Water and the well-crafted exception

I don’t think that I’ve mentioned that I’m not working in IT anymore. Instead, since last December, I’ve been heading up the Systems Department at my workplace. Being in Systems is like being an on-site business consultant…or a game designer. So, yeah. All the books I’ve been reading on design, psychology, sociology, and the like…now all work-related.

I love my job.

Okay, yeah, it’s been cutting into my game design, because I’m solving design problems at work. I haven’t had the mental bandwidth to do much more. (Well, that’s some of it, at least.) But, on the other hand, I get to apply my game design lessons to business issues.

Here’s an example of what I mean. At GenCon 2008, in a late-night conversation with some other designers, I uttered a phrase that had been kicking around in my head for a while: “players are more than just emitters of moves”. A system–be it a game system or a business system– is composed of people, and people do more than just emit moves…or perform tasks. They are each one a complex individual, and a designer who fails to take that into account is being foolish.

(As an aside, I consider that to be the point that I diverged a bit from my strict interest in Eurogames and found myself giving Fantasy Flight Games a lot of money for games like Cosmic Encounter and Battlestar Galactica, which both require that you play the players, not just their mechanical positions.)

I’ve heard a related sentiment echoed by Mark Rosewater, Head Designer for Magic: The Gathering. He has said on several occasions that “you can’t fight human nature”. Sometimes, design simply needs to bow to the reality that people are a certain way, and, even though the designed method might be superior in the abstract, it fails because it runs counter to human nature.

But this cuts against the personality that I’ve seen present in designers (including myself). I mean, if it was written in the rules (or the SOP), shouldn’t people do it? I mean, it’s right there, right? And who cares if the method doesn’t make sense to the people who are using it? If the outcome is superior, that’s all that is important, right?

And then, today, at staff prayer, I had a sudden thought. God designed the universe, right? That means all the intricate order of physics and astronomy and chemistry was all originally orchestrated and designed by Him. So, when we look at nature, what do we see? Certainly, we see order. We see repeatable behavior and consistency. As an example, consider the states of matter: solid, liquid, gas (and plasma, right?). The solid form of a substance is more dense than its liquid form, which is in turn more dense than its gaseous form. Right?

But what about water? Ice, the solid form of water, is actually less dense than water, which is why ice floats in water.


That doesn’t make any sense at all! Except, if ice sank in water, it would kill all the fish, who would not be sheltered from the cold winter air by the protective layer of ice that forms on top of the water.

A human designer might have applied the rule with a broad stroke, making ice sink in water. It would have been elegant, simple, even aesthetically pleasing to consider rationally.

It also would have been wrong.

God knows the value of the well-crafted exception in design. Because simplicity isn’t the goal.

I think I need to consider this further.


3 responses to “Water and the well-crafted exception

  • Gerald Cameron

    It’s interesting that Knizia – usually cited by critics as being the driest and most mathematical of euro designers – is the euro designer most likely to (I think) deliberately include player psychology as an important strategic or tactical element in his designs. It’s often well-hidden, though.

    Modern Art and Tower of Babel are the best examples off the top of my head, but it’s a factor in a lot of his designs.

  • Seth Ben-Ezra


    Totally! I think that Knizia often gets a bad rap by people who miss that the math in a Knizia game is often the basis for playing head games with the other players.

  • Josh W

    Reminds me of something Christopher Alexander said about symmetry and asymmetry; you should have symmetry, unless some local reason encourages an asymmetry, so all the tables in your building should be the same, unless differences between rooms encourage a difference in style of table. And then you should try to find a way to build that into a bigger symmetry.

    Maybe that’s to abstract, but it basically means that the designer trait to simplify is good, so long as it never runs over actual needs. In fact, it should smooth away pointless differences to open up space to spot new things that matter. Do that enough times and the pattern you create is just a map of the things that matter, written as simply as possible.

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