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Simple Versus Complex As a Game Design Philosophy

At conventions this summer I’ve watched two multiplayer fantasy wargames with many similarities but perhaps different philosophies of design. At the UK Game Expo in Birmingham England I watched Wizards of the Coast’s new game Dungeons and Dragons Conquest of Nerath being played, and at WBC in Lancaster Pennsylvania I watched a not yet published (P500) game called War Party.

Both games can accommodate up to four players, but by dividing them into two sides, that is there were not four independent sides but two partnerships, rather like Axis and Allies when you play with four or five people. (You can play four sides, but the games aren’t designed to optimize that situation.) If you play with three then one player controls two of the four nations/kingdoms. One nation is in each of the four corners.

There seem to be two points of view about game design expressed in current games. The short expression of my view is “KISS” or “keep it simple Simon”. The longer expression of this is my favorite quote related to games, which I put at the bottom of the page for my blogs and my website: "A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away." (Antoine de Saint-Exup'ery).

The opposite view, which seems to be more and more commonly expressed in Eurostyle games these days, is that complexity is good, pretty much for its own sake. It’s as though adding features is a good thing, even though virtually every game can be reduced to a simple essence. (See Especially in abstract games, which includes many Euro games despite the atmosphere that’s tacked on, I think simpler is better so that players can concentrate on strategy rather than on details.

These two games, essentially about the same topic and approached in the same way, can be used to represent the two different views, although Nerath isn’t as simple as it *could* be. There is much more unit differentiation in War Party than in Nerath. In the latter game the units of each nation are often functionally the same as units of other nations. There are no separate, individual heroes who are not military units like all the other units. In War Party there is more differentiation, but there are also individual heroes that can be customized in a variety of ways. A couple of the military units in Nerath are allowed to go into the dungeons and “explore” while in War Party it is presumably the individual heroes who go. There appeared to be a lot more pieces on the board in WP, as well. Both are games about war rather than about battle, that is, economy plays a big part in success or failure.

Nerath uses Event Cards. Is this a complication? Event Cards are a case of adding variety (and replayability) without adding much rules complexity, because the rules are on the cards, and only need to be considered one by one as you draw the Events.

Nerath uses a victory point method, mostly related to capturing territories, that should see the game ended in about 90-120 minutes. I watched enough games to believe that. I was told War Party was upwards of 3 hours.

There are many other differences. For example, Nerath uses very nice plastic figures, while War Party uses large cardboard counters. Nerath has set-in-stone starting positions that mix the four nations closely together, as well as a standard playing order, both simplifying the game. I can see people developing standard first turn movement deriving from the standard set up, but that doesn’t make the play complicated, it just gives players something to think about when they’re not playing the game. In War Party each nation starts at the corner the board and spends a couple turns expanding without much contact with the other nations. Nerath also includes seas and ships that are absent from War Party.

And I would expect that Nerath plays faster because you don’t have that slow period of expansion without strong competition. The war is on immediately thanks to the way the nations are mixed together and yet sometimes have one part separated from another part of the same nation.

Nerath is not nearly as simple as, say, Diplomacy or Risk, but it is much more colorful than either. “Colorful” comes from the cards, from the intertwined nations, and from the pieces. By comparison War Party looks drab, but not having watched it nearly as much as I watched Nerath, I might not have seen the “color” beneath the surface.

One reason to play this kind of fantasy game is the color. If people are primarily interested in your game because of the topic, rather than because of the gameplay, then you can get too simple. You can remove so much of the color, the flavor of the topic, that potential players are no longer interested in the game.

I’ve not played either of these games, nor have I talked with anyone who’s played a lot (that is, who wasn’t involved in the development of the game), so I can’t tell you which game plays “better”, if any. I’d prefer to play Nerath because it’s a shorter game and the concept doesn’t deserve a longer game, and because the strategy looks much more interesting (I like the mix of sea and land). But I am sure there are people who would prefer the more complex game in terms of rules and variety, even though I suspect it is less interesting in terms of strategy.



Thanks for sharing your observations about War Party and Conquest of Nerath. I am familiar with the latter, but it would be nice to see the rules for the former, when they are finally available.

Not knowing how to compare the games, I cannot really contextualize this discuss about an abstract principle as much as I would like. But, I personally find that a game can be both. On the level of individual actions and choices, it is usually a good idea to streamline the game to the point of simplicity. But, when it comes to patterns that emerge over time, I think that the long term viability of a game and the impact it has on the gaming community depends upon the complexity.

Dominion is a very clear case and point... despite the complexity of how cards can interact over time, each individual turn is pretty simple. 2 Actions, 1 Buy. You perform actions with action cards and buy one of a dozen cards or so with the coins in your hand. So, Dominion is very simple in one respect. But, because of the fact that you don't know what you are going to be dealt and a lot of the action cards you draft provide you with more cards, more actions and more money, you end up with a lot of possible combinations quickly.

The overall strategic complexity of Dominion (like other deck-builders) comes from the fact that you must manage the efficiency of your deck with the quest for victory points. And balance that rubric with the pace of the game that is dictated by what cards everyone drafts.

So, it is the combination of tactical simplicity and strategic complexity that seems to me to be the goal. You want localized decisions that are easy to judge and execute, but patterns that emerge over time from them which are complex, novel and difficult to predict.

I agree that different levels

I agree that different levels of complexity serve different purposes. However, no "complexity for complexity's sake" decision is ever made, to my knowledge. Usually you add complexity because you want to model something that, without that complexity, you could not. At some point SOMETHING must be abstracted, or you're not playing a game at all, but in fact engaging in the real thing. The question is where to draw the line, and that's going to vary with each game design and with different player bases.

To put it another way, Memoir '44 abstracts a LOT of stuff, to the point that (in my opinion) there aren't many meaningful choices anymore; on the other hand it's very accessible and you can teach it in minutes. Advanced Squad Leader lets you worry yourself about the weight of each soldier's backpack (!). The rulebook comes in VOLUMES (!!). But if you're a hardcore grognard you'll accept nothing less in terms of realism. Somewhere in the middle is Tide of Iron, which lets you customize squads before battle but only from a few pre-set values ("medic" "machinegunner" "mortar team" etc), and definitely not the weapons and tools in the hands of individual soldiers.

Also a quick correction to rcjames14's excellent post: You only get 1 action in Dominion, not 2.

It is a matter of "elegance"

I will reference to a very interesting article by J. Mark Thompson from The Games Journal, entitled "How important is elegance?" that makes an interesting comparison between Chess and Go.

As I see it, the core of it revolves around how "elegance" (simplicity) in the rules make for a more enjoyable design, whether "fiddly" (the multi-purpose word) rules make it annoying. In the line of what was said above, I think this explains one of the key features of Dominion (simple + deep). I hardly see complexity as well regarded in general, else we would all be playing Sierra Madre games all the time. I do see depth as very much appreciated. As a designer you can create whatever you want, but if reaching for other people, I think this should be seriously taken in account. Tematic games often increase complexity in order to add flavor. I'm not against it by principle, but if the designer needs some strains or parameters to figure out how much is too much, I woudn't hesitate to focus on elegance as a guidance.

My 2 cents. Keep thinking!

Thanks ilta

Good catch. I'm so used to drafting cards that provide multiple actions, that I sometimes forget the actual rules. Lol.

And, I quite agree with your assessment of the difference between Memoir '44 and ASL. I haven't played Tide of Iron, but I have a friend who might be interested in it given your comparison. Neither one of us has the time or interest any more for ASL. But, Memoir '44 just has too much luck of the draw for us.

As a bit of a (commercial) aside, I find that just about everyone under 40 who wants war realism opts for things like Call of Duty, Medal of Honor or an RTS like Warzone Earth.

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