Jim Felli on Streamlining

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Jim Felli

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Designer
There Will Be Games

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I generally dislike spending time and energy streamlining my game designs. To people who know my work, that’s probably a pretty obvious statement. Given the choice, I’ll always opt to move onto a fresh project rather than polish and tweak and refine.

 

To be clear, I agree that some degree of streamlining is fine, even important. Like every game designer, I refine and tweak my mechanisms and rules (albeit sometimes begrudgingly) until they reach a level of effectiveness with which I’m comfortable. But this notion that rigorous streamlining is necessary to produce a good game is, in my opinion, misguided. If a game is based on existing IP (e.g., Star Wars), streamlining rules and simplifying mechanisms may be necessary for the game to compete in the competitive space within the IP (e.g., all the similar games in the Star Wars universe) and constraints that the IP canon places of the designer’s creative freedom (e.g., what a Jedi can and cannot do). But for independent games and de novo creations, I think that fastidious streamlining should be approached with caution. While meticulous refinement can reduce play time, reduce learning time, reduce mental math, etc., it can also reduce differentiation and flavor. And for me – and I will freely admit, perhaps only for me – differentiation and flavor are the fundamental elements of enjoyment.

So… differentiation and flavor.

With regard to differentiation, consider a brown hen’s egg. It’s quite beautiful, really: simple and elegant in design, streamlined in form by millions of years of evolution. And, other than minor variations in color, no different than any other brown hen’s egg. But crack that egg – add to its smooth surface a spray of jagged lines and uneven fractures, and it stands out against the others. It is now striking and interesting, made unique by the distinctive pattern of the cracks in its shell. Now it stands apart. So too, I contend, with games. How many zombie games are there on the market? And how many are merely variations on a theme?

From a flavor perspective, consider a single malt scotch whisky. Somewhere around the 1950’s, give or take a decade, some distilleries introduced a method of chill filtering by which they removed the proteins, esters, and fatty acids that give their whisky a cloudy appearance when cooled. The primary reasons were cosmetic: a clear drink was seen as pure; a cloudy drink, adulterated. Today, many argue that the removal of those elements reduces a whisky’s aroma and flavor, and adversely affects its mouth feel and finish. I’m in that camp and prefer non-chill filtered whisky, preferably at cask strength so that I can dilute it to my taste rather than someone else’s.

It’s the same with games for me. I really don’t care if one game implements a draft mechanism better than another. When I play a game – and, as a consequence, when I design a game – I care about original ideas and concepts that are strange and different and tasty and chewy and spark real, genuine, and emotional player interaction. I want players to scream and high five each other, or glower and stew and plot revenge, not sit silently around a table thinking about how to solve a puzzle or optimize a production function. What I find especially unfulfilling are new, unoriginal games that appear to exist simply because they present a “better” or “optimized” implementation of some existing mechanism or rule construct. If you want to be a member of the Cult of the New, have you considered reframing it as the Cult of the New Ideas? If you suffer from FOMO, may I suggest that you try not to miss out on new concepts as opposed to new games?

In all honesty, any real problems that needed to be addressed in a game would likely get hammered out prior to publication. Beyond that, my players and I are savvy enough to house rule anything that really irritates us. And as for the “clunkiness” and “fiddliness” that some self-appointed game pundits constantly complain about… it provides some pretty fertile ground for one’s imagination to play.

Of course, in the end it’s all about what appeals to you and your players, and no choice is wrong. As for me, I have a very definite view about games: I think they all should be cracked eggs swimming in non-chill filtered single malt scotch.

There Will Be Games Jim Felli

Jim Felli Jim "xthexlo" FelliFollow Jim Felli Follow Jim Felli Follow Jim Felli Message Jim Felli

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Jim was introduced to AD&D back in the mid-1970s. For a high school kid that grew up devouring comic books, Warren magazines, and Harryhausen films, AD&D was the epitome of the game he never knew he wanted. From his very first game, he was hooked on the magic of imaginative play.

By day, Jim works as a scientist; by night, he creates fantasy worlds and designs unique and quirky games. He is the owner and sole employee of Devious Weasel Games.

Jim is married to a wonderful woman, has three awesome kids, three unruly and enigmatic cats, and a goofy, loyal Newfie. He loves good food, single malt Islay scotch, and pretty much all dad jokes.

And math. He really likes math.

Articles by Jim

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Vysetron's Avatar
Vysetron replied the topic: #293473 07 Mar 2019 08:24
I'm just going to point everyone to this from now on when explaining what I want from new games. Great piece, thank you for writing it.
hotseatgames's Avatar
hotseatgames replied the topic: #293474 07 Mar 2019 08:40
Well said. I think a good question for a designer to ask is if an idea deserves to exist. If you have a zombie game idea that is truly unique, bring it on. If it's just more of the same... well maybe not.*

*not saying I've never been guilty of this, or won't be again :D
charlest's Avatar
charlest replied the topic: #293475 07 Mar 2019 08:51
Great piece Jim. I've been down a couple of games recently that felt too streamlined and soft. Would much rather see a game take a chance and try something different.
Jackwraith's Avatar
Jackwraith replied the topic: #293477 07 Mar 2019 09:37
This is exactly it. I think the key word is "experience". What do you want from playing this game? Is it an exercise in the simply beauty of it, like Go? Or do you want to be able to think back on the story of it? I did a lot of role-playing back in the 80s and I was trying to convince one of my regular players to get into our occasional sessions of Talisman. I was telling him the story of how I'd played the Samurai and rolled just right to grab a rival's loot when they became a frog and took the opportunity to shoot another rival and kill them and then rolled just right to land on their loot and on and on. He got this surprised/quizzical look on his face and said: "How can a board game produce those kinds of stories?" Because that, as a role-player, is what he wanted: stories. Talisman is a clunky beast. This is Games Workshop, after all. But it's capable of producing that experience- those stories -because of all the character and chrome and little side rules and cards that make it what it is.

As much as I appreciate the symmetry and elegance of a lot of Knizia stuff, given the choice, I'll normally opt for the chrome, just because it will leave behind those stories to tell.
xthexlo's Avatar
xthexlo replied the topic: #293478 07 Mar 2019 09:40
You nailed it: it’s all about story.
Vysetron's Avatar
Vysetron replied the topic: #293482 07 Mar 2019 10:13
See that's the thing! I get so much more out of a Knizia game than games with more flavor text than effects on the cards. A game of Samurai or T&E tells an incredible story. Massive swings of influence and power, temporary alliances, cold wars that escalate until everything finally explodes, etc. The discussions and decisions around those games stick with me. They're evoactive.

I'd rather feel something than be told what to feel.
BaronDonut's Avatar
BaronDonut replied the topic: #293484 07 Mar 2019 10:39
I love the concept of The Cult of New Ideas, that's gonna rattle around my brain for a while. Fantastic article!
Jackwraith's Avatar
Jackwraith replied the topic: #293485 07 Mar 2019 10:49

Vysetron wrote: See that's the thing! I get so much more out of a Knizia game than games with more flavor text than effects on the cards. A game of Samurai or T&E tells an incredible story. Massive swings of influence and power, temporary alliances, cold wars that escalate until everything finally explodes, etc. The discussions and decisions around those games stick with me. They're evoactive.


Just to be clear, I'm not trying to say that they're flavorless or that things NEED flavor text to work. There really isn't that much flavor text in Talisman, for example. It's all pretty much straightforward "This happens to you. It sucks. But enjoy it!" (which is part of why I no longer play Talisman...) Two of my all-time favorites are Modern Art and Blue Moon(!); evocative art, perhaps, but the joy is in the play.

Maybe this is why Michael Oracz is my fave designer of the moment? The various factions in Theseus and Cry Havoc aren't complicated, but they feel like they're supposed to. If you're playing the Pilgrims, your abilities and technology are starkly different from the same feel you get from playing the Troggs. And there really aren't that many abilities to keep track of in any given game, but every game feels like an episode of some SF series.
Vysetron's Avatar
Vysetron replied the topic: #293487 07 Mar 2019 11:02
I still have a soft spot for Talisman but I probably don't need to play it again. I mean I would on the right day with the right friends, but that's true of any game. Last time I played 3/4 of us swore off the game forever. I was the fourth. I also ended up with the crown, so those things are probably related.

To me Talisman doesn't really evoke its setting. There's no high fantasy adventuring going on there, just chaos, pain, and how incredibly funny it all is. I love it for fully embracing that chaos. It also makes it pretty bad as a game, but at least it's pretty good as a story box.

Oracz is a favorite of mine purely for Neuroshima Hex. That game is a masterpiece. Every faction is incredibly expressive and unique but the game still provides a fantastic tactical experience every time. Steel Police for life. Still need to play Theseus at some point.
hotseatgames's Avatar
hotseatgames replied the topic: #293490 07 Mar 2019 11:14
I can't imagine a time when Michal Oracz isn't my favorite designer.

Perhaps some day I'll go insane and collect every game he has ever made, which will be an expensive endeavor thanks to that crazy skirmish game he made for Awaken Realms. I really do want to play that.
Sagrilarus's Avatar
Sagrilarus replied the topic: #293509 07 Mar 2019 15:51
Such a gorgeous locomotive. Just had to mention that.

Though I largely agree with what you're talking about in principle, I think there is a difference between streamlining and refining. It's important to view the two differently, because I think the first is risky, the second dependable.

Streamlining is more about removal to make something more simple, more palatable in a more frenetic world. Streamlining gets gets a lot of attention these days because there are so many other things looking for your time, most of them in order to monetize your attention. 40 years ago this was much less of an issue, where a rainy day in the Summer meant playing Star Fleet Battles or watching Days of Our Lives. Star Fleet Battles ain't exactly streamlined, but it sure is better than Days of our Lives. A game like that could go the distance in an environment where there isn't 100,000 on-demand data streams competing for your attention. It's length could be a positive feature because by the end of Summer you start getting pretty bored.

Refinement is another story, where the result of the effort could actually result in a bigger product. Refinement isn't necessarily about reducing as much as it is about making something more precise to the concept. I'm a big fan of refinement.
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #293514 07 Mar 2019 19:49
Story is a high priority for me in boardgaming, which is a major reason why I abhor most eurogames and abstracts. A short, streamlined game often tells the same boring story every game, but longer, more baroque design can often deliver a more memorable experience. It's like the difference between the McDonald's drive-thru and a multi-course meal at a fine restaurant.

That said, a streamlined game is easier to teach and easier to get on the table. I have some very enjoyable longer games in my collection that hardly ever get played anymore.
Sevej's Avatar
Sevej replied the topic: #293519 07 Mar 2019 20:38
Sometimes game mechanics can hamper my enjoyment from getting a story.

Extreme example is 40k. Remembering all the rules make forget about the story. Hits, misses... that's all of it that I remember.

So that game surely can use some streamlining.
Colorcrayons's Avatar
Colorcrayons replied the topic: #293522 08 Mar 2019 00:48
I've been pondering this exact topic for a few years now, but especially in the last year. I dabble heavily in retheming games, and there is the inevitable question that arises during such endeavor to tweak the design, or how it is conveyed, as part of the project.

I'm tackling the task of revising FFG's 8th ed. of Wiz-War for purposes of adding more content as the main objective. But the secondary objective has allowed me to tighten up a few areas that needed tweaks which were common complaints among players.

Given that this is an old game, rife with some warty card interactions that are the characteristic of the game, many wonder if the work Kevin Wilson made to 8th was even necessary at all.

Personally, I like what was attempted by Wilson a lot. It's why my tweaks ended up as a revision of 8th Ed and not the classic editions.

But when does the attempt to revise become too much? Do I go down the rabbit hole as Bill did when he went exhaustively through FFG's Cosmic Encounter to clarify every potential error and idiosyncracy for the sake of a smoother and refined experience? I'd rather not, since that particular depth has proven to not benefit the game at large from practical experience using his suggestions. But the temptation is certainly there.

And on a thematic front, do I strictly adhere to what is classically known of the game, or do I add my own sensibilities to areas that I believe could be improved upon?

Finding this balance has proven to be difficult. Likely moreso in retheming or revision than devising your own original design I would hazard to guess.

This thought experiment on streamlining is an odd beast for me for the reason that M:tG exists.

M:tG is a refinement of Wiz-War. A highly successful refinement that I can see Wiz-War benefitting from in some areas, by re-retrofitting some key refinements.

The Stack (concerning responses and resolution), a few key areas in turn structure, some card mechanisms and designs, even the artwork.

Do I add some flavor to each card effect? Or do I make card effects just concise rules only and rely on the player to infer the theme through the name/image/rules provided?

I think you and I have the same goal. For players to have a shared experience they will remember because of the rollercoaster they have been placed upon. That goal is branded in my mind and steers nearly every decision I make in such efforts.

But, at least from where my own perspective lies, it seems that there is a lot of room for many games to better allow that experience to take place when there is refinement. I play too many games where the warts get in the way and make a bumpier ride than should otherwise be necessary. Too many games that are published before they are ready for primetime, but you can see the potential greatness.

Maybe that's just a personal problem for me and I'm alone. After all, a lot of people swear by classic Wiz-War, where I see a beautiful thing locked behind layers of mud that don't need to be there and could (fairly) easily be cleaned to enjoy it's full beauty.

Anyways, thanks for taking the time to write the article. It's given me a lot to ponder.

[Edit] I see Sagrilarus has said it more succinctly than me again. I wished I read the whole thread before responding. Ah well. [/Edit]
Sevej's Avatar
Sevej replied the topic: #293531 08 Mar 2019 09:27
I just re-read the comments above, and found something rather... odd.

For me, Talisman is one of the most streamlined adventure game ever. That's why I can enjoy the story, the funny stuff. On your turn, you only roll a die, and read the cards. There's card play with spells, but for most of the turns, you are just doing the same thing.

Just compare it to other similar games. Sometimes those games challenge you even to just move, crowd the tables with multiple decks of encounters, item levels, no meticulous calculations about your resources... you just roll with it.

And that's exactly why it works as an adventure game for me.
RobertB's Avatar
RobertB replied the topic: #293544 08 Mar 2019 10:54

Sagrilarus wrote: 40 years ago this was much less of an issue, where a rainy day in the Summer meant playing Star Fleet Battles or watching Days of Our Lives. Star Fleet Battles ain't exactly streamlined, but it sure is better than Days of our Lives. A game like that could go the distance in an environment where there isn't 100,000 on-demand data streams competing for your attention. It's length could be a positive feature because by the end of Summer you start getting pretty bored.


Used to play AH Civilization back then, It could have been a little shorter, since it was 6-7 hours with a meal break somewhere in there. It wouldn't have been the same if it was 2 hours long, and that wasn't something that we would've thought was even possible. Ah, good times. :)

As for Days of Our Lives, when I was going to college I used to watch it with my grandma. General Hospital was the big thing then, but I had to be different. About 6 months of soap operas and you can pretty much call them done.