Simple is (often) boring

A few weeks ago I wrote about my new design approach. The gist of the post is: I need to design more simply in order to gain more traction with publishers. This means no text on cards, no combos, no learning curves. This means simple.

But, one of the reasons I design games with those now verboten elements that are often my downfall with gaining publisher traction is that I love them. I find them interesting. They excite me as a player, which means I want to use them as a designer. If I'm being honest, I often find simple games rather dull. Many simple games are highly accessible, yet I often find I've fully explored the game after only one or two plays. I fully recognize that "cult of the new" is a seemingly dominant expression of core gamers, but a huge part of what I love about a good game is learning its nuances and mastering its strategies. I don't want to make a game that I cannot play fifty times.

If a game is too simple, it lacks this element. This is because often times simplicity is implemented at the expense of depth. BUT! These two notions are not mutually exclusive. How, therefore, does one craft a simple experience that also allows for depth? 

I thought about some of my favorite simple games. These include:

  • Cockroach Poker
  • Coloretto
  • Modern Art
  • Carcassonne (though the farm rule is a bit tricky but still, a simple game)
  • Codenames
  • Kingdomino

I then thought about some simple games that are successful, but don't really excite me personally. What stood out to me is this: social behavior, present in all of my favorite simple games, is one of the best driver's of depth. Social mechanisms tend to add very few rules burdens, which make them accessible and easy to learn. Social mechanisms allow players to express themselves, which is a far simpler path towards emulating a similar experience found in deckbuilding in a CCG. Social mechanisms allow local group metas to form, for betrayals to play out, and for favorites to form. 

This doesn't mean social mechanisms are the only way to add depth to a simple design, but merely, per the thesis of the blog, a way to add depth that is interesting to me. This realm of social mechanisms is new to me! I'm learning a great deal, and am constantly going back and forth asking whether I should allow a thing, incentavize a thing, or remove a thing.

For example, in my new design, which I'm calling an "action trading" game, the original rule was that every player had to end the round with three tiles. This was to preserve fairness and parity. But, doing this creates some weird edge cases, such as players at the end of the round have fewer or no choices regarding trading. If only player A can receive the action, then no trade will occur. That's lame. I twisted the valve to release some pressure. Now, players can trade their tiles, but still have to end at three. This helped, but you still have strange edge cases. 

I took a step back: if the game is 45 minutes at most, can I let the free market take hold? Can I let players regulate themselves instead of rules? I've removed all the shackles and I'm now letting players trade and sell to whomever they want without limits. Can this break the game? Maybe, we'll see. Will collusion occur? Most certainly. I decided to remove social limitations to allow for interesting gameplay, but bolster it with a single safety valve. If players get nothing? They get flooded with resources. This means a few things:

  • These players will be able to win any trade. You won't be able to ignore their coin.
  • If these players continue to be ignored, they'll earn a lot of easy end game points.
  • You'll have to do the calculus of "can I outpace the players I'm feeding" versus bringing more folks into the economy.

This is counter to many of the games I designed with cards. In those games, I tend to write rules that say: this is explicitly what you can do. This leaves the clear implication of what you cannot do. Here, I'm specifying: do whatever, and here is the consequence of whatever being these one or two cases. I think it'll be interesting, lead to human stories, and a desire to play again to try something else.

Another interesting thing, which shouldn't be a surprise, is how social mechanisms that involve risk are avoided like the plague. Humans are absurdly risk averse. They will not pay a cent for something that is fuzzy, ambigious, uncertain, or negative. This means I must design things with a clear, simple, positive outcome. This means I must design to create a broader range of economic incentives versus a shallow pool of nuance. 

I've also found that negative interaction paired with social gameplay feels awful. When an event comes out, or a card is played, you say, hey, sorry, the card said it. You move on. When it's exclusively the choice of another player, that feels awful. I experimented with negative outcomes to disincentivize hoarding of resources, or to punish malicious players, but the result just felt awful and removed the gas from the game. The joyful emotion was let out and people just frown instead of laughing. Instead, I've made sure that spending is always a better idea than hoarding and discouraged poor, malicious play by ensuring the game's point structure is aligned against it. I used a variety of economic levers, carrots more than sticks, to address the problem.

I'm excited by the premise of enriching my simple design with a social mechanism at its core. What are some of your favorite ways to create depth with a simple framework? Share in the comments below.