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Mark Rosewater, Head Designer for Magic the Gathering, frequently writes about “Design Space” by which he means something like the amount of scope for detailed creative output which is enabled by some strategic idea.

For him the context is (to put it over-crudely) “how many new cards can we design based off a certain new mechanism?”

So for example a mechanism like "flying" has been around for 30 years and harmonizes and extends just about any other mechanism. A mechanism like "infect" while a very interesting mechanism can only be given to a very few cards.

A typical context is: here

The Convoke keyword, which lets you tap creatures to pay mana costs, returns in the form of a blue-red draft archetype. According to Rosewater, neither MTG color has had much to do with Convoke in the past, so “there was some new design space to explore”.

I think it’s a useful concept for creative endeavours in general outside this card game. However I haven’t been able to find a good or even the original definition of this idea.

It's sort of in the nature of a question like this that I have to give half an answer in order to communicate what I am asking for. Nevertheless it is such an important creative concept that there must be a better exposition of what it is and what it means in practice.

I've also "Questioned Mark" in Tumblr, to ask the man himself.

The motivation for my question is that there is another area of human endeavour for which I think this idea would be helpful, but I would like to have a coherent picture to take to the practitioners.

So: what is “Design Space”?

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  • Can you link to one or two examples of the writing you are referring to? And can you clarify what you are looking for here that isn't addressed by your second paragraph?
    – murgatroid99
    Commented Aug 8, 2023 at 21:41
  • @muragtroid99 done thanks for the suggestion
    – Laska
    Commented Aug 8, 2023 at 22:02
  • You have expanded on what you already know about the answer to this question, but I don't feel that I have any better idea of what you still want to know. And I still think it would be important to add those links: seeing how Rosewater used the term in context will give us a better idea of what he meant by it.
    – murgatroid99
    Commented Aug 8, 2023 at 22:10
  • I think someone who actually knows the answer to the question will be able to pick up from what I've given
    – Laska
    Commented Aug 8, 2023 at 22:12
  • 1
    I think it's a fair question to ask, but probably also a difficult one of answer. There isn't a whole lot of academic writing about game design, especially tabletop game design, and none of the resources I'm familiar with have formally defined the term. I could attempt to write something from my perspective, but it wouldn't be an authoritative answer.
    – ConMan
    Commented Aug 8, 2023 at 23:54

2 Answers 2

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I don't think it makes sense to talk about “Design Space” absent any context. I think it does however, make sense to talk about a design space, or perhaps multiple design spaces, within a given (perhaps implicit) context.

A design space is the set of all possible designs, usually implicitly subject to some set of constraints.

It can make sense to talk about a design space for a game as a whole given some constraints, e.g. a card game as opposed to another type of game, or a game with a given theme, or a game with a certain set of fixed mechanics.

It can also make sense to talk about the design space for a particular game component, keeping all the other aspects of the given game fixed. Note that this can be formally described as still talking about the game as a whole, but with a large amount of constraints on every other game component.

Often these constraints will not all be formally described, and instead be unspoken limitations on what the game designer(s) think "makes sense" or "fits with the rest of the game". Because the possible spaces of even apparently simple game designs are very large, having heuristics like this to constrain the amount of possibilities to consider is very useful.

Why is it called a space?

The reason it makes sense to call it a design space, instead of a design set, is because the different designs can be arranged into a space such that certain designs are "nearby" other designs.

For a given design space, with a given set of enumerated parameters, (note not every design space will have an easily enumerated set of these!) we can formally describe the space as a set of dimensions, one for each parameter. Then each design is a point consisting of a valid value for each parameter.

During design one can think about changing the design as moving through the design space. A small change in a single one of the parameters is a small movement in a particular direction. A large change in a parameter and/or changes to multiple parameters leads to a large movement.

Explicit example

To use Magic the Gathering as an example, we could describe a simplified design space for flying creatures with no additional abilities with 3 dimensions: Power, Toughness, and Mana cost. (We'll ignore things like creature type, legendaryness etc,. which could arguably be considered extra abilities, to keep things simple.)

Each possible card is a triple of (power, toughness, mana cost). For example, one possible card would be (1, 2, 1U): A 1/2 flyer for 1U.

Formally, absent a specific constraint the design space would include things that would not make sense to print on a Magic card. For example (100, 100, 0) or (0, 0, 100). When Mark Rosewater talks about the design space for a mechanic like Convoke, it is implicit that the cards under consideration would be those that at least seem viable to print.

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It seems that I've got a brief answer from Mark Rosewater, and rather more info from other tumblrers. So probably best to post his response, and a couple of answers, as the beginning of my own answer here.

I asked:

Hi: do you have a good definition / link to exposition of the concept of "Design Space", please? Sorry I can't find one

Mark answered:

The basic idea is how many cards could you make with a mechanic?

random comment 1:

I would also say, how many novel designs? We’ve gotten a ton of “Creatures you control with a +1/+1 counter have trample.” They have different converted mana costs and creature types but they are otherwise the same design.

random comment 2:

By my count there's 8 cards with that ability, all but one of which have some way of putting a counter on something (and that one has trample naturally too). Your point still stands given how similarly they work though.

So making design space is basically like clearing land for an orchard. You can't have the trees too closely packed together, and one the space is occupied, you have to move on. So there is a ceaseless quest for new design space.

It applies in other creative domains as well: perhaps music is an example although there indeed the trees are very closely packed.

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