While it’s tempting to think otherwise, computers are the best tool we have for pursuing great game designs. In this episode, I also talk about how “abstract” games are problematic due to low information density, the information horizon, and a lot about the medium of board games.
Back around 2010 or so, I discovered the world of “designer boardgames”. If you don’t already know about them, they’re very, very different from “boardgames” most of us are used to finding stuffed in the top shelves of our closets – the Risks, the Monopolys, the Sorrys. Designer boardgames were almost the opposite of the old, shallow and predictable experiences many of us grew up associating boardgames with. These were fresh, challenging and new little machines – machines that were designed, and they proudly bore the name of the designer on the cover as proof of that fact. Continue reading “Why Many Eurogames Are Inherently Single-Player Games”
I’ve been called a “minimalist” before. Depending on the definition of the term you go by, I either am, or am not a minimalist. The reason that I don’t ever call myself a minimalist is because I think it has a connotation of “romanticizing the simple”, or some other kind of bias towards “simpleness”.
In actuality, my point of view is that things need to be as simple as they can be while still accomplishing their goals. This includes the possibility that they will actually end up being incredibly complex. There are some definitions/connotations of minimalism that this qualifies as, in which case, I’m not talking about that minimalism.
It’s also worth mentioning that when I refer to “simpleness”, I am of course only referring to inherent complexity, not emergent complexity. It’s a basic tenet of design that you want the largest possible ratio of emergent complexity to inherent complexity. So, if in one brush stroke, every idea in the universe could be expressed (a 1:infinity ratio), that would be theoretically optimal.
But that’s super-theoretical. In reality, sometimes we need great levels of inherent complexity to get our ideas across. I think that the rub I run into with people who are primarily digital gamers is simply a matter of what our standards are.
Standards: What Is Inherently Complex?
What we live with right now is the result of a 20+ year history of a technological and content-based arms race. Super Mario Bros. was a huge hit, so Super Mario Bros. 2 added more levels. Super Mario Bros 3. added more features. Super Mario World added even more features, and so on and so on forever.
With each generation of hardware, as the computing power/storage space increased, this had to be advertised proudly by the games. SNES games would brag about the filesize of the game, I recall. Backs of boxes, to this day, brag about stuff like “80 different levels, 200 spells, 30 hurricane kicks”, etc. At this point, it’s almost weird if a videogame doesn’t have a TON of content.
With technological spectacle front and center for so long, is it any surprise that we’d become a culture whose standards for “what is a lot of complexity” is a bit… warped?
In short, people classify me as a minimalist because their standards for complexity are based on a paradigm of mass content.
Games that are Too Simple
What people probably don’t realize is that I’ll happily reject a game that is too simple — it’s just that this rarely happens in digital games. It’s much less rare that it happens, however, in boardgames. Particularly, abstract 2-player boardgames.
For example, the boardgame Hive. It’s a hex-based 2-player game with no board, and little pieces themed with insects that try to surround the opponent’s Queen.
This game, in my view, is too simple. From what I’ve played of it, it seems too solvable, flat, and it also seems like the game becomes something like a “base-race” after only a few moves, with no way for the following player to catch up. There isn’t enough donkey space in Hive, it seems to me. There probably needs to be more complexity. (By the way: I might be wrong about Hive; I’ve only played it a few times. The point is NOT about the game Hive, though, it’s about the fact that I will reject a game if I feel it’s too simple.)
Another example is a game that I helped Kickstart, which seemed pretty cool, called Rise! (these four-letter games, I tell you…). Rise is another abstract hex-based 2 player game. I have similar complaints with it, too. I just don’t think there’s enough complexity for there to be any really interesting emergence.
And while digital games tend to be way over-complicated, there are some recent attempts at what I might call “minimalist” games that I also am not crazy about.
Zaga-33, for instance. This is a “super-boiled down Rogue-like”. The screens are a very small grid (something like 12×12), and your only actions are attack and a few special spell-items you’ll find. It’s very, very tight – probably about as tight as it can possibly be. Again, I’m not really crazy about this game because there isn’t enough room for donkeyspace – for ambiguous, interesting, maybe-not-optimal-but-maybe-will-turn-out-to-be-a-kind-of-genius creative moves. I think Zaga-33 is actually too simple.
What I really want from games is, for whatever their goal is, they are elegant in achieving it. I think most videogames, due to the ease of adding complexity and more is more cultural demand for greater complexity, are almost always far too complex. So if you’re a videogame player primarily, I can see that you’d think that I was a minimalist.
On the other side of the coin, though, someone who only plays abstract 2-player games like those found at boardspace.net might think that I was some kind of foolish complexity glutton!
In reality, what I want is for games to be no more complex than they have to be to achieve what it is they’re trying to achieve, and what they’re trying to achieve should not be “super simplicity” (which I think might have been the goal in Zaga-33), and it should not be “super complexity” which I think is the goal in most videogames.
I think that games can be judged by the interestingness of the decisions they present, and in order to create interesting decisions, you do need a certain level of inherent complexity. So, I think we should be seeking to find that level in the games we’re making. It’s a very difficult thing to pinpoint, and varies from game to game. But let it be known that I am not a minimalist.