Nine Things Nerds Can Appreciate about Football’s Game Design

The Super Bowl is this weekend, and you know what that means: Superb Owl! and Sportsball! memes galore. But I noticed that many of my friends who mock the sport also love strategy games like Magic the Gathering, Starcraft, or 7 Wonders — and thus I know they can appreciate a well-designed game.

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There are plenty of reasons to criticize the NFL: a hypocritical position on brutal hits, stinginess in paying the refs, the exploitation of unpaid college athletes, and of course the (somewhat improving) issue of concussions and player safety.

But for my fellow nerds, here are some elements of the National Football League that you can look at on a strategic game-design level and say “Ok, that’s actually really cool.”

Nine? Elements of Football that Reflect Good Strategic Game Design

Resource Management:

Like most good games, a key component is making smart decisions about where to invest your resources.


In the NFL, the collective bargaining agreement between owners and the players’ union sets a salary cap to set a maximum (and minimum) that teams can spend each year.

Would you want to pay premium for a star or spread that salary around and upgrade more positions? It might depend on synergies with the rest of your roster. (Or you can get lucky with a player like Tom Brady who takes less money than his market value so his team can surround him with more talent.)

Rookies, as unproven quantities, are typically signed on a very affordable contract for their first few years, whereas established veterans can be much pricier. Teams are faced with the question of where they can afford to have uncertainty on their roster — contenders rarely want to risk an unproven player at quarterback, while teams that are a bit further away can take that gamble.

Time / (Plus Good Catch-up Mechanics):

In any game, there’s incentive for the person losing to resort to riskier higher-variance strategies. In football, that’s passing plays, which have a chance of gaining a lot of yards or not being caught at all. A neat aspect of football is that incomplete passes can stop the clock.

When a team is behind, time is one of the most precious resources it has, so this means the game is structured to give them every opportunity to claw their way back. Deciding when to burn time (and time-outs) is cruicial, and something even the best coaches struggle to do well.

Energy Level in Game:

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This is a minor point, but one I found really neat: Playing defense tends to be more exhausting than playing offense. If an offense can run many plays in rapid succession without huddling up or substituting — and thus prevent the defense from substituting in fresh players as well — they can gain an edge over an increasingly-tired defense.

Synergies Between Players and Schemes

Building a roster

Of course, the downside of this kind of “Hurry up offense” is that the offense is also stuck with the same players on the field and doesn’t have as much time for coaches to call the next play. Teams that want to use more hurry-up offense may need to hire versatile players who can be counted on to run many types of play, and an experienced quarterback who can make smart changes on the fly.

Since players have unique skill sets, teams need to build around who’s coming out of college and who they can afford to sign. Just like putting together a Magic the Gathering or Netrunner deck to find and build on synergies, Football has fantastic interplay between skills, style, and strategy.

Finding a generational talent like Detroit’s ultra-elusive running back Barry Sanders opens up a host of new options for a team. The Detroit Lions never focused on their offensive linemen — who would try to clear the way for him — because, frankly, Barry could succeed without them. (Until he got fed up and retired early, which is a story of its own.)

If a team has a quarterback with pinpoint accuracy but a weak arm, paying for blazing fast wide receivers to race down the field and catch deep passes doesn’t make as much sense as signing shifty and precise route-runners. However, to make good use of a quarterback with a cannon-arm, fast receivers aren’t enough — he needs strong offensive linemen to protect him and give him time to throw.

There are countless interactions between strategic decisions and I love it.

Strategic Structural Asymmetries

Stadiums and Cities Matter

Even the stadium and climate in a city factor into a football team’s strategy.

Because it’s considered more difficult to pass the ball in cold and windy weather, teams in the frigid Northern divisions are more likely to focus on building a running attack and a defense that can stop the other team from running successfully. As winter approaches, they can count on the environment to limit the passing game.

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However, roughly a third of teams play in indoor stadiums — eliminating the weather and the wind to make passing strategies more effective. Since half a team’s games are played at home, it has disproportionate impact on how they want to build a roster. A few stadiums even have retractable roofs, which let them decide whether to allow the elements to impact the game!

Leveraged Division Structure

An NFL division is comprised of four teams who play each other twice every season. The team in each division with the best record is guaranteed a spot in the playoffs. (Even if NONE of the teams were very good – the Washington Football Team made the playoffs this year despite losing more than half their games!)

This makes it even more crucial to plan how to counter division opponents’ schemes, and those rivalry games are usually close and exciting.

If an opposing team in your division has exceptionally tall, strong receivers you can’t afford to be caught assigning small cornerbacks to guard them. You’d need to keep that in mind when building a roster.

Well Designed Scoring System

Intermittent Scoring to Build Excitement Throughout

In the NBA, a jaw-dropping feat of athleticism… gets 2 or 3 points. Since teams average over 100 points a game, there’s a limit to how impactful any one play can be until the last minutes of a game.

On the other end of the spectrum, each score in soccer is rare and thus hugely important. Unfortunately, goals are so infrequent that historically, over 30% of English league games end with neither team scoring more than once. Those rare goals are dramatic, but personally I find it difficult to get excited about the intervening dribbling and passing when I know it’s very unlikely to shape the final result.

It’s a tradeoff, and football’s rules situate it nicely between these extremes. There are typically around 8 scoring plays each NFL game, and even the non-scoring plays are impactful (see below).

Building Progress / Tension

Getting a player on base in baseball or softball, winning a game or a set in tennis’ Game/Set/Match structure, or defeating a video game monster and getting to heal at a save point — these smaller discrete goals build toward the larger one.

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Football is designed to have two key ways to make non-scoring plays significant. First, teams are only given four chances (downs) to score before they turn the ball over to the other team — but the count is reset every time they gain another 10 yards. Every third-down and fourth-down opportunity has more importance because it’s approaching that impactful mini-goal, breathing more life into a drive.

But even without this ratcheting structure, non-scoring progress matters because field position is a ‘stateful’ element which persists from one play to the next. Where one play ends, the next one begins. Every yard one team moves forward is an extra yard the opponents will need to win back. It’s a tug-of-war with scoring opportunities on the line at any time.

“Legacy” Narratives

Legacy games are all the rage, and for good reason. (Our country even decided to LARP a game of Pandemic Legacy!)

The fact that players, teams, and coaches have storylines, rivalries, and arcs is a big part of the human element to football. We’re watching some of the legends of their craft face off each week, with history between them and human motivations.

On Sunday, we get to watch completely different quarterbacks compete: young phenom Patrick Mahomes against the unaging Tom Brady. Mahomes, who won last year, is widely considered one of the best in the league despite being only 25. In contrast, Brady is 43 and amazingly this is his tenth Super Bowl appearance. He’s been playing at an elite level for decades, and he won his first Super Bowl in 2002 — when Mahomes was 6.

Most of Brady’s 20 years were spent under coach Bill Belichick, known for being brilliant and famously taciturn. (Unless, of course, you ask him about the history and minutia of football kicking rules, which makes him light up and talk for ages.) However, last year Brady decided to leave Belichick and the New England Patriots, so people were wondering whether he could succeed with a different coach. He’s answered those questions in dramatic fashion.

When storylines carry over from campaign to campaign or season to season, it’s a great way to build long narratives of meaning and importance.

Whether or not you enjoy watching the sport, there’s a lot it does well from a design perspective and I recommend anyone who enjoys strategy to try playing some of the Madden video games — how I initially got excited about the game.

Top 10 Time/Space Manipulation Puzzle Games

You, like I, might wish to bend time and space and wake up after the election results are in. Barring an unsafe quantity of alcohol, we can’t. But second best, here are 10 Time/Space manipulation puzzle games* which can take your mind off things.

*It turns out I accidentally put 11 on the list. [Insert pun about bending the laws of arithmetic, along with time and space.]

I tried to figure out what I like about puzzle games, and I think I’m rating these for a combination of:

  • Creative time/space manipulation mechanic
  • Clever puzzles
  • Sense of Discovery
  • Aesthetics

10a. HyperRogue

Of course the lines are parallel; you can tell by the way they curve away from each other.

HyperRogue is a turn-based game on a hyperbolic plane: a non-Euclidean surface in which the angles of a triangle add up to less than 180 degrees. (The opposite of being on a globe, which is non-Euclidean in that the angles of a triangle add up to MORE than 180 degrees.)

I found myself frequently getting lost but having a great time doing it.

The game itself is simple but not just window dressing for cool geometry. It’s a rogue-like game, so you’re expected to die and start over frequently. That might be best, since it keeps the focus on the experience and not on the progress or final goals.

Pro: Cool introduction to hyperbolic geometry, great way to pass some time

Cons: I found it difficult to “get good at” so I mostly wandered around and occasionally did well before being trapped by monsters.

10b. 5D Chess with Multiverse Time Travel

Not normal Chess, not my 1D Chess variant, not 3D Chess. Nope. Five dimensions. I thought this was a silly gimmick at first, but the rules are surprisingly coherent, if… mindbending. The result is more logic puzzle than chess.

Treating time as a dimension that can be traversed works. A rook — which can move as far as you want in one direction — can go horizontal, vertical, or stay in the same position but go back in time. Knights (shown below) can:
A) Move regularly — 2 steps and then one step horizontally/vertically
B) Move two spaces horizontally/vertically and then one space back in time or
C) Move two spaces back in time and then one space horizontally/vertically.

“I was playing a game against a human opponent online, and at one point they sent a queen back in time from one of the ten timelines currently in play to put five of my past kings into check at once. I sent one of my own pieces even further back to stall, and they proceeded to send one of their queens back to the start of the game to try and beat me before I even got to that point”

“If you have no idea what I just wrote, I hardly do either, this game makes my head hurt and yet eventually your mind’s eye is opened to the cosmic structure of the universe –

or you just go insane


Review by TheSpookiestUser

Pros: Actually pulls off a time-travel board game!

Cons: Steep learning curve means it’s easy to give up. Even the very positive reviews on steam have a lot of people who only played half an hour.

9. Induction

I’m a sucker for these self-interaction type puzzle games. Each level involves moving around, rewinding and creating one or more clones, and cooperating with… your previous self.

The game is minimalist and doesn’t have elaborate graphics or context but the puzzles themselves are intricate and clever.

Full disclosure: I haven’t finished, but what I’ve played has made me appreciate the thought that went into the design.

Pros: Great puzzles which actually use time manipulation

Cons: It’s pure puzzling without any skin or context, if you care

8. Monument Valley & Monument Valley 2

Monument Valley is MC Escher in a delightful little puzzle game. The puzzles themselves aren’t very difficult, but they’re not so straightforward that I found them boring. There isn’t much plot or exploration, it’s true. That’s not why you play – you play Monument Valley for the beautiful experience.

Pros: Absolutely beautiful aesthetics, delightful to play through

Cons: I wish it were longer, and while the whimsical feeling is great there isn’t much plot or exploration

7. Return of the Obra Dinn

The first games on the list were somewhat one-dimensional (pun intended) but we’re starting to get into games with more breadth.

In Return of the Obra Dinn, you play as an insurance agent for the East India Trading Company (stick with me.) The titular ship left with 60 people on board and returned with… none. You’re tasked with investigating what the heck happened to everyone. Someone sent you a mysterious pocketwatch which can take you back to someone’s moment of death, allowing you to hear the last few seconds and then explore the ship at that frozen time.

Imagine an interactive logic puzzle murder mystery, but there are 60 people whose fates you need to ascertain, deducing their identity based on the snippets of dialogue, their uniforms, who they hang out with, their accents and personal belongings…

I love the sense of discovery you get as you learn more about each crewmember and passenger, allowing you to go revisit earlier memories and make new deductions. In the best tradition of murder mysteries there will be new revelations which shift your understanding of things you thought you knew.

The graphics aim to evoke oldschool monitors, and somehow it works to make the game surprisingly immersive. Since the action during time-travel flashbacks are frozen, the sound design is key — and it’s fantastic. The music is amazing, and the sound effects and voice actors bring things to life… sometimes a bit too well.

Pros: Fantastic story, Clever conceit, Beautiful music, Repeated sense of dawning realization.

Cons: Given that everyone dies or disappears, things can get gruesome, especially the sounds. The graphics might not appeal to everyone.

6. Antichamber

I saw someone refer to Antichamber as “Portal on Acid” and they’re not wrong. It’s a first-person trip through an Escher-esque world where going in a circle might not lead you back to where you started.

You traverse the surreal world manipulating cubes of matter to open doors, build bridges or staircases, mark your path, or anything else you think would be helpful.

What sets Antichamber apart for me is the nonlinear element of discovery. Solving a particularly tricky puzzle can open a new area on the map, which absolutely floods my brain with dopamine.

There are a few different matter-manipulating guns you can find, each of which gives you a new capabilities and a new perspective on how to approach puzzles. I ended up revisiting placed I’d been stuck multiple times and occasionally being able to solve them — the ultimate variable interval reinforcement.

Pros: Great (very) nonlinear game, easter eggs to discover, epiphanies to have, creative puzzles which have multiple different solutions if you’re clever (or stubborn and patient).

Cons: This is an independent game and they didn’t put their focus on the graphics. While there’s a sense of progression, it isn’t plot-based.

5. Contrast

In Contrast, you explore 1920s Noire France as a child’s imaginary friend who can transition between the regular world and the shadow realm. Unlike Lord of the Rings, this is literally your shadow — you become your 2D shadow on the wall and can jump on top of other shadows to climb somewhere new before popping back into the world of depth.

Moving the light source changes where shadows are cast on walls, creating some neat interplay between manipulating physical objects and their 2D representation.

Pros: Fantastic 1920s Noire aesthetic, creative mechanics, rewards for exploring the French city

Cons: Could be longer, and there were a couple puzzles that didn’t fit perfectly with the rest of the mechanics.

4. The Talos Principle

The only reason this game isn’t ranked higher in this list is that the time manipulation component is limited.

The Talos Principle has stunning graphics and music, a slowly-revealed plot about the nature and fate of humanity, conversations with an ambiguously-moral AI named Milton, a God-figure named Elohim trying to preside over a virtual world on the fritz, and of course, clever puzzles of varying difficulty.

For the most part the mechanics are straightforward: connect lasers, move boxes, unlock doors, etc (but eventually you can rewind time and solve puzzles in tandem with your previous self, my justification for putting it on this list.) The puzzles are so well designed that simple elements fit together in countless new ways, giving a fantastic depth-to-complexity ratio.

Where the game goes above and beyond is how much it rewards exploration and experimentation. Not only are the worlds filled with easter eggs, they also contain a more challenging set of “star” puzzles which often require you to think outside the box — finding clever ways to bring equipment from one puzzle into another, creating a staircase to get on top of a wall you thought was irrelevant, discovering an extra block tucked away in the bushes… I love it.

Pros: Beautiful graphics and music, a wide variety of non-repetitive puzzles, rewards for exploring and being creative.

Cons: While most of the puzzles are purely about figuring out the solution, a few require fast reactions/controls. It can be frustrating to know exactly what to do but not quite be able to do it.

3. Fez

In Fez, you play as a character in a 2D world who is granted the ability to see the third dimension. Once you can look at the world from different directions, you realize that some platforms are closer together than you thought — just in a different dimension. What had looked like a simple line is actually a detailed wall with a door. A stick is really a sign with cryptic symbols from ancient civilizations.

The graphics aren’t impressive, but the worldbuilding sure is. Because things aren’t always obvious until you’ve looked at them from different perspectives, there are countless secrets tucked away and a surprising amount of thought put into the backstory.

As I explored, I found myself scribbling little notes and codes down on scraps of paper that slowly took over my desk. Over and over, I pieced together hints that gave me a new understanding of what had been in front of me all along. I’ve heard the phrase “Epiphany addiction” and it seems wholly appropriate for Fez.

Pros: Clever mechanics, huge nonlinear world, impressive amount of lore and worldbuilding, numerous perspective-shifts, tons of hidden secrets

Cons: The huge nonlinear world actually deterred me at first — I wasn’t sure where to go and put the game down for a while before being convinced to give it a second try.

Honorable Mentions:

Before getting to the Top 2 Time/Space Manipulation Puzzle Games, here are quick-hit puzzlers that didn’t quite make this list:

  • The Swapper: Create clones and swap your consciousness between them to solve puzzles. Great game by the makers of Talos Principle, but didn’t have enough time/space manipulation to make the cut.
  • The Witness: Another beautiful game which I consider the spiritual successor to Myst. But I couldn’t quite justify putting it on the list without more of a time/space connection.
  • The Bridge: I should love this game. It’s MC Escher and time-manipulation and neat graphics and everything I like! …but the controls were a bit too “floaty” for me and I found it frustrating. Your mileage may vary.
  • OneShot: Doesn’t so much break the fourth wall as stroll through where you expected the fourth wall to be, and starts complementing your furniture. There’s some elements of time travel but not really time manipulation.
  • TimeSpinner: A great Metroidvania game where you jump between the past and present, and can stop time mid-battle to get better positioning. It has the time-manipulation, but not the “puzzle game” part.
  • Baba Is You: The most meta of all games. You alter the logical rules of your world by changing the words that spell the rules out. You might win by setting “Wall is floating” and go under it, or “Wall is You” and turn into the wall, moving around to get to the goal.

The Top 2 Time/Space Manipulation Puzzle Games

2. Braid

The King/Queen of time manipulation games.

On its face it’s a simple platformer where you jump on monsters and collect puzzle pieces. Oh, and you can rewind time to undo if you miss a jump.

Oh, and then later you can keep some objects going forward in time while you go backward. Oh, and in some levels time will go forward when you move to the right and backward when you move left. And later you can make time move at different speeds in different parts of the map. Oh, and then… Somehow the different mechanics aren’t gimmicks – the puzzles actually work.

It also features the best “Backward Time” levels I’ve seen: Depending on where you’re standing, a dead monster either died because it fell into a pit of spikes or because you jumped on it. Both timelines are coherent, and allow you to change where the monster came from, as long as he ends up dead at the end.

Pair that with beautiful graphics, a wonderful classical soundtrack that was chosen to be interesting at different speeds both forward and backward, and some hidden super-difficult puzzles, and you have one of my favorite games ever.

Pros: Great puzzles with the best time-manipulation mechanics, great graphics, great soundtrack.

Cons: There’s more of an aesthetic than a plot, and some people find it pretentious. I played with a controller, but wonder if playing on a keyboard would be difficult.

1. Portal 1 & 2

The King/Queen(s) of space manipulation games.

Portal 1 was a fantastic game, and Portal 2 was somehow even better. I don’t think it can be called a cult classic anymore now that it’s so popular, but it’s the source of lines like “The cake is a lie.”

There are so many good things to say I’ll just rattle them off:

  • Innovative physics-warping mechanics
  • Fantastic puzzles which increase in difficulty at a good pace
  • Hilarious writing
  • Exciting plot
  • Great graphics and soundtrack
  • A long single-player campaign
  • An entirely separate two-player Cooperative campaign!
  • An online community which has generated its own puzzles, adding even more value

Pros: Everything above.

Cons: It’s a first-person puzzle game, requiring use of a controller or a keyboard/mouse. This is only a problem because I keep recommending the game to people who aren’t usually into video games, but think they’d love Portal anyway.

Other thoughts:

I’ve been meaning to play The Stanley Parable, and if I could get Perspective or The Outer Wilds to work on a mac I would probably give them a chance to be on the list.

If you have other recommendations or disagreements, please let me know! …politely.

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