Tuesday, 22 March 2011

[Guest] On games design and complexity

Colette WIPMalifaux: Image by waferthinninja
I'm not going to lie to you, because, at root, this is a blog about Skrapyard, the skirmish miniatures game that Precinct Omega Publishing has in development.  But just to prove that I'm not randomly spamming adverts, I'm not going to provide a link for the lazy.  If you actually find this blog interesting, then why not do a Google search from Precinct Omega Skrapyard?  You're sure to find a link eventually. (or see my posts on the game - Tom)

But before we get to Skrapyard, I'm going to have a bit of a moan.

I recently bought the Malifaux Rules Manual along with a first starter box and Fate Deck.  I have heard a huge amount about the game, seen it played and thought it looked interesting, so pitched in to see how it runs.  I was particularly pleased to get the Rules Manual, because it's a handy A5 paperback that contains all of the rules, updated to incorporate all of the errata and FAQs that Wyrd Games have produced to support it: everything I needed to know to play the game was there in one simple reference guide... Except that it isn't.

Now, I don't mean to say that there were other things I needed to buy for the game.  Oh, no.  Malifaux, to it's credit and much like an increasing number of indie games companies, is careful to make sure that the entry threshold is remarkably low.  No, I simply mean that the Rules Manual wasn't simple.  Indeed, the rules weren't simple.  And although I'm having a crack at Malifaux, this is hardly a unique phenomenon.  Warhammer Fantasy Battle's new edition is an improvement, but still bedevilled by complex interactions of rules spread across multiple sources.  Paper-and-pen roleplay games - even something incredibly basic, like D&D Elements - leave you flipping the rulebook's pages back and forth in a frustrating search for an answer to questions and, when you find them, scratching your head over the complexity of expression.  Other skirmish games, like "Infinity" from Corvus Belli and Manorhouse's "Mindstalkers" suffer from the same obsessive and self-defeating pursuit of intricacy.

A lot of gamers tell me that they like this; that it gives "depth" to a game, or that they love studying the "crunch" to hone their strategies and tactics.  To which I say "b*llocks".  I'm highly sympathetic to the game designer's plight, of course.  It is extraordinary sometimes how a rule that plays out with pure, simple elegance on the tabletop needs to be corseted into the most legalistic terms to be clear on the page, but designers do themselves no favours at all when they resort to giving explicit in-game meanings to everyday words like "can", "may", "must" and "cannot".  Here's a tip, if you're planning on designing your own game: if you feel moved to give glossary definitions to words that a four-year-old understands, you've probably written bad rules.  Go back and try again.

Which brings me to Skrapyard.

I'm certain that you're expecting me, now, to say that Skrapyard doesn't do this; that it's a paragon of linguistic clarity, entirely loophole-free and prepped for novice gamers.  But I'd be lying if I said that it was.  There are sentences in the Skrapyard rules that still make me wince.  There are still occasions when I find myself flipping through the book trying to remember whether wounded characters in combat are automatically hit or just automatically fail the Armour test (it's the former, in case you're wondering, but for a long time I kept thinking it was the latter, and I wrote the rules!).

The point is that Skrapyard aims to be that paragon.  Even if we know in our hearts that it won't make it, we're going to try.  And does that mean that it's light on special rules?  Yes, it does.  And does that mean that some things are abstracted that you'd wish could be played out in more detail.  Yep.  But does it also mean that the game lacks depth?  I don't believe so.  In fact, I'm quite certain that I've barely plumbed the potential depth of the game, despite dozens (hundreds?) of playtest games.  Because the depth of a game shouldn't depend on which of the players knows the intricacies of the rules best.  It should be down to who out-thinks, out-manoeuvres and out-guns his or her opponent and - of course - when two opponents are evenly matched, it should be down to the dice gods.

Robey - http://precinctomega.podbean.com

The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of the Editor - although I have to say I pretty much agree!
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  1. I think that's a looong way from advert spam - and I'm always interested to hear about games from a designer's perspective. Welcome, and more please!

    Personally, I got sick of Warhammer 40k because the rules were overly complex and constantly changing (and my Tyranids either overrun the enemy - no fun - or, more frequently, got gunned down before they could close - also no fun.)

    GURPS drew me in because you can do *anything* in the system, but it's horrendously complex, and seemingly needlessly so.

    I never liked modern RTS games on the PC because it's less down to tactics and more down to building things first and having superior numbers; give me the simplicity of UFO (X-Com) any day.

    I've tired of Starmada because it offers too much flexibility... so here's to simple but fun games!

    I'd value your input, gentle readers. What do you think? How much crunch is fun?

    And P.S. It was me who put all those links in.

  2. I think Over The Edge demonstrated that tabletop RPGs don't need complex rules to be effective. Sadly not everyone has got the message yet. I despair of finding a set of war-game or skirmish rules that are simple enough for me to understand without taking a weeks holiday.


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