The White Box Essays (Book Review)

by nsadmin on April 10, 2019

The White Box, and its accompanying book, “The White Box Essays” are a FANTASTIC resource, and I wish I’d had them available to me as I designed Elevation of Privilege and helped with Control-Alt-Hack.

The book is for people who want to make games, and it does a lovely job of teaching you how, including things like the relationship between story and mechanics, the role of luck, how the physical elements teach the players, and the tradeoffs that you as a designer make as you design, prototype, test, refine and then get your game to market. In the go-to-market side, there are chapters on self-publishing, crowdfunding, what needs to be on a box.

The Essays don’t tell you how to create a specific game, they show you how to think about the choices you can make, and their impact on the game. For example:

Consider these three examples of ways randomness might be used (or not) in a design:

  • Skill without randomness (e.g., chess). With no random elements, skill is critical. The more skilled a player is, the greater their odds to win. The most skilled player will beat a new player close to 100% of the time.
  • Both skill and randomness (e.g., poker). Poker has many random elements, but a skilled player is better at choosing how to deal with those random elements than an unskilled one. The best poker player can play with new players and win most of the time, but the new players are almost certain to win a few big hands. (This is why there is a larger World Series of Poker than World Chess Championship — new players feel like they have a chance against the pros at poker. Since more players feel they have a shot at winning, more of them play, and the game is more popular.)
  • Randomness without skill (e.g., coin-flipping). There is no way to apply skill to coin-flipping and even the “best” coin flipper in the world can’t do better than 50/50, even against a new player.

The chapter goes on to talk about how randomness allows players to claim both credit and avoid blame, when players make choices about die rolls and the impact on gameplay, and a host of other tradeoffs.

The writing is solid: it’s as long as it needs to be, and then moves along (like a good game). What do you need to do, and why? How do you structure your work? If you’ve ever thought about designing a game, you should buy this book. But more than the book, there’s a boxed set, with meeples, tokens, cubes, and disks for you to use as you prototype. (And in the book is a discussion of how to use them, and the impact of your choices on production costs.)

I cannot say enough good things about this. After I did my first game design work, I went and looked for a collection of knowledge like this, and it didn’t exist. I’m glad it now does.

Image from Atlas Games.

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