Note: Life has been a bit hectic lately, making it hard for me to get another article written. I’ve dipped into my chest of old essays about games. I wrote this 5 years ago, so the examples are a tiny bit dated now, yet I still think it’s worth sharing. Were I to write this today, I’d nuance it a bit much, but I’m interested in what comes out of it.
I’ve just started reading “Characteristics of Games”, by Richard Garfield and two other dudes, and I saw a part that made me want to write a blog post about it. The section was about the continuum between innovation (new, unique concepts/mechanisms) and standards (old, familiar concepts/mechanisms) as opposed characteristics.
“People often decry the use of standards and claim they represent a lack of innovation […] But in the end, games are for people to enjoy, and most people enjoy games with which they have a certain comfort level. Innovation is sometimes appreciated, but convenience always is. So innovation is best saved for areas where it really pulls its weight—where the innovation improves the game experience in some ways. If an innovation is no better than what it replaces, it can fail to be accepted for two reasons: first because it is new and thus harder to learn, and second because being new it is easy for the designer to get the details wrong so that the new feature may well be unpolished. And when successful games do have innovative elements, they usually have just one or two; more than that and the game may be too overwhelming for most people. […]
All this is not to say that standards must be respected at all costs. Rather, deciding how and when to use standards is an important part of the game designer’s art. But the point is to consider standards as a good thing, to be deviated from when there is a real gain from doing so, rather than as a bad thing forced on unfortunate designers by an ignorant public or a cowardly publisher. When innovation really does add a lot to a game, to the point where it overcomes any audience resistance to nonstandard games, the payoff can be big.”
Innovation is challenging to players on three fronts:
1. Because it requires actual learning of actually new rules. When was the last time you explained a non-gateway game to a non-gamer? Recently, a light gamer decided to join a game of Rococo, because the theme tricks you into thinking it’s a light game or something. The card choice section of the game took him at least 20 examples to understand, mainly because he had not played Dominion (“What, there are still people who haven’t played Dominion?”, you ask? Yeah, I know). For those of us who had, the explanation was utterly simple: like in Dominion, you have your deck, hand, and discard, and when your deck runs out, your discard becomes your deck; unlike Dominion, you select, rather than draw blindly, which cards from your deck go into your hand. To us, this was an innovative twist, based on the standard set before by other deckbuilders. For him, this was an overwhelmingly new idea, and it took him a few rounds to understand (leading to his usual “oooooh, if I had known that, I wouldn’t have done so and so,” but that’s a topic for another time I guess).
This massive anecdote is just to point out the fact that standards are easy to explain: “this is a trick taking game”, or “you use resources to build buildings”, or “you put a coin on unused actions a la Puerto Rico”, or “the one who controls this region scores X, 2nd place Y, third place Z”. These are all teachable very quickly to people who know the standards.
2. Because it invalidates some of your prior knowledge regarding strategy. As gamers, you develop a certain meta knowledge about games in general: if you have a choice between an endgame bonus and a special power each round, you go for the latter early on, and the first later; in worker placement, more workers is better; in deckbuilding, a lean deck is more efficient; in area control, you’re better off winning by one cube than 12, because that gives you as many points; in games with subsequent auctions, the first and last few cost more. However, innovation invalidates part of that prior knowledge: when “feed your workers” started, having the most workers wasn’t necessarily smart; when The Manhattan Project came in, blocking actions in Worker placement was less simple; when Ascension: Deckbuilding Game gave use points for each card in our deck, slimming it stopped being such a good idea. A bit of innovation forces us to adjust our strategies, but too much innovation makes that prior knowledge useless, or even worse, counterproductive. And that makes experienced gamers frustrated.
3. It lengthens decision taking. If there’s one thing most board gamers, Amerithrashers or Euro gamers, can agree on, is that AP sucks. Innovation, by its very nature, forces you to reconsider your meta-strategy, by giving you new choices to evaluate, rather than the same ones as usual. Which is good and exciting and all, but too much innovation undeniably leads to either AP, or even worse, stupid random play, where a player feels incapable of taking even a good enough decision, and just does whatever. Either of these can ruin any player’s experience of a game.
Let’s apply this theory in some examples (I am, after all, an educator):
When reading this, I thought back to Bruxelles 1893. It has so many cool mechanisms that when I saw a review of it, I was amazed: the player-controlled evolving market, the scoring bonuses, the two different worker placement boards which work differently, the auction-area majority-worker placement combo, so many cool mechanisms. However, when playing it, I felt so overwhelmed: by the time I would think about my last option, I had forgotten the first one I thought of. So many things to think about, so many options, each of them having so many impacts… Overwhelming. However, it wasn’t really because of how many options there were, it’s because none of these options I was used to, everything was new. When I play a Worker Placement, I’ve played enough that I know where I’m going: they might have a twist or two, but I know some basic strategy concepts raised by the mechanism (get more workers, get the more sought after actions first). However, Bruxelles added so many twists that none of my previous knowledge applied.
I then thought of other games which followed the authors’ perspective: Louis XIV (recently reprinted as Mafiozoo), for example, is a worker placement/area control/mancala mix, with (I think) really interesting action selection. However, knowing that the gameplay was the real focus of the game, the brain burning part, the scoring was real simple: five resources, each mission requires 2 resources to turn into 5 points and a special power. By using such a well known mechanism (turning a certain set of resources into VPs), an experienced gamer does not need to focus on it, and can instead focus on the worker placement/management.
On the other hand, a game like Vikings has very simple gameplay, with turn overview that can be explained to non-gamers in less than a minute: buy a Viking/tile duo, pay for it, re-adjust the market price if you bought the 0 value tile. However, the focus of the game is on the complex, innovative scoring: each row has a different impact, some activate each round, others every other round, and others at the end of the game. The simple gameplay allows you to focus your attention, your concentration, and your learning, on the scoring, and how that affects your strategy.
An interesting thing to keep in mind, however, is that what constitutes standards and what constitutes innovation is in the eye of the beholder, as proven by my earlier Rococo example. This is probably why Dominion is barely played anymore: when it came in with this innovative mechanism, it had to keep everything else simple; when deckbuilding became established as a standard, other games came in and stole the spotlight from the very, very vanilla Dominion. This might be one of the hardest parts of our hobby: given how fast it evolves, and how fast new mechanisms go through the cycle of birth-copied-overdone-dead-built upon, and the number of games produced each year, designers cannot possibly expect players to be familiar with mechanism X before they get their hands on their game: as such, innovation is even more of a gamble. Maybe I’m wrong about that though.