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Book Review: Uncertainty in Games

Uncertainty in Games (by Greg Costikyan) is a short, informal book that reads more like a long essay than an academic work.  The book provides a good overview of different types of uncertainty (i.e. tension), but often fails to support or fully discuss their statements.  However, the book provides an interesting foray into sources of uncertainty in play.


Uncertainty in Games does the typical "what is a game" song and dance.  The author quotes the Rules of Play definition "A game is a system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome".  Costikyan takes exception with the phrase "quantifiable outcome" and rather than accept that many standard activities (forms of play) that are labeled ‘games’ are in fact, not games (at least according to the RoP definition).

The author does setup that games are a form of a play (a subclass as he puts it in programming terms), and so acknowledges that not all play is a game and that there are certain attributes of games that are not shared by all activities.

Uncertainty spends the bulk of the book analyzing games, both video and board.  The analysis covers a range games from Super Marios Bros. to poker.  Each analysis covers the types of uncertainty in the game, as well as different types of uncertainty presented by the example.  Each game discussed usually presents a new type of uncertainty.

The next largest section is a more in depth look at each type of uncertainty.  Each uncertainty type mentioned in the previous section is expanded upon.  Twelve different types of uncertainty are explored, such as performative uncertainty(physical activities), solver’s uncertainty (puzzles), to player unpredictability and randomness.


The Bad

I have several issues with this book, but I’ll focus on the two largest.  My first issue is the start of the book.  The book discusses games and human culture, but it isn’t complete or well argued.  Rules of Play offers a much better overview, more thoroughly dissected, and better annotated.

The structure of the book feels backwards.  It dives into examples and case studies before thoroughly exploring the types of uncertainty it mentions.  I would have found it much more clear had the order of the two major sections been reversed or each uncertainty type given its’ own chapter with the case study at the end (ala Meeples Together by Allen and Appelcline).

The Good

The section of the book that explores the different types of uncertainty is well worth reading.  It is fairly concise, if somewhat opinionated.  It provides plenty of food for thought and covers a broad range of uncertainty.

The book also does a good job in the analysis section of calling out specific mechanics that create uncertainty.  This could have been expanded upon and explored further, but it is a good connection between the theoretical and the practical.

The Conclusion

Ultimately the book should be called Uncertainty in Play as it covers more than just games.  It is not an academic text book (nor does it claim to be) and the informal nature and lack of support (either footnotes, data, or arguments) can be frustrating at times.  However, I do not know of an alternative book discussing these ideas as succinctly (and as approach-ably).

The book also doesn’t feel like a complete overview, rather as an initial look into how uncertainty arises in human activities.  That said, it does provide interesting insights that are definitely applicable to game design.

Who Should Buy This Book

Anyone who is interested in the analysis of games should read (at least part of) this book.  As noted in Rules of Play, uncertainty is essential to games  and this book offers an interesting discussion of many sources of uncertainty.


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