Game Development Reference
Magic: The Gathering is a perfect example of a game that maximizes
elegance by matching the scales of different game systems. Players hold
seven cards. They start with 20 life. Usually they can use between three
and 10 mana per turn. They generally have 2 to 12 creature, artifact, and
enchantment cards in play. Creatures usually have power and toughness
ratings of between one and eight. Games last 10 to 30 turns. This close
scaling between card numbers, life, creature counts, creature power and
toughness, turn counts, and mana allows a tremendous number of natu-
ral interactions without any fiddly math. And there are cards in Magic that
convert in almost all directions between all of these measures. Players
can convert mana to life, creatures to land, and artifacts to damage. They
can take damage or sacrifice creatures every turn in exchange for other
abilities. They can sacrifice life to pump up creatures' toughness, combine
creatures and enchantments, and discard cards from their hands to re-
store creatures killed in battle. Thousands of such interactions can bloom
from a handful of simple systems.
If Magic' s designer Richard Garfield had decided to measure player
life out of 1,000, made creature toughness range from 25 to 50, and let
players have no more than 3 land cards at a time, these relationships
would be broken. Conversions between numbers would require tedious
math and messy rounding, and the elegance of Magic would be shattered.
Scaling elegance applies to almost any type of relationship between
measurable quantities. Sizes, speeds, surface areas, health points, dis-
tances, money, energy, communications links, resources, time, and the
number of players or characters are all candidates for elegance through
Mechanics that are reused a lot smell like elegance.
One of the paradoxical aspects of good games is how repetitive they
seem. Players use the same tools over and over. They build more cities,
defeat more orcs, and decorate more houses, again and again.
But just because the player is reusing the same tool doesn't mean
he's having the same experience. He may be building cities again and
again, but every city is a new emergent expression of the mechanics and
the player's decisions. The mechanics stay the same, but the experience
changes every time.
Furthermore, that repetition of mechanics is essential to elegant
design. A mechanic that is only used once is a gimmick. It might be
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