4.3. Rules

As mentioned last week, there are three categories of rules: setup (things you do once at the beginning of the game), progression of play (what happens during the game), and resolution (what conditions cause the game to end, and how is an outcome determined based on the game state).

Some rules are automatic: they are triggered at a certain point in the game without player choices or interaction (“Draw a card at the start of your turn” or “The bonus timer decreases by 100 points every second”). Other rules define the choices or actions that the players can take in the game, and the effects of those actions on the game state.

Let’s dig deeper. A book called Rules of Play by Salen & Zimmerman classifies three types of rules, which they call operational, constituative, and implied (these are not standard terms in the industry, so the concepts are more important than the terminology in this case). To illustrate, let’s consider the rules of Tic-Tac-Toe:

These are what Rules of Play calls the “operational” rules. Think for a moment: are these the only rules of the game?

At first glance, it seems so. But what if I’m losing and simply refuse to take another turn? The rules do not explicitly give a time limit, so I could “stall” indefinitely to avoid losing and still be operating within the “rules” as they are typically stated. However, in actual play, a reasonable time limit is implied. This is not part of the formal (operational) rules of the game, but it is still part of what Rules of Play calls the “implied” rules. The point here is that there is some kind of unwritten social contract that players make when playing a game, and these are understood even when not stated.

Even within the formal rules there are two layers. The 3×3 board and “X” and “O” symbols are specific to the “flavor” of this game, but you could strip them away. You could let the players take turns “drafting” a number from 1 to 9. The goal is to collect a team of three numbers that makes 15 - lets call this game Three-to-Fifteen. While Tic-Tac-Toe and Three-to-Fifteen have different implementations and appearances, the underlying abstract rules are the same. If we lay the numbers from 1-9 like this, it becomes more obvious:

8 1 6
3 5 7
4 9 2

A player can win with 4-5-6 or 8-1-6, etc... Just like in Tic-Tac-Toe, some numbers are much more valuable than others - the “center number” 5 and “corner numbers” like 4 are used in more combinations than “side numbers” like 9. At an abstract level, whether we are playing Tic-Tac-Toe or Three-to-Fifteen we are really playing by the same rules. We do not normally think in these abstract terms when we think of “rules” but they are still there, under the surface. Rules of Play calls these “constituative” rules. Think of them as the “inner truth” of the operational rules after the surface details of the game have been stripped away.

Why is it useful to make the distinction between these three types of rules? Here are two examples:

Materials on this page adapted from:
Game Design Concepts by Ian Schreiber (CC BY-NC 3.0)