New 5-rule format

Hi folks, I thought I should make use of this devlog to talk about the recent update I made to making it up as we go along, as it's quite a significant change and I think it's worth talking about the reasoning behind it.

Original format

First, it's probably worth explaining the game and the original shape it took.

making it up as we go along is a game about changing the rules and inventing new ones. It is inspired by Peter Suber's Nomic, Bernie De Koven's concept of the Well-Played Game, and a desire to flatten the traditional hierarchy between game designer and player.

"Following directions socializes us; making our own sets us free."
Anna Zilboorg; Knitting for Anarchists

In its original format, players were presented with 3 rules:

  1. Players take turns
  2. On their turn, a player may add a new Rule or modify an existing Rule and/or take an Action
  3. Actions are defined by Rules

The various zines I produced elaborate on this to talk about how and why we might play the game, including notes on player safeguarding in a game where anything is possible, but those 3 rules are the core of the game. From this starting point, players would successively add to the list of rules, creating the game as they play it.

Original format

Problems with the Original format

Games played with this format tended to follow a consistent pattern: a slow start as players gradually build a critical mass of rules, a compelling middle when the game starts to come alive, followed by a slowing down again towards the end, as the sheer number of rules and the resulting complexity start to take a toll on players.

The slow start meant the game was often hard to sell to players unfamiliar with Nomic games. Players would have to stick around for a number of turns before the game really started to pick up steam, and it can be a little overwhelming to be asked to come up with new rules with very little structure or existing rules to play off of.

At the other end of play, the inexorably increasing cognitive load imposed by the game meant that the end of games would sometimes feel less like a satisfying conclusion, and more like a test of endurance.

23 Rules

Related to this: with this format I felt that the game required 1.5 - 2hrs to really sing. Any less than that and it felt like the game didn't have enough time to build up a proper head of steam.

The new 5-rule format

The new format attempts to resolve these problems. It works like so:

The game is turn-based, and there are only ever 5 rules in play. On a player's turn, they take the following 3 actions:

  1. Remove an existing rule
  2. Add a new rule
  3. Play through the current active rules

To make this work, there is now a setup phase at the start of the game. During this phase, the players work together to create a set of 5 initial rules. This hopefully starts the game with a conversation about what everyone wants from the game, and what kind of playstyles, or mechanics, or narratives they want to explore.

Before the game proper starts, players take turns to play through the initial rules, without removing or adding any rules. This hopefully helps ease players into the game, and ensures that nobody's rules are removed before they have been played by everyone at the table at least once.

5-rule format


The new format came about while I was manning the Abertay University stand at the UK Games Expo 23 with my colleagues William Kavanagh and Kayleigh MacLeod. I wanted to have the game set up so people could play it, but in a context where people were stopping by for maybe 5 minutes at most, the original version of the game was far too slow and unwieldy.

I came up with the new format in conversation with William and Kayleigh, as a way of streamlining the game to the point where someone could just drop by for 5 minutes, play a single turn, and get a good sense of what the game is and what makes it so interesting. And it worked really well in that context; multiple people played a single turn and then came back later in the day to see how the game had evolved.

Most encouragingly, the new format also improved on the original in a more traditional context. Playing with groups of 2-4 players in the UKGE's playtest section, the 5-rule format made the game faster, easier to explain, and generally just more enjoyable. And games in this format tended to be shorter too, with 45 - 60 minute play times seeming to be an optimal length.

One thing that became really apparent with the new format is how much playing the game often feels like having a really interesting conversation about game design and play. I think the freeform nature of the game means you pretty much have to talk to each other about what you want out of the game, which leads to questions about game design and play, whether a particular rule would break the game, how to bring the game to a satisfying climax, etc.

In this way it almost feels like the game is fulfilling an unintentional pedagogical role, as players explore what is possible, what works, and what doesn't.

What next?

As this is technically an academic research project, I really need to start writing it up. But I am also looking for more events, festivals, etc. who would be willing to let me set up and run the game with new people. Let me know if you're aware of anything coming up!


making it up as we go along zine (pdf) 177 kB
Aug 17, 2023

Get making it up as we go along

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