Historically games were less designed than evolved. Not many of these games are credited with a designer, and for those games that are, the contribution of the “designer” is usually a small variation of an existing game. It is often worth going back to these traditional games and looking at their characteristics, what made them work in their time and culture, or for those that have survived to the current day, what makes them work across the times and cultures in which they were popular. Poker is an interesting case from which I have learned a lot.

Poker has Luck and Skill

One of Poker’s distinctions is how much luck it has. Anyone can win a hand of Poker. Yet there is a lot of skill to the game. This betrays one of the popular myths in game design – that skill and luck are opposites. They are better considered as two axes.

As a game designer it is important to consider how much chance you want in your game. I believe game designers in general have a bias toward reducing chance in a game, perhaps because they tend to be excellent game players and the games with less luck tend to showcase their talent.

One of the most important things about a game with a little more luck is that a larger breadth of players can play it. This is not as important for computer games, where you can draw on the player base of the world to find an opponent, but for analog games – you are often stuck with the folk who are currently in your living room. Those people will not always be happy sitting down to a Chess tournament, or a Starcraft game. They are much more likely to play a game like Poker, with a little more luck, a game where a player can always come back from behind.

Poker is Quick

An excellent characteristic for a game with a lot of luck is a short playtime. No one wants to invest hours in a game and then have it lost on a coin toss. With Poker each hand only lasts a few minutes – so having a lot of skill will – probabilistically – show itself within a fairly short time, even if not in every hand.

An additional feature of a game with a short length like Poker is that it can fit into any schedule – you can play Poker for a few minutes, or hours on end. You can link the hands into a tournament, or have people flow in and out of the game, or even do what some pals of mine at Adobe do – keeping track of the game over the course of years.

Poker has a Simple and Flexible Framework

It is easy to learn Poker, but when you learn it you have learned much more than a single game. You have learned an operating system for a family of games. Going from 5 Card Draw to 7 Card Stud to Texas Hold’em to Omaha to Dyslexic Blind Anaconda is easy once you know the rank of the hands and the general play pattern. A couple of ways this idea can be applied to game design are Magic: The Gathering or Dominion, where the rules are modified only by the components, or the Mystery Rummy Series by Mike Fitzgerald, where the rules change from game to game – but the general structure is the same. This idea can also be used simply by leveraging the rules for different games the players already know – for example, role playing games often use elements like levels and experience, saving their innovation for different parts of the game. Every unusual rule in a game has a cost to the new player, and a designer should make sure that the cost is worth the benefit.

Poker is Customizable

Poker is extremely customizable. There are many different types of Poker and many different styles of game. Dealer’s Choice Poker even takes this to the extreme, with the dealer choosing the game to be played when they deal. The concept of players really taking ownership of their play experience in this way is unusual, it is much more common for players to look to the game rules or the game publisher for “the right” way to play. As a designer, one can explore different ways to play one’s game and present some of these to the players, with an invitation for them to customize the play for the tastes of their playgroup.

Poker has Hidden Information

When one player knows something that another player doesn’t a world of game opportunity opens up. This opens the door to game theory – where there is bluffing and misdirection, and the play of the game can leap from the dry statistics of the rules into things like reading the opponents and smelling fear. At its best it allows a heady mix of intuition and reason that is hard to match. Hidden information is not appropriate for all games, but I never design any game without considering it long and hard.

Like luck in games, hidden information can increase the breadth of players that will play it. Whenever I learn a new game with no hidden (or inconsequential) information I know there are some players in my playgroup that will make that game a misery to play. They are not doing it to be abusive – but they can’t help themselves when the optimum line of play is there to be calculated. Even the luck of dice may not reduce their calculation – because they can always seek the probabilistically best move. But if there is meaningful hidden information they can’t overcalculate because they know that other people might be misleading them. And they also can make more arbitrary moves because they know that this may mislead the opponent.

Poker is not Very Political

It is difficult to pick on a player in Poker. For very casual players this is not so important; given the opportunity to pick on another player in a game like Risk, for example, they will always pick on the leader or take the most obviously advantageous move that they see. With more sophisticated players however, the politics can easily become the central feature of the game: alliances will form and players will be picked on not for their position but for their allegiance or lack of allegiance. In itself, this is not a bad thing – there are many excellent games that focus on this (most notably Diplomacy), but it is a characteristic of the game that will dominate all other parts of the game if the politics becomes too pronounced.

Poker has Stakes

Typically Poker is played for money. Most players find that unless it is played for money it is pointless. If you experiment a bit, however, for some playgroups one may find that there are some ways around this – for example, playing a tournament where you can’t buy back into the game. In this case the stakes are elimination from the game. My pals from Adobe have another solution as mentioned above, they keep track of the results over the course of years – and players value their “score” because it is being recorded. The score is a measure of game honor.

Playing for stakes has an interesting effect on a game, whether or not the stakes are money or honor. The stakes make it so that players are playing for more than just first place, they are competing every hand to win and it means something to them even if they are still in dead last. I have used this mindset to completely alter the nature of a Hearts league I played in, where we played as if we were playing for money and kept track of the results. It is amazing how that change alters the play of good players!

Ways this might be leveraged in an original game design might be to link together small game scores into a larger metagame that takes place over hours or even months. When the metagame is nearing the end, players will start playing in a different way as they begin to worry more about their rank relative to the other players and less about their particular score. You can see this happen in games like Hearts, in which players start off just worrying about their score, then later in the game the person in the lead is simply trying to get points on the person furthest behind to end the game.

Last Thought

Several years ago I saw a panel of distinguished computer game designers which included Nolan Bushnell, the founder of Atari. They were asked what games they drew inspiration from – and while his copanelists mentioned computer games which were occasionally so recent they couldn’t really have had much formative impact – Nolan said “Golf.” It was long enough ago I am sure my memory embellishes this – but I imagine a giggle running through the audience simply because my experience has been that so few people really pay attention to the truly classic games like Golf, or Poker with regard to what makes them well “designed” games that have endured over a century. To lose sight of that not only costs a designer a rich supply of ideas, but more tragically, cuts them off from our heritage of games which extends back not twenty-five or fifty years but millennia.