Game Design: Beware Excessive Process

Wednesday , 6, May 2015 1 Comment

I recently got to go through, for lack of a better term, the game design slushpile for another publisher (I work, from time to time, as a freelance rules analyst/game fixer/game editor).  I’m not going to name names, of either the publisher or the submitters, but I will highlight a common failing.

Ad Astra Logo Many game designers love the joy of creation. I confess, I do it myself.  It’s always fun to come up with something new: A new way to roll dice, a new style of character creation, a new twist to an old ability…and in the case of the three designs I reviewed, new ways to make in-game scoring (and thus predicting the end of the game) ambiguous.

I’m all in favor of ambiguous scoring – any of you who looked at the content linked to in last week’s post know that. I consider ambiguous scoring to be the cleanest solution to the “end game problem” of Calhammer’s Diplomacy.  However, there’s a right way and a wrong way to do this.

Puerto Rico and Race for the Galaxy are good examples of the right way to do this:  Scoring is arithmetic, and players get victory point chits (which have values of 1 and 5) and put them in a pile:  You don’t know how many VPs someone has until such point as they’re counted at the end.  There are assorted end-game triggers that can be gamed to vary the play length, and a lot of the strategy is being able to make rough approximations.

The games I reviewed for another publisher, on the other hand, involved bonuses for completed color sets, prerequisite chains that involved discounts for things along the chain, division by five for certain penalties…and far too much procedural overhead.  Even worse, the procedural process was something players had to deal with every time they converted on-board play into victory point accumulators.

In the end, I made recommendations to the publisher for how to clean this up, and some of these are rules of thumb that a game designer should keep in the back of their head.  I refer to them as Burnside’s Axioms of Mental Overhead (or BAMO!).  I learned them the hard way.  Sometimes, I’m not sure other people have learned them at all.

  • Counting is the easiest of mental operations, but the most time consuming.
  • Addition is easier than subtraction for most players.
  • Number comparison or substitution is easier than addition. This is why “Roll 5d6 and keep the highest two” is faster than “Roll 5d6 and sum the results.”  In my own title, Squadron Strike, attacks from the Aft facing treat hit location die rolls of “1” as “10s”.  The first draft of this rule said “Add 1 to each hit location die when striking the Aft facing of the ship.” (it actually said to add +2 if coming in from due astern…)  Mathematically, adding +1 to the hit location die is the same as saying “treat all “1s” as “10s” when hitting from the Aft”.  At the play table it’s MUCH simpler, because now you’re comparing numbers and substituting rather than iterating through an arithmetic operation.
  • When in doubt, remove subtraction. FUDGE (the progenitor of Fate) uses 4dF – where a dF is a six sided die numbered “+” on two sides, “-” on two sides and blank on two sides.  It’s functionally the same as 4d3-8, but (odd dice aside) much easier to use at the gaming table.  You are nearly always better, as a game designer, making sure your operations go in the same direction – always add modifiers, or always add to the target number to beat.
  • Doubling and tripling are easier than subtraction, other multiplication – even multiplication by ten – is often harder, because players will try to “feel” the numbers rather than work the operation.
  • Avoid division if at all possible.  (My own game, Attack Vector: Tactical, uses modulus division by 8, and I have to dance around that carefully.)
  • Group things visually – don’t make someone look in four different places for mathematical factors.  One of the major wins of Squadron Strike  was combining the damage tracks with the hit location table, because it allowed players to look things up, mark damage, and keep going through the process rather than “roll, look on table, look up code from table, find corresponding box, mark, go back to the table, repeat.”  It quartered the amount of time needed for damage allocation.
  • Whenever possible, parallel processing (every player making a decision at the same time) is your friend.
  • Try to have your die rolls work such that “If you’re rolling the dice, the higher result is always better for the person rolling.” This may mean putting the rolling in the other player’s hands from time to time, but this keeps both players engaged and entertained.
  • Rolling dice is not making a decision. Focus on decisions in your game design, not the fiddly instructions for how to activate them.

In other news, there’s also a rather important announcement over at the Ad Astra Games web site…this is an ongoing negotiation that’s been in process since January, and I can finally go public on it.


One Comment
  • Daniel says:

    I love FUDGE dice. Head-to-Head or individual buffers, I don’t care. If I can use them, I will. So fast, so simple. I have never even stopped to think about what the probability curve on those look like.

    Heroscape had a version of dice like FUDGE, but they had shields and skulls on them (and weren’t limited to 4 dice). Roll more skulls than shields and you got a hit (or more).

    These are excellent guidelines not just for design but for play. Giant massed mega-combat in Savage Worlds is “easy” but annoying because you end up counting out so many jillions of dice.

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