Tuesday 2 August 2016

Game Design #70: Wielding the Axe - or why "great ideas" are not always best for your game

I was flicking though the Delta Vector google group, looking at excellent advice (given to me, and others)....               ....that wasn't taken.
Taking Advice... or not
Isn't there a saying "we ask for criticism when we seek praise?"  When others give that criticism we ask for, are we really listening?   I've been looking through the Delta Vector google group as I do my bi-annual update of my homebrew rules, and re-reading advice others have posted up.  I've deliberately been trying to incorporate others advice in my latest iteration of my own rules, with certain provisos...

....Keep the Goal in Sight
Think very carefully when you implement things in your game that go against your mission statement.  When you have to change your mission statement to accomodate your game as it stands, alarm bells should be ringing.

What's a mission statement? It encapsulates your design philosophy, or basically "what you are trying to achieve with the game."  Writing down your aims before you start writing your rules is a good way to keep on track.  You can hold up any rules or mechanics and ask yourself "does this help achieve my design philosophy?"

If the mechanics no longer fit your design philosophy - you may need to quietly shelve the mechanic or accept you are making a completely new game.   For example, my homebrew "Middleheim" rules started as a large platoon+ skirmish game aimed at 20-50 per side; kinda LOTR:SBG territory.  I intended to use Warmachine dice rolls and Bolt Action activation (not because they were good mechanics to copy, actually it was a bet I made with myself - there's a post about it somewhere).  

After fairly energetic playtesting over a mere week it morphed into a very small scale (5-10 man) skirmish game with strong Infinity and SoBH overtones.   The game I ended up with was not the game I intended to make.  It was a completely different animal.   Once I realised I was drifting in this direction, I drew up new rules for my "big 30-a-side skirmish" game and accepted that "Middleheim" was very much in the RPG-lite Mordheim territory - a different game altogether than my original game design.

If your mechanics don't meet your original design intent - shelve them - or re-draw your mission goals and accept you are making a completely different game.

It's not a bad thing to change your design goals.  I enjoy tinkering with my Middleheim skirmish rules, which are not "improved LOTR" but have radically changed in scale and outlook to fill a Mordheim-sized hole. But you do need to consider carefully the implications when you do.

Who is your audience? What advice is good advice?
Not all advice is good.  Too often people want you to make they game they are too lazy to make - or simply remake their favourite game.  You have to examine the advice - "does this advice help me meet my original design goal?"   If the advice is to put complex Infinity-esque special rules and reactions into your company level game - ask yourself - does this help achieve my design goal? Does this idea suit my genre/the tactics I am aiming to engender?  Sometimes, what others want is wishful thinking or they are riding a particular pet interest or "hobby horse" - they may be trying to push their "clever idea" into your rules - or they can simply be adding to the very "bloat" you want to prevent.
An example that comes to mind is my concept for a tank game; note in the comments how the complexity spirals as everyone puts in what they think is vital to a tank game; you can see even at this stage I am trying to "trim it back."

When given advice, check it against your original design goals.

Your Awesome Idea.... is in the wrong place?
I think there's another saying that goes something like "if you have written something especially clever, witty and ingenious, it should almost certainly should be deleted."  This was referring to writing stories, but applies in a way to wargames.

Do you have an especially clever mechanic, be it for activation, movement, morale etc?  Is there something you think is so cunning you could put a tail on it and call it a weasel?  Have you done something no one has ever done before, or in an especially unique and elegant way?  A particular mechanic you have "grafted onto" the system or borrowed from another game is often an indicator. 

Okay, now look at your "cunning idea" more suspiciously.  Would it really wreck your game if you removed it and replaced it with something simpler or more "vanilla?"  Would the game work without it? Can you still achieve your overall Design Goals? I remember seeing something on a PC designer forum, where they dev said "an idea isn't good if you think it is good/useful - it's good if you can prove it is good."  If you can do without it, it's not that good. 

I'm not saying delete all your best ideas and mechanics, but give them critical, objective consideration - and maybe quietly pull them out of your game system and put them to one side for a later game, better suited to their awesomeness. 

Your awesome idea may well be awesome, but it may not belong in the game you are designing.  

Rules Bloat - Wielding the Knife
It's hard to resist the urge to put in every cool mechanic and idea you can think of into your rules.
It's much easier to make a simple system more complex, than to simplify a complex system.
We talk about "elegant" rules but often we are talking about simple solutions to complicated problems. 

It's tough to edit and cut down rules. It's difficult to trim the fat. It's better not to put on the fat in the first place.    As you write, ask yourself "do I really need this rule?"  "is there a simpler way to do this?"  "does it really add so much to the game so to be worth the tradeoff*?"

(*The Tradeoff: I tend to view game design as a tradeoff between "decision points" vs "complexity/resolution".  Basically, a game should give you lots of difficult decisions, whilst being fast to play, logical, consistent and easy to remember with little recording and consulting of rulebooks.

Does the mechanic add enough depth and decisions as to be worth the effort in remembering and implementing it?

An example: in a google group post, my separated-from-birth twin Paul of the Man Cave suggested the detection mechanics in my game of superfast submarine fighters were too complex - could they be reduced from two steps to a single roll?  I was resistant to this - the game's focus revolved around detection and stealth vs superfast noisy dogfights.  The stealth bits were very important to the game. But then I re-examined my stance: did I really need two detection levels?  Would a simplification conflict with my overall game philosophy?  Would it dumb down the game too much?  Actually, no. The extra stage was just something I thought should be there.

Another example: I've always felt LOTR:SBG was very "clean" consistent set of rules, compared to say 40K and especially Warhammer Fantasy of the same era, which at the time LOTR was published had accrued a lot of "bloat" through a miscellany of ideas/concepts over their multiple editions - and LOTR remained quite resilient to bloat over the years - early 2001 to late 2012 LOTR (excluding the Hobbit) were pretty consistent with each other.  (Note 40K fans, I'm using this as a familiar example. I know 6th/7th is awesome etc etc)

Re-using mechanics
I really like the Song of Blades risk-v-reward activation.   
Basically you roll between 1 and 3 dice. Each dice that passes a target (which depends on the unit/soldier's training or Quality) gives you an action (to move, shoot etc).  If you fail twice, your turn is over.   Obviously, if you "play it safe" and roll one dice, you cannot lose your turn.  Whereas rolling 3 is much riskier, but gives the chance of more actions.  

I've borrowed the concept (in d10 format, as I found d6 too limited) for my own skirmish rules.  Now, Ganesha Games has used this mechanic (and it's two-stat system) for about ~30 rules, ranging from robots, horror, napoloenics, kung fu, to ancient naval battles with galleys.  I wonder if anyone has ever wondered if the activation system which worked well for 5-10 man fantasy skirmish just may not be the ideal system for ancient naval battles, or company level ACW*?
(*I can't get on my high horse here - I even found myself using it for a homebrew starfighter game....)

Your awesome idea is not perfect for all games, all genres and all situations. 

It's seductive though.  It's familiar too you, it worked well in the past, it's less work, it likely has a receptive audience - no wonder sequels are popular in Hollywood. 

The Benefits of Distance
This distance applies in two ways, both emotional/mental distance, and through time.

Your are not your own best proofreader. (As anyone who has edited Year 3 story writing classes can attest) Often your mind "fills in" the blanks, completing thoughts and concepts your rules explain poorly.   This is why playtesters and proofreaders are good.  However, your spouse, cousin, or mate from the game club are not your best critics.  Firstly, they may be familiar with your game. They may have been "along for the ride" and also posses the knowledge of where your game is going.  I sometimes think this is where some commercial rules fall down as well.  They have an "in house" group of testers who are familiar with the design goals, and have been involved from early in the process.  They too can "fill in" gaps in your rules, as they instinctively grasp your "intent." The second is friends, mates and family are unlikely to be as critical as they could.  They want you to succeed, they want to encourage you.  They are likely less willing to tell you your mechanics are long winded, obtuse, or simply crap.  If the rule is awesome to you and your mates/family/fellow developers, but seems pointless or confusing to outsiders...   ....that's not a good sign.

The second "distance" is time.  I tend to be a lazy rules writer, and I usually "update" rules during school holidays - usually 6-8 months apart from the last time I went through the rules.  This is handy as it creates a bit of "distance" from the rules.  I re-read it and go "I wrote that rubbish?! What a terrible idea! Man, that is so clunky! Wow, I really deviated from my original plan last holidays..."

I'm not advocating you work this erratically, but maybe setting aside your rules for a few weeks and coming back with "fresh eyes" may be beneficial.  

Get "distance" from your rules; be it emotional distance by sending it to those with no connection to your rules; or time distance by giving yourself a break and coming back.


  1. Another post with useful truths, which sometimes we don't like to hear about our labours of love.

    Glad my advice has been useful at least once over the years :-)

    We must plan a family reunion one day - I'll be in Syndey for next few years in case you get down this way

    1. By the time my kids are old enough for a Sydney trip, I'll have forgotten how to roll dice, at the rate I'm going...

  2. Hey mate, what's your email address again? Wanted to pop you a copy of Starport Scum and see what you thought :)

    1. do you still use your runequester address? I sent an email there...