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Narrow gate part IV: I've had the blues, the reds, and the pinks

Jeff Warrender
United States
Averill Park
New York
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One of our favorite memories from working in our church's nursery years ago was when two toddlers were playing together and one was doing something the other disapproved of. The second toddler said, "I'm getting really fwustwated!"

Now this is a feeling many of us have had with games, and I think it's important to be mindful of as designers.

We've talked about experiences that are fun (Ch 9), and apart from winning, one of the most effective is "feeling smart". By extension, feeling dumb feels decidedly unfun. And one of the biggest culprits of giving new players an unfun first experience are rules that are fiddly or rules that are counterintuitive.

Players will tolerate a certain amount of complexity and a certain amount of fumbling around, but telling them they can't do something they thought they could do, or telling them that they've misunderstood or misremembered this subtle exception to such-and-such rule, is a recipe for frustration, and while it may not lead to a proper toddler-sized tantrum, it has an important consequence.

As Ben Harper's song says, "it takes a hundred miles of love to heal a mile of pain", so too it takes a hundred miles of fun to heal a mile of frustration. If players are confused and frustrated by their first contact with a game, that's what they'll remember, how the game made them feel dumb and how frustrating that feeling was. And it will wash away any positive feelings they might otherwise have about the game, any positive buzz they've heard about the game, any enthusiasm they had to want to explore the game further.

This isn't just true of gateway games, of course, but gateway games have to go much further in whittling these rules out.


It's one thing to ask what to do when our game elicits frustration (Ch 23), but can we avoid it entirely? I think there are two solutions and one test we can use.

corn The first solution is the "rule of one": you get one fiddly rule. No matter how many you think your game needs, you're only allowed one. You must pick whichever one is the most important, and all the others have to go, whether you want to drop them or not, whether they're so evocative of the theme or so important to the balance or whatever. You only get one!

indigo The second solution is that fiddly rules "fire" in order over the course of the game, such that the rules can be taught without any of the fiddly rules, and then about 10 minutes into the game, the first fiddly rule can be added, and then the next in 10 minutes more, and so on, and not knowing these rules from the outset doesn't harm the player's outcome too much. In this way the players can learn the rules exceptions at a reasonable pace.

sugar The test is something I admit I've not really tried: it is to ask your playtesters, before you teach a particular rule, "how do you think this is going to work? What am I about to say?" This gives a sense for where their intuition lies, and that's valuable, because the players will default to intuition at least some of the time if they can't remember how the actual rules work.


I'm currently learning Root (not a gateway game!) and, yup, a couple of its fiddly rules are certainly causing some frustration, particularly the one that you can't move out of a clearing unless you rule either the source or the destination. I don't think this rule makes thematic sense. I have this cadre of hawks, I have this rag-tag guerilla detachment of bunnies, I have these cats who think they own the place; why can't they go wherever they want to, again? I have no doubt there are good gameplay reasons and can make feeble attempts to provide handwavey thematic reasons, but it's counterintuitive in a war game to not have freedom of movement, and I think it provides a valuable lesson learned, to me at least: don't mess with intuitive stuff if you're going to have a game chock-full of fiddly rules; at least keep the intuitive stuff intuitive.


I'm grappling with a rule-of-one problem with my own game Moses and Pharaoh, which has four fiddly rules:

1 You mostly pay for actions with resources on cards, but there are ways for Moses to use resources by giving cards to Pharaoh

2 Moses' cost to drop a plague on Pharaoh isn't fixed, but depends on Pharaoh's position on the Pride Track. But also, the numbers on the Pride track change the more Pharaoh progresses on his victory track.

3 Moses' movement on the Exodus track depends on how far along Pharaoh is on the pyramid track, but there are a few ways he can get a little boost as well.

4 The number of cards Pharaoh gets each turn decreases the further Moses advances along the Exodus track.

Now each of these is useful and important, either to the story or the gameplay or both. 4 encourages Moses to charge forward; 3 encourages him to wait, or to have to be less efficient in charging forward, a nice tension. 1 gives Moses much-needed flexibility while still making his most efficient path to resources to give bricks to Pharaoh for the pyramid. And 2 just fits the story so well: the more defiant Pharaoh gets, the easier he is to plague, and the closer he gets to the finish line, the more defiant he gets.

So, I've been working all month to try to cut these four fiddly rules down to one, even making sweeping changes that turn the game into more of a card game so that the fiddly rules weren't necessary. But these changes also made the game worse, and so the best I've done is changing the way the rules are handled or presented. You can't always get what you want.


Now Root and Moses & Pharaoh aren't gateway games, but for games that are, these rules become all the more important to consider and to enforce. So let's look at how our Big Four + One fare.

Catan: Are any of Settlers' rules fiddly? I don't really think so. The different costs for each thing you can build is a little bit you have to remember but it doesn't seem bad.

Carcassonne's farmer scoring is sufficiently confusing that later editions of the game handle it differently.

Ticket to Ride: doesn't really have any fiddly rules. The rule about expunging the display when 3 like cards appear, or the one about only drawing one wild from the display, or the one about needing to keep at least one ticket, don't quite rise to the level of fiddly in my book.

Pandemic: I think Pandemic's rules about the multiple uses for cards and moving via card are maybe a little bit fiddly.

Wingspan: I admit to not knowing Wingspan well but its rules about food from the feeder and when the feeder is rerolled seem fiddly. And I suspect some of the bird powers themselves are probably fiddly, although since you only care about the powers on cards you draw that may qualify as indigo

How about a few others?

Jaipur: The camel rules are pretty fiddly.

Isle of Skye: From Chieftain to King: Not a gateway exactly, but it's not a big step up from Carc. The "price the tiles" rule is maybe not easy for non-gamers but isn't exactly fiddly. The different scoring rules per round are a bit fiddly, though, although the board at least communicates what they are effectively enough.

Dominion: Kind of like Wingspan, the core turn mechanic is simple but some individual cards are a little fiddly. The rule that you always dump your hand is a little fiddly but you learn it quickly enough.

Bohnanza: "Keep your cards in order", super fiddly!

No Thanks!: No penalty for a card if it's in order with your other(s), not too fiddly, other than that nothing to report.

So overall, I'd say most of our gateway games, again with the possible exception of Wingspan, mostly conform to our heuristics of what a gateway game ought to entail, in particular this time the "rule of one".

And finally, a very happy St. Valentine's day to you all!


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