Sunday 18 July 2021

Game Design #81: "Overhead" or "The Cost of Entry" (Lessons from Videogames)

 This may go over some ground I have before with regards to accessibility of games; or excessive special rules, but this was inspired by attempting to play the PC game X4: Foundations.

Th X4 series has you flying a spacefighter around as pirate/bounty hunter/trader/miner/smuggler (nothing new here) but then expands to allow you to build your own ships, and space stations. And set up automated trading routes. And manipulate the galactic stock market. And create your own faction. And lead vast space fleets of battleships. And conquer the galaxy. Wow. The scope is incredible. But so is the "learning curve wall." 

I had to watch Youtube to finish the tutorial. I counted 120+ keybinds. I really want to play this game, but they make it so inaccessible...    I call this "overhead" or "cost of entry" and it applies several ways. As a game designer it is a pertinent question - what will stop people playing your game?

#1. Financial Cost ($$$)

We all know miniatures are like plastic crack. Since I have been using IsThereAnyDeal for finding PC game bargains (I can get a legitimate AAA title for $10 or less) miniatures seem insanely overpriced. I found some Dropzone mechs at 50% off and was excited until I realised I was still paying $8 for basically a 28mm mini...  

Overpriced PDFs - Why?

Now is a good time to insert a rant about the pricing of pdf rules on Wargamesvault and elsewhere. What the heck is it with $20+ pdfs? It's a f--ing copy of a pdf! It costs nothing to reproduce! It's not a physical book they need to publish. Are indie devs expecting to get rich and retire?  This is a niche hobby, people. It's even crazier when you see - "hardback copy $30, pdf $20"

It's worse when you consider 90% of pdf rules are: (a) un-playtested, poorly laid out house rules or (b) the same poorly-tested house rules, with repackaged with new special rules for a different setting (which the mechanics are probably wildly unsuited for). Bonus points if the game is a reskinned Stargrunt/Full Thrust/40K/Savage Worlds.

I bet if I got $1 for every time a Wargamesvault ruleset was actually edited and playtested, I still wouldn't even be able to afford a $5 ruleset. 

Brb, I'm off to upload Delta Vector, Vectorheim, Vectfinity, Jet Vector, and Vectormunda. 

Custom Dice & Decks

I'd also like to vent about custom dice. These custom shit cubes mean I need to pay an extra $20+ to play, and if I lose dice, that's another extra $20 and a 2-week wait rather than 50c from the corner store. Worse, if the game becomes OOP, the game becomes truly "dead" to me. If you can't do it with normal dice, then you're a poor designer. Whilst I am partial to d10s, requiring a huge range of polyhederals (d4, d8, d10, d12, d20) can also put some folk off - though this is not such a big deal, as may regular shops now sell D&D paraphernalia. While this is usually reserved for commercial companies; I'd also like to shout-out unit cards - you know, like those obsolete-every-year Warmachine ones that set you back $15 each time?


TL:DR - how much is the financial outlay for your game? If you need $150 of special minis and $50 of rules - that's a fair outlay. Or a table full of special 10mm scale terrain. And God forbid you need custom dice. Yes, Gaslands, I'm still resentful.

#2. Setup Cost (Time)

What is the time/effort cost to play your game? If a game is very demanding on terrain, or requires lots of miniatures, it might be asking for a weekend of painting and a weekend of terrain building minimum before a dice even gets rolled. For time-poor dads, that is a huge commitment. I can't remember the last time I got free consecutive weekends. By the time I can play the game, I've probably lost enthusiasm...

When games casually say "you need lots of line-of-sight blocking terrain" but the setting is for a sunny anime suburban utopia - the designer has just put a major barrier in the way of Joe Average with his 40K pieces, assorted WW2 terrain and HO railway forests.  Sure I could probably play with spraypainted tissue boxes, but the game had better be pretty amazing (and the author just wasted all his "fluff" because it doesn't match my reality.)

I remember spending ages as a kid photocopying Star Fleet Battles and Battletech pdfs (which has scarred me for life with regards to hitpoints and recording).

Wargames compare very badly to boardgames and videogames in terms of setup; I can set up Risk in 10min and load Dawn of War II in seconds. When free time is precious, it your setting and game so amazing players will spend days rather than minutes for a payoff? Personally, this is the biggest killer for me with regards to new wargames.

TL:DR - What is the time requirement - to paint minis, set up unique terrain, create unit cards etc? Are we talking minutes, hours or days?

#3. Mental Cost (Learning Curve)

PC games use very established, familiar controls (mechanics). WASD to move, mouse to look, mouse buttons to shoot/zoom, R to reload, Space to jump. That's a control scheme shared by 99% of shooters. I can pick up most games and play instantly. I don't have to learn - I just enjoy the new setting/tactics/gameplay.  Wargames designers seem to delight in their creativity in making players learn new ways to do the same thing (sounds like upper management in my job.) Don't be that person.

Simple Resolution Mechanics (Keep the Dice Simple, Stupid)

There's a reason most popular commercial wargames are 40K clones. Even most indie games are clones of other, popular indie games. Or copies of their own ruleset.  It's understandable. McDonald's isn't popular for it's amazing burgers - it's because it is predictable. Sequels are where the money is in movies. The audience knows what it likes, and it wants more of the same. Even if the audience are idiots (the complaint of critics everywhere.)

The mechanics of  wargame - shooting, hand-2-hand, movement, morale - should be simple, familiar, fast, and consistent. The calculations happen 'under the hood' in a PC game and a wargame should attempt to emulate this. When playing, I should be thinking about the mechanics as little as possible. If you have some 'cool, innovative' card resolution mechanic - does the whole game depend on it? Can it be done in a more simple, boring, familiar (easy) way?

Once you understand the dice are merely a random generator for the real big-picture concerns like overall "lethality", move-shoot ratios, you'll realize switching dice types, mechanics and methods should be no biggie. Dice mechanics need to be easy rather than innovative.

Minimum Special Rules "Extra rules"

Special rules are exceptions to rules. An exception is something new, you have to learn - that contradicts commonly-held knowledge. Special rules are actually extra rules that add to the learning curve.

I've explored this topic before - but here's an example - Infinity - with it's 3 special rules for stealth; 6 special rules for advanced deployment (deepstriking) has lots of rules that are variations of the same thing. It has hundreds of special rules, some of which interact with other special rules.  A lot you need to learn. Infinity is a good game, but lumps a huge rules burden on the player. The X4 of wargames, perhaps. In contrast, Savage Worlds uses a single special rule - say "blast attack" - and lumps several rules under the one heading. I.e. "ice blast"  "fire blast" and "energy blast" are actually just lumped together and share a similar rule as they have a similar effect. It attempts to lessen the player's burden by having them know less rules. Having few, shared special rules means no surprises or rules-lawyering - the player with the ice wizard knows and shares the common blast rule the fire wizard player uses.

Complexity isn't Depth

In a game, depth is the amount and layers and importance of player decisions/actions ("decision points"). Depth does not mean complex rules to memorize. Complex rules do increase the barrier to entry (and potential audience) but do not automatically assure deep meaningful gameplay

Chess has a lot of depth, but its rules are relatively simple (low skill floor) and there is a high skill ceiling. A good player has many opportunities to outplay weaker players within a simple set of game mechanics.  Rocket League (the PC game) is basically remote control cars playing 3v3 soccer. The controls are basic, but skill ceiling again, is phenomenal. 

That said, there are games like Warmachine that glory in their special rules and the memorization thereof - so I guess it depends on your focus.

TL:DR How many unique mechanisms or special rules do players need to learn? How complex is the mechanisms? Or is it simple and familiar?

#4. SUMMARY: "Overhead" is the financial, mental and time cost of entry to play

I intend to use this term "overhead" in my rules reviews as it is something other reviewers often gloss over. You have to kinda figure it out for yourself, but before I buy, I'd like to explicitly know:

- roughly how much will it cost (minis, rules, custom dice/decks, accessories)

- any special terrain/setup/dice/unit cards/printouts

- any unfamiliar or complex mechanics or rules that take time to learn/execute

Compared to boardgames or videogames, the overhead for wargaming is astonishingly high. What should game designers be doing to reduce this burdeon on players?


  1. I hate special dice. If a game uses special dice I will almost always refuse to play it. I don't care how great it is, if the designer decided I couldn't handle one or two lookups to correlate die rolls with effects I don't care to play the game.

  2. Someone who can't design a game without them is a bad designer; someone who can design a game without them... ....but includes them anyway is an a-hole.

  3. I guess the lesson is that if you want quick, instant satisfaction, you should probably stick to board & video games and not bother with miniature games. If otoh you're up for a longer term project you can really invest yourself in, miniature gaming might be the way to go. And you don't have to pick one game, you could pick a genre, so your terrain & miniatures can be used with different rules systems within that genre.

    Regarding the mental cost, I disagree with the idea that wargaming rules simple, familiar etc. It's the kind of logic that leads to an endless stream of basic WH40K clones. Boring! It's fun to explore different approaches. And intricate complexity can be a form of "slow wargaming", where you take your time to learn and explore a game and that could give greater satisfaction than playing with a super simple game you know by heart after one read through and can apply blindly after 2 games. That's ok for mindless beer & pretzels fun, but as a hobby it seems a bit thin. I agree that complexity isn't depth, and that depth is more important, but sometimes a bit of complexity is part of the fun.

    (btw I also hate special dice, and card decks)

  4. "...the lesson is that if you want quick, instant satisfaction, you should probably stick to board & video games and not bother with miniature games...."

    The point I wanted to make - since wargaming IS a huge time investment, it behooves a game designer to look at (and be aware of) the "barriers" they create for their player - both of time,cost, and mental effort.

    A game can avoid complicated, convoluted mechanisms and still be deep, enjoyable and hard to master. Simple and familiar does not equate to mindless been and pretzels. And innovation should serve a purpose. I'm against 40K clones but have no objection to using familiar 40K conventions in new ways to make your game more accessible.

    Making a new system that has the exact same effect as the old should be reserved for annoying upper management in a business.

    I do agree some people do enjoy lots of rules. Warmachine, for example, is all about memorizing OP combos etc. But its base mechanisms (while a bit unwieldy) are not complex - the 2D6 vs STAT is not revolutionary nor mentally taxing.

    1. I understand the difference between depth & complexity, and that they don't have to go together. Chess for example is simple and deep at the same time. But what I want to say is that complexity in itself can also be enjoyable sometimes. Adding extra rolls for hit location and descriptive wound details doesn't do anything for the depth of your skirmish game, but a lot of people are willing to put up with 2 extra dice rolls & tables for the pleasure of getting a detailed descriptive system-generated outcome. Obviously your mileage will vary, as they say.

      Your article very much gave me the feeling of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. In a game that requires a lot of terrain, that terrain is part of the fun, as is assembling & painting it. Yes it can take a long time, one weekend might not be enough to pull it off, but to consider this a "barrier" that game designers should make an effort to reduce... from a purely commercial perspective I understand of course, as that is all about shifting lots of boxes fast & moving on to the next product. As a hobbyist, that isn't my perspective and it's not something I would applaud in a designer.

      Same for the use of familiar conventions. If your game is entirely built around easily accessible mechanisms everyone by now knows, then what's the point of creating it? There are already plenty of such games about. One more won't make a difference and don't you dare charge me $10 on Wargamesvault :-p

    2. Aren't we talking about personal preferences though, rather than disagreeing about accessibility?

      Because I don't think you're saying high or unique terrain requirements, excessive rules and complex/unusual resolution/300 page rulebook, special cards/decks, and expensive of miniatures make it EASIER to try/play a set of rules or will attract more players.

      Rather that you personally quite enjoy new mechanics, building terrain and like a bit of crunch - it's not offputting to you at all.

      I'm not speaking for you - or even for my own preferences. (I enjoy testing new, weird mechanics). Or what makes the best game. (Certainly not Flames-of-40K or Bolthammer - although they certainly appeal to a wider audience than much better games by folk like TFL)

    3. Oh I'm certainly not saying they make it easier! What I'm getting at is that making games easier and more accessible in the sense you describe, the whole removing barriers thing, risks removing much of the fun. Maybe that is personal preference, but isn't the desire for ease of use then not also purely personal preference?

      I'm not sure it would even help that much in attracting new players, at least not in the longer run. Or that attracting lots of players is an important design goal. A commercial imperative, sure, but I thought we're talking game design here, not marketing or building & running a business, which is something entirely different.

      I read your latest review, and I actually like mentioning elements of what you call "overhead". It's good to know what stuff you need & how much of it, what size the playing area needs to be minimally etc. But the term "overhead" sounds overly negative, as if the best game would be one with near zero requirements.

    4. Absolutely, removing potential barriers risks removing fun. I personally don't like 40K clones but I certainly see how ""40K but with a few modifications" can attract players in to WW2 who haven't previously played historicals.

      I'm not talking commercially (Warlord Games or GW are unlikely to peruse this blog!). Though "overhead" does sound rather commercial! but some game designers might harbour dreams of others playing their games, and I think it's worth considering what might hold back others from committing to their game.

  5. I have discovered that many designers are not trying to create a game, they are trying to create a product. A game has a beginning, middle, and end that can be completed in an evening. They are stand-alone events. Most of the Osprey Wargaming Series fall into the game, as there is nothing beyond the original book and the game pieces themselves (that Osprey doesn't even sell).

    A Product requires a lifetime commitment to provide money, i.e. a "lifestyle game". Products are focused on monetizing themselves with custom dice, templates, minis, card upgrades, tokens, continuous upgrades, etc. See Star Wars: Legion as a perfect example.

    Most commercial (and therefore many Indie designers following the "market") are focused on creating a Product. That is where the money is.