Monday, August 15, 2011

Simple Versus Complex As a Game Design Philosophy

At conventions this summer I’ve watched two multiplayer fantasy wargames with many similarities but perhaps different philosophies of design. At the UK Game Expo in Birmingham England I watched Wizards of the Coast’s new game Dungeons and Dragons Conquest of Nerath being played, and at WBC in Lancaster Pennsylvania I watched a not yet published (P500) game called War Party.

Both games can accommodate up to four players, but by dividing them into two sides, that is there were not four independent sides but two partnerships, rather like Axis and Allies when you play with four or five people. (You can play four sides, but the games aren’t designed to optimize that situation.) If you play with three then one player controls two of the four nations/kingdoms. One nation is in each of the four corners.

There seem to be two points of view about game design expressed in current games. The short expression of my view is “KISS” or “keep it simple Simon”. The longer expression of this is my favorite quote related to games, which I put at the bottom of the page for my blogs and my website: "A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away." (Antoine de Saint-Exup'ery).

The opposite view, which seems to be more and more commonly expressed in Eurostyle games these days, is that complexity is good, pretty much for its own sake. It’s as though adding features is a good thing, even though virtually every game can be reduced to a simple essence. (See Especially in abstract games, which includes many Euro games despite the atmosphere that’s tacked on, I think simpler is better so that players can concentrate on strategy rather than on details.

These two games, essentially about the same topic and approached in the same way, can be used to represent the two different views, although Nerath isn’t as simple as it *could* be. There is much more unit differentiation in War Party than in Nerath. In the latter game the units of each nation are often functionally the same as units of other nations. There are no separate, individual heroes who are not military units like all the other units. In War Party there is more differentiation, but there are also individual heroes that can be customized in a variety of ways. A couple of the military units in Nerath are allowed to go into the dungeons and “explore” while in War Party it is presumably the individual heroes who go. There appeared to be a lot more pieces on the board in WP, as well. Both are games about war rather than about battle, that is, economy plays a big part in success or failure.

Nerath uses Event Cards. Is this a complication? Event Cards are a case of adding variety (and replayability) without adding much rules complexity, because the rules are on the cards, and only need to be considered one by one as you draw the Events.

Nerath uses a victory point method, mostly related to capturing territories, that should see the game ended in about 90-120 minutes. I watched enough games to believe that. I was told War Party was upwards of 3 hours.

There are many other differences. For example, Nerath uses very nice plastic figures, while War Party uses large cardboard counters. Nerath has set-in-stone starting positions that mix the four nations closely together, as well as a standard playing order, both simplifying the game. I can see people developing standard first turn movement deriving from the standard set up, but that doesn’t make the play complicated, it just gives players something to think about when they’re not playing the game. In War Party each nation starts at the corner the board and spends a couple turns expanding without much contact with the other nations. Nerath also includes seas and ships that are absent from War Party.

And I would expect that Nerath plays faster because you don’t have that slow period of expansion without strong competition. The war is on immediately thanks to the way the nations are mixed together and yet sometimes have one part separated from another part of the same nation.

Nerath is not nearly as simple as, say, Diplomacy or Risk, but it is much more colorful than either. “Colorful” comes from the cards, from the intertwined nations, and from the pieces. By comparison War Party looks drab, but not having watched it nearly as much as I watched Nerath, I might not have seen the “color” beneath the surface.

One reason to play this kind of fantasy game is the color. If people are primarily interested in your game because of the topic, rather than because of the gameplay, then you can get too simple. You can remove so much of the color, the flavor of the topic, that potential players are no longer interested in the game.

I’ve not played either of these games, nor have I talked with anyone who’s played a lot (that is, who wasn’t involved in the development of the game), so I can’t tell you which game plays “better”, if any. I’d prefer to play Nerath because it’s a shorter game and the concept doesn’t deserve a longer game, and because the strategy looks much more interesting (I like the mix of sea and land). But I am sure there are people who would prefer the more complex game in terms of rules and variety, even though I suspect it is less interesting in terms of strategy.


Peer Sylvester said...

Interesting that you put Euros in the "complex" camp, considering they sre usually much easier than american styke games like Britannia.

I agree that there are Euros out there that put way to much in the game, but thats not a characteristic of Euros per se - in contrary I think Euros are so widespread because originally they were much easier to learn and to play than the heavy games of -say Avalon Hill.

Lewis Pulsipher said...

"in Eurostyle games these days". Yes, Euros began as family games on steroids, and were quite simple. But it seems as though simple is wearing thin, and we see many Euros that appear to be a collection of mechanics and bunches of pieces and cards. No longer simple.