Core Loops in Games

The words 'Core Loops' written on a abstract circular background

This article was originally published at UniversityXP and is re-published in Ludogogy by permission of the author.

The core loop is what most players engage with and remember when they are playing your game. The core loop is the most engaging and active element of your design. The core loop matters whether creating the next great video game; table top game; or games-based learning application.  You’ll need to carefully examine how the core loop attracts and engages your player in order to keep bringing them back to the game.

But what is the core loop? How do you design around it? What are some key mistakes to avoid?

This article outlines what a core loop is as well as provides direction in its design.  Examples of core loops are provided as well as some fatal mistakes to avoid in the design process.

What is the core loop?

The core loop is the primary game system or mechanic which defines your game. This is the element of the game that players remember most frequently or engage with most often. You can think about this as the “engine” for your game and what empowers individual players to keep playing.

The core loop comprises the most basic kinds of actions that players can take. Whether that is moving around the map in League of Legends; drafting cards in Splendor; or platforming across the screen in Super Mario Bros. The genre of your game doesn’t matter. What does matter is making sure that your players continue to engage over time through a well structured core loop.

Splendor is available on Amazon

You can think about your core loop as the lowest level activity that players engage with during your game. In rouge-like learning; you can define these basic actions as something that players engage with and develop over the course of a run. Educators can also use the core loop to develop core competencies for their students. These are competencies that students will return to time and time again during your class in order to progress further in the course.

Design direction with the core loop

The core loop is both a simple design as well as a complex one. But it’s something that many designers struggle with. Especially when establishing a core loop and then designing a game around it.  It’s also important to ask yourself “what kind of experience do I want my player to have?”  That player experience is essential to define in order to convey its essence through your game’s core activities.

A well designed core loop can create a myriad of senses for your players. It can help them feel attached, engaged, or accomplished. Keeping your players challenged through similar activities in your core loop is important to retaining them in your game.

Think about some of the most enjoyable and memorable mobile games you’ve played. They are most likely built around some enjoyable repetitive actions that trigger rewards (feedback loop) for you before you are presented with a new challenge.  That feedback is another loop which forms the larger framework within your game. Those other loops work in tandem, parallel, and in a hierarchy to create larger dynamics in game play.

The development and showcase of your core loop to both players and students is important. Their first interaction with your game is often through the demonstration of your core loop. So if their first impression is not a good one; it may also be their last.

So what makes a good core loop?

In the end your game could have incredible graphics; great table presence; fantastic components; deep mechanics; and a satisfying narrative. But if the core loop is not fun and engaging, then your players will eventually lose interest.

When developing your core loop, you must define a clear goal; keep it short; and connect it well to the theme of your game.

Having a clear goal is paramount to making sure that the loop is a tight one.  Players must relate and equate their actions in the game world and how it affects their status; ranking; and progression.

You can do this best by making sure that your loop is a short one. Have your player take action ‘A’ to get rewards ‘Z.’ That’s it. That’s the only benefit that you need to show players in the meantime. Now building off that loop and reward structure is what will continue to keep players engaged over time.

Best of all: if you can create a clear goal that is connected to a short loop that is ALSO thematic then you have the foundation for a great game on your hands.

One of my favorite gaming memories is playing Super Punchout. It’s a game that doesn’t <ahem> pull any punches. Because it’s a boxing game: it’s about punching your opponent. Everything that the player does in the game goes back to the core loop of the player punching opponents until they win or lose. Everything else is built around the punching core loop. 

Designing around the core loop

Now that you know what makes a good core loop, it’s time to design around it. Those steps revolve around picking an idea that has potential (your mechanic or theme); creating a prototype; and then testing and evaluating it.

The first thing you will want to do is pick out an idea that has potential. That could be a thematic choice or a mechanical element. I’ll use a game that I’m developing right now called Shelf-Life that’s about buying and selling groceries at the super market (exciting right!)  That’s the theme I want to use.  I want this game to be a tableau builder with items going into a common “store” shelf from players’ individual storage shelves. Moving goods from their personal shelves to the store shelf is the main mechanic.

I’ve built my prototype using paper and cardboard components and tested it out with friends and colleagues to determine if this core loop (moving items from personal shelves onto the store shelf to score points) is a solid one. I’ve justified the theme of players taking this action because they all play super market stockers.  Their job it is to keep the shelves stocked as shoppers make their purchases.

After a few play tests I’ve gotten some information about the core loop and its effects on players. They seem pretty engaged with it so far; but sometimes it’s not as simple as I would like it to be. So I’m currently working on changing it up so that there is a stronger connection between player actions and the feedback they receive from it.

Other examples of core loops

There are as many examples of core loops as there are games. So it’s important to play as many different and varied types of games as possible.  This will help acclimatize yourself to the different possibilities and varieties of core loops available.

You don’t even have to play “traditional” video games and table top games. Take classic sports such as soccer, hockey, and basketball. The core loop of those games is to get the ball or the puck into the opponent’s net to score points. Baseball’s core loop is similar in that all plays originate from the batter hitting the ball. That simple element brings much strategic depth to the game given teams, players, and specific scenarios.

Even simple games like Tic-Tac-Toe have a core loop of placing your symbol in one of the starting nine squares. You continue to place your symbol in one of the available squares until one player has achieved three in a row. At its face value it’s a simple core loop of placing your symbol and then evaluating the game state. But you can create and build a game off of this same core loop. Think about Scrabble.  You have a hand of several symbols (letters) that you must place on the board (in a specific order) to get a result (points from words created).

Fatal mistakes to avoid

Now that you know what a core loop is, as well what makes one great and engaging, it’s necessary to review some mistakes to avoid in your design process.

One of those mistakes is forgetting to include a core loop. Rather, some designers collect a series of disparate and unrelated “activities” that don’t keep a user engaged while demonstrating progress. If you can’t demonstrate to players why they are playing and why should continue playing with the core loop; then you may already have lost them.

However, if you are going to keep players around, you also have to reward (or reinforce them) for their activity. The core loop should end with a pleasurable experience. A player should get something; improve their position; or otherwise advance the game state to where they can see their own progress through their actions.

It’s the lack of evidence of progress that dooms many other games in general. A game can have a significant core loop; but without a demonstration that they’re making some headway they can quickly become disengaged.  A classic educational example of this is not returning students’ work in class with substantive feedback in the form of notes or a grade. Without that kind of feedback; students don’t know where to go next; what to prioritize; or how to improve their position in the game (i.e. your class).


Excellent core loops make it a priority to entice and engage players more and more so that they continue to play and stay involvedUnderstanding the core loop is a critical part of designing your game. Having a core loop as the base of your game makes it so that all actions; activities; rewards; and outcomes originate from the same place.

This article outlined a core loop is as well as provided direction in its design.  Examples of core loops were provided as well as some fatal mistakes to avoid in the design process.

To learn more about core loops in gamification, check out the free course on Gamification Explained.

If you have enjoyed this article – consider getting yourself lifetime access to Dave’s Games-Based Learning Digital Library containing all of the content from the past two Games-Based Learning Virtual Conferences; past webinars and courses he’s created; as well as his complete back catalogue of articles; podcast episodes; and videos. And more content is being added all the time.

Readers of Ludogogy can get a $50 discount on this valuable resource by using this link.

References and further reading:

Allen, R. (n.d.). Core Loop: The Must Have Feature for Every Mobile App. Retrieved December 2, 2019, from

Bycer, J. (2019, April 25). Why the Core Gameplay Loop is Critical For Game Design. Retrieved December 2, 2019, from

Eng, D. (2019, August 27). Roguelike Learning. Retrieved December 2, 2019, from

Eng, D. (2019, June 18). Feedback Loops in Games Based Learning. Retrieved December 2, 2019, from

Eng, D. (2019, October 8). Game Dynamics. Retrieved December 2, 2019, from

Eng, D. (2019, September 10). The Player Experience. Retrieved December 2, 2019, from

Livie, C. (2019, February 25). Why you need to get your game loop right: Opinion. Retrieved December 2, 2019, from

Lovato, N. (2017, July 13). How to Perfect your Game’s Core Loop. Retrieved December 2, 2019, from

Momoda, J. (n.d.). The Importance of Core Game Loops – Part 1 of 2. Retrieved December 2, 2019, from

Wolstenholme, K. (2017, July 19). What is a Core Loop in a Mobile Game? Retrieved December 2, 2019, from

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Educator / Designer / Researcher at Dave Eng Design
Dr. Dave Eng is an intellectual and creative educator, designer, and researcher who focuses on games, theory, and technology.

Dave studies applied games and teaches others how to use games for education and learning. Dave serves as a faculty member at New York University’s School of Professional Studies (

Dave hosts the podcast Experience Points ( and consults at University XP ( on games-based learning. He also leads the Games-Based Learning Alliance: a community of individuals who use games for teaching, training, learning, and development.

Dave is a founder of Banditos Gaming ( a registered 501(c)(3) social and educational non-profit organization that promotes play, community development, and learning through games. His interests include learning theory, technology, and games.

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