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.