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Simple games that are play-breaking brain-burners

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Hedge-o-Matic
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There's an effect I've found with a few of my games, and it's most evident whenit shows itself in an abstract. Whereas Advanced Squad Leader can boggle the mind with charts, tables, modifiers, chits, stacks, and reams of options, special cases, and exceptions, getting this same effect out of a 300-word rules set is something else again.

I've seen this effect more than once, when I have a playtest session where the game is functional, technically, but unplayable because of the limits of human cognition. The game simply requires more than the human brain will willingly give in the guise of fun. Such rules are almost immediately evident, when, instead of being intruiged by the tactical possabilities, the mind rebels, unable to do more than slog from turn to turn.

Needless to say, this is no fun, but, strangely, the effect usually only shows itself in full playtest. During solo testing, I seem, as the designer, able to put myself into a state of semi-play, acting as if I'm considering potentials, when, in fact, I'm only walking through rules that I know work. There will be few surprises, since I control both sides.

In playtest, though, the game is suddenly, painfully unplayable. I've written off working rules sets becasue of this effect, after only a turn or two, and my usual playtesters have all seen this happen.

Has anyone else designed a game that strains the outer limits of what a player can process? I'm not looking for hopelessly complex rules sets. I'm talking about rules that are crystal clear, and yield a game that cannot be played with anything resembling fun.

It would be interesting to hear about some of your examples.

Nando
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Simple games that are play-breaking brain-burners

I'm struggling to understand the problem. Do players immediately find that they have no idea what a good move would be? Or that the difference between different moves in any given set of moves is meaningless to them? Or that they can't grasp the longer-term implications of any given move? I'm lost.

Hedge-o-Matic
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Simple games that are play-breaking brain-burners

Any of these can be the problem. In general, I'm looking for examples of "lack of clarity" in play, that are somehow eveked by rule sets taht, on paper, are totally unambiguous.

for example, in an Icehouse game I created, called Logique, the players placed Icehouse pieces onto a chessboard. The pieces had no assigned player, and could be placed facing any adjascent non-diagonal square. The pieces on the four outer corners showed what colors could attack each other: a piece could attack another adjascent to it if one of the four outer corner pieces was of the attacking color and pointing to a piece of the target color in one of the other corners (so the corners pieces skip over the board and point directly to the other corners for purposes of setting color dominance). A simple diagam illustrates this easily.

Similarly, the four innermost squares dictate which size piece can attack another.

The details of winning and losing the game are unimportant. It problem was immediately evident, since humans can't seem to smoothly hold this two-part attack condition in their heads. The game is a total neural meltdown to play. Two diagrams show the rules over capture conditions, and the rules are about half a page. In in those 250 words... disaster!

Perhaps this is most easy to achieve in abstracts?

MattMiller
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Simple games that are play-breaking brain-burners

My brother and I once made a game with extremely simple rules that, I think, exhibited the problem you describe here. The board consisted of a linear track of X spaces, each with a point value (some point values were negative). Each player had 4 pieces. Each piece had a 1 on one side and a number from 2 to 5 on the other side.

The game was played in rounds, with each round deciding who "won" a given space on the board. The first round decided the space at one end of the track, the next round decided the next space, etc. Once all the spaces were decided the game was over -- add up the values of all the spaces you won and that's your score.

Whenever it was your turn in a round, you had two choices: you could place one of your pieces with its 1 side up on the space being decided in this round (the current space), or you could place one of your pieces with its other side up on a space further on. If the value on the other side of the piece was a 2, you'd place it on the space that would be decided in the next round. If it was a 3, you'd place it on the space after that. Etc. When you had no more pieces left, you were done for that round. Once everyone had used up all their pieces, the round was over.

At the end of the round, everybody would add up the values of their pieces on the current space, depending on which way up the pieces had been placed. This means that any piece you placed in this round counted for only 1 point, while a piece you placed here in the preceding round would count for 2 (because you would have placed it with its 2 side up), and a piece placed here long ago might have a value of 5. Player with the highest total wins the space. Having determined who won the space, all players would take back their pieces from that space (but they wouldn't take back pieces on other spaces further up the track).

There was a deterministic system for deciding turn order and resolving ties, but I won't go into details here. It basically ensured that whoever won the last space would lose ties on the next.

The aim of the game was to create a simple tradeoff between planning ahead and maintaining flexibility. You could commit a piece to winning a space way ahead of time, and that commitment would increase your chances of winning that space, but you wouldn't be able to use the piece before the space was resolved.

The problem was that, even with these trivially simple rules, it was too difficult to figure out all the implications of your actions. Players felt as if they had no control over what was happening, took no pride in their victories, and were only perplexed by defeats. It really wasn't any fun at all.

I later learned that Knizia used a very similar mechanic in one of his Rome games. He implemented the mechanic differently, however, and (of course) it worked better. I don't remember all the details, but I do recall that the system still felt very dry to me.

-- Matt

Gamebot
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Simple games that are play-breaking brain-burners

I know exactly what you mean. I've had ideas that worked so well on paper only to find out later that they were just too complicated for a regular human to handle.

One example is when I combined the resource cards in my game with the things you could build. The card could be used as either things, so you had to consider it as both. In my first playtest, my head exploded when I tried to grasp all the possibilities in my hand. Whenever I had to acquire a new cards, it was too difficult to evaluate which cards I needed. I just gave up and just resorted to intuition which was not something I wanted.

Another example is when I made a game with too many card abilites that appeared in play at one time. Too many times, players would lose unexpectedly because they couldn't evaluate the board because of its complexity.

I call this problem information overload. It always seems to blindside me because I never see it coming until I playtest.

clearclaw
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Re: Simple games that are play-breaking brain-burners

Hedge-o-Matic wrote:
In playtest, though, the game is suddenly, painfully unplayable. I've written off working rules sets becasue of this effect, after only a turn or two, and my usual playtesters have all seen this happen.

Be careful that you understand and have properly selected the target demographic for your game. Some player's really like the brain melty and will select for that and actively seek it out. As a simple example Zertz is often figured to be one of the better Gipf games, and requires a look-ahead depth of at least 5 to play well (really good players will look ahead 8 or more moves). Additionally the same brain melty game can be played very differently by different groups -- it is possible to serve two masters with one game. Examples on this side could be Bus or Blokus, a nice little logistical game on the one side or a space filling curve game on the other. Some groups will finish Bus and Blokus in well under 45 minutes every time. Others will struggle to get the same games finished in under 150 minutes.

Which audience do you want? Sometimes the game will select the audience for you...

MattMiller
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Simple games that are play-breaking brain-burners

Quote:
I call this problem information overload. It always seems to blindside me because I never see it coming until I playtest

My brother and I call it brain icecream, for reasons that go back to a ridiculous poker game we played with some friends over a few too many beers. Its origins may be silly, but somehow, for me, the term captures that feeling of brain freeze I experience when confronted with such a game.

-- Matt

Willi_B
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Simple games that are play-breaking brain-burners

CCG's deal with a ton of board information sometimes... but boargames, for the most part, attempt to avoid the 'too much information' thing.

Target appropriate audiences is key, but well worded rulebooks/explanations can be key. The thing I am trying to do right now is send my rulebook to people and see if they can figure out the game from that alone... it's not working so far. So I have to keep changing it to attempt to reach that goal.

A hint that your game could be too complex: normally patient people glaze over at the rules explanation. I'm not talking about the people that are so impatient as to say "I learn better if I just play" (I HATE THAT BECAUSE MY RESPONSE IS, "NO, YOU CAN'T"). Infuriating. Nothing like a supposed friend being too impatient to test your baby you spend thousands of hours on! Party on!

Jpwoo
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Simple games that are play-breaking brain-burners

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I'm not talking about the people that are so impatient as to say "I learn better if I just play" (I HATE THAT BECAUSE MY RESPONSE IS, "NO, YOU CAN'T").

Off topic I'm sorry. But some people do learn better by doing. If you know them you should maybe play a "practice round" with rules explanation before the real game.

I think this is an interesting conversation. This feeling is strange because a player imagines that they should be able to look ahead but the options are too much. This could be by a long string of simple effects that will be applied over time, or the wide variety of options that spread out as you look ahead.

I haven't designed many games, so I haven't had this happen yet.

I think perhaps looking at games that do this well might provide good counterpoint.

Looking at Go, there is no way for a starting player to understand the ramifications of his moves. A player simply has to learn by playing. Go also has an interesting effect that is shared by many good abstracts, like Chess. A play that is good in the short term has an effect on the long term. Determining which plays that are good on both the short and long term game is very important.

Some games hide brain melting choices under layers of chrome and rules. you can think ahead pretty far in a game like puerto rico, and doing so helps you, but it doesn't take long before your brain shuts down trying to hold all the threads together. But the theme and the presence of short term rewards helps to hide the long range analysis.

So I guess what I am getting at is having the ability to make a play that is immediately helpful to ones position helps offset long term analysis.

Rick-Holzgrafe
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Simple games that are play-breaking brain-burners

The only abstract I've tried so far is called "Cornered!". The idea sounded great in my head, but failed utterly when I built a prototype and tried to playtest it. The rules are simple, but the board turned out to be too difficult to read: it's just too hard to evaluate your own position, never mind anybody else's. Here's the thumbnail description:

Quote:
Cornered! is an abstract game played on grid of squares on an octagonal board. Some of the squares on the board contain Targets. Players place Corners on empty squares of the board. A Corner is a one-square piece that defines one corner of a larger 4x4 square. Any Target within a Corner's defined 4x4 square receives one or two Influence Points (IPs) from the player who owns the Corner. Targets receive IPs from every Corner that influences them, and so can receive multiple IPs from multiple players. The goal is to obtain Victory Points by exerting more influence on sets of Targets than your opponents.

Sometimes a hard-to-read board can be solved with a graphic redesign, but I don't think it would help in this case. (I'd be delighted if someone could prove me wrong!)

You can read the full rules and see pictures of the board and pieces here if you're interested.

I really wish this one had worked out, if only because it has one of the prettiest boards I've ever made.

Willi_B
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Simple games that are play-breaking brain-burners

Quote:
Posted: Tue Jun 20, 2006 5:03 am Post subject:

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

I'm not talking about the people that are so impatient as to say "I learn better if I just play" (I HATE THAT BECAUSE MY RESPONSE IS, "NO, YOU CAN'T").

Off topic I'm sorry. But some people do learn better by doing. If you know them you should maybe play a "practice round" with rules explanation before the real game.

Some games are too complex to do a practice round.... thus me getting infuriated at that statement.... it would be like trying to play a practice round of NFL football at the quaterback position and not knowing anything... you are setting the person up for something painful that will only make them not want to play anymore.

Hedge-o-Matic
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Simple games that are play-breaking brain-burners

Rick-Holzgrafe wrote:
Here's the thumbnail description...
snip!

This is exactly the sort of thing I'm talking about. When the rules are read, and the diagrams looked over, the reasoning part of the brain says, "Sounds clear enough. Let's give it a try!" And then the forebrain rebels, unable to carry out the process. This goes beyond target audience; the games somehow are just beyond the boundaries of normal human cognition. How can this be, when the rules are so simple?

And how can it be that games of greater outward complexity can avoid this? Perhaps theme carries more water for a game than merely suggesting artwork. Maybe thematic elements allow the brain to offload concepts to verious parts of the brain, rather than dealing with them as abstractions that are, presumably, handled by a more specialized area of reasoning. Thematic elements can be manipulated by more parts of the brain, and so the "processing load" is distributed, as it were.

Does this make sense? Perhaps theme allows greater overall imformation throughput during a game by spreading the decision and forecasting workload among more neurological conceptual centers, in the same way that having a specific name for a given color allows Broca's region of the brain (responsible for language) to aid the visual cortex in locating a specific patch of color within the visual field.

FastLearner
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Simple games that are play-breaking brain-burners

It seems like a common source of this problem would be an ovewhelmingly large decision tree. Games that don't have any random elements (like many abstracts) are particularly susceptible to the problem due to the possibility of seeing into the future with more certainty (nothing to "blur" any of the branches), as are two-player games (like many abstracts), due to the lack of "chaos" (aka so much complexity that branches can be sealed off for the time being) when more than one other player's moves can affect you. If I can make 10 possible moves, each of which could be responded to in 10 possible ways by you, each of which could be responded to in 10 possible way by me, etc., and I don't have any reasonable way to narrow down your most likely moves, I'm forced to either strain my brain trying to figure out every possible option or I have to feel "clueless" and make a few random moves in the hopes that the tree will begin to be whittled down at some point in the future. Either route can be pretty frustrating for many players, and it's amazingly easy to accidentally design a game this way.

It's probably worthwhile during solo testing to try to draw out the tree (on paper or mentally), to see how big it's getting, where things can be safely pruned or at least ignored, and if it gets really wide very quickly, to look at ways to prune it. Possible pruning options include introducing randomness, introducing hidden informatio, or redesigning so that more strategies (possible moves) are clearly not worth following (such that while there are 10 possible responses to my move, only an idiot would do 7 of them).

At least I think we're talking about the same thing.

-- Matthew

zaiga
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Simple games that are play-breaking brain-burners

I think there's more going on here than just a large decision tree. In Hedge's example the rules are simple, but the rules of the game change depending on the game state. I think the human brain has a hard time dealing with this.

For example, imagine a game of chess, with only four types of pieces: King, Rook, Bishop and Knight. Like usual, the goal of the game is to capture the opposing King. Not a hard game to explain, I'd say. However, unlike chess, the board is divided into four squares. When a King is in square A, it moves like a Rook. When a Rook is in Square B, it moves like a Bishop. When a Bishop is in square C it moves like a Knight. When a Knight is in square D it moves like a King.

Now, I've made the rules of the game a bit more complex, but not by a whole lot, only a few extra rules. The decision tree hasn't widened, there aren't more options in absolute terms. However, I think the game has become much harder to evaluate, because the human brain easily forgets exceptions and has hard time dealing with changing game rules during the game.

MattMiller's example touches on a different point, I think. In his example there's a feeling of pointlessness. A player performs a certain move, but has no idea whether it turns out to be a good move, or a bad one. In this case the feedback loop is too long. Before you know whether the move you made was a good one, so many things have happened, altering the game state, that it is impossible to track back and say "hey, that turned out to be a good/bad move!".

I had the same feeling when I played Go on a large board. I dropped some stones here and some there, and didn't have a clue what I was doing. Only when playing on a small board, or just concentrating on a small piece of the large board, I was able to see how one move affected the other. This also made it easier to backtrack my moves and opponent's countermoves and evaluate what went wrong and how I should have played differently, giving a shorter feedback loop and thus a more satisfying playing experience.

Also of importance is to have a clear goal for the game. What I like about Ticket to Ride is that, after choosing your tickets, you have a very clear goal for the game: connect the cities on your tickets, using as many long lines as possible. It is when these goals start to conflict with eachother that tough choices have to be made.

Chess is another game where the goal is very clear: capture the opposing King, with losing your own. Getting there is another thing though, and requires you to state many subgoals, like dominating the centre, getting your pieces active, etc. The decision tree is wide, but becomes much narrower when you are aware of the various subgoals. This is why I prefer chess over Go, because in chess the subgoals are a lot clearer to me, making it easier for me to formulate a mid term game plan. I'm not familiar enough with Go to see different patterns emerge and forumalte a mid term game plan around that. Instead, I feel like I'm fumbling around in the dark feeling around for the light switch. At least with chess the room is dimly lit.

The best games are those have a combination of short and long feedback loops. Puerto Rico is a good example of a game that has both. The role selection mechanism allows for a short feedback loop. "I pick Trader now, so that I can sell my tobacco, and Pete can't." But it also allows for a longer feedback loop. "If I pick Shipper now, then Pete will be forced to ship his tobacco, so I can trade my own tobacco later without worrying about Pete. This means Jane will probably pick Mayor, allowing me to man my Large Market, so I can sell my tobacco for even more money net turn when I become Mayor." Finally, the game has several long term choices as well, such as which crops to select, choosing money over VP, or vice versa, and deciding which buildings to build.

Scurra
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Simple games that are play-breaking brain-burners

Yes, I think Zaiga has it nailed there. It's the feedback loop that matters. If the loop is short, then you can cope, but as it grows it becomes trickier to deal with. And the loop is related to all sorts of things - number of different pieces, number of possible moves for those pieces, number of different outcomes of the moves of thoses pieces. Abstract games seem to have larger feedback loops, probably because the limits on what the pieces can do are not related to some thematic element (Chess is borderline thematic in this way, but the number of active pieces is big enough to make to loop problematic.)

A good example of this in a current popular game is Caylus. The feedback loop grows continuously (although fortunately not too hugely.) The result is that sometimes players can make inadvertant misplays, and the game frequently comes down to who made the fewest misplays rather than anything else. But it's full of aspects that could be removed entirely without making the game break*, which tends to suggest that they are only part of the game in order to make the feedback loop large enough to stop the game becoming completely mechanistic. Zaiga mentions Puerto Rico as a good balance between smaller and larger feedback loops; the fact that the game has now been analysed almost up to the end of the third turn shows that small feedback loops can sometimes be bad.

So somehow you need to find small enough feedback loops that make the game playable but large enough ones that it doesn't break instantly. Good luck. ;-)

*you could remove probably any two of the Baliff mechanic, the Favor track, the Green/Blue buildings or the Castle Building and eveything would still work. The game would be a lot less fun, but it would still work.

FastLearner
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Simple games that are play-breaking brain-burners

zaiga wrote:
I think there's more going on here than just a large decision tree. In Hedge's example the rules are simple, but the rules of the game change depending on the game state. I think the human brain has a hard time dealing with this.

For example, imagine a game of chess, with only four types of pieces: King, Rook, Bishop and Knight. Like usual, the goal of the game is to capture the opposing King. Not a hard game to explain, I'd say. However, unlike chess, the board is divided into four squares. When a King is in square A, it moves like a Rook. When a Rook is in Square B, it moves like a Bishop. When a Bishop is in square C it moves like a Knight. When a Knight is in square D it moves like a King.

Now, I've made the rules of the game a bit more complex, but not by a whole lot, only a few extra rules. The decision tree hasn't widened, there aren't more options in absolute terms. However, I think the game has become much harder to evaluate, because the human brain easily forgets exceptions and has hard time dealing with changing game rules during the game.
I think the size of the feedback loop is a useful way to look at it and may make the problem easier to solve, but I'd argue that it's functionally no different from a wide decision tree. With your example chess game, the tree becomes much wider due to the variables that come into play with the special rules. It's like a tree with great big thick clumpy branches that are, to the player's detriment, clearly in focus.

-- Matthew

Epigone
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Simple games that are play-breaking brain-burners

FastLearner wrote:
I think the size of the feedback loop is a useful way to look at it and may make the problem easier to solve, but I'd argue that it's functionally no different from a wide decision tree.

I think it's definitely more than the decision tree, but exactly the decision tree's computability. If you have a choice between several moves, as soon as you can determine that one move is better than the others, you can choose that move. Many things influence the time it takes to determine that: the number of moves, certainly, but also how far down the tree (how many states) you have to look at and how easy it is to look at those states.

Here's an example of one decision tree that is strictly narrower than another, but harder on the brain: Label each square on a chessboard 1-64. Shuffle a deck of cards labeled 1-64 and deal them out in a long row faceup so both players can see them. Whatever square is denoted by the first card cannot be moved to or from during your first move (for both players), and similarly for your Nth move.

This game has fewer states to evaluate than chess but would strain the brain more, even though the additional rule is very easy to understand.

FastLearner
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Simple games that are play-breaking brain-burners

Ah, excellent explanation.

adagio_burner
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Simple games that are play-breaking brain-burners

In my opinion, it is the same thing that makes a game interesting to play and helps avoid the brain melt. The rules of the game have to correspond to something we can intuitively feel. Players should be able to reason about the game situation in terms other than cranking the decision tree. If they can, a large decision tree only makes for a better game.

An excellent example here is Go. The decison tree is enormous, every turn a stone can be played anywhere on the board, and a lot of moves make more or less sense. Yet, true masters think about the game in terms of influence, beauty and harmony, and that's what makes Go a great game.

When you are playing a wargame, you do not calculate probabilities in your head. You think "I move here with my cavalry and outflank him, and his forces will not be there on time because all those heavy units move slowly, so then I can..." and so forth. This kind of planning makes a game fun.

As for decision tree, if it becomes too narrow, a game loses in richness and is prone to "analysis paralysis": where there are only so many choices, some players are tempted to calculate them.

MattMiller
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Simple games that are play-breaking brain-burners

I think a few numbers should be dropped into this discussion:

Chess has an average branching factor of about 30 (i.e. an average of 30 legal moves at any given time). One of the most popular games of all time.

Go has an average branching factor of about 200. Another of the most popular games of all time.

Even the simplest hex & counter wargame probably has a branching factor in the millions (because of that "move all, some, or none of your pieces by any number of hexes up to their movement allowances" rule). Not the most popular games of all time, but still enjoyed by many.

The game I described in my earlier post probably has an average branching factor of about 4. Game sucks. And it's not that it sucks because it's too easy to figure out the best move -- it sucks because it's too hard to figure out the best move.

Clearly, the width of the decision tree is not the main ingredient in the problem we're discussing*. I think the other two explanations that have been given here have a lot of merit. 1) A game needs to have a tight feedback loop to be fun. Players must be able to think of the game in terms of a succession of subgoals that will be either attained or forfeited in fairly short periods of time. You want to have little victories available all along the way. This is the main thing my game lacked. 2) A game should be approachable with some sort of metaphorical thinking. This is clearest in wargames, where the whole point of the game is to support the metaphor, but it's also important in abstract games. As adagio_burner pointed out, Go can be thought of in terms of influence, beauty and harmony.

-- Matt

* The numbers I gave here might give the impression that low branching factor makes a game bad, but this isn't the case at all. Geschenkt has a branching factor of exactly 2, yet I find it quite an amusing little game.

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