Thursday, August 7, 2014

KISS Your Design

I’ve seen a fair share of prototypes presented by first time designers. Usually, I’ve seen them while attending gaming conventions and since I will undoubtedly see a few more within the next few days, as Avangarda - one of the biggest conventions in Poland - starts on the day this article goes live, I felt prompted to share a few thoughts about one of the fairly aspects some people may find important when designing your own game.

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If I were to point out a few tendencies among the prototypes I’ve seen on conventions, one of them would definitely be a high level of complexity. It’s actually only natural – most first time designers are gamers, some of them inspired by a thought of rebuilding a game they've played into a more interesting, more realistic and – consequently – more complex design.

Let me stop here for a second to say that there is nothing wrong with complexity. Legendary games such as Twilight Imperium or Here I Stand are notoriously complex (and long) and there is nothing inherently wrong with that (well, maybe apart from the length). However, before using them as a simple justification, you should really first examine if your design also needs a high complexity level because, frankly, quite often it does not.

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Imagine, if you will, that you want to make a game of your own. A turn-based, “nothing fancy” resource collection and engine optimization design that would allow players to perform a limited number of actions per turn out of a selection of nine. For ease let’s just number them and proceed to some of the rules governing their use.

Let’s say that every player performs one action per turn (until they use their allotment of three) and that actions can only be performed a limited number of times per round: with actions 1-3 being available once, actions 4-6 twice, and actions 7-9 available up to three times during a single round. Let’s also assume that there is a specific order to the actions: that action 1 must be always performed before 2, then 2 before 3 etc., unless, of course, some of them are skipped, because the players are not interested in them during a given round. To finish off, let’s add another system: unused actions become more valuable with every new round.

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The above system in its rough form is complicated. It would require a detailed explanation, a good player aid and a bunch of people willing to learn its intricacies to actually work. However, if you’re not new to designer games, you’ve already probably figured out that the best way to actually put it in a game would be to use the worker placement mechanism – much like the one used in Carson City or (slightly more recently) in Snowdonia. Just give each player a number of pawns signifying their available number of actions and place the action spaces themselves on a track that would govern the order of their execution.

In truth, I have no idea if worker placement as a mechanism came to be via a process similar to the one above. I would actually wager money that it did not. I However, I hope it served as a simple illustration of how some things in games can easily be made simpler. As I said, complexity in itself is not a bad thing, but before you decide to make your design very complex, and before you say that your game will lose something if you try to streamline it, be reasonably sure that there isn’t a way that will make it easier on your future players and virtually the same when it comes to the feel of the game and the number of options it provides. I assure you that in most cases it’s not a difficult thing to just keep it simple.

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