I like microgames, and I think they’re an important part of the hobby. What I learned in defining microgame is that it isn’t simply a number, it is more of a design philosophy. At the root, designing a microgame requires you to deeply analyze the mechanics of a game, to understand what parts are essential to the gameplay, and what parts are there simply to round out the experience.
One of the ways that the microgame philosophy can be useful is by applying it to other games, whether existing games, or designs you are working on. Turning a game into a microgame can be a fun mental exercise, but it can also be a valuable tool to learn more and practice game design. Here are some of the benefits.
A microgame lets you focus on a limited aspect of a game. You don’t need to consider 50 different things at once; you can pick specific behaviors or experiences and study them. You get experience identifying the elements that make a game unique. Is it the player interaction, some particular action players take, a scoring method, a resource collection technique, an economic mechanic, or simply the physical placement of pieces? Not only can you learn how to play a game better, but identifying and focusing on these unique elements in your own games helps you find your game’s identity.
You have to think about how to simplify mechanics. This experience is useful at any point in a game design, not because everything needs to be simplified, but because it helps us identify what can be simplified. This may mean changing mechanics to eliminate restrictions, or removing exceptions, making the same behavior inherent to mechanics instead of explicit in the rules. This may also mean taking actions in the game that take place over many steps and moving them into one step. It isn’t always possible to simplify a mechanic and keep the same behavior, but sometimes, it can lead to a more pleasant experience for the player.
In turn, you need to think about simplifying the rules. Partly, this is a reflection of simplifying the mechanics, but also because you need to make the rules small. You can’t ship a small game with a 20 page rulebook, so you learn how to fit a lot of information into a small space. Every rulebook benefits from this sort of clarity.
Minimizing the number of components is important, so you need to consider how to reuse them if possible. This is useful for keeping production costs down, but it can also lead to new mechanics that make use of components in different ways. Can you use the front and back of a card, or a tile, or, even a token? Can you use the same token in multiple places? A microgame is an exercise in understanding context and optimizing presentation, which are important no matter what size the games are.
Microgames tend to be quick, so developing a microgame is a good way to think about how to speed up playtime. Are there parts of the game that can be resolved simultaneously? Are there core mechanics that support it (like simultaneous drafting)? Can you reduce the total number of turns in the game? Or more importantly, can you make each decision faster? Decision speed has too many factors to examine here, but this draws on the entire field of Game Theory (actual decision theory) and computing theory, which are applicable to any decision.
On top of all of these benefits, designing microgames has several advantages over designing a conventional game. Anything you learn can always be applied to a larger game. Similarly, you can always add to the ideas to turn a microgame design into a larger game. Because the games are smaller and quicker, it’s faster to prototype and test, and you can get more games in. That also means you get to the enjoyment from completing a design much more often. When designing a microgame, you can take advantage of existing themes and mechanics from other games. For a theme, this lets you try out a theme that you may not normally think of, and with mechanics, you have the benefit of starting from a system that already works. And best of all, you might just develop a really fun game that you can play any time or anywhere.
I’ve been doing a lot of work on games last year, and the experience in working on a number of microgames over the past year, and I think it has really improved my design skill. I also think it can be a great exercise for any designer. These are the major hows and whys of microgame design, so lets look at some specific examples of turning games into microgames.
Putting it all together
I’ve been working on Nantucket, my micro-adaption of New Bedford for a year, on and off. I started with the components, inspired by Adam McIver’s CoinAge, a few cards and a handful of coins. I picked out the distinct elements: worker placement, buildings, and a whaling mechanic. One action a round removes the need for workers to place. The basic actions are then collect coins, build, and go whaling. Launching a ship is a single action because I didn’t want to waste room on the cards. (This is a case where simplifying the rules was useful in the microgame, but would take away from the bigger game.)
The board came next. Action spaces and buildings all had to fit on a few fixed cards. So now you need a way to mark buildings, and that must be using the coins. What coins do I need? Since I started from New Bedford and New Bedford has $1 and $5 coins, I went with pennies and dimes, because they’re the smallest, and are easily discerned. I can’t have 3 different resources plus money, so coins have to count for everything. And to simplify and keep token requirements small, I did away with the need to pay for a building, putting the emphasis very strongly on timing.
Since whaling is somewhat random, I wanted to use coin flipping. That gave me options for adjusting the distribution. But I needed to track the movement, too. Both were solved by the same mechanic, putting coins on your ship and taking them off each round, instead of flipping coins and adding them to your ship each round. It took me a while to sort out the probability and rewards, but gold coins needed to represent points. That drove a lot of the buildings, because I couldn’t just give players gold coins too easily. The final steps were inventing and balancing all of the building actions. I distributed buildings onto the front and back of the cards in a way that made interesting combinations (for the variable setup element) without having overpowered combos.
Around this time, I first played Brew Crafters, and I next decided to attempt a micro adaption of it, too. This started from the approach of identifying important elements of the game. 7 different ingredients, money, worker placement for market actions, non-blocking brewery actions, multi-step brewing, brewery buildings and expansions, the large variety of recipes, research, and the skilled workers all seemed important. But as I started to develop the mechanics of the microgame, it started to look more and more like the full game, and not actually an adaptation. Yet again, it returns to simplification, because deciding to get rid of parts can be just as important as figuring out how to include them.
I refocused on just the most significant aspects, market and brewery actions, brewing, upgrades and a variety of recipes. I could get rid of yeast, but money was important. Fruit, coffee and spices became a single “advanced” ingredient, so expanding from Nantucket, I needed nickels and quarters as well. But to limit the number of pieces, they had to be the batch tokens as well. That gave me 8 recipe slots, heads and tails across 4 coins. I chose names using money references and coin puns. I started with only 4 basic and 4 advanced, but eventually created 4 more advanced, with each coin getting a distinct style.
The market actions were simplified for the limited resources, but included the start player, which is important with no random elements. Some of the ideas for skilled workers or research became upgrades, along with ideas inspired by the base game. The brewery upgrades had to walk a fine line between overpowered and useless, since I was dealing with much smaller quantities. But it was a lot of fun to see how I could translate the game into a slightly different economy. After much balancing, I discovered there was extra room on the back of the market and brewery cards for alternates, bringing back the variable setup.
Now for a true exercise, taking a game and developing a microgame on the spot. I chose 7 Wonders, since I’d love to be able to play it anywhere, and I think it has a brilliant system at its core. What are some important elements? The simultaneous draft, the progression of the ages/chaining, wonders, and the variety of scoring categories. Guilds would be nice, but not vital. You can’t have tons of cards, so you have to re-use them. Minimizing the importance of resources eliminates trade and coins from the game.
To reduce the number of cards, I had to severely limit the game size. dealing 4 players 3 cards per age, across 3 ages already reaches 36, plus 4 cards for wonders. But I think it can go smaller. Limit it to 3 players, and re-use the cards after each age, and you get 6 cards played for 3 players in 3 ages, plus 3 discarded and 3 wonders. = 24 cards. That gives a little wiggle room to fit on 3 sheets of 9 cards. That’s a lot of cards, so maybe a title of 3Ages, or Third Age can reference that, (just like you get 7 wonders, 7 resources, 7 cards, etc. in 7Wonders.) With only 6 cards in play by the end, you only need one wonder stage. It should have some kind of requirement for cards in play.
In 7 wonders, the third age is distinct because it has no resources and adds guilds. We can accomplish something similar by using the top and bottom of the cards, where only the top is usable in the first two ages, but the bottom is usable in the third age. That’s 42 spaces for different buildings. The chaining is tough. Potentially, each card has two rows of symbols. If you play the card, you unlock only the top row, but if you play another card of the same color, you can potentially unlock the second level of both cards, for a very quick progression. To avoid killer strategies, prevent players from playing 2 cards of the same color in the same age. That’s potentially 63 different options. Not shabby for such a tiny game. The third age powers probably need some cost, which can be rolled up in the symbols on the cards from the first two ages.
Lets look at some options for sets and scoring. The three main scoring categories in 7 Wonders are Civilian (blue) Science (green) and Military (red). Keep blue to be worth raw points. Maybe simplify green science scoring to either exponential (1,4,9,16) or geometric progression (1,3,6,10). Red military must be simplified slightly. There are a few options here, but the simplest seems to be winning battles by simple majority since the player count is fixed at 3. Maybe you can use the 3 extra cards for that, but that seems like a waste. 3 tiny tokens might be fine.
Let’s come back to resources (brown and gray) and trade (yellow). One distinct feature of guilds (purple) and other level 3 cards is the large resource cost. We can add resources as extra symbols to some of the early age buildings and chains to set some nominal requirements for level 3 cards. So all the brown resources become a single “resources” symbol, and the gray manufactured goods becomes a single “goods” symbol. This leaves room for yellow cards that give coins, resources and goods, where coins are also worth 1 point, and extra points for your own cards, while purple cards give points for others’ cards.
This game is simplified enough that you could potentially play with 2 players, since trading and drafting are so limited anyway. I’d like to take the time to make this into a full working prototype, but actually deciding how to distribute symbols and points onto cards is a lot of time that I don’t have right now.
Hopefully these two posts about Microgames show a reason that the microgame isn’t simply a short term gimmick. And even if they don’t end up sticking around, there are still good reasons to keep them as a tool in a designer’s repertoire. For such a small idea, there is a large amount of value left in microgames, and I’d love to see them make it big again this year.