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The Deep Blue - Depth in Board Games

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03 Jan 2023 12:28 #337719 by oliverkinne
Depth vs. Complexity
So let me try to clarify the difference...

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.

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04 Jan 2023 15:15 #337720 by Agent easy
“ 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.
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04 Jan 2023 15:22 #337722 by Agent easy
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.
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05 Jan 2023 11:30 #337741 by Jexik
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.

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12 Jan 2023 08:15 #337800 by oliverkinne
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.

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12 Jan 2023 08:16 #337801 by oliverkinne
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.

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13 Jan 2023 07:58 #337817 by Legomancer
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.
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