Archive for February, 2012

Game Design – Strategic Complexity leading to Complication or Sophistication?

Posted in Forged from the Founders on February 3, 2012 by gryphonforge

Wow how time flies! It’s been a year since our last official post and we’re way overdue on getting the word out about goings on here at The Forge. Though it may seem to the external casual observer that all fires here have extinguished, things couldn’t be further from the truth.

Much of 2011 was spent rekindling our real jobs with whole career changes and dramatic scope shifts that made off with most of our extra time. Even with this drain on Gryphon Forge design time, the three of us still committed to many weekly game nights throughout the last year, and proceeded to invest in our favorite pursuit – new game concepts. With another great game getting close to “playable prototype” stage, we’re fired up for 2012 to get another one out to you gamers!

Working through our latest design concept brings an interesting game design challenge we’ve been facing to mind. A challenge that ties strategy to complexity, and overall fun balance.

One of our major goals has been to create a much more strategically challenging, strategically rewarding game. This is a different sort of game from our first released title, Wizard’s Gambit – which is more casual and light hearted. We want to build a game that the hard core hobbyist would likely enjoy.

To fulfill this design goal we’ve developed quite a bit more player choice and decision making into the game design, over pure random events and limited choice. We really want players to feel like every move and event is one of their choosing, rather than forced by the mechanics of the game – even if the outcome is uncertain. To this end we’re adding many complexities and layers to the game mechanics that yield more strategy through the interactions the complexities bring.

The current state is that the prototype game has every strategic idea we’ve thought of while designing the game. This makes playing the game, from completing a turn phase to deciding your next move, very  difficult; generating a lot of discussion on “how it’s supposed to work” and a lot of extra down time figuring out what to do. Admittedly after a few early design play-test sessions, this challenge made the three of us begin to think that we needed to “eliminate the complexity in the next pass” because the game is obviously “too complex”.

But here’s where the interesting part of the challenge comes in – how do you judge too complex? It occurred to me while reflecting on this subject that many of the greatest strategy games are complex, yet people don’t complain about them being too complex – so there must be multiple types of complexity that you have to design for, both to include and avoid.

Thinking more on this, the real accomplishment is to sort through the total complexity of the game and determine whether a rule, mechanic, or game element is either:

a)      Complexity leading to complication  –or–

b)      Complexity leading to sophistication

Obviously you want the second one, right?

Looking at these in more detail, complexity leading to complication is really what you want to avoid in your strategic design. Design that fails to integrate complexity well into the game flow ends up feeling complicated, or onerous, and basically un-fun. Now you might ask – what makes something un-fun? I think I’ll save that for another blog, but here are some examples:

We discovered one design implementation that can lead to complex-complication in game systems is creating too many elements in a rock-paper-scissors aspect of the game. Too many elements that are designed to cross-compete with other elements means that much more time is required for players to learn all of the intricacies of the system compared to the fun it yields. If players have to sift through too many choices and are required to make too many calculations during a unit of game play, it may seem really strategic, however it not only slows down the game for them, but also everyone else who’s waiting to take their turn.

Another example is having too many things to do on your turn. If the turn has too many steps or activities rather than simple options or smooth flow, we found that players lose track of what they’re doing and omit steps altogether.  As designers we assume that we’re giving players a lot of choices so that they have the freedom to craft the supreme killer strategy, but it ultimately back-fires. Player’s either cannot, or do not want to spend so much time on the complexity. It’s simply too complicated.

On the flip side, complexity that has elegant mechanics or flow leads to sophistication – ultimately leading to the best types of strategy games. When complexity is added in this way, players don’t see it as complex; rather it combines the right mix of risk and choice from the game elements to create a very enjoyable and strategically rewarding game. These design decisions usually stem from obvious principles such as following the most logical path based on the theme or mechanic, or one rule to solve multiple scenarios. You know you’re off track when your start creating “crutch rules” to handle exception cases or game breaking design flaws.

Examples of well implemented complexity leading to sophistication can be found in games like Dominion, Magic the Gathering, or Arkham Horror. All three share complex game elements, rules, and mechanics – but the mechanics mesh well together. Players view the games as infinitely re-playable rather than un-fun or too complex. The designers of these games understood the art of designing complexity in a way that gave the players choice, but without the onerous overhead of complexity-complication.

So going back to our current game concept prototype, we are following the course of leaving all of the complexity in on first pass, but running every part through tests to determine if a given element or mechanic is complicated or sophisticated. Where we find that we’re falling closer to complication, we search for a way to elegantly modify it to yield sophistication; or eliminate it if we fail to do so.

In this way we still include all of our ideas and lower the risk of throwing out that one “game maker” element or mechanic without thorough due diligence on its merits, but eliminate the complex-complication that makes many games un-fun.