Craft and Game Design

In game design on January 5th, 2010 at 4:56 pm

Large swathes of the gaming community devote themselves to finding new mechanics and (for roleplayers) new techniques of play. Games are routinely dismissed with the simple statement that they offer nothing new. I am something of a neophile, so I understand this position, but I also feel that it misses the point. Often, these games do not suffer from a lack of novelty, as their critics say. Instead, they are poorly crafted. Craft is something you have to feel, though. You cannot (easily) point to it in a rulebook or explain in a review (let alone a quick, dismissive comment), so it’s easier to fall back on something superficial like a lack of novelty.

This, of course, begs the question, what is craft?

Let me begin with an analogy. Suppose you gave me the tools and materials I need to build a wooden kitchen chair and also gave them to a master woodworker. Given a bit of time, both of us could produce a chair. If you set his work next to mine, though, almost anyone could recognize who built which chair and, importantly, which chair is better. The chair I build will be a little asymmetrical in ways that it shouldn’t be, and lines that should be straight will be a little wavey, etc. If you sit in the chair I make, it will wobble a bit under your weight because the pieces are not as securely fastened together as they should be, and it will move under you when you shift your weight. By comparison, the woodworker’s chair will be a thing of beauty. The lines will be smooth and the proportions will be correct. When you sit in it, you feel like it will support the weight of the world, and you won’t need to put a matchbook under one leg.

To a point, games are like kitchen chairs. When a game is well-crafted, the rules fit together tightly and support each other. To move away from the analogy a little, a well-crafted game produces a coherent and distinctive experience for its players. It offers an internal logic – not necessarily realism, but logic – that supports you when you play. The systems work together to build momentum and, if the game takes long enough to play, story arc. Even if the game is not terribly deep, it still has nuance.

Unfortunately, most games – probably the vast majority of them – get snared by extraneous factors that make the legs wobble and make the straight lines waver. The systems feel (unintentionally) like minigames of their own, with no coherent theme or direction. Strategy and tactics are opaque, even when they are shallow. The relationship between effort and reward are out of proportion.

While none of them have to cause problems, the following factors are examples of the sort of thing that can lure designers from the straight and narrow of good craftsmanship:

  • Slavish attention to simulation
  • The desire to cover every single possible action with its own subsystem
  • Adhering to the way things have always been done
  • The desire to produce a product that comes with oodles of cool bits

Craft does not always mean taking stuff out and simplifying, though. A game that has complex rules can be still be well-crafted; craft and elegance are related, but not synonymous and a game can be thrown off by what it is missing just as easily as it can by the weight of excess. There are plenty of games that try to get by with only three legs. They need another facet to set off the main systems, saving them from banality.

The list of qualities possessed by a good game contradicts itself, and which ones you should have in which balance can only be understood in the context of the experience you are trying to create. Good craft can demand that a game needs a bit more randomness, not a bit less. Games are just as susceptible to too much emphasis on theme as they are to paying too little attention to theme.

I will plant my flag on the side of innovation just a little bit, too. New systems are not good because they are new, but they add tools to the designer’s toolbox. Once a mechanic has been invented and presented to the world, designers have a better chance of finding the right tool, the tool that generates the experience they are looking for.

Newer games need not be better games, or even better crafted games, though. I enjoy playing Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition more than Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition, but I think, if you just take the core rulebooks, that 3.x is the better crafted game. A few of its systems, notably grappling and attacks of opportunity, [EDIT: typo] suffer from problems, but there is nothing as poorly designed (well-intentioned though it may be) as 4e’s skill challenges.

This understanding of the role of innovation points up a big flaw in gaming fashions. When a hot new game includes a cool new mechanic, imitators seize on the mechanic, overlooking the experience the game provides. The result is an enormous wave of mediocre designs that try to cash in on a neat new mechanic, but have little soul.

Caylus, for example, may be flawed, but it delivered on a new experience in spades and it became a huge success. Those who tried to follow in it footstps imitated it in a superficial manner, stealing and tinkering with the worker placement mechanic (and, in a couple of cases, the road mechanic), but they didn’t put enough thought into what was going on around their little twists. They did not pay enough attention to the experience their games produced or to how their parts fit together. Most worker placement games are rickety and soulless and, for my money, the first worker placement game after Caylus to succeed on a craft level (again, in spite of some flaws) was Agricola, although Leonardo daVinci was a near miss.

It’s tempting to launch a series of articles discussing games that I feel are well-crafted. Unfortunately, I don’t think my capacity to write can handle the added burden right now. Instead, I will settle for listing several games that I feel are clearly well-crafted. That does not mean that everyone should love them, or even that they are without flaws. It is hard not to impose my preferences on such a list, but there are a couple of games here that I would not rank among my favourites. Regardless, I think each one is a tour de force of design craft triumphing over everything else:

  1. Very nice. Like graphics, layout, and presentation, design is an art to a large degree. I admit, I have a hard time in some cases distinguishing between games I truly like and those I respect because of craft.

    [edited a typo – Gerald]

  2. I’ll have to echo ekted’s sentiments as well. Whether a game reuses mechanics from previous designs or not… it’s how they are put together. Take one of my favourites from the past decade, Louis XIV. It really has nothing new when it comes to game mechanics… but when all of the different parts come together it becomes a well-crafted game that’s tense to the very end and, what’s more important to me, a game that is a lot of fun to play.

  3. Agreed on the craft aspect, even though we probably have different list depending on our taste.

    But I’d say among my favorite games, there are also miracles. Games that are probably not that well crafted, but that just plain work. Power Grid is probably the best example of that, since it is a design that should NOT work when you think about it. 3 minigames tied by the most “gamey” mechanism, turn order. End game condition that is not fixed, tweaks everywhere to balance the game for multiple players (that you need to understand if you want to win), hidden money that is trackable, lots of bits and requirements for players to make the game moving, randomness in the plant market that can decide games, kingmaking issues,… Yet it does work. And it works awsomely, if you ask me, providing both a fun and tense experience at the table. This game is my definition of a miracle. I am really looking for these when I play. I also start thinking that Tribune (which I started playing really this year) might be another miracle.

    On the other hand, while I recognize Puerto Rico as a piece of art in terms of design, it fails in providing the feeling of excitation. So craft is not everything, I guess. Wallace is probably a craft master, some games are just bland. After the Flood to name one (for me).

    What is true, is that games that do not provide new mechanism can provide new experiences. Even if I am less and less a neophile, I enjoy new proposals in gaming areas that are well explored. Recently, Endeavor was a hit for me. Nothing new, but so well executed it deserves to be played. And I am hoping to do that a lot in the year to come !

  4. […] In game design, mechanics on January 19th, 2010 at 2:22 pm I didn’t intend for my post on the role of craft in game design to be the start of another series of articles, but it appears that there is some demand for more on […]

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