Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘complexity’

One of the cardinal… guidelines… of game design is the K.I.S.S. mandate: Keep It Simple, Stupid.  Designers (and I count myself in this group, though I’m just an indie, and an artist by day) have a tendency to want to make intricate systems with many moving parts.  Part of the beauty of a good game is how well design elements mesh and make something more than the sum of their parts.  Tangentially, this is why emergent gameplay is so fascinating, but that’s an article for another time.  This tendency is an asset and a liability.

Like a precision watchmaker, I find joy in making initially disparate parts work together to make a great game, and like that watchmaker, sometimes most of my work will never be seen.  It’s like working in special effects in a movie; if you’re doing your job right as the FX guy, nobody knows because the effects are seamless.  (I almost went into movies; that is what my degree was geared for, Pixar-style, but I refuse to work in California.)  Like a good watch, a good game should present a simple function to its end user, and do an excellent job with this primary function.  Maybe there are bells and whistles under the hood that are there for further tinkering, maybe the function takes a lot of work behind the face, but in the end, a watch tells time.

A game provides… what?  A good play experience at the very least, hopefully with more depth as players dig into the strategies and implications of the design.  This exploration should come naturally, though.  Dropping an encyclopedia on a new player might be fine in some niches, but generally, the old Othello tagline “a minute to learn, a lifetime to master” is a pretty good rule of thumb.

Of course, each game will be different, and will appeal to different players, so this is more about culling extraneous design elements than it is about establishing a baseline for all games.  If a particular game design element just isn’t giving a lot of benefit for its cost, maybe it needs to be cut.

A couple of days ago, I posted a unit card for my Zomblobs! game.  This is a game that is meant to be a tabletop wargame, in the vein of BattleTech or WarMachine… just with blobs and some other quirks.  Here’s the card again for reference (and remember, it’s effectively boiling a whole page of data into a single card):

Zomblob Card Murmurer

As Andrew and Yeebo noted last time, it’s a busy little beastie.

There are three major mechanics in play here that drive the game engine:  Time, taken largely from my Tick Talk Time articleHeat, inspired in equal parts by BattleTech and Hordes and a simplification of what I wrote about in my Losing Control article, and the D6 Combat (no fancy single word keyword for this yet) based largely on the World of Warcraft Miniatures tabletop tactical game.  There’s nothing revolutionary here, like 4D space or psychometric controls, but that’s not really what I’m aiming for anyway.  This is a part of a bigger whole, ultimately, but it needs to function as a tabletop game as well.  Consequently, I’m dancing around a few self-imposed design constraints.

One, I want it to be easy to pick up, both for new players and veterans of Warhammer and the like.  Two, I want it to be a relatively small scale game, where every unit is important (think Final Fantasy Tactics rather than Warhammer).  Three, I want to explore the tactical implications of time.

It’s that third one that I hung a lot of hopes on.  Zomblobs! Tabletop isn’t a game where players take turns moving their whole army, like Warhammer or WarMachine.  It’s more like the WoW Minis game, where units move according to their own personal clock, and turns can wind up interwoven like the queue in Final Fantasy X.  (Again, I wrote more about this in the Tick Talk Time article.)

This, of necessity, means each unit needs a way to track their time.  Officially, these are the rules for Time (though I may rework the text for clarity as time goes on, this is the core of the design):

Every Action in the game costs Time.  Time is listed in the Costs section of each Action.

When an Action is used, the unit gains Time Points as noted in the Action Cost.  A unit can never have more than 6 Time Points.

Each unit will need to track its current Time.  A D6 die will work well for this.

A unit can only take its turn to move or use Actions if it has no Time Points.

If all units have Time Points, remove one Time Point from all units.  After this, any units that now have no Time Points may take their turn as normal, acting in Initiative order (highest initiative goes first, roll for ties), choosing to move and/or Act.

A unit’s turn incurs at least a single Time Point cost no matter what, even if they do nothing but pass their turn.

This should do what I want it to do, with teams interweaving their turns, units acting when they are ready instead of waiting for their laggard teammates.  This is also a mechanical theme; Feral units are fastest and will be able to act more frequently and move farther, while the Zomblobs are slow, plodding, powerful beasts, and the Aspirants are somewhere in between.  It might be a lot to think about and track, though.

…wandering off on a brief tangent again, Mark Rosewater has written a few times about tracking information in the Magic the Gathering game (though my Google-fu is weak today and I can’t find said articles, sadly).  The game has this Frankenstein’s Monster card with a weird mishmash of counters to show its state.  In recent years, they have tried to make counters only be +1/+1 or -1/-1, with a few exceptions like time counters.  This streamlined the game and made it easier to understand just what those little counters on the cards meant.  In effect, it means that the players have to track and parse fewer things to understand the game state.  The game has been “dumbed down”, perhaps, but it made it easier to play while still maintaining the bulk of the complexity and tactical depth that comes with those unit modification counters.

…back to the Time mechanic of Zomblobs, then, it’s one more thing to track in the game.  This, on top of Health (Hit Points, really, as Yeebo wrote eloquently about) and Heat (both of which will have a 12-unit span, making them trackable with a D12 like Time Points can be trackable with a D6).  Now, tracking three things per unit isn’t terrible when compared to some tabletop games, but it does mean fiddling around with pen and paper or dice.  I’m not inherently opposed to this, it’s expected in this sort of game, but I am keenly aware of the potential pain involved in tracking too much.  It seems like tracking Time isn’t quite as essential to the unit as Health or Heat (it’s not even part of the unit card), but at the same time, it’s pretty central to what I’m doing with the game’s combat tactics and pacing.  Time and Heat are both costs for each unit’s action, and they are fundamental to how units interact.

On the other hand, it’s entirely possible that the time system will be too much to handle for players who just want to take turns.  I think in the balance, the Time system adds enough tactical depth that it’s worth the cost of tracking it.  Maybe I’m wrong, but hopefully playtesting will give me a better idea of how well it’s received.

I hope to have a set of PDF files available here in a couple of weeks or so for printing by beta testers.  I’d greatly appreciate any help in testing this, especially by those of you who do have experience with other tabletop wargames.  I’ll make a big post on that when it’s ready, but I figured I’d mention it now.  In the meantime, does this make sense?  Any thoughts?

Thanks for the input!

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

It seems to me that games are built on choices.  I wrote at length about making mistakes a while back (still one of my favorite articles), and how that affects game design, but I wanted to run another tangent today.

Candyland is billed as a game, but the only choice you have is whether or not to play (barring metagame choices, of course).  Once that deck of movement cards is shuffled, the game is set in stone.  There are no choices to make in the actual gameplay.

So, what if we make some?

How about a simple one to start with?

Instead of taking the top movement card and obeying its prescription, you take the top two and choose which one to use, and the other is ignored and discarded.  (Alternate:  put the unused card on the top of the deck to add a layer of memory.)

This is still pretty rudimentary, but it does give the chance for players to look ahead and make an informed choice.  It’s a meaningful choice as game designers sometimes ask for, because you can only choose one of multiple options, and the choice is irrevocable, but it’s an informed choice.

So, how about removing some information?

Draw two cards and choose one without looking at either.  Move accordingly, then discard both cards.

Now it’s getting interesting.  It’s still a meaningful choice, but now it’s an uninformed one.  It’s still enough to make the game unpredictable because of player choice, and it gives a veneer of player autonomy… but it’s still largely random.  This isn’t much better than the core “game”, but the act of choosing at least starts to feel a bit more like the players have control.

So, maybe add a little Monty Hall flavor?

Let’s Make a Choice.  Draw three cards, reveal one, then choose one of the three cards as your move for the turn.  (Alternate:  Have the other player take Monty Hall’s position as arbiter of the cards and really play this parallel to the hilt.)

Well, well.  Now we’re digging into a classic game perception paradox, and really making choices matter.  This is a semi-informed choice, with a bit of “playing the odds” for spice.

Layering some complexity on top of the bare bones of the Candyland game gives a lot more potential for choices to be made.  Increasing the complexity doesn’t always help, of course, since giving players the choice of four or five cards with two rounds of choices is technically more complex, but in practice, it’s not really going to add much to the game.  The initial addition of choice to Candyland scheme has a much stronger effect on the game than simply pushing that implementation deeper for the sake of complexity.  The diminishing returns of that sort of increased complexity is something to be aware and beware of.

Alternatively, or in addition to any of these, one could splice in some chaos, and shuffle the deck after each turn.  This wouldn’t have a huge effect on the actual choices as individual events, but it would make the underlying game potential more chaotic.  The game state is no longer decided and set in stone at the game’s start, it’s in flux.  As far as any individual semi-informed choice is concerned, that flux is largely irrelevant (unless you start putting non-chosen cards back in the deck to be shuffled instead of discarding them), but the game on the whole has more going on “under the hood”.  That bit of churn adds ever so slightly to the game.  (Though probably not enough to justify actually taking the time and effort to shuffle that much.  The principle is more useful in digital games where “shuffling” is very low cost, relatively speaking.)

Such uncertainty imposed by randomization is a huge part of most card games, games that use dice, and even most computer games where there is a RNG under the hood fudging the predictability.  That’s usually a good thing, as randomness brings the potential for even more choices to a game, if harnessed properly.  When you have to constantly shift tactics and strategy in a game, it changes the choices you make.  Sometimes that’s desirable, sometimes it isn’t, but most games incorporate some sort of randomization.

Of course, randomness has to be bounded somewhat (another old favorite article), lest the design get completely out of hand.  Complete randomness makes choices all but useless, as a completely uninformed choice may as well not be a choice at all.  Without at least a vague sense of predictability and consequence, there’s not much to a choice, and not much to be learned.  Again, too much chaos pushes a game design into useless flailing.

Even too many choices can be paralyzing.  As useful as choice is to making a game a useful and fun tool of experimentation and learning, too many choices can paralyze or confuse players.  Too much intricacy and interconnectedness between choices can also cause trouble as players don’t really take the time to understand their own choices or don’t have sufficient feedback to understand what their choices mean.

Certainly there is room for complexity and chaos, but they must be wielded carefully.  Choice is, in my mind, a backbone of gaming, but it, too, can be used ineffectively or unhelpfully (and it may not even really be choice a lot of the time).  A little of all of these is perhaps necessary for a really great game, but finding the right mix is what makes game design an art… one that I appreciate and enjoy as both a gamer and a game designer.

It’s not an art that I’ve mastered, but I am learning to appreciate agency, psychology and creativity the more I dig into these things.  That’s part of why I believe games have a lot to offer… if they can manage to be more than exercises in foregone conclusions, railroading players or overly random gibberish.

Read Full Post »