Complexity & Emergent Gameplay

Written by Alex Harkey

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.

Ralph A. Clevenger's Famous Iceburg

Ralph A. Clevenger’s Famous Iceberg

Beneath the Surface

In any game design there is an ideal ratio of depth to complexity that maximizes the experience of its players. This is largely determined by the intended audience and the type of game which is in-progress.

A game will benefit if the designer strives to aim for a high depth to complexity ratio. By decreasing the cognitive burden on players while increasing their opportunity to make interesting decisions, a game will become simpler to balance, more enjoyable to play and generate a better reputation upon publication. This ratio can be improved using two simple methods:

  • Reduction of Complexity: Eliminate mechanics and rules constraints which contribute a proportionally small amount of strategic depth.
  • Expansion of Depth: Extend existing ideas in a way that increases strategic value while adding a minimal amount of complexity.

Improving the Ratio – Implementation

Puerto Rico & San Juan (Reduction in Complexity):

Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico created a great deal of innovation to the market when it was published in 2001 and still maintains a lasting legacy. In 2004, San Juan was published and has been described as “Puerto Rico: the card game”. San Juan eliminated complexity by simplifying mechanics by removing colonists and shipping of goods. San Juan simplified the scoring to primarily consist of constructing buildings, which also triggers the end of the game.

San Juan

As is the case with many card and dice game spinoffs of popular boardgames, a reduction in complexity often is met with a loss of strategic depth. In Puerto Rico the need to monitor how your actions benefited your opponents was critical to successful play but this is not nearly as crucial to performance in San Juan. San Juan is far more tactical in gameplay and failed to carry over the large scale strategy that Puerto Rico demands of players.

San Juan is a great example of a successful re-implementation as the changes still lead to a high ratio of depth to complexity. The biggest success of San Juan are that the reduction in complexity led to improved approachability; that is San Juan can be played by a much wider audience seeking lighter games. The learning curve of San Juan is far more friendly to a newer player who will be less discouraged as final scoring can be more forgiving of beginner play.

Tic-Tac-Toe & Connect Four (Expansion of Depth):

Connect 4

Tic-Tac-Toe and Connect Four share common mechanics and objectives in which players alternate turns attempting to connect their pieces into a row. Connect Four resolves one of the flaws present in Tic-Tac-Toe by reducing the frequency of ties with a larger board size. Connect Four prevented this larger board size from adding excess complexity by restricting vertical placement. Connect Four has a much better reputation and greater strategic depth while the marginal complexity is minimal.

Finding the Ideal Ratio

Apples To Apples Generally speaking, the more casual an intended audience, the less necessary strategic depth is in a game. Apples to Apples has reached incredible levels of mass market success by targeting an audience that is looking for minimal complexity and a social experience. The resurgence of microgames are a strategy game equivalent as they are simple to learn and often don’t require significant rules knowledge in order to play.

The depth to complexity ratio suggests that a game design should seek to minimize complexity while maximizing depth, but this isn’t the solution for every type of game. In episode ten of the Ludology podcast, Scott Nicholson discussed how simulation can be achieved through added complexity to better reflect real world examples. Wargames can use this method to give players greater control over relatively minor aspects of gameplay. Simulations are a noteworthy exception as they can carry the acceptance of high levels of complexity without the benefit of added depth. Outside of simulations this extreme ratio is generally a negative quality in game design.

The Plateau: When complexity is added to a game it is usually paired with added depth, but eventually game design reaches a plateau in which added complexity really only adds complexity. This is a saturation point of strategic depth in which players will be unlikely to take advantage of any additional ideas due to the level of complexity already present.

Reduction of Complexity – Methods

Invest in the Rulebook: This is not necessarily a solution to decrease complexity in game design but it will certainly help players comprehend a game. Perceived complexity when learning a game can cause more problems than actual complexity. A poor rulebook will significantly increase how players perceive the relative complexity of a game. If players are struggling to learn and digest the rules the design has already placed a significant cognitive burden onto players. If a game needs complexity it would be better spent in the structure of the game rather than in the instructions of how to play.

Playtest the Rules: Often through an iterative process, special rules exceptions develop in order to achieve balance or correct broken gameplay elements. Game designers should constantly question them with every major change. Try to resolve and remove rules exceptions and conditional rules which may catch players off guard. Initially these may be seen as methods to add depth but they can come at the cost of player satisfaction.


Plan for Expansions: Whether a game has the commercial success to warrant expansions is usually outside the control of the game designer, but it is a great method to reduce complexity. Carcassonne is an extremely successful gateway game that would likely have lost much of its audience if the original release added all of the gameplay elements included in the expansions. Even if you have to shelve some great ideas at the moment, don’t let that discourage you from polishing a great base game.

Simplify the Denominations: Some games may allow players to deal in currency quantities of hundreds or thousands as it can reflect reality. By simplifying the components by a common factor players may feel less burdened to perform tedious calculations. Similarly if points can be reduced by a common factor it can eliminate the need to pull out the pencil and paper for final scoring. This isn’t always a viable option, but one that should be considered.


Image courtesy of Chris Norwood

Simplify the Bookkeeping: Ora et Labora has a plenty of complexity in its gameplay as players need to track many different types of resources for use in the game. One of the clever ways it reduces complexity is through the use of a wheel component which rotates to display the number of resources available each round. If complexity can’t be reduced, explore ways in which players feel less burdened when managing the game. It could even develop into a selling point of the game once published.

Expansion of Depth – Methods


Scoring System: One of the simplest methods of creating strategic depth is by modifying the objectives of a game. Ingenious is a wonderful abstract tile laying game, but great strategic depth comes from its scoring system. During Ingenious players lay tiles in order to score in six different colors, but the catch is that the score of a player is tied to their lowest scoring color. While the scoring is a simple set collection method it creates strategy by encouraging players maximize certain scoring opportunities and block opponents in their weaker colors to create color scarcities.


Dixit improved on the party game model in Apples to Apples by adding a simple scoring system that leads to greater depth of gameplay. In Dixit the active player describes a card in their hand and places it face down on the table. After being mixed with cards from other players, the other players attempt to select the card described by the active player. The active player scores points only if at least one player but fewer than all players select their card. This encourages the active player to consider the personalities and knowledge of other players when describing the card.

No Thanks!

Value Proposition: No Thanks! presents players with the decision of valuing cards which score negatively in order to maximize their point total. Players will value the current card on the table differently from one another as the game develops and they begin to accumulate the cards. A more complex version of this same concept exists in the game of Ra! in which players bid during a simple auction over a group of tiles. Depending on the current tile holdings of a player players the current action may benefit or detract from their final score.


Action Restriction: Quite a few games provide myriad of options to a player on their turn and then restrict what can be performed through the use of action points. Stronghold uses this idea in the form of spending time, as the attacker must evaluate if the benefit of their turn outweighs the potential benefits their opponent may receive with more time to perform defensive actions.


Negotiation & Trading: Negotiation in games such as Traders of Genoa and Santiago introduce a bribery element in which only one active player is able to perform actions and everyone else makes offers in order to get their objectives performed during the turn. Lifeboats and Mall of Horror use similar negotiation styles which can lead to players forming alliances or making deals. Players have to consider how their interactions affect other players in these games as creating a sworn enemy will be a significant blow to their final standing. The strategic depth develops from a changing landscape of player affiliation, encouraging players to find ways to achieve personal objectives.


Player Choice: Many games have included methods to transition potential random elements into the hands of players. Agricola uses this idea with the drafting of initial occupation and improvement cards. In an older era of game design these may have been randomly distributed among players to speed the process of setting up. Instead, players use a drafting method to control their initial standing in the game. Allowing players additional control over their in-game standing is always a great way to develop some depth in an area of a design that would otherwise be shallow and restrictive.

The Value of Emergent Gameplay

Games with a high ratio of depth to complexity can sometimes be described by the phrase “Easy to learn but difficult to master”. These games feature a simple set of rules and an important game design concept known as Emergent Gameplay.

“Emergent gameplay refers to complex situations in video games, board games, or table top role-playing games that emerge from the interaction of relatively simple game mechanics.”

In tabletop game design we define emergent gameplay as having two key components:

  • A simple ruleset.
  • Large scale or advanced strategy cannot be fully deciphered simply from reading the rules.

A game with a high depth to complexity ratio often satisfies the second condition but may not fulfill the first condition. There are several ways a designer can attempt to implement emergent gameplay. I say “attempt” as it is one of the most difficult tasks in game design to successfully implement emergent gameplay. It requires successful playtesting, convergent but harmonious ideas and in some cases, a timely and fortunate moment of realization while designing.

Two simple methods of how game design can attempt to implement emergent gameplay can be seen in card games such as Poker and abstract games such as the game of Go.


Poker has been introduced to television audiences with the tagline “It takes a minute to learn, and a lifetime to master” over the past decade. The depth of Poker comes from social interaction which is an excellent way to generate high levels of depth while minimizing complexity. New poker players will focus on their own cards and whether they meet they meet the requirements for specific poker hands like two pair or a flush. As players become more experienced they will become more aware of their opponent’s holdings, locate opportunities to bluff and adjust risk tolerance. Many levels of thinking emerge in advanced play to the effect of “What does he think that I think he has?”

Game designs which use negotiation, bluffing or a traitor mechanic can add immense depth simply by alerting players to the threat of deception. Games such as Diplomacy & Mafia each use the idea of socialization to spur greater depth in gameplay.

Image courtesy of Joakim Schön

Image courtesy of Joakim Schön


Abstract games often achieve high depth to complexity ratios by stripping away excess complexity by removing theme, terminology and non-essential rules. The result is a core rule set that is mechanically driven to encourage freedom of gameplay. One of the best examples of an abstract game that achieves a high level depth is the game of Go.

Go is frequently given the “Simple to learn but difficult to master” description as the rules for placement can be explained in a few sentences but the possibilities for gameplay possibilities are immeasurable. By allowing players greater control, they have the ability to create optimal trends in gameplay, rather than face the restrictions commonly found in other games.


Although complexity often carries a negative connotation, it can be an extremely very positive instrument in game design. Problems develop when complexity achieves very little benefit during gameplay. When considering a new idea in your game design, ask yourself if you want to include it because it improves the existing gameplay or because it is a clever idea? The first may add proportionally more strategic depth, the latter will likely add mostly complexity. It can be a great idea to make your puzzle bigger, but it can be a terrible idea to mix two puzzles together in a box and shake it up.

As you work on your game design, look at identifying areas where player interaction can be enhanced. If you allow players a greater ability to control how they interact with one another the potential for added strategic depth increases significantly. Players will naturally seek opportunities to optimize their actions and the potential for emergent gameplay may be present without the designer even being aware.

Finally, look at the rulebook and gameplay to identify areas that can be simplified or removed entirely. Just because a complicated mechanic is necessary to maintain a functional game doesn’t mean you have to stick with it. Break the game down into simple elements and reconstruct it with an alternative mechanic. Even if this doesn’t produce a better result you’ll likely find a positive takeaway you can use and roll back to your previous design.

Strive to make a game which is “greater than the sum of its parts”. When all the ideas work together in harmony the outcome of your game design will be better for it.

Further Exploration:


6 comments on “Complexity & Emergent Gameplay

  1. Glittercats (@PlayGlittercats)

    I’m glad you mentioned Go. Learning to play Go was a major turning point for me in game design because of how it drove home the point of the article.

    One thing I’d add is that a game needs to not just be deep, but also have (for lack of a better word) graduated depth. That is, you can start out playing it shallowly, but as you play you discover more and more strategic depth. A problem I’ve run into is that I’ve come up with simple mechanics that generate a lot of possibility for super-deep strategic play for someone who has fully mastered the system, but if you’re trying to play it in a shallow way to get acquainted with the way the game works, you’re left baffled as to what to do. That is, the game can only be played in a super deep way. Off the top of my head I can’t think of any published games that have this flaw, probably because it’s a pretty fatal one that keeps games off publishers’ lists.

    1. Alex Harkey

      Thanks for reading! I like the idea of graduated depth, I’m inclined to say it shares a lot of similarities to designing with a learning curve in mind.

      Some games have very distinct gaps between levels of depth. I played a lot of competitive Chess growing up and I can’t ever point to a major moment where I had a drastic “Aha!” realization that improved my skill level and strategic thinking. There were many minor moments, but it was a very gradual slope.

      Conversely, I also played a lot of Othello (or Reversi) growing up and was entrenched with the value of spaces on the board (Corner spaces >>> Sides > Center Spaces) as corner spaces are permanent captures while the spaces in the center are commonly switch between players easily and often. I’ve played a few games against opponents online and I just get completely squashed. I’m at a loss to fully explain this higher level strategy I’ve faced but the opponent seems to give me easy placement on the sides and corners while positioning themselves well in order to not surrender large quantities of their pieces at any point. By the end of the game the pieces in my color are stranded in a vast ocean of my opponent’s color.

      I’m sure there is a name for the strategy but it showed me there is clearly a significant step between the strategic depth I was familiar with and the complete shift in ideology and valuations at this higher level. I’m prone to think that Othello has sizable steps in its learning curve and I’m simply at the bottom of the staircase. It is an exciting realization I could only have experienced from facing an opponent with a new mindset.

      In April, Matt and I are going to cover Approachability, a topic we’ve spent a lot, maybe too much time investigating. Some of the ideas that designers should keep in mind are establishing clear long term objectives and intuitive short term objectives; simple street signs that remind players what they are doing and where they are headed.

      I hope you’ll continue developing your mechanics that carry this very heavy depth, they sound like they could be revolutionary when you get them into the right game design.

  2. Gil Hova (@ingredientx)

    This is a thoughtful article, but I feel like it has a bias towards simpler, lighter games. Of course, any game will benefit from the removal of useless weight; all complexity should add *something* of value. But some designs (and some gamers) are more tolerant of complexity than others. I know I would rather play a heavier game than a lighter game, all else being equal.

    Take your comparison of Puerto Rico to San Juan. Here’s what you wrote:

    “In Puerto Rico the need to monitor how your actions benefited your opponents was critical to successful play but this is not nearly as crucial to sucess in San Juan. San Juan is far more tactical in gameplay and did not carry over the large scale strategy that Puerto Rico demands of players.

    San Juan is a great example of a successful reimplementation as the changes still lead to a high ratio of depth to complexity. The biggest success of San Juan are that the reduction in complexity led to improved approachability; that is San Juan can be played by a much wider audience seeking lighter games. The learning curve of San Juan is far more friendly to a newer player who will be less discouraged as final scoring can be more forgiving of beginner play.”

    It sounds like you consider San Juan to be a complete improvement over Puerto Rico; now that we have the simpler game, there’s no need for the heavier game. I don’t agree with this. San Juan is a very good game to be sure, but if given the choice, I’d rather play Puerto Rico. Why? To use your words, I prefer the “large scale strategy that Puerto Rico demands of players.” It’s just what I prefer in my games. I doubt I’m the only one who feels that way.

    The microgame revolution has been great and valuable, but designers and publishers should not miss the fact that there remains an audience for the complex 2-4 hour game.

    So, my question to you is: what about complexity in a rules-heavy game? Consider games like Terra Mystica, Brass, or Arkham Horror. These are long games with many rules, but they have met with much acclaim. How about games with even longer play times? A single game of Twilight Imperium or Advanced Civilization can easily take the entire day. How would a designer manage complexity in either game? At what point in a heavyweight game are things too complex?

    1. Alex Harkey

      Excellent discussion point Gil. I’m glad you bring it up as the tone of the article may need an adjustment. Still, your point is valid and I ‘d like to address it.

      There are two perspectives in play for the topic of complexity. The first is from the perspective of a player, in which of course we want less unnecessary complexity in our games. The second is from the designer, an audience with varying skill levels, many of which are in an early excitement phase of designing games. Part of the argument is that adding (even great) ideas can present less gameplay value (enjoyment) to a player if the new ideas stray too far from the existing design.

      The example with San Juan was intended to show how the reimagining of ideas can create another very good game, but in this case not a better one. “[…] the changes still lead to a high ratio of depth to complexity” but not a higher ratio than Puerto Rico. San Juan simply opened some of Puerto Rico’s ideas to an audience who may never have the curiousity to try Puerto Rico.

      For those already playing and enjoying Puerto Rico, I don’t think the changes would entice them to make a definitive switch to San Juan. The complexity in Puerto Rico was used very wisely, part of why it still carries a stronger reputation than San Juan.

      Terra Mystica has an excellent depth to complexity ratio, providing players a compact player board to track their own progress and letting players run loose in the game to interact with others. Brass has a tremendous amount of depth, but the amount and intercomplexity also created a burden and certainly could be a deterrent for some players. I think the warrented a redesign from Martin Wallace in the form of Age of Industry but I haven’t played the latter so I won’t speak to the success of the changes.

      I’ve only experienced Arkham Horror once and it strikes me as a game where the narrative of the game overshadows some of the complexities present. Perhaps it can be written off as the some of the charm of the game. The game clearly presents a lot of value to players who already enjoy it, but I do think it could have been simplified further in its initial publication. It has an audience, I just think that audience could potentially be bigger with some adjustments.

      I’ll leave a full answer for the length of the games to its own article in two weeks, but briefly I don’t think the time a game takes to play a game is nearly as important as what it does in that time. Twilight Imperium and Advanced Civilization perform well as all day games. Their complexity provides a level of strategic depth that takes many hours in order to fully utilize. A game that lasts an hour may need twice that amount to maximize its complexity and depth. But we’ve all played a game that took three times as long as it should.

      All these “dimensions of gaming” will come together nicely at the end of this month. Thanks for your question, it is an important one to consider in game design.

      1. Gil Hova (@ingredientx)

        Thanks for the reply, Alex!

        For my money, heavier games with more complicated rulesets have a higher tolerance for fiddly rules (I’m defining “fiddly rules” here as “rules with many exceptions and edge cases to manage”). Brass is a great example of this. It’s effectively three interlocking games in one. There’s a game of getting coal and iron on the board to match demand, a game of flipping cotton mills, ports, and foreign demand tiles at the right time, and a game of connecting cities with canals and rails. The end result has incredible depth – I’ve seen people finish a game, and then just reset the board and play it again. I’m used to seeing that with great 20-minute games, but not great 3-hour games.

        However, to pull that off, there’s a lot of fiddly rules. We have coal that must travel along canals/rails, but iron that can “teleport” anywhere (thematically, iron was light enough to travel by carriage, whereas coal had to be transported by some means that could handle the weight). There’s all the different ways to flip cotton mills. There’s the foreign market that’s sometimes open and sometimes not. There’s the definition of “closest” for the purposes of using coal. There’s the edge case of being able to upgrade an industry. There’s the removal of canals and level 1 industries from the board at halftime. There’s the extra coal/iron supply track. Let’s not even MENTION the phantom Birkenhead link.

        All this gives the game depth, but it also causes first-time players to have their heads in their hands all during the Canal Period. “Wait, what does my cotton mill do again? And why can’t I build here? Do I need to be connected? I’m confused.” They usually get it by the end of the game, but that’s not a case where they want to play a second time.

        Terra Mystica is also an incredible game (it won my personal best-of-year award, the Frantic Ferret), but it’s a bear to teach. The complexity here isn’t from lots of edge cases, but from tight coupling of disparate mechanisms. Every mechanism is linked, so you can’t explain one without explaining another. I can explain getting structures onto the board, but then I need to mention indirect vs. direct adjacency, endgame scoring for largest indirect network, income, bonus tokens, power, power bonuses for building adjacent… and so on.

        In order to explain a game like that, I have to omit fine details the first time through and then come back to edge cases later on. It makes for a long rules explanation, though, and you have to know the game cold in order to do it.

        But the reward for that tight coupling is some amazingly difficult decisions. Do you place a structure on the board now? Do you go on the cult track instead? Maybe you can upgrade to a Temple, which would give you a bonus token, which you could use to advance on the cult track, which would give you power, which you can spend on a worker, which you can spend next turn on another settlement, which would give you the lead in indirect networks…

        It’s an incredible depth, and it’s a kind of depth that you can’t really do in a simpler game. This is not a knock at simpler games, which are plenty capable of incredible depth (Go is a perfect example). But this specific kind of depth, where your options come in so many different flavors, is really only possible by establishing so many different flavors in the first place.

        I put Arkham Horror in there intentionally. I think it has a similar depth to Brass and Terra Mystica, but in a completely different direction. It doesn’t have strategic depth, but it has enormous narrative depth. It is pretty complex, but that complexity serves the game’s immersion and storytelling. You have entire decks of cards that rarely get use, simply to provide flavor to one corner of the game. You have different rules for each GOO, and different decks of cards for each area of the board, including an alternate dimension.

        It’s not a deep game in terms of strategy (and I’m personally not a huge fan of it, though that’s subjective tastes, not an objective declaration), but I know a lot of gamers who love its storytelling.

        It’s funny, sometimes I get to play a fiddly game and I get jealous. Like, I play De Vulgari Eloquentia (a game I love, btw), with its different rules for Amanuenses cubes, sea movement rules, and Stupor Mundi event, and I know that if I brought that game to my playtesters, they’d encourage me to shave off all the exceptions and extra bits. And honestly, I wind up happier with the simpler end result. But sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever come out with a four-hour head-explody fiddle-fest of my own someday…

        1. Alex Harkey

          This is an incredibly valuable analysis Gil. It makes me wish I had dug in to each game deeper in my reply, but I don’t think I could have done it as well as you did.

          One of the ideas you mentioned I intended to get to earlier was the concept of complexity tolerance. In the case of Brass, Martin Wallace created a really well constructed production and economic system. At the time he probably didn’t want to address any areas of reducable complexity as the game really ties together nicely. Because the game has such a good mechanical flow, it can carry a higher level of complexity. This is similar to how players will accept a lengthy setup time in order to play a game they truly enjoy; the players notice will notice it, but its a relatively insignificant downside to an otherwise positive experience.

          Perhaps a takeaway is if designers can put together some compatible ideas as in Brass or create an immersive atmosphere to surround players as in Arkham Horror they will have more leverage in testing the player’s capacity with remaining complexity.

          I’m not familiar with De Vulgari Eloquentia but I’ve added it to my list to check out. Thanks again for your analysis.

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