Monkey Traps

If you put a banana in a jar, and make a hole in the side of the jar that’s big enough for a monkey’s hand but not big enough for a banana, and affix the jar to a tree in a jungle, you’ll come back in the morning (so the myth goes) to find a poor little monkey clinging to the banana—trapped by its own desires.

Design space is filled with monkey traps. In fact, I almost want to say that that’s all it consists of. It’s a jungle full of jars containing sparkling gems and scrumptious treats (i.e. game mechanics) that can’t be removed from their tantalizing display cases.

But if they can’t be removed, what’s my goal as a game designer? Let me torture this metaphor further by suggesting that the jars are packed so closely that I’m able to touch (but not remove) multiple prizes at the same time. And let’s just say that at the stroke of midnight, I get to keep whatever I’m touching. My goal, then, is to find a well-matched set of prizes which are all within reach of each other.

Therefore, as I’m wandering through the jungle searching for a well-matched set, the biggest mistake I can make is to become intellectually or emotionally attached to the contents of any one jar. The moment I do that, I’m monkey-trapped. If I decide that I absolutely must have some particular prize, I’m stuck with whatever other prizes happen to be within reach of it, regardless of how poorly they fit. It’s better to recognize not only that the jungle is filled with similar prizes that might do just as well, but that I may not even need the kind of prize that I think I need so badly.

Personal Examples

My design history of Zendo contains many stories about monkey traps that slowed me down. I clung to the idea that nobody should earn a stone when everyone answers a mondo correctly, and the idea that the Master should not interact with the players too much (by setting up initial koans, or answering questions about koans, or building counter-examples), and the idea that the game should be “gamey” (with players earning points or making “strategic” decisions). I have similar stories about every other game I’ve designed. I practically define game design as the process of recognizing and escaping from monkey traps—in other words, figuring out what’s truly important.

My current favorite monkey trap story involves Jewels of the Sultan, a card game that I’ve been working on for at least eight years (and still haven’t published). It’s played with a deck of cards that come in five different colors, and at the end of each round, a randomly-selected color “scores”. (Never mind what that means.) For years, a key element of the game was that exactly one player got to see the scoring color at the beginning of each round. This created all sorts of juicy psychological play, which was the point of the entire game. It also created all sorts of intractable end-game problems, because the player with the secret knowledge could often see who was going to win before the final round even started, or, even worse, was forced to play kingmaker.

I attempted to solve these problems for years without success. (And believe me, I tried some pretty ugly solutions.) It was obvious that I was caught in a monkey trap, but it wasn’t obvious which thing I needed to let go of. Finally, Josh Drobina—a fresh-eyed tester who hadn’t been involved in the previous years of testing—suggested letting each player see a color that’s not going to score, rather than letting any player see the color that’s going to score. Predictably, I resisted the idea, even after we tried it the first time. I felt that it diluted the psychological aspect of the game. Fortunately, I had enough experience with monkey traps to recognize my resistance for what it was, and after thinking about it for a day or two, I stopped clinging and started rebuilding the game around the new idea, which solved all of my problems.

Why Do We Cling?

Over the years, I’ve noticed recurring patterns in my thoughts and emotions that cause me to get caught in monkey traps. Many of these patterns seem directly related to the cognitive biases that psychologists and behavioral economists are always going on about.

One of my most common thought patterns seems to be a species of infatuation. I simply become mesmerized by the beauty, cleverness, or juiciness of one particular game mechanic. When it’s a mechanic I invented myself, my infatuation is often exacerbated by a kind of IKEA effect. As I play my prototype over and over again, my infatuation is almost always exacerbated by the mere exposure effect.

Of course, if my game is perfect and ready to publish, none of this is a problem. However, as long as the game still needs work, this kind of infatuation represents a monkey trap that may keep me from changing something that needs to be changed.

Therefore, I try to remember that the jungle is vast and full of jars, containing prizes of all shapes and sizes. Even if I assume that no two prizes are alike, there are still many others that will exhibit some, if not all, of the characteristics that I’m so crazy about. It’s very unlikely that the exact characteristics of this one particular game mechanic are vitally important to my game. There’s probably an idea there worth clinging to, but it’s much more general, and therefore much more likely to be expressed by many different game mechanics.

My Jewels of the Sultan story is a perfect case in point. The game did lose a very specific psychological quality when I changed that rule, but it turned out that that particular quality (or that particular level of that quality) wasn’t nearly as important to the game as I thought it was. I see shades of the cognitive bias known as anchoring or focalism here.

To go even further, it’s virtually always true that there are many prizes out there that are just as good as the one I’m clinging to, but they’re “good” in a totally different way. If I stop clinging and try some very different ideas, my game might lose all of some quality that I really like, but gain some new quality that I like every bit as much (after I work through the five stages of grief). As an example, I’m constantly toying with the idea of eliminating the capture rule completely from my game Blockers and taking the design in some other direction. This would unquestionably eliminate some of the game’s beautiful emergent properties, but it will probably also lead to some other ruleset that contains a whole different set of beautiful emergent properties that I’ve been missing out on all this time. I don’t know the formal name of the cognitive bias that makes us prefer actualities to potentialities (in other words, makes us really bad at assessing, or even thinking about, opportunity costs), but it seems powerful and all-pervasive.

Another trap I often get caught in is the feeling that a particular rule is necessary, because it solves some specific design problem. It may well be that some new idea genuinely solves a problem. However, it’s always a mistake to believe that this specific solution is the only or best possible one. Not only are there many other solutions out there in design space, there are many other kinds of solutions out there in design space. Of course, if some idea completely solves the problem I was trying to solve without creating any new problems, I won’t feel strongly compelled to keep looking for other solutions. But more often than not, a genuine solution to one problem creates other problems, and more often than not the best solution to those problems is to throw out the original “solution” and keep looking for a different one.

One of the reasons that this kind of monkey trap is so strong is that living with unsolved design problems can be excruciatingly painful (and the longer you live with a problem, the more painful it becomes). I sometimes feel an overwhelming desire to cling to the first real solution I find, and to downplay or ignore any new problems that it causes. Only time and experience seem to help here.

Another thing that sometimes causes me to cling is fear. This is a weird one, and bit hard to unpack. To some extent it’s a fear of change, or a fear of the unknown. There’s a sense that, somehow, I’m going to “ruin” or “lose” what I’ve come up with so far. Maybe there’s a feeling that trying out a new rule implicitly commits me to the idea that the old rule is “bad” and must be rejected. Sometimes, as crazy as it sounds, there’s a fear that the new experiments aren’t going to work out, but I’m going to be unable to find my way back to the old ruleset for some reason (because I forgot to take notes, or I’m caught in a new monkey trap).

Like many fears, these seem a little silly when I say them out loud. There’s simply no reason for me to be afraid of trying a rule change. It doesn’t commit me to anything. I can always return to earlier versions that I liked better (and, let’s face it, it requires almost no effort to keep track of what previous versions I’ve played). I’m not going to ruin or lose anything.

I can only think of one fear that that’s actually rational, and that’s the fear that my constant tinkering will “ruin” the game for some playtesters, to the extent that they no longer want to play the game. This has happened to me plenty of times, and I always feel bad for the playtesters when it happens. They don’t owe me anything, and dealing with my perfectionism is hard work. Nevertheless, I’m caught in a monkey trap if I let other people’s feelings keep me from searching for better solutions. Sometimes the best thing to do is to just find some new playtesters for this particular project. (And fortunately for me, I know some playtesters who are willing to tinker forever!)

There’s one other major reason why I cling: exhaustion. Sometimes I just don’t feel like trudging through the jungle any more, and I end up making excuses for parts of my game that still need work. In such cases, I just need a break from the design. Eventually my energy returns, and my vision clarifies. If I never feel like returning to that game again, then it wasn’t worth worth releasing anyway.


I haven’t provided an exhaustive list of all possible game design monkey traps. I’ve merely listed the ones that I most commonly find myself caught in. I want to reiterate that getting caught in monkey traps is unavoidable in game design, and in life. It’s just part of the process. Feeling ashamed or sheepish about it probably makes things worse, and even creates new monkey traps!

The real point about monkey traps is that we’re never truly trapped. All we have to do is stop clinging, and we’re free.

4 thoughts on “Monkey Traps

  1. Dear God, yes. Practically every game I have ever designed has ended up by ditching the mechanic which originally inspired the game in the first place, because that idea was ultimately getting in the way. (Sometimes, but not always, that idea will then go on to clog up the structure of another design instead…) The way one compulsively clutches to that one idea, scared that if it goes away then the entire raison d’etre of the game will be lost, is horribly familiar.

    • Interestingly, almost every game I’ve designed has retained its core idea from day one. My design style is all about focusing on some core idea and trying to build the simplest game possible that does it justice. I’m a big proponent of not clinging to core ideas either, but for me that usually means just discarding them. I’ve rarely (if ever) had some core idea morph into a different one during design. Not sure why.

  2. This is excellent!

    When you write about a cognitive bias that “prefer[s] actualities to potentialities” it sounds to me like you’re talking about *loss aversion*. The idea that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush runs deep, and humans feel losses far more acutely than they feel much larger gains.

    • Yeah, I’m sure that loss aversion is yet another cause of game design monkey traps. I’m not sure if it belongs in the section you reference, or if it falls more under the “fear” category.

      If I had a beloved three-legged dog, and then some genie presented me with the opportunity to retroactively cure all dogs of three-leggedness, but doing so would cause time to rewind and I’d end up with a totally different four-legged dog, I would probably resist taking the genie’s offer. I’m not sure this counts as “loss aversion”, so I was hesitant to mention it in that context. But anyway, that’s the kind of feeling I was talking about. I understand such emotions when it comes to beloved pets, but I don’t think game mechanics ever deserve such devotion.

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