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Richard Bartle: 10 Games you Should Have Played

Normally, I don’t allow “guest posts”, but I’m making an exception for my “10 Games You Should Have Played” series. I’ve been asking other games-industry people to write up their own lists + explanations, and that’s not always compatible with their personal/work/etc blog. When that happens, I’m happy to post them here instead.

So, here’s Richard Bartle‘s take (“co-creator of MUD1 (the first MUD) and the author of the seminal Designing Virtual Worlds” – but if you read this blog, you should already know who he is ;).

I think it’s a great list. I asked him to define in his own way what he meant by “should” (why are we saying “should”? who’s the audience? etc) and to run with it, which he did …

Come up with your own rules for a top-10, define it clearly, and share your list.

“OK, well modulo all the usual complaints about lists of 10, here we go.

I don’t have any rules per se, but I am sort of assuming that this is for people who play games or design games or want to know more about games.

Also, I’m going to go with categories rather than individual games (except in the last case). This is because it’s not the games themselves that are necessarily important so much as what you get from playing them. I will, however, give an example of a game in each category that I myself have tried.

1) A game you have bought but haven’t played yet.

You should always have a game ready to play. I don’t care what it is, but unless there is one you’re never going to expand your gaming horizons.

For me, right now that game is “Victoria II”, which I’ve installed and read the manual for but haven’t actually started to play. The reason I haven’t started it is because I bought “Mount & Blade: with Fire and Sword” and snuck that in front of it in the queue. Once I do start it, I’ll be looking for another game to play when it’s completed – hopefully not another damned sequel…

2) An abstract game.

Games can be many things, but unless they have gameplay they’re not games. An abstract game only has gameplay. To understand games, whether to design, play, or study them, you need to understand gameplay; an abstract game shows you the game mechanics with everything else stripped away.

You need to play one. You may, if you’re keen, try think of a skin for it, but that’s not essential.

In my case, I guess the game would be “Chess”. I captained my primary school Chess Club, but my interest in the game waned when I realised that the openings were always the same and that people who were less good at the fun, thinking part could win by doing the boring, memorise-the-openings part. That came straight from an appraisal of the clear-for-all-to-see mechanics.

That said, I’d also like to give a shout-out to the altogether more obscure “Besikovitch’s Game”. Now that’s a mechanic with potential…

3) A tabletop role-playing game.

Everyone thinks they know why they want to play games, but they also need to know why everyone else plays games. They’re not going to get that unless they understand what it means to be part of the game. In a tabletop role-playing game, with the other players right there next to you, there’s no escape: you have to participate, you have to involve yourself, you have to become part of the game, part of the narrative. In short, you have to live the game. Unless you’ve lived a game, how can you ever hope to understand what’s gamingly possible?

For me, the hours I spent playing “D&D” with my friends in my late teens were some of the best gaming experiences I ever hard. I wish I’d been able to get a “Call of Cthulhu” group going, mind you, but it came out too late for me.

4) A spectator sport.

If a game is good enough that people will pay to watch it played, you need to understand what it’s like to play it. This gives you an insight into the theatrical aspects of games that you wouldn’t easily get from merely observing the performance. You don’t actually have to be any good at the game, and the game itself doesn’t have to be all that good either (in my case, “Snooker” fits both those categories); the important thing is to understand what gives a game presence. I don’t care whether it’s high
skill, clever strategy, viscerality, physicality – if you don’t play it, you won’t appreciate it.

In my own case, I played “Association Football” (yeah, soccer) at school (attacking midfielder if you must know); I was good, but we were never taught any skills or anything and most games descended into kicking matches. I nevertheless found out what made it “the beautiful game”, though.

5) A game in which you can lose actual money.

There is a dark side to games, and gambling gives people a chance to sense it. Personally, I don’t like playing games for money at all; however, a lot of people love it. Everyone has their limits, though.

For some, gambling games are at their best when the amounts involved actually hurt if you lose them; for others, it’s the amounts that can be won that make the difference. The point of playing a gambling game from the perspective of this list is to gain an appreciation of the morality of games. When something stops being “just a game” and starts to take over the player’s life, that’s potentially a bad thing. Unless
you’ve seen it (or something close to it), you’re never going to understand that fully. Gambling games let you do that. Warning: you run a big risk with this if it turns out you’re the one who gets hooked…

For me, I used to play “Poker” with my friends over lunch when I was 17 or 18. We played for Tic-Tac mints. This was before “Texas Hold ‘Em” got big, so we’d play mainly “Draw Poker”, “5-Card Stud”, “7-Card Stud” or, occasionally, “Montana Red Dog”. We stopped playing when one of my friends, who consistently lost, had to borrow money to buy more Tic-Tacs; I decided things had gone far enough, and called
the lunchtime sessions off. From that point on, no way would I design a game that deliberately tried to addict someone to it.

6) A game released in the year you were born.

Most games are built on the foundations of games that went before them, and an appreciation of their history means you appreciate the games themselves more. Games have a very long history (indeed, they go back into prehistory), but a modern game is unlikely to quote directly from ancient archetypes. They’re more probably going to quote from games from the generation before them. You therefore need to
play a bunch of old games to see where the advances were made. Unfortunately, “old” is a relative term: what you think is old might, to me, seem fairly new. What’s old enough for both of us is something from the year we were born in (or a year close to that). Play a game from back then and see how things have (or haven’t) changed. Bonus: you’re almost guaranteed to notice the gameplay more than you do in a (what currently looks) slick, modern game.

For me, the old game would be “Diplomacy”, which was released commercially in 1959 (the year before my birth, but that’s near enough). Ah, what a game! It’s trapped in its time, because it needs 7 players and could only really be played by post. Play-by-email is even more of a niche than play-by-mail was, so it’s not a game that is played a lot nowadays. Lovely mechanics, though!

7) A really bad game.

Some games are just BAD. The mechanics are all wrong, they’re unfun, or no fun, or the rules are ambiguous, or they drag on and on, or there’s a dominant strategy, or … well, the list continues. If you play such a game, you can ascertain what it is that’s bad about it; this will enable you to avoid similar games in future and to avoid
making similar mistakes in any games you design yourself (see next point). The more you understand about games, the more you’ll be able to find the games that are right for you.

For me, tempting though it is to nominate “Trivial Pursuit” as the game that laid waste to the British board games industry, I didn’t actually play that. However, my personal pick is one that I’m sure many other people will share, too: “Monopoly”…

8) A game you wrote yourself that no-one else has played.

Game design is actually quite hard to do well. You’re not going to know quite how hard unless you try it yourself. In the attempt, you’ll come to understand more about games and what makes them tick – but only if you actually play the game (if
it needs more than one player, play it against yourself). If you actually are a game designer, this is something you will have done many, many times before, of course; just make sure you keep on doing it.

For me, well, all game designers have a corpus of games in various stages of completion that they have never shared with anyone else, simply because doing the design itself was the fun part.

I’m a bit low on computer games in this list, so I’ll go for one I did called “Mombasa” about the exploration of Africa. It’s not all that good, but the point is that I wouldn’t know that if I hadn’t played it…


This is because I co-wrote the first virtual world, and therefore the more people who play these, the higher my kudos rises.

I’ll list the last MMO I played through up to the level cap as my example here: “Rift”. I came away not so much impressed by the game itself but by its developer, Trion Worlds, which is more understanding of its players than any other developer I’ve
come across except perhaps CCP.

10) “Mornington Crescent”.

It’s actually called “Finchley Central”, but I’ll go with the version that’s best known. This is a very simple game, the rules of which, in their entirety, are as follows: players take it in turns to name London Underground stations, and the first to say
Mornington Crescent wins. This is a game everyone should play, because it gets to the heart of what a game is: what happens when you freely and knowingly bound your behaviour according to a set of rules in the hope of gaining some benefit that you might not get. You play it for just so long as it’s fun, with people who also play for just so long as it’s fun. It’s the Magic Circle incarnate.

So those are my top 10 games that people should play. If you already played them, my apologies for having wasted your time with this list. If you haven’t played them, I envy you the treasure trove that lies ahead.”

3 replies on “Richard Bartle: 10 Games you Should Have Played”

Awesome, awesome list!

I can check points 3 and 6 in one go – Dungeons and Dragons, the original version, released in 1974. I still have fond memories over that game. Wonder where the rulebook is tucked to…

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