Have you ever played a game that was so simple that you got bored? Have you ever played a game that was so complex that you zoned out? Personally, I find games the most engaging and satisfying when the rules are simple enough to understand but it leaves room for me to strategize and think. I believe there is a proper usage of complexity to increase the engagement of players without adding confusion that is associated with complexity.
I reached out to Zaryn Castillo, one of the designers for Veil of Ruin, to get a better idea of how to add complexity into a game without adding confusion. Zaryn was happy to explain to me the different categories of complexity and how best to implement it. Please read below to learn more about his design philosophies regarding complexity and how he was able to use these ideas to design Veil of Ruin.
Inspired by tabletop classics like Dungeons & Dragons and Magic: The Gathering, Veil of Ruin is a role-playing adventure game combined with tactical deck-building combat that can be played both cooperatively (PVE) and competitively (PVP).
Veil of Ruin is an immersive gaming experience designed to give you hours of unique and ever-changing enjoyment. Thanks to Veil of Ruin’s quick setup and simple, yet intricate combat and adventure systems, you and your friends can go from opening the box to adventuring within minutes. Venture into the dangerous, dying Jungles of Orman, and help our unlikely Heroes as they begin their quest to save humanity from a seeping Corruption, and draw back the veil of ruin.
While playing Veil of Ruin, you and your friends will take on the role of one of six Heroes, each with their own unique playstyle, combat cards, and equipment. To discover the mystery of humanity’s fall, your party will explore the decaying ruins and overgrown roadways of a once-great civilization, interacting with interesting characters and working together to survive the horrors of the Corruption.
What is complexity in games?
Before I (Zaryn) can start explaining the why’s and how’s of implementing complexity in games, I should lay out some definitions. Complexity in games can be broken down into two categories: Rules and Cognitive Load.
The first category is rules that you must memorize to play the game, the knowledge you need before you can start playing. In a word, this determines how hard your game is to learn.
Generally you can figure out the complexity of the rules by writing them down in the most systematic and logical way possible without leaving out key information. The larger and more complex your ruleset is the greater the knowledge required to play your game. My guess is each page of rules takes 5 mins — 45 mins for a player to fully internalize depending on density, convention use, complexity and player competence. Complicated rules can create a barrier to entry but over time through playing the game these rules are reinforced until they are second nature and these concepts can be gradually built upon without causing much of an additional burden.
- Cognitive Load
The second category is the cognitive load of the game or basically the number of variables at work during the game. These are things you need to constantly remember and reference while making decisions. This determines how hard your game is to play.
You can visualize this by writing a list of everything the player should be thinking about when they execute their actions. The bigger the list, the higher the cognitive load. This level of complexity is constant no matter how much you play the game. The higher the cognitive complexity the better chance you have of making players freeze based on decision paralysis. At the same time, however, this is what makes the decision making of gameplay fun and rewarding for committed players.
What is the purpose of complexity?
Games are basically meant to engage players. Complexity can engage and create a story and can also lead players to developing their own strategies and improving their skill level as they play the game more. There is even a collaborative, community building aspect to learning the intricacies of a complex game that you see in many popular, strategically deep games. On the other hand, the more complex the ruleset the harder it is to get people involved because of the investment required to play the game. If the barrier to entry through memorizing rules is too high you will have a harder time recruiting players.
If the cognitive load of a game is too low it might not keep players attention for a long time as it becomes too easy to “solve” and the engagement tends to be lower. If it is too high, the game can become a chore or a grind to play. If you give players too much to consider, they might even turn off their brain entirely and start to make choices semi randomly.
In Veil of Ruin we tried to create a complicated problem where players have to weigh several factors when taking their turns. Looking at your hand, you will have several lines of play depending on whether you want to maximize damage, prepare for a future turn by accruing action points, or minimize damage against yourself by manipulating the stances of your enemies. This puzzle is made even deeper by allowing the players to determine their own turn order each turn, allowing them to combo their attacks together and support one another. This complexity combined with the inherent randomness of a card based game leads to a system where each encounter plays out completely differently, and the results of combat are very heavily influenced by the skills of the players at the table and their ability to cooperate.
What is the complexity budget?
The tricky part comes from “budgeting” this complexity, finding the places where you need complicated rules and in-depth decision making, and the places where it causes unnecessary problems for players.
You want to focus your complexity budget — the extra rules players have to learn and the tough decisions they have to make — into areas that players actually enjoy and are excited by. For example, one of the initial concepts we wanted to include in Veil of Ruin was that running away from enemies would be its own, completely distinct, gameplay mode. It had its own rules, its own separate deck of cards, and every enemy had a different stat sheet for combat as well as for “the running game”. It was a case where we as game designers wanted to make something intricate and strategic and with a lot of depth, but after demoing multiple iterations with multiple playtesters, we found that a simpler solution was better.
As a result of our testing, it appears that not many gamers go into a fantasy RPG setting looking forward to running away from monsters. So, we came to the decision to remove the running system and instead focus on making the exciting parts of the game (combat and adventuring/exploration) more in-depth and have them take up a larger proportion of the overall game time.
How much Complexity should I add in my game?
- Target Demographic
When designing a board game the complexity budget is different based on the target demographic and what style of game you are trying to build. If you want a quick to learn game that you can play with everyone the complexity budget generally needs to be low, the rules need to be simple to learn and the number of things you need to keep track of should be minimal. If you want a hardcore competitive game that rewards the players with the most skill there needs to be a certain level of complexity in order to allow for experienced players to show their mastery.
- Cooperative Vs Competitive
Interestingly, cooperative games present their own challenges with finding the right level of complexity. In a competitive game a lot of the difficulty comes from your opponent, even a relatively simple ruleset can lead to deep mind games and counter-strategies. But when you are designing a cooperative game, the rules themselves and the mechanics of the gameplay are the only tools you have to create this same feeling of being challenged.
- Player Satisfaction
A game can be hard without being complex, simply by tweaking knobs and changing numbers, but that won’t be a very satisfying experience for players as they don’t have a lot of options to overcome this artificial difficulty level. You want to create a ruleset that allows for enough creativity and skill expression that when players win or lose, they feel like they do so on their own merits and based on the decisions they made.
How do we playtest for Complexity?
Proper testing with a wide variety of players plays an integral role in determining if your game has the right complexity level. In the bubble of game design, when you’ve played the game hundreds of times through dozens of iterations, it can be hard to get a hold of just how complicated your game is to learn and to play. You need to bring in fresh eyes constantly.
While asking questions like: “how hard is this game to learn” “how difficult is it to play properly” can give you some data, these concepts are often nebulous and difficult to assign a value to. Instead, paying attention to things like how long it takes to give people a tutorial or what resources people use and find effective as teaching tools is very valuable.
In addition to this, you need to watch your playtesters’ sessions carefully. You need to look for the things they struggle with, the common mistakes they make; how well they perform *without* your input.
After this process, depending on your desired level of complexity, you have various design questions you can ask yourself. Can you simplify the ruleset and mechanics? Is there a specific way to help teach the players through tutorials and UI design? Is there a way to introduce your more in-depth concepts gradually through the course of gameplay?
What can I do with my own game design?
There are a million games out there with different levels of complexity. There is no right way of doing it, but I think it is crucial to understand the target demographic, or in other words, “who is this game for?”.
Understanding this, we can start to set our complexity budget and allocate it in a way where the game can elicit the greatest player satisfaction. This will be hard to determine. So test different iterations of the game by tweaking the complexity in rules and the complexity in cognitive load. Find the complexity that is right for you.
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