Game Design Books I Recommend
These are books that have directly influenced my thoughts on games and game design. It's not a complete list of books that I've read about game design (that would be a much larger list), but rather the ones that twisted my neural pathways in ways that got me to think differently about my approach to games and gaming. Many formative books like Dungeons & Dragons, GURPS, and other video game programming books aren't on this list because they were my on-ramp to the world of game design. I may add them later, but wanted to hit the highlights before delving deeper into my past reading lists.
Here's a (short) list of books I recommend for game design:
- Domesticate Your Badgers by Michael W. Lucas. This is a writing book, through and through, but it has what I consider the best advice for creative folks out there (and what is game design but writing in many cases). The advice can be adapted to any creative pursuit. (This replaces my previous recommendation of "Think Like a Game Designer" by Justin Gary, which is still a fine book but my initial exuberance has faded over time).
- Chris Crawford on Game Design by Chris Crawford is sadly out-of-print but has useful information on the game design process. Part memoir (from 2003) it covers a lot of ground about game design, what it means to be a game designer, and has some practical advice for the aspiring game designer. It might not resonate with everyone, but it is one that I still turn to and read when I'm feeling like I'm in a creative rut.
- Source Code for Eastern Front 1941 by Chris Crawford is not marketed as a game design book (it's a commented version of the source code for the game Eastern Front 1941) but it's the best post-mortem I've read for the process of designing a game from the ground up. It's the book that made me realize what I was missing in a lot of other game design books, which was how to apply the techniques of design to get a game out the door and onto the top gaming charts for the Atari 8-bit computers.
- Chris Crawford on Interactive Storytelling is not about game design but the process of interactive storytelling, and using the computer as a vehicle for artistic expression. It's still a fascinating read for game designers on how to use the new medium of computers to tell compelling stories (though it's not as current with Chris' current work)
- Uncertainty in Games by Greg Costikyan is a meditation on the place of uncertainty in games. It got me to think about the role of uncertainty in the games that I was designing, and was also a book that I read when things were feeling really uncertain.
- Things We Think About Games is a collection of insightful topics and essays about games and game design. A quick read and instrumental in helping to get unstuck when thinking about games.
Here are some games that have influenced my thinking about game design:
- Hillfolk by Robin D. Laws et al. was a game that I didn't initially understand. It took me several iterations to really understand what it was trying to do. When I stopped trying to figure out what it wasn't I realized that Dramasystem is an absolutely brilliant way of thinking about relationships and pacing in stories. Hillfolk is the complete worked example of Dramasystem as a game with a setting. Dramasystem as a whole drove home the admonition "people, not things" to me in ways that other RPGs hadn't until that point. I consider this game required reading for any game designer that wants to take their game design and stories to the next level. (There's also a system reference document to this and Robin's other excellent game systems "GUMSHOE" and "Questworlds" available on the Game System SRDs page. Hamlet's Hit Points and Beating the Story dive deeper into the storybeats system in these games and are required reading for anyone trying to understand pacing and drama in games or writing).
- Ironsworn by Shawn Tomkin is a solo game RPG that fuses the mechanics of games like Dungeon World (a Powered by the Apocalypse game), Burning Wheel, Fate, and others to create an experience that has eclipsed many of the games that I have played. It changed how I think about games and game systems and rekindled my love for PbtA-style games. It showed me something that was missing in much of my solo RPG-playing games, which is that sense of not knowing the outcome or how the world (people, places, things) will react. It creates a deep and immersive experience that is unlike any solo RPG game I have played.
- Thirsty Sword Lesbians by April Kit Walsh et al. is a game that I absolutely love. I'm not queer, nor am I particularly thirsty, but the way this game uses the Powered By the Apocalypse (PbtA) system and mechanics to tell the story of queer love and consent is brilliant. It gave me a perspective that I haven't found in a lot of other games (though I know there's plenty of other games that are told from this perspective). This definitely won't be for everyone but I recommend it for taking the familiar and turning it on its head to make a game that is interesting and tells stories of seduction, power, and craving without highlighting violence.
There are others that will be added to this page in the future, but this is a good start on books that have changed my perspective on gaming.