The term “meta” has gotten a bad rap. It has been a buzz-word in pop culture, associated with made-up spiritualism, and used in meaningless corporate jargon. But there is an important technical meaning: something applied to itself.
One frequent use of it is “meta-gaming”. This is commonly applied to games in which players have interaction that is not explicitly in the world of the game. Take poker: the cards have fixed values that will tell you which hands beat other hands. But poker isn’t just about getting the best cards, it is about the way players act with each other. Bluffing and secret identity games are commonly identified as having “meta-game” elements, where players are trying to game the system to their advantage. The phrase “game the system” is not used lightly; players are literally making a game out of playing the core game elements. So meta-gaming is gaming the game, because the subject of a meta-game is the game itself. (Note: this is different from the game within a game (like Inception (the movie)), in which each level is only contained within the outer one.)
So what other meta-approaches are there? Well, rules are an important element of a board game. Sometimes (in Fluxx for example) the rules are flexible, and there are more rules that tell you how rules can be changed. Those are meta-rules. Rules about rules. If you had rules about how the meta-rules can be applied (Use only certain rule-changing cards in certain games for example), they are meta-meta-rules.
Of course there are meta-concepts, too. The science of “Epistemology” deals with how concepts are formed. So epistemological concepts are meta-concepts. (And that previous sentence was a meta-meta-concept) Of course at this level, levels can start to overlap, and you can get self reference.
It’s also important to remember that “meta-” doesn’t just mean anything that’s not explicitly in the rules. For instance, long term strategy of a game is rarely in the rules, but that doesn’t make it a meta-game concept. The strategy is just part of the game. It becomes “meta” when you have a strategy about how your strategies should change from game to game. This is basically the concept of a “shark”. You lull someone into a false sense of security by intentionally playing badly, then play at your full skill level once the stakes have been raised.
This is not a comprehensive look into meta-games, or designing games using meta-game elements. It’s just an explanation of what “meta” actually means, for future discussion.