The Importance of Being Elegant — The Case For the Prosecution

In boardgames, elegance, game design on April 22nd, 2007 at 9:23 pm

In order to critique games — and, if absolutely necessary, gamers — intelligently, you must understand the strengths and weaknesses of the major aesthetic priorities. Developing a grasp of why different priorities makes games fun, which priorities play well together and which ones do not, what the limits of their advantages and disadvantages are, and how the problems they can cause have been overcome in the past are all important to developing a thorough understanding of games and how they are designed.

Here and in the final part of this series I shall try to develop such an understanding of elegance, starting with the problems that emphasizing elegance can cause. I won’t pretend that I discuss every complaint about elegant game design here, though. This article would become (even more) unwieldy if I did, and I feel that some of the common complaints are straw men that anyone can see through. In addition, I am not aware of a comprehensive Encyclopedia of Complaints About Elegant Games that I can use as a reference. I’ve used the Alex Rockwell piece that is quoted in the introduction to this essay as my primary source for serious complaints. There are certainly serious issues with elegance that I have forgotten about.

It should also be obvious that I have a strong bias in favour of elegant designs. Because of this, I doubt that I have done complete justice to the arguments against elegance. I have tried my best to be fair, but I have probably not been as eloquent or as forceful as I should be when presenting the case against elegance.

Valuing Verisimilitude

Complaints that euros have irrelevant themes are old hat. Even long-time eurogamer Greg Aleknevicus once wrote an essay called German Games are Fraudulent!, where he complained about how themes are almost incidental in euros. I am not immune to the siren song of verisimilitude, either. I am a lifelong roleplaying gamer, and, like most roleplayers of my generation, I had a dalliance with “realistic” role-playing systems that go on for hundreds of pages to provide “true to life” systems. My high school boardgaming sweetheart, Car Wars, developed an increasing emphasis on realistic rules systems over the years, as well, culminating in the 100+ page Car Wars Compendium. While I feel differently now, at the time it was a welcome development.

Calling games like Carcassonne or Ra realistic is nonsense, of course. Even the most ardent eurogamer knows that most euros use themes, at best, as an inspiration for mechanics, which then get ground down into something more balanced and elegant through playtesting and development. For any gamer that feels a strong need for verisimilitude in her gaming, these designs are clearly non-starters. Even moderately complex games like Sword of Rome or Brittania seem positively obsessed with realism next to a typical middleweight euro.

Including all of that detail can be about more than just realism, too. While some gamers enjoy the intellectual challenge of wrestling a hideously complex set of rules to the ground, detail often has more to do with helping players immerse in the world of the game. The small details make the difference between an indifferent experience and smelling the cordite burn. It’s a little difficult to explain just how this works, especially since there are also, at least in the roleplaying community, people that value immersion who find that rules get in their way.

Even though people that crave immersion will never find euro-style elegance satisfying, elegance is relevant to the enjoyment of immersive games, as well. While rules that model details help these people immerse in the game’s reality, having to consciously process the game’s rules can still become a distraction. As we shall see, this happens more often with cumbersome rule sets. In many ways, this sort of immersive player wants the best of both worlds—rules that cover as many details as possible as elegantly as possible. The enemy for these players is not elegance; it is elegance at the cost of detail.

Crossing the Sahara

Along with having poor themes, the other common complaint levelled against elegant games is that they are “dry.” I use air quotes there because dry is one of those terms that sees a lot of use in critical discussions, but it does not have a clear definition. The Boardgamegeek wiki‘s glossary of boardgame terminology defines it as “Overly mechanical or lacking in thematic elements.” but I would describe that as an “anti-elegance” definition. I have frequently seen dry used to describe seemingly thematic, but rather dull, American-style games and wargames.

In fact, if I were going to define dry, I would say that it is little more than a synonym for boring. From that perspective, you can see that it is just another run-of-the-mill subjective pejorative term for games that the commenter doesn’t like. Without a more concrete definition, I’m not sure that calling a game dry serves any more purpose than saying, “I don’t like it,” does.

The Same Old Same-Old

When the German game explosion first hit, a wealth of innovative mechanics came with it. Over time, however, these new mechanics were absorbed into the canon, and became part of every designer’s toolkit of stock parts. In the wake of this first wave, new mechanics appeared less often, and the ones that have appeared seem less innovative on average. It has become harder to get jaded gamers to feel like something new is on the scene. This has resulted in a growing impression among boardgamers that elegant designs can only offer so much variety, and new games are just rehashes of older games.

In a similar vein, many gamers also say that elegant games feel the same from one play to another. Mediocre and poor “elegant” designs wear out their welcome especially quickly. The problem with these mediocre games is not that they are elegant, though. Instead, the problem is that they are simple without being elegant enough. If the game was more elegant, more complex, or a bit of both it would be able to hold players’ interest longer. The same dearth of original mechanics that makes all elegant games feel the same to some gamers does not help the replayability of individual games, either. If you have already seen a mechanic, your familiarity with it will shorten your exploration curve for any other game that uses it.

Fans of more complex games often feel the same way about popular elegant designs like Puerto Rico or Settlers of Catan, of course. Even the best, most original eurogame cannot offer the same variability as a game, say Battletech, which features a massive rulebook and multiple scenarios can. In fact, almost any scenario-driven game will outshine most euros in this regard. The variable starting positions and victory conditions that scenarios offer are almost a cheat in this regard. They are not much more similar than the various Ticket to Ride games are — in both cases a few significant details are changed, but the underlying core system is the same — but, due to a quirk of packaging and marketing, one is considered a single game and the other a series of games. If you take three Battletech, ASL or Descent scenarios, and compare their replayability against that of the three Ticket to Ride games, the competition begins to lean toward the euros.

I cannot prove it, but I also suspect that, to someone that is indifferent to elegance, the replayability of the most highly regarded elegant games, like Puerto Rico or Carcassonne, is about the same as it is for the most highly regarded less elegant games, like Paths of Glory, Twilight Imperium or Wilderness War. Many of the criticisms about lack of replayability ride on the back of divergent taste in games, or unfair comparisons involving scenarios or mediocre representative games.

Not every elegant game design bears comparison to Puerto Rico, though, and in the run-of-the-mill euro this criticism bears fruit. If you want games that have a high degree of replayability, you should stick with the cream of the crop of elegant games or games that also suit your tastes for other reasons.

  1. Just in case you might think wargames are more realistic, check this page out:

  2. It’s relative, Jim 🙂

  3. It’s a tricky discussion because “elegance” is a word loaded with connotation and it’s hard to tell if the negative reactions to the word are reactions against simple mechanisms or if they are reactions against someone making gaming sound like a tea party.

    I think the truth is that there are different and even antithetical aesthetics within the larger hobby. For many people gaming is essentially an outlet for fantasy rather than an end in itself, and the last thing that some of these guys want to hear is that anything they’re doing is “elegant.” Board games are grueling tests of gore-soaked manliness, dammit!

    My theory (someday I’ll write an article about it) is that the German game aesthetic evolved from classic card games rather than theme-driven American games, and so a game like Euphrat & Tigris is to me more like an incredibly thematic super-hyper-gonzo whist ancestor than a dumbed-down Civilization.

  4. I think the truth is that there are different and even antithetical aesthetics within the larger hobby. For many people gaming is essentially an outlet for fantasy rather than an end in itself, and the last thing that some of these guys want to hear is that anything they’re doing is “elegant.” Board games are grueling tests of gore-soaked manliness, dammit!

    Hmm….I think my reaction to that argument would be

    1. I discussed differing aesthetics at length in the last part
    2. It’s really just a modified version of the realism/theme argument

    Am I overlooking something?

  5. It wasn’t an argument, just an observation in parallel to what you wrote.

  6. The huge number of subtle strategy-impacting expansions to some German Games can do a lot for their replay value. The number of permuations of what expansions you choose to add in can be quite large….

    (I’m thinking Carcassonne here especially.)

  7. That’s certainly true, Jeff. Of course they can also take a nice, pleasant 45 minute game and turn it into a 2+ hour monstrosity as well 🙂

    Like anything else, expansions can be done well or very, very poorly, and the poor ones can be painful to behold (Carcassonne: the Tower, I’m looking at you).

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