Board game design

Even deeper learnings – Or: Some things I picked up from discussions about depth

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.

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One Comment

  1. It’s perhaps worth considering games which are complex – that is, they have lots of pieces and/or bureaucracy – but which *aren’t* deep. We generally categorize these as bad games.

    Kings & Things comes to mind – a 14-point turn order to fight a pretty trivial Risk-type conquest game.

    There’s some awful game about bunnies with mutant powers as well, whose name I have suppressed, that has loads of cards and tokens and mechanics to provide something no more satisfying than your bog-standard roll-and-move.

    Fluxx also fits into this mould: each turn can see a proliferation of rules such that you’re drawing 3 cards, playing 4, but one of them makes you set your hand aside and draw 3 and play 2 of those, one of which forces someone else to choose a card from your hand at random and play it… etc. And yet fundamentally the winner is someone who is lucky enough to get the right 3 cards over the course of 1 – 3 turns.

    These games are frustrating because each of your actions yields little or no in-game benefit. They have “shallowness” rather than depth, where there is a profusion of options but none of them make any difference.

    Part of having “depth” then, surely, is having sufficiently many options to give rise to a variety of play strategies, *without* extra options beyond those necessary to generate such depth; there’s little point giving the player two choices who result is identical (which is why the games above are annoying).

    “Complexity” can add depth by adding access to more play strategies; but it can also equally deluge the player with irrelevant or duplicate choices.

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