Game Theory: Making an Easy Game

For my last post of the year, I’m writing about something concrete, and directly related to specific design choices. I’m trying to create a game (10 Acres) that is easy to play, but I found that there are multiple interpretations of what “easy to play” means. There are several different strategies for making a game easy, each with its own pros and cons.

The first meaning of “easy” is a game with little thought required. These games often leave little control, or few choices up to the player. Games for children often take this approach, because they do not yet understand complex strategy. For adults, these can be considered “drinking” games, where sobriety is not a requirement or advantage. Uno, for example, requires you to play a matching color or number, but often, you have only one card that fits these requirements. The only thought required is to figure out which card is being requested. I have not done an extensive consideration, but I would guess that “identification” is the primary thought process in the game. If you are designing for children or adults of unspecified levels of intoxication, this is a good place to start. One major advantage is that the game can have a wide audience, with no real barrier to entry.

More complex games sometimes find themselves in this category unintentionally, by providing false choices. A game may include long term planning, but short term decisions come down to a series of easy decisions. When a large percentage of the choices in the game have an obvious best option, the game can feel like it is playing you. This results in a lack of emotional or mental investment in the player. Sometimes even very good games, such as Puerto Rico, can run into this, where only one role available provides any advantage. But part of the strategy of Puerto Rico is making those choices occur for other players, so that their obvious choices also benefit you.

A designer can also use the concept of “false choice” to his or her advantage, by creating a false false choice. Yes, that is a double false. Agricola can sometimes leave you with an action space too good to pass up. But if taking the “obvious” action requires you to give up another part of your plan, it can make the game even harder.

Limiting choices, by limiting player agency or making choices obvious, is one way of making a game easier. There are two other ways of making it easier without limiting the choices: limiting complexity, and limiting complication. These terms are not strict, but are convenient to differentiate, and all begin with ‘c’. A more informative way of differentiating these two concepts are to call them simplicity of rules and simplicity of execution.

Limiting complexity through simplicity of rules can help players learn a game. Each rule can be applied easily, and often one at a time. There are few, and rare, special cases, so that for most ordinary cases, there is no confusion or conflict as to what rules apply. This can also include requiring no special knowledge of the game state. Players can look at the board, or focus on just a small portion of it, and know how to evaluate their turn. One way to achieve this is to make each step clear. Shut up and Sit Down recently ran a review of Agents of SMERSH that described the process for evaluating an encounter in that game and Tales of the Arabian Nights. Each of the many steps involved in evaluating an encounter, either gives you an outcome or gives you something new to evaluate. No part of this is difficult, but it requires a lot of work on the part of the player. Any game that contains a lot of bookkeeping is included here. Adding a bookkeeping phase at the start or end of each round, can help reduce the complexity. The downside to this approach is that can be considered tedious or “fiddly”. It is not difficult to move a large number of pieces around to track movement, markets, resources, or other information, but if the player spends more time tracking information than making choices, it will seem like work to play the game.

The other approach is limiting complication through simplicity of execution, reducing the amount of work a player has to do. The number of things a player must do each turn is much smaller. This helps make a game quick to play (though other factors certainly contribute to game length). However, each turn requires more things to be evaluated at the same time. Rules often include many exceptions, details, and interactions that make a position difficult to evaluate. Over several games, the player may start to gain an intuitive feel, and so this type is often harder to learn and find a good strategy, but the act of playing the game does not get in the way of the choices. Uwe Rosenberg’s past several games are a great example of simplifying the execution. Agricola’s resources evolved into Ora et Labora’s rondel, which was refined again in Glass Road, making resource accounting progressively easier. New Bedford also required much more accounting and piece moving when it started. Translating a board game into a computer version is another way to accomplish this.

A major downside to this is that conflicts usually require the rules to be checked. This in turn means that the rules need to be thorough and consistent, so that you don’t have Rule A and Rule B which have opposite effects that apply at exactly the same time with the same priority. Even games with good rule books can run into this when the number of exceptions and interactions increases. For a designer, this can dramatically widen the design space, at the risk of running into edge cases (a topic I recently covered for my own game). Generally, this approach makes it easier to do stuff in the game, at an increased likelihood of errors on both the design and gameplay level.

Recently, I participated in a roundtable discussion on game design. One of the topics discussed was how modern games put all of the complicated math on the back of the designer. This is basically a way of trying to make the game simple to execute, while keeping it simple to evaluate. It is also part of what people call “elegance” in game design: vastly different game states can be quickly evaluated with only a few small changes.

Easy games often belie the complexity of the game design underneath. The tagline of Othello (Reversi) is “A minute to learn, a lifetime to master”. Balancing the options, execution, and evaluation in a game can give you something that is both easy to learn, easy to play, and interesting enough to make players want to master it.

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  1. #1 by Paul Owen on December 30, 2013 - 12:07 am

    Fascinating article. Very thoughtful approach. I’m going to have to come back to this one.

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