Tuesday, 14 April 2020

Game Design #78: Complexity Creep, Reference vs Baseline Games

"Any intelligent fool can make things bigger and more complex... It takes a touch of genius --- and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction."

This is probably a common sense thing all game designers are aware of, but it's something I've been musing over lately.  It's so easy to add rules, but hard to strip them away or simplify them. 

What prompted this was my shed clean out, and digging out my old Lord of the Rings:SBG by Games Workshop.  This is, in my opinion, the best rules set GW has ever put out.* (*Either a bold claim or a low bar to step over! Note: I did not say it was the best balanced) It kept the familiarity and feel of old GW 40K games while being its own thing. It was cleaner, innovative (for GW, at least!) and was a fresh start that games like 40K have never really received.

Now I like the way GW have been heading, so I picked up a copy of the new Kill Team. Note I'm not sure how KT compares to 8th ed, etc. I'm merely comparing it to my old Necromunda and Kill Teams of the past.  I like the changes away from the older Kill Teams, but the rules are still a mess. I wouldn't envy anyone the job of streamlining and simplifying 40K - you'd have to clear away clutter bolted on year after year, on what was basically a 1980s RPG/skirmish. Really,40K needed to be built afresh from the ground up years ago.

LoTR was a fresh start, back when 40K was evolving back around 3rd/4th ed. Using familiar mechanics, LoTR made initiative (move/shoot sequence) important, yet kept it simple; the side A move, side B move, side A shoot, side B shoot, both fight but side A chooses the melee order. Already, there was far more "chunks" of play than the old IGOUGO, but it got better. Heroes were not just killing machines with better stats, but could use their "might" (a resource tracked with a few tokens) to interrupt the sequence of play to fire, move or melee at critical times - acting like real leaders to the troops close to them.  Stats were simplified, special rules kept to a minimum and the clunky saving throws from Warhammer were removed.  Even tasks like climbing, jumping etc were straightforward, using the same mechanic, 1 = fail, 2-5 success, 6 = great success.  In short, it was a very clean set of rules with significant changes compared to WFB or 40K. (The less said about hero balance the better)

I'm getting to the point, I promise.

Well, during my shed clean I discovered some... well shall we say.... ...600(!) LoTR models, most bought for cents on ebay before the Hobbit movie veered prices up into the ridiculous. After discovering the "new" Middle Earth rules would set me back $300AUD ($98 for rules, $98 for army book, $98 for battle companies) - thus reminding me the new cuddly GW isn't thaaat benevolent - I have acquired some pdfs and have been looking though the new rules.

The changes were mostly good. I don't have enough experience (both recent or competitive) to be sure, but I suspect the focus was mainly around balance i.e. ways to resist magic, magic adjusted, and there are some changes in army points and composition. So nothing radical, the core rules are still pretty similar in all key areas, with most gameplay changes being in the form of non-essential, extra, bolt-on rules - magic, special moves/strikes, etc that add flavour.

My biggest reaction was: how many more rules were added.  It was 69 pages of core rules in my old One Ring rulebook. 120 pages of core rules in the new one. As well as the old 3 universal heroic actions we have 4 extra 'special' heroic actions which can only be used by specific heroes. Magic originally had 17 spells, which had expanded to 37. Wargear lists had more than doubled. Monsters and weapons now have special strikes.This was all done to improve the game. But it also added complexity.

Now, LoTR hasn't gone through 8 or so iterations like 40K (and it was a far cleaner, more modern game to begin with). The core mechanics (baseline) remained the same. Even now, it isn't a complicated rule set (I'm considering it as a beginner set for teaching my 6 year old).  Nonetheless, my main take away was how even simple wargames rules can snowball. In an extreme case, special rules bloat killed my interest in Infinity which I played energetically with the first book, but quit as expansions added more and more "overhead" - i.e. work, time and energy to "learn" the game.

Wargames are the laws of the game. Like legislation, they tend toward complication. We plug loopholes, we balance, we add in cool stuff. But at what cost, and when do games become too complex? Complexity creep is the complication of games (with the best of intentions) - usually we are mentally trying to improve on an existing reference or benchmark game (more on that later).

Bear in mind, there's a limit to how simple rules can get.

Tesler's Law, also known as The Law of Conservation of Complexity, states that for any system there is a certain amount of complexity which cannot be reduced.

Most wargames have a mechanic for taking turns with minis (initiative) and a way to resolve shooting and melee, and morale, and (usually) a system for movement.  Even games with unlimited movement or shooting ranges are actually "limited" in some way or have rules governing the implementation.  So there's a lot of rules that need to be made to define these.

However, so much as possible, rules mechanics should be simple, easily remembered, and consistent.  Reduce the "overhead" or mental effort - any time mechanics are are inconsistent (i.e. using a dozen dice resolution methods), or include too many special (extra) rules (or rules exceptions) it increases the overhead. Keeping mechanics familiar also reduces the mental effort i.e. Bolt Action/FoW deliberately follow 40K to reduce the "buy in" and make it easy to swap between games.
I recall finding Silent Death annoying as each weapon had rules like "roll 2d6 to hit and choose the  highest score for damage" or "roll 1d8 and 1d6 and use the difference between the rolls for damage."
They were trying to be clever, by combining 'to hit' and 'to damage' rolls, but they increased the mental effort. This is a common trap for game designers. Indeed, your cool pet mechanic may not be suited for this particular game. Ask yourself: is the complexity worth the effort? WHY must I use this rule and not something simpler or more familiar? Do I need this rule at all?* Be ruthless.

(*My current pet peeve is "cards". Every new game has to have a hand of cards which you play to get certain game effects. Yes, it adds resource management. Yeah, I know that CCGs are where the money is. But pulling cards from a deck is not automatically peak game design - it's often random mechanics dressed up as content!)

A simple (lazy) design shortcut: Reference Game vs Baseline Game

Most people have core games that they unconsciously (or deliberately) base their games on. How many budding game designers started out adding rules to "make 40K better?" I call these "reference games" as they are benchmarks in the genre.

Warhammer is a sci fi/fantasy reference for many designers as so many of us grew up with it. Flames of War, and Bolt Action very deliberately reference it. But a quick dig through freewargames will reveal many with similar DNA.  Dirtside/Ambush Alley is a reference game for near-future sci fi/modern platoon. Full Thrust is a reference for spaceships. Blue Max is a common reference for planes.

It's easier to complicate than it is to simplify... therefore, where possible I start with a game with a LOWER complexity than the reference game in that genre. I call this simpler game the "baseline game."  The baseline game may have completely different mechanics to the reference game.  

#1. One key factor of a baseline game is it is much simpler (or faster) than the reference game. When we use the simpler baseline game's mechanics, we can now add complexity - which is easier (and more fun!) than simplifying. Complexity creep is now acceptable - we've already figured it in!

For example, I want to play with stompy robots like Battletech or Heavy Gear but I am NOT willing to do mountains of recording or use 1980s rules. I'm wanting to "build a better, cleaner Battletech." So, rather than start with Battletech (the reference) and try to simplify it, I pick a MUCH simpler game and make it more complex. I choose Fistful of Tows 3, a Cold War game designed to handle dozens of tanks - as my baseline. FFT3 is basically a more elegant Flames of War which also uses many 40Kish mechanics but focusses on fast play for handling battalions of troops etc. It will be much, much simpler and faster than BT and also use familiar mechanics, so it should make a good baseline.   

Going back to my original LoTR discussion that started this train of thought: 2018 Middle Earth SBG is so much simpler than 2018 Kill Team as it was built from a simpler, cleaner baseline game, and not a Frankenstein creation built atop the strata of 8+ layers of preceding rules and spin-offs.

#2. Your baseline game should probably fit your theme. Two main categories of wargame are shooting focussed games (where long ranged shooting, cover and firepower is dominant) and melee focussed games (which can also be a balance of the two, with weaker shooting allowing units regularly close to close combat). Modern games (Ambush Alley, Infinity, Bolt Action) are shooting focussed. Clues are references to cover, suppression, morale.  A game like 40K is more balanced/melee focussed. Close combat is viable.  Naturally, most medieval, ancients and fantasy games favour melee or balance. There are other underlying themes - you will notice many spaceship games and WW2 naval games share mechanics*. (*I'd argue this instance it is undesirable, but that's just my soapbox...)  Bolt Action attracts flak for its ridiculously short shooting ranges etc - that's because it's now a shooting game built off the baseline of a fantasy melee game.

Now BT mechs are pretty much walking tanks, so picking FFTW3 - a modern tank game (which already includes rules for missiles, chainguns, MGs, rockets, and many other staples of the "serious" mech genre) as a baseline - seems a no-brainer. If I wanted a Gundam game where the "heroic" mechs fly around with swords and superpowers, I'd probably borrow from a fantasy or superhero melee-focussed game as my baseline game.

Note this baseline can entail a radical change of mechanics and rules compared to the reference. Instead of throwing 2D6, and tracking dozens of hits across different body locations, and managing many levels of heat, I've got 40K-esque d6 rolling game which gives me "suppressed/crew check" or "dead".  However the FFTW core mechanics are simple, familiar, and solid. They play fast and are designed for a similar genre. They are the bones to build off. It's always easy to add more complexity.

I can now add in what I want - maybe heat rules that increase a mechs signature or even shut it down? Do I want to keep the FFTW detection rules or modify them?  I can now have fun redesigning FFTW weapons to fit my vision of a mech game.  Do I need extra movement rules for bipedal mechs?
Because I am working from a simple, familiar "core" I can expend my effort in making the game play the way I want it to - and I can predict outcomes with less playtesting.

But this is not original! I want to design cool and hip games!  You're telling me to copy off other games? Well, I'm always up to see a new initiative or activation system. And morale/command and control has plenty of room for "unique-ness." Originality in game mechanics is certainly overrated.  I'd suggest most top selling games aren't original.  Bolt Action, Flames of War borrow form 40K- even X-Wing is just Wings of War rebadged. I'm not for change for the sake of change and indeed using familiar mechanics also reduces mental effort.

Corollary to #2: You may want to borrow from very different genres or themes, if you are wanting to make a unique sci fi or fantasy game. For example, a space game where ships move 8+" but fire 1" may base off a melee-centric game, due to the fact game turns take days of burn to get in range and have a limited window of fire due to closing speed/EW.

I originally got interested in game design due to being frustrated that space games were just WW2-in-space or Full Thrust clones. I also wondered why we didn't use reaction mechanics or innovative initiative systems that were coming into vogue with skirmish games. What about the difficulties about ships closing at a combined velocity at light speed or more? While some space games flirted with detection (2300AD) I don't recall seeing much serious command and control focus. Co-ordinating fleets light years away poses some interesting problems.Why aren't drones more common? What about slingshotting planets and atmosphere - why didn't we use more terrain in space games - I mean, why would fleets clash over empty space?  Finally, it's sci fi - why weren't space games more imaginative?

None of these necessarily require new mechanics. Command and control rules are popular in many big battle games - could we borrow them from there? I lifted the reaction mechanics straight from Infinity and scaled it to a d10. Vector rules were inspired by a combination of 1970s Triplanetary and a homebrew penguin ice skating game.

 “To steal ideas from one person is plagiarism; to steal from many is research.”

As an aside - I've always wondered why sci fantasy is just medievals-with-cool-armour, sci fi near modern is Vietnam in Space, and even why fantasy clings so closely to Tolkien tropes.  It's not like we have to adhere to any historical realism....

To sum it all up
Rules are laws of play. Like laws, it's easy to add new ones, but difficult to simplify old ones.  There is a minimum complexity for any wargame.   Excessive complexity or mental "buy in" to learn rules may drive people away. When we try to improve on a ruleset or a genre we are prone to complexity creep - adding features, closing loopholes, etc.

Most genres have a "reference wargame" that that players and designers consciously or unconsciously compare a game to. So we start simple(r) and let our tendancy to complexity work for us. I.e. pick a suitable wargame much simpler/faster playing than the reference as a "baseline" for the core mechanics and work from there. It doesn't even have to be the same genre and it may have quite different mechanics, but it probably should have a similar theme i.e. shooting focussed or melee focussed - I wouldn't use an ancients skirmish as the base of a modern game set in Afghanistan.  You can now "add" your tweaks and "cool ideas" to the simple baseline wargame - it will still compare favourably to the reference game. You can also borrow across genres i.e. modern skirmish reaction systems for a space fleet game. Sci fi and fantasy (where we don't need to simulate historical factors) are rich ground for this and you can make a game that seems original and fresh with old ideas. Finally, using a familar baseline reduces mental effort and allows you to predict outcomes with less playtesting - always handy for home designers.


  1. I am glad I am not the only one who finds that innovation is over-rated! A game designer needs to have a vast library of gaming rules and then they can pick and choose core mechanics that work and apply it to their concepts. That is the trick to getting games to a playable state.

    1. Accessibility > innovation, if you want others to play.

      I tend to have about 10 or so favorite games I consult. Hang on, I realise I ALREADY did a post about it...


      ..when you get old you tend to repeat yourself...