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  • Essays
  • The Deep Blue - Depth in Board Games

The Deep Blue - Depth in Board Games

O Updated
(Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash)
There Will Be Games

Depth in board games is often confused with complexity. They are related, but they're also very different. I wrote a whole article about complexity about two years ago. So now it's time for me to look at depth in more detail.

Depth vs. Complexity

So let me try to clarify the difference between depth and complexity.

Depth in board games describes the number of choices you have on your turn, as well as the choices that the next player has for each of the choices you can make, plus the player after that and so on. It's a so-called decision tree that these choices create.

Now, if you have a large number of options on your turn, then that's a type of complexity. The more you can do on your turn, the more complex a game is - or at least it feels more complex. However, there are many other types of complexity. Another common one is rules complexity. A game's rules can be really convoluted and difficult to understand. However, just because a game has a lot of difficult rules, in other words, just because a game has a large amount of rules complexity, it isn't necessarily also a deep game.

So, while game depth is in principle a type of complexity, not all complexity leads to game depth.

Beautiful Depth

With that out of the way, let me focus on what player experience depth creates in board games. On the whole, I would say that more game depth leads to more interesting games. Of course, there can be too much depth and that can trigger analysis paralysis. However, it's really nice when a game challenges players from the start and every decision you make is important and will have an impact on whether you win or lose.

Splotter games are famous for this. If you make the wrong decisions at the beginning, you've basically already lost. It'll be very hard for you to recover. However, Splotter games are probably an extreme example that's more about being cut-throat than necessarily deep.

When games have the right level of depth, it's a really beautiful experience. The more you play the game, the better you'll get at it. You'll explore the different options open to you and try to improve your strategy each time. Of course, if you play the game with the same people regularly, your fellow players will do the same. It's almost like an arms race where everyone tries to optimize their strategy. Every time you play together it gets harder to win.

Last Round Syndrome

You basically traverse the decision tree. You look at your decisions and then evaluate the options for the next player and the player after that and so on. Of course, there will be a limit to how far ahead you can look, but you can probably reduce the possible choices to a few best possible decisions for players. It will get easier the more you play the game. You will get a feel for the best two or three choices the next player has for each of the choices you have.

Photo by Josh Millgate on Unsplash(Photo by Josh Millgate on Unsplash)

Even so, it can take a while to find the best option for yourself. So a game with a lot of depth basically has the "last round syndrome" every single turn. The "last round syndrome" is what I call when it's the last round, or two, and everyone just checks every possible choice to see what will give them the most points. That can take a while to do in your head, but it's the obvious thing to do. Many games really slow down near the end, because everyone just calculates victory points in their head. A game with a lot of depth will be like that pretty much every round.

Depth with Feeling

However, a really good game will guide players along the way. It will be obvious what one or two options are actually the best ones. The game will sort of "tell" players what they should try and do. That way, rounds don't end up taking an hour each.

At the same time though, games with a lot of depth will have more routes to victory than the one or two obvious options that the game seems to lead you towards. The more you play the game, the more other opportunities you will see. You will quickly rule out things that just don't "feel" right. You've gotten to know the game so well, that the best choice is almost like "feeling" than an objective calculation. You'll start to play the game with your tummy rather than your head, so to speak.

It's what really great chess players will do. They often quickly make a move that's not on the long list of standard and highly analyzed openings. They will force the other player to think more carefully by making an unexpected move, seemingly on a whim. Both players will take turns that feel right, because both players know the game so intimately that they can guess what the other player is trying to do.

Scythe

I experienced something similar with Scythe. I had been playing the game a lot with my games group, trying all of the different factions and exploring different strategies. Early turns were like the openings in chess. Each faction basically had its standard and almost pre-set first few moves. There was no thinking involved - it was pretty mechanical. Of course, the opening of a faction depended on what other factions were in play, but even so, it was really quick.

ScytheScythe

Later in the game, turns became more thoughtful. Even so, more often than not you just knew which two options were the best ones. I think we all could feel what was right in a given situation. Of course, when one of us had finished our turn, the next player would make a surprise move that nobody had expected. Just like great players do in chess. It was glorious.

What About You?

So what do you think about game depth? Do you like games with a lot of options? Do you like playing the same game several times, because it lets you optimize your strategy and get better over time? Have there been games you played that were too deep? As always, please share your thoughts in the comments below. I'd love to hear from you.

There Will Be Games

Oliver Kinne
Oliver Kinne (He/Him)
Associate Writer

Oliver Kinne aims to publish two new articles every week on his blog, Tabletop Games Blog, and also release both in podcast form. He reviews board games and writes about tabletop games related topics.

Oliver is also the co-host of the Tabletop Inquisition podcast, which releases a new episode every three to four weeks and tackles different issues facing board games, the people who play them and maybe their industry.

Articles by Oliver Kinne

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Agent easy's Avatar
Agent easy replied the topic: #337720 04 Jan 2023 15:15
“ Depth in board games describes the number of choices you have on your turn, as well as the choices that the next player has for each of the choices you can make, plus the player after that and so on. It's a so-called decision tree that these choices create.”

I see what you are getting at, but my definition of depth would be different. Games with a lot of rules complexity give the illusion of choice. You might have 15 choices in front of you, but it’s possible that only 1-3 of them are really worth considering because the others couldn’t lead to success. Only experience will tell you this, and if everyone around the table is new then everyone could be making similarly suboptimal moves and no one will notice. But once you know, then there is a whole load of rules complexity that could have been avoided if the designer had simply shaved off the pointless parts. Games that are overly balanced have a similar issue: it doesn’t matter what you do you will end up with the same score. In both cases, the rules complexity have the illusion of choice but the reality is otherwise.

Depth means that everything in the game has a purpose, and experience will only further reveal that purpose. All things are not balanced, but some things are better in different circumstances and getting to know when to pull which lever leads to success. I do agree that a gamer experienced with a game that has depth can probably intuit a strategy based on their knowledge of the subtleties of the game that are not immediately apparent.

There are simple examples of this. Sometimes, it’s just realizing that paths in a game all seem equally viable at first, but that in reality some interact with the rules in a certain way and are actually vastly preferable. Another example, In dominion, the cards are well balanced to make it relatively easy to get 7 gold but challenging to get 8 (or maybe it’s 5 vs 6, it’s been a while). Why? Because that’s the number required to get an estate. Knowledge of the math behind the game allows a player to craft a specific strategy to get to that number vs a player just trying to get gold and often finding themselves one short.

More complex examples would include games like mage knight, where understanding the types of creatures in the game vs the relative abundance or scarcity of certain types of attacks/ défense might subconsciously shape a strategy, or being able to see when a path is likely a waste of time or might be particularly fruitful.
Agent easy's Avatar
Agent easy replied the topic: #337722 04 Jan 2023 15:22
Or, to put it more succinctly:

If a person becomes better at a game simply because they know that certain things are always bad choices, then that’s just rules complexity. If a person becomes better at a game because they have gotten better at reading the situation, see how the various options interact and know how to execute (but also react and change if necessary), that’s depth.
Jexik's Avatar
Jexik replied the topic: #337741 05 Jan 2023 11:30
Been playing a ton of Summoner Wars, predictably. The same people typically end up as the top 10 or so in our league and the big PHG tourneys. The onboarding process for teaching someone to play their first game takes no more than five minutes, but the combination of hand management and positional play makes the game incredibly deep. I’m in an awkward valley where I’m nowhere near the very top players in skill, but will crush most newbies unless I go easy on them, despite all the sources of variance.
oliverkinne's Avatar
oliverkinne replied the topic: #337800 12 Jan 2023 08:15
Thank you for your comments, Agent easy. I like how you define depth. As you say, lots of choices doesn't make for a deeper game as such. It's "relevant" choices I suppose. That's a nice way of describing it.
oliverkinne's Avatar
oliverkinne replied the topic: #337801 12 Jan 2023 08:16
Thank you for your comment, Jexik. I've never played Summoner Wars, but it sounds like it's a very deep game. I hope you can improve your skill over time.
Legomancer's Avatar
Legomancer replied the topic: #337817 13 Jan 2023 07:58
I agree with Agent Easy. Modern games have a lot of illusory depth. In many of them, at each step, there is only one good choice, but it's been obfuscated with layer after layer of gears and pullies. Your task is to discern that golden path. That's not depth. A lot of moving parts doesn't mean depth. A Rube Goldberg contraption is amusing because it shows a complicated way to perform a simple task.

In a lot of modern games, each play may be "different" in that the gears are oriented differently and the levers are shifted, but the task is still the same; there's a single solution hidden in here and whoever finds it first and exploits it best will win. So the parts are different but the experience is exactly the same.

We see this a lot in games (Kickstarters especially) that promise "no two plays are the same!" because of some elements that can be randomized but those elements only change the game in superficial ways; two plays are nearly identical anyway.

For me depth in a game means there are many viable paths to explore. Maybe some aren't as good as others, and maybe some are conditional, but you can try something different and perhaps unexpected this time and see how it goes. The game rewards repeated play by offering a large space to play in and try out.

But piling mechanism on top of mechanism so that any action causes a myriad of effects? Not depth, to me, not in and of itself. It may be complex, but more often than not, it's a complex but extremely shallow game. I've played a lot of those in the past few years and I'm really tired of them.