Nordic Weasel Games

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Upgrade your design: Cutting the chaff

I have occasionally shared various tips on game design here and I figured going forward they will have a specific title: Upgrade your design. That sounds very practical right? 

I think a common flaw of game design is including too much stuff. I don't mean content (though there is such a thing as too sprawling a book) I mean the little stuff: Modifiers, special cases, sub-cases, exceptions and so forth. 

Now this is not always a bad thing: Sometimes you do want to capture a special case to avoid silly situations. After all we expect a tank to act differently than a foot soldier and a particular rule may require a carve out to ensure that is the case. Other times you just want the game to be a bit more detail oriented overall.

Small details can be a trap however because they carry two risks:

The first is the obvious question of weight in handling the game. Players will quickly memorize 3-5 typical modifier situations or sub-cases that are logical but a list of 20 gets difficult unless you scan the list each time. And if players realize they forgot one, they will be hesitant going forward because now they feel like they may have screwed up multiple times. 

When evaluating weight it is useful to look at the overall impact on the grand scale of things. A sub-case that adds a +/- 1 on a D20 roll is probably not worth considering. Odds are you could go through an entire game without ever having a roll where that modifier makes a difference to a single roll, let alone the aggregate outcome. 

Take a look at your game mechanic and evaluate how many individual pieces do I need to keep in my head as a player? For a typical ranged attack I probably need to know the shooter, the weapon and if you are in cover. Do I need to check the range precisely or is it okay if I can eye ball that I'm definitely within range? How many conditions apply to the hit roll? Does the number of shots I get vary? Does it matter if I moved? Are there influences that carry over from previous turns or other actions?

As you can see each of these is individually very small and usually binary questions (did the target evade last turn yes/no?) but they can add up pretty fast.

There is not a golden formula for this, but try to take the shooting mechanic in your game and count out how many "things" influence the attack roll. If any of them require remembering something that is not immediately clear from the position of the miniatures (such as whether a figure moved or what actions the target unit took last) count it as 1 extra thing. If any of them require decisions on the players end (such as aiming at particular parts of a target) count it as 1 extra thing.

How many did you end up with? 10? 20? 30+? 

Now take a long, hard look at the those cases, decisions and sub-cases and ask which of these are integral to the mechanic and which are not. 

For example the skill rating of the shooter is integral because that might be our basic hit modifier or target number. A penalty for moving and firing is not integral as the mechanic works without it. 

For any items that are not integral, start asking yourself if they are worth keeping especially if they rarely apply or if they often cancel out another modifier. They may be but interrogate each in turn to make sure they are. A lot of small hit modifiers or "happens on a natural roll of x" conditions have a high chance of being something you can ditch without ever affecting the flow of the game, particularly with a big die type. 

Once you have identified a couple of targets for deletion, try playing through a couple of quick firefights without them. Did you even notice their absence? Did the lack of it affect the tactics that seemed useful? That will inform your choice. 

An added danger is that by applying a rule for something you may end up overemphasizing it. Let us say you are writing an ultra realistic fire fight skirmish game and you set up a rule that guns jam on a natural D20 roll of a 1. Guns jam in real life so it is realistic right?

Well, maybe. Statistics are hard to come by but some time ago I read that some model of modern military rifle had a failure rate of around 1-2% in typical conditions with limited maintenance. Lets just assume this is accurate. 

By assigning the malfunction rate to a 1 in 20 chance, we have raised the chances to 5% meaning that our shooter in the game is many times more likely to jam their weapon than the actual rate should be. 

This is a simple example and compound probabilities get hairy but I hope it goes to show what I mean: By assigning a mechanic you emphasize the chance of a particular action or event occurring even if it is statistically not very likely. For most games not having a jam mechanic at all is probably closer to the statistical reality than assigning a 5% chance per attack.

What do you think? What have you cut from your game? What do you wish you had cut in hindsight? What did you cut that you realized you actually needed to keep?