Design Theory: Simplicity vs Dumbing Down

I’ve been writing quite a lot lately, and thinking about the process of design as well as doing it. One of the common threads is simplifying things. I’m pretty sure this isn’t just me as a general unwillingness to murder ones darlings is by far the most common thread in the many game submissions I’ve seen across my desk over the years.

I think this comes from the natural flow of the creative process as a whole, and this applies to all creative endeavours, not just game design. You start with a (metaphorical or occasionally literal) blank canvas. Anything is possible. Your first brushstroke, design decision or line of text begins the process of limiting what you can do next. Every additional mark you make brings the walls further in until you are completely restricted in a tiny space and the endless vistas of where you began are but dimly remembered. Dimly, but fondly. Why can’t you keep that freedom? Well, you can’t because it is the antithesis of a finished creation.

However, the natural tendency of creative people seems to be to try and put as much as they possibly can into a design before they finish. Learning restraint and to stand back is something that only comes with time and experience. A good way to see this is to look at the work of acknowledged master painters over their lives. The majority get vaguer and simpler over the years, abandoning an early attempt to capture every nuance in a photographic manner and replacing it with a feeling of the sense of a subject rather than every detail. This is a much bigger subject that I’ll cover here, but suffice to say that Rembrandt, Turner, Matisse et al are following the same principle as people do in design – they start out trying to put in every detail and gradually learn what to leave out.

I’ve written about this before from other angles, and this isn’t intended to replace those articles, merely shine a light on the same topic from another angle. Language isn’t especially good at describing the creative process (a left and right brain discussion for another day), so trying several approaches gives me the best chance of explaining what I mean.

To come back to game design, I find myself prone to this as much as most folk, though definitely less than I used to. I’ve also learned to let go of things much quicker and by experience learned what to keep and develop and what to save for another day. At least, I’ve learned to be a lot better at that. I’m sure there will be room for improvement for many years yet 😉

So, an example. The most recent design I can talk about publicly is Project Pandora: Grim Cargo, so let’s use something from that. In Pandora you determine what you can do in your turn by playing an action token. There are several different types of token, most are different and several are unique to one side or the other. This allows for a lot of character to be built into the way a side plays. However, there used to be even more and I took it out. What? Taking out character? I grant you, this is exactly the opposite of what I normally do, which is why it’s a good illustration of how sometimes simplifying the way a game works can be the most important consideration and overwrites your normal priorities. You all know how much I like every side to have a strong character and different play style, right? So you can see that I might have had a natural resistance to making this change. You see, my first version of the action tokens had the same mix of actions on them, and almost the same combinations. However, the critical difference was that they had to be done in a set order. This was an attempt to build in the combat doctrine of the different forces and show that the Corporation were organised and well trained, so suppressed their opponents before moving (for example), whereas the Veer-myn were rather more uncoordinated and random, with a mixture of different sequences in their moves. It worked, certainly, but not particularly well. It was not a complicated rule, but it restricted the player in a way which was irritating because it was commonly forgotten in the heat of battle, only to be noticed 2 moves later when it was awkward or impossible to “wind back the clock”. I still like the idea of including the doctrine and tactical training as a restriction on the way people play their forces and I’ll try it again somewhere else, but in Pandora this rule produced only a slight benefit in return for a considerable annoyance, so I took it out and the whole thing flowed much more smoothly.

So was that dumbing it down, or was it simplifying it?

Dumbing down is an emotive cry, beloved of those who haven’t played the new edition of an old favourite, but confident nonetheless that everything will be bad. It will have been simplified and that is terrible. The majority of times I’ve seen this comment on forums it has been made by people who are not discussing the game in question in any serious way, merely slinging mud. However, that does not mean that the term “dumbing down” cannot be used reasonably. If we take it to mean something has been simplified for the sole purpose of making it appeal to a broader/less critical/less intelligent?/more inexperienced/mass audience, then this clearly does happen. Sadly the overuse of the term greatly reduces its usefulness and impact.

Simplifying is a far less emotive comment, and I suppose it is really only the intent behind the change that sets the two apart.

The example in Pandora was driven very much by a desire to have a clean design. No point in having a rule that people routinely forget. Far better to put the rules you have where they will be remembered.Overall I doubt there was much dumbing down involved here as other rules were added at the same time this was removed, so it’s no simpler overall – just smoother and more easily remembered. Rules in the right place is the idea, not just cluttering things up.

To go back to the title, if we keep the distinction of these two processes of simplification as being one of intent alone, is dumbing down ever the right thing to do?

Absolutely.

Let’s imagine that you’re writing a game with a brief of being a 1 hour introductory game on the Eastern Front in WWII. Let’s also imagine that you’ve written Drang Nach Osten by mistake. You would not only have to simplify it, you would have to dumb it down because it is not what your brief is asking for. You are not writing for people who have a PhD in 1940s political science, you’re writing for the interested neophyte. Perhaps you think that dumbing down is an over-harsh term, but I don’t think that it necessarily means the intended audience is dumb. It’s a reference to the product and its complexity, and if that needs to be simple enough to appeal and be used by a broad audience then it may well need to be “dumbed down”. In the example above it is the experience and familiarity of the gamer with the subject which is the issue, not their intellect. If you argue for dumbed down to be only an insulting term that suggests the audience are idiots then you also have to offer a replacement term to cover this example and others like it where you are dealing with experience, not smarts. Perhaps we should invent a new term anyway and abandon dumbed down as a pejorative. How about amateur friendly or expert free? It needs to be something to do with reduction in the required experience, but that’s too wordy. Answers on a postcard…

Of course, the big shouty arguments about dumbing down come with things like 40K and Warhammer when they have been around for years and they are changed with a new edition. Here, the designers are in a bit of a cleft stick. If they do nothing then there are complaints that they haven’t done anything. If they make any changes then those are complained about in turn. It’s a bit of a lose/lose situation.The only way out of this (historically) seems to have been for the designers to make such a clearly better version that the inevitable grumbles are quickly drowned out by the appreciative murmurs and then the vast bulk of people just get on with playing the game.

The problem with GW games is that there is a top-down drive for a new edition every so often, and this has nothing to do with whether the game needs changing or not from the viewpoint of the game itself. Warhammer could be the most perfect game in the world and it would still get new editions every so often. That’s just GW’s business model. Do they dumb things down? Do they do this unnecessarily (which is what the complaints really should be about)? I know they’re accused of such on a frequent basis, and I know that they deliberately attempt to appeal to a wider audience and make changes for that specific reason. They are, after all, in business, so that’s hardly surprising. However, when you see the mass of special rules and baroque fussiness in a lot of what they produce, I have to say that if they really, truly wanted to dumb down their games they’ve got a heck of a way to go.

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42 Responses to Design Theory: Simplicity vs Dumbing Down

  1. Ben says:

    Having played during the transition to 4th ed WFB/2nd ed 40K I find the dumbing down argument an interesting one there. For example Wp, Cl & Ld were all combined into Ld, at the time it seemed like dumbing down to me as gradations in army capability were lost in the process (losing character as you might put it). On reflection, what actually happened is there became a change in emphasis as special rules picked up the slack. Wp became redundant anyway as the magic system changed but immunities to Fear, Terror and Panic, and special rules like the Lizardmen’s Cold-Blooded rule essentially did the same thing. If anything the game became more complicated as there was much more to keep track of.

    Having played a lot of games over a long period of time I’m strongly of the opinion that all games should be streamlined to the point where they’re still playable as intended but aren’t carrying excess fat. I don’t want to spend 6 hours playing a game I could play in 4 or learn a load of rules that don’t need to be there for the game to operate as intended.

    • Quirkworthy says:

      “…streamlined to the point where they’re still playable as intended but aren’t carrying excess fat.”

      That’s an admirable summary of what design should aim for. Personally, I think that most GW designs still need to check their waistlines. There are notable exceptions such as BloodBowl for example; unfortunately all 3 of their core games are not among them.

      Nor is this an attempt to bash GW. They get used as an example by virtue of being the biggest fish in the pond. The problem is commonplace though. I’m sure I could trim and refine bits in my games too if I had enough time. Nothing specific comes to mind, but it would be deluded to imagine that I’m immune to the lard 😉

  2. I don’t really like the phrase ‘dumbing down’ and I never really have. Do I use it? Sure do, but very infrequently I hope. In one of my Sunday Sermons I mentioned the concept of Locus of Control:

    http://thefrontlinegamer.blogspot.co.uk/2012/02/sunday-sermon-locus-of-control.html

    and I think that’s a key thing for many games, that quite frankly I’m not so sure some games designers think about in such open ways. I wouldn’t call it dumbing down either because I strongly believe that complexity in games has at least two scales. In that same article I talk about my theories on input complexity and output complexity.

    I think the Dwarf Kings Hold games work so well because you as a games designer have restricted choice in a way and forced gamers to play within clearly defined limitations. Your games isn’t input complex and you’ve put a nice limit and restriction on the output complexity. You’ve created a very ‘tight space’ that gamers feel comfortable acting within. You’ve created a highly specific experience.

    And that’s where I get a bit frustrated with the whole ‘dumbing down’ arguments. Is anyone experience really any ‘dumber’ than another? What’s wrong with the other phrase you use? What’s wrong with simplified? Or begginer level, experienced, expert and pedantic? Besides, I’m often struck by how those games that often claim to be ‘in-depth’ actually restriction my own ability to effect the game on the board. All the complexity is in the rules and not on the table so to speak.

    That’s not always the case, but I often find it is and those games which keep each rule simplified or simplistic can have many more of them, which in turn gives me a greater scope for doing different things and effecting the game rather than having the game rule me. Ironically in many so-called dumbed down games I have a greater degree of freedom to effect control on proceedings. So perhaps we should stop looking at games as one simple long continuous variable from dumb to complex. As I believe complexity is a far more difficult concept within games than that! 🙂

    Great read by the way.

    • Quirkworthy says:

      Thanks FG. Kind words about DKH, and nice to know that you’ve picked up on what I was aiming for 🙂

      I’m not a big fan of the term “dumbing down” either, but it’s in common use so it’s a familiar term of reference to rail against 😉

      It is true that many of the more complex games in terms of rules actually offer little in the sense of genuine choice. This is especially true of historical games where the simulation strives to be so close that all it models is the events which actually took place. Any deviation from the historical path is punished by the game and you’re left with no real tactical options. Useful as a historical teaching tool, perhaps, but not much fun as a game.

      The other end of the scale are those games which allow so much freedom that you have no clue what you’re supposed to be doing and it takes several runs through to have the vaguest handle on what tactics are worthwhile. This is perhaps more true of tabletop games than board games, and is arguably one of the cornerstones of their appeal. In some ways it’s this learning as you go which gets the gamer to buy into it emotionally and invest themselves in the game as a whole. There is a certain amount of complexity that is desirable here, as there is a certain level of jargon. This is due to the social dynamics of human groups, which need a sense of being involved, being initiated and in knowing things (jargon here) that outsiders don’t.

      Looking at this as a “simple long continuous variable” is a necessary evil of having little time to write, I’m afraid, and picking the design theory apart as a series rather than a whole book. We both know that the level of interlinking of these issues is way more complex than I’ve presented here 😉

      • Indeed it is a pretty big subject. I just have a thing about dichotomous arguments, they tend to rub me up the wrong way. Not that this is what your article is… it’s not. It’s actually a well thought out riposte to those arguments. Maybe we’ll get the opportunity to talk about this some more at Salute or any Mantic ‘open’ days.

        • Quirkworthy says:

          We should. Or perhaps another con like Derby (when I’m not working).

          In terms of dismantling the design process to discuss it, I find that a series of dichotomous spectra is a good place to start. Assuming, of course, the general understanding that this is an artefact of the discussion rather than a model of reality.

      • This TED-speech might fit right in with your flow of thoughts…

        • Quirkworthy says:

          Finally got it to work…

          An interesting talk, though not exactly news to be honest. Keep plugging that book 🙂

          It does have some resonances with what I was talking about, though actually it’s more related to another topic I was going to talk about, so I’ll report this link when that goes up 🙂

          Cheers

  3. bongoclive says:

    Blood Bowl has become stream lined because the Living Rule Book was adapted by the players after countless millions of hours of play, and is now almost perfect (at least for the first 15 – 20 games of a tournament).

    Computer games are now regularly released unfinished, with a “Day 1 patch”, and then updated frequently as time goes on.

    Could this work with games? Would it be viable? Could Pandora be ‘patched’ later on, without it being called/priced as an expansion?

    • War games and board games get FAQs and Errata all the time. The issue isn’t whether it happens or is viable in war gaming / board gaming, it is more how you successfully disseminate the material. You use the computer game model as an example, but here patches aren’t learned or ignored by gamers. You download the patch if your online. If you aren’t online then the patch is ignored and never reaches you.

      With a board game or a war game you have to actively search for this information. Or you could end up being very out of step and sync with the rest of the community. Plus most patches for games run in the background where most players will be unaware of their impact on the game. Board games and wargames have their internal mechanics laid very much bare. I don’t think there are any parallels that can be drawn, and if there are I’m not sure they’d be useful for either sector.

      • Quirkworthy says:

        Patches only matter in any format if they fix things that were broken or allow an agreed standard for people to play at. If I play a board game with my friends and never game outside that circle then patching a game only matters if it fixes an issue, regardless of the format. In computer games the online linkage of the majority now makes this important (because I will bump into other players), but also makes it seamless and effortless. For board and tabletop games it is only really tournaments which make this critical (though it’s less confusing for internet discussions if everyone starts from the same page).

        And Pandora could certainly be expanded with an extra scenario without that being a paid for expansion. It will also get a FAQ here as well.

        • Ben says:

          I don’t think any board games designer should take the attitude that they can fix any issues with the rules/rulebook by putting up a PDF at a later date, they should do their utmost to make sure it needs no updates. That said, it would be a minor miracle if once the game gets out to the general public there weren’t parts that were found to be unclear, situations that arose which weren’t covered in the rules or where the rules were inadequate. In that respect I think all board games should embrace the living rulebook. I’d much rather that then either be left to figure it out for myself or be forced to buy a 2nd ed. That not everyone may think to look for one shouldn’t matter as those people are no worse off either way.

        • Quirkworthy says:

          In a perfect world a FAQ would be unnecessary. I certainly try to make my rules as clear as possible. However, reality inevitably kicks in and there are one or two elements which may not be as clear as I’d have liked or where what I assume to be obvious isn’t to everyone.

          Having said that, half or more of the questions I’m asked about the DKH series are easily answerable by reading the rulebooks. Nor is that an especially odd circumstance. Something like 80-90% of the questions I was asked about Warhammer (when I worked in GW game dev) were clear in the rules. I think the difference in % is probably something to do with the relative sizes of the rulebooks.

          I do get cross when I find a load of problems in a new game – especially when they’re really obvious and would have been spotted very quickly by a bit of decent proofing. A recent example of this was the initial release of the Bushido rulebook, which was simply appalling. They’ve fixed it now (online, at least), but that’s not the point.

        • Ben says:

          This seems to be the last comment with a reply button so if it appears out of order, this is why 🙂

          Super Dungeon Explore is another game where the rulebook was just appalling. It doesn’t seem to have affected the popularity of the game much as they’ve sold out the first run in a few months but I know there are some people who bought it and never got into it because of the rulebook.

          I think all board games should put their rulebooks online anyway, whether living or not. You can’t play the game without buying it and being able to read the rules first is a good way of drumming up interest. I’ve also found it helpful to be able to direct my fellow players to it before we’ve played a game for the first time.

        • Quirkworthy says:

          That’s a good argument for doing it, but conversations I’ve had with publishers tend more towards the “give it away? Are you crazy!” end of the spectrum. Rightly or wrongly there seems to be a perception that people will take the rules and mock themselves up a set from there. Possible with some games, but not others. You could do this with DKH, for example, though it’d probably be more hassle that it was worth – as would commonly be the case. Nor would you have the nice art, but anyway…

          A lot of the time, if you pay yourself minimum wage to do it, and cost the materials and printing ink it would take you to make a mockup, you’d probably find it impossible to make a nice set anyway. In orhter words, I tend to agree that there is more to be gained than lost from sharing the rules online, but I don’t generally get to choose.

          Of course, with things like Tribes of Legend, the rules are the game, so giving them away would impact more on your sales.

          Can’t comment on the SDE rules specifically as I haven’t read them. Played it a couple of times with someone else showing me how it worked, and it seemed OK. They did mention some vagaries though. I thought that it had some interesting ideas and cool mechanical bits in, but it didn’t make me rush out and buy it…

        • Ben says:

          If you’re prepared to completely mock up and play the game from an online version of the rulebook then more power to you. The chances are you never would have bought the game anyway.

          Obviously it’s different for miniature games though if your rules are meant to drive mini sales then even then there’s a good argument for doing so. I think I heard Ronnie say recently that the rules and army lists for KoW would remain online after the hardback book comes out. Wyrd have a PDF of their Malifaux rulebook online.

        • Quirkworthy says:

          I expect KOW will go the same route as most other tabletops that do this – it’ll include the rules but not the background, painting guides, pretty pictures, etc.

        • Talking about DW V1.0 ? 😉

        • Quirkworthy says:

          DW? You’ve lost me…

        • Ben says:

          The page selection available has changed now but when ToL first went up on Amazon you could play the first game if you wanted thanks to the “Look Inside” function lol

  4. redfox4242 says:

    It is interesting to read this post. I think that I much prefer simpler and shorter rules. I have trouble with 40k rules because it takes so much study to get to the point where you can play with out looking things up every few minutes. I don’t really like to study rule systems. I like to play games. I have been playing DKH: Dead Rising recently and I have a lot of fun with that.

  5. bongoclive says:

    Maybe the computer game analogy was a bit weak. The point I was trying to make is that no new board game can be play tested to the extent Blood Bowl now has. It has a huge amount of feedback, and the rules are now almost perfect.

    This is a case where feedback and ‘patching’ has worked.

    • pancake says:

      Less is more. 🙂

    • Quirkworthy says:

      I “ran” BB for a year when I worked in Fanatic, and it’s had a very organised and dedicated group honing it for years. Some other games have similarly dedicated groups though I can’t think of ant that have been as focussed or as organised, and I suspect that this makes BB one of the most carefully refined games around.

      I am sure that this is not just the quality of freedback, though that helps. It’s also, critically, the structure that has been in place to absorb and react to this feedback.

      • bongoclive says:

        EXACTLY!

        So is this a path you would choose with DKH or Pandora? A Living Rule Book? And is this the future? Would this be a guarantee that the game could survive? Would Necromunda have taken off in the same way if it had had the same thing?

        I think Kings of War does do something like it, they seem to listen to the feedback my old club (Chelmsford Bunker) provided

        • Quirkworthy says:

          At present (until I can convince Ronnie otherwise), a living FAQ qill have to do for DKH/PP as I can upkeep that myself. KOW is a bit like that, though perhaps less formally so.

          Necromunda never had the people behind it in the same way at GW. It comes back to the dedication and organisation of the support group as well as the feedback itself.

  6. Hi folks.
    Going back to the original post.
    Ill try to define the 2 terms used.
    Simplification, reduces the amount of complication in the rule set.
    Either reduces the amount of written words used to define a process, or reduces the amount of actions required to complete the process.
    This simply makes the instructions on how to play clearer or easier to resolve.It does NOT reduce the lcomplexity of game play.

    ‘Dumbing Down’, reduces the complexity of the game play.
    Either by removing options in the game play, or abstracting them to the point the players decision making has less impact.
    This simply reduces game play complexity, if the rules complication is reduced at a greater rate .It can be agued it is ‘simplification at a price’.

    If however the game complexity is reduced and the rules complication remains unchaged or is increased , then the rules have definately been ‘dumbed down’ .IMO.

    It realy depends on the design brief/ target audience though.If the game development is asked to chage to suit another demoghraphic.Then the original demoghraphic may feel the rules have been dumbed down…

    I agree that a game needs passionate and dedicated support on both sides , gamers and developers for it to be refined to the level BB has been.

    • Quirkworthy says:

      I think I’ll have to disagree with your take on simplification, Kevin. There are times when I think that removing rules as well as refining their explanation is a legitimate and progressive thing to do, and definitely not dumbing down. I’m trying to think of an example I can talk about, but it’s late and my head is full of games I’m writing and can’t talk about yet.

      The sort of thing I mean is where the game is refined so that it more accurately reflects the intent, which may mean removing clunky or irrelevant rules so that the game focuses on whatever it should do. It’s not uncommon for these to be Darlings that are being murdered a bit late in the day, and as I’ve said before, even good ideas can be in the wrong place.

  7. Hi Jake.
    I was trying to make a distinction between ‘simplification’.(A good thing!)
    Which reduces COMPLICATION in a RULE SET, while NOT reducing the COMPLEXITY of the GAME PLAY.
    Eg .Change ‘clunky’ ‘counter intuitive’ or just ‘plain overly wordy’ and ‘confusing’ rules with more ”elegant’ ‘efficient’ or ‘intuitive’ alternatives.This is just a positive legitimate and progressive development path IMO.
    (When Alessio changed the way morale worked in KoW , is an example of simplifying the rules but NOT reducing the complexity of the game play.)
    Would you agree this is a reasonable definition of ‘simplifying’?(Good changes, IMO.)

    And ‘dumbing down’.
    Where primarily GAME COMPLEXITY is reduced, while the COMPLICATION in the RULES does NOT decrease at a similar rate.

    Eg When a game changes from using simple modifiers to a single dice roll.
    And replaces them with multiple sets of fixed point value rolls.
    If the modifiers were to a ‘hit roll’ for example, then engaging at shorter ranges, to improve the chance to hit , and using cover to close on enemy units become basic tactical conciderations of the game play.

    Where as ‘hit any target anywhere in weapon range’ on a fixed score ,followed by a ‘fixed chance to avoid being hit from partial concealment’.MAY simplify the resolution process,but it reduces the game complexity, and the amount of extra written words to explain the multiple dice rolls may even increase the level of complication in the rules!.

    ‘GOOD’ changes make the instructions to play better defined, easier to understand and implement.
    What I refer to as ‘simplification’.

    ‘BAD’ changes reduce the amount of ‘in game chioces available ‘, and dont reduce the complication in the rule set by an ‘aceptable ‘ amount.
    What I refer to as ‘dumbing down.’

    I hope that is a bit clearer.

  8. Sorry .
    Not a double post but a summary.
    Game complexity is dependant on the target audience of the game.Getting this right is important as you know!

    The level of rules complication should be kept to a minimum no mater what the complexity of the game.

    Therfore simplification (reducing complication ) of a rule set is ALWAYS a good thing.

    Altering game complexity to suit a different /wider audience is aceptable IF the level of complication in the rules is STILL kept to a minimum.

    Reducing the level of game complexity can cause the some of original audience to say the game has been ‘dumbed down.’
    Increasing the level of game complexity can cause the some of original audience to feel ‘excluded’.

    I therfore always see ‘simplification ‘ as a reduction in rules complication.(A good thing.)

    And an alteration in game complexity as a subjective change depending on the gamers relative expectations .

    But reducing game complexity while increasing rules complication is just bad game development IMO.

    • Quirkworthy says:

      I’d agree with your last sentence: reducing choice while adding complication to the rules is just foolish when viewed in isolation. However, I’m not sure I agree with the rest of your argument.

      If we agree that all rules, however complex, should be expressed in as succinct and clear fashion as possible, then we have a good starting point. I think we’d all agree on that. But that’s a quesiton on writing the rules, not on what they are.

      The process of changing rules and whether things are being simplified or dumbed down is, I believe, a question of intention. Whatever you do, there will be cries of both.

      It seems to me that the defining factor to say that a change is “dumbing down” is a deliberate intention by the person making the change to make it appeal to a broader, less critical, less involved and perhaps less skilled audience. This is nearly always assumed by the public to be a crass attempt to cash in and expand the market/audience, as it may well be. However, knowing someone’s intent is generally tricky if not impossible.

      If I make a change in an effort to plug a loophole or fix a balance issue then it may make the rule more complex on the face of it, whilst it does it’s balancing work elsewhere. It may even be that I make a change to fix one thing and cause unintended and unforseen issues elsewhere. I’ve done that before. because the designer usually has a better picture of the game overall than most players, the benefits of these changes may not always be immediately apparent. A bit more playing, a little reflection and the reasoning may become clear. However, the cries of dumbing down begin almost before the ink has dried.

      A game is much bigger than an individual rule, and adding additional complexity or removing choices in one area may not actually be a bad thing overall. This is especially true in the early stages of development when rules can be changed dramatically to get the overall balance and feel that is desired. The fact that a game has been released publically does not stop this process from being valid, though you might reasonably hope it to be less common by that stage.

      • That´s what I try to explain to some guy from our gaming clubs. He´s developing a 15mm SF-TT and he really is commiting any error in the book there is because does not have the broader view a good designer needs.

        Sure his game rules are simple and not complex… if you look at them single file… but as a whole the game is clunky, complicated and a mess to be honest. He tries to limit the influence of luck by reducing the number of dice used, but ironically increases luck by this. And always he is missing the broader picture.

        And what´s worse: the games he judged as being too depending on luck or being too complicated actually even luck out by e.g. using many dices for a result or the rules my seem in single file more complicated than needed, but overall the rules are breeze to play through once you´ve learned them.

        So, I can absolutly subscribe to your view.

        • Quirkworthy says:

          People do make some odd assertions about games. As you say, how random a game is doesn’t rest with a single mechanic (unless that’s the whole game).

  9. Hi Jake.
    I think we are expressing similar opinions , its just you have more understanding of the difficulty involved in the real world of game development!
    And I have tried to be objectivley detached ,(to get a clearer definition,) and therfore you may feel I have been a bit over critical of the game developers.
    I am aware how easily rule sets can get ‘out of hand’ and become a difficult to work on.
    (The path to developer hell is paved with good intensions,and/or outside interferance.)
    And the wider the audience, the more critical any section of the gamers are to any change you try to make.

    I suppose this is the real problem with current WHFB/40K.
    They try to be all things to all gamers ,(to sell more minatures,) and such a wide customer base has opposing views of what is right for the game.
    So no matter what you do you are going to get criticised by some of them!

    Where as games with a tighter focus on the game play, attract a similar audience and help focus the gamers and developers on the same path of progression.This is why other games seem to ‘improve and expand ‘ over time at a much faster rate.(Blood Bowl is a prime example of this.)
    I suppose being more logicaly focused , and less artisticaly gifted.I tend to look at the game mechanics and resolution methods used. And can see how changing a these foundations of the games have such a massive impact on the level of rules complication.
    EG
    IF a game uses the most suitable game mechanics and resolution methods for the intended game play , it is far easier to get an elegant, intuitive and efficient rule set.
    IF a game uses the least apropriate game mechanics and resolution methods , it is doomed to be cursed with an over complicated rule set, no matter how valiant the efforts of the developer.

    IMO the rule set is a set of instructions to describe the player interactions in the game.
    These should be written with clarity, brevity and wit.
    (My definitions, not Ricks.)
    Clarity is achived with the proper use of language to explain the instructions. (Glossary of terms proof reading etc.)

    Brevity is achived by using the most apropriate methods to deliver the intended game play.(Game mechanics and resolution method chioce.)

    Wit is what makes the game apealing .(Knowing your intended audience.)

    I am striveing to get clear defintions, so we can discuss this interesting topic in detail.
    And I totaly understand how the actions of developers can be misunderstood and criticised by the gamers.

    • Quirkworthy says:

      In some ways a designer only has themselves to blame if they are misunderstood. In some ways. When I design a game I try to also explain why I made it as I did. One mistake on my part that taught me this lesson was a lack of clarity within Lost Patrol. This is a small and simple little game which I thought worked rather well. However, players often just don’t get it. It’s supposed to be unbalanced. The Space Marine Scouts are on a Death World, and the clue is in the name. If the patrol was lost in cuddly Fluffy Bunny Land then people might have an issue, but they aren’t. It’s a Death World, and it’s not supposed to be easy for the Marines to win. In fact, it’s intentionally balanced against them, so that it’s that much more impressive when they do. Unfortunately I don’t seem to have made this sufficiently clear to people, and so players sometimes think it’s broken. Far from it. If anything I’d make it very slightly harder if I was doing it now.

      So, not being understood isn’t always the fault of a fickle audience – it’s sometimes a lack of clarity on the part of the designer.

      Having said that, I have also learned that there is a bottomless well of misunderstanding to be found among players as a whole, regardless of how well something is explained. I say this both from the point of view of my own writing as well as that of others. For example, more than once I’ve been umpire/ref/whatever at a tournament and have had to field questions form players which were (as far as I was concerned) 100% unequivocal and clear – even though I did not write them. The urge to win puts strange distorting goggles on players at times.

      Kevin – I agree with your comments on clarity, brevity and wit as good starting points for game design (or indeed any writing – it’d be lovely if software manuals and help functions were written that way). However, we were originally talking about changing things rather than starting from scratch, which is slightly different. You’re not wrong, I just think we’ve drifted a bit (as we often do). My point about the criticality of intention was to do with differentiating simplifying and dumbing down. Intention is, of course, important when you’re designing, but it’s usually expressed differently (in the brief and designer’s notes, for example).

  10. Sorry about wandering off topic a bit.
    (Its my age you know,lol.)
    I was trying to help define the difference between complication in the rules , and the complexity of the game play.
    As this ratio is important .And anything that radicaly changes this ballance NEEDS and explanation to show the intensions of the developer.

    Adding or changing rules to clarity of definition and or /to cover unforseen circumstances is PERFECTLY acceptable.(No rule set survives contact with gamers.)

    BUT adding on rules to cover up gaps left by poor game mechanic/ resolution chioce was less aceptable.(Get it right before you leave beta, or change the core mechanics/ resolution methods to nip the bloat in the bud at new edition time !)

    And reducing complexity of the game play without ‘communication’ to explain why can cause gamers to get a bit defencive of the original rules.

    I agree that in some circumstances ‘winning goggles ‘ seem to have strange effects on certain players.
    (I attended a wargames tournament years ago, where one player was arguing with the umpire..
    Player, ‘What do you know your just an umipre , how could you understand the game as well as the players do?.
    Umpire, ‘You havent noticed that name on the front of the rule book, and the name on my umpire badge are the same have you?…’

    However, this seems to be more due to the ‘odd player, than the actual clarity of the rules.
    And maybe different player demoghraphics need different balanced of complexity and complication.
    And different level of definition in the rules too?

    This was what I was trying to elude to with focusing on game play.IF everyone is thinking about the game in a similar way.The developers dont have to explain as much perhaps?
    But the wider the demoghaphic the wider the opinions involved and the more explaining the developer has to do?

  11. Richard Payne says:

    Hi Jake and all…
    I’ve been lurking here for a while and I thought it’s about time I contributed something.

    I agree with you that “dumbing down” is an emotive expression, as it seems to be a reaction to a system change that people may not like, to the point where they take it as a personal insult to their intelligence. I guess the key part here is “dumb” – people don’t like being called dumb, or being implicated in any action that might be construed as “dumb” (of which we are all guilty of at some point – at least when alcohol is part of the equation) 🙂

    For me this whole debate is about what people want out of their gaming experience. I know, for instance, that there are some games I’ll never play, simply because the rules are so long winded or else uninspiring in some sense. To a certain extent it’s about what a designer’s brief is, as oppossed to what a player’s idea of what constitutes a good game or else what they expect (like how people are aware of what makes a good film or any other creative experience for themselves yet may have high hopes before they experience it – therefore clouding their reaction). It also depends on how seriously we take our games. I know I can play and enjoy any edition of 40k or Warhammer (for example) although I may be well aware of their faults (usually from freedom of choice and “top heavy” army lists).

    Simplicity isn’t a bad thing – in fact I’d say it’s essential. I don’t think a games designer would ever consider any such changes as “dumbing down” – so why do players?

    I disagree, however, that language isn’t good at explaining the creative process – it’s about using an analogy that people understand, at least on some base level. For me by far the best one to describe a universal creative process is cooking.

    Cooking is all about utilising a set of ingredients to make combinations of flavour and texture, as well as nutrition, and then using particular techniques to bring them together into a tasty, stomach filling, gastranomic experience – good food is good for the soul and our general well-being.

    Now take this analogy to game design. You have the region of food (type of game/background), the ingredients (mechanics) and the techniques (the design process). Now you could add intent, if you wish. What kind of dish (game) are you making? A small canope? A simple yet elegent fish dish? Or a full-on 6 course banquet with fistfulls of almighty spice! Whatever the meal you’re sure to make desicions throughout, how much of this spice to add or that ingredient to use?

    The only real difference is that in cooking you can’t take away these elements, yet in any other creative endeavour you can (murdering darlings etc). In cooking simple is often best, yet it’s simplicity only in our own human context, as nature (the source of all ingredients) is a complex and yet balanced system of design (which we proceed to ruin and nurture, hate and appreciate in equal measure). We can’t “dumb down” nature – all we can do is study it and make it easier to understand – to simplify it.

    To conclude I think simplicity beats “dumbing-down” simply due to the fact that the former requires thought and the latter requires nothing except an emotive reaction to change or one’s own intellect or knowledge (hence why we need laymen’s terms sometimes). The challenge for a designer (or any creative type) is to know if and when to simplify something, whilst keeping the same core concept or intent intact. It’s up to the player to decide if they feel a rule or game has been dumbed-down, as well as to decide if it needs to be in the first place.

    I hope I haven’t staryed too far off-topic – as it’s easy and innevitable to link simplicity and “dumbing-down” to complexity, balance, design intent etc. I look forward to the next topic and apologise if I’ve repeated other’s.

  12. I shall attempt to sumarise my POV.
    SImplification of the rule set means improving its efficiency or its definition , as reguard to instructions on how to play the game.
    This CAN be objectivly assesed and proved to be sucessful or not.When done well doesnt need too much in the way of explanation.

    Reducing complexity in the game play, (dumbing down,) is subjectivly altering the game to suit a particular audience.As the ‘right level’ of complication in a game becomes subjective depending on what audience you ask.
    So any change in game complexity realy needs an expalnation of the motives behind it,IMO.

  13. Mark says:

    I’ve got a question if i may. I think I’ve noticed a new trend in table top and role-play
    gaming: clones of command and color system are becoming more popular. For example Star wars RPG, x-wing, Memoir 44, Descent, Saga, Imperial Assault and some others use color and symbol
    coded dice to represent success and fails instead of numerical system and calculation
    of success rate. Do you think this is simplification can become the new “standard” in game design?

    • Ben says:

      In the case of FFG, it’s as much to do with business as game design. They try and make you buy their dice to play the game with rather than buying generic (and cheaper) dice from another manufacturer. In the case of WFRP 3rd, it was also one of the ways they tried to incentivise people to buy the product rather than illegally download a PDF of the book. Something which is a particular problem for the rpg industry.

      • Mark says:

        I’d agree on business perspective, after all making money on games is difficult. However i find color and symbol dice much easier to use, since they provide time and effort economy. Player is not required to make calculations, on subject “is it a hit? is it a wound?” but just needs to visually recognize the symbol to understand the outcome.

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