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Subject: Game Complexity - Rules, Approachability, Strategy, Tactics rss

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Joe Grundy
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In my recently started "10 Word Review and Rules Complexity Score" series of reviews I've been assessing rules complexity at the bottom of each one. http://www.boardgamegeek.com/tag/10_word_review
It's been generating some interesting dialog on "complexity" (and also confusion on what the heck I was talking about since I didn't explain myself well).

I thought I'd bring the interesting part of the complexity dialog out separately.




"Hi! I brought a new game to play."
"How complicated is it?"
"um ..."


Here's a set of various things that affect a player's feeling of how complex a game is:

Rules complexity: How much do I need to remember to operate the game? How much do I need to have learnt to be ready to plan ahead?
Approachability: To what extent are there "natural" visible consequences of decisions in the first few turns of a new player's first game? How "useful" does a new player feel?
Strategic complexity: How much influence do my early decisions have on my later turns? How far ahead does this reach? How much planning is involved?
Tactical complexity: How much information is available to process on how many options just to decide each turn? How much influence does each piece of information, and my choice of options this turn, have on my situation at my next turn?


"Rules Complexity"
Curiously this is the "complexity" assessment that gives me personally the most benefit-for-effort in choosing games, which is why I've focused on it in those reviews. If I'm reading a review then I'm thinking of buying a game. If I end up buying a game, I'm going to have to learn it AND teach it before I can play it. In teaching it, I need to be mindful of the patience of my audience.

In choosing a game, for me all other complexity assessments are gazumped my more subjective comments on enjoyability.

Here's everything I've assessed so far, where the first number is how many things you really need to learn before you can play your first game, and the second number is how many things you need to learn to have all relevant rules details at your mental fingertips when planning ahead:
Ra: 10 .. 14
Chess: 9 .. 12
Catan: 12 .. 19
Puerto Rico: 20 .. 31
Ticket to Ride: 10 .. 10
Bohnanza: 9 .. 10
Carcassonne: Hunters and Gatherers: 8 .. 11
Tikal: 11 .. 12 (both +2 for auction variant)
Genoa: 21 .. 21
Ark: 9 .. 24 (both +3 if the "food chain" rule isn't intuitive to the learner)
Blue Moon City: 11 .. 19

Note I realise there's a small degree of subjectivity in this, so please let's not collectively hijack the general discussion quibbling a point here or there. These counts don't cover things you don't ever need to learn, such as decisionless setups or rules "for completeness" that really rarely/never actually come up in play. They also don't count things that players tend to assume, in my experience, since this is assessing the complexity to learn the rules.

The rules complexity above can contribute to player reactions in a big way. Ark (9..24) is a superb example... it's a pretty simple game to get started, but turns out to be very complicated. And you need almost the entire "24" by the end of the first game! (Contrast Puerto Rico (20..31) where you can take up the specific building rules at your own pace.) No wonder people talk about "fiddly rules" in Ark. And/or get lulled by how cute it is only to find out it's actually hard to get through the first game. Which distracts from the actual strategies of the game.

The rules complexity can also wear out the patience of a new player, either through comprehension overload or just sheer time to explain. Different folks can handle different levels of starting complexity, and different levels of total complexity.


"Approachability"
It's not just having a simple ruleset that makes a game approachable. The game Go has a pretty simple ruleset (maybe 3..5, I don't actually know it well enough). But its approachability is woeful. I've only ever tried to play a couple of times, and the implications of the first few stones, or indeed types of play throughout the game, completely escapes me, leaving me feeling like I'm just a randomiser tossing stones at the board. ("Of course", I hear the Go masters saying. "It's a game you need to play repeatedly to begin to appreciate the complexity of strategy." Which is the point.)

Less believed is that something like Catan (12..19) has any depth of strategy (or some say, any strategy at all). Partly (ie partly!) this is because the game is so approachable. From the first, you can see you need a variety of resources and room to expand and most players make moves on that basis and simply try to optimise the build for the current turn. Yet some starting locations look viable but can still be strategically dead against experienced players, and some trades and builds are worth not doing. These things get discovered through experience (if you take the game "seriously" enough), but the new player can still immediately feel their decisions are contributive to their success.

Also some gamers assume strategical analysis stops at the first randomiser...


"Strategic Complexity", "Tactical Complexity"
Strategic and tactical complexity are an intriguing inter-related concept. I believe the combination can be estimated with decision tree sizes, but it gets complicated with:
(a) capacity for "obvious" heuristics (ie algorithms for assessing the "value" of game position) to yield clarity by "trimming the tree",
and
(b) benefit differentials between different decisions.
For example, you could continue to assess the future potential value of other options even after you discover a move that certainly wins in this turn, but the other options at this point are pretty much irrelevant (if you aren't meta-scoring) so you trim them from the decision tree. Or you could include whether you roll the green dice or red dice as part of your decision tree, but it obviously would make no difference to the outcome. (So we cut the choice of dice colour off the decision tree too.) But how big a benefit should a choice yield before you bother to include it in the complexity calculation?

This is especially relevant with games with a random/"luck" element... they often have much more complex decision trees than (for example) Chess, but the relevance may diminish rapidly the further ahead you look. For some reason many gamers seem to see any randomiser in a game as the point at which you stop assessing the future potential of the position, but personally I find a game with a roughly equal mix of player decision pivots and non-deterministic pivots the most strategically interesting of all. I do believe random elements can make tactical choices feel less valuable, because a player may assess and make the "most beneficial" tactical decisions only to immediately see their decision "fail" due to the effects of the random elements.

Perhaps such games are simply too strategically and/or tactically complex (sic) for some "perfect info" "deterministic" game players. devil (Ducks for cover.) But seriously, there's only so much most people can hold in their head, and for most of us a huge probabilistic decision tree defies our capacity.
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Re: Game Complexity - Rules, Approachability, Strategy, Tact
Can you give us an example of how you arrive at the numbers? I'm guessing that for chess (9..12), the 9 comes from the moves of each piece (6) plus check/mate (1) plus castling and en passant (2)?
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Iain K
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Re: Game Complexity - Rules, Approachability, Strategy, Tact
I’m not sure I agree with, or even understand, all your points Joe, but it’s an interesting read. You articulate your points, and you’ve made me think about the complexity of games I like and dislike, and why. I appreciate your taking the time to write your thoughts down. This is the sort of content I come to BGG to find, but rarely do anymore.

Thanks and Cheers.
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Joe Grundy
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sbszine wrote:
Can you give us an example of how you arrive at the numbers? I'm guessing that for chess (9..12), the 9 comes from the moves of each piece (6) plus check/mate (1) plus castling and en passant (2)?
Good guess.

I counted the 6 piece moves, the concept of capture as a separate meme, and castling. And pawn promotion when I originally counted it though that's debateable. I put en passant in the 3 for later, but that's equally debateable so heck with it call it half a point each way each.

In the extra 3, I allowed a point for the combined existance of etiquettes/conventions, a point as noted for one of (or half each of) en passant/pawn promotion because uncharacteristically I was not resolute on either, and a point which honestly at this moment escapes me.

I don't count checkmate since the victory condition is trivial and a standard and "natural" game objective mechanism (capture their leader) though convention stops the game a turn short. "Rules" like "you can't move leaving yourself in check" have no game effect I'm aware of, and saying "check" is as much etiquette as a rule affecting game play.

As I said... it's subjective and quibbleable, it's according to how I map the ruleset memes in my own head. I hope not to get bogged down on the quibbles, it's a useful indicative scale not the final word.
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Re: Game Complexity - Rules, Approachability, Strategy, Tact
jgrundy wrote:
I don't count checkmate since the victory condition is trivial and a standard and "natural" game objective mechanism (capture their leader) though convention stops the game a turn short. "Rules" like "you can't move leaving yourself in check" have no game effect I'm aware of, and saying "check" is as much etiquette as a rule affecting game play.

Yah, and for a real world example, shogi just has 'capture the king' as the objective. Avoiding / escaping check comes naturally as a consequence.
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Re: Game Complexity - Rules, Approachability, Strategy, Tact
How would you classify in approachability a game such as Othello, where newbies think that their decisions contribute to their success, but their moves actually tend to be counterproductive? (That is, games where beginners can make meaningful moves towards an intermediate goal, but the beginners tend to choose intermediate goals whose achievement actually harms their possibility to ultimately win the game.)
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Joe Grundy
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An important word in the "approachability" category, for my mind, is "feel". As long as new players feel like they're useful, even if they're wrong I'd say a game is "approachable".

Othello (3..3) is a great example. Mind you, the simple ruleset also contributes to Othello's approachability.
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Joe Grundy
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Looking over the games and rule complexities above, and thinking over the times I've taught these games, here are my subjective thoughts on approachability...

If a game has a rules complexity within your audience tolerance AND is reasonably "approachable", it's probably a strong candidate for a "gateway" game for that category of game for that audience.

Catan: Sort of a benchmark... not the most approachable game in the world but well within most people's comfort. Potential gateway.
Ra: Loses a little on "what are those tiles worth?" and "what are my suns worth?" ... only "almost" as approachable as Settlers in spite of the lighter rules. Potential gateway.
Bohnanza: Players often don't seem to get the implications of "can't rearrange your hand" until it bites them, and the first couple of turns can be pretty mechanical. Again, almost as approachable as Settlers in spite of lighter rules. Potential gateway.
Genoa: Much more rules-complex yet almost as approachable, assuming the complexity is within tolerance.
Ticket to Ride: Sometimes has people blinking for the first one or few turns while they figure out they need to "uselessly" draw cards for a couple of turns to fill out their first plays, but otherwise is highly approachable. Potential gateway.
Puerto Rico: is pretty low on approachability.
Carcassonne: Hunters and Gatherers: Like Ra or Bohnanza, almost highly approachable. Potential gateway.

Ark: The strangest example in this category because it looks approachable, and the initial rules complexity is fairly light. But the rules complexity is deceptive, and the first few turns players are often distracted just puzzling over legality of moves. The tactics and strategies available in Ark are opaque with players often (mistakenly) believing they have too limited choice of play, forgetting that this is a hand drafting game with some strategical choices and plenty of tactical options if you populate and manage your hand properly.

The other games I haven't watched learning experiences often enough recently enough to really comment.
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Iain K
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Re: Game Complexity - Rules, Approachability, Strategy, Tact

Joe, what's your take on theme's relationship to approachability.

For example, I've taught people Ra and Razzia, Ra's mafia themed card game spin off. People "get" Razzia much more often then they "get" Ra. Ra has rules that you "just need to remember" they don't necessarily make sense. Mobsters being better off with more thugs . . . that people inherently understand.

In my experience, complexity can often be dulled if that complexity is the result of so-called "chrome" that makes sense to the gamers. Granted, my gaming is rooted in wargames and roleplaying games, but it just makes sense that a Dwarven character has an advantage keeping their bearings underground and an Elvin one is better at finding their way in a forest. Do such rules add complexity sure, but they make intuitive sense and are easily remembered.

One of the great weaknesses of any game is when they have rules that don't make sense with their theme, or have little or no theme to tie the rules together into a cohesive whole. For example, in Age of Steam, it makes no sense to me that a city the size of Chicago only demands one commodity. It makes even less sense that we as industrialists have no idea what Chicago will be producing several turns from now (commodities drawn from a cup?). Such a system is less complex than the commodity market used in Silverton for example, but Silverton's system does make sense, and I love the game.

I believe approachability can not be divorced from theme, and theme can make a complex ruleset approachable.

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Joe Grundy
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Iain, interesting thoughts.

So theme can make a more complex ruleset feel less complex by tapping into existing knowledge or expectations.

Do you suppose there is more to theme helping approachability than this effect? I mean, if two games feel equally rules-complex except that one isn't tightly themed, and the other has a well integrated theme and uses the theme to "get away with" having more rules, do you suppose the theme makes the themed game even more approachable, or is there only the benefit of making the rules feel more natural and hence less complex?
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Iain K
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Re: Game Complexity - Rules, Approachability, Strategy, Tact
jgrundy wrote:

Do you suppose there is more to theme helping approachability than this effect?


Yes.

jgrundy wrote:

I mean, if two games feel equally rules-complex except that one isn't tightly themed, and the other has a well integrated theme and uses the theme to "get away with" having more rules, do you suppose the theme makes the themed game even more approachable, or is there only the benefit of making the rules feel more natural and hence less complex?


While both are true, I believe the greater impact may come from the theme making the game more approachable.


Long answers . . .

I think theme interacts with complexity in several ways. As discussed previously, theme makes a complex game more approachable. A good theme makes a game "feel" less complex than it actually is, because the additional rules make intuitive sense and are thus easily remembered.

You've made me think of a second impact of theme; theme can motivate one to endure complexity if that theme is something they find interesting, or it just immerses them in the theme so well that they don't realize just how complex the rules are.

Take for example, three railroading games,Ticket to Ride, Age of Steam, and Silverton.

Now Ticket to Ride is not a complex game, and it has been argued that it's theme, while not "tacked on" could be replaced with a number of other themes. But it does have a good theme-mechanic fit and the theme helps people learning the game to grasp the rules. Oddly it's a game where people often forget the exact theme (traveling between cities), but the idea that we're connecting cities and it requires the accumulation of assets to do makes sense given the railroading theme.

Age of Steam (AoS) is much more complex, and is perhaps more immersive in it's theme. Unfortunately, I've found that this is a problem as its theme-mechanic fit is at times discordant. Don't get me wrong, AoS is an excellent *game*, but it is a complex game and more importantly, a poor game "about railroading".

I've mentioned the difficulties I have with it's commodity "model". Let's look at another issue - in AoS it is better to build long rail lines than short lines between the same destination. It is better, according to the game, to ship goods through as many cities as possible, even if the cities have a direct route between them. Anyone learning AoS intuitively knows this is wrong, but the game asks us to play by a rule that is the opposite of what we know to be logically true.

My other favorite is that the amount of money you've accumulated by the end of the game means nothing . . . as I recall the designer decreed "money is just a tool". OK, so we're playing a game where we're all railroad owners, but making money isn't important? Not only does this rule run counter to logic, it runs counter to generations of "make the most money and win" games.

Both of these aspects of AoS simply make no sense, *especially* given the theme. The game asks players to "just remember" rules that defy logic, and it's much more complex as a result of such "gamey" rules.

The third game I mentioned is Silverton, a game set in the railroading history of my home state, Colorado. Compared to AoS, Silverton is a railroading simulation. My friend and oft opponent, gamesgrandpa, describes it as a financial game. I've argued that a game can't be "about running a railroad company" without being a financial game.

At any rate, Silverton's rulebook is about as long as AoS, and it is a reasonably complex game. But most of its rules make "more sense" given the theme than do rules in AoS or even Ticket to Ride.

The point I want to illustrate with this game is that *for me* the rules were even more approachable since I have an interest in the railroad building and mining history of Colorado. I enjoy hiking and mountain biking to remote ghost towns, often along old rail grades. I can name the mountain passes that key lines on Silverton's map use. In truth, I would have waded through a much more complex rulebook for the experience of assuming the mantel of rail baron in this historic time and place because of my interest in the subject.

So theme impacts approachability in many ways. If we are very interested in a theme, we become much more tolerant of rule complexity. Conversely, we can become less forgiving of rules that don't adhere to the theme.

If a theme is very immersive, regardless of our interest level, complex rules can "just make sense" and are more approachable. I suspect this is a great weakness of abstracts titles, as they have no theme to facilitate learning the rules.
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Joe Grundy
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citizen k wrote:
If a theme is very immersive, regardless of our interest level, complex rules can "just make sense" and are more approachable. I suspect this is a great weakness of abstracts titles, as they have no theme to facilitate learning the rules.
Indeed. My instinct without having down the counts on many abstracts yet is that the abstracts have much less complex rulesets. Of course I couldn't say whether this is because, lacking theme, the designers have to simplify simplify or whether it's because having designed an interesting game interaction if it's too complex the designers have to wrap it in some sort of theme to make it accessible. Or some of each.

Interestingly, taking Ra as an example, I think it's still easier to remember the scoring sets with the theme than if they were just shaped or coloured. The floods making the river useable is thematically correct. The God tiles having their power, ok. The monuments score the big scores. Dunno though. And I still always feel a little peculiar teaching, "and when you want to start bidding you invoke the god Ra". All that said, it's a pretty game, and even that improves people's desire to approach.

May I separate out your two points here? Approachability and desire to approach? A stronger desire overcomes a weaker approachability.
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Iain K
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Re: Game Complexity - Rules, Approachability, Strategy, Tact
"May I separate out your two points here? Approachability and desire to approach? A stronger desire overcomes a weaker approachability."

Sounds like a fair summation.

Cheers!
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Re: Game Complexity - Rules, Approachability, Strategy, Tact
Hey Joe. I just discovered this thread. Very interesting stuff. I'm mainly interested in your Rules Complexity assessment because, as you indicate, it does give the most benefit for effort.

In fact, I believe there is at least some bit of objectivity in the assessment because you are counting. You nearly say as much yourself when you you ask:
Joe wrote:
How much do I need to remember to operate the game? How much do I need to have learnt to be ready to plan ahead?

"How much" is a quantifier, and in its assessment you are attempting to count the number of concepts (I believe you called them "memes") to be learned. I find this tremendously useful because every game has a list of things one must know to begin playing (to win) and then things they can learn as they go and as they come up. Of course the subjectivity does come in when delimiting a boundary for a given game's interconnected concepts. It also comes in assessing a number of points (when more than 1) for more advanced or consequence-dependent concepts. At a very basic level, however, one can at least be consistent.

I feel I really get what you are talking about, but I think a different terminology is in order. The word "Complexity" has notions of quality to it that your assessment is not intending to deal with and thus may be contributing to possible confusion. Some people see "complexity" and think about non-intuitiveness or inscrutability.

Would you perhaps consider calling it a "Rules Composition" assessment instead? "Composition" has a more objective notion of counting and placement that is more mechanical. Just a suggestion.

To prove that I think I get it, I ran down the rules concepts for BattleLore and came up with a score of 15 .. 25 based on:

15 - banners, summary cards, command cards, ordering, movement, combat/dice, endturn actions, section/tactics cards, Line-Of-Sight, melee/ranged combat difference, follow-on actions, retreats, terrain, morale, battlebacks.

...+10 = 25 - Mercenaries, creatures, trampling, special powers, lore tokens, lore cards, Lore Masters, War Councils, War Council setup/limits, landmarks.
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Joe Grundy
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Hey Gabe, thanks for that.

That seems like a reasonable assessment, though I don't know the game.

In some cases I'm inclined to include in the second number that you want to know about individual possibilities or classes of possibilitie in a card deck, so that you can plan for them. Would that be true in Battlelore?

And as you say, it's subjective where to delimit. The biggest head-scratch I had was over Ark.
http://www.boardgamegeek.com/thread/145706

I found the food-chain rules to be sufficiently coherent that for me personally it's one "point" in my counting. But other people seem to have to try to learn each one individually, making it "vegetarians eat supplies", "carnivores eat any animal same size or smaller", "yes, carnivores eat carnivores", "omnivores eat both" for four points of rules.

I love using Ark as an example. The exercise highlights a major reason why it hasn't picked up a bigger following... it looks like a light filler, but turns out to have complex rules.
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could you review Race for the Galaxy with this mechanism please?
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jgrundy wrote:

Here's everything I've assessed so far, where the first number is how many things you really need to learn before you can play your first game, and the second number is how many things you need to learn to have all relevant rules details at your mental fingertips when planning ahead:
Ra: 10 .. 14
Chess: 9 .. 12
Catan: 12 .. 19
Puerto Rico: 20 .. 31
Ticket to Ride: 10 .. 10
Bohnanza: 9 .. 10
Carcassonne: Hunters and Gatherers: 8 .. 11
Tikal: 11 .. 12 (both +2 for auction variant)
Genoa: 21 .. 21
Ark: 9 .. 24 (both +3 if the "food chain" rule isn't intuitive to the learner)
Blue Moon City: 11 .. 19


It's always interesting to add new metrics. However, it can be tough to set up a metric that's not cumbersome to maintain. For a metric to be maintained, it must first be easy to maintain. It should also be something that's not overly hard to quantify. This sort of metric looks very subjective.

I do like your ideas.
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jgrundy wrote:
Here's a set of various things that affect a player's feeling of how complex a game is:

Rules complexity: How much do I need to remember to operate the game? How much do I need to have learnt to be ready to plan ahead?
Approachability: To what extent are there "natural" visible consequences of decisions in the first few turns of a new player's first game? How "useful" does a new player feel?
Strategic complexity: How much influence do my early decisions have on my later turns? How far ahead does this reach? How much planning is involved?
Tactical complexity: How much information is available to process on how many options just to decide each turn? How much influence does each piece of information, and my choice of options this turn, have on my situation at my next turn?

Bravo! Sharp thinking and clear, concise explanations. The "Approachability" aspect is brilliant; I'd never have thought of it, but it immediately rings true.
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CW Lumm
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Great article.

jgrundy wrote:

Also some gamers assume strategical analysis stops at the first randomiser...


How I wish you were wrong...
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