Design Tip: Simple versus Clean

What’s the difference between a simple game and a clean game?  A simple game has reduced decisions and strategy and a clean game can be any game that is streamlined where everything fits and makes sense and has no extraneous rules or pieces.

This concept took Sen and I awhile to understand actually.  We could easily recognize when one of our games was messy and convoluted, but would often think that the solution would be that we should make it simpler.  In the end we would end up with a very basic – but still messy game!

Let’s look at the difference of each by using some examples from one of our games in progress: Akrotiri.

In Akrotiri, part of the game has players moving their boats from island to island picking up resources and then shipping them back to Akrotiri to sell them.  Seems easy enough, but we were continually challenged with how to determine the prices of how much Akrotiri would buy these resources from players.

The Simple way to do it would be to set a fixed price and say that every resource is sold for 1 gold.  That’s just too simple and offers no strategy and cannot be affected by a player’s choice at all.

Our initial idea was to use a stock market to track each resource’s value.  Every time a resource is added to the board then the stock market goes up by one.  If a resource is sold to Akrotiri then the market goes down by one for that resource.  Seems like it makes sense, but it wasn’t clean.  Why not?  Because players would often forget to change the market when either adding a resource or selling to Akrotiri.  It was messy and caused players to say things like, “oh I sold that resource last turn but forgot to lower the price – so it should be 2 steps lower.”  Not a good gaming experience.

We toyed around with some other ideas before coming back to this stock market idea.  This time we placed all the resources on the market itself.  If a resource is added to the board then it is taken directly from the stock market.  When it is sold back to Akrotiri then it is placed back on the stock market tracker and the player gets the amount that it is placed onto.  Now that’s a lot cleaner.  Now players can’t forget to affect the market.

So when designing your games try to be objective and determine if it’s simple or clean, and unless you’re making a game for children, lean towards clean!

-Jay Cormier

First off, thanks to Sean of the G.A.C. (Game Artisans of Canada – a group of designers that Jay and I belong to) for his assistance with coming up with the current stock market mechanism. Secondly, there’s nothing more rewarding than coming up with creative solutions to a problem that doesn’t increase the analysis paralysis or downtime – and that’s the difference, for me anyway, between a simple game and a clean game. Though, personally, I prefer referring to them as “simplistic” vs. “elegant”. Semantics, I know. To me, “elegant” means also linking multiple mechanics in the same game to affect the outcome as a whole.

To me, a simplistic game can be made by reducing the rules and components until you’re left with the most basic elements of the game. There is very little interaction on the board or between players. Think of a classic “roll and move” game like ‘Snakes & Ladders’ – you roll, you move, the board tells you if there’s a penalty or a bonus based on the square you land on. Two players never interact. First one to the end wins.

An elegant game, to the contrary, may have some very simple mechanics (and, in fact, works better if it is made up of primarily simple mechanics) but the complexity is built into how those mechanics interact. How the board, the pieces, and the players interact with each other all form a meld of complexity. The art, here, is making it as seamless as possible – hence elegant. It should, at the best of times, come off smoothly without much down time or referring to charts or manuals. It should be minimal in execution, but maximal in effect. Think of something as simple as the event die in ‘Settlers of Catan’ 2-player card game – roll a die and something happens. The elegant part of this was that both players were affected by this die roll on either player’s turn, but not necessarily in the same way, depending on the buildings they had, the resources they stockpiled, their contingency of warriors, etc. It was a simple roll with simple rules to effect each result (compare who has the most red points in knights – that player gets a benefit) and both players took part in the event phase, even on the other player’s turn which keeps things interesting. And the result of the roll can be more or less beneficial depending on how well a player planned in his or her previous turn. Almost zero downtime for a ton more effect in the game. Definitely a worthwhile trade-off if you were to do a cost/benefit analysis.

Both the ‘Snakes and Ladders’ and ‘Settlers of Catan Card Game’ example use a single die as the mechanism. The difference is in the ramifications of the die roll. One is simplistic, the other is far more elegant.

-Sen-Foong Lim