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Subject: Striking the balance of complexity rss

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Dan Hale
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The tendency of a game designer is toward complexity -- we always want to add more stuff. The path to refinement is largely toward simplicity -- keep trimming unnecessary bits until there's nothing left that you can sanely remove or refine.

But the simplification process can go awry when applied too firmly, or with misguided assumptions. This can lead to absurd rejections of useful mechanics or whole games.
http://www.nerfnow.com/comic/891

Though this comic is mainly a commentary on the state of video games (especially console games, which take a lot of flak for over-simplifying), it's equally applicable to board games. When your perception of what is "too complex for players/fun" is skewed, you can end up cutting (or recommending cutting, as a third party) features which are more appropriate to keep. You could actually end up with a game that has lost all the aspects that made it unique and enjoyable, all in the name of simplifying, refining, streamlining.

But apply the knife too lightly and you end up with a game too burdened with unnecessary or clumsy features. It's common to see games with features the developer kept because he was too emotionally attached to them, or he feels they're core to the identity of the game even though they detract rather than add to the experience. Or the developer doesn't understand the price he's paying keeping them in, and can't weigh that with the benefit they offer.

I struggle with this myself all the time. People recommend I remove or rework parts of a game that I'm very attached to, or that I think are very important to the identity of the game and I don't want to lose them. This ranges from core mechanics to individual cards, like specific funny Madness Cards in Mad Mad Charles. Ultimately I have to make a choice -- trim or refactor the part of the game that needs it, or find an appropriate explanation for why it needs to stay (and a way to make it work more effectively).

So I'd love to start a discussion of when simplification simply goes too far and cuts to the bone, and when it doesn't go far enough and produces a substandard game.

As always, keep it clean and nice (no mean-spiritedly flaming other people/games, though serious critiques are welcome).
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Brook Gentlestream
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As a general rule, I don't think you should ever be so committed to part of a creative work that you are unwilling to alter or remove it when suggested to do so.

Just because its suggested to you doesn't mean you should change it, but the integrity of the whole work is what's important. You should never be too committed to keeping one particular mechanic or gimmick if credible sources are suggesting the game might be improved by altering or removing it.

btw: That pic and its comments are hilarious.


---

One thing that may help with the process is to always keep in mind your target market. A simple mission statements like "I would want to sell this to players who enjoy THIS and THIS but not THIS." can help you develop a niche that you are catering to. Unlike AAA video games, you don't need to cater to EVERYBODY (although you may have to cater to the likes of some popular reviewers), but rather focus on your niche and have that guide most of your actions. Do you need your games to sell to children? How important is internationalization to you as opposed to local publishing? Would this be played by players of various skill types? Creative or analytical types? Is there room for "judgement calls" or do you need strict "tournament" rules? Just keep in mind this hypothetical audience you are designing for. I think that's easier than designing for yourself and your friends, who may have very eclectic, complex, and even contradictory tastes (partially because they are real people instead of hypothetical constructs).



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Kim Brebach
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Here's some very useful background reading on this issue of depth vs complexity http://hyperbolegames.com/2012/06/25/blood-from-the-turnip/

See some very useful comments there too specially about the relativity of the definition of complexity to your target audience.

For me, before embarking simplification I do an audience analysis and market analysis.

The audience analysis of the game should give you ideas about what your target audience actually want's and doesn't want in a game like yours. That should include an assessment of the degree of complexity, depth, and simplicity desired. Eg my group loves interactivity, and sometimes we like that interaction very simple, but more often we yearn for some complexity but in the most time efficient way possible (ie we usually have 5 - 6 players). I do recall many games that we tried once or twice and concluded that while the infrastructure of the game was sound it felt like it was missing a layer of complexity or detail that would allow for more nuanced interaction. It's hard to know whether stuff that would have given that was cut though.

Market analysis - for this I look at games in the same space as the game I'm designing. Where are the overlaps, where is the space for this game to sit? What are its points of difference? This can provide a refined understanding of the target audience and that also relates to degree of complexity and depth I want to aim for as that may be one of a few points of difference.

Having said all that, obviously if you are building in complexity intentionally, make it work as simply, consistently, coherently and as thematically intuitive as possible I say.
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Kim Brebach
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lordrahvin wrote:


One thing that may help with the process is to always keep in mind your target market. A simple mission statements like "I would want to sell this to players who enjoy THIS and THIS but not THIS." can help you develop a niche that you are catering to. Unlike AAA video games, you don't need to cater to EVERYBODY (although you may have to cater to the likes of some popular reviewers), but rather focus on your niche and have that guide most of your actions.



The hive mind speaks.
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Ian Richard
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Yep, as everyone is saying... you need to pick your target audience. An ultra "streamlined" game won't do well for a group that enjoys deep thought. in my own experience, picking a target audience is the single most important designer skill you can ever have.

The problem with video game industry is much deeper than their simplifying... it's their business model. They spend millions of dollars on developing and marketing a single title... which means they need to make this back before seeing a profit. (Homefront despite breaking pre-order records and selling 3 MILLION copies lost enough money to close the studio because of the moronically high budget)

The smaller cost of making a board game means you have far more freedom on what is "Right". You can afford to satisfy 10,000 customers who like deep and complicated games. In fact, those players will probably love you for creating something for them.

Just ask yourself who you want to play the game... and customize it to the level of complexity they would enjoy.
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Brook Gentlestream
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As a side note, I feel like I should point out that there is a huge difference between simplification and streamlining. They can be confusing because they both have the goals to make learning and playing the game easier.

Simplification involves changing the actual gameplay features. Streamlining involves changing the presentation of the game and includes such things as rules verbage, terminology, graphical layout, component use, etc. Streamlining also helps to reduce costs.

I think a big game design goal for everybody once they have settled on a level of complexity is to streamline as much as possible without simplifying the game. Without significantly changing gameplay, can you make the game easier to learn, easier to remember, or use less components?

The danger here is accidentally simplifying when you need to streamline, or not being able to recognize when you need to do one or the other. Ideally, streamlining should be used to expand your target market while simplification should be used to completely change it.
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Dan Hale
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Wonderful points! And very good advice. And thank you for the correction on simplification vs streamlining. I like those definitions.

Writing down the end-goals of the game is a good idea. It's a good way to evaluate whether the mechanic you're considering adding or axing is in line with your end goal, or peripheral and detracting.

Many of my game ideas are spawned from a single mechanic I invent or otherwise want to wrap a game around. Sadly, on several occasions that's been the mechanic that people have suggested removing. I build a functional game that outgrew its own heart.

But ultimately, a mechanic that's holding back a good game has to go.
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Carl Nyberg
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I like to ask myself, "does this make a turn take too long?" or "does this make the whole game take too long?"
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J C Lawrence
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kbrebach wrote:
The audience analysis of the game should give you ideas about what your target audience actually want's and doesn't want in a game like yours.


I design games that I find interesting. In this there is no target audience but me and my evolving interests. If others also find them interesting, that's a bonus!
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Wynand Louw
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"Simplicity" may mean more than one thing. It may mean simple mechanics, simple rules or a simple user interface. Complex mechanics may have simple rules. Simple mechanics may have complex user interfaces.

To explain the concept of user interface: Rolling a die against a target to see if you win a fight is a simple user interface. Rolling a die and adding a modifier and then comparing it to the target is a slightly more complex user interface. Rolling a die, adding a modifier and then looking up the result in a CRT is a complex user interface. I would say that user interface in a board game includes things like rules, bookkeeping, housekeeping, graphic design and game bit design.

In computer GUI terms: every action (like a mouse click) you add to a task makes the user interface more complex. Every action needed to complete a task that is not intuitive makes the user interface more complex. One of the ways to make actions more intuitive is to standardize them. Double clicking is not intuitive at all, but it is standard, and therefore becomes intuitive.

Let me give you a real life example.

My pet peeve game as far as user interface goes at the moment is Mage Knight. Which is an excellent game with lots of replay ability, but a real crappy user interface.

Let me give you an example: There are 8 types of sites (I think) where you can fight things. Each one of them has different rules. So each time you enter a site, you have to find the corresponding deck of cards, find the right one, and read the rules. Ways to make this better would be to make the rules the same for all sites: Why should Orcs be fought from adjacent hexes but other monsters are fought only in the same hex? Well, the answer is, orcs maraude. OK, it works for theme. But does it make the game better? No. I really don't thinks so. It just ads complexity to the user interface.

Second example: Each enemy has just three stats, but these three stats are modified in ways that boggle the mind in ways that would confuse a Vulcan. There are physical, ice, fire and cold fire resistances. There is fortified defense. There are fire, Ice and cold fire attacks. There are swiftness, poison, brutal and petrifying attacks. Each one has a specific unique mechanic and rule. And my mind just stopped working when I read about how red cards don't influence blue attacks or the other way round. Or whatever. Could one make it better? Absolutely by removing all the stat modifiers. If you would like to retain the complexity of fighting different monsters without the complex user interface, start, for instance, by splitting the attack stat into two stats, like "force" and "Speed" instead of modifying one stat with "Swiftness" and "Brutality". That would make it easier to remember and also provide more choices for monster design. The whole fire vs ice mechanic is infinitely confusing to a Bear of Little Brains like me. Just dump it already.

Third example: There are three sources of abilities, actions etc that a player can gain: The deed deck, the units, and the abilities. The first two are cards and the third counters. Why are some cards and some counters when they do the same sort of thing, allow you to do an action? Heaven knows. The Units and Abilities function in exactly the same way, (You don't draw them from your deck but play them from your tableau) even though they are acquired differently, why not play them in the same way, both as cards?

Fourth example: There are three offers: Deeds, Spells and Units. The deeds and spells are refreshed in one way and the Unit offer is refreshed differently. Why? You can buy deeds from the unit offer if there is a functional monastery. Why?

None of this makes the game in any way better or more interesting, it just complicates the user interface. More rules to remember, more things to look up. More things that can go wrong. Sure most of these quirks have some sort of thematic rationale. But, good heavens, MK is a EURO!

As I said, Mage Knight is a fantastic game. But I now have six games under my belt and there are still things I don't understand. And there are definitely people who would never play it because of its interface, despite all the hype that surrounded it. And despite the fact that it is really, really a good game.

One last object lesson: Descent versions one and two.
Most D1 players agree that D2 is better than D1, according to a poll on the D1 BGG page. There are many reasons for this, but one is definitely that mechanics that did not actually contribute to game flow but cluttered the user interface were axed. Threat is gone. Command tokes are gone. Glyphs are gone. Different types of chests are gone. Sure, there are people who complain about these things, but all these choices made the user interface less complicated without affecting the game in a significant way.

OK that was my rant. I'm a Google sort of guy. Clean, simple user interface with power under the hood. I guess there are a lot of Windows guys around, who adore cluttered interfaces just for the sake of clutteryness.

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Meaker VI
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One of my friends pointed out in a discussion the other day how Settlers is a game entirely about resource management. It's not about building up resources and using them to get armies and crush the enemy - as most Computer RTSs are - it's about managing the acquisition resources.

It works, because it takes that one mechanic and expands on it. It wouldn't be such a success if it also added combat on top of that, because it would be too complex (though that doesn't stop my friends and I from adding combat, because we're sick and twisted and like multi-hour complexity like that ).

I think some of the trend to complexity may be stemming from the desire to have board games play like computer games, which is crazy - even simpler, older, computer games keep track of so much more than a group of players ever reasonably could.
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Jake Staines
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bielie wrote:

None of this makes the game in any way better or more interesting, it just complicates the user interface.

...

OK that was my rant. I'm a Google sort of guy. Clean, simple user interface with power under the hood. I guess there are a lot of Windows guys around, who adore cluttered interfaces just for the sake of clutteryness.


I've not played Mage Knight, so I'm perhaps missing something valid about that example, but here's a counterpoint to your last point: Google interfaces are fine if you want to do exactly what Google thinks you want to do with them, but if you don't, they're horribly infuriating. They're getting as bad as Apple in this regard!

Example: I have a set of most-visited sites on a new tab in Chrome; one of them is my GMail account, one is BGG, one is a woodworking forum I visit, one is the news, and so on. I use Chrome at work as well, and the same sites are on my most-visited buttons... but in a different order. It used to be the case that I could re-arrange them, pin the ones I wanted to keep... I'm sure I could even once set them explicitly! But Google has decided that it's simpler and therefore better to not be able to do any of those things, and therefore I'm stuck.

I'm sure a Google UI engineer - and perhaps your kind of simplicity fan - would tell me that it's 'correct' for the UI to behave like this because I don't actually visit the same sites with the same frequency at home as I do at work... but from my point of view, I'm used to hitting the top-left button to go to GMail, the top-left-but-one to go to BGG, and it's annoying to not be able to do that at work. So annoying, in fact, that I'm on the verge of going back to Firefox because of this one thing.



If it were a game which had provoked such annoyance through 'over-simplifying' its user interface, I would play a demo, crinkle my nose and never, ever buy it. Sometimes complexity in interface is due to an actual and necessary plethora of options, and since games are all about making interesting-but-difficult choices, having options is fundamentally necessary for something to be called a game.

Settlers is a game about resource-harvesting, but could it work with combat? Sure it could: welcome to the world of 4X games. There are many, and not all of them suck for having extra-complex interfaces. The resource-harvesting element isn't so pure in any of them as it is in Settlers, but they're different games; that's not a bug, it's a feature.
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Dan Hale
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In regards to "most visited" sites in Chrome, I don't use that feature. Instead, I manually bookmark my favorite sites in my bookmark toolbar at the top of my browser (below the address bar). That way the 10 or so most-visited sites are always in their normal positions, predictable and functional.

However, I don't use the feature you described so I may be missing the benefit of its use.


It does touch on the point we're discussing though. When you take some complexity away, this will often displease someone. Sometimes that displeasure is well-founded; other times it's not something you can reasonably help. Trimming away someone's favorite feature will make them balk regardless of your intentions, but if you needed to do so then do it. However, cut too much and you may cleave away the appeal that attracted many players in the first place. There may be better ways to resolve the problem than cutting out the feature -- it could be reworked to pull its weight better, for example.


On another side of this topic, I think sometimes you need to add a little complexity to avoid major complexity later. A couple of rules that limit data explosion and other sources of in-game complexity-creep can do a world of good, even if tracking those extra rules is a bit more work.

Example:
Crypt is an interesting game with some cool mechanics, but it nearly killed my gaming group when we tried to play it. Each player has a party of 4 or 5 characters (I forget how many). Each character can have spells, items and other cards attached to it, in addition to its own stats. This stuff is hard to keep track of in such a large party, particularly since there didn't appear to be a limit to the number of cards that could accumulate on any single character.

Assuming you can get your party figured out, it's time to go into the dungeon. When you encounter monsters, each monster can have its own rules, plus its own added cards for spells, items etc. Some of these monsters are wildly complex, and many monsters can be in a single battle. However long it took you to learn your own party, you now have to do the same for the enemies you're fighting (as does the player who is rolling for the enemies). This meant a battle could go by very quickly, or it could take half an hour for a single player to do his turn.

And the game had wild power swings -- often a player's party would be completely wiped out because of simple bad luck, and he would have to start all over again with completely new characters and attached item/spell/etc cards. This meant the player had to throw away everything he had learned about his current party and start over (not to mention the hurt over so unfairly losing everything to bad die rolls or imbalanced monster distribution).

The game's battle could get insanely complex and slow to a crawl in a 4-player game. I've since always wondered if we were playing it wrong. But if not, one of the first changes I would make would be to limit how many cards can go on each character and monster. Having no practical limit on cards attached to characters resulted in a persistent state of information overload.

If each character can only have up to 1, 2 or perhaps 3 cards at most, that drastically simplifies the game. Other changes like reducing each player's party size would also help. I recognize that there are real reasons why the party size and card counts are the way they are (you need them against the monsters, at least as the monsters are designed now), but the way it's being done now just doesn't work.

On the monster side, they need to be much simpler. Some monster encounters would be full-on player vs player battles in their complexity, and it would take 20 minutes for each side simply to read what everything did (monster's own rules plus all the attached cards) and figure out how to proceed, let alone run the battle.

If all those cards on the player's characters are necessary simply to survive against the monsters, then the monster power needs to be reworked as well.

It was a neat game with lots of cool mechanics, and I'm told a 2-player game can be very fun. However, the complete absence of complexity-limiting rules made the game very very frustrating and un-fun. From simple ideas exploded an unplayably complicated game. Plus I felt the game was horribly imbalanced and the wild power swings (rags to riches to rags again, all thanks to luck) were just bad.


Adding a few rules that limit how complexity can explode actually makes your game less complex. Just be careful -- your complexity-limiting rules can themselves get too complex if you're not careful. When that happens, you need to step back and ask yourself some basic questions about why you need these limitations, and whether you could accomplish the goal differently. Maybe the mechanics you're trying to limit need reworking, not the rules you're adding to police them.
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Daniel Pennypacker
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I try to think of a core "feeling" I'm trying to replicate for a game, and then I try to make it as simple as possible to evoke that feeling.

Although sometimes I realize I've been going for the wrong feeling, or it's too hard to replicate, but as long as that's the backbone of the design, it makes removing elements a lot easier!
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static_void wrote:

Adding a few rules that limit how complexity can explode actually makes your game less complex. Just be careful -- your complexity-limiting rules can themselves get too complex if you're not careful.


I like this idea. Allow space for thematically coherent complexity and variation, but cap or structure it at a threshold that ensures all player engagement is retained and downtime is minimised.

I learned in Dominion that if 1 player takes a glorious turn of 17 combolicious actions and buys, it is excruciatingly tedious for the other players unless they prefer spectator sports over interactive games.

So my multiplayer card game has single action miniturns where the sequencing of character abilities is key - I have combinational CCG gameplay vibes, but in singular instances that cycle quickly round the table, rather than long CCG style turns where I do this, that, then some of this and a bit of that cleverness and now finally this. That one action miniturn sets the tempo of the game and is a key part of the tension it generates... will i get my little combo or will someone elses play mess with that? But it also means that combo complexity is mediated by other players. That IS the gameplay. Seems to work well so far.
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Dan Hale
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Kim: That sounds cool. I like games with elegant solutions that wrap nicely into the flow of the game.

I have to admit though... I'm a compulsive combo player. I have a problem. But my friends are too, so we're all busting out 10-15 card combos by the end of some Dominion games. We're all such enablers.
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Kim Brebach
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Yes I agree long multipart combos can be fun, but perhaps best in 2 player games? downtime and disengagement are multiplier risks the more players you have and the longer combos takes to unfurl.

Hey here are 2 articles on limiting choice of actions to constrain complexity while maintaining depth

http://hyperbolegames.com/2012/06/04/limit-em-good/
http://jonshaferondesign.com/2012/04/03/make-a-better-game-l.../

I really like grants idea;
"The discussion before us is not about removing choices, but to limit them, pace them out, and integrate them into the game in a way that enriches the strategy."

One design objective in my upcoming empire building card game Archon is to build in an expanding narrative arc into the game. As in many games you start limited, and can't do everything you want to, and your potential outweighs your ability to implement which creates a driving tension and desire to expand. As the game proceeds you rebuild your Realm to gain more money, card draws and thus potential actions per turn - how you implement and balance that expansion is strategically key. The number of cards you can play increases combo complexity interaction potential. This all feeds back into a feeling of increasing power throughout the game which is proving deeply engaging despite the constant throttling of players maximum potential. It's working but my challenge all along has been getting the curve of the expansion right so there's not so much expansion that the game slows down too much / takes too long. The solution so far has been... to keep limiting the expansion increments!
 
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Dan Hale
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Those articles are good reads.

I am an interface developer and I've heard of the paradox of choice that the second one references. You really need to be careful about the number of possibilities you're making the player weigh at any given time, or it's just overwhelming and unfun.
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J C Lawrence
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static_void wrote:
...or it's just overwhelming and unfun.


...for some, not all, players. You get to decide which problem space and thus which audience you care about.
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Bichatse wrote:
bielie wrote:

None of this makes the game in any way better or more interesting, it just complicates the user interface.

...

OK that was my rant. I'm a Google sort of guy. Clean, simple user interface with power under the hood. I guess there are a lot of Windows guys around, who adore cluttered interfaces just for the sake of clutteryness.


I've not played Mage Knight, so I'm perhaps missing something valid about that example, but here's a counterpoint to your last point: Google interfaces are fine if you want to do exactly what Google thinks you want to do with them, but if you don't, they're horribly infuriating. They're getting as bad as Apple in this regard!

Example: I have a set of most-visited sites on a new tab in Chrome; one of them is my GMail account, one is BGG, one is a woodworking forum I visit, one is the news, and so on. I use Chrome at work as well, and the same sites are on my most-visited buttons... but in a different order. It used to be the case that I could re-arrange them, pin the ones I wanted to keep... I'm sure I could even once set them explicitly! But Google has decided that it's simpler and therefore better to not be able to do any of those things, and therefore I'm stuck.

I'm sure a Google UI engineer - and perhaps your kind of simplicity fan - would tell me that it's 'correct' for the UI to behave like this because I don't actually visit the same sites with the same frequency at home as I do at work... but from my point of view, I'm used to hitting the top-left button to go to GMail, the top-left-but-one to go to BGG, and it's annoying to not be able to do that at work. So annoying, in fact, that I'm on the verge of going back to Firefox because of this one thing.



If it were a game which had provoked such annoyance through 'over-simplifying' its user interface, I would play a demo, crinkle my nose and never, ever buy it. Sometimes complexity in interface is due to an actual and necessary plethora of options, and since games are all about making interesting-but-difficult choices, having options is fundamentally necessary for something to be called a game.

Settlers is a game about resource-harvesting, but could it work with combat? Sure it could: welcome to the world of 4X games. There are many, and not all of them suck for having extra-complex interfaces. The resource-harvesting element isn't so pure in any of them as it is in Settlers, but they're different games; that's not a bug, it's a feature.


Let me give you examples where user interface has no effect on game mechanics but a huge effect on gameplay:

1) First edition Arkham Horror had an encounter resolution table: You rolled a die and found the encounter on a lookup table. In second edition the mechanic is exactly the same: Random encounters. But the lookup table was removed and the encounters placed on cards that are randomly drawn.

2) Compare the combat sheets and appearance tables of the original Magic Realm with Karim Chakroun's graphic redesign of the game. The rules and mechanics are identical, but Karim's graphical design choices make a huge difference in user friendliness and playability of the game.

In both cases the complexity of the interface was reduced with no effect on the choices the player has or the underlying mechanics. Of course this is not always the case, but I think designers should strive for simplicity and intuitiveness in the interface without compromising on other parts of the game.
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