Sam “King of the Hilltop”

Whether you are designing a game, enjoying a game or maybe both at the same time, the key or foundation of your game lies within its gameplay loop.

A gameplay loop being defined as: a series of repetitive actions that a player will take while playing a game.

These gameplay loops are made up of systems or a mechanics in a game.

For example, 7 Wonders has a simple gameplay loop that centers around a drafting mechanic. Everyone starts the game with a hand of cards, you pick one card and then pass the rest to a neighbor. Once everyone has picked one card, you reveal it all at the same time and pay for the card using the resources it requires. Very simple, interesting choices to be had, and effective.

As simple as that gameplay loop is, it actually is made up of two different systems. A card choice/drafting system and also a resource system in order to pay for those cards. All too often we assume certain aspects of a mechanic are ingrained and unchangeable but in reality, they are changeable. If you are designing a game, keep in mind what your bias is and try to breakdown mechanics into smaller chunks; it can lead to some interesting and refreshing ideas.

Why is it important to know that even small streamlined games have multiple systems?

Because all games have multiple systems, it can be used to try and gauge complexity or the difficulty level of a game. A rule of thumb, if you increase the number of systems or mechanics in a game, you will increase the complexity of the game. Seems self explanatory, right? However, all too often as designers we can go over the top with our designs by adding too many different ideas into one game. This is definitely true for those creating 4X games (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate), dungeon crawlers, and euro based designs. It’s so fun to play with different systems and how they interact with each other! We need to remember though: the more systems we have the higher the complexity.

Is complexity bad?

No, it is not inherently bad. Complexity is a “complex” idea. The reason being that it is affected by every aspect of the game design and development process. The iconography, the theme, the gameplay loops, player interactions, and/or win conditions, all leads to judgement of a game as being complex.

Another wrinkle in the complexity idea is the experience of players may differ depening on what games they have played before and what they enjoy playing. Brass: Birmingham for one player may be considered complex but for others, not so much.

There are people that really enjoy complex games with intricate mechanisms that can make for an excellent brain teaser. Other people may instead avoid them at all costs, preferring a different kind of player experience. So the idea of complex games is not a bad thing.

Now be careful though. Sometimes what people call complex, is really just a game being clunky. Meaning the mechanisms do not work together and makes it hard to interpret what is happening. It’s hard to understand how the systems work together and it makes it difficult to play. When playtesting or learning a new game, try to find out why people are not understanding a game or clicking with the gameplay loops.

Okay, so how do I deal with complexity?

This is not an exhaustive list but here is a list of some things you can look at for your game in order to help fight complexity.

Theme – make sure that when you are designing your game that the mechanics themselves fit with the theme. By doing so, they can make logical sense. When things have an understandable logic, they become easier to remember and make it easier for people to use the system combinations.

Break It Down – when a system is too complex, you can break it down into smaller systems, ideas, or phases. A good example of this is Power Grid. Instead of putting all of the mechanisms in the game in one turn or round, they split the game into smaller focused chunks. The auction phase is separate from the resource phase, which is separate from the income. This breaks the game into smaller, executable segments.

Is It Needed – try playing a game without a certain mechanic or system. Does it change the game? In what way? If it makes it faster, does it make it less fun? Is it worth the trade off? To me this is where the hallmark of a game designer comes very visible. There is not necessarily a wrong answer here and the choices made reflect on the personal style of the designer.

Reuse and Recycle – some people may turn this idea down but there is a reason why certain series of games work so well. They can reuse or recycle certain mechanics in order to help people grasp the game faster. Whether it’s Shem Phillips from Garphill Games and his place and pull mechanic for worker placement games or reusing Yahtzee style dice rolling. In the end, it helps people to learn the game faster and it helps people feel that a game is less complex since not everything in the game is new.

Note: it’s okay to use mechanics and ideas from other games, just make sure you are putting in the effort to make your game uniquely yours. I do not condone taking a game and changing only the theme or even blatantly copying everything about a game with no changes. That is not okay, unless you bought the rights to that game.


Turns, Phases, Rounds, and Etc.

Ed “Duke of BAzlandia”

When putting together a board game, you are putting together a system. A system that is meant to bring entertainment to the participants. At first glance or thought, like many things, this seems that it should be quite easy and not that hard of a challenge. Many people have created games and when playing a good game, the mechanics all flow together, naturally following a path that is intuitive and makes sense.

This is harder than it looks, and for every additional mechanic or rule it gets harder and harder. This even then becomes harder when teaching a game through a rulebook where there is no personal interaction and as many possibilities that can be accounted for must be. One of the way game designers and players have come together to combat this is to have common terminology when dividing up a game and its systems into subsystems.

A game system is often divided into things such as phases, turns, or rounds. This works wonderfully but at times there are issues with this system, particularly when a game becomes more complicated and is in development or when its mechanics act in such a way that a player’s interaction could be defined by more than one of these terms and is described thusly in the rulebook.

Before getting too deep let’s define a couple of terms.

Turn – period of time where a person is allowed to think and then they commit to an action or set of actions.

Round – period of time where every player takes a single turn.

Phase – specific mechanic or action by a player.

I have left phase overly broad in that I see it as a broad term that defines specific actions or mechanics as opposed to a period of time.

This is where things can get complicated. A phase can be specific to turns. A good example of this is any game where a player conducts several actions but does so in a specific order utilizing specific mechanics. Such as a game where a player collects resources, then trades resources, and then finally builds resources (how odd, sounds like Catan). A single turn could be said to have 3 separate phases of the turn.

Phases could on the other hand contain rounds. Power Grid is a great example of this. It has several phases. Many of these phases are a single round where every player gets to take a turn. But even here not all players always take turns or actions. The phase defines a specific action or actions that must take place. The turn order phase and the auction phase in particular come to mind.

In the turn order phase player pieces are rearranged but require no specific action by each individual player. The auction phase doesn’t require a specific action by any player. You can choose not to buy any power plants for a turn if you so desired.

Now where things get really complicated is when a game system is described and interacted with in such a way where a turn is described has having phases, and then rounds at a higher level again have phases. This by itself isn’t so bad but if the action or mechanic is too similar it may cause player confusion or even lead to conducting a game completely wrong. This is especially true if the rule book defines terms haphazardly or uses the generic term phase interchangeably.

And that my friends are my thoughts for the week.

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