I’ve written before about the difference between strategic and experiential games – that is, games that are meant to challenge players intellectually versus games that are trying to generate an emotional experience. While I separated them into a binary for the sake of writing about it, every game has some ratio of strategy to experience to them, and part of game design is deciding where to stake that ratio.
One of the most difficult parts of balancing strategic and experiential value is that sometimes, the best thing for you to do is to make the game less smart – that is, replacing difficult decision-making with something out of the players’ control. This may sound counterintuitive, but sometimes it’s what’s needed to make your game a more complete and enjoyable experience.
Destroying Your Brain Cells
There’s two questions that have to be answered here: How do you make your game dumber, and when do you do it?
“How” can be defined with something approaching empiricism. You simply have to look at the areas of your game that exist on a binary between “experiential” and “strategic”. Some examples are:
- Hidden information: Having more complete information is more strategic, because you have a better idea of what the game state looks like. Having more hidden information is more experiential because of the exciting “moment of truth”.
- Randomness: Having no randomness, or “input randomness” where you determine random effects before making choices, are strategically beneficial because the players have more information before making a decision. However, having more “output randomness”, where you don’t know what will happen to some extent when you take an action, means that victory or defeat can hinge on an unexpected outcome, making these moments more impactful than games where things go mostly according to plan.
- Asymmetry: I’ve mentioned this multiple times at this point, but while asymmetric powers make it more likely that a game will be reduced to who or what you selected before it began, it also creates sides that players can identify with and remember.
“When” largely depends on your design. I share Robert Ebert’s opinion on craft in that a well-made work does the best job of expressing its vision, rather than adhering to a set standard of “good design”. Thus, it’s your judgment call as a designer for when this kind of sacrifice is necessary. What audience is your game aimed toward? What kind of holistic experience do you want to create? Do you have so much strategy it can get paralyzing? These are all useful questions to ask yourself.
The next section is a case study of a game I think took a stuffy genre and made it stupid in the best way.
Camelot: A Silly Place
Tournament at Camelot belongs to the trick-taking genre, which has its roots in classic games like bridge and hearts. The genre has a lot of stiff competition, including the two-player The Fox in the Forest, the co-op The Crew, and Nyet!, a game I’m very fond of and wrote about at length previously. However, Tournament at Camelot has done more to innovate trick-taking than any other game before it, because it’s the world’s first trick-taking game that’s stupid.
Even compared to other strategy games, trick-taking focuses a lot on the ability to analyze what cards have already been played. Classic trick-taking games use a full deck of playing cards divided evenly among four players, and a large component of the strategy involves memorizing what has been played, knowing what remains in your opponents’ hands, and formulating a strategy around this information. The core of trick-taking, essentially, is using perfect information to develop short-term tactics.
Tournament at Camelot throws all this out the window, and arguably for its benefit. You only see about half of the deck, so you have no idea what your opponents could have, and wild suits and “merlin” cards make it impossible to actually decipher your opponents’ hands fully. To add to the chaos, the game belches a half-dozen Godsend cards onto the battlefield after the first rounds, which do things ranging from making a player play with their hand revealed to stealing someone’s character power. It is a horrendous, hilarious mess, less of a calculated battle of wits and more four knights punching each other bare-handed in a pit full of mud. Whereas other trick-taking games require you to be cold and calculating, this one allows you to get in a good laugh about how ridiculous the whole situation has become. It’s a warm, funny, human game.
Not every game should go to the lengths Tournament at Camelot did, but its decision to carve out a niche in its stolid genre by being goofy and unpredictable was an extremely good one.
Escape From the Castillo
You might think that sacrificing strategy for excitement is limited only to lighter games, or to things like area control games with lots of minis where the experience of getting into a slugfest with your opponents is more important than something tense and balanced. However, things aren’t that clean, and many games we think of as classic Euro or strategy games have embraced stupidity to at least a small extent.
El Grande is one of the best examples. In El Grande, you can choose to place your caballeros (cubes, used to determine area majorities) into the Castillo, an opaque tower that hides the caballeros from view. At the end of every three rounds, all of the cubes in the Castillo are revealed and routed onto the board via simultaneous selection.
The fact that the cubes in the Castillo can’t be seen, despite players having to announce how many they’re putting into it at all times, is a strict negative in terms of strategy. Making players memorize every minor action in order to gain a strategic advantage is unfun and rewards rote thinking over innovative strategy. By removing the Castillo and exiling the caballeros to Strategy Island, where you can clearly see how many caballeros everyone has, it means that the players can make more informed decisions about where to put them during the scoring round.
But removing the Castillo would also destroy one of the most important moments of the game: The theatre of revealing the caballeros inside and determining who has a majority. Aside from the hardcore strategy game enthusiasts, most players of El Grande will only semi-remember additions to the Castillo, so sometimes people will under- or overestimate how many caballeros are actually hidden in there. This means that the scoring rounds, which can otherwise be bookkeeping for an outcome everyone saw coming, gain an emotional element as eight caballeros suddenly storm out of the tower to charge into the Basque Territories you thought you had total control over.
Scoring in most Euros is mostly bookkeeping, but by removing the element of strategy that having visible caballeros would have created, El Grande manages to make it one of the most exciting parts of the game.
Sometimes, the best version of your game is one that defies the easy definitions of a “good game”. Being able to sacrifice what people think are good features of other games in service of your vision is difficult – possibly one of the most difficult things to do in game design – but if done with good judgment and clear vision, can be the difference between an okay but forgettable game and an instant classic that wins people over. When the time comes, will you dare to be stupid?