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Subject: When is a game elegant? rss

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Daniel Walker
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A fascinating recent thread started by masvill20 began with this subject: Suggestions for elegant games to play like Endeavor. As a relatively new member of the boardgaming brethren, I quickly read the numerous suggestions offered by excited recommenders for games ranging from Hansa Teutonica, Goa, El Grande, and Tigris & Euphrates. Hansa Teutonica, for example, went immediately on my wishlist due to the enthusiasm with which it has been praised recently and the number of times it is mentioned as "elegant." Unfortunately, many posters simple say that something is elegant without offering any further explanation--as if elegance were a self-evident concept.

Yet a couple of weeks later, I am trying to figure out exactly what it means when we say that a game is elegant. When I was younger I loved many games that I now recognize as supremely inelegant such as Monopoly. So, although I know Monopoly is not elegant, I can't come to a good definition about what constitutes an elegant game. Just saying "the opposite of Monopoly" doesn't quite work although I think it may help.

The Oxford English Dictionary may begin to help with the following three definitions of "elegance":
Quote:

1. Refined grace of form and movement, tastefulness of adornment, refined luxury, etc.

2. Of spoken or written compositions, literary style, etc.: Tasteful correctness, harmonious simplicity, in the choice and arrangement of words.

3. a. Of scientific processes, demonstrations, inventions, etc.: ‘Neatness’, ingenious simplicity, convenience, and effectiveness; so of a prescription, etc.


In my very small collection, for example, I think Hive is extremely elegant due to the simultaneous simplicity of its rules and game pieces and the depth of play that those rules and hunks of Bakelite create. But I know that elegance can take many forms.

What is elegance in our hobby's context? Is elegance in gaming something that you simply recognize--do you just know it when you see it--, or are there things/factors/elements/mechanics/themes/components that you think make a game elegant? What are some of the most elegant games and, even more importantly, why are they elegant?

I look forward to hearing your responses.

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Eric Brosius
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A game is elegant when the length and complexity of the rules is low compared with the variety and depth of the decision making required. A game is elegant when the rules hang together in a logical way so that you rarely have to consult the rule book to remember the details of the rules.

This is a subjective characteristic.
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Captain Spaulding
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Eric Brosius wrote:
A game is elegant when the length and complexity of the rules is low compared with the variety and depth of the decision making required. A game is elegant when the rules hang together in a logical way so that you rarely have to consult the rule book to remember the details of the rules.

This is a subjective characteristic.


That's pretty much exactly what I was going to say, except not as elegantly.
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Tim Seitz
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Mr_Bickman wrote:
Eric Brosius wrote:
A game is elegant when the length and complexity of the rules is low compared with the variety and depth of the decision making required. A game is elegant when the rules hang together in a logical way so that you rarely have to consult the rule book to remember the details of the rules.

This is a subjective characteristic.


That's pretty much exactly what I was going to say, except not as elegantly.


High depth-to-complexity ratio.
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R Larsen
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Eric Brosius wrote:
A game is elegant when the length and complexity of the rules is low compared with the variety and depth of the decision making required. A game is elegant when the rules hang together in a logical way so that you rarely have to consult the rule book to remember the details of the rules.

This is a subjective characteristic.


Yep, I would also have tried to writing something like this. One thing that to me makes a game particularly un-elegant, is the confusing rules with numerous, constant exceptions. This is the almost sole reason that I am not playing Paths of Glory or FAB: The Bulge more often. A shame, but there are just more elegant games out there.
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Bob Kohut
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--when seemingly complex game mechanisms mesh with always clear results

--when your brain tingles with the wonder of the flow of logic.

--when you become one with the game. It takes you away from the real world, away from your everday problems. For that brief time, all your cares are left behind.

--it is a symphony of the mind................grasshopper
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Eric Jome
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Games are typically thought of as elegant in the third sense in the series of definitions you listed. To say a game is elegant is like saying a math proof is elegant.

Ingenious simplicity. Harmonious. Strategy flows easily from rules, which are uncluttered or complex.

Note, game elegance does not necessarily mean that the game is a good game. Tic Tac Toe is very elegant, but not a good game. A game is good when it has strategic complexity and replayability. Elegance is good in a game often to help players learn faster and discuss the game in more detail, lending itself to easy summaries or notations.
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bran mcmillin
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When it's placed on a cupcake.
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Greg Reimann
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Interesting. I am with you all on the simplicity, but I am more focused on theme. So to me, a game is elegant when simple mechanics convey the feeling of the theme to the players.

When I first played Pandemic, I kept repeating, "this game is so elegant." I thought the simple epidemic mechanic (draw a card from the bottom and reshuffle the discards) really captured the feeling of desperation of fighting a global disease that would likely resurface.
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Robert Garlinghouse
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When I win consistently, my mastery of the elegant system leads inexorably to my victory.

When you win consistently, this game is obviously a random luck-fest!

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Eric Brosius wrote:
A game is elegant when the length and complexity of the rules is low compared with the variety and depth of the decision making required. A game is elegant when the rules hang together in a logical way so that you rarely have to consult the rule book to remember the details of the rules.

This is a subjective characteristic.


Great elucidation!

One concept i have been looking at lately is just how elegant some of the heavy stuff is. Dungeon Lords and Stronghold seem to have lots of complication for what you get but it seems to be an area plenty of gamers enjoy. If it wasn't for the theme of Dungeon Lords it would not be my bag. So medium or less games of elegance are most of my collection.

Here is something i have been evaluating. Dungeon Lords has 3 "Events" per year. They accomplish their objective of helping make every game different as getting taxes and payday one after the other is one example of how things can really screw you up in your planning. But is adding complication an elegant solution?

Tobago does the same kind of complication by adding the "Curse" cards. Since it is already in the rule book most players will automatically defend the merits of curse cards to the death. But is it elegant? Does it add depth and decision making to the game, to a level worthy of adding the chaos/complication? There was a lot of excitement about Tobago and now that it is released for mass consumption it is down to 13 from the bottom on the "hot" list. So i wonder if the curse card makes gamers ask too many questions about its relevance to the game? And if an evaluator can't come up with an answer does it hurt the popularity? Gamers usually like to definatively answer those questions and maybe gray areas aren't good for design?
 
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Tim Seitz
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Dungeon Lords is a great game, but I would not consider it elegant, by any definition. Evil, maybe. But elegant? No!
 
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A game is elegant when the reviewer is too lazy to be more descriptive.
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Daniel Walker
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badalchemist wrote:
A game is elegant when the reviewer is too lazy to be more descriptive.


Kind of like saying a wine is "complex."
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bran wrote:
When it's placed on a cupcake.


That's as good an explanation as I've heard - I'm being entirely serious. Elegance, like beauty is often in the mind of the beholder; subjective and therefore not really worth too much as an objective definition.

I'd say there are a lot of games that have elegance, but very little replayability. If, by definition, elegance includes simple ruleset, aesthetic design/quality of production, and deep gameplay, then there are lots of games... but very few that I would personally classify as elegant for my own gaming requirements. If we lowered this bar just a fraction to discard the idea of aesthetic quality production (i.e. expensive, well-made hand-made quality...) then games such as Enemy Chocolatier would have to be classified as 'elegant' as it's very simple ruleset bellies a complexity in its rather quick gameplay... gameplay which leads to a vast, varied gaming experience from game to game - just one example.

One could (in the 'royal we' sense) classify a game like Canvas Eagles as 'elegant'. I've seen some butt-ugly, quick-n-dirty handmade versions on the perverbial gaming table. However, there are some beautifully built models coupled with some amazing hex-based group mats; these are ELEGANT since the game rules are really not at all complex and yet what transpires over any given game can radically change, and it's definately a game that you get better and better at the more you play; a novice has very little chance at beating an ace of 20+ games under their belt. However, the learning curve is very forgiving since the game is very easy to teach (basically a 'learn as you get blasted' playing experience for the first 20 minutes or so), can look very pleasing to the eye, and has such immense varied gameplay that it keeps the rapt attention of just about anyone who has been bitten by the CE bug often leading to comments along the adjectives of 'elegant', 'beautiful', 'amazing', 'simple yet deep', et al.
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Daniel Walker
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Eric Brosius wrote:
A game is elegant when the length and complexity of the rules is low compared with the variety and depth of the decision making required. A game is elegant when the rules hang together in a logical way so that you rarely have to consult the rule book to remember the details of the rules.


cosine wrote:
Games are typically thought of as elegant in the third sense in the series of definitions you listed. To say a game is elegant is like saying a math proof is elegant.

Ingenious simplicity. Harmonious. Strategy flows easily from rules, which are uncluttered or complex.


Good stuff from both of you in eloquently and elegantly putting into words what I had sensed about gaming elegance.

theredwagoneer wrote:
Interesting. I am with you all on the simplicity, but I am more focused on theme. So to me, a game is elegant when simple mechanics convey the feeling of the theme to the players.

When I first played Pandemic, I kept repeating, "this game is so elegant." I thought the simple epidemic mechanic (draw a card from the bottom and reshuffle the discards) really captured the feeling of desperation of fighting a global disease that would likely resurface.


I am intrigued about this different sort of elegance that speaks to the fusion of form and function. I imagine this kind is a bit less common.
 
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Stephen Brian
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BrenoK wrote:
theredwagoneer wrote:
Interesting. I am with you all on the simplicity, but I am more focused on theme. So to me, a game is elegant when simple mechanics convey the feeling of the theme to the players.


So, no such thing as an elegant abstract? Funny, I think abstracts are usually a model of elegance, since the rules do not have to cover any territory other than its strategic necessities.


There are potentially elegant abstracts. Go-moku as played by most people, i.e., without the rule against simultaneously forming two open 3s, is elegant. But that rule is perceived as necessary in more serious play to counteract the first player advantage. It makes the game work, but adds an inelegant complication to the rules. I don't know if the pie rule (one player makes the first move, then the other player chooses which color to play) fixes the first player bias, but if it does, it is a much more elegant fix than the two 3's rule.

Cameron Browne's game Halves seems elegant, both visually and conceptually. However, I suspect that it has not been play tested sufficiently to detect any flaws that will require an inelegant fix.
 
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treece keenes wrote:
Tobago does the same kind of complication by adding the "Curse" cards. Since it is already in the rule book most players will automatically defend the merits of curse cards to the death. But is it elegant? Does it add depth and decision making to the game, to a level worthy of adding the chaos/complication? There was a lot of excitement about Tobago and now that it is released for mass consumption it is down to 13 from the bottom on the "hot" list. So i wonder if the curse card makes gamers ask too many questions about its relevance to the game? And if an evaluator can't come up with an answer does it hurt the popularity? Gamers usually like to definatively answer those questions and maybe gray areas aren't good for design?

Tobago has fallen for a variety of reasons I'm sure - and the existence of the curse cards is very likely not significant. I don't particularly like the game - and I was an early buyer. Tobago was popular because it had a distinct mechanic and this titillated BGG. It was surprising and fun - this reverse deduction idea. But is the game elegant? Beyond that mechanic - which is elegant - I don't think the game is elegant. The movement mechanic is inelegant and as you point out, so are the curse cards. Both are perhaps necessary - but not elegant.

To me elegant is a design that follows the old saw: it is done not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.

So I think the curse mechanic is inelegant - because it seems to be something that could have been filed down a bit (although I think I do appreciate why it exists in the game). Or maybe even left out completely. But design is a thing of taste in the end.
 
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Daniel Walker
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lindelos wrote:
bran wrote:
When it's placed on a cupcake.


That's as good an explanation as I've heard - I'm being entirely serious. Elegance, like beauty is often in the mind of the beholder; subjective and therefore not really worth too much as an objective definition.


Indeed, but is interesting to know what a gamer is thinking when they call a game elegant. Of course if someone cannot even begin to explain what they mean by the term, his/her use of the term is empty of meaning.

One reason for starting this thread was to see what was, in fact, behind the sometimes careful and sometimes careless use of the descriptor in game reviews.
 
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Stephen Brian
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Quote:
I quickly read the numerous suggestions offered by excited recommenders for games ranging from Hansa Teutonica, Goa, El Grande, and Tigris & Euphrates.


I fail to see how Hansa Teutonica could be described as elegant under anyone's definition. The bonus chits alone render it inelegant under any objective definition by introducing a random and distracting element.
 
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Q: When is a game elegant?

A: When it is played on doilies with a silver tea service in your garden...



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Dr ?
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when it wears a monocle and wears a tophat.


Does that make Mr. Peanut elegant? Or Colonol Klink 50% elegant? Nevermind.
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Corin A. Friesen
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Anyone agree with me that Power Grid is not very elegant? All the numbers have to be adjusted throughout the game, let alone for every player count.
The only way I could see it as pretty elegant is that it combines almost every mechanic out there into one board game. Still, that is hyperbole.

Some games which I find elegant (not in any particular order other than in the one that comes to my mind):

Go
Dominion
Le Havre
Arkadia
Notre Dame
In the Year of the Dragon
Taj Mahal
Attika
Stone Age
Tigris & Euphrates
Endeavor
Small World
Hamburgum
Many abstract strategy games.
Brass (just kidding. )

Come to think of it, the only games that are not elegant are the ones which don't flow or are broken. Every game has to have a certain elegance in order for people to enjoy playing it. And every good board game usually has flow.
 
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When it raises its pinky.
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