Simplification

My parents were both gamers, pretty much as soon as we were able to handle it me and my sister were stripped of our copy of Monopoly (which I guess must still be gathering dust somewhere) and put on to gamers games. I remember getting blacklisted by a childminder’s service because we asked the minder if she wanted to play a game and devastated her with some 80s bookcase game with a million components, a 6 hour playtime and a rulebook sufficient to club a rhinoceros to death with.

Toshiba Digital Camera

That’s a picture of Titan, which was my favourite game in Primary School. The image doesn’t show the eleven sub maps, terrain effects chart or eighteen dice that you need to play the game, but you get the idea. I’m told that this upbringing is a little unusual and that being raised with board games has created in me a tendency to overestimate how easily people will grasp new games.

So one of the challenges for me in this People’s Orchestra project is to distil the things that I absolutely love about these games, that takes them above and beyond the sort of parlour games that most people have played, into a form that can be enjoyed by players who’ve not encountered anything deeper than Cluedo. In the past few weeks I’ve done more playtesting with players who’ve got no experience of the world of hobby games than I’ve ever done before and the results have been enlightening. I’d like to share some of my thoughts on the topic, both to help other game designers who read my work do similar things and to express to our non-gaming audience why I wind up doing things a certain way.

Firstly, gamers will make a *lot* of assumptions if they’re not explicitly told otherwise. So many games use common rules that this is as natural to us as looking for an ‘X’ at the top right of the screen when you want to close a program is for people who’ve used a computer more than once. A deck will be face down, a discard pile will be face up, when you try to draw after all of the cards are gone something will happen – shuffling the discard pile into a new deck more often than not. There are hundreds of things that I’ve got used to not explaining because it’s in the lexicon of things that gamers will just do.

Secondly, all of these things take up working memory. Each person has a limited capacity to hold information while they’re thinking about it in conjunction. That’s why you can’t sum twenty numbers in your head if they’re presented all at once and not repeated, but you can if they’re given to you one at a time (because you only have two things in working memory: The total so far and the new number). When learning¬†a game you use this capacity to make information meaningful, if someone says “You win by getting the most points, you get points by selling gold, you get gold by mining it, to mine it you need workers and pickaxes” then when turn one hits a player will think “I should try to get workers or pickaxes this turn, that’s the first step on the road to victory.” The more steps there are the fewer the players who are capable of leaning the game and enjoying it on their first (or second or third) play through.

brain

Thus games that would be an accessible, easy game for gamers can be one that’s a pain to learn to play for the first time for non-gamers – because the extra information that can’t be assumed takes up working memory reducing the players capacity to connect the victory condition to their options on a given turn. Furthermore this difference in difficulty (between people with and without gaming experience) is proportional to the amount of standard gamer assumptions in a particular design. This is interesting because usually good design means maximising the use of things that the players already now so when designing for the hobby gaming market it’s a good design principle to maximise the number of these assumptions that you can rely upon.

Paradoxically games which gamers might find complicated because they break the standard rules of play can be easier to learn for players outside of the hobby gaming market.

These observations flow from playtests for the trading and traitor games. The trading game seemed to me very simple, a lot of decisions were standard modular bits of game that I thought might be too simple to be interesting. The traitor game asked players to do all kinds of odd things (swapping cards under the table, all of the social deduction stuff that’s outside of the scope of most games) – however the feedback from playtesters with no gaming experience is that the traitor game is loads of fun and … if not simple then at least learnable – but that the trading game is no fun because it’s too complicated.

So taking it forwards I’m approaching all of my games here with an eye to removing steps in a way that does not negatively impact on game play. Rather than taking things for granted I’m totting up all of the steps (even if it’s as basic as ‘draw a card’) and looking at them with an eye to “Is there any way to remove a step without losing gameplay”?

missingstep

The results have been interesting. The artiste game has become something akin to “zero night werewolf”, skipping a lengthy setup phase which can be confusing to new players and replacing it with a more approachable “look at your card and do the thing on the card”. Ambiguity is created by having the same actions be possible with multiple cards rather than by players not knowing who took which action.

The trading game has also become more streamlined, cutting the scoring system down to “add up the numbers on your cards and apply a bonus from one (and only one) card that can affect other cards”.¬† Presently it’s still getting some complexity complaints from a set collection mechanic with violins reading “worth one point for each violin” so that might need to be ditched, but first I’ll try producing a ‘number of violins -> points’ table on each of the cards and see if that helps.

The real loser here is the musical notation game. I like the idea of introducing variety to each game by using a different piece of sheet music to set the rules, but fundamentally it’s a gimmick. There’s very little that it can achieve that couldn’t be achieved without the sheet music and the extra steps in doing things like moving a card to indicate where in the music the group is or matching notes on cards to notes on the score are largely superfluous. For almost a month now it’s been getting the worst scores in each of the playtests so it seems time to knock this idea on the head and actively decide that we’re going to go with one of the other two.

weaklink

Getting back on to topic, this demonstrates another merit of the sort of simplification that we’re discussing: It can help to uncover fundamental problems. In looking for superfluous material to cut back the core of a game lies exposed and if there’s something inherent to the nature of that game’s core that won’t work (as there was with the sheet music game) then it will reveal it.

My biggest fear going in to this process was that it would lead to making light games with no appreciable depth. As I stated at the start of this project I’ve no interest in making some bland cookie cutter fodder with a pasted on orchestra theme to please people that’ve never tried anything better. The goal is to create something approachable that surprises and delights non-gamers – or perhaps I should say new gamers – while remaining fun for old hands.

Being a little way into the process I think that this is achievable. The artiste game feels much closer to the goal, perhaps because social deduction inherently adds some depth, though in a manner that’s approachable by new players. The trading game feels like it could get there, but it’s struggling with striking a balance between having the potential for sneaky moves and coups without the rules necessary to create that potential either being overwhelming for or seeming pointless to new players.

In any event, pitching this game just right feels achievable. I just need to work out how :)

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