Increasing AND Decreasing Complexity: Monopoly in 15 Minutes

by Tim Mensch, 2013-05-06 16:45

Image by timlewisnm

As I mentioned in a recent blog post, I like complicated games, especially the recent trend of designer board games. The kind of board game that I like to play tends to have great art, piles of tokens and/or cards, and sometimes a complicated board. Depending on the game, the set-up can take 15 minutes or more. But the worst part is the 10-or-more-page rule book that you have to read before you start to play. The barrier to entry for some of these games can be huge.

I've been a game programmer for 25+ years now, but oddly enough my degree is in cognitive science. I studied under one of the foremost experts in user inteface design, Don Norman. I don't claim to be a great visual UI designer myself -- my graphic design skills aren't up to the task -- but studying under Norman changed the way I thought about games far beyond just the visual design of the user interface.

User Interfaces And Complexity

So what does that have to do with complexity? Well, you can measure complexity in different ways. You can look at the actual number of elements that interact, and in what ways they interact; that gives you the actual complexity of the system. But you can also look at the apparent complexity of the system, as it is presented to the user.

A game that's extremely complicated for users to manage could be completely trivial for a computer to set up and handle. Imagine that you have a world with 25 "monsters" wandering around. In a traditional board game, you'd probably either just leave them in place, or you'd have them move based on a simple pattern (roll a die, say, and look at a table to see which ones to move, and how).

When a computer is controlling the board, though, it's trivial to give each of the monsters a basic logic that it will follow, and have the computer move the monsters in the correct phase. More complexity internally, but less complexity exposed to the player. You can even make the monster behavior more rational and complex (more fun), without making the players' heads explode.

Monopoly in 15 Minutes

For an example of how much easier this can make things, take Monopoly. You know, that game that takes 3+ hours to play? Yeah — it turns out that when you play with three computer opponents, and you've got the computer managing all of the minutiae of your own turns, so all you have to do is make the decisions, then a typical game takes 15 minutes. The whole game.

But a good user interface doesn't just save time; it reduces the barrier to entry for a good game. Don Norman used to tell us that a good user interface doesn't need instructions. By getting the interface right, we can kiss the tome of rules goodbye. But we don't have to dumb down the game; to the contrary, we're going to have as many rules as we want, as long as each one makes the game more fun.

Exploring and Adventuring

So I want to create a game that gives you the feeling of exploring and adventuring, that teaches itself to you painlessly, and that you can play with your friends. Finding the right amount of complexity is a balancing act. It will take time to get it right. But we're prepared to put in the time, if we can secure funding. We're headed for a Kickstarter in a month or two, so if a game like this sounds interesting, sign up for our mailing list or follow us on Twitter, or "Like" us on Facebook.

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