Sunday, June 13, 2010

Why is this game so darn complicated?

Today we're going to talk about complicated games. Really, really complicated games. Or not so much about the games themselves as their status of being complicated and how they deal with it. Confused? Ok, let me try to start off more concretely.

When I say that a game is "complicated", I mean it has a lot of complex and quite possibly confusing rules. A game with simple rules can have surprisingly complex strategy. Witness Checkers, or Go. Chess is more complicated; you have to remember how each piece moves. In general the more accurately you want to simulate a war the more complex you have to make your rules.

I've been thinking about this ever since I spent the better part of a night trying to work out how exactly to play Tide of Iron. It's a very nice game, all sorts of clever strategy and interaction and all. The problem is that every single unit has a special ability that you have to remember, as well as move and two different range and damage stats (one against infantry, another against vehicles.) Oh, and there are four different kinds of ways to fire on your enemies, and every battle is different because of rules they set up at the start of the scenario. Oh yeah, and I hope you can wrap your head around different terrain types. Here, let me go down the list.

American units:
Basic infantry: Move of four. No special ability.
Elite infantry: More damage than basic against infantry, also squads with elite infantry gain +1 cover against suppressing fire attacks for each elite infantry in the squad.
Officer: Same as basic infantry, except he gives all squads in the same hex as him +1 cover against suppressing fire, gives his squad +1 move, allows pinned units to attack (at half value) and heals squads of being disrupted more quickly.
Mortar Crew: Attack of 4 on supressive attacks, 2 otherwise. Heavy weapons trait. (means it can't assault or move and attack, also can't get a squad specialization token.) Ballistic weapons; it doesn't need line of sight on a target so long as a friendly, non fatigued squad has LoS.
Machine Gun crew: Heavy weapons trait. Can engage in rapid op fire
Half track: Move of 7, 1 armor, can transport up to one infantry squad.
Truck: Move of 4, 3x that far on a road. Can transport up to 2 infantry squads. No armor.
Sherman tank: 4 armor, move of six, concussive fire (more range, damage against buildings and pillboxes. Heavy vehicle trait; allows them to trample enemy infantry and not to stop when it's lightly damaged.

Complicated, isn't it? Can you see why I spent the better part of a night trying to figure out what the hell is going on? Once you get the hang of how the game works, it's all a lot simpler. For example, I penned the above list without having to look anything up once. I could add in movement, ranges and attack values without grabbing my quick reference guide. All except for the vehicles, I'd have to look up the numbers for the half track and the tank. I could go on, explaining squad specializations, rapid op fire mode, the differences with German units, cover, terrain, line of sight, all sorts of stuff.

And you know what? Now that I know how to play the game I can't point you at a single rule and say "See! This! This one is unnecessary. The game would definitely be better off without it." Learning the rules behind your mortars is difficult, but once you've got it, they act in a way profoundly unlike the rest of your units and should be played differently. It gives you a wealth of strategic options. To put it in chess terms yeah, the way the knights move isn't exactly intuitive (L shapes? And they jump things?), but the game would be less interesting without them.

So what's the problem with rules complication? It's a barrier to entry. If I knew someone who knew how to play the game it'd be a lot easier to learn to play, but as it was I had to spend a lot of time and effort slogging through the rulebook. And that's with no assurance that all the rules knowledge acquired would be worth it. The game sat in a closet for months before I finally had an occasion to pull it out and eventually learn it.

Given the cost of buying a new game ($90 for that one) versus the costs of playing the games we already have (Axis & Allies, still playable after not having bought an expansion for the better part of a decade) there's already significant incentive not to purchase new games. So if you're going to be trying to sell games, then you probably want to make your rules as understandable as possible in order to minimize any further barriers to entry.

Naturally, there's a trade off here. Complicated games are really fun to play. They tend to result in unique play situations that don't get duplicated from match to match. I remember a series of twenty games of Magic where I was playing my Goblins deck versus his Elf deck. At the end of twenty games I was (I think) two games ahead. Thinking about that matchup now, I could easily go back and run another twenty games if his Elf deck was still assembled. So how do we make a complicated game without establishing a too terrible barrier of entry?

Well, let's take a look at some other complicated games. The Spawn of Fashan. Right, moving along, how about a more capably produced RPG. There are about a dozen GURPS source books behind me on the shelf. Or at least there would be if GURPS Basic Set: Characters and GURPS Robots (3rd edition) were put away. But that's the thing, GURPS is a game where rules may or may not be drawn from up to any of a dozen rulebooks. what about Magic? A game with something like 10,000 individual pieces has got to have complexity issues. Cosmic Encounter does it too; each player getting their own unique powers and the decks changing what with the different flare cards makes for complicated games.

The answer is, I think, that the players don't have to know all the rules at any given time. I played Cosmic Encounter last night, I got to choose between "Genius" and "Clone" for my race. I chose "Clone" and for the rest of the game I didn't have to know a thing about what the "Genius" do; their power is completely irrelevant to the game state. I run a GURPS game, which means that I have to know the rules, or enough of them. While it certainly helps if the players know the rules, they can get by with saying things like "I want my character to have goggles that do something like in the What's in the Box video".

Take Magic as an example. The basic rules of the game are fairly simple. You have to understand the different card types and when and how you play them, you have to know the parts of the turn, and the basics of how combat works (attacking, blocking, dealing 20 damage to someone kills them.) Oh, and you need the rudiments of the stack. (what happens when two people play something at the same time.) All that? It's not that complicated, at least as far as the games I tend to favor go. The trouble is that each and every card is a violation of those rules. Glancing at the stacks of cards on my desk, here's Madrush Cyclops: "Creatures you control have haste". See, that changes the basic rule that you can't use creatures right away as they enter the battlefield. Pulse tracker: "Whenever Pulse tracker attacks, each opponent loses 1 life" changes the basic rules of damage; that a blocked creature doesn't hurt it's owner.

Most of the time you don't have to worry about these variations on the rules; I've never seen pulse tracker in play, so up till now I could have been entirely ignorant of the cards existence with no loss to the rest of my magic playing. When you do have the cards in play then it's not nearly as hard to keep track of the game's vagaries; all the changes of the rules are printed in black and white in front of you. Magic also has the benefit of developing complicated game states only after quite a bit of time and effort getting to said state. When there are twenty different cards in play, but they all didn't get there at once, the board state developed bit by bit, with each bit being relatively easy to understand when it's added on.

The trouble with Tide of Iron is that, by and large, it doesn't use any of these mechanisms to reduce perceived complexity. Take, for example, the first, simplest scenario they give. The Americans get to use all those units except for the elite infantry, the half track and the tank. (They don't start with trucks, but they can acquire them as the game progresses). The Germans get Elite infantry and a Tank as well. Only the Tank doesn't work quite like it says on the quick reference sheet; special scenario rules tell us it only moves four spaces a turn instead of six. It also has most terrain and fortification types. You need to understand the majority of the rulebook before you can do the first scenario.

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