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.
Don’t get me started on role-playing games. This was the era of Rolemaster and Palladium and Torg.
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. Read the rest of this entry »