Achieving playfulness in strategy game design

On a recent podcast episode, Brett “BrickroadDX” Lowey and I discussed the property of “playfulness” in strategy game design, and a lot of conversation over on my stream and Discord have taken place since then. I thought it would be good to first lay out my cleanest explanation for the term, and then indicate the ways you can, and ways that you should, achieve it.

What is a “playful” strategy game?

A playful strategy game is deep: there is a huge range of possible tactics and strategies. This allows for not only “typically sub-optimal” play to still work, and decreases the amount of memorization and things like “build orders” to be dutifully followed. The game should be not only unsolved, but shouldn’t feel “solve-y” at the short or mid-range arc level.

A playful strategy game is expressive: each player plays the game a little bit differently based on their own unique understanding of the system combined with their own weird personality quirks. Another way to put this is that the game allows for creative decision making.

A playful strategy game feels low-stress. You don’t have a feeling that if you make one mistake, you’re screwed. You don’t have a bunch of laborious calculation that you have to do. You can kind of “exist here” and do what you think would be a good move.

A playful strategy game has a balanced difficulty. In single-player videogame terms, this means it must be quite hard! But not so hard that you have to strain and perfectly optimize. You have to play seriously, but not so hard that you don’t have room for experimentation or so hard that the experience becomes stressful.


A good path toward playfulness

You may notice that some of these seem to be inherently contradictory to one another. For example, if it is a deep game, it seems like actually it is likely it would be a high stress game, because of how many options there are and how much there is to think about. Or if there’s a balanced difficulty, if the game is “hard” in that sense, then it seems like maybe there isn’t room for expressiveness. I think these contradictions are real and that’s why game design is hard. The designer’s job is to find this tiny little narrow path that is walked between these points, find “exceptions” where these two things don’t contradict, or contradict less. With that said, here are my three strong recommendations for how you should go about achieving playfulness:

  1. Make a big game: high systemic and componential complexity. No small 4×4 grids, no “hand of cards and only 2 of them really are valid for playing”, no “all you can do is move in four directions” type stuff. Instead, lots of ways to act, different kinds of spells, different asymmetric factions, etc. This is necessary to allow the game to have enough space to be deep and expressive.
  2. Smart, balanced use of information horizon (input randomness). The space that is within the information horizon—known to the player and available for interaction—should be just big enough to maintain the depth and expressivity of play, but small enough so that the usefulness of calculation, proofreading and other forms of analysis is limited. These kinds of behaviors can be stressful; even if you don’t do them, you always know that you could, and so there’s always a feeling that you aren’t doing everything you should be doing. Keeping the amount of information staring the player down allows the game to feel lower stress.
  3. Matchmaking, or single-player Elo for single player games. In a multiplayer context, this goes without saying, but sadly it’s still controversial to suggest that single player games also should have a 50% win rate. Some have argued that players “learn better”, or that there are other benefits to giving players a 20-30% win rate (i.e. making the game significantly harder). I don’t think that’s true, but even if it were, when it comes to maintaining playfulness, making the game arbitrarily hard encourages the player to use calculation and proofreading, which is stressful, but also discourages weird creative plays. Of course, a win rate much higher than 50% screws things up in a different way, makes the game feel more like a toy and causes other problems. A matchmaking system allows a game to have a balanced difficulty.


The bad, common path toward playfulness

While maybe Brett Lowey and I are the first ones to use “playfulness” in this way, this is not a new concept in game design at all. Many games use high levels of output randomness or variable input randomness in their games, and one of the major reasons is that they are pursuing this kind of design aesthetic. From card draws, to to-hit-dice rolls, to simultaneous actions, to high levels of execution or team work, all of these design patterns do achieve something like what I describe as playfulness, but often at a heavy cost to the system. I’ve written and done videos about this topic numerous times before, but you can read this, or watch 3 Minute Game Design for more on how those problems manifest. For social games, party games and other “light” strategy games, it may well be worth using these kinds of techniques, but for serious strategy games—for strategy games you can live in—I would generally encourage designers against using these techniques where possible.

With my current game, Gem Wizards Tactics, playfulness as described here is exactly what I’m going for. I think it’s on track to succeeding there, but we’ll see. And you can follow along with the development by becoming a Patron over at, where you’ll be among the first people to play the alpha version when it’s released.

Thanks for reading, and thanks so much to my Patrons for your support!