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Depth vs. Learnability

13 replies [Last post]
Joined: 12/01/2008

One of my game-in-progress is a space opera style game. Depending on the character you choose to play, you have different ways to achieve victory. The game is also rather open-ended as to what types of progression and strategy you choose.

For the new player, this can bit a bit daunting and they may not have a clear picture as to how they are going to win. Some small feedback so far has been that it is good that the game moves fast despite the complexity. Individual parts make sense, but there's a lot of them, and they don't have the experience to put them into any kind of context. So it becomes paralysis of too many options, and having no idea of the long term consequences of choices.
However, once the player grasps the game, the strategic depth is very welcome.

One player remarked that he thought there were too many options at the beginning. The thing is, is that there really *wasn't* that many options at the beginning. He just couldn't tell because he was overloaded with all of the various aspects, and couldn't tell which options weren't strategically viable choices, and which were strategic musts, or that some of the choices weren't even possible. Now this player wasn't my intended audience by any means, however if I can get someone like him to get it, then anyone can pick it up. So that's seems to be a good goal.

Perhaps it might end up being a question of well written rules, and good examples.

My questions become one of tips on balancing strategic depth vs learnability, and also of the best way to get new players into the flow (especially if someone won't be there to explain it in person)

Relexx's picture
Joined: 05/31/2010
You could always provide a

You could always provide a blow by blow sample of how play the first 5 rounds or so. Settlers of Catan does this.

Joined: 04/18/2009
Mini scenario

I do not think a "how to" of the first turn realy helps here. I think it is way to complex to be of use if I am not totaly mistaken. I think what you should try to do is a sort of learning scinario or minigame if you will, where the players can get to know the core mecanic in the game and then later scale it up. Sort of what computer games do whith there "training thingis" (tutorials?). So In short try to do a that with youre game and I think you will be fine.

If you need some help or wants to soss around some ideas just send me a messege...

Louard's picture
Joined: 02/09/2010
Tips on the character cards?

Some Warhammer themed god game I played a month back had a description of each of the gos players could play and how the player should approach playing the game as each god.

Maybe you could include a bullet point list, short description or something on each character card that gives the novice player an idea of how the character should be played and what can essentially be ignored.

genericm's picture
Joined: 08/11/2009
One Strategy

I can appreciate that you cant really demo a few rounds of the game because it's all subjective depending on each players preferences.

However if all your options are really equally effective and viable just different, then why not explain one of the strategies to a newer player. Have a 'suggested' strategy or goal for beginners, if it its a viable strategy it wont rob them of any opportunities during the game, and as they play and learn the game they can plan out their strategy for the next game.

Simply "If your overwhelmed and cant figure out what to do next, focus on this..."

Joined: 07/29/2008

My experience has been that, unless your target demographic is board game enthusiasts, learnability is key. If a prospective player can misinterpret the rules, they will misinterpret the rules. Board games must compete against television (movies, sports broadcasts, etc.), music, video games & plain socializing. With so many entertainment options that prospective players have, if a game is confusing - It is GONE. It is back in the box, in a cabinet, never to be seen again.

My advice (for what it's worth) -

* Lots of game play examples. People like pictures. You can tell them in the manual, "Only 'piece A' can capture 'piece B'" but most people respond a lot better when they actually SEE a picture of it in the manual.

* No matter how clearly you think you wrote your manual, it can always be written clearer. It is a humbling experience when people have questions about rules even when you think you have stated (point blank, no less) the rules in bold, capital letters in the simplest, clearest language you can imagine.

Pastor_Mora's picture
Joined: 01/05/2010
playtesters are always right

Even when they are wrong. If some rule escaped to all players in a setup, it may be hard to conclude that ALL these guys are just dumb or something. Moreover, it would be completly useless. So, write the whole thing down again, add pictures, examples, or whatever you need to make it clear. If a rule doesn't make sense (COMMON SENSE) it would be hard for players to remember it. Players tend to expect that the game will flow reasonably, so logical inconsistencies (even clearly written ones) may be skipped unintentionally. While reasonable rules will be sought, even if unremembered. How many times have you had your platesters say: "can he DO that?"

Second, don't present players with options that could greatly hinder their opportunities to stay in the game. If you give them 50 starting options but only 5 of them would be reasonable to follow by an experienced player, well, something smells for me. It's the common FAKE-CHOICE issue, and when discovered by players, is a major blowback. Just don't present choices that are unreasonable for an unexperienced player to follow.

Third, COMPLEXITY is never a goal by itself. Never. Always try to keep it simple. Always. In general, complex mechanics make for game complexity, not depth. If you want depth, try to pay attention to the themes, isssues or feelings you are trying to put in your game and find the simplest mechanic to add them. The number of these added elements and mechanics may leave you with a complex game, but for all you care, don't start with a complex mechanic and try to find a reason for it to be in your game.

In summary: listen to your players, crop the available options spectrum to reasonable choices, and keep it simple. Always.

Keep thinking!

Joined: 05/21/2010
I'd like to ask for some more

I'd like to ask for some more info on the game, and especially on the different options the player is presented with.
Most of the responses to your questions show a good understanding of the hows and whys of introducing new players, and will be used in my own projects, but I still miss a good answer to "balancing strategic depth vs learnability".

True, a new player will usually need to have a hand to hold while learning, be it by personal introduction or a well written rules sheet. My favourite example Chess show that you _can_ introduce someone to a game that allows very deep strategic play -using the basic tactics provided by the different pieces- but at the beginner stage all you get is a tactical game and a lot of confusion.
Is this the problem you are describing?

Also, is the game so complex that the options are that either you actually need to learn it from another (experienced) player, or that the rules sheet need to be written as a multipage game manual?

Joined: 12/01/2008
All interesting

All interesting responses.

The confusion at the beginning was along the lines of, "Ok, I have my ship, now where should I head first, and why?"
Also, the player starts with some cash and is presented with a collection of randomly drawn items to buy.
Some of these items may use up all your money for very little benefit in the early game, whereas others may be more useful at the beginning, and may or may not use up lots of money, but the player may not know when it's worth the investment. A few turns down the road, it becomes apparent what the player *should* have bought, but now has no money and has inadvertently harmed their chances for getting more money.

I've been thinking about some major revisions to address some of this.

They largely stem from the idea of eliminating money altogether.

Purchases are already limited to one item per turn, and only at a colony. So the player still has to make choices as to what to get, but wrong purchases will not cripple a player's ability to fix their mistake later. The random availability of items also ensures that cheaper, lesser items still get used because the better items may not have been available (also, many items are additive)

Naturally, I have to retool rewards and such. I already have a victory point system, so they can act as a form of currency in some aspects. Such as, spend a VP to purchase a new ship, completing missions now rewards VPs instead of cash (they already did give a VP, but I can introduce more fidelity here), Alien artifacts no longer are sold for cash but become 'special use' items, capturing a criminal player rewards a VP as bounty, etc.

As a ripple effect, I have to change the idea that different characters have a unique way to earn VPs, since now VPs are awarded for completing tasks that largely overlap some of these 'unique goals'.
However, this has the added benefit of further reducing complexity. They unique goal idea was to encourage varied gameplay, but in my tests so far this encouragement seems completely necessary.
However I think I can introduce an alternate way to end the game early also using the now improved alien artifacts, and this even enhances the flavor of the game.

I think this one fundamental change will improve things quite a bit.

Pastor_Mora's picture
Joined: 01/05/2010
Careful with that

Be careful with treating VPs as currency. It may happen that a player chooses just not to win, but just to play. Meaning he will spend his whole VP stock in upgrades for his ship and get to be the most powerful player around, but the farthest from winning because his VP stock will be 0. The opposite may also apply, having a winner with only a crappy hull and no guns.

As an idea, you could use equipment only available to players with a certain amount of VPs. For example, the novice player (rookie rank) can only pilot a frigate hull, but the advanced player (admiral rank) could access the huge Titan hull.

Ranks based in VPs can effectively cancel the need of money for transactions (at least large ones). This may encourage your players to explore, because once they landed in a colony and equipped all the upgrades available to them in it, there is not much else for them to do there.

Hope everything helped a bit. Keep thinking!

Joined: 12/01/2008
Good points, though I don't

Good points, though I don't think they will be a problem.
I did think about the possibility of the minimal winner, and the game is stacked against this for a number of reasons. He could only win if the other players deliberately LET him win. Didn't consider the guy who avoids wining, but they way the game works, I think such a player would have a very hard time preventing all of the other players from wining. He might be able to harass some players, but not everyone. If he picked up ideal combat items, and started attacking other players, he could certianly become a real pain. However, he also then becomes a source of VPs if other players defeat him. Besides, no good story is complete without a villain!

Anyway, VPs as currency would only occur in a couple limited cases, and are unlikely to end in those extreme scenarios.
I toyed with the rank idea, and my thought right now is that it probably isn't necessary in this game. I even considered making a character advancement track tied in with access to better ships, and improved abilities, but it looks a little out of place for the game and probably adds complexity than it's worth.

Good stuff, thanks for the input!

Joined: 12/18/2008
Random Items for Purchase

Desprez wrote:
Some of these items may use up all your money for very little benefit in the early game

Then these items should not be available in the early game. I'm not sure how your items are presented, but certainly there is a way to group them into categories concerning the stage of the game when they would be most useful/desirable. If they are presented as randomly dealt cards, split that deck into 3 smaller decks for stage 1, stage 2, stage 3. Or, come up with some market mechanics like in Power Grid's building market where each building is assigned tech level and certain high level buildings are plucked out in the early game and moved to the bottom of the deck where they will likely reappear later.

hoywolf's picture
Joined: 01/27/2009
The Simpler the Better

One solution is to cut of some individual parts of your game to make it easier to learn, but you can keep those other components for an expansion or an advance mode. If you can create less options but make them more important, then there will be a more visable strategy because weighing each option to another become more clear. It can be hard to take an axe to your game design, but overall it will be better in terms of learning.

Flow charts help a great deal, because if your do action A here are you new options, and they can use that to know what available options they have at all times, part of the analysis paralysis is that they forget their options and when they remember one, they brain starts the process all over again.

Joined: 01/25/2010
Depth like a spiral.

The ideal is for the depth of the game to evolve by fractal extension.
Meaning, no single concept should be any more complicated than the first and most basic concept, but should be contingent on a previous concept, in which by extension increases the level of complexity by addition and product.
One concept should lead to at least two concepts with one of the two concepts being the more important concept than the other by a small margin.
This then creates a rotation of growth in which branching can take place in a conceptual range of degree array.

Once this is done, handling 10 concepts together is individually no more complicated than handling one concept; but the options of choice in range of related concepts is vast and provides the depth in the evolved growth of options to apply.

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