Simplicity is King

- Design Discussion #4 -

Previous Design Discussions:

Design Discussion #1 - From Idea to Thematic Design

Design Discussion #2 - Making Prototype Components

Design Discussion #3 - About the Endgame

Hello my wonderful readers! Over the last couple weeks, I've been discussing some of the more major aspects of the early design process for my game, The Labyrinth of Crete. Thus far I've also made it sound rather easy and like I haven't had much difficulties in trying to design this game. But, in reality, the game design process isn't so easy. This week, I'm going to talk about one of the many mechanisms in The Labyrinth of Crete that I've struggled with designing and what I've learned about the game process from my struggles.

Broken Mechanics

A big part of game design is fixing mechanics that aren't working the way you want them to. Revising, editing and changing mechanics is a difficult part of this process. Creativity is key here, and your time will certainly be filled with constant brainstorming sessions and hours of trying out new solutions to the problems you're trying to fix.

With the Labyrinth of Crete, one of the biggest issues that I encountered very early on was figuring out a way to incorporate something that I really wanted to have in the game: Obstacle Cards. I wanted these cards to work somewhat similarly to the Crossroad Cards in Dead of Winter. My idea for the obstacle cards was to have them be drawn anytime you moved into a space with an obstacle symbol on it. These cards would all include their own unique storyline and some thematic options for you to choose to take. These actions would then have either positive or negative repercussions depending on what you had decided to do. You'd typically be able to make it through the obstacle and continue onward in the direction that you were moving, but at some sort of cost to your engine.

But here's the issue that kept arising: The options were often confusing, caused the game to take much longer than I wanted, and while they were meant to benefit players with a more developed engine, they often just seemed very random and more unfair than I had hoped. I wanted the decision to move into an obstacle to be only slightly random and to add in some thematic storyline. In the end though, my many attempts to change how the cards worked just made them more and more confusing, and I found that stopping to read story text felt like an unnesecarry distraction to the actual gameplay. Instead of adding to the experience, obstacle cards were detracting from it, which wasn't what I wanted them to do.

So what did I do to fix the obstacle cards? Lots of things. I changed the mechanics for how encountering obstacles worked more than a dozen times, I tried adding more story text, I tried making the obstacles a more major part of the game then they were initially and so much more... But, no matter what I tried, it always tended to lead to the game having more problems. The more complex I made the mechanics for the obstacles and the more I added to them, the more issues I ran into with how they fit in with the rest of the game's mechanics. Every time I ran into an issue with the obstacles I just added another rule to address that issue, which in turn just lead to more issues.

As you can imagine, this is a vicious cycle to put yourself in, and as a designer I think it's a trap that is very easy to get yourself into without even realizing it. This is especially true when it's a mechanic that you really enjoy or think is clever and you are really desperate to find a way to incorporate it into your design. It's really easy to get tunnel vision with these things. I really wanted to have obstabcle cards with lots of story text on them in my game. I thought the concept was fun and entertaining and something that does a great job at keeping the theme prevalent in games like Dead of Winter. But, I had gotten myself so convinced that I needed to do all that I could to make obstacle cards work that I just kept going through the cycle of adding complexity to fix issues, causing more issues, causing more complexity to be added, etc..

Addition By Subtraction

It wasn't until just the other day that I finally remembered the countless warnings that I had heard from other designer's blogs and interviews about not falling into this complexity trap. Sometimes, a mechanic just doesn't fit with your game. If part of a mechanic is broken, more often than not the easiest way to fix it is by removing the broken parts and simplifying the mechanic down as much as possible. Adding more complexity to something that is inherently broken won't fix the fact that the mechanic just doesn't work. I finally stepped back and realized that the obstacle cards were just adding unnecessary complexity to my game. Instead of trying to add more to them so they work right, I needed to respect that reading long story text and making baseless, thematic decisions just didn't fit in with the rest of my game's gameplay.

So how did I finally make obstacles better? Instead of trying to fix what didn't work, I cut it all out and simplified obstacles back down to what I wanted the result of the core mechanic to be. I wanted obstacles to impede movement. If you wanted to move through an obstacle space, you'd be able to continue onward but you would often pay a price for it. So I got rid of the cards and the story text and making decisions and just made simple, double-sided obstacle tokens. If you move through an obstacle space, you draw a token and potentially pay a price.

The end result (in terms of gameplay) of this newer version of obstacles is essentially the exact same as that of obstacle cards. But, it is much less complicated, much less confusing, and it doesn't detract from the main gameplay as much as obstacle cards did. Now, that doesn't mean that these will be the final version of what obstacles are in my game, but they are definitely a step in the right direction: towards simplicity. As much as I wanted obstacle cards to work, they just weren't the best option for my game. Sometimes things just don't work, and you have to be willing to get rid of those things even if you really wish you could make them work. One of the best ways to add to broken mechanics is by removing them.

Obstacle Card vs. Obstacle Tokens

Keep It Simple, Stupid

Obstacles aren't supposed to be a major focus of my game, so I'm not treating them like they are any more. In game design, keeping your mechanics as simple and concise as you can is just bound to lead to more enjoyable and less confusing gameplay. It's very easy to bog a game down with unnecessary complication. If something isn't working in something you are working on, consider not adding onto it, but removing things from it. After all, the best way forward is almost always the simplest.

Wrap-Up Questions:

With ANY project, have you ever fallen into the trap of over-complicating things?

How do you remind yourself to "Keep It Simple, Stupid"?

Let's discuss in the comments below and on Instagram!