1,000 Year Game Design

I dream of designing games that could be played out in the African Savannah. Games that you can play with little more than the earth and rocks around you. Rules simple enough to remember without printed text, but with enough depth to draw fans for a thousand years.

The ancient games that survive today – Chess, Tag, Soccer, Mancala, Hide and Seek, Go, Senet, and countless folk games – all evolved under environmental pressures totally different than the current commercial model.

A design had to be simple enough to teach and remember by word of mouth. If a rule wasn't remembered, but people still played the game, then the rule didn't need to be there. Generation by generation, the rules evolved to local tastes, stripped of anything that else.

The experience had to be rewarding enough to even bother teaching or remembering. When you're a wandering nomad with little down time between tending your herd, fighting off predators and keeping your family healthy, you have a lot on your mind.

The game pieces had to be common enough to be accessible to all members of society. Even while rich and powerful play with elaborately crafted game equipment, the everyday enthusiast could cobble together a rubber ball or some rocks. You can play chess in palaces or city parks. An ancillary aspect to accessibility is making sure that whatever equipment your game does use is sustainable, both in raw materials and production.

I'm pretty sure these are the attributes that shaped the oldest games:
Simple. Rewarding. Accessible. Put all that together and you have an elegant game with a strong chance of lasting for many generations. Maybe even a thousand years.

Those seem like ambitious standards, but worthy.


  1. Funny, this puts me in mind of a question I've been asking myself lately. Why are story games a recent invention? Why did they have to grow out of wargaming? Does it have something to do with the emergence of mass media that made it possible for ordinary people to think about meta-storytelling?

    And is it possible to do a story game that's still structured, but meets your memorable-rules-and-simple-tools requirements for a Savannah Game?

    Now I'm thinking about Ro-Sham-Bo type conflict resolution mechanics that allow for difficulty modifiers assigned by a GM. Maybe something like the Lizard/Spock variant?

  2. I'm not entirely sure collaborative fiction exercises are so totally new. Certainly storytelling around a campfire is an old notion, as is audience input in public storytelling. I'm no anthropologist though, so I can't speak from authority.

    Keep in mind that dice are a very, very ancient toy, so a Savannah Story Game wouldn't necessarily be so minimal in its gaming equipment. A gestural system is certainly an interesting experiment explored in Shreyas Sampat's Mridangam. That game has a whole lexicon of call-and-response hand gestures inspired by Indian dance traditions.


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