The Simplified System Revival
"A game is a game is a game," writes Gamelab CEO Eric Zimmerman in an e-mail on the topic of tabletop adaptation. "The fundamental qualities of how games are defined, how they are played, and how they can be designed to create meaningful experiences for players does not vary qualitatively across media in which games manifest. From a game designer's point of view, a board game and a videogame are far more similar than they are different."

Zimmerman is correct to point out the similarities in digital and tabletop games, but he downplays a couple of key differences.

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I spoke with several game designers on the topic of non-digital games. All the designers I talked to are also professors of game design, and all utilize non-digital games in their classes to teach the fundamentals of the craft. One such designer is Brenda Brathwaite - a veteran of the gaming industry and head of Savannah College of Art and Design's Interactive Design and Game Development department. "I use non-digital games to get aspiring designers away from the computers," she writes, "away from the polygons and frame rates so that they can see - if just for a single class - that there is something underneath all that: the game design. It strips it bare."

The emphasis on non-digital games in today's classrooms means that tomorrow's game developers will enter the industry with those principles fresh in mind. At Gamelab in Manhattan, Eric Zimmerman and his staff reinforce the importance of non-digital gaming to the development of casual games by hosting game nights. "We've been doing these events since we founded the company eight years ago," he writes, "even before we had an office!" Continues Zimmerman:

Board games also put their players in touch with the formal rules of the system in a way that digital games don't. In a board game, the players are the CPU - they are the ones that have to process the rules and move the game forward each turn. For that reason, you often have a very clear understanding of how the underlying mechanics of a board game work, something often hidden under layers of cinematic graphics and automated processes in a digital game.

His hope is that, as more designers are weaned on non-digital games, more of their digital titles will retain a "non-digital" feel. After all, it's not truly about rehashing the classic tabletop games (no matter how badly I want to see Richard Garfield's RoboRally on XBLA). It's about creating the new generation of simplified systems.

Scott Jon Siegel is an enthusiastic game designer, a professional blogger and a mediocre cook. His words and games can be found at http://numberless.net.

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