Board game design

It’s time to go even deeper!
They say: “The best way to learn is to teach”. I never really believed this, but when learning about board game design I decided to give it a try. This blog is one of the results of that.

Last week I wrote a post about “depth”, what it means for a game to be deep and how to add depth to a game.

As a way to get some discussion going (and not to get readers! What kind of lowlife do you think I am?! 😉 ) I linked to that blog post in several forms of social media.

They also say: “Be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it!” This has also turned out to be more true than I was expecting, as some minor hell broke loose in discussions over what “depth” means exactly and how I could possibly think that adding complexity to a game could me it more deep (the audacity!).

Still, the second best way to learn is by listening (reading) carefully and perhaps going into discussion with your fellow scholars. If you’re interested I can direct you to some interesting (and lively!) discussion on depth and (sometimes) related matters:
On Reddit
On Facebook
On BoardGameGeek

For those of you who are not interested in reading a number of rambling discussions, let me do my best to express a few of the things I’ve learned through all of these jolly back-and-forths.

But before digging into that, I’d like to thank everybody who in some way contributed to all of these discussions. I’ve certainly learned a lot through them and I’ve enjoyed them thoroughly!

Semantics – Or: Is what I see as red the same as what you call red?

As happens more often, a lot of the discussions resolved about “what does a word mean exactly, in the context of board-games”. We all have intuitions about what “depth” and “complexity” mean, but these meanings will be subtly (or largely!) different.

This holds true in the discussions, but also when reading elsewhere. There is no agreed upon meaning for many higher level terms (like depth).

The take away of this is that it’s important to be very clear in what you mean.

One way of doing that is by having good definitions – even if my definition is different from yours, when I write “depth”, this is what I mean.

But what I think is a better way of doing this, is showing why it’s important. I started out my post by writing that “depth” is one of the holy grails of game design. Why is that though? Depth itself doesn’t make a game better, it’s a means to an end. The same holds true for many other “abstract” terms.

I’ll get back to this one a bit below…

Depth – it goes deeper than you think

In my original post I ended up with a loose definition of a deep game as: “One that requires a large number of play-throughs to master” (I’m sure I used slightly different words).

Some other (loose and not so losse) definitions were offered. One that struck me as being on to something was: ”Depth is the number of emergent, experientially different possibilities or meaningful choices that come out of one ruleset”

I’m thinking about this deeply
I believe this indeed captures quite well what most people feel is depth, though it uses a lot of difficult words to do so (but perhaps that’s necessary as it’s a difficult concept?). “Experientially different possibilities or meaningful choices” to me means being provided with something new regularly. This doesn’t strictly mean that it takes many games to master, but it’s hard to imagine having a lot of “experientially different possibilities” and seeing through them in the first game. So I feel this relates quite well to what I tried to capture in my own loose definition.

The thing that I find difficult to place is the “emergent” part. For me the sentence would read exactly the same without that word in. The difference that is being made is perhaps one of “elegance”? If I create a game which has many experientially different possibilities and I do so by having many rules and components, do I have a less deep game than one that does exactly the same but with fewer rules and components?

My personal feeling is that the second game would certainly be simpler, more elegant (to again use a difficult, abstract term that I’m not going to bother defining) and better even, but I don’t feel that the game would be more deep

Digging a hole – or: How to create depth – Again

In the original post I suggested that depth can be created. Some people argued that this was not the case, that depth has to be in the core of the game.

I certainly agree that it’s easier to bake it into the foundation of your game, instead of adding it afterwards. Still, that depth needs to be put into the game in some way; the designer is going to have to create it. And for that you’re going to need tools, of which I suggested a few in the original post. All of which (I there said) involved adding complexity.

Which sparked probably the largest number of comments…

It’s not as complex as you think – It’s worse than that!

Let’s say your goal is to create a game that takes many games to master and / or has a large number of experientially different possibilities to bestow upon the player (I’m leaving the “emergent” bit off for now).

This means that the game needs to throw out “new stuff” (new experientially different possibilities / something new to learn) with some regularity.

That new stuff has to come from somewhere. It has to be generated by the game. Which means that the designer has to somehow create something that does this.

I called this “complexity”. After thinking about it further I believe this was not the best choice of words. My premise was basically that adding anything to a game would make it harder to master (and would give more experientially different possibilities), simply because there was more of it. At a very basic level this isn’t wrong: Simply adding more stuff does make it harder to master and it means that there is more complexity. But it’s not the complexity itself that makes the game harder to master, it’s the additional stuff. There is correlation but not causation. Or better to say, both the complexity and the “depth” are caused by a third factor: Adding stuff.

There is a far more important point to be made though: Adding random stuff is a stupid way of making a game harder to master (creating more experientially different possibilities).

The previous post did go into that a bit, saying that some ways of adding complexity (adding stuff) were better than others, but it did not do a particularly good job of driving that point home.

Why bother with depth anyway?

What are we trying to hit anyway?
At the top of this post I made a remark about looking at the reasons for digging into abstract terms, as the term itself is generally not the end-goal.

So what is the end-goal of depth in board games?

Or even better, what is the end-goal of board games in general?

While different people will play games for different reasons, they all get something out of it. Joy, fun, call it what you will.

Thus, the “goal” of a board game is to create fun.

And most board games do quite a decent job of this; I have never walked away halfway through trying a game for the first time (though I’ve walked away halfway through setting one up – but that’s another story…). A game has to be pretty bad if you don’t get some joy out of it the first time you play it.

However… Games aren’t played just a single time. The best games you play over and over again, until the cards are torn, half the components are missing and the box is more tape than cardboard.

This is where I believe that depth comes in: To increase the replayability of a game.

Of novelty and replayability

Human beings are novelty seekers and learning machines. We want something new and cool, not something old and boring. This means that games have to cater to this (or be so good that we’re happy to fork over our hard-earned money for only a single hit; T.I.M.E. Stories anyone?). They need to present many experientially different possibilities and many learning experiences, lest we cast them aside for something more shiny and fresh.

And as long as they do keep providing us with fresh stuff to try, more things to wrap our brains around, we’ll happily keep coming back.

So is “depth” the only way to create replayability?

Well, perhaps…

Imagine a game where you’re not learning anything more, would you continue playing it? Or one where you’ve seen every possible combination of components and rules it can theoretically generate?

Some people are happy to play something for the joy of spending time with friends, or the pleasure of thrashing their siblings. But this requires something that in essence is external to the game; I don’t feel comfortable as a designer to pack my game with a bunch of friends and a sibling or two…

So no, depth is not the end-all of replayability. But it’s close to it in terms of what you as a designer can influence.

A step back: Looking at emergence

What might emerge from this?
In the previous paragraphs I worked with a part of the definition of depth as giving in the discussions mentioned. The thing I left out was “emergence”.

This also relates to a remark I made above: That it’s stupid to create depth by adding random stuff.

Yes, you’ll need to create depth. But there are better and worse ways of doing it. Having a boat-load of components makes it possible to have many different experientially different possibilities. But it makes for a very expensive game. Having a ton of rules can mean that there is a lot to master, but it would take considerable effort before you could even play your first round.

Thus, it’s more elegant to achieve the same, but with less stuff (rules, components).

What you want is a generator of experientially different possibilities. What you want is emergence.

Creating emergence

So how do you create emergence? How do get to a generator of novelty?

Here I’ll happily refer back to my previous post as well. There I wrote that the best way of introducing complexity was through interactions, between game pieces and between players.

Throw away the bit about complexity and what you get is that the best way of introducing depth is through these interactions.

The circle is complete

As designers we would like our games to be played many many times. For this we need some way of keeping our players coming back for more, with experientially different possibilities / further levels of the game to master.

That means the game needs to present novel situations with some regularity. We can “hard code” these in, through a plethora of rules and components, but a much more elegant way is by having them emerge naturally, from the interaction between the different game pieces and the players.

Closing thoughts

I’m very happy with the many many reactions I got on my previous post. As mentioned I learned a lot from them and I had a great time discussing things further. It’s a shame that at some point things got so deep that I was unable to respond to everything.

I’ve picked out a few things that came up during the discussions on social media in this post, though there is many more nuggets of wisdom hidden in there. If you have the time, go through all that was said (links at the top of this article) and form your own opinion!

The discussions mentioned have helped me to understand even better what “depth” does and does not mean. More importantly, it made me realize why we want depth – to increase replayability. That in turn made it much more clear what we were talking about.

In a sense, “depth” is a difficult way of saying “replayability created in an elegant way”.

Now I’m sure that some people will feel that this definition isn’t quite right. I welcome the further discussion and learnings that that is going to bring! 🙂

As mentioned, it’s not that hard to create replayability: Just add more stuff! But, done that way the price may very well not be worth it. The “elegance” is a requirement to keep the game within proportions.

And that brings us back to the beginning of the previous post: “Depth is one of the holy grails of board game design”!

About the author

Bastiaan_smallHi, I’m Bastiaan. The goal of this blog is to learn about game design. That’s hopefully for you as the reader, but just as much for me as the writer.

Help me to learn? Leave a comment (below) or connect with me on Twitter? You can also subscribe to this blog (see the sidebar) or like it on Facebook, to get updates when I write them.

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Board game design

One of the “holy grails” of board game design is depth.

Most players and designers have an intuition what this means, but it remains somewhat of a nebulous concept; I’ve never found a definition that I felt was complete. I don’t think I can give one, but I’m very happy to take you along in my thought process.

A first take at depth – Replayability?

Let’s see how deep this rabbit hole goes!
What is depth? Chess has it, Tic-tac-toe does not. It has something to do with replayability and how much a game makes your brain work. But that’s still very vague… And while I’d be able to rank any given game I’ve played on the more-or-less-deep-scale, I wouldn’t be able to say what makes a game deep.

The first thing that comes up is “replayability”. A game has to be replayable many times to be deep.

For me Puerto Rico and Agricola are “deep” games. I’ve played these games many times and I still feel I haven’t entirely gotten to the bottom of them. They make your brain work and they are heavily replayable. So far, so good.

I’ve also played a lot games of 6 Nimmt! and Citadels. Both of which I feel are not particularly deep. They’ve got replayability but the cerebral element is less than for the other games? Hm…

A second take at depth – Strategy?

In Puerto Rico there are different high-level strategies you can take (e.g. go for lots of money, or deliver lots of cheap goods). There is strong interaction with other players as it makes a big difference who takes what role, making the game tactical. Thus, both strategy and tactics play a big role in Puerto Rico.

In 6 Nimmt! on the other hand it’s almost impossible to form any longer-term strategy; instead you’re trying to find the single best card that works with what is currently on the table.

So is the difference that there are “strategical” choices?

I’m sure that this helps but I don’t think it’s the core of depth. But what then is?

See this post for more on strategy in board games.

A third look at depth – Learning curve?

In 6Nimmt you play a single round and you understand the game. And after having finished an entire game, you’re almost as good at it as someone who has played tens of games.

In Puerto Rico however there is a huge difference between the first and the second game. And the second and the tenth. And the tenth and the hundredth. In Puerto Rico (or Agricola) there are a lot of subtleties that only become apparent after playing the game many many times. Even after the 20th game I’m discovering new things, new elements to combine, different strategies to try out.

This then is where I believe the core of “depth” lies: How much is there to learn about the game? How many plays does it take until you “understand” it?

Note that this is something else than having a game that is difficult to learn. I’ll grant that Agricola and Puerto Rico aren’t easy to learn: There are many game components and a lot of rules you need to remember. But it is possible to have a deep game without having to memorize twenty pages of rules: Chess has relatively simple rules (you could fit them on a single sheet of paper), but it takes years and years of practice to become good at it.

The dark and light sides of depth

Depth certainly has it’s downsides…
So is depth always a good thing?

I’d say no. In fact, for most players, depth is a downside to a board game!

Most people are very happy to have a game where they can learn the rules and then play at a “competitive” level. With a deep game however, a beginner is going to lose to someone intermediate while someone intermediate is going to lose to an expert. And it takes a somewhat perverse mind to continue playing-and-losing to get to a level where you can beat your friend who has 10 games more experience.

These people want a game of 6Nimmt or Ticket to Ride, where they can step in and have something of a chance of winning.

For a certain kind of person however (e.g. me!), depth is a good thing. Yes, losing sucks and winning is good, but the element of learning a new game, of getting better can be just as amazing!

Depth also adds to replayability. If you can continue to get better, there is a reason to come back to a game again and again. In fact, the reason to stop playing a given game for me is usually when I feel I’ve “solved” it, when there is nothing left to learn.

Digging a hole (or: How to create depth)

The proof, as they say, is in the pudding.

We have some notion of what depth entails, but a much more important question then is: How do you add it to your board game?

The short answer: Add complexity!

Depth is a measure of how much there is to “learn” or “discover” in a game. Thus, to add depth, you need to add things that players need to learn. This comes down to adding complexity to the game, as each bit of complexity creates something that players need to unravel before they “get” the game.

Now you might say: ”Isn’t complexity bad?”

Well, yes and no. Unnecessary complexity is bad. Complexity for its own sake is bad. But every game needs a certain level of complexity. Think of it this way: If there was no complexity, you’d have the equivalent of Tic-tac-toe. And nobody wants to play that!

Still, there is better and worse ways of adding complexity to get to depth. Let’s go from bad to better.

The rules lawyer

The absolute worst way to try to add depth is by adding rules (for the sake of adding rules). Yes, your complexity will increase (significantly!) but your depth will only increase marginally.

This is because rules add “up-front” complexity, in that you need to cram more into your head before you can start playing. This means there isn’t actually that much more to discover whilst you’re playing.

Components are king

A second way of adding depth is by having more components. The easiest way to look at this is when you have a deck of cards and you add another card to it. Players will need to “discover” that card, what it does and how it works with the rest of the game.

However, most likely that card will work more-or-less the same as the other cards that are already in the deck and thus the majority of the “learning” is already done when players know the other cards. Unless of course that card is so radically different that it completely changes the game. Unfortunately, that would completely change the game

Still, this is a decent way of adding depth, as it is simple enough to do.

Dancing with lady luck

He’s a lucky man to be dancing with her
A game can be made deeper by adding randomness to it.

Randomness means that it takes a number of games before all possible combinations have been explored. If card A and component B work really well together, but you only get them together in game 3 then you’ll be discovering something new in game 3!

Likewise, randomness distorts information on how well a strategy works; perhaps you have a new strategy that you think is good, but you get screwed by the dice. You then have to play again (with the same strategy) to figure out that it really was the dice and not your strategy that was at fault. In other words: It takes more games to discover exactly how good certain choices are because the information is obscured.

See this post for more on randomness in board games.

Inter-action

The best way of increasing depth is by adding interactions to your game.

There are two types of interaction that are relevant here, both of which are great for adding depth to a game: Interaction between game elements and interaction between players.

Interaction between game elements

Consider Chess.

Chess has relatively simple rules, but it’s an extremely deep game. That’s because there is an incredible amount of interaction possible between the game pieces and the board: Any piece can move to any space on the board (with some minor exceptions) and any piece can interact with any of the opponent’s pieces. That means that at any given time there is a staggering amount of moves that is possible. Learning which of those is “the best” (or in my case: “adequate”) takes many many games and thus creates a very deep game.

Compare this to 6Nimmt, where during a turn for each piece (card) only 1 choice needs to be made: Play it or keep it in hand. There is very limited interaction between game elements and thus the game remains shallow.

Interaction between players

Don’t let the surface distract you from what lies underneath
On the surface Poker is a pretty boring game. You get some cards, others are opened and you look at who can create the best hand between what they have and what’s on the table. Except for some betting you can’t even make any choices!

Still Poker is a much beloved game, not because the mechanics are so interesting, but because of the player interactions. The game is all about reading your opponent and trying to outsmart them.

Player interactions create a lot of depth, because human beings are so much more complex than any board game can ever be on its own.

In a sense the reasoning here is the same as for randomness: There is uncertainty on whether a strategy or choice worked because it was good or because your opponent played poorly. This means you need to try out your strategy multiple times, against multiple opponents if possible. You need to learn whether it really is your choices or just dumb luck.

And there is another layer to this: Even if the game stays the same, opponents can change. Either because you’re playing a different one, or because the old one picked up a new trick or two. And so games with heavy player interaction can stay interesting even though mechanically you know them better than the back of your own hand.

Interaction (whether player or game element) needs to come from the rules and the components; while I wrote that adding rules or components for their own sake won’t help much, designing them specifically for interaction can significantly increase the depth of your game.

In this post I go further into player interaction in board games.

Closing thoughts

Depth is the holy grail of many board game designers. But, as anything in life, there are benefits but also costs to it. Costs are increased complexity for your players (harder to learn, harder to master), but also for you as a designer: Depth is complex to create! Think carefully whether the benefits outweigh the costs.

If you do chose to try to make something deep, I hope that the suggestions above will help you in your creative endeavors. If so, I’d love to hear all about it!

Having written the last part about player interactions I understand a bit better why I always feel that many Euro games are “missing something”. They need to get their depth from mechanical interaction and / or lots of components (Agricola, I’m looking at you!). A combination of mechanical and player interaction would be a much more “elegant” solution. And while I understand the desire for games not to have players go head-to-head (Risk-style), there are many different ways of interacting that are not necessarily antagonistic (even if they don’t need to be fully beneficial to the other players either).

The basis for Voluntarios, the game I’m working on, is to have lots of (semi-positive) interaction between players. Perhaps it would be also good to think about (further) interaction between game elements?

I’ll keep you posted on how that turns out…

Further reading

This post has more on the joys of learning a board game.

Here are 7 forms of player interaction that you can incorporate in your board game.

About the author

Bastiaan_smallHi, I’m Bastiaan. The goal of this blog is to learn about game design. That’s hopefully for you as the reader, but just as much for me as the writer.

Help me to learn? Leave a comment (below) or connect with me on Twitter? You can also subscribe to this blog (see the sidebar) or like it on Facebook, to get updates when I write them.

And perhaps you know of others interested in learning? Share this post using the buttons below:

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