Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Game Design: The State of the Art in 1981

Once upon a time… there was a talented game designer named Steve Jackson. It was 1976… and he had a draft of Ogre ready for playtest. Steve signed up for a class on wargame design the University of Texas at Austin which was taught by Nick Schuessler. This guy Nick… he probably played just about every World War II themed game that was on the market at this time. Several years later, when Steve had produced a slew of hit games and had a company of his own, he got Nick to write a series of articles on game design for his magazine, “The Space Gamer.” Those articles are derived mostly from Nick’s class notes… and they were collected together and revised yet again for this volumne. Steve Jackson added a few more chapters of his own to round things out, but basically… you have one of gaming’s great designers laying out his views on design at the turning point of his career. All of this is set out with Nick’s exhaustive survey of nearly everything that had been learned in wargame design throughout the sixties and seventies.

This book is awesome. It is chock full of zingers and congealed wisdom. And it is fascinating at least as much for what’s not there as for what is there. There is nothing about Columbia Games style block games. Richard Borg’s Commands & Colors system is almost twenty years out from this point. Steve Jackson had not designed Illuminati or GURPS yet– and he does not seem to be aware here that Car Wars is going to turn out to be a monster hit. But unlike my pile of vintage computer game books, the stuff on game design here is just as valid today as it ever was. I will demonstrate this with a selection of choice quotes:

“I try to emulate the things I like when I play a game, avoid the ones that irritate me, and playtest any new ideas until I drop.” — Steve Jackson, p.2,

“True genius in game design comes in two varieties. The first is that of the designer who creates something brilliant within the existing framework, e.g., the mechanized movement phase in SPI’s WWII divisional level system. The second is that of the designer who pushes beyond the framework to inaugurate a whole new system of gaming– not in reaction to existing systems, but because the theme itself requires something beyond existing technique. John Hill’s Squad Leader and TSR’s D&D meet this test, spawning an original gaming system to satisfy the need.” — Nick Schuessler, p. 5.

“An untested game is not a game at all– simply someone’s musings reduced to paper.” — Nick Schuessler, p. 25.

“I think one of the reasons that micro-sized games became popular was that, being small and quick, they had often received more testing than larger games.” — Steve Jackson, p. 35.

“In any RPG, the game master is the last word. He creates the fantasy world and interprets the rules as the players move through it. His word is law, and your rules must make that clear. BUT — the better the game, the fewer rules decisions the GM will have to make.” — Steve Jackson, p. 38.

But there’s more. You get the full story on what SPI was and how they impacted the games industry. You find out about the gaming “first” that put GDW on the map. You find out why GURPS was originally going to have an action point system. You even find out that Car Wars really, truly, and undeniably was conceived of as a role playing game– and intended to be played as one.

If you love games and game design and gaming history… then this book is an essential find. That you can even use it to get a serious head start on designing a wargame of your own is just the icing on the cake. It’s a bit short… and they never did get around to making “volume two”… but it’s superb. It’s on e23. Get ahold of this precious gem today.

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7 responses to “Game Design: The State of the Art in 1981

  1. Jason Packer January 15, 2014 at 9:42 am

    Wow, that pull quote from p.38 is just full of GURPS foreshadowing…

  2. Robert Eaglestone January 15, 2014 at 11:02 am

    Just bought it.

  3. seaofstarsrpg January 15, 2014 at 11:03 am

    Steve Jackson’s p. 38 quote is indeed delicious. Will have to keep my eyes out for a copy of this.

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