I spend a lot of time reading: I'm on track to read 50-100 books this year. A far cry from the 300 that I was planning to read, but one can dream.
For the first half of my career (1995 to 2008) there were basically no books on game design. There were no academic programs, no professors and no institutional body of work to learn from. All we had was the Game Developers Conference and the gigantic tomes filled with the lecture notes. But most of those sessions were about game development, not design. So the knowledge wasn't that useful for making game systems, and because they were more about development, they were quickly outdated.
These days, there still aren't tons of books - which is one of the reasons I wanted to start writing here (among others). But academia has discovered games and we're starting to formalize our craft somewhat. I haven't found many truly great books on game design, but I wanted to highlight of my favorites.
Think Like a Game Designer by Justin Gary (Amazon)
This is a concise work on design thinking and methods to get you working in a designer mindset. It's less about game design per se and more about the process of game design. Particularly helpful are his sections on the Core Design Loop and Stages of Design (both of which I'll write about here in the future).
He also has some great writings on his mailing list and an inspirational podcast that's a must-listen if you're focused on tabletop. Lastly, he has a paid class he's teaching regularly - I don't know much about it but I imagine it's good if you're able to pay and relatively new to designing games.
If you're working on making an original game and want methods for iterating, adopting a prototyping mindset, this book will give you significant tools for you toolbox. This is my favorite practical book on the "how" of designing games.
A Theory of Fun by Raph Koster (Amazon)
This book compares and contrasts games with other art forms, inspiring the reader to think differently about what heights games could reach. How do games differ from dance, classical music, etc. and how can we learn from other art forms to make totally new experiences that truly enrich, not just titillate.
This book is a quick read and will really improve your understanding of games as an art form. One of the great insights I learned from it is that games are great at teaching generalities, not specifics. Ie, games are great at teaching you that coordinated units working together can overtake stronger isolated units, but not so good at telling you a specific story about one of those units. This can really affect what stories with games and how.
This is my favorite book for understanding the deeper purpose, artistic merits and potential of the games medium. If there's one book that could help the industry the most, it's probably this one.
Characteristics of Games by George Skaff Elias & others (Penguin)
This is an academic textbook that doesn't tell the reader how to design, but instead looks critically at all the characteristics (attributes) of games. This is a true textbook, with exercises for the reader to perform and discuss. It's less approachable and more work than the others, but gave me a good understanding of the vast range of games including collectible card games, shooters, sports, card games, board games, gambling games and more.
During lockdown, I went through every chapter of this book with a co-worker, doing all the exercises and discussing them together. It was a lot of work, but I think it's probably the most thorough resource I've found on the anatomy of games.
This is my favorite book for understanding the structure of games, as well as learning some terms that the industry should adopt formally (orthogames, systemic vs. agential properties, etc).
The Kobold Guide to Game Design by Mike Selinker & others (Kobold Press)
This unlikely sounding title obscures a real gem. It is a collection of short essays from some real industry greats, all about board game design. It's one of those books I've learned more from it every time I've read it. The essay on Luck vs. Skill is alone worth the price. This is my favorite book on board game design.
These are the most important books I know about on learning the nuts and bolts of game design. In a future post I'll talk about my favorite design books in general, ones that are focused a bit less on systems and more on game feel, UX, rewards and design thinking. There are many others I'm working through so I expect to write a follow-up to this post in the future.
But this should be more than enough homework to keep you busy until then!