40,000 Decklists Under The Sea

I’ve known one of my friends for about six years now, and he has a fascinating pattern of hobbies. He’ll get into a game really intensely for a month or two and talk to me nonstop about his favorite strategies before suddenly switching to another one. These games are in genres that require a huge amount of thinking and advance planning, and include Android: Netrunner, Summoner Wars, Warhammer (both types), Warmachine, X-Wing, Magic: The Gathering, and Hearthstone.

I find this interesting for two reasons. First is the way our tastes diverge: I have about as much free time and budget for games as he does, but he gets into games that have a much higher time and financial commitment than what I like. (The only deep game I’m consistently passionate about is Magic: The Gathering, which gets a pass because I’ve been playing for 10 years.) The second is that he has a really good time in these games, even though he doesn’t go very far from surface strategies.

High-depth games are usually swept into the broom closet with 18XX stock simulators and non-Twilight Struggle historical games because the audience and its expectations are thought to be fundamentally different from people who prefer strategy games with a lower barrier to entry. But what makes high-depth games more appealing to some people than cheaper standalone games? The full answer is too complicated to find in a biweekly design blog, but we can at least begin the search.

What is deep?

Though there certainly are complex Eurogames that require experience in the genre, most high-depth games belong in specific genres. These include:

  • Miniatures games (X-Wing, Warhammer, Dropzone Commander)
  • Trading card games and living card games (Magic, Netrunner, Summoner Wars)
  • “Classic” games (Chess, go, bridge)

The largest amount of complexity in modern games happens before the game starts, where the player decides on what to bring with them. Bringing a suboptimal army or creating a mediocre deck will frequently lead to a player losing before they even start the game.

Classic games, on the other hand, require no prior choices, but the amount of strategy contained within them is mind-bogglingly huge. Although it’s easy to learn how chess pieces move or how to capture stones in Go, if an amateur plays against a pro they will be demolished with almost 100% certainty.

Therefore, an all-encompassing definition of a “deep” game could be:

  1. A) A game with a large amount of choices,
  2. B) Most of which are bad for you.

What kinds of players are interested in games like this? Fortunately, articles on Magic design have provided us with answers.

Jenny and Spike

Many Magic designers writing about the game’s design specify three player archetypes. Two of them would not exist in games that aren’t deep.

Johnny/Jenny players play games to express themselves. If they build a deck or army list that wins in a bizarre way or plays with unique cards/units, they’re satisfied even if what they’ve made isn’t consistent or doesn’t win as much as the top tier.

However, “shallower” hobby games simply don’t provide the resources to allow this kind of player to create something that bears their signature. Most games have very narrow paths to victory, and even the suboptimal choices aren’t particularly different. For example, in Catan, you can try to win by building cities or focus on roads to choke your opponents’ development, but neither of these are particularly different from each other, nor is there a way (even an unrealistic one) to try to pursue victory via some other means.

Spike, meanwhile, prefers point B to point A on our definition above. Building skill is the reason this kind of player plays any games at all, and the best way to prove one has built skill is to demonstrate it through play. (In this way, the archetype has been conflated with “likes to win”, but this article goes into the nuances.) Games that unforgivingly punish poor skill, either through complex board states or by requiring work before the game can begin, conversely reward good skill in finding the most efficient combinations or a strategy that can bust the metagame.

Hobby games are a little more forgiving to Spikes than they are for Johnnies and Jennies. Certain games reward skill enough that a competitive environment can be built around them (I believe Agricola tournaments exist, for instance), but many games are accessible enough they don’t create the vast differences between new and veteran players that “deep” games would. This is, in general, a boon and not an issue, but it doesn’t appeal to people who want to be able to achieve a higher skill level than a hobby game might be able to offer.

Conclusion: Okay, So?

What does any of this have to offer to us, who I assume are mostly people that design these hobby games?

I think the most important factor that studying deep games adds, assuming we don’t play them very often, is perspective. It’s easy to assume, especially when playtesting in groups similar to your demographic, that everyone has fun and thinks the same way as you. Under this assumption, people who prefer to play deep games are blinked out of existence – since you don’t play them, you might as well not pay attention to the people who do.

However, deep games attract people who are much different from the people who enjoy hobby games, even people like my friend who only play an individual one for a short period of time. They might not be in your target demographic, but studying their habits and preferences will give you information you can’t find by staying in your ludological lane. I’m going to continue thinking about the differences between these audiences, and I invite you to join me.