Game Design 101: Alternate Big 3


Well it took me over a year, but I am finally touching on the Game Design 101 series again. I know, I’m terrible aren’t I? In my defense, if people don’t comment, it is very hard to be certain where the interest lies and I very rarely received comments a year ago. Anyway, as you may recall, I had started the series on the Big 3. That’s a series of three questions meant to help you come up with what matters in the design of your game.

This week, I am exploring the Alternate Big 3. Where some people find the Big 3 a bit too open ended, this set narrows in on the first question by weaving the other two back into it. Answering the Alternative Big 3 can often lend itself to better answering the Big 3 in a more clear manner. So then, let’s dive right in.

  1. What? What is your game about?
  2. How? How is your game about that?
  3. What? What behaviors does it reward or encourage in order to fulfill the How?


Yeah, this question should be familiar. You may recall it is the exact same question as the original Big 3. In the original blog entry, the example I went with was “The game is about a band of Trolls trying to capture a band of Dwarves before daylight.” Let’s keep this as our example of a potential answer to the question. Now we get to see how the Alternate Big 3 works with the same answer to that first question.


This second question requires a considerably more complex answer. Everything from game visuals to game mechanics are going to be tied into the how. What about this game is going to drive the players towards the intended goals of your answer for what? Is character generation designed to create characters who fit this desire? Do you have systems in mind to ensure the player experience is in line with your stated goal?

In our game above, the system is going to revolve heavily around movement, impeding movement and the mechanics of capture and escape. Let’s say resolution is on a set of simple opposed die based on the abilities of the characters and the enemy Dwarves. Risks are rewarded by more impressive capture methods and bragging rights among the Trolls. Perhaps a mechanic is in place for Trolls bantering. Each round there is an interaction phase where they cheer or jeer one another and jockey for bragging rights. Let’s further say that all art included in the game plays down the ugliness of the Trolls in favor of making the Dwarves look dark and unpleasant. Trolls are made to look a lot more like stone giants than twisted monsters.

Now that we have a few potential ideas on how the game is played, we can reverse engineer the answer to our first what question. Let’s revise it to now say “The game is about the prestige and honor of being the most effective Troll among a band of others all vying to capture a set of escaping Dwarves. Each Troll must not only capture as many as possible before the sun rises, but is doing so with as much flourish as possible. Losing the quarry is to lose face and an impressive maneuver can go a long way to improving you social status among your peers.”

It is already clearer what one can expect out of this game and what sort of play is going to happen. We now realize it is the Trolls who are being played, rather than the Dwarves or a blend of both. We have an idea of what to do and how we are going to be moving forward through the game play. With this newly revised what, let us proceed onward to yet another what.

What Again?

Yes, I know that I already touched on this in the last question, but no one ever said you have to stick break it down perfectly. As the ideas flow, write them down. Anyway, this is the point where we really take a close look at what we have already said and begin to devise the nuts and bolts of how the game will play. Our examination of the last two questions will help to inform this one. These aren’t hard mechanics, but instead should focus more on simply what is going to be in place to encourage the sort of game play you desire.

For our above example, I’m going to say that the game relies on a very quick and simple chargen system since this is a game that needs to be fast paced and will probably not run more than an hour of game play. Players will pick from a set of ‘tricks’ that they can use to capture Dwarves. There should be a stat specifically related to social status. The system will be set up to heavily reward creative use in combining these tricks and will be balanced so that risky behaviors can reward well, but may also cost status. Several methods for cooperation or competition should exist to allow the players to have a choice in how they interact with their peers. There should be some sort of mechanic in place for players to influence other players either positively or negatively. Lastly, I am going to say there must be a system favoring turn-based play due to the idea of this being a blend of cooperation and competition set against a limited scope of time.


While expanding this idea, I came on the thought of calling it Dwarves by Dawn, so I now have a working title for this hypothetical game as well. As you can see, the value to the Alternative Big 3 is pretty high when you are first starting out on an idea. Our revised version of the original what statement is way more useful as a designer than it was when we started and we also now have a solid fix on the types of mechanics we want to explore for our game. Since the whole point of this exercise is to expand and explore on the idea of our game for design, that is something that really matters. As with the original Big 3, this is a tool. Don’t get caught up in only using it and remember that some game ideas aren’t going to fit within the scope of this tool’s use.

Good luck on your own game designs and hopefully it won’t be another year before I get around to another entry of the Game Design 101 series. If you like this sort of topic, leave a comment and of course feel free to subscribe to my newsletter.

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