User-Friendly Games Part 1

Merriam-Webster defines user-friendly as “easy to use or understand.”  Okay.  How do we apply that concept to tabletop game design?  Do we say that user-friendliness measures how easily players can understand the rules of the game?  Sure, that’s a good starting point.

Rules Clarity

Video games have rules and art.  They also have the advantage of programs to prevent players from violating any rules of the game.  This polices play and frees players to explore.  Tabletop games have rules, components and art but no rigid coding to prevent accidental misplays.  Our players must self-police their play to make sure that all rules are followed.


Clear rules clearly go a long way toward making your game user-friendly.


User-friendliness is an evolving idea for me.  Over the last few years, it’s become evident that clear rules are an objective but not a sufficient endpoint; a checkpoint but not the finish line.  We must also consider questions of complexity and depth.

Rules Complexity

The complexity of a game is essentially the number of choices players get each turn.  Complex games overwhelm many players when they cannot take in all the options set before them.  Complex games can be made user-friendly if we develop them diligently. Make sure the components are clear.  Include reference cards.  Provide illustrated examples of play.  Provide a living rulebook and FAQ on the publisher’s website (and link to these documents on fan sites like the Geek).

Play Depth

Making choices easier to understand isn’t always enough to make the game user-friendly however–not if the game is also deep.   When a game is deep, it offers early choices with big implications later in the game.  Deep games seem obtuse when players cannot perceive the implications of their actions.

Distinguishing Depth From Complexity: An Anecdote

A gamer was visiting from out of town a few years ago and a member of our club offered to host gaming for him that night.  My wife Debra and I joined in to bring the total to four (that being a good quorum or many games).  One of them brought an area control game.  The rules were taught and off we went.  It should now be mentioned at this point that Debra and I had been playing area-control games most every evening after dinner.  By the middle of the game, she and I had each recognized that some areas had been secured by their current holder and were essentially unassailable.  We ignored those and exerted our efforts elsewhere.  When one of our companions attempted to go after one of these regions, we eyed each other and happily gobbled up the rest.  When the dust settled, our scores were literally half again that of the other two players.


Everyone at that table completely understood the rules and their components.  Any issues of complexity had been solved.  Its depth however, eluded the other players.

Where Do We Go From Here?

I love deep games.  I appreciate complex games.  Many games are great because they are complex and deep.  But when these elements aren’t well conveyed, good games get glanced over.  They get a single play but little more.  Rules complexity or obtuse play become an impediment, preventing the game from ever gaining the following it deserves.


Over the next few columns, we will going to take a look at complexity and depth each in turn and discuss how each can be managed to engage our players and keep them engaged–by making them user-friendly.

What do you think of the complexity, depth, and their impact on user-friendliness?  How do you approach them in your designs?  what have you learned from the experience? Share with your fellow readers in the comments below.  And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, create an account with WordPress and follow this blog.  If you keep reading, I’ll keep writing.


5 thoughts on “User-Friendly Games Part 1

  1. It has always seemed to me that some complex games seem obtuse because the game mechanics poorly model the situations they are supposed to simulate. This happens in software design when you give bad icons or names to commands, so the user can’t grasp what actually happens when they use the command. It happens in games when a player choice triggers some subtle mechanism that doesn’t immediately provide the player with feedback on what has been accomplished. However, if the game mechanism follows the player’s mental model (“If this was the real world, I should put a power plant here”), the complexity can be manageable.

    • great point Carl. information design is so important in games. if you want to learn from the master, check out any book by Edward R. Tufte. warning: not for casual reading!

  2. I’m not familiar with the terminology being used here. What do we mean by, “obtuse,” in reference to game design? I think I understand complexity and depth, but depth is a little new to me.

    I like when the rules are fairly straight forward, but allow complex game play to emerge. Chess is the best example I can think of because if two kids new to the game play it is fairly simple and straight forward for them, but as they learn and progress so do the strategies that they can employee within that same simple set of rules. And it’s not necessary to mention these strategies in the time books or guides, but for a new game that the public is unfamiliar with this kind of emergent game play is worthy of mention in marketing materials. Is this what we refer to as depth?

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