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Harmony and the Kludge in Game Design

[Originally appeared on Gamasutra.com]

Harmony and its opposite, the kludge, are fundamental to good game design. Games that lack harmony or have in-harmonious aspects have a handicap, though some succeed. Fortunately, most of the in-harmonious games are never published, or only self published.

Players don't always recognize the in-harmony but its existence still affects the game. Designers may not recognize in-harmony if they think of the game as “My Baby.” But designers need to recognize it and get it out of the game.

So what is harmony? This is hard to pin down. It's like harmony in music, something you can hear and can recognize when harmony is not present. Here is a long quote from a 1997 lecture where this concept of harmony comes from:

Brian Moriarty: http://ludix.com/moriarty/listen.html
“It’s something you feel. How do you achieve this feeling that everything works together? Where do you get this harmony stuff? Well, I’m here to tell you that it doesn’t come from design committees. It doesn’t come from focus groups or market surveys. It doesn’t come from cool technology or expensive marketing. And it never happens by accident or by luck. Games with harmony emerge from a fundamental note of clear intention.”

I think Moriarty moves into the touchy-feely as he goes on, but you can look it up and see what he has to say. I'm using a simpler definition: “everything in the game feels as though it belongs there and contributes to the purpose and feeling of the game as a whole.” That's harmony. It's important because games are not just collections of mechanics. Not just data. Not just metrics. Games make intellectual and emotional impressions on players, and lack of harmony is noticeable, sometimes clearly, sometimes in subtle ways. The effect is not good for the intellectual and emotional impression.

Harmony is not the same thing as “elegance,” in fact I hesitate to use the word elegance because it's used by fans of certain kinds of tabletop games as a bludgeon to attack fans of other kinds tabletop games, who in turn react very negatively to the word. ”Elegant” is often used in much the same sense as “clever.” It's usually used in relation to abstract games or practically abstract games, games that are not models of some reality.

Harmony isn't cleverness, it’s something that affects the game as a whole. It's about appropriate fit. Now what's appropriate fit depends on what standards people are using, and those standards have changed and very much loosened over the years. Think about movies and TV shows over the years. What makes sense? The screen has always required a heavy “suspension of disbelief”, but those entertainments have consistently become less believable. People will accept all kinds of foolishness and huge plot-holes because the program is otherwise entertaining. and we’re getting the same thing in games.

I love Star Wars for the adventure, but when I first watched the original Star Wars I came out of the theater and said “this is dumb” and “that is a big plot-hole” but I (in the long run) accepted it because “it’s a movie.”

I still have SOME standards even for movies. The Starship Troopers movie (monsters in outer space) had us travel 80,000 light years and then forget that we can use tanks or helicopters! Monsters farted unguided missiles, yet the human fleet stayed tightly packed together in space to make itself a good target! It's just ludicrous. Yet it was a popular movie that begetted a couple sequels.

The same kind of loosening of standards of disbelief has happened in game design. People often treat games more as time killers or something mildly engaging to do while they socialize, than as actual entertainment or something worth *focusing* on. So they let things go by that would not have been accepted many years ago.

All right. What's the opposite of harmony? The Kludge. I borrow this term from software (“kludgy” is the adjective that's used.) A kludge is a tacked-on solution to a particular problem, or a solution that works but isn’t consistent with the rest of the program. In software though not in games it's also hard to understand and modify.

The Kludge is hard to define in game design because one man's kludge is another man's “nothing wrong with that.” How do you notice the kludges if the game is a model of something? The kludge will usually be inconsistent with the rest of the model, and may have nothing at all to do with what's being modeled. It may be there to fix some design flaw. When I play games I sometimes ask, why am I doing this particular thing? If the only answer I can find is “because it fixes a design flaw,” or “because the designer liked it,” or “I have no clue why it's here,” then it is probably a kludge.

What about kludges in abstract games? A kludge is less obvious because the game doesn’t represent anything (other than “a game”). Abstracts are collections of mechanics, different from a model where the context should help people play the game, and the mechanics are expected to represent something that happens in a real world. Nonetheless, in abstracts you can have a mechanic that doesn't fit with the rest, that doesn't mix well or doesn't seem to have a useful function, or clearly should've been replaced with something else, or simply should have been removed from the game.

Where do kludges come from? Often they are added to games to solve a problem that appeared in testing. Or perhaps the designer realized it would be a problem, and added it before the testing. Most of the time it's added to fix a demonstrated flaw, but at other times, it's in the game because the designer liked it, even though it doesn't fit with what he ended up with. (Remember, games often end up some “distance” from where the designer originally intended.) He or she isn't willing to take it out, isn't willing to “shoot their baby”. It could be the original idea itself, yet the game has developed in another direction. At that point, the designer should shoot the original, get it out of there, but it's emotionally hard for a designer to do.

Now some examples. These are from well-known, successful games, so that you’ll be able to relate to what I’m explaining. Games can succeed despite kludges; but the more you have, the less likely that the game will be good.

Catan, which used to be known as Settlers of Catan: both the robber and the monopoly cards. Keep in mind there’s not a lot of interaction in Catan between the players except for the trading, and there's little you can do to actually hinder another player after the initial setup.

I think the designer saw the difficulty of hindrance, and decided to add the Robber, which has *nothing* to do with the rest of the game. It doesn't fit at all in any way, shape, or form, but was added to provide a way for a player to hinder another player or at least have the potential to hinder other players. It has nothing to do with the settling model. If it represented mere bandits, a player’s soldiers would be able to do something about it, nor do bandits affect a budding newly-settled region the way they can an old, over-populated region.

Catan is supposed to be a game about trading, but I've seen many players who don't trade much. The monopoly card takes all of a particular resource from all the other players and puts them into the hand of the player who played the monopoly card. Then others are forced to trade if they want to get that resource, or wait a long time for more of that resource to be produced. Perhaps someone can come up with an explanation (not excuse) of how this would happen in the real world, I cannot. I think the designer added that card to make people trade, thinking of the groups where there's otherwise not much trading.

Catan is very popular and is a decent design that was in the right place at the right time, although technically speaking it has these kludges.

How about Risk, the US pre-2008 version, not the newer version based on missions? Some of those earlier versions had mission cards, but they didn't work well. In 2008 Risk was revised with missions to make it quite a different game. In old Risk, the territory cards are kludges in two senses. First, they were an artificial method, and by artificial I mean there's no correspondence with reality, of encouraging players to attack. You have to a conquer a territory to get a card; it was something to try to discourage turtling, which is nonetheless quite common in Risk.

Second, you turn in the cards for armies. That's there to bring the game to a conclusion, because you have an increasing number of armies that can get very large. The game is pretty long as is, but it's very long without increasing numbers of armies, which I have played a number of times. Instead of going up to 50 armies and more I used 4-6-8-4-6-8-4-6-8, but that makes it a very long game.

Two kludges to solve (or at least mitigate) a fundamental problem in the game: the game didn't naturally come to a conclusion. The game didn't naturally encourage people to attack. So the cards were added for those purposes.

Let’s consider the online video games World of Tanks and World of Warships. In big video games like these both harmony and the kludge become obscured. We could probably say that it's easier to make a harmonious game that's relatively small and focused rather than one quite big.

In World of Tanks the entire idea of 15 versus 15 randomly assigned teams is a kludge, in the sense that it has nothing to do with real warfare, but it's necessary to make the online game practical for a very large audience. In World of Warships the overall kludge is to play in a small area, usually amongst lots of islands, places where real world battleships and aircraft carriers virtually never went. In both games we have the bizarre mix of nationalities of equipment: German and French and English and Russian tanks or ships on the same side, and possibly 15 different tanks or 12 different ships on a team. It's also a necessary kludge but has nothing to do with reality. So both games break down as models of reality, and the kludges are obvious.

But in video games there are many conventions, normal modes of design, that are ridiculous kludges but necessary to make a game of it. (Consider the ammo and medpacks sitting all over the place in shooters, or even respawning itself - awful kludges.) When is a kludge no longer a kludge? When almost everyone accepts it as necessary, I guess.

Let's take a tabletop game such as Eclipse, which is ostensibly a Euro-fied 4X space game. It's almost a wargame, almost an exploration game, almost this, almost that, but ultimately unsatisfactory (for me). The major kludge in the game is that players are awarded hidden-value victory points for fighting, and fighting early on tends to give you higher value points because you draw a number of VP pieces and throw some back into the supply. You’re encouraged to fight repeatedly as you can draw again whenever you fight. I think this was added when the rest of the game resulted in little fighting, because people didn't gain enough from fighting. What they were likely to lose in assets was more than they were willing to risk for the possible gain. So the victory points were added well.

Rewards for fighting make no sense in the 4X model, or any reasonable model. Your surviving units gain experience when you fight, yes, but you lose a lot of ships and people, and that experience in the overall context should not be worth a lot (if any) of victory points. Military forces are a means to an end, not an end in itself. In a game I watched, about half of the overall points for five of the six players came from fighting, which is ridiculous. They were roughly equal to the points for holding the solar systems that had been discovered. In the long run what do you think is more important? Wars are economic, after all.

There are other flaws in the game. For example, the results of exploration are that space is mostly impassable. I think that's deliberate, to avoid and out-and-out wargame, but it doesn't fit one's idea of space as wide-open territory. That makes the extermination part of 4X (Explore, Expand, Exploit, Exterminate) ineffective even with the fighting points.

Again, how do you recognize a kludge? I’d say it's easier to find things you think are kludges in a game you don't like than ones you do like. Also we have the limitation that some designers of puzzle-like games, whether they’re single player video games or solo tabletop games or cooperative games, tend to add things to make the puzzle solution more difficult. I come in heavily on the side of this motto: “A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” I think that’s an alternative definition of harmony. Given that motto, I see many of those puzzle-maker additions as kludges.

This is not something you can rigidly define or easily pin down, it requires self-critical thinking. It doesn’t matter what specific mechanics you use, whether already very popular or brand new (the latter very rare). What matters is how they work together as a whole. Designers need to recognize the in-harmonious, and excise it!

My Patreon is at: https://www.patreon.com/LewisPulsipher
My thanks for the generous support from Rossan 78.

Comments

Kludge elimination

This is a very helpful and timely post for me - thank you! I like the word "Kludge" as a way to refer to the things I'm trying to weed out of my design. And while I've been working on that process all along the way, I think this helps me to really focus on what to look for - not just looking for things that "feel" off, but looking at "why" they feel that way.

As far as Catan, there are other ways to interfere than with the Robber - building roads & settlements where your opponents are trying to build. And the Robber CAN be sent away by playing knights (soldiers). That said, I kind of get the Kludginess there, but I don't think it's the best example. I'm not a big fan of the Robber mechanic, but I don't think it's as "unthematic" as the dice rolling. Settlements determining which nearby resources are available? Very thematic. Rolling dice to see which one produces? To me, THAT is not thematic - since when do grain fields randomly dump grain in your wagon, or when does ore jump out of a mine and into your furnace? Do bricks "grow" like grain and wool? To be thematic, players should​ be able to send villagers to get resources they want.

Anyway, that's a tangent - sorry! A good example of a Kludge is in my current game, where I need Strategy (battle) cards to be more easily acquired than Apparatus cards (laboratory equipment). But thematically, it should be harder to build military equipment than laboratory contraptions, right? So that's a big thematic dilemma for me. Having to tweak my mechanics to make Strategy cards easier to get than Apparatus cards is "Kludgy".

Are there any examples of games out there that are 100% Kludge-free? Is such a thing possible? Because everything we do in a game is a type if "simulation" of something, and is never going to be a perfect representation of anything. Every mechanic is a conceptual way to simulate or pretend.

Still, I think it really would help all of us as designers to use this idea of a Kludge to re-examine the various elements of our games. Personally, I hope to one day present a game that is 100% Kludge-free - or at least that "feels" that way lol! If it's not my current project, then on a future project, but I think that might just be the criteria I use to decide when to call a design "a masterpiece".

I find it interesting again

I find it interesting again that we create our own definitions of words based on our experiences.

To me, elegance & kludge are opposite ends of the spectrum.

I have always used the word elegant in game design to mean a game that does not pull me from the immersion.
Kludge is an aspect that removes me from the experience & puts me back in the real world.

In a physical game, kludge is having to stop and keep score, or measure.
In a video game, kludge is having to access a menu, or use 3 buttons at one time.
There are others, but some find those things to be an integral part of a game.

Games like backgammon, checkers, and Halo are elegant to me. Kludge enters the Halo games when I find a spot to leave the game world and end up stuck outside the game world.

I prefer using the

I prefer using the distinction of fun and not fun.

Victory points might be "ridiculous" as a simulation of incentivized combat. But it's awesome as a fun engine. Same with battle card combat systems.

If you really want pure, real combat, go do MMA or something. Probably not wrestling or martial arts because you can just win with points there too... and there are time limits on all those which isn't true to real life. Maybe just get drunk and fight people at bars. (being sarcastic of course)

Like your article suggests, "everything we do in a game is a type if "simulation" of something, and is never going to be a perfect representation of anything. Every mechanic is a conceptual way to simulate or pretend."

Therefore games themselves are, by your definition, "kludges" that are artificial means of experiencing something. Why not go the MOST natural and harmonious route and just do the real thing?

Well because games aren't about that, they are about having fun. And game design isn't about avoiding "kludges," it's about picking and creating the most fun combination of them.

I do understand the sentiment here. There is a certain... Laziness perhaps is the best word (for me)?... that exists in game design. My biggest pet peeve example of this is a game outside the game- like the cult track in Terra Mystica, or the Priest Track in the expansion for Kemet. But also both of those are highly respected game designs. And people have a lot of fun playing them. so what do I know?

Various

" it should be harder to build military equipment than laboratory contraptions, right?" Depends on attitudes. In some situations I can see a resistance to spending money on labs when military force is needed.

Spaff, "Fun" is a useless word. No one can agree on what is fun; what's fun for you may not be fun for me, etc. I rarely use the word. When I do, it's to say something like, fun in a gaming context comes from the people and the environment, not from the game (unless it's intended to be a funny game).

I explained why I won't use "elegant". Also, there's a strong connotation with "elegant" that it is essentially abstract.

Can't say I ever thought of victory points as a "fun engine".

I don't think you've quite understood what I'm trying to say. Some games are representations (or even simulations), some clearly are not. All can have harmony, all can have kludges. Kludges are about design, not about simulation.

No, games are not, by "my" definition, kludges. I do not know where that came from.

A misquote and some further thoughts

lewpuls wrote:
" it should be harder to build military equipment than laboratory contraptions, right?" Depends on attitudes. In some situations I can see a resistance to spending money on labs when military force is needed.

Yeah I've been thinking that one through - maybe it's not as "kludgy" after all. A friend even pointed out that the resources in my game - "Brass" (resource used for military equipment) is usually worth more that "Copper" (resource used for lab equipment) in real life. In fact, Brass is copper + zinc. Or I could just say that Brass is for ammo, and your military gear already exists - they just need the brass to go into operation...

lewpuls wrote:
No, games are not, by "my" definition, kludges. I do not know where that came from.

I think there was a little confusion above between some of my earlier comments and a reference to the OP. I think @spaff mistook my words as something @lewpuls wrote. If both comments had come from a single person, it might've led to the conclusion in question. But it was an honest mistake I'm sure!

As I was reviewing the original post, what stood out to me was what @lewpuls said: "The Kludge is hard to define in game design because one man's kludge is another man's “nothing wrong with that.” How do you notice the kludges if the game is a model of something?"

When listening to Gabe's podcast last week with Morten Pedersen, they brought up a Lord of the Rings card game (I'm not familiar with that one personally) where friends/allies started showing up more and more frequently the further into enemy territory you get. They discussed it as an example of things that make a game more "fun" and make them work, even if there's a little something about the mechanic that doesn't quite make "sense".

I immediately thought of this blog post! But it made me think - was that an example of a kludge, or not? Gabe and Morten made a good point that games aren't perfect simulations of everything, and one thing that really matters is that the game is "fun". We don't play games to be frustrated, right? We want to have fun. So if games are always going to be imperfect representations of a theme/story (my words), how much "out of place" stuff is ok to tolerate in the name of "fun"?

And thus the line I just quoted from the OP above - one man's kludge is another man's "nothing wrong with that".

I guess what I'm seeing is that it's probably just a matter of degree - how out of place is a mechanic? How much fun does it provide? How many people are bothered by it?

I think most of us would want to avoid as much inconsistency as possible, but is it worth tossing out a fun game idea because we can't quite figure out how to perfect it? In the podcast I referenced, Gabe and Morten touched on that too - not holding on to a design forever trying to find more perfect ways to develop it. So it seems there's no perfect answer to perfecting a game lol!

lewpuls wrote:Kludges are

lewpuls wrote:
Kludges are about design, not about simulation.

Yet in majority of the examples you seem to primarily stress the lack of proper simulation as a sign of "Kludge".

lewpuls wrote:
In 2008 Risk was revised with missions to make it quite a different game. In old Risk, the territory cards are kludges in two senses. First, they were an artificial method, and by artificial I mean there's no correspondence with reality, of encouraging players to attack. You have to a conquer a territory to get a card; it was something to try to discourage turtling, which is nonetheless quite common in Risk.

How about spoils of war? Risk is a fairly abstract game. Unless you go deeper into the simulation by introducing some form of economy, getting a card after a victory is a simple abstract way to represent the benefit of conquering a territory.
Germans occupied Norway and got a card (iron), then Ukraine and got a card (grain) until eventually getting their arses kicked when they've tried to get a card by attacking caucasus (oil).

lewpuls wrote:

If it represented mere bandits, a player’s soldiers would be able to do something about it, nor do bandits affect a budding newly-settled region the way they can an old, over-populated region.

Player's soldiers(knights) are in fact able to do something about it.
So no bandits in Wild West setting then?

Games are not simulations (though some games are better at it than the others). That's not their primary goal. Games are supposed to provide an enjoyable experience.

lewpuls wrote:

Spaff, "Fun" is a useless word. No one can agree on what is fun; what's fun for you may not be fun for me, etc.

Of course. This is why there are no games for "everyone". Though there are certain experiences which will appeal to wider of narrower group of people.

P.S:
Please don't take it as an offense, I respect your experience, but some of the recurring topics in your blogs (grass was greener, games are simulations, singleplayer/coop are not games) seem to contradict most other sources on game design I come across and my own meager experience.

"We don't play games to be

"We don't play games to be frustrated, right?"

That's true for party games. If you play a hobby game, an "opposed" game, you're likely to be frustrated at some point by obstacles/opposition, but that's part of the game. Some people accept that they will occasionally be frustrated (which, of course, can make success all the better). People who don't want to be frustrated should stick to party games. Or single-player video games, where you cannot lose thanks to the "save game" option.

One man's reason is another man's excuse. If you work at it, you can think of an excuse for virtually anything that's in a game. The question is, where do you draw the line?

ElKobold, Wittgenstein (who

ElKobold,

Wittgenstein (who died in 1951) concluded that people apply the term game to a range of disparate human activities that bear to one another only what one might call family resemblances. I think that's pretty obvious.

There's a strong tendency today to talk about virtually all kinds of play as games. My view is, if they're the same, shouldn't we drop a term and stick with one?

Everyone has to draw a line somewhere between game and the non-game part of play. When something requires a different kind of design, or no design at all, is it a game?

I never say that games are simulations, though some are - and are enjoyed by many people. Not everyone enjoys the same things you do. More games are models, but not all of course. Simulations are models, but many models are not simulations. Simulation in games tends to be a bad idea *for the game*.

As I said above, one man's reason for something in a game is another man's excuse. It's another case where everyone has to draw his own line somewhere.

Frustrations in design

lewpuls wrote:
"We don't play games to be frustrated, right?"

That's true for party games. If you play a hobby game, an "opposed" game, you're likely to be frustrated at some point by obstacles/opposition, but that's part of the game. Some people accept that they will occasionally be frustrated (which, of course, can make success all the better). People who don't want to be frustrated should stick to party games. Or single-player video games, where you cannot lose thanks to the "save game" option.

One man's reason is another man's excuse. If you work at it, you can think of an excuse for virtually anything that's in a game. The question is, where do you draw the line?

I think that question of where we draw the line is always going to be answered subjectively - everybody is going to draw the line at a different place, which seems like you've been saying with "one man's reason is another's excuse". Same for one man's kludge vs another man's "nothing wrong with that".

So kludges, frustrations, annoying rules or bad luck - every game is going to have some amount of those things. It's a little unfair to say that if you don't want frustration in a game, just stick to party games. For one, party games can be frustrating too - trying to get someone to figure out what you're portraying in charades, for example!

Of course games will have frustrating moments. My point wasn't about only playing games that are completely devoid of frustration, but it was about the overall experience of the game - was your experience fun and enjoyable overall, even with the frustrating moments? Or was it annoyingly​ frustrating throughout?

Secondly, a challenging hobby/strategy game doesn't necessarily require greater amounts of frustration. If a game is designed around tons of luck-based mechanics, there won't be much "challenge" - since things are determined by luck more than by the player's choices - but there could be plenty of frustration!

But I do believe that we all draw our own lines about how much frustration or how much of a kludge is acceptable in a game. In Catan, you roll 2D6 for resource production. The good thing about that mechanic is that it has a bell curve of dice results - so some areas of the map will be more likely to produce than others. That creates competition for building in the best areas, which is great. The down side - the frustrating part - is that you could likely go several turns at a time with NO production because your numbers just never came up! That's not only frustrating, but boring - waiting for everyone to take their turns just so you can "pass" on yours. Does that stop me from playing Catan? No - it's a bit frustrating, but it's tolerable because I know that the other players will have some dry spells in resource production too, and as long as I "feel" that things even out throughout the game, that little bit of frustration is tolerable, because it doesn't feel "unfair".

Some people, of course, have drawn a line and decided that they detest Settlers of Catan - plenty of posts by them on BGG! Is there a perfectly designed game out there where everyone draws the line at the same place, and agrees that there are no kludges or intolerable frustrations? Probably not, but if there is - please tell me which one, so I can buy it!

Sorry, this has been getting into "new topic" territory, but it's all an interesting discussion here.

Unfair?

"It's a little unfair to say that if you don't want frustration in a game, just stick to party games." Sorry, I don't see how fairness comes into a discussion of characteristics of games, except insofar as someone discusses the fairness of an individual game.

I don't play Catan, but a way that might reduce the chance of the dice is to use a deck of cards marked 1-6 throughout, instead of rolling dice. When six cards are left, shuffle (to avoid card counting). I suspect that the designer of Catan, having made a "family game on steroids" as we used to characterize Euros, was happy to have that chance element that might help young players.

An interesting question, to me, related to frustration: how and how much do individual games "make me feel stupid" (the player as he/she plays, and after). Friend of mine once said that one of my games made him feel stupid, but that made him more determined to try it again, thinking he would do much better. OTOH there are lots of games that try hard not to let any player feel stupid. Fair enough, yet that's a lowest common denominator thing in game design, an encouragement to shallow games.

Challenge vs frustration

To me, challenge in a game does not equal "frustration". A challenge makes me consider my options, plan ahead, and think things through, and if I don't do well the first time, I would definitely want to go back and try to do better the second time.

Frustrations come when there is too much randomness and little or no way to mitigate it or prepare for it. Whether it's poor use of dice in a mechanic or a deck builder that leaves you with bad hands and nothing you can do but waste turns drawing over and over. But what if you had other options that you can take in such situations? All of a sudden, you have challenging decisions to make, instead of frustrating situations.

I'm sure frustrations could come from other things - maybe not just too few options, but too many convoluted options or mechanics?

So I enjoy challenging games, but not games that are exceptionally frustrating. Am I still allowed to play hobby/strategy games, or do I need to just stick to party games?

Anyway, this is all a tangent to the topic, but I feel this whole discussion has given me some useful perspective as I consider everything in my designs. Hopefully a better game will be the eventual result!

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