Blood from the Turnip

Post by: Grant Rodiek

One of the best environments for great creative output is one of strict limitations. One of my favorite aspects of Twitter is the fact that I’m only allowed 140 characters with which to present a meaningful thought. Others quickly resort to bastardized ‘net English, but I relish the challenge of culling back the unnecessary characters until I fit within the unwavering limit.

My friends and co-workers in the digital game design realm often ask about the differences between print and digital. How does video game design differ from board game design?

My first response is always “forced simplicity.” By this, I mean that in a board game you cannot hide anything “under the hood.” For example, in  even the most basic first-person shooter the enemies run an AI routine that makes them appear convincing and conniving, or at the very least, fun to explode. In a board game, however, everything is defined by clear, hopefully simple and repetitive rules. The information needs to be visible on the board or on a tiny card.

I think this is a beautiful distinction and it’s one that draws me to print games. One of the first mistakes of the new designer is to over-complicate something. Lately, it seems that the digital realm is trying to over-complicate everything, which is probably why the mobile game market is growing so rapidly!

Simplify is often the rallying cry of many designers. It’s a drum I love to beat, but it’s also one that you see Reiner Knizia bring up often. Some are quick to dismiss this thought because they prefer games with significantly more heft. This is a mistake, especially for designers.

I believe that two descriptors for outstanding games are simple and deep. No, simple and deep are not polar opposites. A game that embraces these descriptors is The Princes of Florence. The worst place to be, in my opinion, is shallow and complex. A game that embraces these descriptors is Fortune and Glory.

Here, I made a handy chart for you!

I’m going to elaborate on these statements now. Princes of Florence is a game that combines several very simple, elegant mechanics. It is absurdly deep!

  • Players bid over features to add to their tableau. Each player can only win a single item and can only bid the money they have.
  • Players place items within the confinements of a very simple rule set on their tableau.
  • Players take two Actions, chosen from a small subset of actions. Some of these actions are unavailable because the player doesn’t have the means by which to do them.

Euro designers like Kramer and Feld are masters of simplicity. They find the easiest, simplest ways to do something interesting. They then combine these refined elements into a broader cohesive experience. The depth comes through in how you use your limited choices, scarce resources, and maximize your options versus those of your opponents.

Even Trajan, which is a beast of a game, is fundamentally simple. The mancala bowls, worker placement, hand management, and other mechanics are all incredibly simple and elegant. The game is just incredibly broad and therefore becomes a brain burner very quickly.

Fortune and Glory, on the other hand, is an incredibly complex game. The game features several decks, which means you’re constantly referencing the rules to find which deck you draw for each situation. Different situations require different dice rolls and different outcomes for those dice rolls. Feedback isn’t immediate. Instead, you must draw a card on the subsequent round to find how you must resolve your failure. The game features co-op and competitive rules and a slew of one-offs. As a result, you have a game that isn’t remotely intuitive and is very complex.

But, this complexity doesn’t lead to meaningful decisions or depth. Instead, the game presents the player with some of the most convoluted, purely random dice rolling possible.  I would argue that the game, which seems to be more focused on theme than mechanics, would better serve its customers by simplifying its mechanics and getting to the fun more quickly!

For the sake of brevity I’m focusing on these two extremes. Yes, it’s okay to allow complex mechanics into your design. Star Trek: Fleet Captains is a game full of one-off mechanics, like transporting an away team to an enemy ship, Tribbles, and system events. However, the game manages to be fun, provide interesting choices, and be true to the Star Trek IP. My own game, Farmageddon, has a relatively simple core mechanic, but has 12 Action cards. This definitely adds a bit of complexity to an otherwise very simple game.

This may seem like an overly preachy post focused on semantics. But, the call for simplicity is so very key for making better games, reaching new players, and becoming more than a niche hobby. Your focus as a designer should be to craft a FUN, thought-provoking, and thematic experience (or some subset of those 3). Your focus should be on the end experience and the best way to do that is to refine the cogs such that players spend their time loving your game, not consulting the rules.

A good mental exercise is designing a dice only game. Dice. Only. How much depth can you bring about in a game that does not feature a board, or meeples, or cards? I’ve been pursuing this exercise myself and hope to share my dice game idea in the near future!

Squeeze blood from the turnip! Maximize your creations with as little as possible.

11 thoughts on “Blood from the Turnip

  1. I don’t think there can be enough reminders to design simple and cut to your core so you can focus on the true fun.

    Random thought: Thinking about Complex + Shallow, which is poorly suited to games, might be better off as single-person (or non-competitive) experiences. Not “games” so much as “activities” for those who like something to keep them busy. Almost like building a model ship. But it takes a very particular sort of person to enjoy that.

  2. Excellent article Grant, and certainly one that hits on a weak-point of mine. I think a lot of people (myself included) initially equate “thinky” or “cerebral” with complex.

    I did have a question though: How, in your mind, does exponentially applied simplicity (in the case of Trajan) keep itself from turning into complexity? For that matter, is there a way to layer simplistic mechanics without achieving perceived complexity? I’m sure a lot of people in my gaming group could grasp Trajan, but have shied away from playing it because it is seen as a very “complex” game.

    • That’s a tough question. Here’s how I approach it — if we’re constantly checking the rules to find out HOW to do something, that’s complexity. If the HOW is causing us to scratch our heads, that’s complex.

      However, if we know how to do it, but why I should take an action, or what action to take is baffling me, that’s good. That’s deep.

      Trajan is not my favorite game. It was too broad and there were too many moving parts. I dislike Agricola for the same reason. But, neither of those games have any components that are particularly difficult to grasp or fiddly. Really, the challenge for players is figuring out what to do and how to succeed the best.

      Does that help?

    • Also, equating thinky and cerebral with complex isn’t a weak point of yours. I’m being a tinge preachy here — this article is basically a stump speech about proper terminology as determined by me. So don’t be hard on yourself because I’m a jerk.

  3. Really strong points. One key element I like to look at is, how many exceptions exist in a game. Meaning if an action is resolved in a specific way, are there any cases where it isn’t that way? Could it have been solved in a similar way without the exception. Can it be a simple bit of math or can the resolution be placed on a game component? Is a parallel action or phase of a game be solved in the same way? The more times the game uses the simple same mechanic that faster the learning curve, and generally the faster the speed of the game.

    Another key element is finding ways to limit math, make the remaining math simple, and eliminate any UNNECESARY random elements from the game. Random generally equates to slow and can also lead to a lack of fun when luck just isn’t with a player.

    • Field Marshals originally had a combat resolution where both players would tally all Units, divide by 3, and remove one unit each for every set of 3. My god!

      Now, they remove 1 to 1 for 3 “waves” (i.e. up to 3 Units). Much cleaner.

  4. Good stuff! However I cannot resist the urge to complicate this a bit :) Actually I am being serious. I must use a more complicated graphic to make my point (you scoff, but follow me here…). http://db.tt/EXIaPfvJ

    Now this graphic depicts the fact that the Simple/Complex scale is subjective. Now your argument still holds true for MOST gamers as they probably fall within one Standard deviation of the middle as your graph depicts. But let’s say your preference is for simple games OR your idea of what is simple/complex is different than mine. The Y- line now shifts to the left… This is a representation of someone who favors simple games be they deep or not. Now on the opposite end would be those who favor complex or more Epic type games. The deepest and simplest game may not be good in their eyes.

    If it was as simple and black and white as you propose, everyone’s favorite game would probably be Chess. Still the argument that designers should strive for simplicity to the highest degree is a good one, but it isn’t always black and white and depends on the designer’s goals. IF the only (or major motivation) is sales and reaching the largest possible audience it is the most sound recommendation.

    • I don’t think you’re being complicated at all. Only a fool thinks about this stuff in a vacuum. Everything is relative and I think you make a very good point. I consider Princes of Florence simple, but it would kill my parents.

      This is a great contribution to the discussion.

    • rereading my post I think I came off preachy as well. Even dickish. I know you know that was not the intent, but I do want to assure other readers of that as well.

      I probably could have done with simplifying my argument a bit ;)
      there I go again…

      Love the blog, keep em coming.

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