Friday, June 10, 2011

Complexity, simplicity, atmosphere, theme

I have tried a couple of my simpler games with my wife (who has been a game player, but isn’t nowadays) and her octogenarian parents, who play Bridge but not other games. One of the games, involving cards and pirates, was recently played for the first time by a precocious six and a half year old, so the comparisons were interesting. Aside from that session, no one else had played the game. It is so new that it doesn’t have a name, though it is derived from another of my games, so much of it is “set” rather than brand new. (As it has a pirate atmosphere, it may end up being called “Tortuga”.)

The other game, a semi-abstract perfect information space racing game, had been played 28 times, and is very stable. We played the three player version (in other words, I didn’t play). It is much more strategic than the card game, sometimes being compared to Chinese Checkers, sometimes to Chess.

One of the older folks struggled mightily with the rules and strategies of the pirates game. She picked up the space race game much more quickly. Why, I wondered, because she is a person who likes to play standard card games, and this game is almost entirely cards. But the cards don’t have suits or numbers, and there’s a profusion of them (maybe 40 different ones, though many are of similar type). On the other hand the space race game is very “clean” and simple, with eight pieces per player, and only two kinds of pieces.

Since then we’ve played both games with relatives our age (Sue’s brother and wife, also not regular game players). They picked up the card game fairly quickly, but the boardgame even faster despite starting at a late hour.

I can speculate that fewer kinds of pieces, and fewer pieces, both help make it easier to understand a game. Hardly an earth-shaking conclusion. But if you want atmosphere and color then a game using cards, and more different possibilities, may be more effective.

I see lots of Euro games nowadays with lots of bits and cards, and perhaps one purpose is to help strengthen the atmosphere of what is likely to be a pretty abstract game, as most Euros are. (I think of many of these games as “mental gymnastics”, where players are expected to learn complexity for the sake of complexity. To me, if a game is abstract, it ought to be simple.)

I’ve been told by publishers that, unfortunately, purely abstract games are hard to market because there’s no story (atmosphere or theme) to them. Think about it, when people pick up a Euro game in a shop and look at the back, what do they see? They’re told about the atmosphere, not about how the game plays. Frequently there’s absolutely nothing to tell you what the gameplay is like, or there will be a rating of strategy and luck to go along with a listing of number of players and age level.

Aside: an atmosphere for a game is something it is supposed to represent, something your’re supposed to feel about it, but which has nothing to do with how it’s actually played. A theme is similar except that it helps determine how the game is designed to be played, that is, moves you can make in the game often reflect what you can do in reality, as in many historical wargames. Knowing something about the nature of the thematic topic might help you play the game better, though often not; knowing the nature of the atmosphere topic makes no difference at all in your play.

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