Classics of Game Design Theory
General Tso: The Ten Points with the Commentaries
Trans., W.E.C. Meadows (Oxford, 1957)
  The supreme principle is this: To design a game is simple, to sell a game requires the patience and will of ten thousand men.

Commentary: Emperor Wu wished to publish a game. He consulted his advisors, asking them, How can I best accomplish this? His advisors gave their opinions, one saying, You must have a Web page, another saying, You must have plastic tokens, each answering in turn, save for Chang Lin, who remained silent. Finally the Emperor asked: Chang Lin, why won't you speak? Give us your opinion.

Chang Lin replied: My only advice is to abandon this plan. If you desire a long and prosperous life, you will not publish a game.

The Emperor ignored Chang Lin's advice. The following autumn he died of heartbreak.1

  You must test every design. No man has designed a game that is complete and correct. Such a task is impossible, for if we mean others to play it, we cannot design only for ourselves, but must subject ourselves to the righteous criticism of learned men.

CommentarySuch a task is impossible. Why should this be? The Master said: The peasant relies on the Emperor, the Emperor on his scholars. The army relies on the General, the General on his advisors. The Emperor who ignores [his] counselors will lose the Mandate of Heaven. The General who ignores his advisors will suffer defeat.

Thus, it is only with testing2 that a game becomes perfect.

Yu-wen designed a game in which the objective was to rescue hostages. To represent the hostages, he used counters, which he placed face-down along with dummy counters. Players received a victory point for discovering a hostage, whether the hostage survived or not. General Chou played Yu-wen's game. When Chou discovered a hostage, he shot the hostage dead, remarking: I have earned my victory point. The hostage is cumbersome to protect. Yu-wen changed the victory point system. The point of the story is that Chou, thinking differently than Yu-wen, achieved victory in a way Yu-wen had not foreseen. Chou was a good playtester, but more importantly, Yu-wen had the modesty which befits the superior designer.

  You must test the written rules with the same harshness that you test the design. If even the most learned scholar cannot decipher the rules, what value is the game? It stays on the shelf, unpunched.


The orphaned child,

raised by wolves,

speaks nonsense,

dies in winter.

The orphaned child has never been corrected by his peers. He recites nonsense, whose meaning only he can divine. The villagers point and laugh. He cannot long thrive in such circumstances. At an auction, the auctioneer held up a box. He remarked: 'Opened. Unpunched.' Any game designer would feel great sorrow. Someone wanted to play this game, but could not!

  Everyone believes he understands game balance. But you must think deeply about this subject if you hope to design the perfect game. The game begins balanced. Is it still balanced on the first turn?
  Commentary: Po Yi sat down to play Talisman with his generals. He said: At this moment, each of us has an equal chance of winning. When we choose our character cards, then we will no longer have equal chances.
  'Balance' applies to other facets of the design. Rules must harmonize, each following the dictates of the whole game, as family members must harmonize for the family to prosper.

Commentary: Just as 'propriety' means one thing for the peasant, another thing for the soldier, and something else again for the scholar, so 'balance' means something different for each part of the design. An unbalanced design is like a dog whose forelegs are shorter than its hind legs. It can walk, but is ungainly.

Yu-wen designed a strategic space empire game. Combat was governed by a CRT and a single die roll. Planetary population expansion followed a mathematical formula, which took into account immigrations, emigrations, and existing industrial base. As a player's empire expanded, turns were quickly dominated by the population growth phase.

Playing the game required a retinue of a dozen scholars, each calculating population on his abacus. Yu-wen soon abandoned this approach.

  The foolish man asks: Should my game be realistic, or playable? The sage knows when to insist on accuracy, and when to forsake accuracy for playability.
  Commentary: 'Falling into a trap during the chase.'3 When the designer gives no thought to the real world, the game becomes pointless. Who then will play it? When the designer thinks of nothing but the real world, in his zest adding a thousand new rules, the game becomes over-burdened. Who then can play it? In either case, it sits on the shelf.
  The successful publisher understands the techniques of printing. Just as a general must understand, not only battle and tactics, but also the sciences of weaponry, armor, and other matériel of war, so the publisher must understand computers, layout, and printing.

Commentary: The Master said: Learn to use your tools, for they can be your closest friend, or your most bitter enemy.

How many lives are ruined through ignorance?4 With correct knowledge, our work is brought into harmony with nature, and nature cannot then surprise us.

  The scholar takes the time needed to complete his work. Before he writes a single character, he prepares his brushes and ink. How like a mother caring for her infant! With endless patience and the true love of knowledge, every stroke will be correct.

Commentary: The Master said: Never rush something for GenCon. Mei Hao hurried to finish a game before GenCon. When the game was published, it was missing all of its sequencing chits. Mei Hao discovered this, and cried out: I should not have tried to publish [in time for] GenCon! Then he saw that the attack value on every Mongol cavalry unit was wrong.

Immediately he drew his sword and stabbed himself through the heart.

  Therefore, also take proper care to research the subject.
  Commentary: Of course the historical simulation needs research, but other subjects are no less deserving. Then, like a landscape painted by a master, the result will be true to life, and all who observe it will be amazed. Genre fiction requires similar restraints.[?]5
  Never hesitate to throw away parts of the design that do not work. Though you toiled day and night, unless it works it is worthless. The righteous designer thinks not of himself but always of the players.

Commentary: Duke Yin designed a game of man-to-man combat. He used pre-plotted manœvres. It was cumbersome, and he abandoned it. He created an action point system. It was inelegant, and he abandoned it. Next he used initiative chits, but they were confusing, and he abandoned them. Finally he tried 'move-fire' with opportunity actions. The result was elegant and playable.

Duke Tsu, who playtested each design in turn, remarked: You have designed four different games! Duke Yin replied: No, I have designed only one, the correct one. Thus Duke Yin's wisdom became renowned across the land.



  1. This story is recounted in the _Analects_, book iv.
  2. Lit. 'after one hundred tests'.
  3. _I Ching_, The Chase
  4. Not, as Bianco translates, so often do men live their lives in ignorance.
  5. Wang Lo has argued that the text here is corrupt. ['Notes on the Collation of General Tso's "Ten Points"', Peking University Journal of the Humanities, no. ii, 1955] The point of the passage may be that for games based on a fictional genre, the conventions of the genre serve the same rôle as historical facts in a traditional wargame. Thus, the need to 'research'.