The Importance of Being Elegant — Concerning Aesthetic Content in Games

In boardgames, elegance, game design on April 17th, 2007 at 4:26 pm

[This is the second part of my essay on the role of elegance in game design. The first part, introducing the topic, can be found here. Parts 3 and 4 will be coming soon.]

Before getting into the advantages and disadvantages of elegant game design, it is important to understand the role that elegance plays in game design. It is not an objective measure of success or failure in game design, and it is not a goal that a designer sets for himself. Instead, elegance is one of a wide array of aesthetic qualities that a designer can choose to emphasize or ignore. The priority a designer gives to elegance, and every other aesthetic quality, has a huge influence on which players enjoy a game. Elegance only affects a game’s quality indirectly, though.

Advanced Squad Leader is an excellent example of a high quality game whose designers did not give much emphasis to elegance. At the time of this writing, ASL is ranked among the top 50 board games of all time on Boardgamegeek. It has also sold thousands of copies, has been in print for most of the last 25 years, and has spawned dozens of expansions and spin-off products. It is also one of the most inelegant games ever published. Even by wargame standards, its rules are almost (repeat almost) ludicrously detailed. Nevertheless, it has to be accepted as one of the best boardgames of all time. If elegance were an objective measure of quality, ASL would have disappeared shortly after publication.

The list of aesthetic values that a game design can possess is enormous, and each value has both fans and detractors. Every game design features a unique mix of them, and determining this mix is one of the most significant decisions a game designer makes, even when he is not aware that he is making it. Deciding involves trade offs, though, and no game can be all things to all players. How should a designer make this decision? What does this mean for the art of game design? How does this necessity affect the role of elegance — or any other aesthetic quality — in game design?

But First…

Aesthetics is one of the major specialities in the field of philosophy, with a deep body of theory. I have read none of it. Until I began mentally composing this section on aesthetics and game design the most nuanced theory of aesthetics I had ever needed amounted to I know what I like when I see it, and everyone else seems to be able to do the same for themselves.

That is why you should not take the model of aesthetic content espoused in the rest of this post as anything more than a decent approximation. It works well enough to make my point, but I’m sure that anyone with an undergraduate course in aesthetics could rip it to shreds. It serves my purposes, and it is good enough for a blog post about game design, but reference it in a serious discussion at your own risk.

The Designer’s Dilemma

Each gamer has her own priorities about which qualities are the key to a fun game. Some need a game to provide a feeling of verisimilitude, while others find games that have a wide range of tactical tricks to explore the most satisfying. For others, elegance is the most important quality a game can have. That does not mean that someone who is most interested in games that have great strategic depth has no use for rich, colourful themes. Likewise, people who like to laugh while at the game table also see value in keeping the impact of randomness on the result of a game under control. Adding more of any aesthetic quality is going to increase anyone’s enjoyment. For any particular gamer, however, emphasizing certain qualities is going help her enjoy a game more than emphasizing other qualities will.

Unfortunately, there is a limit to how much aesthetic value a designer can pack in. The precise limit varies from project to project, and factors including the skill of the designer, his goals for the design, and whether the aesthetic qualities that he wants to emphasize work with or against each other all have an effect. This limit creates a very real dilemma for a game designer. A designer will want to maximize them all — this is the primal urge to create a game that is all things to all people. Soon the limit asserts itself, though, and the designer has no option but to decide which values to emphasize and which to let fall by the wayside.

None of this explains why gamers can get such a hate on about certain aesthetic qualities, though. After all, there is a big difference between something that isn’t a big priority for you, and something that you actively dislike or despise. I believe part of the explanation lies in one of the methods of increasing the limit on aesthetic content that I mentioned earlier.

The Power and the Pain of Synergy

Emphasizing qualities that complement each other eases the limits on a game’s aesthetic content. This is a powerful tool, allowing a designer to reach beyond his normal limits, and it is available to designers of all skill levels. It has a dark side, however.

Imagine you are a gamer who has a strong preference for aesthetic quality X — for argument’s sake, let’s use thematic immersion as an example. Nothing about gaming makes you happier than getting into the same frame of mind as the people (real or imaginary) whose role you are taking on in a game. You love being the great general with the fate of nations in your hands. When you play Frodo, you want to feel the hair on your feet. Any game about business should at least force you to account for the effect of supply and demand on prices.

One day you’re browsing the Boardgamegeek database, possibly for the first time, and you come across Ra. It’s ranked just outside of the top ten games as of this writing, so it is supposed to be among the best games ever made, at least for true boardgame fans. Based on this, you buy a copy and play it.

If you have the sort of taste in games I just described, you will hate it with a burning, consuming passion, and probably start railing about how the majority of people on BGG are mindless sheep that worship games just because they have the name Reiner Knizia on them.

Ra is one of the most elegant boardgames ever created. I can teach the rules in two minutes (although the scoring system will take almost as long again to explain) and it offers a steady stream of tough, even mind-bending, decisions. It also has a theme that is thinner than onionskin paper.

Because of that last fact, all the elegance in the world isn’t going to matter. Ra is an extreme case, of course — as I will discuss later, elegance is not completely antithetical to a strong theme. It does make it more difficult to achieve, though, and elegance and immersion are a good example of a pair of aesthetic qualities that are going to lower the quantity of aesthetic content in a game when they are both emphasized. A designer who is focused on elegance is going to take a machete to all of the little edge cases and colourful rules that create the sort of immersion that you love.

Given that relationship between elegance and theme, how could there not be a backlash against elegant game design from certain segments of the boardgaming hobby? Extreme elegance is almost antithetical to the design of the sorts of games that those gamers enjoy.

On the other hand, fans of games that are inherently humorous (as opposed to a game like Munchkin that has gags that are irrelevant to the actual course of play printed on the components) are going to put a high priority on elegance in design. While they are not seeking the sort of tough decisions offered by Ra, complicated rules with hard to remember exceptions tend to inhibit the freewheeling, high-tempo play that is best suited to creating laughs. This synergy of design priorities eases the design burden by making it easier to add aesthetic value to the design.

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  1. Excellent stuff. People need to recognize that appreciation of all elements of game design is a matter of taste, to respect that in each other, and to stop trying to objectify their personal tastes.

  2. Do you really need all the suspense of posting these things one-a-day? ;)

  3. One-a-day? You’re living in a dream world.

    I expect the next one to be up Monday.

    Sorry, but otherwise I’ll chuck the draft I’m editing through the wall.

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