Eat Your Vegetables

The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy. – Albert Camus

Games create a unique dynamic between the designer and the players. With most design, the designer and audience have aligned goals: For instance, with an app layout, the audience might want to use the app to easily access their bank information, while the UX designer in charge of the app wants the audience to use the app to easily access their bank information.

Game design is the only medium where the designer’s goals and the players’ goals are frequently at odds. Take Pandemic as an example: the goal of each player of Pandemic is to win the game by curing all four diseases, but the designer’s goal is to make it as difficult as possible for the players to cure the diseases while still having a chance. This split lies at the core of all game designs, no matter what medium or target audience.

In this article, I’ll go in depth into this precarious dynamic, how it can complicate the journey from “player” to “designer”, and why it’s critically important that you make your players eat their proverbial vegetables.

Game Design For (K)nitwits

A few years ago I purchased Matt Leacock’s party game Knit Wit. The game combined a simple, Scattergories-esque premise (write down things that fall under several categories and try not to write the same thing as someone else) with delightful sewing-themed accoutrements including string, tags, and wooden spools. It still remains one of the best-looking games of the past decade, and it was easy to teach and to scale up.

And yet, after a few plays I ended up stashing Knit Wit in my closet with a lot of other games that didn’t quite make it there for me. Why is that?

It’s because, though Knit Wit was a lot of things – engaging, simple, gorgeous, even funny – it wasn’t the one thing that every game needs to be, which is difficult.

In more depth, the basic premise of the game is to come up with a list of concepts that fall under one to four adjective “tags”: For example, I might have to describe something clear, bitter, and disappointing. There’s a Boggle-like scoring system where if two people come up with the same concept, neither earns points for it. The issue is that even with a large number of tags, it was fairly easy to use your imagination to come up with concepts that nobody else would guess – in our example, I put down a cucumber water-flavored popsicle. These don’t exist (I hope), so nobody else was able to think of it and I breezed through the round. Most games of Knit Wit ended with people winning by a small margin because almost everyone was able to come up with things that other players would never be able to guess, every time.

The game didn’t provide enough challenge, so it fell behind other, harder party games.

Danger Makes Me Feel Alive

Why do people play games? You could say as a social tool, but there’s plenty of other activities, like watching movies or going out to eat, that are just as suitable and require less investment on people to teach.

The primary reason people play games – of any variety – is to encounter challenges in a safe environment.

In real life, challenges are often hard to understand, disproportionate to our abilities to achieve them, sometimes wholly reliant on luck, and come with severe consequences if they aren’t resolved correctly. Games are different: We pick games that we believe we have the skills to attempt competently and it doesn’t matter how well or badly anyone did once the game is over. We can experience the tension of a tough situation without being in one for real.

Take soccer as an example. Soccer would be much easier if you could pick up the ball and drop-kick it into the goal, but the reason soccer’s popularity is so enduring is precisely that you can’t do that. By simply requiring the players to use their feet to maneuver the ball, soccer adds a level of difficulty to play that captures the hearts of players of all skill levels around the world.

A Sidenote on Difficulty and Complexity

People sometimes conflate difficulty and complexity in games, partially because complex games take more learning and are more difficult for first-timers. However, these things are different. All games should be difficult, but many games shouldn’t be complex.

As an example:

Build a desktop computer from scratch, using this guide. A very complex task, but not so difficult that someone can’t accomplish it.

Now eat the desktop computer. Much less complex, but much more difficult.

Because I Said So

The issue is that, although players unconsciously crave difficulty, at a conscious level they hate it. Challenges in a game are painful and hard, and they can make you frustrated and upset. We shy away from risks and try to pursue the path that will give us the victory with the most certainty, even if that’s boring. (I describe this more in depth in this post.)

Thus, it’s the game designer’s job to know better than the players and to make them eat their vegetables. How exactly to do this depends on the game:

  • Euro-style games place limitations on what you can do each turn, either through resources or by some kind of action rationing mechanism like worker placement.
  • Party games usually restrict information, either by limiting players to a certain subset of communication (impress-the-judge games, charades variants) or by making information unreliable (social deduction).
  • Co-op games like Pandemic use random elements as an antagonistic force against the players.

An important step to providing enjoyable difficulty is making the experience not feel like you’re limiting the players. you hear a game described as “punishing” or “cruel”, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s harder to succeed in that game than others, but more often that the game doesn’t try to hide its challenges very well. It’s not surprising that the games that usually draw these labels are co-op games, which typically have the most “obvious” divisions between design and player goals.

A well-designed game in regards to difficulty makes a player feel like they achieved something, win or lose, but not feel stupid if they don’t live up to the challenge set by the game. There are dozens of techniques to accomplish this – I wrote about one, guardrails, in depth – and many ways to strike the balance between “boring” and “frustrating” that are unique from game to game. However, every good game, to a one, has to strike it in some way.

Conclusion

Some people, myself included, are afraid of making games too hard because we associate it with memories of ourselves struggling while playing other people’s games. This is the biggest difference in perspective between someone who just plays games and someone who wants to design them, and bridging it will come as more of a challenge to some people than others.

Thrown To The Lions: Is Accessibility Everything?

This post was inspired by the game Glory to Rome, in particular its Colosseum card.

When you play the Colosseum, you can steal some of your opponents’ “patrons” and throw them to the lions for points. It’s a crushing play and one that will frequently win the game for the player who builds it. In fact, in a game defined by broken interactions between various cards, it may be a little too strong.

There is a mode of playing GTR that doesn’t include the Colosseum, and that’s generally nicer on new players, but veterans claim that playing “playing around” the Colosseum, by ending the game before someone can build it or by protecting yourself in various other subtle ways, is possible, and that the “advanced” version of GTR is better enough than the “easy” version that you might as well just start with it.

For a long time, I disagreed with strategy notions like these, thinking that all games should at least try to focus on accessibility and that complexity was a price paid for better gameplay. But it occurred to me that this is only true in a framework defined by numbers – sales number, or copies sold – and that the true estimate of a game’s quality is much more nuanced.

Spells For Beginners

Ironically, despite Magic: the Gathering being difficult to learn and the community being filled with hardcore gamers who love as much complexity as possible, the design team’s focus on accessibility straitjacketed my thinking from before I even knew I wanted to play board games.

Magic is designed at a large scale, which makes sense, because the playtesting for a trading card game is incredibly rigorous. most smaller companies (with the exception of Level 99, which has a huge network) can’t handle playtesting at a rate that would balance the game even slightly. This means that for a trading card game to remain a high-quality experience, it needs to constantly acquire enough new players to justify its operating expenses.

In order to acquire these players, Magic designers focus very heavily on the game being easy to pick up and play. A lot of the design team’s focus is on making the game relatively easy to parse; the New World Order design paradigm was one of the most important steps forward for the game. Comprehension is one of the most important metrics for evaluating a set of cards, even for products that are more aimed toward enfranchised audiences.

I think in terms of Magic design, all these things are good; however, I assumed that “accessibility is king” applied universally to all games, an assumption that might not be correct. Magic is in a situation where sales or community size really are good measures of success, because without large numbers of both the game would cease to exist. But that’s certainly not true for many publishers, let alone many games.

Going Dutch

Is “lots of people play it once” the end goal of a game design? Hell, is “it sells good” the end goal of a game design?

There’s plenty of reasons someone would pick a worse designed game to buy over a better designed one. Maybe the cover art is more appealing, or the theme is something they relate to; maybe their regular game group is 15 people large and they can only play roll-and-write games. Similarly, games might be inaccessible or turn off people glancing at it, but could be defined as “great” by many metrics. Princes of Florence is challenging for new players and has unreadable graphic design, but still comfortably resides just outside the BGG top 100.

There’s plenty of games that specifically aim for a niche audience and don’t care if there aren’t a lot of new blood. The venerable 18XX genre is one of these, as are war simulation games. (Twilight Struggle managed to find crossover success.) War game publisher Hollandspiele specifically decided not to balance strategies for first-time players, preferring instead to focus on a game with strategic depth after weeks of playing. In doing so, they found a small base of profoundly dedicated wargamers. Their article on the subject was enlightening and helped me codify this post. (The Thoughtful Gamer goes into more depth in a different post, which is also good reading.)

The goal of a game should be to be best it can be. For some games, like the aforementioned trading card games, “best” means that it has a large enough community to maintain organized play and develop strategies through the metagame. But for many others, “best” might mean that it has enough replay value to still be engaging for years and years of repeated play. If, for one of these second types of games, replay value comes at the cost of a steep barrier to entry, it’s worth it.

What We Owe to Each Other

To whom exactly do we “owe” our designs? Is it people playing the game for the first time, who might need convincing to give it a second shot? Or is it the people who are going to stick with your game through dozens of plays who want complexity, emergent strategy, and something they can really sink their teeth into?

It’s all well and good to shrug your shoulders and say “all of them,” or “strike a balance,” but in a lot of cases you have to pick one or the other. This is most common with “newbie crusher” strategies, like the Colosseum from the beginning of this article, which can be difficult for new players to overcome but can be countered or outpaced by veterans. What if a “newbie crusher” strategy is good for the game otherwise?

Also troubling is limits on component count and complexity. The more individual cards/powers are available in the game, the more replay value you’ll have, as more interesting strategies can be built. But by adding more components, you’re also setting the expectation that a decent player of your game should know what all of them do, along with their strengths and weaknesses. It’s pretty easy for someone to grasp the “good cards” in Love Letter because there’s only eight of them; for Terraforming Mars it might be a lot tougher. But on the other side of the coin, there’s a lot more combinatorics in Terraforming Mars that make the game so good for repeated plays.

There’s no one-size-fits-all answer to what makes your game good, but it should be defined by your game and your ideals, not necessarily by business terms. Capitalism’s constraints on “good” being a quantifiable value that can be defined by sales or community isn’t the only way to look at it, and that board games have masterpieces that can be only appreciated by a few people, just like with movies or music. Accessibility is, primarily, a means to achieving this conventional definition of success, and not a de facto measurement of quality.

Conclusion

Regrettably, there’s no such thing as a perfect game. My favorite game, Cosmic Encounter, is loathed by other players for its randomness and imbalance, while I certainly have games I like significantly less than their objective valuation (like Caverna, which I bounced off of). But the only way to truly know whether your game is inching closer to perfection is to set your own standards and not simply accept the easy answers put forward in front of you.

Because my work for Phantom Knight Games is in party games and in light thematic games, accessibility still remains a significant concern for me. But writing this article helped me realize that my definitions of quality aren’t universal and have a fairly commercial bent to them, and will help me recalibrate how I analyze games going forward. And one day, I hope to play the famously out of print Glory to Rome so I can judge the Colosseum strategy for myself.