Design Anatomy 101: Poker

Welcome to the first session of Design Anatomy! In this class we’ll be dissecting the parts of a game: what makes them tick, why they’re unique, and how they function and interact with their own mechanics when compared to other similar or dissimilar games. But first, let’s define some groundwork ideas.

What is a game?

Games have been a classical part of human tradition dating back as far back as has been recorded. They vary from culture to culture, but each forms a valuable part of a given group’s identity, offering insight to values that group may hold, objects and actions that are viewed as important or noteworthy, and generally functioning as a potential microcosm of the culture as a whole.

However, when you get down to the brass tacks of it, what is a game?

Well, let’s look at some very simple games to help guide this discussion: pass-the-stick storytelling, and the basics of the game of soccer.

For pass-the-stick narratives, each person contributes a part of a story in turn, before passing the stick to the next person who can then narrate a part of the story. Depending on the specific group and rules, others may be able to contribute but not overrule the stick-holder, or they may not be allowed to contribute at all.

For soccer, two teams of players are trying to get a ball into a goal area. One player is allowed to use their hands, but everyone else can only use their feet or other parts of their body to hit the ball. There are of course hundreds of additional specific rules in modern soccer, but this forms the underlying rules and outline of the game.

So, let’s break down some core elements in these and many other games:

  • Group Play: Most games involve two or more people. While solo games do exist, the majority of games are group activities
  • Physical Components: Both games used one or more physical components. Pass-the-stick storytelling uses the titular stick, while soccer uses a ball and a marked play area. Note that these components need not be manufactured or even strongly defined: A soccer goal could be defined by the terrain players are in, such as a gap between some trees or rocks, while still serving the same purpose. While some games can be played without any components whatsoever (Such as the Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen), most have at least some cursory need for components, tokens, or other markers or play areas.
  • Rules and Structure: Both games have a set of rules everyone abides by and is familiar with. A specific beginning and end (such as accumulating a given number of points or reaching a time limit) can also help form the structure for a game.

This is of course not an exhaustive list, and core elements can be more specific than these broad strokes. Core elements for one game can even be superfluous for another. A good example of this are some of the differences between poker as we will discuss in a moment, and other card game variants such as Texas Hold ‘Em.

Discussion Question: Think about your favorite game: what are some elements that set it apart from other, similar games? What are elements that it shares with other games?


Core Elements, Implied Roles, and Flavor

One often-overlooked part of most games is some sort of implied role, whether strongly or lightly implied. For example, games such as Risk put you in the chair of a military commander, while chess might put you in the role of a noble king or ruler. On the other hand, some games, such as Poker, Tic-Tac-Toe, Phase 10, and others have no overt role a player is personifying.

Note that this is different from flavor. For example, a Risk game might be themed around one of the World Wars, a distant sci-fi future Earth, Lord of the Rings, or something even further removed from the “original” version of the game’s implementation. This isn’t to say one version is more correct or proper than the other, but rather that they can change the flavor of the game; the implied role may still be a military commander, but the specific flavor of the role might be as an elven lord or cyborg dictator depending on the game in question.

The reason I bring this up is to help clear the air around what differences affect the heart of a game, the core elements or implied role, and which affect mostly flavor and visual aesthetics. A game of poker using cards backed with steampunk imagery still uses the exact same mechanics as one using Adventure Time characters. On the other hand, a game of Risk that removes the die-rolling random combat resolution entirely would end up feeling markedly different, with the game of Diplomacy being an example of what a gameplay experience like that might be. It’s not a bad game, but different in gameplay experience from each-other.

Elements like this, elements that affect what the core of a game is, how it functions, how it feels, are usually core elements that a design rotates around, and can provide points of modification to change a game, either to improve, iterate, or simply mash up multiple games into a new concept.

Discussion Question: Can you think of any games where a change in the art would change the core elements of the game? What about a game where a visual change would alter the implied role but not the flavor or core elements?

With all of that background out of the way, let’s jump into our first Design Anatomy dissection


Poker (5 Card Draw)

Rules Overview

(If you’re familiar with 5-card draw poker, feel free to skip this section)

Players begin with a pool of units for betting, often poker chips or coins. Each player antes a set value into the common pot. Players are then dealt 5 cards face-down, and they look at them. The deck used contains 52 cards, formed by cards in value of 1-13, with the 11 represented as a Jack, 12 as a Queen, and 13 as a King. The 1 is called an Ace. There are 4 suites of each of the 13 cards: Spades, Clubs, Hearts, and Diamonds.

Each player is trying to achieve the highest-value hand possible with some or all of their five cards. The hands, in order of lowest to highest value, are:

  • Single high card (The highest-value card in hand, with the Ace usually counting as higher than a King)
  • One pair (Two cards with the same value)
  • Two pair (Two sets of two cards with the same value)
  • Three of a kind (Three cards with the same value)
  • Straight (Continuous sequence of 5 cards in numerical order)
  • Flush (5 cards of the same suite)
  • Full House (A pair, and a three of a kind)
  • Four of a kind (Four cards with the same value)
  • Straight Flush (A continuous sequence of 5 cards in numerical order all of the same suite)
  • Royal Flush (A straight flush containing the 10, Jack, Queen, King, and Ace)

After viewing their cards, players begin with the first player either increasing the bet and adding that value to the pot, calling (adding the same bet as the previous player), or folding and losing the round. Players continue around until either all players remaining in the game have called, or until all players but one have folded.

Next each player may discard any number of their cards face-down, and receive that many new cards from the deck. There is another round of betting, after which all players still in the game reveal their hands. Whoever has the highest hand, or the last player in the game if all other players fold, wins the pot. Usually players are permitted to leave or enter the game between rounds as they wish.

If you’re interested in learning the rules in depth, the Wikipedia article on five card draw is fairly exhaustive.

With that summary out of the way, let’s apply what we discussed earlier.


Core Elements

There are four primary elements I would identify in a game of poker:

  • The Deck: The deck of poker has a large impact on how the game plays, and how reliable certain experiences can be. Royal flushes are notoriously rare, but imagine how much more frequent they would be (and less impactful as a result) if the deck instead consisted of 3 Aces, Kings, Queens, Jacks, and 10s for each suite instead?
  • Betting: Betting in Poker provides a round-to-round tracking of success or failure. This both provides a strong incentive for players, as the allure of being able to ‘catch up” and recover or even exceed their losses is very strong. However, unlike victory point tracking in most modern board games, betting in poker usually is based on actual funds, and this further incentivizes players to continue playing due to the very real impact the game may have on their funds.
  • Hand Values: The values of various poker hands are arranged by increasing rarity and difficulty to assemble or come across. This means most games will be determined by a more mundane hand, such as  two pair or a three of a kind, rather than a rarity like a four of a kind or straight flush. If the values were instead to assemble specific sets or sequences in order to succeed, this could change the flavor of the game to something more akin to Phase 10.
  • Core Gameplay Loop: This is simply the very rudimentary basics of what players do in a round: Draw 5 cards; Bet; Discard and draw back to 5; Bet again; and Resolve hands and determine winner. A game doesn’t necessarily need a simple core gameplay loop either! Some games, such as Twilight Imperium or Arkham Horror can have quite lengthy and varied player turns depending on the state of the game. Still, changing the Core Gameplay Loop for a game usually has a significant impact on how the game might play.

Looking at these elements, we can see that a change to one of these would significantly alter how the game would be played. Again, this isn’t to say an alternative would be a poor game: sometimes, changing a core mechanic of a familiar game can grant it far deeper layers of strategy and replayability. A great example of this is the change used in Ultimate Tic-Tac-Toe that turns the solved-game of Tic-Tac-Toe into a slightly-longer but much more deep game of strategy.

Discussion Question: Pick one of the following Core Elements to reflect on:
The Deck: Note that the appearance on the cards doesn’t have an impact on how the game functions; however, what might be ways you could modify the card deck itself, without changing any values or card frequencies, and change how the game would play?
Betting: Do you think poker would be as successful today if it had been played using a score tracker like Gin or Pinochle?
Hand Values: What would you propose as a theoretical new hand to score in poker? How difficult would it be to achieve, and how valuable should it be?
Core Gameplay Loop: How would poker be affected if you were to add an additional discard and draw step between steps 4 (final betting) and 5 (resolution)?


Related Games

So, while we’re not going to map out an entire family tree here for Poker, I would like to touch on some Poker variants and how simple mechanics changes can significantly alter the gameplay experience:

  • Seven Card Draw: This variant simply increases the number of cards dealt to seven instead of five, limits the number of cards that can be discarded and replaced to four, and has players use five of their seven card hand for their final hand. In this variant, higher-value hands are much more common, which could change how confidently players may bet if they have a what appears to be a game-winning hand. Similarly, the increased number of cards means players may be less likely to fold early and remain in the game longer instead.
  • Deuces Wild: This variant allows the value 2 cards (‘deuces’) to be used as a card of any other value. This means high-value hands are even more likely than would be seen in Seven Card Draw, but it also again means higher-value hands are not as likely to be the highest hand at the table as they would be in normal Five Card Draw.
  • Texas Hold ‘Em: This variant gives each player only two cards to begin with, but then after an initial round of betting, reveals three cards that any player may use in their final hand. Then two more cards are revealed, with a round of betting after each, until the final round of betting and resolution, with players making the best possible hand out of the five revealed cards and their two cards in hand. This is a more involved variation to standard five card draw poker, but is still incredibly popular thanks to these changes.

There are of course hundreds if not thousands of additional variants, as well as small individual tweaks and modifications players have made to their own home games of poker. This is a great example of game design in action: someone at some point decided they wanted to try playing with wild cards, and created the Deuces Wild variant. Sometimes slight tweaks to an existing game can create an engrossing new game that feels different and fresh, while still being familiar enough that it is easy or easier for new players to learn.

Discussion Question: Make a variant to Poker by significantly modifying one of the Core Elements. How would your variant play differently compared to standard Five Card Draw?

Thanks for coming to class everyone. While we’ll be going over the venerable establishment that is Chess in our Design Anatomy 102 lesson, keep in mind these principles of Core Elements, Implied Roles, and Flavor. See if you can identify these parts in games you play between now and next class, and use that to help reflect on the elements, roles, and flavor of your own game designs!

Design Anatomy 101 Homework:

Create an anatomy outline of your own game. Be sure to include these points:

  • The game title and a 2-3 sentence summary.
  • Core Elements
  • Implied Role
  • Flavor

In addition, pick one of the below points to discuss as well in your answer:

  • A variant of one Core Element, and how it would change your game
  • An alternative Implied Role that could be used in your game, and what changes would be needed to achieve that new role. Alternatively, if your game has no Implied Role, what could you change to add a role?
  • An alternative flavor, and how that would change your game (if at all)

Due (optionally!) as a comment below by the start of next class!

(Header image from fielperson. Role from geralt. Poker from david-k. Cards from OpenClipart-Vectors. Texas Hold ‘Em from Free-Photos. All images found on Pixabay.)


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