Musings on Game Design

An odd bit of synchronicity. I picked up a few unusual board games* at the discount/remainder store downtown (in the former Shoppers’ Drug Mart building) a couple of weeks back, and was mulling over their instructions, wondering why they seemed such odd and awkward games. In fact, they seemed rather unplayable, more like intellectual exercises in game design. Yet they were beautifully made, and very attractive.

Was it the topic? The manual? The components? What makes for a good game, what makes a bad one? Why have some games lingered on and are still being played – Monopoly, Scrabble, chess, go, Risk, Trivial Pursuit for example – while others seem to come and go? Was it simply that I was no longer conversant with the nature of the board gaming world?

Then I read an article on Science Digest that week called, “The Reason We Lose at Games: Some Games Simply Too Complex for the Human Mind to Understand“. In it, the authors wrote,

“…a University of Manchester physicist has discovered that some games are simply impossible to fully learn, or too complex for the human mind to understand.”

That led me to thoughts about games and game design. I’m a game player, always have been. Ever since my father taught me to play chess, around age 7 or 8. Admittedly I don’t play as much today, and mostly on the computer, but I can still spend a few hours now and then, immersed in a game like Civ V, Tropico 4 or others.

Monster wargameBackground: In the mid-1970s, I owned a small bookstore in Toronto. Among my lines was a rather good selection of chess books. Unfortunately, I was a better chess player than business owner, and I eventually closed my store and sold my stock. The chess books went to Mr. Gameways, a game store on Bloor Street. I got along with its manager so well, that he offered me a job, and for the next couple of years I managed the board game floor. During that time, I got heavily immersed in board games, particularly war games; easily the most challenging, complicated and demanding type of game ever. Eventually I ended up writing for wargaming magazines, reviewing wargames and even playtesting a few (along with several attempts at designing).

Imagine learning a rule book with 12, 24, even 60 pages of densely-packed rules! A board with hundreds, even thousands of pieces, multiple charts and tables, and complex interactions between them. And we learned and played new games at least once a month. Sometimes every week. As the Science Digest article says,

However, when games became more complex and when there are a lot of moves, such as in chess, the board game Go or complex card games, the academics argue that players’ actions become less rational and that it is hard to find optimal strategies.

Wargaming was a small but avid culture that had its heyday in the 1980s. Much like chess, there were clubs where people came to engage in games regularly, often playing a single game against an opponent for four or more hours. Some games took months to complete – I had a small circle of like-minded friends who met weekly to play some of the larger games, usually four to six of us at a time, with maps that spread out to cover an entire dining room table. War in the East (the entire Soviet-German war from 1941-45) and Highway to the Reich (Operation Market Garden) were two of the larger, table-size games I recall. Each session lasted three-six hours; the entire game took months to play through.

Complex? Challenging? Difficult? Yes to all. But captivating, too. They demanded strategic thinking often well beyond the horizon that chess offers. Yet there was still a random element – the roll of the die to determine combat results – that made the games exciting, and always different. Plus there was the virtual-general aspect: commanding anywhere from dozens to hundreds of units, managing logistics, strategy, setting operation goals…

Often the battles were very unequal, which added a different level of challenge. Can you win a battle that was historically lost by your side’s army? Sometimes… that all depended on how the game was designed, and what the victory conditions were. Winning might be, in game terms, losing less horribly than was historical. It might mean holding out longer before inevitable defeat. There’s a good description of a wargame here. The author of that blog notes:

“Wargames have to manifest some degree of historical specificity to be differentiated from popular but generic conflict games like Stratego or Risk. The popular Axis and Allies franchise (Hasbro) or more recently Memoir ’44 (Days of Wonder) represent about the minimum history acceptable in this regard. Unlike many Euro games, where the nominal historical subject is nothing but a thematic skin for the underlying game engine, board wargames try to capture some salient aspect of the events they depict, be it a particular strategic dilemma, operational opportunity or challenge, or battlefield dynamic.”

Look at Dunkirk, for a real-life example. As a straightforward wargame based on armies and tanks, the Germans win every time. They had overwhelming superiority in terms of men and weapons, greater mobility and higher morale, better supply lines. But the British “won” by being rescued from an isolated beach and saving a large portion of its army. How can a game designer incorporate the political elements, the indecision, the German High Command’s failure to follow through? That’s one of those thorny game-design problems. How to create a playable game out of an unequal situation. The Science Digest article notes,

Much of traditional game theory, the basis for strategic decision-making, is based on the equilibrium point — players or workers having a deep and perfect knowledge of what they are doing and of what their opponents are doing.

Dr Galla, from the School of Physics and Astronomy, said: “Equilibrium is not always the right thing you should look for in a game.”

“In many situations, people do not play equilibrium strategies, instead what they do can look like random or chaotic for a variety of reasons, so it is not always appropriate to base predictions on the equilibrium model.”

In fact, a game doesn’t have to be balanced to be fun, interesting or challenging. Many traditional, strategic board games like chess or go are balanced. Some, from snakes & ladders to backgammon and bridge, introduce randomness to change the balance. But real life is never like that. Many wargames introduced tension and dynamics through historical situations where unequal sides clashed

Napoleon's Last BattlesAnother historical example: Waterloo. While the allies (England and the German states) had, collectively, a larger army, they were initially scattered (especially the English), had longer and more vulnerable supply lines, and were not working together as a cohesive force. The French started with a central position, internal lines, the element of surprise, the morale benefit provided by Napoleon, and more experienced leaders. Which situation offered an advantage? The French need to strike fast and hard; break each Allied army separately before they can join forces. The Allies need to delay the French long enough for the British army to collect itself, then for both to gather at a point where they can defeat the French.

Could Napoleon have won? Potentially, if had been able to defeat the Allies separately, without suffering too many casualties – and had been able to manage his rather independent and unruly generals while maintaining his lines of supply. A good designer can craft a Waterloo game to present all the challenges that were historically present, and craft it so that Napoleon has some chance of winning, without stepping too far from historicity. And make the game fun to play. In fact, replaying Waterloo has long been a popular activity for wargame and miniatures gamers because of the different challenges both sides face, and the see-saw nature of the battle.

Playability versus realism – always the teeter-totter when designing wargames. Some games were classics of good design – the Napoleon’s Last Battles quad (and many of the other quad series games), Barbarossa, and PanzerBlitz come to mind as good examples of balance in both areas. The author of this article raises some interesting points about wargames that I hadn’t considered when I was playing them:

Board wargames function as paper computers. The abstraction of combat, movement, supply, and other basic military considerations into a numerically expressed spectrum of outcomes, randomized by die rolls within the parameters of a situation, makes the genre a rich source for anyone interested in the formal and procedural representation of dynamic, often ambiguous, literally contested experience. Because wargames are embodied in cardboard and charts rather than algorithms and code, they are by their nature “open source.” That is, the quantitative model underpinning the game system is materially exposed for inspection and analysis.

Finally, while most often understood in terms related to either gaming or simulation, board wargames can also function as powerful narrative agents. Players routinely discuss a game’s capacity for “narrative,” meaning whether the discrete die rolls and events allow them to suspend disbelief and create a believable storyworld that accords with their sense of historical plausibility. “Game fiction,” as the term has been defined by Jason Rhody, is therefore a salient feature of board wargames (a “genre of game that draws upon and uses narrative strategies to create, maintain, and lead the user through a fictional environment”).

I really understand his comment on the narrative nature of wargames.

A lot of independent game designers popped up during my wargaming days, creating sometimes remarkable games, sometimes unplayable ones. Occasionally I saw a tendency towards too much data, too many complex rules to try and capture the historical events through in-game strictures – putting realism over playability. That led to complex, difficult games where players read rule books while trying to figure out moves, and often argued over interpretations of even minor rules that could create big effects when used in play.

We also argued continually over interpretation of unit values. Was this tank model really worth two combat points more than that one? Did the designer appropriately take into account the bigger calibre gun or the wider tread? Was this cavalry regiment really better than that one, given the poor showing of its leader on the actual battlefield? Can a company of foot soldiers really travel that far in the time a turn represents? Does this general deserve that high a modifier compared to that one? We all became historians, usually with specialties in certain periods and equipment.

Of course, the way you learn about a game is by buying and playing it. At one point I had a huge collection – hundreds – of wargames. Now I have a mere handful, mostly kept for their nostalgic value. Wargaming led to buying a lot of books on military history and strategy, too, and my house was full of such books for many years. Like the games, only a dozen or so remain on the shelves.

Today, computer games rule the industry. The trend is often the other way: towards higher playability rather than realism. Popular games are too often mere entertainment. Oh, there’s a lot of “realism” in the environment – 3D landscapes, destructible objects, real-world physics with ballistics and gravity – but these define the setting, not the nature of the play. Computer games are often mechanically simple despite their visual impressiveness, especially the first-person shooters. In FPS, it’s all about fast fingers, rather than strategic planning or (just play in any multi-player FPS game online and you’ll find out how little real military tactics are used).

Even many computer simulations try to mask the inherent complexity – the realism – in a simplified interface, insulating the player from having to deal with too much data. You need both, in a reasonable balance to create an immersive experience. SimCity and Civ IV came very close to that balance. I have started to investigate computer wargames again, too – I was disappointed by them in the past, but there are new generations out worth looking at.

Gaming and game design still interests me, and every now and then invokes some almost-forgotten emotions and memories, but not with the same passion that pushed me in my wargaming days. I still believe some types of gaming are good intellectual exercises, are are good for strengthening the brain and teaching strategic thinking. However, I can’t help but look at any game – board or computer with a combination gamer’s and editor’s eyes, even today, and mentally weigh its merits and its design in terms of my own years of experience and play.

Update: the author of those blog posts responded to my email with a link to this post (and others) about what we can learn from wargames:

So what can we learn from wargames? Where Costikyan sees realism and historical fidelity and validity in simulation, I see a contemporary player and design community (both hobbyist and professional) that values attention to process in the procedural or quantitative representation of complex, often literally contested phenomena. Where Costikyan sees a focus on outcomes, I see a focus on the in-game experience, and the after the fact analysis and discussion of what happened and why.


Principato* Principato: a city-building/trading and farming game set in the Renaissance; De Vulgari Eloquentia, a game set in the late Middle Ages about religion, commerce and language; The Golden City, a trading-maze-merchant game, and Skyline 3000, a city-building futuristic game. All were produced by Z-man games. They attracted me because of their subject matter, but, so far, I have not warmed up to any enough to play them. Despite their high build quality, their instructions make them seem opaque and difficult. That might just be the editor within me wanting to rewrite them, however, and I will look more closely at them in the future and maybe even try one or two. Some of them are well reviewed at boardgamegeek,com.

I also got a maze game based on the Dilbert cartoon characters which is much simpler, but is at least playable without much reading or preparation. And, of course, it has Dilbert in it, one of my favourite cartoon characters.