Throughout this month we have been exploring Dimensions of Games: Complexity, Player Count and Game Length. These are three criteria commonly listed on the side of a game box whose impact blends together to create game Utility.
Utility is defined as the usefulness of something, the ability of a product or service to satisfy needs or wants. For the purposes in this article, utility is simply a compound of game design elements which help to define how and when a game can best be played. Players acquire games for a purpose and maximizing the opportunity to play them can be a beneficial design goal.
Games can increase utility through a reduction of complexity. Gateway games increase utility effectively by providing a welcoming environment to newcomers in the hobby.
Games such as Settlers of Catan and Carcassonne introduce a whole new world of gaming to a wide audience with just a few rules that build on familiar game concepts. Games with low complexity have a high utility as they can be brought to a table full of gamers and non-gamers alike.
This month we have been exploring Dimensions of Gaming, which are criteria such as player count and game complexity frequently used before a purchase to determine if a game is right for you. This week we are looking at game length, the time commitment needed in order to reach completion.
Games are frequently categorized by their length. Short games are sometimes considered fillers and sandwiched between two longer and more immersive games. Every game carries with it an expectation as game designers have a responsibility to maximize the experience of their players. This includes prioritizing an investment with true value: a player’s time.
Game design should focus less on the duration of a game and more on how much a person gains from playing it, better described as time value. All things considered, if a game can deliver the same experience in a shorter amount of time it will be played more often, receive more attention and garner greater commercial success.
Of the three pieces of information that grace the sides of every board game box (the length of the game, the age range, and the number of players), the first two are approximations that can be determined by the publisher and/or the designer during playtesting or post-production, but the number of players is explicit in the design. The dimension of gaming we’ll talk about this week is player count, the use of different player numbers as a mechanic or design decision. We’ll also talk about scalability, the ability of games to scale to accommodate different numbers or configurations of players.
Classification by player number
As I talked about in an introductory post back in December, one of the many ways to classify games is by the number of players. Player number is a deliberate design choice with implications for strategic depth, length, pacing, and complexity.
Our topic for February is what we call Dimensions of Gaming. These are three subtopics used to collectively categorize the intended audience for a game. This month we will cover Scalability, which is how well a game plays over the entire range of its suggested player counts. We will also cover Game Length, which is the expected duration of a game and how game design can maximize the experience of the players by using this time effectively.
This week we are examining Complexity, which can be defined as the cognitive burden expected of players over the course of a game. The span of Complexity encompasses the entirety of a game from rules to mechanics and layout to player decision trees. The key areas of complexity in game design is striving for a high depth to complexity ratio and the playing value created through emergent gameplay.
The level of complexity in a game can be evaluated using several methods. The first is by using game weight, a subject Matt covered in December. The method most relevant to game design is by comparing the complexity of a game to its strategic depth. Strategic depth is the advanced strategy and intricacies presented to players as they gain experience and progress through the learning curve of a game.
One of our initiatives at Games Precipice is to learn from established game designers and learn from their design decisions and thought process as their work gets published.
This month game designer Scott Almes was generous enough to squeeze us into his very active schedule to discuss two current projects and our January monthly topic of balance in game design. Scott is known for his recent designs of Martian Dice and Kings of Air and Steam.
Already in 2014, Tiny Epic Kingdoms which will be published by Gamelyn Games has reached incredible success on Kickstarter and there is still time to be a part of it until it ends on February 8th. Scott has ten games scheduled for publishing in 2014 so we will be excited to see what else he has in store for us this year.
The final type of balance we’ll cover is positional balance, which is a bit different from internal balance and external balance in that it deals with the relative position among the players of a game, rather than the absolute value of certain strategic options or game elements. Uniquely among the categories of balance we’ve discussed, positional balance can either be encoded in a game’s mechanics or be entirely psychological.
Positional balance is a relatively new notion in game design, and it seeks to lessen the possibility of a runaway leader and keep players engaged through the duration of a game, even ones nominally at the “back of the pack.” The primary concerns of positional balance are addressing the runaway leader problem and implementing catch-up mechanics.
Positional Balance – The Runaway Leader Problem
We’ll define a runaway leader as a player who establishes a lead, and by virtue of having that lead, is able to continually press the advantage to make the lead insurmountable. An example is in Settlers of Catan, where having more settlements allows a player to gain more resources, which in turn enables that player to build more settlements. In mathematics and control theory, that’s called a positive feedback loop, and it’s associated with exponential growth. When a poker player wins a hand, he gains chips, which in turn allows him to make bigger bets and win more hands, so poker is prone to runaway leaders.