Sunday, October 14, 2012

Game Design Aesthetics Part 2...

Last post we looked at thematic vs. mechanical design. Today, we look at two specifically mechanistic elements of game design aesthetics.. 

Some games are incredibly simple and take less than ten minutes to explain, while others are built to add as much detail and simulation as possible into their structure. The relative simplicity or complexity does not always reflect actual depth, however.

Go is as simple as a game can get, but Go masters spend decades perfecting their play. Chess is not as simple as Go but it has similar depth right out of the box with a simple board and five types of unit that provide only the most abstract representations of a medieval battlefield. These two games are the ideal of simple games: easy to learn, difficult to master.

The average Avalon Hill war-game, however, while extremely good at simulating the minute effects of a ton of very specific battlefield situations, is extremely complex and most table-top wargames (especially those of a historical nature) tend towards extreme detail that demands some dedication from its players in order to learn and master its intricacies. This is no guarantee of depth, however, as wargames, no matter how detailed, live or die by the scenarios designed for them and scenario building is one of the main challenges of good war-game design. But on their own, they are difficult to learn and difficult to master.

Complexity should not be taken as a 'negative' in any sense of the word. Some complex games, like Twilight Imperium, have a steep learning curve, but once the rules are learned and used, they 'click' and require only the occasional reference to the rulebook. In return, this complexity offers a level of detail, simulation and story-telling that makes them extremely fulfilling experiences (almost like a cooperative saga written out in a few hours of play), even if you only pull them out once or twice a year.

Alternately, Nuclear War or other 'beer & pretzels' type games are simpler but within that simplicity is a highly thematic and quick playing experience that can be equally entertaining in the right setting and not nearly as taxing as an 8 player (and thus 8 hour) game of Twilight Imperium.

I have played, enjoyed and own games from one end of this scale to the other and find that the mood at the table is more relevant to the aesthetic appeal of a game in this instance than any hard and fast preference. I do, however, know those who scoff at 'silly simple games' and others who wouldn't touch any game with a rulebook of more than a few pages in length, so it is still a measure that should be considered when creating a game for a specific audience, say children, casual gamers or dedicated simulationists.

There are games in which your strategy is fairly limited, sometimes to the point where your only real strategy is to be ‘lucky.’ At the other end of the scale are games in which chance has no part in gameplay and all results are determined by the moves and reactions of the players.

‘Sorry!’ ‘Candyland,’ 'Chaos Marauders' and many of the commercial board games from the 70’s and 80’s were totally random. There was no real strategy that could help you win consistently. The roll of the dice or the draw of a card was the only true determinant of victory and defeat.

Chess and Go on the other hand, are totally devoid of chance, and victory or defeat is entirely in the hands of the player. Every move has a pre-determined result and the only way to stymie a winning strategy is for the opponent to counter it with a strategy of their own.

Most games tend to favor a middle of the road approach. Wargames, for example, tend to favor a strategic level of movement but combine unit value with random number generation to determine the results of attacks, while many Eurogames tend towards card management skills as well as concrete strategies.

I tend to favor games with a good deal of determinism spiced with a smattering of randomness, where concrete strategy has to be balanced with a degree of risk management and victory can be grabbed from the jaws of defeat by a well-timed random event. This is more reflective of the way the real world works, increasing the unpredictability, and in my view, the excitement, of the endgame. 

But, again, there is a highly subjective element to what some might find fun or relaxing and in what environment, and no one game will scratch all itches. Sometimes you want to really get into a game, but other times, good, dumb, random fun is where it's at...



  1. I feel like something is left out of here, which is strategic play resulting from randomness. Look at Liar's Dice. Although a game may lean on random chance, extremely strategic games can come from the luck factor. This is something I haven't really seen in board games, but it's found in betting games.

    1. This would be an example where the Random rating would be +1 or even 0, if the two are equal parts of play. Remember that this is a scale of one to the other, with the ends representing an extreme where one is completely dominant and the middle representing some mix of the two.

      My rating of Nuclear War for example, is Random +1. The driving force of the game is randomness, random card draws in this case, but the randomness can be managed in a number of ways.

      Liar's Dice, which is a bluffing game first and foremost, is very similar. I'd rate it Random as well, because the only real game mechanic is rolling dice and there is no way to manage the dice or change the results. On the other hand, the bluffing element is so important, that the dice almost don't matter unless a bluff is called. I'd give it a Random 0 for that reason: it's random, but it is the Player Interaction (a +3) that drives the game.