Gaming Glossary: Microgame

I dealt with a lot of big subjects in 2014, so I’m going to start off 2015 with a small subject: Microgames. The last two years were full of small games. There were a number of big Kickstarter projects for games that packed a lot into a tiny package. UNPUB 5 is right around the corner, and I plan on taking a handful (quite literally) of games I’ve been working on that I consider Microgames. Today, I want to look at what makes microgames unique and interesting.

People classify games as microgames based on many different factors. The most obvious factor is size. Both box-size and table-size are important. A deck of cards is pretty small and easy to carry around, but many definitions don’t include a standard deck (or a standard-sized) deck. One additional factor that is frequently included is the number of components. Most agree that the game has a very limited number of components, though the exact cutoff is debated. For now, we can arbitrarily set that number as 54 and revisit it later. With these two parameters in hand, we can safely identify most microgames.

Many of the games frequently identified as microgames fit in those parameters. Coin Age is one card and some coins. Love Letter is only a handful of cards. But there are still outliers. Can you consider pen/paper games (e.g. Tic-Tac-Toe) as microgames? Or games with no components at all, like werewolf, or other party games. And there are a number of games that can be counted as having the essence of a microgame that exceed our (arbitrary) component or size count. No Thanks and For Sale have a significant number of components when you count the tokens. So there is an implication that Microgames aren’t simply about being small.

On Board Games did a great breakdown of Microgames in Episode 127, and mentioned that microgames capture the essence of a boardgame in a simplified form. This is, of course a rather vague definition, but it points us in the right direction. Physical size and number of components are interrelated, because a small box and small component count demand a level of simplicity. You simply don’t have the space or parts to accomplish something incredibly complex. The trick is really to fit as much complexity as possible within those limits. A microgame must take a large game experience and distill it into a much smaller experience. One of the ways that microgames frequently add complexity is by relying on mechanics that put a lot of behavior in the players’ heads, instead of their hands. A number of microgames rely on bluffing or social elements, which don’t require any components. The core of the game is the existing mechanic, with most of the additional parts stripped away.

On the State of Games, T.C. Petty III argued for microgames being defined by the focus on a single element but bringing out emergent behavior. the property of complex behavior arise from simplicity. I think emergence is just another tool for adding complexity. Focus is definitely important, but it doesn’t need to be singular.

What the “essence” means to me is that a microgame is an optimized decision engine. It provides focused choices with minimal elements [elements being not only physical components, but also mechanics and inputs]. That’s not quite a usable definition, because it relies on the user to decide what counts as minimal. However, it does require that we consider only the mental aspects of a decision. This is an important distinction because it limits Microgames to be boardgames. Physical elements of dexterity games and sports are effectively integrated with the mental process, excluding the possibility of independently optimizing the decisions.

With that distinction made, we can show that the other characteristics we frequently attribute to a Microgame all fall out of that definition.

  • The physical size of the components must be small. Obviously, small components are more minimal than large components, but this also extends to things like large boards. On a large board, there will be many equivalent positions, and a minimal version eliminates them.
  • The component size is closely related to the number of components. As you increase the number of components, you add decisions at a different scale. The new decisions change the scope of the game to multiple decisions. This is a loss of focus and violates the definition.
  • The number and size constraints overlap with something like money or some tracked property. A microgame may use a large number of coins and chips as a convenience for storage of information. Conceivably, No Thanks could be played with no chips at all, tracking the number of chips in the middle and for each player on pieces of paper. A microgame should still try to minimize the number, since they are unneeded for the decision, but this is why there is not a hard limit for the number of components in a microgame.
  • Simplicity is the concept of minimal applied to the rules. A game that depends on a large ruleset to achieve the choices has again turned the focus away from the choice and onto the application of the rules.
  • A limited number of components directly translates into low price and high portability. And between the limited components and the limited rules, Microgames are typically short, because the total number of choices in the game is inherently small.
  • The “essence” or “distillation” of a game ties back to the idea that choices are central to my definition of a game. Simple and small minimizing the rules and components, leaving the choices. This is almost the definition of emergence [which I hope to discuss later this year], since the entire concept is to give complex choices from a simple set of rules and components.

Finally, some words about some related concepts. “Filler” games are similar, being games that can be set up and completed within about 25 minutes at most [a topic for another day, perhaps, but by most accounts, 30 minutes starts crossing over into just regular “game” territory.] Because of the time constraint, filler games tend to be small, too. Most Microgames are filler games because they also commonly take a small time. But I’m hesitant to say “all”, because there are, no doubt, microgames that will stretch the time outside of the “filler” range. The main difference is that filler games are not inherently limited in their components or their focus, as long as everything can be accomplished quickly.

“Small box” games are purely limited by size. There is no fixed cutoff, but about 40 cubic inches or less seems about right. Of course, this is sometimes hard to gauge, because so many boxes are largely empty air. Obviously, the size constraint puts some kind of limit on the total number and size of components, but the scope can be fairly large, and minimizing the component use is a secondary constraint.

Print and Play games that come in a small package but require the player to provide lots of components do not count as microgames, unless the definition still applies after the components have been gathered.

Mini-games are also different from Microgames. Mini-games are simply shrunken versions of bigger games, fitting the entire experience, or almost all, into physically smaller components. This is the same as a “travel” version. No attempt has been made to focus on the decisions, or number of components, or complexity of the game. But there are micro-adaptations that attempt to replicate the choices of a larger game using the principles of a Microgame. These micro-adaptions can usually be considered microgames, if they are different enough.

What will 2015 bring for microgames? It remains to be seen if they are a forgettable trend or a fad. Their popularity might still be on the rise, or it might have already peaked, but I suspect they have a permanent place in the game industry. They provide a lot of interesting ground for designers to work with, and fill an important role for players, by providing nearly a full game experience that can be taken anywhere. So let’s see where we can take Microgames.

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  1. Design Exercise: Microgame | Oakleaf Games

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