Friday, January 27, 2012

What do we mean by "elegance" in games?

When someone says a game is "elegant", what do they mean?  I'm not sure, so I've done a bit of investigating.

Is it used much?  In my Info Select database, which includes my own notes about game design and teaching, and material that I've scraped off the Internet about those same topics in the past seven years, there are 84 notes containing the word "elegant" and another 34 containing "elegance".  Clearly the term is used a lot in conversations and writing.

What about dictionary definitions of the word?
el·e·gant   adjective
1. tastefully fine or luxurious in dress, style, design, etc.: elegant furnishings.
2. gracefully refined and dignified, as in tastes, habits, or literary style: an elegant young gentleman; an elegant prosodist.
3. graceful in form or movement: an elegant wave of the hand.  [my emphasis]
4. appropriate to refined taste: a man devoted to elegant pursuits.
5. excellent; fine; superior: an absolutely elegant wine.
Synonyms:  1. See fine. 2.  polished, courtly. [my emphasis]

World English Dictionary
elegant — adj
1.     tasteful in dress, style, or design
2.     dignified and graceful in appearance, behaviour, etc
3.     cleverly simple; ingenious: an elegant solution to a problem [my emphasis]

Elegance is a synonym for beauty that has come to acquire the additional connotations of unusual effectiveness and simplicity. It is frequently used as a standard of tastefulness particularly in the areas of visual design, decoration, the sciences, and the esthetics of mathematics. Elegant things exhibit refined grace and dignified propriety. [my emphasis]

So could we say, for games:  "A solution to a design problem that is seen as ingenious or cleverly simple, polished, and effective?"

At some point I wondered what the difference is between "elegant" and "clever"?  For me, something can be clever without being worth doing; something that is elegant is likely worth doing.  So I might see a game and say "that's a clever juxtaposition of mechanics", and still not think the game was worth bothering with.   I would tend to think of games that model something in interesting or intriguing ways as elegant, whereas games that don't model something may only be clever.

So one man's clever may be another man's elegant.
adjective, -er, -est.
1. mentally bright; having sharp or quick intelligence; able.
2. superficially skillful, witty, or original in character or construction; facile: It was an amusing, clever play, but of no lasting value.
3. showing inventiveness or originality; ingenious: His clever device was the first to solve the problem.
4. adroit with the hands or body; dexterous or nimble.
ingenious, talented, quick-witted; smart, gifted; apt, expert.

There is no Wikipedia entry for the word "clever".

A last expression of the idea of elegance, from the point of view of design:
"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
When you achieve this "perfection", you also achieve elegance.

So what do you mean when (if) you describe a game, or part of a game, as "elegant"?

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Impressions of Castle Ravenloft (Avalon Hill/Hasbro)

Recently I came across a new cooperative game related to Fourth edition (4e) Dungeons & Dragons, Castle Ravenloft.  The game lets each player act as a novice 4e character, complete with hit points, armor class, and at-will, utility, and daily powers.  There are replayable scenarios for 1 to 5 players, with the opposition governed by simple rules related by cards drawn from specific decks.

For $50 the contents of the box are quite impressive.  There are several dozen unpainted plastic miniatures in various colors representing the five player characters, undead, typical dungeon denizens, a flesh golem, and the huge dracolich.  There is a large stack of roughly 4 x 4" heavy cardboard interlocking dungeon tiles.  There are several decks of cards.  And there are lots of other heavy cardboard pieces such as hit point markers and character cards.

Gameplay in Castle Ravenloft is very tactical and decisions offer only a few choices.  To a considerable extent you can say the same thing about 4e D&D, though the intelligent opposition from a referee ought to make a huge difference.  When the opposition amounts to what the monster(s) do when you draw cards the simplicity is not surprising.  The number of hit points for each character is much lower than in actual 4e D&D (e.g. 6 for the wizard), and each hit point is represented by a cardboard marker.  You can customize your character though your choice of powers.  There are five different classes, but no way for a group to have two of the same class.  You can even gain second level, though this is unusual.

When you fight a monster it generally inflicts two hits when it succeeds and one hit when it misses.  Everyone on a tile fights all the monsters, and all take damage, so there isn’t maneuver doesn’t amount to much, other than which tile you’re in.  If you move to the edge of the “board” you draw a tile and one kind of card to see what you encounter; if you are anywhere else (probably fighting a monster) you draw a different kind of card.  Adult players can be frustrated because some of the cards simply inflict damage on everyone, regardless of location.  This moves the game toward a conclusion, but does not seem “fair” or real.

The party has two healing surges, plus some of the characters have healing powers. The game ends when one of the characters in the party dies and there is no healing to bring them back into the game, or when the objective (such as unmaking the Draclich) is achieved.

A five player scenario takes more than an hour.

Cooperative games without human opposition have become quite popular.  I’m sure there are many reasons for this, but one is that such games are essentially puzzles, and they rarely have much gameplay depth to them (as is often the case with puzzles), so players don’t have to concentrate/think hard, even if they’re playing solo.  And of course when they’re playing with several other players then the truism “two heads are better than one” means they have to think even less.

I suspect this game is aimed at non-adults, though I saw it at a college game club.  It looks great but there really isn’t much to it.  Like many games nowadays it offers variety but not depth.  Compared to real D&D there’s little if anything to recommend it, other than no need for a referee/DM.  Those who have never played a fantasy RPG may well find it much more interesting than those who have.

It’s a cooperative game.  It’s good-looking, and clever for what it is.   But what it is, is a game for 10-15 year olds, or for adult game players who want to play a youth-like game, for adults more a time-waster than a mental exercise.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Six words about stories in games

    According to a recent tweetdeck, one of the trending:worldwide topics on twitter was 6 word stories.  In the past few months I've asked people to say 6 words about game design, programming, wargames, and casual games.

    This time the charge is this: say six words about stories in games (or stories and games, if you prefer).

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Depth versus Variety: a Fundamental Change in Game Playing in the Past 30-40 Years

Recently I was discussing via blog posts what depth is in games ( and elsewhere), and then ran across a discussion of how role-playing games have changed since D&D was first published
( ).  I’ve realized that there is a connection between the two, that what gamers are looking for in games has changed in a fundamental way in the past 30-40 years.

That fundamental change is that 30-40 years ago many hobby game players looked for gameplay depth (and occasionally narrative depth) in their games.  Now most game players don’t look for gameplay depth but look instead for variety, which is quite a different thing.  Many more people now also look for narrative in their games, but I’m not sure whether they’re looking for narrative depth or narrative variety.  Game playing has become much more passive where long-term decision-making is concerned, and that's incompatible with gameplay depth.  Yes, there's lots of activity in many kinds of video games, and short-term decision making, but the decisions and choices often don't really matter in the long run.

Variety tends to lead to replayability, but game depth also leads to replayability.  So they are two paths to the same objective, getting people to play the game over and over again.

Is variety "bad?"  Certainly not.  Is gameplay depth "good?"  Not in and of itself, though it's what I have tended to look for in over 50 years of game playing.  Regardless of my preference, this discussion is a recognition of reality, what IS, not a criticism of the change.

(At this point I hope it's obvious that I'm talking about trends and tendencies, about majorities, not about every hobby game player.  Of course there are many, many exceptions in a group as large as ours.)

I’m talking here about hobby gamers, about people who play games frequently as a hobby.  Family gamers are a very different group, and have never been people who looked for depth in a game.  Nor did they look for variety, 30-40 years ago, their purpose in playing games was and is to socialize with their families and friends.

What do I mean by depth and variety?  I’m working on a very long piece discussing gameplay depth and other kinds of depth in games.  For our purposes here I'll say that deep gameplay requires players to make many significant decisions, decisions that make a difference in the outcome of the game, and those decisions have multiple viable choices so the player can pick a better choice rather than a worse one, but more than one choice has a good chance to be successful.  (A "viable" choice is one that, at least a reasonable part of the time, can lead to success, as opposed to "plausible" but not viable choices that look like they might work out well but rarely if ever will.)  There is often an element of emergence in such games, choices (and sometimes decisions) that players don’t even recognize when they first play the game.  This is often associated with decision trees, decisions that lead to others that lead to others and so on in a sort of tree shape, that give a good chance of success in the game.  Yet perhaps paradoxically, if a game has *too many* decisions and *too many viable choices*, then it loses depth as each individual decision and choice becomes insignificant to the outcome of the whole.

Variety, on the other hand, is doing lots more of the same kinds of actions and related activity without providing additional significant decisions and viable choices.  Variety occasionally replace one decision with a different one, or more often replaces a choice or choices with different ones, but the volume of significant decisions and viable choices, and the depth of the decision trees, remains the same.  Variety can be added by additional scenarios or levels, variable maps, different character classes, and random events (among others).

How things have changed
So much for brief definition.  How (and why) have things changed?  40 years ago we didn’t have video games, nor did we have CCGs, we had board and card games and we had RPGs just about to emerge.  The development of RPGs reflects the 30-40 year fundamental change.  Many of the players of original, first, and second edition D&D wanted gameplay depth.  In third edition D&D the emphasis changed to ways of optimizing characters using a stupendous variety of published classes and skills and feats, a striving to make the perfect one man army for tactical combat.  D&D became fantasy Squad Leader.  It was much harder to die and in fact the “fear of death” was slowly being removed from the game.

In computer RPGs this was happening much more strongly.  If you died then at worst you just loaded your saved game and continued.  In many computer MMO (massively multiplayer online) RPGs you don’t even need to save your game, you just respawn and continue.  After all, the makers of the MMOs do not have gameplay depth as an objective, their objective is to keep you playing the game as long as possible so that they can collect the monthly fees.  (Now monthly fees are much less common because we’ve gone to free to play games, but the objective is still to have people play as long as possible so that they will spend money on virtual goods and other advantages.)   In order to retain players, many online video games reward players constantly rather than make them responsible for earning their advancement and advantages.  If there’s no responsibility for earning advancement, decisions become much less significant, and choices matter much less.  Social networking games have taken this to the extreme.  Engagement has replaced gameplay.  (See for more.)

Not only responsibility for your actions but the fear of death has been removed from electronic RPGs, and with it most of the gameplay depth has been removed.  If it doesn’t really matter whether you die, if you can try again when you fail, then your decisions no longer make a difference to what happens in the long run, so they are no longer significant in the gameplay depth sense.  World of Warcraft is a game with so little gameplay depth to it that professional “pharmers” can, in an economically feasible period of time, play characters up to high levels and sell them to other people who don’t want to *bother* to play the game to get to the maximum level.  “The grind” characterizes play, and for many people playing the game is “like work.” (See .) I’ve said that variety has been substituted for depth in games but in WoW there doesn’t seem to be much interest from the players in variety until after you’ve reached maximum level.  As characters work their way up there's little interest in the journey, only in the destination of maximum level.  For those at max level, variety is essential to maintain interest in the game.

Even at maximum level, big raids amount to characters doing the same thing, their “role” (DPS, healer, etc.), for extended periods of time.  By all accounts it’s regimented and  repetitively automatic, and does not involve making significant decisions with multiple viable choices.

In some video games we have the phenomenon of “mini-games”, completely different games that have been inserted into the main game for players to play when they get bored of the main game.  Again it’s variety that is the attraction, not depth.

The recent fourth edition (4e) of D&D reflects this change of emphasis.  Some responsibility is still there, but the fear of death has been almost entirely removed through lots of beginning hit points, healing surges, easy ways to come back into the action when you’ve been incapacitated, cheap healing potions, and so forth.  Characters no longer have much capability to gather strategic (or tactical) information through spells.  In the past D&D players had to speak in character to gather information, or figure out how to use spells to gather information: now they roll dice.  Some of this may derive from video games where the referee–the computer–is nowhere close to smart enough to deal with a wide variety of dialogue and a wide variety of player intentions, so everything is reduced to dialog trees and numbers and dice rolls.  4e is now, in its "natural" form, almost entirely tactical battles without much long-range planning and consequently with very little strategy. 

The blog commenters I mentioned above talked about players complaining about secret doors in 4e D&D.  This appeared to be regarded as a “nasty DM trick”.  As a counter-comment a 4e DM said he didn’t use secret doors because he knew where he wanted his players to go and what he wanted them to do and there was no point in hiding the path.  In other words, in a game where variety and linear narrative is the objective then secret doors only get in the way.  In a game where gameplay depth is the objective then secret doors can be a differentiator, and the choice to look for secret doors or not look for them can be significant.

RPGs are now arranged much more for players to experience variety, rewards, and winning rather than to experience gameplay depth and the possibility of losing.  They are becoming more entertainments (something like movies) than games, if by games we mean something where there’s a significant opposition that requires thoughtful reaction.

I also think it’s much more common in RPGs nowadays that the referee devises a story and makes the players conform to that story.  As Monte Cook observed several years ago at Origins, the published tabletop adventures tend to be much more story-based than in the past.  The old-style alternative was to set up a situation and let the players make a story rather than forcing them to follow a linear path.  In video RPGs, the Japanese/console style has been to force the players to follow along a particular linear story.  (The American/PC style is more like WoW.)  In fact some people have characterized the famous Final Fantasy series as stories punctuated with repetitive episodes of exploration and combat that make virtually no difference to what actually happens in the stories.

Favorite Games
30-40 years ago most game players had one or a few favorite games, ones that they wanted to play over and over again.  This is far less common now.  Ask younger gamers, especially video gamers, what their favorite game is and most will be unable to tell you or will simply name the game they’re currently playing.  Some are even surprised at the idea of having a favorite game.  They want to name a dozen or more as their favorites, if they can narrow it down that far.  The very idea of playing a game a hundred times or 500 times (I know people who have played my 4 to 5 hour tabletop game Britannia more than 500 times), or the video game equivalent, playing the same game for many hundreds of hours, is foreign to most contemporary gamers.  Many of the younger people who do have a favorite game that they play over and over have settled on Magic:the Gathering or Yu-Gi-Oh.  Yet the very nature of CCGs is to change the game over time (providing immense variety) in order to persuade players to buy new cards; sometimes the game rules are changed as well.

Many AAA video games involve a puzzle or a story, and once you solve the puzzle or experience the story there is no reason to continue.  Some of the games will give you several different characters to play so that variety is added to the game.  But there is little gameplay depth.  A game with deep gameplay can be played again and again while revealing new aspects and possibilities.  Puzzles tend to be solved, and once solved hold little interest.

This fundamental change may reflect all forms of leisure activity these days.  There are many more distractions and many more opportunities for entertainment than 30-40 years ago.  Now we have the World Wide Web, we have hundreds of TV networks, we have movies and TV programs on recordable media and available through instant download, we have smart phones and texting and free long distance and iPads and MP3 players and so forth, none of which was available 30 or 40 years ago.  People just don’t seem to stick to one thing the way they used to and that applies to games as well as everything else. 

Playing a game with deep gameplay usually requires patience and a commitment to planning.  These characteristics are in short supply nowadays as people rely on their cell phones to provide both distractions (time killing) and a way to compensate for poor planning or lack of interest in planning.

We have become “entertainment bathers.”  Sound/music bathers like to have 1000 or 10,000 songs on their MP3 players but likely don’t listen to any one of the songs very much.  (Clearly of an older generation, I can listen to the same song over and over for an hour sometimes, if it’s a really good song; how many young people would even dream of doing that?)  Game bathers like to have lots and lots of games to play but don’t play any one of them very much.  Variety is the goal.  We've become a jaded society. 

This is not the only fundamental change over that period.  Even among many who want to fully use their brains when playing games, puzzle-solving (which rarely involves gameplay depth, it is a different kind of skill) has displaced gameplay depth.  And in the video game world, engagement has tended to replace gameplay as the objective of designers.  But those are topics for another time.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Game descriptions, rules, and mechanics: what are the differences and similarities?

Recently a student in a video game design curriculum posted a note on the IGDA Game Design SIG about an assignment.  The assignment was to describe mechanics for a game and he said his instructor had told him he’d written rules instead, with the result being a poor grade.  I generally emphasize to students that the rules for a tabletop game detail the mechanics of the game, so the question became “what is the difference between rules and mechanics.”  And as I discussed this privately with the student I saw that part of the possible confusion was the difference between description and specification, between the general and the specific.

From a teaching point of view the problem is that students often describe what they would like a game to do– a wish list--but not how the game is going to do it.  (Which is usually because they really don’t have a clue how it’s going to do it.)  If you’re writing rules or writing a specifications of game mechanics you have to say how the game is going to “do it.”  (See “When you start a game design, conceive a game, not a wish list”  A general description is not good enough for tabletop players to play the game, or for game programmers to produce the software.

When you’re conceiving a game you can say that you intend to use such and such mechanic, for example simultaneous movement or combat using a combat table.  But when you write rules or specify mechanics, whether in a video game design document or in actual game rules, you’re going to have to go into much more detail (especially about combat).  Sometimes the name of the mechanic, such as “simultaneous movement,” can say a lot to experienced game players or video game developers, but there are lots of ways to implement simultaneous movement and your game rules or game design document specifying mechanics must be absolutely clear.  That’s hard to do.

When you’re starting a game you begin with what you want the game to do and you need to get to the point of how it’s going to do it.  I think there’s an intermediate stage where you’re considering the structure of the game, and that’s where my nine structural subsystems and the essential questions to ask yourself help you bridge the gap between the what and the how.  (The latest version of each will be in my forthcoming book about game design, and you can find versions on  It’s usually hard to simply jump from what you want the game to do directly to the specific mechanisms or even to the categories of mechanisms.

But back to the original question, what is the difference between rules and mechanics?  The rules of a game must include details of mechanics so that someone reading the rules understands exactly how the mechanics work.  If the rules are complete, they MUST describe the mechanics of the game as well.  The mechanics are a subset of the rules.  The principle purpose of the rules is to describe how the mechanics work, but usually include other things as well.

By the way, I have seen people confuse what the player does with the mechanics of the game. Mechanics are what the computer enforces, the player’s actions are his choices that interact with the mechanics to provide a result.   A tabletop game requires the players to enforce the mechanics as specified in the rules.  Player actions to play the game are not mechanics.

But it’s easy to say what a mechanic is NOT.  I haven’t even attempted to get into the morass of exactly what a “mechanic” is.  I once started to make a list of “all” categories of game mechanics.  I quickly discovered as I looked around the Internet to see what other people have done that “mechanics” varies in meaning greatly from one place to another.  As I made my list I found many items “on the edges”.  In other words it is not clear what a mechanic is and what isn’t.   This is compounded by the tendency to use categories instead of specifics when discussing a mechanic.  For example, “simultaneous movement” or “roll and move” are categories of mechanics that can be implemented many ways.  For example, the latter can be “roll two dice and move your piece forward that many places,” or “roll two dice and move your piece forward or backward a number of spaces equal to one die and then the second” or “roll two dice and move your piece forward the distance equal to one of the dice, or the sum of both”, or “roll two dice and move one piece the distance of each die” and so forth.  And those brief phrases (especially the second one--I’m taking shortcuts) may not be sufficiently detailed to be absolutely clear.  All four are of the category “roll and move” but each is different from the others.  Mechanics are specific, categories are general.

Mechanics must be sufficiently explicit, sufficiently specific, that there can be no misunderstanding.  Most take the form of “if situation A exists, player can do (choices),” or, “if player does X, result is Y (with possible multiple possibilities)”, both forms of if:then:else statements.  You don’t have to be a programmer to write rules, but you have to be as explicit in the rules as programmers are in their software.

Despite the uncertainty about exactly what a mechanic is, I’m pretty sure there are some things in game rules that are not mechanics.  For example there’s usually an introduction,  something that gives the player an idea of the context of the game, what in general he’s doing, without referring to any mechanics let alone specifying any.  There is also early in the rules a “how to win” section that lets players know the objective of the game but does not necessarily specify all of the mechanics that determine who wins.  The actual mechanic(s) of winning are usually at the end of the main section of the rules along with mechanic(s) determining how the game ends.  The early sections provide a context for the play of the game, and extend the atmosphere or theme, if any.

A set of rules may also include hints about good play.  Finally, a good set of rules will include examples, which are not mechanics but which illustrate how the mechanics work.  These sections provide a different kind of context but are still included to help people enjoyably play the game.

Once again, however, the main thrust of rules is to describe exactly the mechanics of the game.  You could write a set of rules that only did that but it would seem abrupt to many players and might be difficult for some to grasp.  Something that sets traditional classic games apart from most contemporary games is that they have few mechanics and the rules can include only mechanics and still be understood by most gamers.

I think you could argue that the more a game is marketed to people who are not accustomed to playing games, then the more the rules will include information other than mechanics.  I thought it quite notable, when I first bought a copy of tabletop Settlers of Catan to find out what made it so popular (this is about 2004-5), that there were two differently-explained sets of rules included to try to help non-gamers understand how to play the game.  There was also a table showing the probabilities when rolling two dice, which is an important part of the game.  Those probabilities are not part of the mechanics but are a consequence of the mechanics of rolling two dice.  Yet for players who don’t understand the probabilities this inclusion probably helped.  Once again this is part of the context of playing the game although it’s not part of the story of the game.  But as with the story-context, if you understand the probabilities you’ll enjoy the game more and better understand what’s happening.

So we can in summary say that game rules include specifications of mechanics and a description of the context of the game: “how” and “what/why.”  That context can include the atmosphere or theme as well as other game-related material.

One of the problems of teaching people to design games is that they really don’t understand how complex game mechanics can become, and so they don’t try to set in their minds exactly what mechanics they’re going to use.  After all, most of them are accustomed to video games that enforce the mechanics on the players without effort from the players.  If they’ve played traditional tabletop games that “everybody knows how to play” because they grew up with them, they don’t remember misunderstanding how to play the games.  So they might think it enough to say that a game uses the risk assessment mechanic.  Well, the game player says, “what the heck is the risk assessment mechanic?”  Even if the beginning game designer uses a mechanic name that is more informative such as “simultaneous movement” there are still many more questions to be answered.

The result is that when students write rules they very commonly leave out important considerations.  But heck, even experienced designers leave out important considerations from early drafts of rules, despite all their experience.  So we keep plugging.