Elegance is not the prerogative of those who have just escaped from adolescence, but of those who have already taken possession of their future.
-Gabrielle “Coco” Channel
Prior to 1995, there was little tradition of elegant design in the North American gaming industry. Hex ‘n’ Counter wargames that had 20+ page rulebooks were still thriving, and, while block wargames had been invented in the mid ’70s, they were still a niche within a niche. Quasi-RPG wargames like Car Wars, Battletech and Star Fleet Battles, which had their heyday in the ’80s before petering out during the first half of the ’90s, were almost an order of magnitude more complicated than the standard hex games.
A few oddballs, like Illuminati and Cosmic Encounter, had digestible rulebooks, but they relied on chaotic wackiness, including a healthy dose of Take That, to provide fun. Most hardcore boardgamers are no longer interested in Take That games (although Cosmic Encounter still has a loyal following), preferring light or heavy strategy games of various stripes. The primary market for that sort of chaotic game is now crossover buyers from the comic book and RPG markets. Judging by the number of Munchkin and Chez Geek sequels that Steve Jackson Games has published, it’s a winning strategy.
There were elegant boardgames around, of course. Aside from two player abstracts, which have been elegant since the beginning, hobby boardgames like Dune, Empire Builder, the 18xx games (which actually date back to the mid-’70s), and the designs of Sid Sackson were all pleasantly compact designs. They were few and far between, though, and except for the Sackson classics like Acquire and Bazaar, these gems also suffer from playing times in excess of 2 hours.
Then Settlers of Catan came to North America, and everything changed. The idea that you could have meaningful choices and a rulebook that is shorter than 10 pages (ironically, the layout of Settlers rulebook obfuscates that) started to spread. Soon, other games followed that offered greater depth of strategy and tactics than Settlers, but still had rulebooks short enough to be understood in a single reading. The German Boardgame Invasion had begun, and elegance— meaningful decisions coupled with compact rules—was along for the ride.
Even though elegance lies at the heart of the German boardgame revolution, in-depth discussions of elegance and boardgame design are hard to find. Even the most basic definition of elegance seems to be assumed. Thi Nguyen nibbles at the edges of a concrete understanding of elegance in this GeekList, but doesn’t quite get there (through no failing of Thi’s—that’s not what he was aiming for). Yehuda Berlinger takes more direct aim at a definition of elegance and a rough way of measuring it in an article he wrote for the group blog Gone Gaming in his article Elegance in Games (which he pointed out to me in comments below after this article was first posted). Based on the comments to that article, though, I think it is fair to say that there is still room for further exploration.
This article is the first part of a series whose aim is to clearly explain what elegant game design is, why it is important, and how it is achieved. I will focus on defining elegant design for the rest of this article, with an eye toward tying the definition to other uses of the word elegant. Other aspects of this subject, including why elegance is important and how elegant designs are created, shall be examined in later parts of this series.
If the thing be rich, full of grace, luxury, and good taste, if the person be refined in manner and tasteful of dress and speech, or if the solution to the problem be concise and artfully or ingeniously contrived yet simple and handsome in effect, then the thing, the person, and the solution all merit the adjective elegant. Elegant is pretentious only when used of inelegant things: It was an elegant restaurant: they gave us real cloth napkins.
-Kenneth G. Wilson. The Columbia Guide to Standard American English.
The idea of elegance did not originate with game design, of course. The word itself is rooted in a classical Latin ancestor, and entered English in the late fifteenth century. As the Wilson quotation indicates, it refers to the beauty of simplicity and restraint. Clean lines, calm colours, and little or no ornamentation are the hallmarks of elegant graphic and industrial design. This design from the CSS Zen Garden exemplifies these values, although whether you like it or not will be a matter of taste, of course. An elegant person dresses in a restrained but attractive manner, pays more attention to taste than fashion, and moves gracefully, without excess motion, nervous tics, or sudden starts, stops and changes in direction. My favourite example would be Audrey Hepburn as she appears in the majority of her movies.
Boardgames can also possess a similar sort of elegance, although it is exceedingly rare. Once in a while, a player will come across a game whose rules are so natural and so obvious that, once they are learned, they are instantly internalized, and do not need to be consciously considered again. They are instinctive. The weight of trying to comprehend how to play melts away, and the players are left free to concentrate on the position on the board.
It is this quality that makes Go so special for so many people. There may be a couple of protruding rules at the start (handicap) and end (komi) of the game, but, during play, the rules of the game are so obvious that they fade away from the conscious mind. Even ko is obvious to most people.
Games that reach this level of elegance are almost all two player abstracts. Some other games, such as Modern Art and Liar’s Dice approach this Dao-like state of rules that could be no other way, but they don’t quite reach it. I imagine that hardcore devotees of other games would argue that they have reached such a state with their favourite game, but this misses the point that comprehending this sort of game is almost instantaneous.
While extremely desirable, this degree of elegance is rarely achievable. Other design considerations are going to get in the way of rules purity. Since elegance is mentioned more than this intense form can explain, we must turn our attention to other aspects of elegance to further, and broaden, our understanding.
Elegance? It may seem odd to non-scientists, but there is an aesthetic in software as there is in every other area of intellectual endeavour. Truly great programmers are like great poets or great mathematicians – they can achieve in a few lines what lesser mortals can only approach in three volumes.
- John Naughton, A Brief History of the Future
Wilson describes another aspect of elegance that has more to do with science. When
the solution to [a] problem be concise and artfully or ingeniously contrived yet simple and handsome in effect, it is an elegant solution. Theories and theorems that are brief, yet have wide-ranging explanatory and predictive powers, are greatly prized for their utility, but they are also admired on an aesthetic level by those familiar with the associated field. It requires brilliance to spot the most powerful explanations, and other trained minds can see and naturally admire that brilliance.
This idea has also been adapted in a slightly modified form by software programmers. Whereas scientific and mathematical elegance requires spotting a pre-existing, but previously unseen, pattern in nature or numbers, elegant code is created from whole cloth by a brilliant programmer. He will spot similarities in how disparate aspects of a project can be handled, and can use the much the same code to address both problems because of that similarity. This is only the most impressive tool at the programmer’s disposal in the quest for elegance. Any other method available to a programmer that will create shorter, more streamlined and easier to comprehend code, from designing more powerful algorithms to trimming away useless features, is a method that helps create elegance.
Like software programming, boardgame design involves creating a set of instructions for performing a task. In fact, the two activities have enough in common that close analogues of many of the techniques programmers use in their quest for elegant code are available to the game designer who is striving for elegance. The exact details of these techniques will be taken up later in the series. Also, elegant software code and elegant game designs share several key properties. An elegant program involves shorter, more streamlined and easier to comprehend code than a more pedestrian effort toward the same end would. In the same way, an elegant game design has shorter, more streamlined and easier to comprehend rules than a more pedestrian effort that had the same design goals would. This is the essence of elegant game design.
Anyone with a decent understanding of boardgame criticism could have explained this using just the last two sentences, or, at most, the last paragraph. So what was the purpose of all of the explanations and details that came before those sentences? Giving context to the concept relative to other uses of the term elegance is valuable in its own right, since it gives a richer and more complete sense of what elegance is. The more important reason is that, by going on at length about the meaning of elegance now, I will be able to move more quickly later. There will be times when knowing some of the detail presented here will be key to understanding why elegance is valuable or a method of creating elegance. Instead of having to digress into an explanation of that detail in the middle of a complex explanation, the necessary understanding has already been established, and the explanation can proceed uninterrupted or with a short reminder about the key detail.
Having explained the nature of elegance in game design, the next part in this series will address the benefits and disadvantages, both aesthetic and practical, of elegant design.
 This is, of course, a gross oversimplification of how great programmers eliminate redundant code. This article is supposed to be about game, not code, though, so I cut a lot of corners in this description.