Board game design

What is depth? And how do you add it to your board game?

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.

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7 Comments

  1. Objectively, and looking at it as a modern Eurogame, Chess sucks. It looks like it has depth, but actually, it doesn’t — players literally “solve” chess by taking hours over playing their turn, computing all possible future outcomes (talk about analysis paralysis!). There are other Eurogames (like Power Grid, which I also loathe) which are also “solvable” at certain points and therefore equally unsatisfying for those of us who have to wait for the players who care to solve the problem to take their turns.

    Agricola, on the other hand, because there are so many decision points and hidden information, has real depth – where, after repeated plays, you develop a “feel” for how cards will work together, how whether 3 wood or playing an occupation is better right now, and so on. And this “feel” doesn’t actually hold up play too much, because you simply can’t predict too far ahead.

    So, I would go so far as to say that games with true depth must have hidden information; it mustn’t be possible to be able to calculate the entire game state at any point, from the perspective of a single player. This leads to the taking of risks large and small, where people feel that they are leveraging their sense of the game into a strategic choice.

    So, are there any games with “depth” with relatively simple rules but complex emergent behaviour, with hidden information, a constrained yet varied set of moves, and play in under an hour…?

    Reply
    1. BastiaanReinink Author

      I’m very happy I’m not the only one that actually loathes Chess! 🙂

      How long it takes to take a turn (or finish the game) is something separate from depth I feel (even though it tends to be that deep games are long / invite analysis paralysis). That for me means that because a game drags it shouldn’t be called deep is incorrect. A game might be improved (on the whole) by adding randomness / hidden information / making it quicker to play, but that doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the depth of the game.

      I can’t think of any games that hold up to all your requirements to be honest…

      Reply
  2. Really interesting article Bastiaan. I agree that there is no clear path to depth, but that certain methods of obtaining it like adding “rules for the sake of rules” are to be avoided. There’s one method I can think of which you haven’t included: asymmetry. Lots of games include different playable “factions”, with unique bonuses and starting positions for players to try. This can aid with replayability and player interactions, but will sometimes cause the game to be unbalanced, or make no meaningful difference! Have you experimented with this in any of your games? It’s been a recurring challenge for me.
    Richard

    Reply
    1. BastiaanReinink Author

      I don’t personally have experience with creating asymmetry, so that might well have been why it wasn’t at the front of my mind when writing 🙂

      But an interesting point for sure, I’ll have to give this some more thought!

      Reply

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