Ridere, ludere, hoc est vivere.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Gameplay vs. simulation

A favorite debate among my friends and me is the question of realism vs. playability.  Last spring I touched on this topic briefly in a post following a game of Rail Baron in which I reflected on changes in game design practices since the 1970s.  My friend Paul R. is a strong advocate for realism in strategy games.  He approaches a game as a model of real-world decision-making.  If you look at the Avalon Hill marketing from its heyday, much of the appeal came from the concept of putting yourself in the place of Napoleon, Lee, or Eisenhower to see whether you would be able to match or exceed the achievements of the great leaders of the past.

Paul R. and I have played several games of Stonewall Jackson's Way, and more than any other game I've played, I think this game best accomplishes what AH set out to do.  Generals - I mean, players - must balance urgency of the battlefield against the fatigue of the troops.  Coordinated attacks are not as easy when your corps commanders are lacking in quality leadership.  And the more I think about SJW, the more clearly I understand what makes it a realistic game.  The unpredictable elements of the game correspond to the unpredictable elements of battle.  The conditions that are under a general's control in battle are under the player's control in the game.  So the bottom line in SJW, and perhaps the defining characteristic of a realistic game, is that a player can make decisions in the game based on how he would make decisions in battle.  "I'd better not march in column along this road so close to the enemy."  To the extent that this correlation works, the game models real-world decision-making and can even be considered a simulation of the battlefield decision-space.

The problem I have seen in efforts to simulate real-world problems in games is that the methods often sacrifice playability.  In my Rail Baron post, I mentioned that frequent table-lookups interrupted the game flow.  I mentioned how Tobruk was notorious for requiring continual dice-rolls and table references every time a tank fired a round.  Whereas the effects of armor-piercing rounds on various tank types were arguably well modeled in that game, the tactical flow completely broke down as tank-by-tank, turn-by-turn fire and movement bore no resemblance to an actual World War II tank skirmish in Libya.  The realism trees got in the way of the simulation forest, so to speak.

Age of Renaissance:  commodities cards
Paul R.'s principle objection to unrealistic games, though, is that their design makes little attempt to simulate real-world mechanics but instead imposes artificial behavior for the sake of constructing a game system.  The commodities cards in Age of Renaissance are played at the discretion of the people holding them, so that a player can have cornered the market in wine, for example, but it will never pay off if an opponent controls the timing of the play of the wine card.  To Paul, people buy wine every year, so it ought to pay every turn; and if I have a monopoly on wine production, they ought to pay through the nose (so to speak).  Rather, the designers of AoR introduced this "market timing" mechanism to force a different kind of market confrontation to the game, an element (in my mind) that adds a new tension to the gameplay but which frustrates Paul's sense of real-world market mechanics.

Paul R.'s specific issue with Eurogames is that they don't necessarily gain playability when they sacrifice realism.  Here is an excerpt from an email response to my post last October on approachability:

For any new rule introduced, the designer should ensure the new rule adds either realism, or playability, and be aware of the impact on the other. 
As I see it, the objective is to simulate the processes (mechanics) of the real world, as well as historical or at least realistic boundary conditions, to the extent possible without making the game unplayable. There is a balance, which will vary from game to game, as it should. Players can then seek the balance between playability and realism that best suits them, on that occasion. 
However, ... I find with some recent games -- more often with the Eurogames focusing on optimization of unrealistic mechanics dealing with construction or economics -- the designers introduce mechanics (rules) which add neither realism nor playability, but seem to subtract from both. As a result, the game is difficult to learn, and not realistic. The game ends up being a struggle between players to be the first to understand the artificial mechanics, to "solve the puzzle."  In follow-up games, victory goes to the first to optimize the unrealistic mechanics. The better examples of these games allow multiple ways "to solve the optimization puzzle." 
Why would the designer add artificial mechanics which don't increase the playability? I think it's based on a different perception of what a "game" is supposed to be. Some players see it as a puzzle to solve. Others, including myself as a wargamer -- see a game as a simulation of the mechanics of the real world.
Image courtesy of
Rio Grande Games
I think I see where he is coming from here.  In a game like Race for the Galaxy, there's a set of strategies that work well for winning the game.  Those strategies, however, do not necessarily emerge to the newcomer as obvious logical steps.  They bear no relevance to the theme of the game - space colonization - nor are they a straightforward logical deduction from the mechanics of the game - hand management and simultaneous role selection.  Rather, the strategies depend on familiarity with the deck and the inter-relationships among the cards.  I think Paul R. feels that he ought to be able to learn the rules of a game and then apply a certain degree of logic to fare well in playing it, without having to "know the tricks" of what cards to keep, which cards to play when, and what to look for to come up in the deck.    

I don't necessarily object to games as puzzles, but I certainly see Paul R.'s point.  Moreover, familiarity with the deck can certainly skew the "historical simulation" of a game.  In History of the World, if you know the Romans are coming, you might play the Macedonians differently from what you would do if you really were Alexander the Great with no foreknowledge of the Roman empire.   

For my part, I like a good game.  SJW is a good game, and part of what makes it good is the degree to which it seems to simulate the real-world battlefield decisions that faced generals like J.E.B. Stuart and John Pope.  At the same time, Agricola is a good game because its mechanics require planning and forethought as well as taking one's opponents into account - even if it doesn't model in any realistic sense the challenges of farming at the dawn of the Renaissance.  In an email interchange among my gaming friends, I concluded that "a game is enjoyable if it's a shared mental challenge where you can look back and see which decisions led to your result."  Whether that comes in the form of a real-world modeled decision-space or an abstract game with a pasted-on theme doesn't affect my enjoyment of the game.  


  1. Thanks for the quote. I stand by that good summary.
    I'll add:
    In addition, a person experienced at that particular skill -- or to a lesser extent well read in that field -- should be able to use real-world tactics and processes and find them successful in the game.

    For example, a game about ancient Rome at either the tactical or strategic level should have mechanics such that, if Marius were to rise from the grave, he ought to be deadly competitive on the game on his first try (although it might take a while to understand the rules), and not have to learn that the real key to success is now to make sure he can exchange his Blue meeples for the Stonemason card in the Trade phase when it precedes the Shipping phase because another player played the Timber card in combination with a Red meeple during the Storage phase which reordered the phases in the subsequent turn. Marius is not likely to rise from the grave, and no one alive today has led a legion against the Gauls, but a person well read on the subject should be able to apply historical tactics and strategies to some level of success.

    As another example, a game about modern agriculture should have mechanics such that a 20th century career farmer ought to be highly competitive on the first try (although it might take a while to understand the rules), because he knows from decades of experience which tools to buy in which order, when to build a barn, when to rotate crops, when to sow seeds, when to cull cows, etc. He should not be prohibited from building a barn that turn just because some other farmer already built a barn and only one player can build a barn per turn.

    We can easily make the same example with a tank commander from WWII.

    I always appreciate that the more realistic a game is, the more complex and thus less playable it is, and there's a trade-off. Fair enough. But what's the point of adding a rule that both decreases realism and increases complexity?
    To the point, SJW is a great game!

  2. Thanks, Paul. I'm glad that I correctly captured your philosophy on this topic. You've always articulated it well.

    Your example about building a barn reminds me of a driving design principle for Ben Rosset's "Brew Crafters" (which goes on Kickstarter later this month). Ben is very fond of Agricola but was, like you, frustrated by the fact that he couldn't plow a field on his own farm if someone else plowed a field on their farm first. He felt that the implementation of the theme suffered. So in "Brew Crafters," he created two categories of actions - market actions, in which players compete for limited resources (there's not enough yeast for both of us), and brewery actions, in which players can duplicate each other's actions because they don't affect each other (I can process beer in my brewery while you're processing beer in yours). The result is a game that I think maintains a very strong sense of realism (as Euro games go).