What are your “must-play” games for designers?

John Harper posted a bit on Twitter a few days ago about how (to paraphrase) designers should be playing a breadth of things, citing that he feels designers should play Fiasco, Burning Wheel and Apocalypse World. While I’ve played all those, I see many more games to add to that list — but then, it’s Twitter, so it’s not like you can fit a lot there. And that gave me an idea…

What are the three games you feel that designers should be playing in order to better understand their job? Explain why in one or two sentences.

Please keep the replies short so this doesn’t get out of hand.[1] Some caveats:

  • These don’t have to be your top three, just three you think hold good lessons. In fact, if you can’t talk about the lessons inside, that’s going to be a problem.
  • You don’t have to like these games. There is as much to learn about why you don’t like something as there is why you do, if not more.
  • You must have played a game you’re mentioning. That feels like a no-brainer, but I’m saying it anyway.
  • You can totally mention a game that someone else did. Two, three or four people saying “hey, X game holds Y lesson” is useful!
  • Stick to three. Not two, not four, etc. :)
  • Don’t argue about someone else’s game choice
  • [Added] I’m having to correct the spelling of several entries so that people reading this can find the game if they Google. So I will edit your entry to make sure you’ve spelled the game right, should I catch it. But please actually look up the game’s name beforehand. :P

You’ll see three of mine below, as the first comment. I don’t want to overly prioritize mine by making it the body of the post.

Side notes: Announcements

Real quick and unrelated to the core of this post, a couple things. First, I was interviewed on Daniel Hodges’ podcast, Penny Red. This interview took place a couple months back, so it’s a bit out of date, but since you know I’m the Technocracy guy now, you’ll hear me hinting that I am and my excitement for Mage: the Ascension in the podcast. Also, apparently I talk a bit of shit about Tolkien.

Second, are you in the Seattle area, and do you know about Gamerati’s Tacoma Game Day? It’s on Saturday, September 22nd, and I’ll likely be there for the first part of the day. (I have a burlesque show to go to that evening, NERDZ!)

– Ryan

[1] If someone writes an essay about one game, I’ll probably kill it because it’ll kill flow. :/


58 Responses to What are your “must-play” games for designers?

  1. Ryan Macklin says:

    Fate — Mainly for the interplay of aspects and the fate point economy. That you’re motivated to create aspects around immediate and lasting situations, and that there’s an economy surrounding the fictional triggering (rather than just “I spend X for a reroll” or “I get a token for making everyone laugh”) was eye-opening for me when I first played it.

    Cortex PlusI wrote about why a year ago, but in short the thing that Cortex Plus teachers a design is the role of language assembly while engaging mechanics, and how that can create nuance in a moment that isn’t there if you just say “I use my ‘broadsword’ skill”.

    Unknown Armies — The setting is rich with nuance brought by rumor, but what makes this interesting from a system standpoint is that it was an early game to have you rewrite/invent your own skills, thus creating your own personal language hooks into the game rather than using bland ones given by someone else (“I use my ‘Broadsword’ skill” vs. “I use my ‘I don’t like your face and am going to rearrange it’ skill”). And the magic system is nothing short of horrifically inspired.

    – Ryan

  2. Quinn says:


    I’ll spot you Fate and C+, and then I’ll add Apocalypse World. I think the merging of explicit abilities and roleplay merged into moves provide a great baseline for more improv-based play and are highly applicable to other genres (hence all the cool AW hacks out there).

  3. Adam Koebel says:

    Portal – To understand with near-perfect clarity how one teaches a game by immersing the player in the game itself. If only RPG books were as clear as teaching aids as the first five levels of this game. See also: Megaman X (http://youtu.be/8FpigqfcvlM)

    Basic Dungeons & Dragons – Not just because it is old nor because it is a “classic” but because it contains some of the best tools (albeit imperfectly illustrated) for guiding play. Torches as timers and random encounters as GM fairness tools.

    RIFTS – Because sometimes, just sometimes, a game can be a huge fucking mistake and still net you a bunch of money. A cautionary tale.

  4. Peter Borah says:

    Universalis: While I’m not sure the game is actually fun to play, Universalis mechanizes everything in a really interesting way. Gets you thinking about scene economies, control of various types of elements, shared setting creation, etc.

    In A Wicked Age: The game has lots of flaws, but the “oracle” system and the “we owe” system are both inspired. Gets you thinking about situation generators, non-linear story-telling, genre emulation, etc.

    Swords Without Master: This isn’t even technically released yet, though a preview is out. But this game does a great job of mechanizing a set of things you would never think to mechanize, and leaving unaddressed lots of things you may have thought were necessary. It does exactly what it needs to do to create the type of play it wants to create, which has almost no overlap with what a “normal” RPG does. Gets you thinking about how to question conventions, pacing, genre emulation, character development, and narrative authority.

  5. Matt says:

    AMBER – It’s diceless. It really shows a good way for narration in a game.

    HERO – This is on the one end of the spectrum regarding the amount of rules. There is a lot of information to digest regarding character creation and running/playing the game.

    D&D – Because it is the daddy of RPG’s. You should know where you come from.

  6. Kit says:

    So, I think that three is really a hard number to limit myself to, but I’ll assume that designers have played lots of classic games that form the foundation of the hobby—D&D, Call of Cthulhu, what-you-will—and move on from there. That said, I apparently agree a fair bit with John.

    Dread. Yeah, plenty of problems with this game, in terms of accessibility, but it still gives some valuable lessons on emotional responses, possible uses of physicality, and some ways in which the things we can point to as mechanics aren’t necessarily the game.

    Apocalypse World. Both positive and negative lessons. Even as someone who responds very well to the mysticism in Vincent’s writing, the text left me cold on first reading. I didn’t get what the draw was. But in play, many positive lessons: the game is a great study in negative space, flow, and the ways that a game can give you a kind of story without (seeming to be) top-down and explicit about it.

    Fiasco. Modular components, constrained creativity, an alternative to conflict-resolution systems, techniques-over-rules. Man, there’s so much in this game. And, perhaps concomitantly, it shows you what “innovative” actually looks like, rough and also beautiful.

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      The “three” is intentional, for many more reasons that the post illustrates. (Not the least is “so you don’t feel like spending an afternoon thinking on every game’s lesson and feeling back for forgetting one game later”.)

      – Ryan

    • Kit says:

      Oh, I know it’s intentional. I’m just whinging!

  7. jenskot says:

    Mega Man Xvideo explaining why but the summary is it teaches you how to play the game, by playing the game.

    Pandemic – teaches resource management and strategy with elegant design and mounting emotional pressure similar to Dread (Jenga).

    Monsterhearts – teaches you the best in modern day RPG practices where roleplaying matters and GMing is easy. Plus it teaches you how to GM.

  8. Joe Mcdaldno says:

    Apocalypse World is a strong demonstration of why “fiction first” mechanics improve play. Plus, its “playbooks” present setting and role in a really engaging and digestible way.

    Montsegur 1244 does a tremendous job of dealing out setting information and context in manageable pieces. You feel just knowledgeable enough to make your next scene compelling and evocative, without ever feeling burdened by the specific and invested history of the game. It is a leading example of “fluency play” done well.

    Microscope is designed to let people dream, tinker, and build off one another’s ideas. It does away with character attachment and situation attachment. It approaches time and setting in novel ways.

  9. Palmer says:

    D&D and/or Pathfinder. You need to know the most common out there, as an absolute baseline reference. They influence everything out there, even if it’s only as a shopping list of “what to avoid”.
    (I remember when MWP first launched Serenity, and one of the major advertising taglines floating out there for it was “It’s NOT d20!”. That’s what I mean by influence via avoidance)

    Risus. For the exact opposite reasons as D&D, where you strip design down to the bare ungalvanized metal. Barely a framework to hang things off of, but fully functional nonetheless. (You could easily sub in any other extremely small, light game, honestly. I just know Risus.)

    I don’t have a proper third right now, but I’m going to vaguely allude to Numenera, if only for the “Diceless GM” design. All rolls are unopposed player rolls. The GMs only mechanical role is setting difficulties. Even NPC attacks are handled by the player rolling dodge, rather than the GM rolling attacks

    • UserClone says:

      Apocalypse World was the first game I knew of to make this a deliberate design decision around which the game was built.

    • UserClone says:

      The “diceless GM,” that is.

    • Rob Donoghue says:

      I think Dragonlance 5th Age was the first big implementation of the all-actions-are-player-actions model (or at least the first I encountered outside of idle chatter). Very clever game.

    • Palmer says:

      Fair enough guys, those are ones I’m not personally familiar with, whereas Numenera is a bit hard to avoid having shoved down your throat lately (not complaining).

      Still think it’s a worthwhile lesson of upsetting the player-rolls/GM-rolls applecart

  10. I’m cheating a bit by grouping games around three different points.

    As an RPG analogue to Adam’s point about Portal, I’d suggest A Penny for my Thoughts (GM-less pick-up-and-play) or Lacuna (GM-driven jump-in-and-play). Playing in a Lacuna “tutorial training mission” is useful to see how you can (mis)learn a game in play and actually benefit emotionally from the learning experience itself in the same way you do with Portal.

    Apocalypse World and its derivatives for all the things described by others, but also for the question-asking and resultant collaborative world-building without use of stilted narrative control rules.


  11. Montsegur 1244 or its witch-burning offspring Witch: The Road to Lindesfarne (different games, same lesson, sue me). Structured freeform, pre-loaded r-maps, situation-through-questions, rigid constraints, conflict resolution through consensus.

    Bunnies and Burrows (FGU 1976 edition). A road map for how a hack escalates into full-bodied life of its own. Innovative in a dozen ways, some of which we have not seen since.

    The Morrow Project. Here’s a game that starts with an amazing premise, loads it with compelling, game-worthy color, and kills the whole package with rules that are stupid and no fun in the name of “realism”.

  12. stras says:

    Lets see – many of the responses above are stellar.

    Dungeon World – This is an interesting choice because I assume most folks have played D&D/Pathfinder. This teaches the same GM constructs as AW (as well as the other above points about flow, playbooks etc) but also illustrates how to differentiate a hack from AW core. Running it will illustrate some of the differences between this and D&D.

    Ganakagok – Probably not a common choice, but I think this game has a number of good lessons. There is shared world-building but with the comfort of a GM. There is interpretation (cards) and open ended narrative. Also there are open traits (a la dogs) where you can have the ‘strongest arm in the tribe’ but without some of the construct hangups on violence and religion that can sometimes detract from the lessons of a dogs oneshot. My favorite bit though is the construction of an artifact (the maps) that remain and remind you of the game after it’s done.

    Grey Ranks – So most games emulate epics, or movie genres (noir! action-adventure!). I think I needed to add something that is serious, and deep, and can help you understand things but is still an RPG. Montseigur is good, but the doom is clear before you even begin. What struck me as effective about Grey Ranks is how it holds out hope, and then dashes it before you’re done. And you realize that you are dead, but the best you can do is go out a martyr.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      That the doom is clear in Montsegur 1244 is a sales point, not a problem. Many games focus on the destination (and often well), but M1244 follows the idea of playing the journey, knowing where the destination will lead (in general). Many Jeepform games also do this.

      – Ryan

  13. Lenny Balsera says:

    Fiasco – The lesson here is about minimalism – how little you need to create the tangible effect of constraint that an RPG requires, and what elements of the activity *aren’t* your job to design around. (Hint on the latter: More rules and deeper constraint would not make Fiasco go less gonzo and silly as often as it can.)

    (So, this was supposed to be Primetime Adventures instead of Fiasco, but I wanted to concentrate on games people can actually find. This is a plea, not a dig.)

    Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition – The lesson here is about recognizing how little the term “roleplaying game” tells you about the thing you’re making. The hobby comprises a lot of activity between players, lots of talking and communicating about shit that *isn’t* portraying your guy in shared fiction, and nowhere is that more stark than 4E by its rules. (This is not a pejorative, either – if you go into a design thinking you want it to be about people roleplaying rich characters, you are so, so fucked in the bad way.)

    Vampire: The Masquerade – The lesson here is about making mechanics synergize with your narrative/genre premise, and what happens when they don’t match. There isn’t anything personal or horrifying in V:tM as a *system*, except what you bring from how hardcore you bought into all the delicious fiction-y bits, and God, can that go sideways in a hurry when you have different amounts of that buy-in among the participants.

  14. Ewen Cluney says:

    Maid RPG: This game uses randomness more and IMO better than basically any RPG ever. With thoroughly random chargen, random events during play, and rules set up so that pretty much any interaction with the rules involves rolling dice, it teaches how to make rules that make randomness produce something meaningful. It also shows that for a lot of things rules are unnecessary, and encourages a certain kind of lateral thinking. Plus, more people need to understand that RPGs don’t have to be Serious Business. (I could fill this list with just stuff by Ryo Kamiya if I wanted, but I’ve got a couple others.)

    Fiasco: It’s already come up a lot in people’s posts, but Fiasco is a game that shows that you can trust players with an awful lot of things that RPGs don’t usually trust them with. It also provides tools to create a good starting situation (something most RPGs are sorely lacking), uses dice in an interesting and unconventional way, and is entirely playable in a one-shot.

    Clover: With Clover, Ben Lehman did a bunch of things that are really interesting. The big one is simply that he made a game about a spazzy little girl and her dad (and maybe some of her friends) doing fun, ordinary things. It’s nice to see RPGs that are uplifting and that set aside weird genre stuff now and then, and Clover does both. The game also has a distinctively non-traditional writing style for an RPG, subtly fine-tunes the roles (“Daddy” is kind of like a GM, and kind of not), and provides something perfectly playable with two people.

  15. Gregor Vuga says:

    Moldvay Basic D&D
    A lesson in how everything from encumbrance to xp is built around the core activity of the game.
    A lesson in light, concise design that puts a whole game in one thin booklet.
    A lesson in open-ended design where you give a robust structure and leave enough open for the players.

    Montsegur 1244
    A lesson in how you don’t need dice or actually any kind of mechanics or math to play a game. In other words, a lesson that freeform doesn’t equal systemless.
    A lesson in preloaded content.

    Apocalypse World and its derivatives
    A lesson in multilayered results, with no “nothing happens” rolls.
    A lesson in putting fiction (the core killer app of tabletop roleplaying) at the heart of the game.
    A lesson in how to lay out the procedures of the game bare, so people see how things actually work at the table, how the dialogue works, as opposed to some abstract notions of roleplaying.

  16. Adam S. says:

    “Don’t Rest Your Head” — This game brings the meta game to the forefront; allowing the players choose how many dice to roll and the risks associated with that choice. The play world is a dream scape that allows just about any story to be told and barriers to be pushed.

    Sorcerer — The steam roller of success carrying forward, make players plan and use tactics in fun and intriguing ways. This is also the game that taught me how use relationship maps to drive the events in the game. Can’t forget Kickers, the concept of the player starting the action and setting the tone for the game was novel for me as GM.

    PDQ — This is a near bar bones system, it amazing how freeing that can be. The thing that I loved about this game was when damage is taken it is suggested to create a future plot hook centered around that skill that was damaged, this has lead to some very interesting sub-plot and side stories.

  17. James Brown says:

    For designers?

    Apocalypse World, but not for the reasons I’ve seen so far. Because it’s a high-water mark on taking a designer’s vision, and translating it through text and into what happens at the table. Every single fucking word in that book is aimed squarely at making your actual play resemble the Vincent’s intention for play, and it’s very good at that.

    Mouse Guard, because it is a similar high-water mark for genre emulation and licensed design. Luke and co. knocked this one out of the park. Playing this game *feels* like reading those graphic novels.

    My Life with Master. So many strong design elements executing with remarkable elegance. The craft that went into streamlining this game down without gutting it is mind-boggling.

    And by all you hold dear, don’t just play these games. Play the *FUCK* out of them. Hack them, tear them apart, turn them into weeping, broken ghosts of their former glory, and then put them back together. If you’re wanting to be a game designer, you need to see *how* these games do what they did.


  18. Tracy says:

    Fiasco – It’s the game that taught me that improvisation and collaboration around the game table can be the lifeblood of a game. It also cemented the idea of the social contract that we get/use when we game.

    Dread – Dread is rules-light, but has a lot going for it. Built-in tension through the resolution mechanic, an easy way to handle PvP, and a great character-creation process.

    Eclipse Phase – For me, EP was a lesson in how setting can outstrip mechanics. The EP mechanics aren’t bad, but they’re not for me. The setting, however, is rich vibrant, and is one of the most compelling settings that I’ve ever read. Don’t let things get out of whack in that regard.

  19. Tony Dowler says:

    As usually happens with these things, this is more a list of what’s at war in my brain right now than a real recommendation for other designers, but here goes:

    Race for the Galaxy
    RftG blends color and gameplay amazingly well.

    This audience participation game turned Web comic *shouldn’t* be any good at all. It reads like a game of Universalis spinning out of control. Yet it’s an oddly compelling read. When something like that happens, I think it’s very important to pay attention as a designer.

    Speaking of Universalis, it’s an oldie but a goodie. There’s tons to learn from this design.

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      Can you give us some highlights for Universalis?

      – Ryan

    • Tony Dowler says:

      Absolutely! Universalis was created near the dawn of time according to the Indie calendar, and influenced a lot of later designs. The game is universal and includes a pre-game discussion where the players come to agreement on what kind of game they will play, including what sort of behavior is an isn’t allowed at the table. It features a creative economy where players spend resource to create story elements and narrate. The amount of resource spent on an element also indicates its importance or status in the story. The game also features detailed procedures for resolving in-game conflicts and out-of-game disputes or disagreements about the story. In all these things it was pretty revolutionary, and still remains a highly unique game in many ways.

  20. Simon says:

    Toon – Sets out to capture an idea, and does that. With mechanics that feel like the Saturday morning cartoons the game is about.

    Earthdawn – Looking past all the brilliant setting and fluff, Earthdawn tickled my mathgeek brain with Fibonacci advancement curves and (almost) nailing “my skill is my average result, but I’m still rolling for it” perfectly with the step system and exploding dice.

    D&D4E – The effort and thought brought to ensuring that the assumptions of the system help the DM allows for things like “the monster manual on a business card”. The work done up front gives the DM much more freedom to think than a tactical mini’s game scenario designer may otherwise have.

  21. Deliverator says:

    *Grey Ranks. It has several important features: GM-less play, serious content, non-genre fiction, character death not removing the player’s engagement, simple and elegant dice mechanics that really matter and hit hard. Just about the only game that’s ever given me that serious pit-in-the-stomach feeling of dread going into the last session.

    *Dungeon World. I like the assumption that designers have all played D&D and other major trad games. DW shows how to capture that genre in a manner that is fast-paced, relatively easy to GM, very easy to play, and always fiction-first, as others have noted. (I’ve noticed many other people’s lists have included one or another of AW or another hack, but DW is my *top* choice not because I don’t love core, Monsterhearts, and Monster of the Week [and Sagas of the Icelanders and The Regiment sound amazing], but because it merges all the greatness of AW with the world’s most popular and influential RPG.) Oh, also, the way in which the game rewards failure is brilliant. It’s actually my favorite AW-family XP mechanic.

    *Mouse Guard. Perfectly captures the license, as noted above. Also, a nice midpoint in some ways between my other two choices: structured play in terms of scenes, but has a GM role. Adventure fiction, but not pseudo-European swords and sorcery. A bit of crunch, but relatively easy to master with a bit of time investment. Also, a great family game or introduction to gaming for a youngster.

  22. Eden says:

    Fiasco – Because it demonstrates what’s possible both in terms of decentralized play and bite-sized sessions.

    Fate – Because it has one of the better action economies and aspects demonstrate a fantastic way to share narrative control while maintaining centralized authority.

    Fortune’s Fool – Because it pushes the boundaries of what’s possible in terms of flow and change between action economy and resolution mechanic. There’s an exciting tension as you weaken your resolution mechanic by spending out of your economy’s resource pool. And there are numerous reset points for the deck to keep it from getting predictable.

  23. Frederik J. Jensen says:

    Dungeon World. The core of the dungeon crawl experience with a fast paced system that gently pushes the players into the tropes.

    Polaris. Ritual phrases and clearly defined player roles and responsibilities.

    Dogs in the Vineyard. What the characters do comes right from the heart of the setting. Lots of bleed between player and character. Oh, and how playing poker with dice interacts with the fiction.

  24. jessecoombs says:

    The Battlestar Galactica board game
    – This game produces roleplaying without ever being explicit about it, through it’s mechanics and genre emulation. Does this make the game any less valid as a rpg?

    In a Wicked Age
    – So many games that come out seem to be a regurgitation of D&D or Apocalypse World, but IAWA’s resolution system is important because it is inherently different to it’s core. The oracle setting creation, we owe list, and form factor also make it a big rpg design education for it’s buck.

    Primetime Adventure
    – The scene-framing rules tell you how to play it with real people around a real table, and most rpgs that I read don’t tell you how to do that and I hate them for it. Also, what a breath of fresh air to have a game that emulates a specific type of media that has nothing to do with adventuring.

  25. Go–Quite possibly the most elegant game out there. Play this to learn how to develop deep, deep play from simple rules.

    Cosmic Encounter–A game that breaks its own rules. As a result, it makes system hacking a part of game play. Add in real social interactions, and it’s a delightful web of crazy that engages the whole person.

    Yahtzee–Seriously! This game is all about the drama of the die roll. The fact is that many, many people love this game. Understanding why is a significant part of game design.

    None of these are RPGs. That’s fine. I think that RPG designers need to get out in the wider world to be inspired. :-)

  26. Teo says:

    Cyberpunk 2020
    -R.Talsorian did such a good job of matching system to setting, and made
    a lifepath system that was compact, yet significant.

    Top Secret S.I.
    -The best hit location system I have ever used hands down. Lots of other nifty ideas as well such as, using 1/2, and 1/4 skill checks instead of fixed penalties. Also one of the earliest games I played that stepped away from alignment with a multiple point psych profile.

    -Steffan O’Sullivan was onto something great, and made it freely available to everyone. He’s like the Jonas Saulk of gaming.

  27. Jim Ryan says:

    Fiasco – Failure should be fun, and no game teaches that better than Fiasco.

    Lady Blackbird – It has a great balance of player and GM narration, encourages the mix of role-play and mechanics while still being action-oriented and helps GMs learn the concept of escalation.

    Savage Worlds – A simple system that actually encourages you to adapt it to different things and makes it easy to design things on top of it.

  28. Sean Nittner says:

    Burning Wheel – Beliefs drive characters, which in turn create conflict and drama. The stories we tell after BW sessions are remarkable. Advancement forces people to try things they will almost certainly fail, and is very granular and rich advancement at that. Stakes are set in advance, such that failures can always be negotiated to satisfy the needs of player and GM. And god damn, do some of those rolls pull on my heart strings.

    Apocalypse World – Every roll is meaningful (which I can say of very few systems) and every roll has consequences. Every present scarcity creates a pressure cooker environment for the characters so all their actions have consequences. Plus, easily the most “hacked” game I’ve seen in the modern era. AW is the father of so many games.

    Primetime Adventures – It teaches awesome skills at scene framing, looking at peoples issues, and asking the right questions for a scene, or character. Positively the richest characters I’ve seen develop in a system where your most important stat is your “issue”.

  29. Sage says:

    I’m going to skip John’s original three, because why repeat him? (But he’s right.)

    My Life With Master
    The sheer elegance and expressiveness of this game can’t be overstated.

    Warhammer FRP 2nd Ed
    This game taught me a lot about embedding setting in randomness and the design elegance of random tables.

    Magic: The Gathering
    The enduring popularity and huge following of this game seems like it should have lessons for everyone, but I’m not sure I understand them yet.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      I’m going to skip John’s original three, because why repeat him? (But he’s right.)

      Slow your roll, Sage. No one said he’s wrong. :) No one’s saying any are wrong.

      – Ryan

    • Sage says:

      Yeah, I get that. Just figured I’d mention that I’m cheating by saying “my three plus his three.”

  30. Doug H says:

    I can’t narrow this down to three for other designers, but here are three that had a huge impact on me:

    Ganakagok: the inclusion of an in-game artifact that changes with the story (the map of the world); mechanics that demand tragic heroism; watching the system unlock player creativity in a way I hadn’t seen before.

    Burning Wheel/Mouse Guard: a system that actually describes the procedures of play clearly, rather than assuming many of them, and concrete improves on most of them; BW is a lesson in how splicing sub-systems together can get out of hand and MG is a lesson in how to fix BW (for me, at least).

    Mortal Coil: in-game collaborative setting creation, theme-building and magic-system creation; a diceless mechanic that is still tactical and dramatic.

  31. Eoin Boyle says:

    Stepping outside of the usual tabletop neighborhoods (FATE/Fudge, PDQ, Amber, Microscope, IAWA, Dogs, yadda yadda… I can add little new to the conversation on those):

    1 – Poker. Any variant, really, but no-limit hold’em primarily. Each hand is a fixed set of probabilities modified by skillful tactical play. To win, I must play my cards, my chips AND you, my opponent. Equally, I am going to be played. How and to what degree I permit this is part of how the game works. And then you get hooked on the fun of playing the game. And you start getting obsessed on how to recreate that level of fun in your own games.

    2 – Euchre. Yes, it’s kind of a midwestern US “come over for cards” party specialty. That doesn’t make it a wonderful game experience to work with/learn from. Even though there’s no table-talk permitted, an amazing amount of information is communicated in the playing. Related trick-taking games have many of these same features, but the reduced probability of Euchre in combination with the bauer/bower mechanic makes it the one I recommend.

    3 – Monopoly. An object lesson in how not to build a game to run as-written. Because, really, when is it ever run as-written? Everyone comes to the game with house rules they’ve picked up along the way… yet most of them contradict what’s actually on the rules sheet in the box, often for the worse & longer than for the “better” game experience. That’s not saying that the as-written is a better entertainment – in fact, it’s horribly unbalanced after a few turns. Just that the players come to the game with ideas on how to make things work better… that don’t work. Some of the fantasy heartbreaker lessons in the OSR apply readily here.

  32. Tablesaw says:

    I was talking last night with someone who doesn’t do much gaming (RP, board, card, video, what have you), and she argued that it was overly difficult to get people to play a role-playing game because the ritual involved was too different than anything people are used to in their everyday life, regardless of the content of the game. I countered that she’s thinking to specifically about long-term campaign play, and that a number of games, particularly newer ones, are designed to match the social ritual of more common events like board or party games. So my three games are non-RPG games that exhibit different social rituals (with an eye toward resolving Baker’s Oppressive Social Footprint).

    Poker (Long-term, very competitive)
    If a person is part of a group that meets regularly at someone’s house to play a single kind of game over a long period of time, the game is probably poker. In addition to the mechanical elegance of the basic game, the usual “Dealer’s Choice” poker night includes a wide variety of hacks to appeal to the individual players. It provides a chance for socialization outside of the game, and varying levels of commitment to the game itself. Though strictly competitive (Hey, that’s my $20 in there!), the stakes and competition are there to promote group unity and a fun atmosphere. I like the book Saturday Night Poker for an absurd listing of absurd poker variants, as well as for tips managing a regular game.

    Arkham Horror (Long one-off, cooperative)
    There are some other, simpler, arguably better cooperative games that could be put here, but I’m opting for Arkham Horror specifically because of its length and baroque complexity in its rules. It’s intimidating for new players, but less so with a group of people (even just one) helping to manage all the fiddly bits. The time commitment is long but finite, and there’s a great deal of color to make the game work.

    I think Arkham Horror maps to the social experience of getting together for an RPG one-shot, as in a convention setting, in terms of time and complexity, and in the ways that it can hook in new players with cooperation.

    Apples to Apples (Short one-off, lightly competitive)
    Party games are easy to start, easy to stop, easy to explain, easy to play, but most importantly, they are less about mechanics or competition than they are about encouraging performances by players for the entertainment of others. If I hadn’t written so much about those other games, I might scrap it all and just list three different party games here instead, because lots of different games have different important lessons. But while a number of games come out of an oral tradition of play, Apples to Apples has a concrete design where a very limited amount of mechanics and input can generate a lot of play. It’s also a more relaxed game: where many party games use time limits to increase tension, Apples to Apples encourages jokes, arguments, and digressions.

  33. JDCorley says:

    The three correct answers are:

    Diplomacy, so that you are assured, mathematically, that Satan is real and at work in this world.

    D&D, so that you know what damn-near-everyone is doing, and the general principles of external character action mechanics and GMs and such.

    Smallville’s implementation of Cortex+ specifically, so you can learn what internal states of characters can do mechanically.

    (Primetime Adventures and Fiasco should be read, of course, but they’re too simplistic to get tons of design insights from, and I’m somewhat stunned that people say they “teach” things like failing forward. They certainly describe what that is and make it a priority. But they are short games and those are creative techniques that can really only be obtained by practice. Now, I would say all GAMERS should play those games if they want to get better at tabletop gaming. And they should play them (and other games) A LOT so they can get practice and improve. But being a better gamer (performer, tactician, explorer, creator, etc.) is not the same as being a better designer (mathematician, teacher, editor, writer, etc.) and the skill sets, though they may overlap (designing a GURPS campaign is approximately on par, fiction-wise, with designing a micro-game for some dumb contest somewhere) at times.)

  34. Xavier says:

    Top three for designers:

    D&D 4th. You should definitely play /some/ version of D&D, just to understand the “default” experience. However, for designers, the sheer thought which they put into their numbers in 4th ed is impressive. How long should combat last to be fun, but not drag? How often should you hit to feel competent but not /certain/? How much complexity for tactical interest, how much to overwhelm? How long should character advancement take? They might not have got all of it right, but they thought about those things in terms of maximizing fun experience at a deep level and worked them all the way through the system. Many “serious” RPers reject it, but the designers put a lot of work into making it accessible and entertaining and it shows.

    MSG: Stripped down rules done in a conversational style which highlight theme and drive the story. Shared ST responsibilities driven by the game economy. Many indie games have aspects of these elements, but this really drives a cortical spike through all of them. My Life With Master was a close second for the same notes, but I found it less accessible.

    Apocalypse World or any of its spinoffs: A glorious balance of bad ass style that gives people something meaty to latch on to, with enough substance to give people interesting tactical choices to highlight the way their character gets things done without weighing them down with books. What’s more – the advice given on how to actually run the games, tell stories and drive drama is some of the best I’ve read. (Though the DMGs from D&D also do a really quite very good job)

    BONUS EXTRAS: Torg! Feng Shui! Shadowrun! Because maybe you shouldn’t actually /play/ them, but figure out what about the design of them makes them seem so cool and like you should WANT to.

  35. Xavier says:

    Top three for designers:

    D&D 4th. You should definitely play /some/ version of D&D, just to understand the “default” experience. However, for designers, the sheer thought which they put into their numbers in 4th ed is impressive. How long should combat last to be fun, but not drag? How often should you hit to feel competent but not /certain/? How much complexity for tactical interest, how much to overwhelm? How long should character advancement take? They might not have got all of it right, but they thought about those things in terms of maximizing fun experience at a deep level and worked them all the way through the system. Many “serious” RPers reject it, but the designers put a lot of work into making it accessible and entertaining and it shows.

    MSG: Stripped down rules done in a conversational style which highlight theme and drive the story. Shared ST responsibilities driven by the game economy. Many indie games have aspects of these elements, but this really drives a cortical spike through all of them. My Life With Master was a close second for the same notes, but I found it less accessible.

    Apocalypse World or any of its spinoffs: A glorious balance of bad ass style that gives people something meaty to latch on to, with enough substance to give people interesting tactical choices to highlight the way their character gets things done without weighing them down with books. What’s more – the advice given on how to actually run the games, tell stories and drive drama is some of the best I’ve read. (Though the DMGs from D&D also do a really quite very good job)

    BONUS EXTRAS: Torg! Feng Shui! Shadowrun! Because maybe you shouldn’t actually /play/ them, but figure out what about the design of them makes them seem so cool and like you should WANT to.

  36. Bill Burdick says:

    Blood Red Sands: Ralph Maaza’s followup to Universalis (a seminal story telling game). It’s a very interesting blend of board games and story games

    Matrix Games: Chris Engle made these early story telling games in the late 80s. I bought one, way back then! They’ve even been used for psychotherapy and military training.

    Mario World, etc.: Minigames provide resources that can enhance normal game play; maybe the way that dice mechanics can/could interact with free-form role playing/story telling

  37. Dirty Secrets – an RPG which totally inverts the GM/player paradigm. It’s a pity that it mistakes conflict in the fiction for conflict in the mechanics though. (It wants conflict between players as the only way it can envisage conflict between characters) Once you’re prepared to ignore almost all of the play-style advice, it delivers what it sets out to.

    A Wilderness of Mirrors – shows you just what the minimum system support can be for a hugely complex idea. A game almost defined more by its omisions than by its inclusions, which nevertheless basically works.

    Dread – the lesson here is extremely subtle, about how player engagement is different from character or narrative engagement. The tower creates the emotion in the players that you want, but not necessarily the story form or story engagement you want.