Concept Models and Game Design

Concept models are a tool used to understand how the elements within a topic relate to each other. They are often used by designers to understand how the many parts of a system relate to each other.

The creator places all of the nouns in circles. The nouns are all the “things” related to the topic. Then connect the nouns with arrows pointing in one direction. Put a verb (or a few words) on the arrow such that when you read aloud the noun + verb + noun you get a sentence that makes sense. Not only does it make sense, but it explains some relationship between elements. Repeat this until you have exhausted the topic. Finally, make an attempt to organize the circles and arrows so that the chart is easier to read.

Imagine a diagram intended to break down the components in a deck of cards. It could start like this:


Read this as “Deck contains cards”. It is this type of relationship we seek to chart out. And the more elements a game or topic contains the more relationships there are to explore and consider.

Then, we can expand on this and add more elements, building out the chart. Here is a chart with a few more nouns:


Note that I have intentionally connected elements in different ways to show how you can read things in many ways.

Additional layers can be added if it is useful. For example you could add color to the circles in order to show how similar elements relate to each other and form groupings. You can also put containers around related elements. This isn’t a rigid method, add whatever helps you make sense of the topic.

This works perfectly for mapping out the elements of a board game and visually seeing how all the parts interrelate to each other. This can help the game designer in many ways:

  • Discovering connections you hadn’t anticipated
  • Identify little used parts that can be eliminated
  • Assess the overall complexity of the game (more parts = more complex)
  • Visualize the openness of the game – or the amount of flexibility players will have with the parts
  • Discover new ways to integrate parts and create multiple paths through the game

Here is an example of concept model I created to understand the parts of Settlers of Catan.

Settlers of Catan - Diagram.jpg

It is worth noteing that this diagram does not contain every single possible relationship. There are times where you leave some out because it just clutters things up. This is risky though. For example, in this chart I have failed to detail all of the possible relationships that development cards might have. They can also allow you to do things like collect resources, build roads or move the robber. To flush these types of details out it might make sense to create noun objects for each type of card. Then these could be connected to all the elements they relate to. In this case it might make sense to make a separate chart just showing what the deck of development cards can do.

The reason I started using this method was to better understand the parts of games and how they relate to each other. As it turns out, doing this really really helps you see how game parts are used. Having done many of these I will be posting and sharing those here on this site. In fact, my vision is to essentially use this method on any game I play, design or generally need to assess. I highly recommend you not only look through the ones I have made but to make your own. Though others might learn from these diagrams, it is the creator that learns the most. As such I challenge you to take up this challenge and begin by charting the games you love most; it is easiest to model games we know well.

Simplified Concept Model

The next step I put these concept models through is not something I do in the UX world, but for games I have found it to be a very useful approach. With a complete chart that plots out every element of the game I work to make a second version. In this second version I simplify and condense elements. I also remove extraneous elements that are less important. The goal here is to make a more simplified chart that portrays the general flow of the game.

Here is the simplified version of the Settlers of Catan chart shown above.

Settlers of Catan - Diagram 2.jpg

The purpose of this is to seek to understand the core flows of the game. Some parts of the game (like a pawn or dice) aren’t really key to understanding how the game flows. Both layers of detail are helpful depending on what you goal is.

Decision Tree

Building a concept model leads to another interesting artifact. Once you see all the parts of the system and consider how they relate to each other you can easily assess and plot out all the decisions the player is able to make. Making a decision tree is fairly easy and really depends on the specifics of the game. In general it plots out all the choices a player is able to make. The quantity of decisions directly relates to the amount of control the player can inject into the game. If the players have too few choices the game can become predictable or perhaps just boring. In small, faster games, a limited decision tree is ok. But in larger and longer games one expects to be able to make more choices and through them have a greater influence on the game. The whole world of decisions is a topic I would like to explore in much greater detail. This interesting article on Objective Driven Gameplay shows how much thought and insight can be gained from this line of thinking.

Settlers of Catan - Diagram 3.jpg

Just to clarify, these are not long term choices the player gets to make (such as an overall strategy). Rather these are just the immediate choices a player gets to make on their turn.

While not directly related to the topics presented here, this article on the Anatomy of Carcassonne shows how the parts of a game can be modeled in yet another way. There is no “right” way to do this, so use which ever method or methods work best for you.

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