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Published on July 7, 2022. Last Updated on January 15, 2024.

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So you’ve been working on a game for awhile. It’s changed themes, mechanics, and rules more times than you can count…

OR…

You’re working on a game, and it’s a ‘kitchen sink’ sort of game. You’ve thrown everything you can think of into the game…
By the time you get to the end of the post, we’ll talk about the following:
  • Asking what kind of game you want to make
  • The questions to ask about your decisions
  • The component count
  • Reducing the number of POINTs
  • Strategic horizon and cognitive load
  • My prescription to cure what ails you
You’re in the right place the feedback you’re getting from playtesting sounds like this:
  • It’s just too complex
  • I didn’t know what I was doing
  • The teach took too long
  • There’s a lot of mechanics
  • It feels like parts of the game are competing with each other for attention

Or you’re getting vibes like this:

  • Player’s eyes glazed over during the teach
  • Players kept asking questions over and over
  • Players kept referring to reference cards or the rules constantly

If you’ve used or heard of the terms ‘cognitive load’ or ‘complexity budget’, this is where those come into play.

One big question to ask

What kind of game do you want to make?
There’s no wrong answer here. Sometimes you set out to create a gateway game, or a game that’ll use a certain theme or mechanic. Sometimes a publisher will ask for changes that will make the game have a certain retail price, or so it’ll fit in a certain size box. Maybe you want to make a game that tells an epic tale over centuries (think ‘Thousand Year Old Vampire‘) or maybe your game just wants to tell the story of getting from A to B (think ‘Snakes and Ladders’).
Ideally, you can write this out in a sentence or two. Anyone that’s played Carcassonne knows it’s a game about building the classic French city. Ticket to Ride? A game about building train routes. In my game Downward Facing Panda, I want players to pretend they’re pandas doing yoga. In my game Underwater Basket Weaving, I want players to have to use hand signals to negotiate and work together – or not.
Components, the decision space, and cognitive load all go into creating the feeling of complexity, so let’s break this down.

Components – or, ‘Your game has how many dice?’

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Big games generally have more components because there’s more moving parts…. but whatever size game you’re making, it’s time for an audit.
Lay everything out. I mean EVERYTHING. Empty the box / bag. Sort everything into the groups that make sense.
Justify each group’s existence. When was it added, and why? How does it incorporate into the rest of the game?
Sometimes you can cut the group completely. Sometimes it’s better to count out just how many of those things you’ve actually used in a game. What’s the most that have ever been used in a game?
There’s also something to be said about developing the game so it avoids the more expensive / customized sorts of components, but that’s a subject for another post. Just start by asking what each piece brings to the table, if you’ll pardon the pun, and go from there. The longer you’ve been working on a game, the more likely some cruft has set in.

The decision space

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‘OK, so on your turn, you have 5 action points, and these are the 18 things you can do…’
Oy. Vey.
I’m exaggerating, of course, but to make a point.

Three questions to ask your decisions

#1: is it an interesting decision? (Do I have two or more viable options, or is one decision the obvious choice?)
#2: is it a necessary decision (Do I have to decide this, or can something automatically happen instead?)
#3: is it a lasting decision? (Does this choice have an impact on the rest of the game, the next couple of rounds, or barely any impact at all?)

What’s the POINT?

Let’s make up an acronym here. I’ll call it a Piece Of Information I Need to Think about, or POINT for short.
As you begin to take your turn, where and what are you looking before making your strategic decisions?
A super-simple game, like Cards Against Humanity, has a very small number of POINTs:
  • The black card played by another player
  • Your understanding of what this player thinks about when judging (do they like wordplay? Double entendres? Crude jokes?)
  • Your hand of white cards

It’s a really simple game, so I wouldn’t expect there to be a ton of POINTs.

For a gateway game like Ticket to Ride, you have a few POINTs:

  • Your Ticket cards
  • The Train cards in your hand or the draft row
  • The current board state

Reference cards can help with point values, what the different icons mean, or other basic info to keep the player’s memory less cluttered.

For your game, think about where you need to look before taking your turn:

  • Your hand of cards, your tableau, or the space between you and your neighbors
  • The middle of the table – the board, common piles of cards, the number of resources in a given place
  • The supplies for various resources
  • Other player’s tableaus
There may be more.
‘But I don’t need to look at them all the time!’ Of course not – you’re the designer of the game. These sorts of decisions come intuitively to you. It’s not so intuitive to everyone else. Observe where the eyes of a player go, or ask what they’re thinking about as they play. Bonus points if they’re talking openly or are able to give great feedback.
Decision spaces that have an order of operations can multiply the number of POINTs exponentially. It’s not just about ‘what you want to do’, but now ‘when you should do it’ comes into play. This means considering a lot of different paths before choosing what you’ll actually do.

One easy way to calculate POINTs

As you’re trying to calculate POINTs, think about how many different places you want to look during your decision-making process. One great way to do this:
  • Start with some post-it notes or some pieces not used in the game (make sure these are distinct to avoid confusion with the game’s components!).
  • Completely set up the game, as though you were going to start playing it.
  • Turn all face-up information face-down – all cards in your hand, a drafting row / river, etc.
  • Cover the board with a big piece of paper or cardboard.
Alright, so everything should be hidden to you. You know the goals of the game, what you’re trying to collect or where you’re trying to go. What do you need to see in order to make a strategic move? Flip over all the cards you want to see, putting a post-it note or piece on each and every thing you want to look at. This is likely to be one number during the first part of the game – once you’ve written that down, set up the game in a late-game state, then repeat.
This is probably a lot. You probably weren’t as aware of how many different things you’re looking at… but hopefully now you’re aware of how many different things you’re asking players to look at and understand. There’s no right or wrong number here, by the way.

What’s the strategic horizon?

Think of the strategic horizon as how far the player can look ahead to future turns, predict your opponent’s response, or otherwise plan out what might happen next. A player might think ‘if I do A, then B might happen… if I do C, then D or E might happen…’. I’ve also called this a ‘waterfall’ in some playtests, but the gist is the same: you’re trying to make a strategic move this turn based on what you think might happen in future turns.
Each level adds a exponential growth of cognitive load to the mix. They’re not bad, but they create so many more paths that needs considering. Imagine an elite-level chess player, thinking 4 or 5 (or 10) moves ahead – it’s a masterful skill to have, but it’s not something 99.99% of your players will have.
One way to reduce the number of levels is to reduce how far a player can see into the future. For some games, this might be adding some sort of luck, or keeping some information hidden until the start of your turn. The strategic horizon, or how far into the future you can see / plan, is one of those things that can be tweaked according to your design interests and goals.

Let’s talk about cognitive load

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Lots of stuff adds to cognitive load, or the amount of information that a player’s working memory can hold at a given time.
  • Iconography – tons of icons need to have their meaning stored away (a good reference card can help offload some of those details)
  • The UI / UX – good user interfaces help the player to ‘chunk’ data in useful ways.
  • Intuitiveness – if something feels counter-intuitive, that has to be filed away in some way.
  • Admin – how many things have to change positions between turns / rounds?
  • Lots of text – Text has to read, parsed / understood, and stored into memory.
  • Math – there’s a reason board games generally have you adding or subtracting one- or two-digit numbers.
It’s one thing to call your game a ‘brain-burner’, but is that what you want your game to be?

My prescription is to begin cutting mercilessly

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The doctor is in.
The overall goal with ‘cutting mercilessly’ is not to change the experience of the game, but to clarify it. What’s the fun part of the game? What contributes to the overall experience that makes players want to play again? What’s getting in the way of that?
Step 1: Check your ego at the door. This isn’t about you. It’s about the experiences your game creates. Kill your darlings.
Step 2: Look at the scope of the game, and remember games have six dimensions in play: Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How. The goal isn’t to remove them completely (who wants to play a game with no ‘why’?) but to reduce the impact of them. How many ‘when’s’ / time periods are there? How many ‘who’s’ have to be tracked? Start asking ‘what if’ sorts of questions – ‘what if the game ended as soon as someone built their first house’ or ‘what if I reduced the number of cards in the deck?’
Step 3: Put your engineer hat on. Pretend you have an interested publisher, but the game has to be a maximum of 1 hour long. It’s external motivation, but it often works at solving the problem.
Step 4: Create speed. Double the resources you get. Halve the costs of them. If playtesters have said something like ‘we don’t feel like we’re doing a lot / enough on our turns’, this might be the first thing I change. You might object: ‘well that’ll break… [this thing] and [that thing]. Fine. Let it break. Playtest it out. See what happens. Sometimes we can scare away our biggest changes because we can’t see what they look like in our heads, and therefore we dismiss them.
Step 5: When in doubt, cut, then playtest. See if anyone notices something’s been removed. You can always put the thing you cut back in. Anything that gets cut from one game can always be used in another game. Nothing’s permanent here.

But I can’t remove THAT…!

This is the part where I’d encourage you to come back to your goalposts. What are they? Did you set out to make a game that takes an hour to play? Which of these is more important? You’ve probably heard the classic line of ‘kill your darlings’, but it’s time to choose.
Look at how many choices you’re giving a player. If you were giving them a choice between five cards, try three. If they have seven cards in their hand, try five. Which resources could be combined? Can some elements of the game not be used at the start, but be incorporated into the mid-game / late game instead? Imagine a resource that isn’t introduced until players have collect a certain number of a starting resource, or one that doesn’t come into play until the initial deck is exhausted.
Next time you playtest, ideally one where you can observe and assist instead of play, try to observe where players are spending most of their time. Ask them to talk out loud about what they’re thinking or where they’re looking. Ask them about that during feedback time, or ask how they would describe their decision-making process.

Over to you

How have you made your games simpler to play without losing what makes your game fun? Comments are open.

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