Sunday, March 18, 2012

Complexity vs. Depth in games.

To begin, I have a board game recommendation - Power Grid: The First Sparks.

The original Power Grid is one of my favorite board games from the last 10 years.  However, it has 3 problems that hold me back from playing it more often:

  • It sometimes feels that once somebody gets ahead, they stay ahead.  I think the game actually feels quite well balanced and it is totally possible to come from behind for a victory, or among closely skilled players the tension in vying for position works out quite well - but even the perception that it isn't possible to recover from falling behind is enough to turn some people off.
  • It required lots of nit-picky arithmetic to play effectively.  Typical end game turns involve adding 15+18+10+9+10 (new city cost) and then holding that number in your head while you compute your fueling costs (3 units @ 3 + 4 units @ 5 + 2 units @ 10+ 1 unit @ 12) etc. etc.  
  • The game length is slightly on the long side for my tastes - 75-90 minutes.
Despite these challenges, I love the game and it retains a place in my geek-heart.

Enter First Sparks!  Which addresses all 3 of these concerns.  The game does a marvelous job of retaining the essence of everything I loved about Power Grid while shortening the game length to about 45-60 minutes, simplifying the math, and inserting slightly more tension on gameplay as players jockey for 1st place.  It's really fantastic and surprisingly well done.  I would go so far as to say playing Power Grid and then moving on to Power Grid: The First Sparks should be considered a textbook case in good game design.

One of my personal design mantras is to lower complexity while retaining depth.  It is very easy to make a overly complex game, it is slightly more challenging to ensure your game has depth, and it's a constant challenge to maximize depth while minimizing complexity.

To illustrate the difference between the two, have you ever heard of Rock-Paper-Scissors-Lizard-Spock?  It became more well-known following it's appearance on the Big Bang Theory

The relationships are shown here
Link from thinkgeek
Rock-Paper-Scissors-Lizard-Spock is in my mind the perfect example of introducing complexity without increasing depth. It exhibits all the traditional properties of valuing complexity over depth:
  • It is harder to learn, but gives a feeling of mastery to the hardcore (though this feeling of mastery would have been attained just as easily from adding mechanics that added depth)
  • It adds rules without increasing strategic depth
  • It increases the number of options to the player, (which can lead to analysis-paralysis) without making those options strongly-differentiated
  • It makes the game more appealing to a narrower band
  • The complexity is added to solve a problem (in this case, high tie rates) when either simpler solutions already exist, or the problem isn't even recognized as a problem for most people.
To be clear - I am not against adding complexity in games, you just want to ensure you're getting a sufficient "return on investment" for your complexity dollar. 

Bottom line:  Big Bang Theory is awesome.  So is Power Grid: The First Sparks.

1 comment:

  1. Looking forward to playing First Sparks! Your comparison to RPSLS reminded me of a poster that I had hanging behind my desk at Insomniac.

    BEHOLD RPS-25: it looks like the site has been updated since my last visit and there is now an RPS-101. I'd classify the evolution of RPS on this site as too much of a good thing. To bring it back to a board game analogy we ended up playing it as you would play "7 Wonders," we chose a strategy (randomly selected a gesture) and then consulted a complex diagram to work out the victor.