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.