Rugby, as designed by UFC Game Designers

Last weekend was a fantastic one for sport. Not great results for RK Speed, South Africa, Munster and C.Mc, but enjoyable spectacles nonetheless! I was imagining what would happen if Razzie’s boys could fell the champions and if Munster could beat Leinster in the face of questionable refereeing. Conor’s comeback didn’t live up to the hype but the dream was still alive after he survived the 2nd round and clearly won the 3rd. These games had great moments and powerful stories which I believe is a result of Rugby and MMA being well designed games.

The blessing and curse of this course I’m taking in game design is looking at every experience under a different lens – I’m promise I’m still fun… Sports are especially interesting as prescribed experiences as they were not designed by game designers in isolation. They have rules and laws that were revised after years of playing and reflecting on their features as games and as meta-games. Even though we don’t usually think so, the law makers and referees are the on-the-fly game designers of sport.

I thought it would be a fun thought-experiment to clash games together. The scenario is this: World Rugby have decided the current format of Union (15’s) needs a radical refresh so they brought in the crack team that formulated competitive Mixed Martial Arts (specifically the UFC) to consult on the redesign of Rugby. What would they introduce using what they had learned from their last successful project? Let’s have a think…

Rugby in rounds

Rugby is currently just one big round of roughly 80 minutes of play. Even though we have a break in the middle, there is only one round to be won (although Timmy Ryan may have something to say about this). We know this to be quite common in lots of other sports of course. But why? Asking this is probably a paper in itself. A common answer might be: it’s a simple formula. Test who will have the highest score at the end of the game. It also provides for some long-term strategy and is a bit of a statement of athletic prowess. Still being able to pull off a key play at the end of the game is exciting and impressive.

There are some issues with having one big round. The game can be decided very early on, giving the losing side nothing to play for. If a game is close, the side that is currently winning could decide to try and just keep possession away from the opposition until the time is up – very common in rugby. While this might be an engaging competition, it is not always the most enjoyable to watch.

Why are the rounds not longer than 5 minutes in the UFC? Even though the athletes are in peak physical form, I think this time is a sweet spot between encouraging the players to operate at 100% knowing a break is coming and providing the possibility of mistakes from a tired defender. Why is Rugby Union 80 minutes long? Probably for similar reasons. It has previously been different lengths – the first international was 2 x 50 minute halves – so we can assume some sort of playtesting led the rugby community to 80 minutes. We can see that 7’s is only 7 minutes because they have relatively more pitch to cover.

I think length of play in a given sport is an interesting parameter because professional athletes are on average getting fitter but the times of sports are remaining the same. My hunch is: shorter rounds encourage more attack and longer rounds provide more blunders.

Emphasis on attacking rugby has been spoken about quite a bit in the rugby media over the past 6 years. Beyond the purists, it is accepted that more tries and exciting attack makes the game more appealing to fans. So if we broke down Rugby into 5 x 16 minute fifths, would it be played differently? Of course it would! Imagine this: South Africa beat New Zealand in the first, second and fourth fifths. The last ditch comeback (2 tries in 5ish minutes) wouldn’t be good enough!

Round based rugby does have some flaws. In round based combat sport, you’re never certain you’re winning. You might have an idea of the judges score cards but we have seen many upsets over the years. Also inevitable victories are avoided with the possibility of incapacitating your opponent at any point by KO or TKO – giving the side with lower points something to aim for in each round. Bloodbowl would be interesting to watch but doesn’t sound like a sustainable alternative path to victory. Do we even need it?

If we had the rounds in Rugby, the game could often be finished by round 3! Either the last two rounds would be pointless or just not-played. So if a side lost the first round, a lot of pressure would be put on them to win the second round to avoid a nightmare scenario in round 3. This may just encourage more out and out attack so who’s complaining about having an unknown game length? I guess this would be a big shake up for the hospitality and television companies that fund the sport. 48 minutes isn’t long enough for you? Make them 20 minute segments.┬áThese flaws don’t seem too awful in my book so I think we might be on to something!

Additional interesting ideas our UFC Rugby designers could introduce would be weight classes, narky press conferences and title bouts (actually Rugby kind of already has this concept in the Raeburn Shield). Who wouldn’t want to hear Eben Etzebeth intimidate Sam Whitelock roaring about all the line outs he was gonna take off him?

What do you think of this suggestion from our imaginary designers? Interested in hearing about Rugby as designed by other sport designers? Let me know!


This weekend I was attending the World Rugby Level 1 coaching course under the guidance of Steve Harries. It was a really excellent couple of days and had a mix of lecture slides, sharing experiences, group work and running drills in the glorious Munich sunshine.

Some of the group work required us to design our own games in a short space of time. In the afternoon, our table (various ages from South Africa, Uganda, Italy and Ireland) had to come up with a game to develop players in a certain aspect of Rugby. We focused on defending horizontally and how to create space for attack in tight situations. While applying what we had learned in the morning, this exercise had to incorporate the Whole-Part-Whole framework.

Honestly I had not heard this term before and had not considered organising a session like this. The concept is actually very straight-forward: have a game that utilises a stack of skills, use a drill to practice one of these skills in isolation, return to the game and (hopefully) witness an improvement. Using this approach as opposed to Part-Whole or just Whole, means the middle drill can be tailored to what the players need to work on most. If they are dropping balls, run a passing drill specific to the scenario in the game. If the issue is with body position, get some tackle bags and build up the co-ordination. It also allows players to see for themselves how a particular skill fits into a game and how improving that skill can improve overall rugby performance.

Another concept important to Whole-Part-Whole is the difference between techniques and skills. If a technique is the mechanical act of doing some rugby related task (pop pass, tackling, jumping for a ball) then a skill is the execution of that technique at speed or under pressure. It can happen that a player at training is being put under pressure to execute a skill in a game situation when they still do not fully comprehend a technique. I have seen this happen many times in adult rugby. For example a player clearly doesn’t understand fixing a defender or how to orient their hands passing a ball but are still put under pressure to execute this in an attack drill. A framework needs to be provided for players to learn and then apply what they have learned.

Will games and pressure improve your skills? Absolutely. Will they teach you the technique of keeping your hands up perform a quick catch and pass? Only if you learned to drive a car while sitting in the passenger seat. Techniques need to be taught before they are improved into skills and I think Whole-Part-Whole or Game-Drill-Game really supports this.

So in the context of our game, we had 5 attackers against 3 defenders playing touch rugby. The defenders were lined up across a narrow try line and were not allowed to move off it. The attackers had to score two tries in the allotted time (2 minutes). The first time we played this, there was a lot of lone running and attempting to superman dive under the defenders feet. The defenders would of course get the touch and we, the coaches, were not awarding any tries for such efforts. Because the try line was very narrow and the attackers were not passing there was really only one player to mark. The game was very frustrating for the attack and easy for the defence. No tries were scored.

Because of this, the Part in our Whole-Part-Whole was a draw and give to a trail runner. We set up a small square with one defender and two attackers. The support player would be running a few metres behind the player with the ball and would run into space once the defender had committed to the attacker. Generally, the attacker will step one direction and pass the ball in the opposite direction to the oncoming support player. This primarily promoted creating space by fixing defenders but also encouraged communication from the supporting player, footwork and good running. We did not concentrate on the defenders in this drill as the players had little difficulty defending the line in our game. But if this was not the case, a different drill could have been used to improve the defence. After running this drill for 2 minutes, we returned to the game.

This was a completely different story. The attack now had a purpose. Players were running and stepping at defenders to keep them in position which left gaps for the supporting attackers. A very simple principle in rugby but the game, otherwise unchanged from the original, was seeing much improved results. This little drill had awoken a different mindset in the players. Attackers no longer tried to dive to score but instead were dotting the ball down unopposed after the space was created. In fact, to make the game more difficult, we increased the number of defenders from 3 to 4. Both sides were working at a higher intensity and several tries were scored. There was a measurable improvement after practicing this one skill in isolation.

The players who were taking part were the other coaches taking the course so a certain level of rugby competence already existed in the group. I don’t think our drill introduced any new concepts to them but definitely highlighted the importance of a skill and created an environment to practice it. The players were getting feedback that their skill had improved and it was helping them to solve a common rugby situation.

I was very impressed by the benefits of the format Whole-Part-Whole and could immediately see how it would be appropriate to game design in other fields. I’m sure structures like this already exist in video games. I’ve most recently watched the skill of throwing the Leviathan axe in the latest God of War. Check out the Game Maker’s Toolkit if you’re not familiar with this awesome mechanic. This ability is available almost straight away for use in combat but has many more applications in puzzle solving and exploration that you get to practice without the pressure of combat. You can learn to throw it more accurately and also use its flight path when it is returning to your hand. As the game progresses, you need to use the axe, your son’s bow and other techniques to effectively beat your foes. I think this is a good example of Whole-Part-Whole and will certainly be keeping an eye out for it in games in the future.

Have you heard of this learning format before? Maybe you have seen it used in other types of games or experiences? I’m really interested to hear your thoughts on this! Especially if there is an example of the drill adapting to the challenges the player is having with the game.