The complexity of simplicity

Can you spot the oldies?

I have been reflecting on complex games recently. I have been feeling underwhelmed by many recent heavy Euros and while at the same time rediscovering the joys of light to mid-weight designs. I also lamented that many of my Knizias and Kramers on my shelves have been ignored during game night in favor of heavier games. On paper, I should have been more receptive of these heavy games but mostly, the experiences have felt flat with little desire to replay these games. In contrast, I recently picked up Oregon after having sold the game more than a decade ago for fraction of the current market prices. Lo and behold, the game was just a refreshing breath of fresh air. A 3 page rulebook that is more than meets the eye…..Fun. Right, that was the word I was looking for. Something that was kinda missing from the past several sessions.

It’s clear that games with increasing levels of complexity does not necessarily translate to more fun. What is fun is different for everyone. Some may enjoy the brain burning optimization puzzles while others want more direct conflict between players. Yet others will find joy in assembling a victory point engine and then seeing it come alive in the last few rounds of gameplay. As far as complexity of games goes, it’s incredibly hard to pinpoint where to draw the line on the scale of complexity before fun morphs into work. There is no strict criteria and it’s more a feeling….. a feeling that manifests during play and is usually consolidated and reaffirmed after the game when we reflect on the process. In most cases, my best gauge is whether I have any desire to replay. More recently, after playing Oregon, games such as Finca, Kreta, Samurai, Tower of Babel, Hadara, Princes of Florence, Asara, Coal Baron, Qin….. are beginning to call out to me once again.

Simple games can also be complex but that complexity is really quite a different beast than those in heavy Euros. Much of the complexity in simple games emerge from player interactions and playing the game involves playing the players as much as the system itself. The emergent interactions that appear from simpler games will guide the strategies and tactics as well as the outcomes of each game. Rather than the constant obsession over novelty and complexity, I noticed that simpler games often choose to focus on how individual player behavior impact gaming variables. Without the mechanisms to guide and regulate interactions, simple games such as Modern Art must rely on individual tendencies and player-player interactions to provide variety in game play. If these interactions do not materialize, then the game fails because the meat is stripped from the bones and there is no chrome or embellishments to salvage the game. In heavier games, the system itself often provides where players do not. You may very well still walk away with a victory even with minimal player interaction. Each player is deeply embedded into the gaming system and individual actions revolve around a tightly woven ruleset that there is very little chance for deviation. I suppose in a way, the approptiate analogy might be playing a video game where the story line is already set in stone and one “plays” the game to unfold the story.

I regret selling most of my light weight Euros from Hans im Gluck and Rio Grande Games that were published in the 2000s’. These games were the staples of the time and I feel, almost extinct in today’s board gaming trend. Oregon is one such example. Part of my regret is because my kid is now coming of age and is now primed to step in the adult world of board gaming. We have started all the way with the HABAs, and progressed into the Gamewrights. Now, with the introduction of Carcassone, she is ready to take the next steps. These light weight Euros from HiG would have been the perfect next step. I need to find another copy of The Hanging Gardens and Around the World in 80 days!

I also suspect that given our work and weekend schedules, these 45-90 min games are now more suitable for us. This pivot is entirely understandable and happens to many of us who started gaming in school, and growing up playing with college buddies and transitioning into gaming with partners and close friends. At each stage of our lives, different games suit different needs and right now, it appears that lighter and simpler games maybe making a come back.

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