Drawing the Line

Post by: Grant Rodiek

As you polish and refine your game, it should become clear that you cannot have everything. The notion of focus, simplicity, and refinement are common themes for this blog, both from my own columns and those of my noble guest columnists. Proper focus is the tool of a design master. It’s a pursuit to which I will always strive.

It’s easy to sit on an ivory tower and spout philosophy. To be completely frank, as a professional game developer I’ve grown to loathe the “creative consultants” who show up to present ideology in perfect Power Points that often conflict or do not allow for reality. So, the purpose of this column is to provide some examples of where I drew the line with my own designs to provide perspective to aid you in your own designs.

Before I get into examples, it’s important to define the line. This is perhaps one of the most critical decisions you can make at the onset of a game’s life.

  • For whom are you making this game? (It’s appropriate to have both a customer and publisher in mind!)
  • What do you hope to accomplish with this design? Is it a new mechanic? A certain length of play or player experience? Is it a particular theme?
The answers to these questions will help you define the line. If you remain true and loyal to these answers, not only can it strengthen your final game, but will help you know when to waiver and when to remain strong in the face of the inevitable suggestions and “what ifs” from your own mind.
The Line for Farmageddon

Farmageddon was designed to be played in a short play period (30 minutes), for a wide age range, and for people more interested in laughing and messing with each other than thinking too hard.

This created incredibly strict lines really quickly for me. Complexity was, and remains, Farmageddon’s Enemy #1.

Interrupts: One of the first suggestions, always, especially from Magic players, is to add interrupts. Interrupts are inherently frustrating, especially for casual players, as they basically tell you “nope, you just wasted that card.” They also add complexity in that you now allow play to occur outside a player’s turn, you need a priority stack, plus you have the paranoia of not wanting to play a card for fear of it being interrupted. No. Interrupts.

Crop Complexity: Another suggestion was to add more complexity to the basic crops. People wanted behaviors on Sluggo Corn, Wary Squash, etc. The problem with that was that it just complicated things. Players shouldn’t need to worry about text on all 7 cards in their hands. Crops should do a thing and Action cards should do a thing. They should be distinct and easy to learn.

However, I crossed the line a little bit when I created the FrankenCrops. There are 10 Crops, one of each in the deck, that all have a one-time use ability when planted. We packaged these as an expansion to the base game and in my testing I’ve been very pleased with the variety and complexity they add. However, I do not think every crop needs this functionality. Here, I relented and it was the right decision.

Moving Forward: The Livestocked & Loaded expansion will really test Farmageddon. The expansion adds a bit more strategy and new complexity with Weather, Animals, and a simple bidding/Area control mechanic. So far it has tested well, especially with Farmageddon veterans. But, these testers are all gamers, not necessarily casual folk, so the added complexity feels good. How will more casual farmers dig it?

The Line for Empire Reborn

Empire Reborn is a war game designed to be played within an hour, not feature dice (which solves some problems and adds others), and provide a deep and meaningful experience that sheds much of the complexity of so many war games. I also wanted a game where players actually battle (not just posture and maneuver). I really looked to how Memoir ’44 handles terrain variation (most of them do the same thing), or how it does so much with only 3 unit types (and a few very subtle variations with elite units or engineers). I was also inspired by 1812: The Invasion of Canada, which has many of the best parts of Risk, but is fun, deep, and plays quickly.

As I have quickly found, there are just as many lines to draw in a meaty game as a super light game.

The Problem of Turn Order: Turn order is a big deal. In fact, the more serious the game, the more it matters. Empire Reborn has really run the gamut here with random turn order against which you needed to make decisions, a system where turn order is determined by your actions, a system where you can modify turn order, and one that’s just simple and random.

As it turns out, after months of testing and design, the one that seems to work best is having turn order be randomly determined each round. This drives serious gamers nuts. It just irks them to have something so fundamental be determined randomly! I have to be honest, it irks me a little as well.

The truth is, I needed to draw the line somewhere. I needed to keep the game simple in some places to avoid exploding the heads of the gamers I’m trying to attract. I want the game to focus on fighting and taking territory, not changing turn order.

The other, more subtle element in this decision is that sometimes it’s better to go first. Sometimes it’s better to go last. It’s incredibly difficult to design a system that accounts for these things as a player’s need changes every round based on the layout of the map and the position of their opponents.

If the turn order is purely random, it means you need to make decisions knowing that you don’t know when you’ll go. It allows for a little bit of luck in a game that doesn’t have dice (yes, in my opinion, some luck is needed in a game). Also, it is what it is. The game only lasts an hour, so it’s not likely you’ll need to flip the table if it just so happens the order messes with your finely crafted, fragile plans.

“No plan survives contact with the enemy.” – Field Marshal von Moltke. Perhaps he should add “or random turn order.”

More Troops: One of the most common and understood mechanics in Euro games is increasing your reach or effectiveness. In Agricola, increasing your family size means more actions. Same with Stone Age. Therefore, for a while I tried to incorporate a mechanic where each player had to work to increase his potential Unit pool (i.e. potential Army size).

Much like creating a complicated mechanic for determining turn order, all of my attempts at fiddling with this lead to overly cumbersome and not really meaningful gameplay. It also distracted players from the main event: battles and capturing territory.

When I returned to the original mechanic of “everyone has 12 Units in their pool,” nobody complained. Nobody felt like the game was lacking breadth. Why? Because each player has 4 Tactics (16 total on the board) and there is plenty to occupy your thoughts.

In conclusion, know where to draw the line. Know when to say “enough” and either remove a feature, or prevent it from becoming a part of your game in the first place. Know who you want to not only play your game, but who will spend money on it, love it, and tell their friends about it. If you’re making a 4 hour juggernaut of a game, well, you may need 4 hours worth of features to keep it interesting. That’s not my area of interest (either as a designer or a player), so I cannot comment. But, the shorter your game, the more mass market you intend your game, the more strict you need to be.

What tough cuts have you had to make? Where did you draw the line? Share below and start a discussion.

2 thoughts on “Drawing the Line

  1. I’ve been working on my Zomblobs! game for a while, and I’ve pared features a few times. I had ideas for elemental modifiers (paper-rock-scissors sorts of things), a wider variety of units (I’m inspired by BattleTech and World of Warcraft Miniatures games) and multi-cell units. All of these *could* be fun, but I want a fairly simple game that players new to tabletop tactical miniatures games can play without much fuss. As it is, the tripartate tracking of Heat, Time and HP is itself almost too much, but those are the heart of the game, so they persist.

    If the game winds up being well-received, maybe I’ll expand a bit into some of that deeper complexity with an expansion, and I do have an idea for a sister game that would be more complex, but built on the same framework (sort of like the relationship between WarMachine and Hordes)… but those can wait while I get the core game nailed down. If it’s good fun to play, it can be a gateway to deeper options.

    • This has really been a problem for me in Empire Reborn that I’ve MOSTLY resisted. I have tons of expansion ideas: naval units, adding special general units, terrain types, campaign play, and more. But…I can do that later. The core must be great.

      I did allow factions into the design in the first pass. Originally, there was one vanilla faction that all four players used. Now, there’s 4 unique factions. I ultimately shifted to factions because the vanilla game didn’t provide enough variety or depth. We’ll see if it’s too overwhelming as is.


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