The Cup Doth Runneth Overeth

Post by: Grant Rodiek

This is a post I’ve probably written before, but it’s a lesson that bears repeating. Honestly, it’s one of the most difficult things for junior and advanced designers alike to keep in mind. As I was just reminded of it myself, I wanted to attempt to remind you.

When designing a game, never forget that your players will only be able to process so many concepts and elements. Never forget that their cup, their mind, will fill up. They will be overwhelmed at some point and it is YOUR sacred responsibility to manipulate the contents of their cup so that you go up to, but do not exceed, 100%.

Think of distinct components as a pie chart. Think about all the little elements you have, then consider what you think is most important. If your battle system is your coolest, most unique feature, it may take up 40% of your player’s mind space. It’ll require 40% of their learning efforts. That means you have 60% for everything else.

Here are some common things in games that you may not realize fill your players’ cups:

  • Number of resources or currencies.
  • Number of steps in a turn.
  • Number of phases in a round.
  • Whether the steps in a turn must be taken in order, or in any order.
  • Number of distinct mechanics, unique or established.
  • Number of variables on a card.
  • Distribution of a card in a deck — it matters to some and it’s something to consider.
  • Probabilities of a die roll. Is it 1/6? 1/36? How many types of dice do you use (d4/d6/d6/d10/d10)?
  • Take the previous bullet and twist it up a notch if you use custom dice.
  • Number of different card decks or card types.
  • Number of places to look with their eyes. In York, players examine the board (spatial relationships, changes constantly), their hand of cards (changes every round), and their reference board (used less with future plays, but overwhelming initially).

One of my favorite personal examples of reducing complexity in a design is my turn order choice for Battle for York. My combat system was complex and had quite a few moving parts. I knew I needed to reduce complexity. I didn’t want turn order to be a strong factor in the game, nor did I want it to be a decision point. After experimenting with multiple semi-complex solutions, I arrived at the simplest: purely random. Some disagree with it, and that’s fine, but ultimately, I was able to lower the complexity to the point of not overwhelming my target audience.

The amount of complexity people can handle is entirely relative. I consider myself an expert gamer, yet Terra Mystica was too much for me. I entirely ignored the cultist track, knowing full well it would cost me the game (it did). I just didn’t care, as I was at my maximum capacity. When teaching City of Remnants, at the point I arrived at battles my friend simply asked me to stop. “Can we just play the game? I’m not retaining anything more at this point.” He’s getting his PhD in theoretical computer science. He isn’t stupid. Hell, my mom was initially overwhelmed with Coloretto. It’s not a matter of ignorance or mental capability. People just hit a point at which they can’t take more.

I can’t remember who said this, but I think it’s Eric Lang, Geoff Englestein, and I’ve certainly heard Corey Young promote it. Consider adding only 1, or 2 at most, unique mechanics to your experience. The rest can be twists, or even comfortable classics. If everything is new, even a tiny mechanic, the amount of mind (or cup) space it occupies just skyrockets.

In case you’re curious, the reason for this post came about when I plugged in my last hole for Draftaria’s initial design last night. My game has a few mechanics. The biggest and most complex one is my unique element, a combination of a few mechanics presented in a new way. I think it’s cool. I then use a drafting mechanic, lifted verbatim from every drafting game, but the content you’re drafting is a little different. Remember, even light twists occupy more mind space. Thirdly, I have some light resource management with a single currency. You obtain it, then buy things with it. Very standard.

I needed to figure out how to resolve conflict. The game avoids violence, but there is trouble to resolve and conflict that must be fixed. I wanted a system that wasn’t deterministic and would lead to multiple outcomes. I kept designing and conceiving wild, complex, and new things. However, I recognized that this game already has that. It’s the thing I mentioned in the previous paragraph. So, I went with simple. You’ll roll some dice, they’ll do a thing. The dice will be standard, pipped, six-sided dice.

For the briefest of instants I thought, “man, that’s a bit underwhelming.” Then, I remembered that the rest of my game shall whelm my players. Conflict resolution isn’t the focus and it should be simple. The cup is now full, but not overflowing.

To quickly wrap this up, remember to consider your target audience. Remember that everything slowly chips away at your players’ abilities to play and remember. Remember to go up to the brim of your cup, but never over. Finally, don’t be afraid to simplify and stick to the status quo for some aspects of your design in order to excel and wow with others.


9 thoughts on “The Cup Doth Runneth Overeth

  1. Grant,

    Really good points to make again for people who may be seeing them for the first time. I am definitely a person with a cup that fills very fast when learning a new game. I have resigned myself to losing the first couple game learning all the rules, a little bit at a time across multiple games. So when it comes to my designs, I come at them from a simplicity angle. The process you follow on your turn should be clear and concise and typical from round to round with few if any exceptions. Make sure to have choices that matter, but limit the choices to a few options so that the choices can be made quickly. I think a large part of my design basis is centered on whether I can explain the rule to my son and have him understand it. If individually all the rules make sense to him, I know that with enough plays he will get the entire game. Now I realize most designers are not designing to the 5 year old mind and so maybe it isn’t always valid, but my goal is to have games that I can explain in 5-10 minutes and play 30-60 minutes.

  2. You may have found the difference between war gamers (and maybe some core gamers) and casual gamers.

    A casual gamer wants a game “like XXX, but with Y”, but a war gamer or core gamer will wade through your mountain of novelty or Madness to see the gem beneath.

    • Hmmm, I’m not sure I agree with the comment. Now, I cannot speak to your experiences personally, and I must recognize we may be debating semantics. BUT.

      To me, the most important factor in the term casual gamer is someone’s commitment and interest in the hobby. A casual gamer is someone who enjoys games from time to time. Yes, complexity may factor into that, but I think that’s a minor element.

      I say that, because I personally play games every week, often multiple times per week. But, I don’t particularly care for overly complex games, or one’s that last more than an hour.

      War gamers, to me, are folks who wish to simulate armed conflict, be it historical or fictional. There is a spectrum, then, that ranges from extreme, precise simulation and lighter abstraction. Memoir ’44 is a war game just as much as Advanced Squad Leader. Hell, Risk is a war game. Those range in different levels of complexity and time commitment.

      I consider myself a core or even hardcore gamer, but I strongly feel that label has little to do with my play preferences, merely my desire to experience the hobby more frequently. Thoughts?

      • It probably is semantics. I am not even talking purely about complexity.

        It seems to me that many war gamers are willing to deal with a lot more rules and complexity in game design. But there are games like Memoir 44 which is a wargame, but fairly simple while there are certainly role playing games with more pages of rules than any game except Advanced Squad Leader.

        I don’t want to distract from your basic thesis which is certainly valid for most games and gamers.

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  4. Yeah, it makes me reconsider my game, Zeppelin Express, yet again in this context. It’s a very thematic pickup-and-delivery game, but full rules are quite a lot to take in.

    Part of the solution that works for me is a scaffolding I built around a teaching aid. In the first part it presents some basic concepts, allows players to take a turn each (completing the setup in a way and making sure the basics are understood), and then adding the finer points.

    Basically what your post is about for me is game streamlining, but presented from a player’s perspective it makes its point more strongly. Good read :)

    • Good luck, Sir. This is a challenge we all face, every design, every iteration. If you need help or just want to chat, email me your thoughts at grant at hyperbolegames dot com.

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