This article explores concepts like elegance, simplicity, depth, and target audience in game design, and how I am applying these concepts as I design Legacy’s Allure.
The term “elegant” is thrown around a lot in game design, with many people having their own opinion of what the term means. I have noticed that a lot of people use the term to mean something like, “simple yet deep” or “easy to learn, hard to master”. I think this definition touches on part of the concept, but doesn’t go far enough because it does not consider whether the target player is consistently pleased. Therefore, I wish to offer this definition of elegance to game designers:
An elegant game delivers its core experience to the player as simply as possible.
In other words, elegance is something like Occam’s Razor applied to game design. You have a problem (“Player A wants to experience X”), and you have to devise a solution to that problem. If you come up with two solutions, and the first solution involves twice as many rules as the second solution, while both providing the same experience, then the second solution is objectively superior in terms of elegance. What is also critical to understand is that an elegant game that solves Problem A might be incredibly complex compared to an elegant game that solves Problem B. Elegance relates to the problem being solved, not other games!
This definition involves stepping out of one’s personal preferences. In order to evaluate the elegance of game, its not enough to ask whether you personally enjoyed it, because you might not have desired the core experience the game is trying to deliver. Rather, you must grasp what problem the game is trying to solve, and whether the game solves that problem, regardless of whether you personally care about whether that problem is solved. Failing to grasp this point is like the person who says algebra is useless because they personally don’t use it. This is the egocentric way of reviewing games, but it is how most consumers review games, which is why you should not be concerned with any negative review of your game. You should be concerned with negative reviews from your target audience.
More On Definitions
“Your definition could describe a ‘good’ game, not simply an elegant game.” I think that’s incorrect, because games are NOT judged by their gameplay alone. I consider Warhammer 40k and chess to be good games but not elegant games. Warhammer 40k is terribly imbalanced and has a dated action system, but is salvaged by its excellent miniatures and lore. Warhammer does a fantastic job of delivering its core experience through the atmosphere it creates. Likewise, chess definitely qualifies as “simple yet deep” in some respects, but the jarring regularity of non-conclusions (i.e., draws) prevents it from passing the test of whether it consistently delivers its intended experience to the player, not to mention the complicated rules governing draws.
Since elegance is sometimes described as “simple yet deep” (albeit relative to the target audience), I should also take a moment to define those terms:
- A simple game has fewer rules, a complex game has more rules. This also correlates strongly to teach time.
- A deep game has more unique situations, a shallow game has fewer. This correlates strongly to the number of possible interactions between components or the number of choices a player can make.
This results in four categories:
- Simple and deep. This is what most games not designed for children aspire to. With good enough art and production, these games will succeed and be remembered, so long as their target audience isn’t incredibly niche.
- Simple and shallow. This is what most games designed for children aspire to. Candyland, Tic-Tac-Toe, and War are examples.
- Complex and deep. This describes that niche wargames like Advanced Squad Leader that attempt to simulate a complex scenario regardless of the time cost to the player.
- Complex and shallow. This is what almost no game aspires to, yet is the result of including lots of mechanics or interactions but without enough interesting experiences to justify them.
If you created a dual-axis graph like this, you could probably find a spot for every game you’ve ever played. As mentioned earlier, if you’re honest with yourself, you might find that your favorite games are sometimes inelegant, and that’s OK. You might enjoy a clunky, shallow game that is gorgeous and/or nostalgic. You might despise a streamlined, deep game in a totally different genre than you prefer, and that’s also fine.
How To Create An Elegant Game
As I alluded to earlier, in order to create an elegant game, you must start with a problem. I see countless designers begin their game-design journey not with a problem but with a wish: “I want to be a game designer.” If your goal is about your title or your occupation and not about actual problems, then you will end up like countless other mediocre designers whose finest works become yet more fodder for trade-bins at tabletop gaming conventions.
You say, “I have no problem. The game I wanted to design already exists, but it inspired to me to get into game design because I think creating a game like that would be so cool.”
Then you may want to find something else to do with your time. I promise you — the world does not need more games, and you clearly lack vision, without which you will never have the creativity or drive to add something of value to the gaming industry. But if you do see a problem, a void, a hole in the tabletop gaming landscape, one that eats at you day and night, one that perturbs you every time you sit down to play the games that are supposed to bring you joy, then the foundation for game design may be in place.1
Once you have a problem, you need to translate it into design goals. In 2019, I had the problem that Magic: the Gathering was no longer scratching the itch I had for a competitive card game. “Don’t be Magic: the Gathering” isn’t a specific enough of a problem, so I wrote out these design goals:
- No randomness and perfect information
- Easy to transport, set up, and tear down
- Minimal components
- Play-time of under 60 minutes
- Can be taught in under 10 minutes
- Can be played with a chess clock
- Minimal time between turns
- Asymmetric factions
- Easy to spectate
Then the brainstorming began. I wrote down every idea I could think of in Evernote. I drew a lot of inspiration from chess, Magic: the Gathering, Dota 2, and Heroes of Might and Magic 3. Eventually I had a working prototype which I validated at a local game shop with random strangers. I did a tremendous amount of tweaking in the following months, the most important of which was streamlining. When you start creating a game, you will tend to include more mechanics and other elements that aren’t essential to creating the core experience. Paring these non-essential elements can be hard. In my case, I had a difficult time letting go of certain elements that I thought made the game particularly unique and thematic, but over time my grip loosened. My recommendation is that you use the Konmari Method to gain clarity in this situation.
Learn Your Target Audience
As I developed the game, I sought out playtesters and consultants on Reddit, Discord, and YouTube. Some helped for free and some I paid as consultants. I explained to them my design goals and listened carefully to whether they thought I could reach my target audience. Early on, I realized I didn’t understand my target audience, which meant I wasn’t creating the proper expectation in their mind, which meant a lot of unnecessary negative feedback even though I thought my game was elegant.
Specifically, it took almost a year before I understood that Legacy’s Allure is a wargame, not a board game or a card game, even though it has elements of all three. Once I stopped comparing it to Magic and Dota, the feedback became almost universally positive. I stopped hearing board gamers say, “I can’t see myself playing this,” and instead began hearing them say, “I’m not a wargamer, but I can see how this is a fantastic lightweight wargame.” What changed was not Legacy’s Allure, but how I presented Legacy’s Allure. Setting up proper expectations is how you connect your game with the audience that has the problem you are trying to solve. Since Legacy’s Allure delivered on its core promise to that target audience, I began to hear the word “elegant” more and more frequently.
- With one exception. Feel free to put another derivative, overproduced box of toys (minis, coins, mats, etc.) on Kickstarter and watch the pledges pour in. “Kickstarter games” have basically become the cash grabs of tabletop gaming, and entire companies have formed around outputting these McGames at a regular pace.