Complexity for its own sake

The goal of this blog is to talk about game design, and the lesson I’ve learned during the process. So why not start with the latest lesson I learned. I had to learn it a few times, too: a mechanism that players don’t interact with is just artistic pretentiousness.

While working on Cybertopia, we ran into this situation twice in the last month. The first time was with the Corporation boards, where players place their Virus tokens, covering certain spots for instant bonuses, and eventually trying to have the most Viruses on it when the Corporations goes in lockout.

While working on Cybertopia, we ran into this situation twice in the last month. The first time was with the Corporation boards, where players place their Virus tokens, covering certain spots for instant bonuses, and eventually trying to have the most Viruses on it when the Corporations goes in lockout. We had 4 Corps, so it made sense to us to have each look different, work differently, and trigger scoring from a different mechanism.

We felt pretty good about it, until we showed that version to a friend: it took me the regular 8 minutes to teach the game, but then it also took 6 minutes to explain how each Corp worked. They liked the idea, and actually found it interesting for every one of them to feel separate. But here’s the thing: it never guided any strategic decision. You didn’t play on the race because it was a race, or on the square because it was a square: you chose which one it was because of the bonuses you could get, and the opponents’ positions on them. It’s not just that it added rules but not strategy: it’s that it was a mechanism which only existed to make us, the designers, feel smart.

We’ve since made the change to make every Corporation work in the same way: a 5×5 square, where players start in the middle, and which scores when 2 lines (rows or columns) are completed. We lost maybe 1% of strategy, but cut the length of the teach by close to half, and the rules mistake by a similar margin. Sure, the system offered differences, but never influenced how players played: that’s where the word interact from the intro comes in.

Worst thing is, we then did the exact same thing: we had a set collection aspect (which is since then gone, but the point still stands), where in order to make every set feel different, we gave them all a different mechanism:

  • Blackmails score 1pt per Secret you own;
  • Blueprints score 15 points if you have 4, 0 if you have less;
  • Dossiers score triangular points (1, 3, 6, 10…);
  • Financial Info comes in 3 flavor, and scores a lot, but you only score the flavor you have the least of.

Sure, it looks cool, but in the end, it’s all set-collection. It’s just “get a lot of these”. So we instead went with streamlining them all to the same mechanism: A scores if you have 2, B if you have 3, C if you have 4. Again, the difference drove no decision: you still wanted to have a bunch of them, and they were not all worth the same to everyone -which is super cool!-, but again: no interaction with the players. It just was there.

It reminds me of when I was DMing D&D and used packaged adventures. They had huge backstories for the bad guys, pages upon pages of who they were, and how Bandit King was Random Bandit #3’s son, and Daddy Bandit just found out his wife died, and then PCs come in and fireball and it never mattered.

In each of those cases, it was technically different: the Corps had a different feel; the Set collections had different risk-levels; the PCs could have a discussion with a faceless goons and use this knowledge to their advantage. But in reality, it’s like Schrödinger’s cat: until they interact with the differences, those differences don’t actually matter.

Except to us, game designers, who can pat our own shoulders and yell “LOOK AT HOW CLEVER I AM!”

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