The Importance of Being Elegant — The Upside of Elegance

In boardgames, elegance, game design on April 30th, 2007 at 12:03 pm

While I did a bit to ameliorate the most common complaints about elegant games last time, they still have some clear drawbacks. Without some positives to tip the scales, we might as well tell game designers, “Forget about elegance, it’s just a way of showing off. You’d be better off focusing on other qualities when you design.” Fortunately, I can think of several aspects of elegance that, together, rise to the occasion.

Just as I did not discuss every argument against elegance in the last part, this is not an exhaustive list of the benefits of elegance. In addition to being a futile effort, trying to compile a complete list of the advantages of elegance, with even cursory analysis, would be far more than anyone would want to read. Instead, I will focus on what I feel are the most significant advantages elegance has to offer.

The Minimum Acceptable Level of Elegance

Even people who are militantly opposed to elegant game designs should agree that every game must meet a certain minimum standard of elegance. It’s trivial, but it gets violated just enough that it is worth mentioning.

Every rule in a game should serve some purpose, and it should have some impact on play. Rules that are just there because the designer likes the sound of them (or hasn’t realized that his design has passed them by) have to go. This sort of thing is much more common in role-playing games than it is in boardgames, but every once in a while a game will appear that has a “bunk” or unnecessary rule. This is a clear and unmitigated flaw in any design.

Beyond that point, however, everything becomes a matter of taste and intent.

Free Your Mind

Rules are, ultimately, a necessary evil. They provide the structure necessary to get to the pleasures of playing a game, but they also get in the way of those pleasures. While some people can derive a geeky satisfaction in mastering an insanely complex set of rules, that has little to do with the actual act of playing the game. Other than that, all of the fun a game provides is produced by the rules, but it would be more enjoyable if the same effect was produced using fewer rules.

Every player’s mental capacity, whether small or great, is finite. A person can only focus on so many things at one time, and when you have more demands on your concentration than you can maintain, something has to give. When you play a game, there are two sides competing for your attention — rules versus everything potentially fun about playing the game. Whether you enjoy finding the fatal tactical stroke, admiring the components, enjoying the company of your friends, laughing at the unusual juxtaposition of game elements or assuming the role of a great general fighting his greatest battle, your fun is not directly dependant on how long the rules are. Worse, you won’t experience any of those things while you are preoccupied with remembering whether rule prohibits you from moving your pawn to that hex or not.

Elegance helps get rules out of the way of your fun in two ways. Getting the obvious one out of the way, it should not be a great revelation that shorter rules require less effort to recall than longer rules do. It’s simple, really — by definition, an emphasis on elegance will produce a shorter rulebook than ignoring it will. An elegant design can be complex — Die Macher would be an obvious example, and some wargames are significantly more elegant than others are. These games still require more mental effort to play than simpler games do, but they are still less taxing than similar, but less elegant, designs would be. It therefore takes less mental effort to keep their rules straight than it does for similar, but less elegant designs.

The other reason that elegant rules do not interfere with having fun is much is less obvious, but it is more important. When you play a new game for the first time, applying its rules to play requires consciously reminding yourself of them. This also begins a process of internalizing them, however, and when that process is complete, you will just act in accordance with the rules instinctively instead of having to remain mindful of them. Internalized rules no longer demand a significant amount of your attention, and you are left free to focus on the fun aspects of the game. If you can speed up the internalization process, the rules will get out of the way of your fun sooner.

Internalization happens because every time a rule affects play it causes your brain to flag that rule as something that may be worth keeping on file. Each time this happens, it reinforces the signal that the rule is important enough to keep close at hand. Once your mind flags a rule enough times, you will internalize it completely so you have quick access to something that important, and you will be able to make decisions based on it without having to summon it fully into your conscious mind. It will then be a rule that creates fun without getting in the way of that fun.

When several instances of reinforcement occur in close succession, they have a greater impact than they do when spread out over a longer period. Therefore, inelegant games do not just have more rules, each of which requires so many instances of reinforcement. They also have significantly more rules that rarely affect play and need more reinforcement than normal to internalize.

(For an independent discussion of this process, listen to the Into the Grogscape section of episode 14 of Into the Gamescape)

Nobody Has Hooked Grandma Using Star Fleet Battles as the Bait

Go to Boardgamegeek and do a search for GeekLists about gateway games and games to play with non-gamers. As you look through the lists that appear in the results, you will notice that inelegant games are scarce. That’s because inelegant games are more likely than elegant games to turn off non-gamers.

Non-gamers are not inclined to give games the benefit of the doubt ahead of time, so they tend to doubt that learning a complex game is worth the time and effort required regardless of how fun you make the game out to be. The short explanation time of a light game can often get past this resistance, though. Unfortunately, if they find the games that they already know boring, a simple, but inelegant game may be even worse than an overly complex one if it confirms the non-gamer’s suspicions by boring him. An elegant light game can offer the best of both worlds. It can be taught just as quickly as a simple game, while offering enough action to hold his attention. The faster internalization process also avoids another major turnoff, the need to have a rule explained to them multiple times.

Choosing an introductory game is more complicated than grabbing a random light-but-elegant game off your shelf, of course. While I have had great success introducing people to boardgaming with Modern Art, I knew beforehand that my targets were already geeks and math tolerant. I could imagine choosing any of Carcassonne, YINSH, Ra, Ticket to Ride, Lost Cities or several other games to break the ice with other types of people. The common thread among these otherwise divergent games, though, is that they are elegant, and you can explain them quickly. Growing our hobby virtually relies on the continued production of this sort of game.

A Cheatsheet for Passing the Playtest

Elegant designs are not only easier to learn and to teach; they are also easier to playtest and develop. Thorough playtesting includes examining how different rules interact with each other, ensuring that there are no dominant strategies or tactics and making sure that none of the procedures of play interrupt the players’ fun. An elegant design does not reduce the amount of work involved in testing strategic and tactical possibilities, but conditional rules and systems that rarely come into play can be very difficult to adequately test for balance and fun. In particular, most of the game-breaking strategies that make it through the design and development process tend to hinge on obscure parts of the rules, or unusual interactions between special powers. At the far end of this trend, you have Magic: the Gathering‘s list of cards that are banned in tournament play.

It is not too difficult to put core rules through their paces, even if thorough testing requires hundreds of instances of application. A rule that only affects a blue piece that is carrying the Sword of Flibbertigidget in the hard-to-access Outer Mongolian region may only come into play once every few games, though. Games tend to shed these rules during playtesting, especially once the game is in the hands of a publisher. When an oddball rule is necessary, however, playtesting it thoroughly for balance will be difficult. When you can deal with the problem it addresses by tweaking the core systems instead, thoroughly investigating unusual circumstances grows easier, since proper testing of the core mechanics will do most of the work.

The drawback of trying to maintain elegance when playtesting is that finding an elegant solution may not be easy. The temptation to fix problems by writing patch rules specifically for the circumstance where the problem presents itself is strong. When you read a game’s rulebook, patch rules are painfully obvious, and give elegance afficianadoes a niggly, annoying feeling whenever they come up. A typical example is the colonist you receive as compensation for a failed colonization attempt in Goa, which designer Rüdiger Dorn uses to soften the blow of wasting an action due to bad luck.

A designer that instead aims for an elegant solution to any problem that crops up can find herself stumped. It can take days, weeks, or months to break through the problem without cluttering a game with awkward exceptions and special cases. Sometimes she can’t manage to come up with a satisfactory solution at all, and the design has to be shelved.

Shining a Spotlight

As the Valuing Verisimilitude section of the last post pointed out, one of the most common criticisms of elegant game designs is that they tend to gloss over a lot of detail when translating a theme into a game. Many gamers feel that doing this leaves an abstract game with thematic pictures and labels.

Not that Lost Cities is a great emulation of archaeological exploration, of course. Ra does not reflect the day-to-day reality of the ancient Egyptian priesthood, either. There is a middle ground between Ra and Campaign for North Africa, though, and I believe that, by using that space, a designer can make a type of thematic statement that traditionally thematic games lack.

(Actually, the middle range between Ra and CfNA is gigantic, encompassing the vast majority of themed games. You get my point, though :) )

In that middle range you will find games like Tigris & Euphrates, Jenseits von Theben, Princes of Florence or Java. These games take an impressionistic attitude to theme. They pick out the major features of the theme, and paint them in broad but evocative strokes.

Yes, I am calling Tigris & Euphrates the L’Étoile of boardgames.

In these games, the designer is making a statement about the subject of the game that more conventionally themed games cannot. The designer is declaring, “These factors that I have chosen to model are the significant factors — the elements of the theme that made the difference between make and break.” Likewise, the designer is asserting that anything that he did not model in the game is of little significance, and it can safely be ignored.

This is not ivory tower speculation about the designer’s motives, either. One documented case where this thought process has occurred during the development of a major, though as yet unpublished, wargame is discussed in an entry of Bowen Simmons design diary for Napoleon’s Triumph, a game about the Battle of Austerlitz. In it, he describes the trouble he had trying to incorporate the Cossacks who were present into his design.

While they were on the battlefield, the Cossacks were, at least in Simmons’ estimation, ineffective against the contemporary French forces and they didn’t do anything except hang around and look cool waving the Russian flag. There were enough of them present that many wargamers would expect them to be represented in a game about Austerlitz, but the nature of the game’s core mechanics meant that they could be used effectively.

The standard way to deal with this would be to include extra rules concerning Cossacks that would prevent such tactics. It might only take a couple of paragraphs, in fact. After a couple iterations of trying that, however, Simmons realized that he was wasting time and effort trying to remove the Cossacks from the game while keeping the pieces on the board. Would it not be simpler, he decided, to deal with the problem by just removing them from the game entirely?

Games that try to include too much for thematic reasons can actually feel thematically diluted. Typically, games give the bulk of their attention to the core mechanisms, and a glance at the rulebook will tell you where the heart of the game lies. Somewhere over 60% of the rules for Hannibal:Rome vs. Carthage address the three main aspects of play — movement, battles and political control. The first two systems apply equally to all units in the game — and the one special case — elephants — takes up less than half a page. The political rules apply to over ninety percent of the locations in the game. If I were going to remove any rules from Hannibal, the first place I would look would be at the siege and subjugation rules that represent the major exception to the political control rules, emphasizing the fundamental elegance.

Compare that with Pax Romana. The fact that the rules are three times as long as Hannibal’s is a red flag, but does not indicate thematic dilution by itself. When you look at some of the uses that those pages are put to, however, you begin to wonder what designer Richard Berg really thinks the most important factors in the conflict being modelled were.

Thirteen pages are devoted to the core “Operations” rules, which cover how leaders work, movement (land and naval) and combat (again, land and naval). These rules apply to all of the “regular” units, encompassing national armies and navies — six unit types. He then spends the next seven pages detailing how to play each of 10(!) types of irregular units (making up a bit less than 20% of the counters in the game) differently, both from regular units and from each other. Most of the differences relate to how these units come into play rather than from operational differences, but the imbalance still stands out.

Since only one type of special unit (pirates) is naval, an even fairer comparison might be to the rules for land operations. They weigh in at ten pages, no more than one and a half times the page count given to land-based special units!

Are these units half as important as the core movement and combat mechanics of the game? Would it have hurt the theme that much to break these units down into, say mercenaries and tribes, with some absorbed by standard unit types? Doing so would not only have streamlined the rules by four or five pages, but it would also have changed the proportions dramatically, with rules for special units being in the neighbourhood of one-fifth the length of the core operations rules. The bulk of the rules would be devoted to the national armies and navies, where it belongs.

Eurogames are not immune to this phenomenon. There is a similar, but smaller, case in the rules of Pillars of the Earth. At the start of the game, the players each have the same three craftsmen, one each of three kinds. Over the course of the game, these starting craftsmen can be discarded in favour of more powerful ones that come up during play.

Each starting craftsman grants its owner a privilege, however. Annoyingly, they are all abilities that you would expect players to have anyway. For example, a player that does not have a Mortar Mixer cannot use a Mason to exchange stone for victory points. Worse, these “powers” are not indicated on their cards, unlike everything else relevant to how craftsmen are used.

These “powers” are so obscure that the first few times that I played Pillars on Brettspielwelt, I did not know they existed. In part this was because the translation of the rules that was available at the time was barely adequate, and rather confusing (no, Melissa, I am not referring to your translation). More importantly, though, when I did bump up against these limitations, and the interface enforced them by preventing me from taking my intended action, they just seemed like programming errors.

What, exactly, is the purpose of including these mini-rules? Pillars is themed around the construction of a medieval cathedral, and the starting craftsmen represent types that would do the majority of the work required for that enterprise, at least until the late, decorative stages. Is it possible that the penalties were added to discourage the anti-thematic shedding of these important workmen for their flashier, but more limited, compatriots? I am afraid that the answer may be yes. If so, it is far too high a price to pay for such a limited thematic accent.

Differences in publication practises muddy perceptions of theme, as well. In the world of wargames and other chromed up designs, it is quite common for a game’s rulebook to include a page or more of designer’s notes. Some even include developer’s or publisher’s notes as well. In them, the game’s creators get to describe how the game came to be, give thanks to those that gave them support and defend their more controversial rules decisions. Anyone can see how a rules system is relevant to the theme if the designer gets a chance to explain the relationship.

Unfortunately, designers of euros and of many of the simpler American-style games do not get this opportunity to explain themselves. While a few may offer something on Boardgamegeek, those are rare. As a result, players have to suss out how the designer came up with a game’s rules on their own. When it is not obvious, the assumption often is that the designer developed the game without considering the eventual theme, even when the designer began with the game’s theme in mind, and kept it as one of his major guides throughout the design process.

So, How Would You Say All of That Elegantly?

Elegance is just one of the factors that a designer has to weigh when working on a new game. Style, aesthetics and design objectives will have the largest impact on how much emphasis is placed on elegance. Games that aim for verisimilitude or great variety from play to play will have an especially difficult time maintaining elegance.

The benefits of elegance are significant, however, and even cut against some of the standard complaints against it. Elegance shortens the learning curve, allowing players to focus more quickly on the fun that the game has to offer. It also makes games less intimidating to people that do not recognize everything boardgames have to offer. Elegant games that also place an emphasis on a strong theme can make strong statements about what the most important factors affecting the situation are (or were).

Everything else being equal, of course, it is better to be elegant than not.

  1. I look at the Colony Track in Goa as “granting 1 colonist” and that once in a while you get lucky and “found a colony” instead. :)

  2. You can look at it however you want. It’s still a rules patch :P

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