The first rule of laws

REUTERS/Toru HanaiOne of the many joys of moving to the USA was that it became much easier to hide my rich and extensive ignorance of football. Mostly it never comes up, and mostly if it does I can just blithely invent answers to any questions. Mostly I don’t get caught.

But the World Cup has ended that run, while simultaneously providing plentiful resources for solving the underlying problem. Thus, yesterday, as Brazil squeaked to victory, I read The Laws Of The Game. It turns out that not only does football consider itself above having anything as commonplace as ‘rules’, it also considers itself above having to specify which game its laws apply to: there is only one game, and that game is football, would seem to be the first unspoken law of The Laws Of The Game.

I’d recommend giving it a read – it’s shorter, lighter, more thought-provoking that you might expect. I don’t yet know how it compares to the rulebooks for other professional sports, but I’m willing to bet that some rule books (American Football especially?) are rule-ier and bookier. The ‘Powers And Duties’ section, which starts on page 71, is a particularly entertaining introduction to what it can take to GM a game of soccer.

This differential – between laws and rules – got me thinking, though, especially after writing up Dog Eat Dog for last week’s storygames round-up. Dog Eat Dog is a table-top game about colonialism, in which one player takes the role of an invading culture, and other players the roles of individual Natives responding to that invasion, and it hinges on one key rule: “The (Native People) are inferior to the (Occupation people).”. This, as I understand it, is an amazingly powerful concept. It means that in all and any kind of conflict, during the normal run of play, the player in the Occupation role will always win over the other players (you can read more about how it works in practice here). It’s a crazy thing for a game to try to pull off, and it takes some interesting mechanisms (which you can read about here) to make it into a playable, rewarding structure. I’d love to see other if other games have solved – or could solve – the same premise. anyone fancy theming a jam around multiplayer games where one player always wins?

It’s such a powerful rule that Liam Burke, the game’s designer, talks about it in this excellent interview as “the core of the game….maybe it’s too obviously the mission statement!”. And I think he’s right – I think this rule is more than a rule. I think this rule is different from the game’s other rules. Dog Eat Dog looks to me like a game whose rules are organised around a law. 

And I had that in my head when reading Tim Rogers‘ excellent review of football. He notes this important rule:

Only the keeper is allowed to touch the ball with their hands. Every other player on the field must use any part of their body other than their hands. This is, as my friend and colleague Bennett Foddy puts it, “A clever inversion of human biology.”

(You can, and should, see more of Rogers and Foddy ranking their top ten best sports sports here, at their cracking Indiecade session)

This made me realise that football shouldn’t be called football. It should be called anything-but-your-hands-ball. (Although, as the Hulk, and The Laws Of The Game will tell you, that might properly be anything-but-your-hands-and-your-arms-if-moved-purposefully-ball). It feels to me that this might be the real Law of football. The other rules are derived from this core principle: you must not handle this hard to control round thing with the one part of your body well equipped to handle hard to control round things.

Guitar Hero has always felt to me like a game structured in the same way. The law of Guitar Hero is that Guitar Hero is a five-buttoned game for a four-fingered species. So much of what is challenging and satisfying about that game comes out of this imbalance.

There’s a great post which I can’t find, but is probably linked to somewhere on Tom Armitage’s excellent blog , which Tom Armitage reminds me is by Wes Erdelack (thanks both!), that discusses Resident Evil 4, and whether or not it’s a ‘proper’ survival horror game. My half-memory of it is that it addresses the theory that RE4 isn’t ‘proper’ because it doesn’t have a hallmark element of the genre: resource scarcity. Survival horror games are canonically defined by eking out tiny supplies of ammo and health. RE4 is too generous, and therefore doesn’t count. The riposte is that RE4 does have a scarce resource you’re constantly managing: space. RE4 is a game continually optimising the distance between you and all enemies. If you’ve got space, you can win. If you don’t, you won’t.

In Guitar Hero, your scarce resource is fingers. You need five. You’ve got a likely maximum of four. A key element of the strategic choices you make when you play is how to solve that problem, especially if you’re a smaller-handed human. Deciding, moment-to-moment whether you’re reaching down for a green, or leaving your weaker, shorter pinky in charge of reaching up for an orange is not that different from deciding, moment-to-moment, if you’re going to risk getting closer to those three villagers in order to buy yourself some runway for the approaching Dr Salvador.

I’m not sure how far this idea can stretch Some games seem like easy candidates for having a law. Ikaruga (which – pow! – is on Steam), say, is a game organised around the law that a player can render some, but never all, threats into bonuses at will. It can sort of pass the Tetris test (a game organised around the law that there is no way to stop blocks falling). I am not sure what the law of Borderlands 2, or Carcassone is, both of which are glaring at me from the shelf, but I maybe just haven’t thought about it long enough.

What I do know is that at an early design stage, I sometimes either have far too  many possible rules, or far too few. There’s a big mushy space of untested, and sometimes untestable, possibilities, from which I yank out rules out, or jam new ones in. Putting my weight on each rule in turn and asking, ‘is this secretly a law? What would happen if I organised any other rules subordinate to this one?’ feels be a useful tool for finding game formulations that might otherwise stay hidden. 

So is it a law of games  that games have laws? I’ll stick my neck out as far as Eugenio Mena, the Chilean left-back did, ahead of that Brazil game: I am deeply convinced that it might be.

Postscript: for those who are scathing about others’ difficulty in understanding the offside rule, I only note here that it takes 14 separate diagrams to fully explain it in the otherwise lean and precise The Laws Of The Game. For those how have difficulty in understanding the offside rule, I note that those diagrams are pretty useful!


8 thoughts on “The first rule of laws”

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