093 User-Friendly Games, Part 3

The Story So Far…

Deep games are cool.  Complex games can be awesome.  Many excellent games are excellent 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.

This post takes a look at depth.  How depth be presented to our players and in accessible ways?  How can depth be user-friendly?

What Does Depth Mean

In his fantastic book A Theory of Fun for Game Design,  Ralph Koster opens with an examination of engagement.  Games need to be in the “Goldilocks zone,” in order to be engaging.  When a game is too easy, it bores us.  When a game is too hard, it confuses us.  To be Fun, a game needs to challenge us without overwhelming us.

Depth is not rules, nor is it card text, nor is it victory conditions.  Depth is in the ways rules, card text, and victory conditions interact.  In a deep game, each element you add brings new implications for your players.

DominicAdding game elements does not grant a game depth, however.  Adding elements and rules brings complexity but depth is as much about the elements you choose to leave out as the ones you choose to incorporate.  Designer Dominic Crapuchettes once remarked to me that “every rule must justify its existence.”  Dominic embodies the designer seeking depth.

Chess is the quintessential example of depth, of course.  The rules fit on the inside of the box top but thousands of books have been written on the subject.  Depth will keep players returning to your game long after its contemporaries have been “solved” and abandoned.

The Danger of Depth

Depth can be a trap for designers as well.  Inherent in designing for depth is the danger of unseen depth.  A Theory of Fun for Game Design cautions us about engagement–when a player cannot see the good ways to play, she will throw her hands up in frustration rather than keep looking for unseen depth.  You can hardly blame her; thousands of games come out every year.  Each of these begs for her attention.  If your game is inaccessible, she will quickly move on to the next one in line.

To the designer, who is intimate with each element of the game, this depth is transparent but working strictly from the rules, the depth is too great for many neophytes.  If the designer were included with the game to give new players guidance, its depth would become clear.  We call this designer in a box syndrome.

Designer in a Box: 1955, The War on Espionage

My first-hand experience with designer in a box syndrome happened in 2011 when Living Worlds Games released 1955: The War of Espionage.  Early reviews were solid.  Blind tests indicated that the play was clear.  We were hopeful that the game would be well-received.  Before going further in this story, it should be mentioned that 1955 is a card-driven  game and that each card can be played four different ways and that knowing which way to play each card is essential to victory. When we released to the public, we discovered that many players had trouble seeing through its depth.  I had stumbled into the land of designer in a box.

So how do we deal with this issue?  How can we put you–the designer–in the box?  I have identified three ways: Sidebars, Play Hints, and Strategy Guides.

Sidebars

SidebarRightSidebars are the margin notes in a rulebook.  Sidebars are principally used to remind players of key rules or to provide examples of play.  Sidebars can also be used to present play hints.  Use these play hints to give your players insight into your game’s depth.

To see examples of particularly good sidebars, take a look at rulebooks from Alea.  Their editors regularly use sidebars for all these reasons.

Play Hints

TipsThese are small tips to the players.  Play hints should be short and sweet–a quick sentence or two and nothing more.

Use your play hints to emphasize the play elements you believe should be obvious.  Remember that you are intimate with each element of your game.  Play hints are your opportunity to share your vision with your players.

Strategy Guides

When you feel verbose–as I often do–strategy guides are the place to exercise for that verbosity.  Play hints are terse.  Strategy guides can be exhaustive.  Use them to give players broad guides to play.  Use them to walk players through the major strategies you discovered during your game’s development.

Some players prefer to explore a game on their own.  Discovery is part of their core engagement.  These players plan to give your game multiple plays and discover their own strategies.  They may feel cheated when you show too much to them.  Because strategy guides may be seen as “spoilers” by these players, I recommend that they be saved for the end of the rulebook or put on the game’s website.

Deep Games on the T.A.B.L.E.

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of returning to the T.A.B.L.E.  convention.  Several attendees were aspiring game designers looking for feedback on their prototypes.  Talking with them was a pleasure.  Few things are more enjoyable to me than talking design with someone who’s passionate about their craft.

One game in particular caught my attention for its potential depth, Roller Derby Final Jams (image included with designer Steve Bissett’s permission).
RDFJ layout

RDFJ focuses on the closing minutes of play.  This is a wise decision on Steve’s part.  It allows him to focus gameplay on the most exciting parts of a match and dispense with the humdrum.

There were some areas that were still a bit clunky in this design and this was an opportunity for Steve and I to discuss his game at length, looking carefully for opportunities to streamline play, to increase its depth, and to convey depth through its components.  If you see a man dressed as a referee with “Tom Green” on his back at your local convention, I urge you to grab him for a play.

Closing Thoughts

I confess.  This entry kept me stumped for weeks.  Where the first two entries flowed out rather smoothly, the topic of depth keeps slipping out of my grasp.  Ironically, this is much like how game depth itself functions.  Depth in a game relies on a certain amount of subtlety and so too does describing it.  My instincts tell me that there’s quite a bit more to be said on the subject.  Hopefully, others can pick up where I am leaving off.

One good piece that helped me to clarify my thinking appears on Wikipedia. Unlike many other articles out there, it looks at the broader issue of usability, not just software but anything a human interacts with–books, tools, machines, processes.  I recommend checking it out.

What do you think of depth and its impact on user-friendliness?  How do you convey depth 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.

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2 thoughts on “093 User-Friendly Games, Part 3

  1. Gil Hova says:

    A good reference here is Characteristics of Games, by George Skaff Elias. It has a chapter on heuristics, which is exactly what you’re talking about.

    Heuristics are rules of thumb that players use to guide their actions in a game. A heuristic is not necessarily a rule; it’s more of a guideline that a player will use to achieve the game’s objective. For example, here are some heuristics in chess:

    * Capture your opponent’s pieces when possible.
    * Don’t let your own pieces get captured.
    * If you and your opponent each take pieces, try to take something of more value.
    * Try to control the middle of the board.

    One important note is how I’ve ordered those heuristics. The first two are drop-dead basic; they should be obvious to anyone just starting the game. The next two are a little more subtle; a player, especially a young player, may not necessarily grasp them in their first game.

    So there’s a strong distinction between “beginner heuristics” and “advanced heuristics” (although of course, in chess the heuristics get significantly more advanced than this). So Kevin, what you call “designer in a box syndrome”, I call a lack of beginner or zero-level heuristics.

    In short, a player should be able to sit at a game, learn the rules, and have some idea of what a good move is. If a player is completely lost for their first move, that’s a shortcoming of the game. There needs to be some carrot dangling somewhere, some incentive, that will guide the player to his or her first heuristic.

    I think heuristics are important to consider in games because of what Elias calls “climbing the heuristic tree”. This is the process of discovering heuristics that are more advanced than the beginner heuristics that should be obvious in the first game. Great games usually have large heuristic trees; you can play the games for a long time and always find some new thing in the game to explore, some way to refine your play next time.

    On the other hand, a game with a small heuristic tree is one that players get bored with. As Koster says, this would be a game too far on one end of the Goldilocks zone. For example, tic-tac-toe is a game with no advanced heuristics. Once you understand the power of the center square, your games will likely end in a tie. There’s no advanced way to play it.

    Games that suffer from designer-in-a-box have the opposite problem; they may have tons of interesting advanced heuristics, but no basic heuristics, so players will never be able to climb the heuristic tree to get to the good stuff.

    I think the heuristic tree is a hugely important concept to a game designer. For most games, it’s the act of climbing the heuristic tree that players will find fun and engaging. Making a game with a full heuristic tree is critical to making a game that beginning and advanced players alike will enjoy.

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