… there’s a theme I’m not touching.) But they did really engage with the “revanchism” mechanism.

Now, this could become the core of a larger game, growing and building around this one core concept. But after reflecting on my playtesting notes it seemed like it might be interesting to build a game where this wasn’t specifically the core idea but was one of several interlocking blocks that fit together to generate a more complex system. Obviously all the pieces would have to be tested in concert, to confirm that they had a good mix of strong- and weakly- coupled interactions, and that their inputs and outputs were harmonized, but it felt like designing and testing little ‘mini-games’ in this vein could be an interesting way to build / test / iterate on a set of pieces that could eventually be arranged together as mechanisms in one actual game.

Calling these pieces “Particles” felt like a good term, since I haven’t heard it used elsewhere in the hobby design world (and I checked with Isaac Shalev who is assembling a comprehensive tome of terms 😂). Who knows, maybe this practice is already what great designers do, or there’s a better name for it, but it’s been on my mind lately as a design methodology. Drop me a note and let me know what you think of it!