Tag Archives: Game Design

BoHM – Prototyping and Playtesting V4…

V4 in action: Pilka Criss in her Destroyer, vs. Vinnie Paul Van Dahl in his Axemaster…

Last Saturday I held a public playtest of version 4.0 of the rules.  This playtest was significant in that it was the first with all eight schools of rock represented by individual decks, and all 32 starting Titans. The complexity of interactions between the many, many cards in the set, at this point, meant that any errors in the core mechanics should be brought into sharp relief during play. And boy-howdy, did they ever!

The player pool turned out to be small, with only two players and myself, but I still gained a lot of valuable information on the current state of the game, and how much work needs to be done to make it ready for sale.

The first and most important change was in my perception of how the mix of conceptual elements (miniature wargaming and card gaming) balanced and affected the mechanical play of the game. On the one hand, you have the detailed mechanics of games like Battletech or WH40k, which means a lot of tactical variety, but also lots of table space and long play times (upwards of 3 hours, depending on point values).

On the other hand, you have the simplicity and portability of card games, which in general, don’t require nearly as material or table space, and rarely last no more than an hour, but have less tactical and strategic agency. My goal with BoHM has always been to create a hybrid that takes the best of both formats and ties it to a strong theme.

After two games, it became abundantly clear that this game, in its current version, leans much more heavily in the direction of wargaming, rather than card gaming, in complexity and playing-time (nearly two and a half hours for the second game, which is way out of line for a card game). Table-space skews slightly in wargaming’s favor, as well. With all the cards laid out, it takes up an area roughly 3’x 2′ per player, roughly half that of the standard miniature game, but double that of the standard card game. This imbalance clearly needed to be redressed. But how?

Feedback from the players identified three main mechanical issues, in this regard:

  1. An imbalance between armor vs. damage
  2. A lack of motivation to maneuver and find cover (especially in a 2-player game).
  3. A lack of significant differentiation between ranged, melee, and hand-to-hand combat. 


The shifting balance between armor and damage has been an issue since the first version of the game. Titans died too easily in versions 1 and 2, and then I overcorrected between versions 3 and 4, so that the playtest games took far too long to resolve. Even after the changes made on the fly after the first game in Saturday’s playtest, the second took almost 3 hours to finish.

It was at this point that I realized why I was having this issue: my wargaming roots were showing, and overly influencing my mechanical design. 

I’ve always been very vocal about how this game is supposed to be an homage to all the things I loved in my ’80s youth. The problem with this is that collectible card games were a post eighties invention, and not as ingrained in my gaming DNA as tabletop wargames. At one point I owned about 85% of Games Workshop’s catalog (and pretty much kickstarted the GW hobby in my neck of the woods), while I sold all my Magic cards a mere two years after it came out and only dabbled with other card games. It wasn’t until games with in-play deck-building mechanics popped up over the last decade (games like Star Realms), that my interest in the possibilities of card-based games was truly piqued.

Having realized this, I went after the wargaming shibboleths that haunted my current version of the game. The first thing to go was the armor roll, a core element of the game since version 1, and based on the traditional armor save used in most tabletop wargames (especially WH40K). I love the mechanic, because its quick and easy to understand, but it doesn’t combine well with the ablative armor system used in games like Battletech (which I also loved). 

In effect, I was doubling down on armor, and it was taking forever and a day to actually cause any damage. I needed to use one, or the other, not both (duh). Ablative allows you to have extended combats between single units, and creates tension without the swinginess of dice pools, so out went the armor roll. I kept cover rolls for terrain, but for the most part…

Speaking of doubling down on armor, the last version boosted external and internal structure totals considerably. This issue was less easy to fix, and it forced me to go back and change some of the underlying formulae and numbers that formed the core of Titan design. 

The main issue was the linearity of structural progression between different sizes of Titan. Reduce the numbers for the larger models, and the lighter ones become glass cannons. But increase them, and destroying a Juggernaut becomes a matter of death by a thousand cuts. So, a new formula was introduced that reduced the discrepancies in structural integrity between various Titan classes (providing more of a negative curve) and relied more on other factors to highlight the differences in power level (like weapon capacity, strength, speed, and literal power levels).

This, of course, meant changing an entire set of interrelated cells in a massive multi-page spreadsheet (and rebuilding several Titans in the process), but even if the balance isn’t perfect this time, it will be much easier to modify using a single set of numbers in future, so it was totally worth it.

A whole lot of functions goin’ on…

All of this naturally inspired a partial solution to problem 2, as Cover now has become much more valuable as the only real way to mitigate damage (along with other special effects, like the cooling ability of water, or the ability to block LOS using a hill or cliff). Two birds with one autocannon round, so to speak.


Solving the differentiation between attack modes was the easiest of the three issues to solve, and also contributed to making the game less static (issue two, again). In the first playtest, once in close range, nobody budged, and it became a slug-fest of ‘I shoot you,’ followed by ‘fine, I chop at you.’ The Tactical Display became an afterthought, the differences between ranged and melee Titans became irrelevant, and the game was reduced to simply chucking dice at one another. This was the one area in which I had a total wargame fail.

Like this, but stretched out over an hour…

My redesign should hopefully create more nuanced version of combat. Only certain weapons are now allowed in Melee and Hand-to-Hand combat (range 1 and melee weapons for Melee, none at all for Rumble), engaging and disengaging requires the use of precious actions (improving the action economy as a side result), and going full Rumble is (as in real life) such a desperate affair that it encourages Titans focused on ranged combat to keep their distance (which means I’ll also be expanding the number of Zones on the Tactical Display to allow more room for maneuver).


Hopefully, all of this will redress the balance between the wargaming and card playing aspects of the game, by reducing play-time while also boosting tactical options and considerations. But only time, and future play-tests, will tell.

It wasn’t all redrafts and rebuilds, however. The general consensus on the difficulty of learning and applying the game rules seems to be that, once the basic rules of the game have been applied for a couple of rounds, the game is rather simple to learn and play. There is a great deal to learn, strategically, due to the variability of the cards used in the Tactical Action Deck, but no more so than any other deck-building game, and, after only a half hour of play, one player was really starting to get the hang of how to apply his deck, and which Titan and Rider would be best suited for it.

The game theme was also fairly well received, and the feeling of giant rock & roll robot combat seemed to come through well in play. One player actually sang the title of one of the cards every time he played it (in this case, ‘Black Betty’ by Ram Jam). 

Sonic Wizardry was also repeatedly employed, and reinforced the musical fantasy element the game needs to really reinforce its theme. Those damned Dogs of Doom (nightmare spectral hounds of titanic proportions), for example, worried my legs constantly throughout the game, and my own music kept costing him actions due to the distraction of spectral images called up by my playing Fear of Ghosts.

The Riders also have enough variation to give them all a unique role in combat, depending on which Titan and Deck you combine them with. There is a lot of variety there, and no two games need to be the same. It was actually a lot of fun playing duelling doks, a game where both combatants were less combat oriented, and relied more on their specialist abilities to grab victory.

In case you’re wondering, it was Corgan by a headshot…

There’s still a lot of work to do before the next playtest, but I’m on the right track, and getting closer…



I am a busy man. I teach tech and game design in Middle School, game aesthetics at a Community College, and make games, but actual game design is more of a side hustle. I love to do it because it is my art, my form of expression, and essentially who I am, but not something I rely upon to support my family. It is much too volatile an industry for such a purpose, and the fact that Richard Garfield, one of the design giants, is still a professor of math, only reinforces that opinion (and he is just one of many game designers who also teach for a living).

So, it should come as no surprise that when it comes to game art, I don’t have time to create 150+ unique illustrations for a card game like BoHM:ToR. I barely get enough time to work on the game itself, so I rely on Adobe Stock and Creative Commons for a lot of my art needs. Occasionally, though, I can’t find an appropriate image, and I either have to commission a piece or do it myself (and the latter is more likely, as I am an artist by nature, and cheap by necessity). The interesting thing, however, is when that art turns back upon and inspires the design. And that is what this post is all about.


For my Aces & Eights card, it was clear that some rando picture of poker just wasn’t going to cut it. It occured to me that the cards used by the people in the 31st century would have evolved a great deal from those used by the folks of the 21st, just as our modern decks evolved from the Tarot style decks used in the 15th (which, contrary to popular belief, were not originally used for occult purposes). In fact, considering the way the civilization of the 31st century is organized, I figure a devolution back into a form of Tarot style Poker deck based on the Rocktagon, might be in order.

An image of custom cards and chips being a rather easy thing to mock up in Illustrator and Photoshop, I sat down one night and knocked out the art piece at the top of this post in a couple of hours, but being a person whose mind tends to worry a concept like a dog with a bone, It didn’t stop there, and I went ahead and figured out the structure for the whole deck, and started thinking about how it would be used.


The playing cards of the 31st century, much like those of the 21st, are primarily used for a variety of games, but they also serve a secondary function: reinforcing the presence of the Rocktogon in every aspect of life in the Metalsphere. As such, every facet of the deck emphasizes the metaphysical underpinnings of that unifying symbol.

                       Three of Punks

The current form of the deck became standardized in 2888 (hence the name), and contains eight suits, each representing one of the Eight Great Schools of Rock:

  • Crucifixes (The Nazarites)
  • Tears (The Grim)
  • Punks (The Punks)
  • Skulls (The Kurgan)
  • Seals (The Sabbathites)
  • Masks (The Kabuki)
  • Potions (The Hermetics)
  • Dragons (The Ygwie)

Each suit contains the following cards:

                     Eight of Dragons

  • The Ace: Treated as a 1 in most cases, but in certain games, Ace’s have special rules.
  • Number Cards (2-8): Their value is based on their number. However, the card that represents the Harmonic Number of the School on which the Suit is based is considered a Trump.
  • The Titan: Base value of 9. It might have extra powers depending on the game played.
  • The Minor Saint: Base value of 10. It might have extra powers depending on the game played.
  • The Patron Saint: Base value of 11. It might have extra powers depending on the game played.
  • The Marauder: There is only one of these cards in the deck. They have no suit and are typically considered wild.


Not counting The Marauder (who exists outside the proper structure of the Rocktagon, anyway), there are 88 cards in the deck, two eights, which further reinforces the perceived mystical connection to the underlying structure of the metalhead’s universe. And in a throwback to ancient Earth superstition and charlantry, some espouse the esoteric energies of the cards and make a living giving divinitory readings (supposedly by ‘communing’ with the Saints of Rock). This practice varies considerably, from being almost ubiquitous amongst Sabbathites, to completely outlawed in Nazarite space, but almost all citizens believe, to one degree or the other, in the power of the cards to foretell the future.

Despite the reverence paid to the symbolism of the cards (and the great pride individual owners take in their personally customized decks), the main use of an ’88 Deck is for gaming purposes, mostly gambling, and there are at least as many 31st century variations on 21st century Poker as there are cards in the deck. Other popular games include Galactic Supremacy (a strategic bluffing game where the cards represent conventional forces, Titan Riders and Military Leaders), Warp (a trick taking game akin to Spades crossed with Baccarat), and Rocktagon Rummy (essentially the same as Rummy, but with more suits).


Tactical [tak-ti-kuh l] (Adjective)

  1. of or relating to a maneuver or plan of action designed as an expedient toward gaining desired end or temporary advantage.

Strategic [struhtee-jik] (Adjective)

  1. pertaining to, characterized by, or of the nature of strategy (1. plan, method, or series of maneuvers or stratagems for obtaining specific goal or result)

Originally, I only had six aesthetic dyads. One of the issues I consistently had, however (as touched upon in my post on Simplicity vs. Complexity), was this: if simplicity and complexity do not speak to a game’s depth, what does? How do you define ‘depth’ as an aesthetic?

The need for a seventh dyad to address this was further inspired by a response from Jose Zagal, a fellow academic, to a post I made in the Role-play Theory Study Group on Facebook. In his response, he shared a paper with me on Gameplay Aesthetics that approached the subject from a lexical examination of common terminology, or as he put it, “by broadly examining how people who play games describe gameplay.”

While our scope, goals and approaches to the subject differ considerably, I did find some similarities between Jose’s work and mine, as well as a few new concepts that provided essential elements for further consideration. In particular, the adjective clusters that defined Cognitive Accessibility and Scope, seemed to speak directly to the concepts I was attempting to define. Further discussions with a local friend of mine, Dr. Adam Brackin, helped me to further refine the concept and, after some noodling, I came up with a set of terms that seem to clearly, and neutrally define my new dyad.


The essential definitions I chose reflect the difference between short-term reaction and long-term planning, which directly affect the perception of ‘depth’ in a game.

In some games, the ability to react to situations on the fly is much more important than making a long term plan. In games at the far end of the Tactical Focus scale, long term plans are essentially meaningless, as the flip of a card, the roll of a die, or the perfidy of an opponent (or ally) can change the game space so thoroughly that you must rethink everything on a regular basis.

Games like this typically are random enough, or the moves powerful enough, to prevent much mitigation through pre-planning (outside of, say, holding a few key cards in your hand until the right moment), and the winner is typically the player who can grasp the immediate situation, and take best advantage of it on a moment to moment basis.

In games that weigh more heavily towards the Strategic Focus end of the scale, the ability to plan ahead, and create contingencies that can mitigate short term losses, is the largest factor in victory. In these types of games, a player can have temporary setbacks, even large ones, but few actions are so powerful as to upset the equilibrium of the game in a single move. It takes a series of moves to really upset a player’s overall strategy, if they have one, of course. If they don’t, they are pretty much doomed to lose, as reactionary play typically allows the opponent to control the flow of the game.


I collected just about every game Games Workshop put out in the 1980’s, and a good deal of the one’s from the early 90’s as well. They ranged quite a bit in quality of design (and Chaos Marauders was a straight up reskin of an existing German game) but one thing they all had in common was a propensity towards really cool themes, weird art, and fun mechanics.

Chaos Marauders was a tongue-in-cheek, Beer & Pretzels style card game that played as chaotically as the title suggested. Players took it in turns to draw cards, one at a time, and placing them into one of three battlelines until they drew a card that ended their turn, or they completed a battleline. When a battleline was complete, it could be used to attack weaker, incomplete lines, by rolling the hilariously monikered Cube of Destruction, a six-sided die with 5 Orcish Eyes and a single Symbol of Chaos. Roll an Eye, and you destroyed the enemy and took their stuff. Roll a Chaos Symbol, and your line broke, and the enemy took your stuff, instead.

First player to complete three battlelines ended the game and points were totted up to determine the final victor.

Although there are a few more mechanical wrinkles (cards with exception based rules, specific procedures for completing battlelines, scoring, etc.), the game is really about taking what you’re given and making the most of it without any real idea of what might turn up next. You do have decisions to make, like how long you want your battleline to be (between short, relatively weak, and quick to complete; or long, strong, and likely to be attacked before you can finish it), or when, where, or even if, you build a war machine, but almost all of them are made in the dark. You just sort of pray to Gork (or Mork) that the right cards come up.

And turnarounds in the game can be very swingy. The best potential scoring line can be kept one card from completion by a steady succession of bad draws, only to be eliminated by an opponent who manages to pull that one card you couldn’t find, giving all your loot to him and forcing you to start (literally) back at square one. But equally, he might roll a Chaos Symbol on the Cube of Destruction and lose everything to you!

All that being said, as with most card based games, card-handling skills come into play as players become familiar with the deck contents, and veteran players can get a feel for the ‘flow’ of the game, making educated guesses about what might pop up based on frequency and what cards are already in play. But still, with 112 cards, play is largely reactionary, making Chaos Marauders a Tactics 3 game.


Wargames run the gamut of ratings, from Tactical to Strategic, typically based upon the scale of the conflict modeled by the mechanics. Something like Bolt Action, with a focus on a small squads of individual soldiers is inherently Tactical in nature, as the units engage in quick exchanges of individual gunfire and brutal hand-to-hand combat, using whatever temporary advantages they can gain from terrain, position and luck to eliminate the enemy. The status of individual soldiers, whether dead, injured, pinned, etc., is of great importance to the player.

In grand-strategic games, like Axis & Allies, however, a single infantry piece attacking into an adjacent country would represent a hundred such games of Bolt Action, all resolved with the roll of a single six-sided die. And there are typically several infantry pieces involved in the average A&A battle. The actions and fate of the individual soldier means little in a battle where thousands of casualties occur with a single roll of the dice.

The Command & Color series, however, has a scale that fluctuates considerably, depending on which battle you are attempting to recreate, from company to division level. What makes it a good balance of Tactical vs. Strategic Focus, however, is the fact that it while it allows for forward planning (Strategic Focus), it also has enough indeterminacy and restrictions on potential action to make sure that those plans occasionally have to be adjusted on the fly (Tactical Focus).

The biggest hindrance to forward planning in the game is the random draw of order cards, which are used to command your troops (move them, fight them, etc.). Any solid strategy revolves around a successive series of pre-planned moves, and this requires playing the the right cards in the right order to command the right troops in the right section of the battlefield. This is actually a fairly accurate portrayal of command and control issues from the period, where trying to coordinate an army through a series of hand-written orders, carried by horseback to the individual commanders, had issues (such as the ‘miscommunication’ that led to the infamous Charge of the Light Brigade).

The ability for a player to hold a number of cards in their hand (the better their in-game general, the more cards they may hold), however, allows the player to plan ahead more effectively by ‘collecting’ cards until a plan can be put into action, while using other cards to feint and probe the enemy positions. The sectional nature of the battlefield along with the inherent restrictions in the order system also forces the player to consider the bigger picture at all times, and to occasionally sacrifice a flank or the center for a gain in another area, if the gains outweigh the losses. This actually encourages strategic play by rewarding the general who waits until the right moment, and the right place, for an all out push, and punishes reactionary players who make piecemeal offensives without the proper resources to follow through or reinforce their units.

On the other hand, the occasional need to counter an enemy push means that the player must also be able to properly read the situation and react accordingly, even if that means upsetting carefully laid plans. For example, it is often worth delaying a major offensive to pull back damaged units and allow them to regroup (or even to pull the enemy in for a counteroffensive). Combine this with the intricate nature of combat (including combined arms combat, forming squares, and the rock/paper/scissors relationship between units), and the game is as tactical as it is strategic.

Finally, the durability of units, mixed with the uncertainty of combat, add both tactical and strategic elements. The ability to survive attacks without loss of offensive capability, and counterattack, means that players are willing to make take more short term risks for long term goals (strategic focus). However, the ability to wipe a unit out with superior force, terrain usage and combined arms (tactical focus) means that sometimes, a player will be forced to react to the loss of important holding units immediately (tactical focus).

So, overall, a balanced game.


It may seem strange that Chess hasn’t already popped up in one of these examples, but while it is a solid 3 in Mechanics, Simplicity, Determinacy, Player Interaction, and Player Skill, it is also the epitome of a game with a Strategic Focus.

Every game of chess can be divided into three distinct phases: the Opening, the first 10-15 moves of the game (and which, due to the beginning game state, has a wide variety of well understood strategies); the Middlegame, when there are still a good number of pieces on the board to threaten the Kings, who have typically castled; and the Endgame, the final phase of the game where the number of pieces has been whittled down considerably to two or three major pieces and some pawns.

Each phase has its own distinct set of strategies, made up of a multitude of small, tactical moves which serve to further the overall push towards a specific game state, but which individually, do not shift the equilibrium of play a great deal, at least not until the late middle, or early endgame. In fact, the individual worth of pieces is so subservient to the overall strategic picture, that it is common Chess practice to ‘sacrifice,’ or intentionally lose a piece, in order to further long term goals. Losing a battle to win a war, in other words, which is the ultimate expression of strategy over tactics (Strategy 3, in game aesthetics terminology).


So how do we determine if a game aesthetic leans one way or the other? And by how much? We’ll look at that in the next installment…


Theme vs. Mechanics

Simplicity vs. Complexity

Determinacy vs. Indeterminacy

Agency vs. Linearity

Interaction vs. Isolation

Player vs. Mechanical Skill

Tactical Focus vs. Strategic Focus


Skill [skil] (Noun)

1. the ability, coming from one’s knowledge, practice, aptitude, etc., to do something well.

3. craft, trade, or job requiring manual dexterity or special training in which person has competence and experience.

In the case of Player Skill vs. Mechanical Skill, we have the same word, skill, but (as is common with the English language) two subtly different meanings.

When speaking of Player Skill, we hew to the first definition, to reflect the personal cognitive or physical capabilities, skills and talents they bring to the game. Ex. A talent for predicting other player’s moves; intuit the value of certain moves; fast reactions, aka Twitch skills, etc.

A game that focuses on Player Skill usually gives more weight to the decisions made during gameplay than the individual strengths and weaknesses of the pieces being used. A good example is Chess. The queen is, nominally, the most powerful piece on the board, but a veteran player could easily defeat a new player every time, even if you took that piece from them. Games like Go and Diplomacy are even more clearly based on Player Skill, as the game pieces all have the same strength and abilities.

First person shooters would be another example, as it is the twitch skills of the individual player that largely determine their overall effectiveness, in-game, regardless of the weapons they carry or the special abilities of their in-game avatar. The reliance on athletic skills in most sports, ESports included, makes them inherently Player Skill oriented.

Player Skill is also evident in games where the pieces have varying mechanical strengths and weaknesses, but the player must earn those pieces through sound strategic, economic and/or diplomatic means. The computer game, Civilization is a perfect example: the difference between a Warrior and a Cavalry unit in Strength and movement capability is significant, but you can’t acquire the latter until you’ve researched Animal Husbandry, found a source of horses, taken the territory, farmed it, and then spent the gold; all player faced decisions.

Mechanical Skill refers to the specific function (definition 3: craft, trade, or specific job) of the playing pieces in the game. In other words, what they do, consistently, for the player. Any player. Regardless of the player’s personal skill. Ex. A King outranks a Queen in Poker; Cavalry trumps Archers in Civilization; Cannons can bombard from adjacent territories in Viktory II; etc.

Games like Magic: the Gathering, are more focused on Mechanical Skill. While the player does use some skill in choosing the right cards to go in their deck, any success after that depends on the cards themselves, and how their specific abilities help the owner and hurt the opponent. Once the deck is in play, the owner is actually limited, by hand size and random card draw (although these can be modified by other card abilities), to a few clear cut choices each turn. A player who can afford a large number of cards, including rarer, more expensive ones, can often dominate opponents with the unique abilities found on those cards, which is why tournaments often ban certain cards or decks, or require the players to create new decks by purchasing starter boxes and booster packs at the event.

But a game need not be that highly complex or variable to be considered a game of Mechanical Skill. Consider the traditional card game: War. The players make no decisions during the game. All they do is flip the top card of their respective decks, and the number on the card, its Mechanical Skill, determines whether it wins or loses.


In TtR, players attempt to connect rail lines between two specific cities, listed on their tickets, using small plastic trains and colored line cards. The trains, themselves have no special abilities, you simply play them on the board when connecting to stops. The line cards tell you what color of line you can place the trains on. You need color cards equal to the number of train spaces, and matching the color of that particular line to claim it.

The majority of the skill in the game is player faced, as one must decide whether to draw more line cards (and which ones to draw), whether to draw a new ticket, or place trains. They must also try to figure out what lines the other players are trying to complete, and determine the best way to block them, while avoiding having your own line blocked. The line cards act as a randomizer, but as everyone has access to the same pile of cards, and they are all pretty much equal in strength (except for the occasional wild card), Mechanical Skill has very little say in the outcome of the game.


Smallworld walks the line between Player and Mechanical Skill. The game revolves around a number of fantasy races that combine with a random power to determine their specific abilities and the number of race counters they possess. While there are some clear mechanical advantages to certain race/power combinations, they are completely random, often set you back victory points to acquire, and most importantly, they are temporary.

After a player chooses a race, they seek to conquer the Smallworld in question. Their reach, however, is limited by the number of counters they have, and eventually, their race will go into decline, losing any special powers, and forcing their owner to find a new race to take their place. A player might start with a particularly powerful combination that is nigh unstoppable, but find the limited counter count forces them to go into decline early, whereas a weaker race might have less punch, but cover a wider territory before leaving the board.


In all these cases, player skill is required to make the most advantage of whatever race/power combo is selected, and tough decisions about whether to attack occupied territories (which requires more counters), when to go into decline, and how much to spend on a useful, but not as readily available race, means that even with a mechanical disadvantage, the experienced player will likely prevail in most games.


The surest sign of Mechanical skill is this: give the best character to the newbie, and the worst character to the veteran player. If the newbie wins every time, you can be pretty sure you’ve got a game based on Mechanical Skill.

Such is the case with the player character avatars in World of Warcraft. A level 20 character so outclasses a level 1, that no amount of player skill is likely to affect the outcome of a conflict between them. And character levels are earned by a slow process of quest grinding and carefully picking raids and instances that are appropriate to the level and abilities of your character.

One need only look at the character screen to see just how important mechanical skill is to the player in WoW. And using those mechanical abilities requires a simple click on the icon, and then on the target, no twitch skills necessary, so that even the most unathletic gamer can compete with a dedicated ESports athlete, if their character levels are comparable.

Of course, the reason behind these design choices is clear: WoW is much more focused on the role-playing and social play aspects of gaming, rather than hyper competitive focus you would find in the typical shooter or RTS game.

Characters are meant to grow and become part of their community, and everyone is welcome to share in the fantasy, regardless of individual player skill. This, again, illustrates, that no particular aesthetic of the scale is inherently bad. It all depends on the design goals of the game, as well as the circumstances and the personal aesthetics of the individual player in question.


We look at the final aesthetic dyad, which focuses on the short and long term planning skills necessary to excel at the game…


Theme vs. Mechanics

Simplicity vs. Complexity

Determinacy vs. Indeterminacy

Agency vs. Linearity

Interaction vs. Isolation

Player vs. Mechanical Skill

Tactical Focus vs. Strategic Focus


Interaction [in-ter-ak-shuh n] (Noun)

  1. reciprocal action, effect, or influence 

Isolation [ahy-suhley-shuh n] (Noun)

  1. the state of being isolated (6. person, thing, or group that is set apart or isolated…)

Read this if you want a first hand account of the Diplomacy experience…

Though fifth in this series, this is, perhaps, the most important question when it comes to game aesthetics: how much do the players interact with each other during the game and how does that interaction affect game-play?  After all, gaming is largely a social activity and it is rare to find solo games that are as satisfying to play as the equivalent N-Player game.

It should be noted that not all games with heavy player interaction are necessarily competitive in nature, and there is a subset of ‘cooperative’ games: games where all the players team up against the game itself. These, by their nature, require a high degree of player interaction as cooperation is paramount to the success of the group as a whole. Arkham Horror, The Lord of the Rings and Shadows Over Camelot (although that particular game includes a traitor mechanic that introduces a small amount of competitive play back in), are all examples of cooperative games.

As with the previously discussed aesthetics, the two ends of the scale represent entirely different styles of play which might be good or bad depending on the tastes of the player, or even the circumstances of the moment. I enjoy games designed around pure player interaction (like Diplomacy, a clear example of an Interaction 3 game), but the constant scheming and intense negotiations, although immensely satisfying, can be tiring. In addition, games with a high player interaction factor allow other players to team up and/or freeze you out due to fear of your gamesmanship, which can make the game a lot less fun to play. As such, my desire to play games at this level of Interaction tends to depend entirely on how much time and energy I have, and who I’m playing with.

Solo games, of course, are excellent for those times when you have no one else to play a game with, and were much more popular in the early days of the hobby, before the internet made instant gaming with others, anywhere, at any time of the day, possible. The downside of the solo game is the procedural generation methods they use to keep the endgame unpredictable because, as we discussed earlier, random chance and human mutability are two very different types of unpredictable.

Of course, computer games are very good at simulating human intelligence, but this requires thousands of lines of code, programmed by a master of the game, to create a decision tree of such complexity that it would be unwieldy to use for a tabletop game. So you’ll find that the most pleasing solo gaming experiences are typically digital, or analog with a digital interface (like X-Com).

Most games fall somewhere along the middle of that scale, with some player interaction, as well as some personal player activity that is isolated from outside interference. In Tiny Epic Galaxies, for example, player activity and the current game state may drive some of your decisions, but what you do with your dice, whether to reroll them and what order to play them in, and how you spend your resources, is entirely up to you, and is cannot be hampered by others.

An important element to consider when judging how strongly a game leans towards the Interaction end of the scale is whether the game allows a player to win without involving other players. The same applies to solo games, but from the opposite perspective: how much power do opponents have to block a player’s path to victory?


Again, we are only going to give examples of the far ends of the scale and the middle, starting with a game at the far end of the Interaction scale: Secret Hitler. This is a game in the style of Werewolf, where one player is secretly the future fuhrer, and the rest are either fascists trying to put Herr Hitler in control, or liberal lawmakers trying to either identify the future dictator and eliminate him, or get a more sane government installed before he can come to power.

There are couple of random elements in the game: the distribution of identity cards appointing players as liberals, fascists and Hitler, before the game; and the random distribution of fascist vs. liberal laws, which serve to sow confusion as to who is a fascist and who is a liberal, during the game. The rest of the game is about trying to figure out who is who, by making accusations, arguments to support those accusations and, eventually, putting bullets in people’s brainpan, all of which is purely based on player interaction.

Now, there is the option to say nothing during the game, and just vote ‘Nien!’ on every proposal put forward, fascist or liberal, but eventually, you will have to pass a law, sometimes not a law you would have liked to pass. Those laws will influence people’s perceptions of you, and these perceptions can be colored by your silence and get you shot as easily as anything you might have said. As the song goes ‘If you choose not to decide You still have made a choice,’ so it’s best to pick a side and get into the fray.

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” ― Edmund Burke.


As mentioned above, and as odd as it sounds, gauging the Interaction level of a game usually boils down to how easy it is to isolate oneself from interaction and still prevail. In games like Diplomacy or Viktory II, there is no possible way to play (much less win) without interacting with at least one other player (Interaction 3). In games like Illuminati, almost every play affects another player, and players can team up on a single opponent and keep them weak the entire game, making victory almost impossible (Interaction 2). These are all high Interaction games.

Civilization (like most Euro-style games), is more balanced. A player can spend the whole game developing culture, technology and/or gold, and never actually interact with the other players directly. But everything they do tends to affect the other players indirectly, typically through the denial of certain unique resources. A player can choose to trade, war or otherwise ignore their opponents as they see fit, and many times, a group of players who love the building aspect more than the competition aspect, will leave each other alone for the whole game, only trading when they need a specific resource.

The ability to pursue victory by a variety of paths helps to minimize conflict, as does the slow acquisition of resources, and high cost of war. But the option to interact is still available, and can strengthen both parties, in the case of trade, or weaken one (or both) in the case of war. It also makes it extremely hard to ‘team up’ against one player effectively until the late game, which rarely benefits all parties concerned, so even if a player chooses (or is forced) to go it alone, they are in with a chance.

As such, Civilization gameplay has a balance between Interaction and Isolation.


Not all Isolation 3 games are single player. Runebound is pretty much a solo game that happens to tangentially involve other people. You go about your turn, encountering spaces and gaining in power, but nothing the other players do can affect your path to glory, outside of scoring important items and experience faster so that they can defeat the big bad first (a process that is painfully random). You live or die by your dice and a few simple decisions.

The other players don’t even get to roll the dice for the monsters you fight, as they would in Talisman (the game that Runebound seems to take its cues from), as they have none: the monsters are completely static and combats are determined by your dice rolls alone. Other players basically sit around and wait for their turn to come along and the only true interaction comes when someone wins and everyone helps clear the game away.


How much of the endgame is determined by your skill, or the power of your pieces? We’ll consider that question in the next installment…


Theme vs. Mechanics

Simplicity vs. Complexity

Determinacy vs. Indeterminacy

Agency vs. Linearity

Interaction vs. Isolation

Player vs. Mechanical Skill

Tactical Focus vs. Strategic Focus


Agency [ey-juhn-see] (Noun)

9: the state of being in action or of exerting power; operation:

Linearity [lin-ee-ar-i-tee] (Noun)

1: the property, quality, or state of being linear (relating to the characteristics of a work of art in which forms and rhythms are defined chiefly in terms of line.)

As I mentioned in the introduction to this series, the only truly defining feature of games that seems to hold up to serious academic scrutiny is that they are interactive, in the sense that you can play them. Not all games are equal in the interactivity department, however, and there is great variation in the range of activity allowed to a player from game to game.

This is not, altogether, a bad thing. By restricting options, a game will often increase focus on those elements that most strongly define it, and improve the gameplay experience. The Firefly boardgame, for example, doesn’t need a detailed combat system, Star Fleet Battles style shp sheets, or role-playing mechanics to handle personal encounters. Too much detail in these areas would just bog down play, lead to other players being bored, and really detract from the main focus of the game: Find a crew. Find a job. Keep flying. The simple systems in place, instead, focus the game towards that goal, while giving the players a taste of what it is like be the Captain of a ship in the Verse.

Problems arise when a game takes this too far, not by necessarily restricting options, but by restricting the effect player decisions have on the actual endgame. Some games take this so far that any player interactivity is reduced to meaningless activity while one awaits an end to the game that they have had absolutely no control over.

Note that this lack of control does not automatically imply indeterminacy, as anyone who has playeda Choose Your Own Adventure book can attest to. Sometimes the lack of data to make informed decisions can lead to seemingly random ends. False choices, where one option is clearly better than the other, can lead the player right where the author-designer (an intentional distinction) wants them to go, regardless of how the player feels about the matter.

So in the case of Game Aesthetics, we would define games with a range of options that allow the player to affect the endgame, as having Agency. Games which restrict that ability to affect the endgame would be described as possessing Linearity.


The definition of Endgame, in this case, is a bit fluid, in that it can encompass a variety of in-game, player-centric goals. In Twilight Imperium, a great deal of fun can be had in creating a sprawling trade empire, and providing options for the player to do that, rather than engage in physical or political conflict, is a form of Agency, even if the player eventually loses (although making it a sub-standard, or ‘False,’ choice reduces the value of that Agency). The player was able to shape their actions to realize their ideal endgame.

And in some cases, the endgame is not the only measure of agency. Role-playing games, for example, don’t really have an endgame, in the traditional sense, as the characters persist and carry on from game to game, but the ability to go anywhere and do anything, within the limits set by the game environment, should rightly be seen as providing the players with a great deal of agency.


The difference between Agency and Linearity should not be construed as a commentary on whether a game is good or bad. In some cases, a game’s design goals go beyond gameplay, especially when a game is created for art (Journey), political commentary (September 12th), or serves a developmental purpose (Candyland). Sometimes it’s not the destination, but the experience, that is important.

And sometimes, folks just want to have a bit of fun without being swamped with Decisions & Data points (which sounds like a really boring RPG about systems analysis). This is why games like Phase 10 are so popular, and why most gamers have at least one quick play, Beer & Pretzels style game sitting in their closet. Sometimes you want to think. Sometimes you want to drink. And that, my friends, is how Beer Pong was born…

Future olympic sport, or preperation for politics: you decide…


When it comes to Agency, you’ll find that role-playing games heavily populate that end of the scale, because their very nature as ‘Theatre of the Mind’ allows the players vast scope to do whatever they can imagine. When confronted with a cave, the payer can enter it, check it for traps, try to find a way around it, have lunch in front of it, whatever they can think of, so long as it doesn’t conflict with the judgement of the referee (“No, you can’t climb the rock-face of the cave, it is too steep and smooth…”).

This extends into the exploration of the world, which, theoretically, has limitless horizons. The referee can throw out adventure hooks left and right, but if the players are curious about a mountain that popped up in the west during their last foray into the wilderness, then they might go there, instead. Combine this sandboxing playstyle with the concept that the characters’ actions have lasting effects on their world, and change it in ways that are persistent and meaningful, and you have the perfect recipe for almost total player agency.

Dungeons & Dragons was, of course, the first published game to fully embrace this play-style, and the original has a DIY nature that ensured that not even the written rules were sacrosanct, and many campaigns were run using house-rules or entirely new rules sets that would eventually evolve into published competitors (Tunnels & Trolls, Runequest). As the first such game, and the one with the loosest structure (so loose that Gygax created AD&D to serve as a Rosetta Stone for tournaments and official play), it stands as the paragon of Agency 3.


I would argue that an RPG cannot be Linear (and I’m sure many would disagree with me). There are games on the market, Descent for example, that adopt RPG tropes and aesthetics, but they lack the extensive Agency of a true RPG and are clearly miniature board-games.

The 4th edition of Dungeons & Dragons is a game that skirts the edge of linearity, however. It’s notthat the players have any less agency than they did with its predecessor; the spirit of role-playing ensures that players with the right attitude and a willing DM can sandbox just as much as their grognard forefathers. But they can also do that with Descent, or any other game for that matter. Role-players gonna role-play, no matter what the rulebook say. That’s how RPGs were born in the first place.

What puts it at the edge of the RPG envelope are the mechanics (remember, we are looking at the game itself, not necessarily the use it is put to). They were heavily focused around two activities: character builds and combat. Both of these (in a bizarre inbreeding of influences) resemble MMOs in many ways, even borrowing terminology from games like World of Warcraft. And great detail was put into making sure those activities were as interesting as possible, with tons of options and mechanical wrinkles, and many more added through expansions as the product life cycle ran its course. The net result was that the rules encouraged these activities above all others, while social interaction and other activities were given short shrift (a common complaint in the early days of 4E).

Due to the mechanical complexities of all the possible power permutations, synergies, creature abilities and environmental rules, character builds, and especially combat, each took a lot of time (sometimes whole sessions) to complete. As such, there was less spontaneity and a tendency for 4E DMs, especially those new to RPGs, to build more linear stories and fill them with set piece battles with limited branching. And because the skill and feat system heavily defined what the characters could and couldn’t do, there was a tendency for players to do less thinking outside the box, stifling their own agency in the process.

In an odd sort of way, with its miniature combat focus and wargaming-like codification of what specific actions the players could attempt, 4th Edition fit the original title of D&D, Rules for Fantastic Medieval Wargames Campaigns Playable with Pencil, Paper and Miniature Figures, much better than the original edition did.


I give a lot of grief to Candyland, but not without good reason. It is, for me, the worst example of game design. It is totally Linear, in that there is not a single decision that you make in the game that affects the end result. In fact, I could just shorten that previous sentence to ‘there is not a single decision you make, period,’ and I would still be accurate.

From the start you draw a card (or spin a spinner in the latest versions, which makes the game even more random). The card tells you where to go. You move your piece there. Continue until someone reaches the end. All the joy of Snakes & Ladders, but with the added fun of being stuck in a molasses swamp for interminable periods of time. The only choice you make is whether to play the game or not (I always choose the latter, and by my reckoning, that means I win without even opening the box).

My personal animus aside, Candyland still sells because, as we discussed above, it has design goals beyond gameplay. In this case, Candyland is a developmental tool for children. It teaches them a few important things:

  1. Color recognition.
  2. How to follow rules.
  3. How to play with others in a friendly fashion, win or lose, i.e. sportsmanship.

Hmm, I’m getting the strong odour of linearity, with a healthy wiff of Indeterminacy. Did some wino pass this before you put it in my glass…?

I would also argue that it teaches real lessons about how life can be arbitrary and unfair, and that you just need to suck it up and keep on truckin’, but I’m probably projecting. Let’s face it, in the case of this game, I’m like a jaded wine snob trying to choke down a bottle of Three Buck Chuck. My tastes have grown well beyond such simple fare, but the tiny rednecks in my house love it, and they are who it was designed for.

Whatever the case, Candyland is clearly an exemplar of the Linearity 3 game.


How much does the game encourage player interaction? We’ll talk about that next…


Theme vs. Mechanics

Simplicity vs. Complexity

Determinacy vs. Indeterminacy

Agency vs. Linearity

Interaction vs. Isolation

Player vs. Mechanical Skill

Tactical Focus vs. Strategic Focus


Determinacy [di-ˈtər-mə-nə-sē] (Noun)

1: the quality or state of being determinate (1: having defined limits).

Indeterminacy [in-di-ˈtər-mə-nə-sē] (Noun)

1: the quality or state of being indeterminate (1b: not known in advance).

Again, I choose my definitions carefully, for there is a specific reason I selected these two words rather than use the much easier, but much more loaded terms, Luck and Skill.

Determinacy, in game aesthetics terms, refers to the ability to determine a game’s outcome through well defined actions with equally well defined results. In Chess, a piece that ends its move within the diagonal attack pattern of a pawn, can be taken by the pawn, regardless of the victim’s rank. There is no chance for the pawn to fail in its assault, even if attacking a mounted knight who, historically, had massive advantage over the hapless peasant.

Likewise, any move made by any piece on the board has a definite result, and can lead to a chain of events with clearly understood parameters and outcomes. There is no random chance in Chess, and the only thing standing between victory and defeat is how many moves the player can think ahead. It is totally Determinate.

Does this mean that every game of Chess is totally predictable? No. The vast combination of board states make it virtually impossible us to predict any game’s end result, outside of saying Bobby Fischer would hand me my butt even on his worst day. But wouldn’t this unpredictability make it indeterminate?

Let’s use OGRE as another example. As with most wargames, there are good, basic strategies that allow the veteran players to whup up on newbies with some frequency. But even the Kasparov of OGRE can lose against a beginner, because with each attack, dice enter into the equation. While the law of averages rewards the experienced over time, the outliers can also screw them over mercilessly at any particular moment.

Take infantry vs. an OGRE. By all accounts, they are dead meat, and they’ll be lucky to take a single weapon or some treads with them before they are reduced to a whiff of hydrogen, ozone and carbon monoxide. But it is entirely possible that, in the right circumstances, with bad dice rolls on the OGRE’s part, and great dice rolls on theirs, they could kill the thing. Highly (highly) unlikely, but possible.

The difference between Chess and OGRE? A loss in Chess is caused by missing an important, but predictable move, like placing your knight in the path of a pawn. A loss in OGRE, however, can come down to a really bad day with the dice, no matter how well you think ahead. This is what we mean by Determinacy and Indeterminacy: the amount by which random chance affects the end result of the game.


Before we go any further let’s just go ahead and address the 200 pound hairless gorilla in the room: those pesky, unpredictable humans. Even in Chess, the unpredictability of human opponents can often throw a monkey-wrench into the best laid plans, and most well-thought out strategies. This is why it is so much more interesting to play another person instead of a computer. Get eight humans around a table playing a game like Twilight Imperium, and the potential for chaos grows exponentially.

So doesn’t this mean that all games that involve 2 or more people are essentially Indeterminate?

I say no, and for a few reasons:

  1. N-Player games which lack true random elements tend to place an emphasis on equilibrium and restricted choice that creates predictable results, even when taking into account human behavior (ex. The Prisoner’s Dilemma, Chess, Tic-Tac-Toe).
  2. Not all N-Player games are competitive (although, as a rule, cooperative games tend to have at least one random element).
  3. Most importantly, this theory of Game Aesthetics is focused on the nature of the game mechanics, not that of the participants, be they human, computer or other.


Because they’re loaded terms, with positive and negative connotations. To say that Chess is about skill, and OGRE is about luck is to sell OGRE short, as in the minds of many, that places it in the same category as Fluxx, or even Candyland. It is also inaccurate. OGRE does involve skill and, as mentioned, on average, the skilled player will trounce the unskilled player. But in the end that is not a certainty, i.e. the result is Indeterminate, because the Combat Results Table allows for at least a 16% possibility to destroy anything on one end, and a 16% chance for minimal effect on the target on the other, no matter what the attack to defense ratio. So let’s just call it that, instead.

Likewise, Tic-Tac-Toe is all skill. There is no randomness. But few (if anyone) would claim it to be a superior game to OGRE, in any way, shape or fashion. Better to say that it is Determinant.


Again, I’m using games at the far ends and middle of the scale as examples, and the best example of a Determinacy 3 game that I can think of is a personal favorite of mine: Diplomacy.

In Diplomacy, all pieces, whether army or fleet, are equal in strength, and there is no random element to give one advantage over the other, i.e. you don’t roll dice to see who wins in a struggle, as is typical with the standard wargame. If two forces meet, they push, unless one force has superior support from armies or fleets adjacent to the contested territory. And the way you gain that support is superior planning and, as the name suggests, diplomacy: making alliances with other players (and then, later, taking advantage of them).

Everything about the game is Determinant. You negotiate with other players, give orders to your units, and moves are resolved based upon a well defined set of interaction rules. No random chance enters the equation at any point in the game (unless you count randomly determining who plays which world power during set-up). You can even blunt the inherent unpredictability of human interaction (which, again, is not actually a factor in considering the Aesthetic qualities of a game) by shoring up your defenses and realizing that, to win, one must not only ally but betray, as well, and that this goes both ways. What comes around, goes around, especially if you’re clearly in the lead.

It is this Determinacy that made Diplomacy (like Chess) popular across the world, as a play-by-mail game in the 60’s and 70’s, and as an online game today.


As a rule, most wargames fall somewhere around the middle of our scale, dipping into Determinacy 1 in some cases (like Free Kriegsspeil or Wings of Glory), and Indeterminacy 1 in others (like Viktory II or Federation Commander), and a similar number in between, with an equilibrium between determinant and indeterminant elements. This is largely due to the heavy influence non-random mechanics (like maneuver, position and combined arms tactics) exert over the results of random elements (like attack and morale rolls) in these sorts of games.

Twilight Imperium is the wargamer’s wargame. It has everything one would expect from a game of intergalactic power struggles, including trade, politics, empire building and, of course, combat. One of the ways Twilight Imperium manges to create equilibrium between determinant and indeterminant elements, is by giving the players many different paths towards victory, including several that do not involve combat (the most indeterminant element in the game).

Like Diplomacy, a players ability to wheel and deal drives a large portion of the game. Unlike Diplomacy, there is no guarantee that an unlucky battle, untimely political agenda card, or even the placement of random tiles at the beginning of the game, won’t scupper your plans. However, unless one is near the endgame, these little setbacks will rarely cost you the game outright, as a host of other decisions and mechanical systems tend to keep their overall knock-on effects in check (unless the player plays over-aggressively or stupidly).

Twilight Imperium is a good example of a game with enough ‘moving parts’ that it can, at times, seem very chaotic and random. But as with Star Fleet Battles, familiarity breeds competency (mostly), which means that the veteran player is much less vulnerable to the vagaries of chance. The balance of systems ensures, however, that even a first time player has a nice sized ‘buffer’ that will keep them in the game long enough to learn their way around, and possibly even win.


“Hey, Blaise, buddy! How about you help me part more fools from their money?” Antoine Gombaud. Probably.

One of the oldest forms of gaming and gambling involves chucking dice. As a matter of fact, Blaise Pascal laid the foundations of Probability Theory while trying to figure out a problem involving dice  for his friend Antoine Gombaud, AKA the Chevalier de Mere. Gombaud was an inveterate gambler looking to invent a new dice game that would give him an advantage that wouldn’t be readily obvious to his opponents (i.e. screw them over with math).

These days, we have Craps. Now, there are folks that say there is some skill involved in Craps, and in the spirit of our friends Pascal and Gombaud, those with a steady grasp of the game’s statistics can win more often than they lose. As with OGRE, the dice don’t always cooperate, but unlike OGRE, there is nothing one can do to really shift the odds in their favor. You can’t add or subtract dice, modify the numbers, throw the dice a certain way, nothing. You just throw the dice and hope they land the right way.

Your only real options are to keep rolling or pass the dice, and determine where to place your bet, and the results of those decisions are entirely dependent on chance. So Craps is the perfect example of an Indeterminate game.


Next we will discuss how much room a player has to affect the endgame, as we investigate Agency vs. Linearity.


Theme vs. Mechanics

Simplicity vs. Complexity

Determinacy vs. Indeterminacy

Agency vs. Linearity

Interaction vs. Isolation

Player vs. Mechanical Skill

Tactical Focus vs. Strategic Focus


Simplicity [sim-plis-i-tee] (Noun)

  1. freedom from complexity, intricacy, or division into parts:an organism of great simplicity.

Complexity [kuh m-plek-si-tee] (Noun)

  1. the state or quality of being complexintricacy

While I plan to start each of the articles in this series with a definition that specifies the particular meaning I am hanging my philosophical hat on, it almost seems pointless in the case of Simplicity and Complexity. I mean, doesn’t anyone with even a smattering of English know what these two words mean?

In the case of games, I’d be inclined to answer that with a question: Is Chess simple?

Now, anyone who plays the game, and has spent years studying openings, endgames and everything in between, would likely answer with a resounding “Heck, no!” “Chess,” they would say “is a game so deep, and with so many possible permutations, that it can take a lifetime to master. It is incredibly complex!”

To this person I would say, “you are confusing Complexity with Depth.” Chess, in itself, is a relatively simple game, by the specific definition given above. It is relatively free from complexity, and its division of parts, mechanically and physically, is relatively small. To learn how to play Chess (not consistently win, just begin playing), you need to learn the movement and attack characteristics of just 6 pieces: King, Queen, Bishop, Knight, Rook, and Pawn.

Yes there are 32 pieces on the board, and 64 squares, and 10120 possible game states, but the actual game mechanics are dead simple. Go is even more simple (and has an even higher number of game states: 10761 according to some calculations, due to the higher number of individual pieces and larger board).

And that is what we are talking about here. How simple or complex are the mechanical systems by which we play the game. When it comes to game mechanics, simplicity is no guarantee of puerility, anymore than complexity is a sign of depth, as Go and The Campaign for North Africa (with its infamous Pasta Points) clearly demonstrate.

The Campaign for North Africa. “An unreasonable game, for unreasonable people.” Richard Berg, Designer.

Additionally, simplicity and complexity do not carry any inherent ‘good’ or ‘bad’ connotations, from a purely aesthetic perspective. Some people enjoy a quick, fun game of Phase 10, or the chaotic simplicity of a game like Fluxx, while others really dig the fiddly mechanics found in Twilight Imperium or Star Fleet Battles. It’s all subjective, but a subjectivity we can measure.


Fluxx is a card game that starts with a simple premise: Draw 1, Play 1. It has a few simple card types: New Rules, Actions, Goals, and Keepers. New rules can change the way the game plays, replacing Draw 1 with Draw 5, for example, but all you need to know to play can be found on a single, small piece of paper.

Specialty versions of Fluxx, like Pirate or Doctor Who, add a few additional card types or rules, but the difficulty of the series mostly remains firmly in the realm of Simplicity 3. While it has fewer distinct mechanical divisions than Chess, the occasional text/rule conflict (a somewhat common issue in exception based games with some degree of randomness) does mean that it might take a few plays to work out rules based misunderstandings.


Ever since Christopher Weichkmann decided to give Chess a major upgrade in 1640 (to make it more ‘realistic’), wargames have tended to lean towards the Complexity side of rules design. There are exceptions (see One Page Bulge), but most of them favor simulation over simplicity.

OGRE, a game about sentient, cybernetic super-tanks fighting entire armor battalions in a post-apocalyptic future, however, manages to find itself somewhere in the center. The basic rules for the game are relatively simple, with a core move-attack-result sequence that works with the three basic unit characteristics to provide a light wargaming experience.

Like Chess, added complexity comes from exception based rules for specific units. GEVs, for example, can move twice, while infantry are reduced in steps, rather than disabled, and the OGRE,  a giant AI tank, has to be whittled away gun by gun, track by track, until it is unable to complete its mission.

The variety of units and special rules grows considerably past the base game, introducing air units, laser towers, specialised infantry, etc., and absorbing these extra mechanical nuances is where the majority of the complexity comes from. A new player would be have a difficult time learning all the rules at once (and the basic scenarios seek to help them absorb a little at a time), but after they get a half dozen games or so under their belt, they could be completely up to speed on even oddball mechanical exceptions.


There have been many jokes about the complexity of Star Fleet Battles over the last 40 years, especially in its current 400 page rulebook version.

“It’s like an engineer and a lawyer got together to design a game.”

“In SFB, the right of way doesn’t go to the biggest guns, but the biggest rules-lawyer with the biggest grasp of the rules loopholes.”

“If I wanted to spend my entire weekend playing out a battle between two ships, I’d join the Naval Reserve.”

Etc. Etc. Ad Nauseum. And, then of course there are the jokes about the players, the grognards who obsess over rules minutia, looking to find some advantage against their opponents in the next game. As a player of both SFB and it’s little brother, Federation Commander, I’ve heard them all. However, there is a great deal of truth behind the jests. The players are even proud of how much time, knowledge and effort it takes to master the game. “It’s the closest you’ll get to actually being a starship captain!” they exclaim as they break out of their Sabre Dance to set themselves up for a Mizia (a small example of the specialist jargon to that goes along with specific rules concepts).

The Complexity rating of 3 comes from a variety of things. Each individual starship is incredibly detailed, with numerous rules sub-systems to handle everything from movement, weapons and shields, down to life support maintenance, and rigging shuttles for a wide variety of tactical uses. Add to that, the fact that each race has a plethora of special systems and rules just for their individual ships, and several dozen ship types, and you can see why this game pushes the limits of complexity. 

Even the basic duel scenario, designed to teach beginners with two simple ships and the most basic concepts, requires that the players learn mechanics enough to actually play other games in their entirety.

This is the ‘Cadet’ ship. For beginners…

There’s a reason they call SFB a ‘Lifestyle Game.’ You don’t just play pick-up games. You study the rulebook between games, and set aside whole days for playing it, or entire weekends where tournaments are concerned. And you don’t win tournaments if you don’t know the rules, all 400 pages of them, intimately.


How much of a factor does skill play in a game? Or luck? Will explore that next, as we talk about Determinacy vs. Indeterminacy


Theme vs. Mechanics

Simplicity vs. Complexity

Determinacy vs. Indeterminacy

Agency vs. Linearity

Interaction vs. Isolation

Player vs. Mechanical Skill

Tactical Focus vs. Strategic Focus


Theme [theem] (Noun)

  1. a unifying or dominant idea, motif, etc., as in a work of art.

Mechanics [muhkan-iks] (Noun)

  1. the technical aspect or working part; mechanism; structure.

I chose these definitions carefully, to delineate the difference between the overarching aesthetic experience versus the underlying game engine that makes gameplay possible. Normally, theme and mechanics work together to provide a complete gameplay experience, especially where licensed properties, like Firefly or Doctor Who, are concerned. But this is not strictly the case in every instance.

There are, for example, games in which the accurate depiction of the theme is the main source of interest for the player, and the mechanics are really only there as a means to reinforce the theme rather than provide ludic interest. The purest form of this (Theme 4, if you will) would be a game of ‘pretend’ like the childhood games of Cops & Robbers or Doctor’s & Daleks, where there are no mechanical underpinnings to the games at all, and play proceeds based upon whatever the group agrees will reinforce the illusion of being a masked bandit, or genocidal cyborg with a plunger and egg whisk for arms.

Too. Darned. Cute…

On the other hand, there are games in which the interesting interplay of game mechanics, and the skill at handling those mechanics determines the ‘fun’ level of the game. In some cases, the mechanics define the gameplay experience so thoroughly that any theme laid over them is only so much window dressing. The pure form of this (again, off the end of our scale at Mechanics 4), would be building a car. Unless the mechanics function in perfect alignment, car no go! And the joy of driving is entirely predicated on the mechanical quality of the car and the driver interaction with it.

A Chevy Nova. It literally “No Go…”

Let’s look at a few examples, one that exemplifies Theme over Mechanics, one at the opposite end of that scale, and one that represents a good balance between the two.


Back in the very early nineties, two years after the original series had bowed out, Ian Marsh and Virgin Publishing released a Doctor Who role-playing game: Time Lord – Create Your Own Adventures in Time and Space.

This was the second such attempt at an RPG based upon the series, and it couldn’t have been more different from its predecessor in design. Whereas the first RPG was simply a restatement of the generic set of RPG rules used in FASA’s previous game, Star Trek, with a Doctor Who make-over, Time Lord was built from the ground up to mechanically reflect the realities of the Doctor Who television series.

Almost every rule reinforced the theme, with little care as to how things worked outside of television reality. Genre Tropes of the series were given mechanical life, like the Screaming special ability, which allowed a companion to cry out for help (and be heard) across any distance, through miles of tunnels and labyrinths, or even across the gulfs of space (someone luckily left a communicator open, or something), so that the Doctor could come to their aid. It could even be used as a weapon, in some cases (as it was in the episode Fury from the Deep). Silly? Possibly, but very in character for the television series.

Another good example existed within the combat system. As long as a character is moving or behind cover, it is exceedingly hard to hit them with gunfire. Even when they are one area away! Again, silly? Not if you take into account the fact that, due to the restrictive size of the studio spaces the production team had to work with, almost all the firefights on the show took place within scant yards of each other, but few people got hit (unless a group of enemies concentrated their fire on a single target, like an extra or tragic supporting character, which is also covered in the rules).

Add extensive rules for scientific research (including an in-game time segment known as the Research Turn), cutting through doors and walls (a common way to create tension in the series), and creating MacGuffins (pseudoscientific devices or solutions that resolve the story), and you can see that Time Lord is an excellent example of a game that can easily be rated Theme 3.


Like a lot of folks, Firefly really pressed all the right aesthetic buttons for me, and I was a might irritated when it was cancelled due to corporate shenanigans at Fox. So when Gale Force 9 released a licensed board game, I was right in line to get a copy.

The issue with licensed properties, from my perspective, is trying to strike that balance between theme and mechanics. I want the game to reflect the goings on in that particular fictional universe, but at the same time, I don’t want Candyland with Browncoats and images from the show instead of gingerbread men and candy themed aesthetics (“Damn! I’m stuck in the Reaver Swamps of Miranda again!”)

The Firefly Board Game, however, manages to hit both sides of the equation pretty equally. The objectives and overall aesthetics do a great job of capturing the theme of the series (“Get a ship, get a crew, keep flying”), but also presents a variety of interesting mechanical twists that keep the game interesting and challenging from a ludic perspective.

One of the key ways I think you can judge the balance of a game like this is to consider how well the mechanics function with a stylistically similar theme. For example, the Firefly mechanics could also, with very few tweaks, be suitable for a game of 18th century piracy on the high seas, or maybe even a mob family type game. They are too linked to the thematic essence of small time transport/smuggling missions and operations to be useful for, say, a global conquest or economics game (not without a great deal of modification, at any rate), but within that limited thematic scheme, you could reskin the game fairly easily.


Monopoly is the board game boogeyman for many folks, and for certain ludologists, it is the perfect example of how not to design a game. I tend to find this opinion over-exaggerated, especially since very few people have ever actually played the game according to its actual rules, relying instead on the oral tradition passed down for generations: the erroneous Free Parking rule alone can be said to account for much of its reputation as an extremely long and frustrating game. And yet, even with that reputation, it is still one of the best selling and most well known board games in the world, having spawned hundreds, if not thousands of variations.

But, just how different, mechanically speaking, are those variations?

For the most part, that answer is: not at all. No matter what version of Monopoly you are playing, whether it’s Star Wars Monopoly, Harry Potter-opoly, or Dallas Cowboys-opoly, you still roll two dice, move your pawn in a clockwise direction around a board separated into exactly the same number of squares, buy, rent or sell property, or draw cards. It doesn’t matter whether the game’s currency is in dollars, Galleons, or Imperial Galactic Credits, you still get 200 of them when you pass “Go,” and the most expensive property on the board, whether it be Hogwarts, the Death Star, or Dallas Cowboy Stadium (which, funnily enough, many of us here in Texas also call the Death Star), is still to the right of that space.

So as you can see, the theme of the game is pretty much inconsequential to the gameplay, itself. There might be minor mechanical variations to an individual version of the game (like Doctor Who’s 60 minute speed play variation), but it is extremely rare for those to make enough of a difference to change the basic play of the game, which is recognizably Monopoly, and is of little mechanical use for anything else. Aesthetically speaking, you don’t ‘feel’ like a wizard/jedi/Dallas Cowboy when playing, and nothing about the buying and selling of property to try and bankrupt your opponents fits particularly well with any of the above, thematically speaking. This makes Monopoly an iconic example of Mechanics 3.


If you have any comments or suggestions on the material covered here, feel free to sound off in the comments section. I’m always open to new points of view on what is, after all, a very complex subject. I’ve already had one commentator on Facebook provide me with some insight that actually changed my perspective on the subject of the next post: Simplicity vs. Complexity, which is actually a much more complex and deep subject than you might imagine…


Theme vs. Mechanics

Simplicity vs. Complexity

Determinacy vs. Indeterminacy

Agency vs. Linearity

Interaction vs. Isolation

Player vs. Mechanical Skill

Tactical Focus vs. Strategic Focus


I’m currently typing up the next installment in my Game Aesthetics series, and I’m about half-way done with it, but in the meantime, I’ve also been working on the next revision of my Donjons & Dragoons project, and I thought I’d post up the completed character sheet for v2.

This sheet takes a lot of cues from the B/X version of Dungeons & Dragons, rather than the original set, and the graphics are a bit more advanced than anything the TSR produced in its initial offerings, but I justify it for the following reasons:

  1. Maxwell Luther, our fictitious professor and alternate time line father of RPGs, would have access to resources that Gygax and company did not, including a professor’s salary, a university printing press, and students and faculty from a variety of disciplines (especially art) to help out here and there.
  2. Luther (who is roughly based on me) would not settle for something that looked ‘rough’ or ‘amateur.’ In this case in particular, the game started out as a possible academic research project, and it would not do for the final product to look ad-hoc.
  3. I’m a multimedia designer, as well as a teacher, and this is not a strictly academic project (I plan to sell it when all is said and done), so it makes me happy to create art and layout that mimics the old school without being entirely bound by it.

Front Side…

As for the individual design elements, I stuck with Regency style iconography and frames. Some might question the use of a royal lion head, instead of a Fleur De Lis, for Élan, but I decided that each nation needed its own particular symbol, and that heraldic device is particular to the British, who are the focus of the initial game.

Back Side…

The backpack on the back side is my quick illustration of the infamous Trotter pack that burdened British infantry until the late 1800’s. And the ammo pouch, Brown Bess musket, and sword are all from that period, as well.

A quick glance at the front will immediately tell the veteran gamer that this game is very different from OD&D. In fact, the title font is where the similarities end. The current design takes an entirely different tack from the one Gygax would have taken, being based on an entirely different set of wargaming rules (basically Maxwell Luther’s version of Chainmail, which I will include in the basic set), and background influences.