A Plea for Elegance

"Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood. "
- T. S. Eliot

September is actually the cruelest month. On the wrong end of convention season, September delivers an embarrassment of choice. From Gen Con, I carry home a treasure trove of games – some of which I’ve played, some of which I’ve simply been hyped into buying. These new games sit on a pale wooden desk in a corner of the basement, next to the giant turntable full of Vallejo paints, unwatched DVDs, and a half-finished card-stock pirate ship for a D&D Campaign gone fallow.

Above this alternative desk – one that doesn’t get used for work – is a calendar with release dates on it. It’s perhaps a sign of some deep psychological trauma that the embarrassment of opportunity on and around that desk fills me not with child-like glee, but with angst. The rules for Agricola, this year's new hotness, lie dog-eared but still poorly understood on the desk – an impenetrable tome symbolic of the learning curve I increasingly face playing most games.

It's not that I'm lazy. I'm just a moron.

My brain is a fairly straightforward place. As a much younger man, 83.7 percent of my brain was dedicated to women. This left a frightfully small percentage for trivial tasks like breathing, eating, studying, and working. As a result of my quasar-like intensity in the pursuit of female companionship, the portion of my brain I could allocate to, say, a vicious game of Cosmic Encounter or Chess was quite small, and as such, I rapidly entered a lifelong relationship with suck.

My taste in games quickly boiled down to those which required minimal brainpower to learn – a kind of intellectual rules-aphasic sloth. It wasn’t that the idle-Rabbit of 1985 was incapable of playing complex games - even occasionally playing them well when I could free up the processor cycles from worrying about whether Clarissa was going to dump me and my didn’t Margot look nice in those jeans. No, it was the tolerance and capacity to sit down and read Chapter C of Advanced Squad Leader that eluded me.

Into this haze of cardboard and paper rules aversion, video games were a shining light.

Zork requires no manual. PacMan and DigDug and Tail Gunner didn’t even need the instructions printed in day-glow yellow under the cigarette stained plastic. The Atari 2600 joystick had one, smooth, red plastic button to go with its iconic black rubber phallus. These old-gen videogames weren’t actually all that great – I’m not one of those inclined to wax nostalgic about 8-bit. But they were elegant in their simplicity.

Since the halcyon days of the '80s arcade, the pressure on gaming seems to be towards complexity, often for complexities sake. While Advanced Squad Leader remains the object lesson in intellectual self-mutilation it was back in 1985, it is no longer alone. White-box D&D became AD&D became D&D 3.5 – a version of D&D so complex it needed point revisions. The Atari 2600’s one-button gave way first to four, requiring letters or symbols to differentiate, and then came analog sticks, shoulder buttons, and the hidden mind probe inside my PC that coerces my children into running downstairs so as to cause maximum disruption during a match of Team Fortress 2. At the arcade, the development of combos killed my short love affair with fighting games the minute I realized that every freaking character in every freaking game was going to have his unique version of Up-Down-A-A-C-C.

Thankfully, marriage returned a large number of brain cells into circulation, which could then be used for learning new games. After meeting my wife, I was suddenly able to play Magic: The Gathering. I learned how the stats in RPGs worked. I learned how to fly both real and pretend airplanes on instruments. I even went so far as to teach myself Advanced Squad Leader one contested hex at a time.

But then I had kids. Suddenly those braincells (and hours in the day) I’d grown accustomed to were once again seconded to real life. Last year at Gen Con, I gave up. I realized that those braincells capable of tracking my multiman counters across the hedgerows of Europe, or really knowing exactly how that Vorpal Loot Drop is going to affect my DPS, are just gone. Perhaps they went into worrying about health insurance and mortgage payments. Maybe I’m just dying one dendrite at a time. But something had to go from my brain, and learning rules and studying games was it.

I’m not saying I can’t win BINGO if you spot me BING. But I am saying that the reallocation of brain cells required to learn a game disturbs the very serotonin bath I play games to engender. And so, I’ve been reluctant to play new games that do not exhibit one trait:

Elegance.

With a board game this elegance in design has a hallmark. When I open the box, there’s a manual. If it’s a single side of one sheet of paper – like, say, Hive - I can be playing in moments, and whether the game is good or bad, at least I’ll be playing, and I can have an informed opinion about it. More often than not, that simplicity in rules actually evidences an elegance in play. If it’s a 32 page tome with countless examples of play and a description of setup that reads like the loadout for Napoleon’s ill fated winter holiday in Russia – like, say, Arkham Horror – I know that no matter how brilliant the game is, it’s going to be a long slog through that first game.

In video games, elegance has become much harder to gauge. Games like Peggle are elegant by design, but fail to hold my attention for long, because there’s no hidden complexity to balance the approachability. Elegance does not make a game good, it merely makes it approachable. Team Fortress 2 was completely engaging from the moment the cartoon class selections showed on my screen. The game didn’t assume a deep knowledge of either squad based shooters or Team Fortress Classic. It eschewed countless opportunities to busy-up the core design. And underneath that elegance is a game that’s just plain fun.

Complex games have their place. But learning how to play Civ IV required an act of will, and learning Sins of a Solar Empire required a live coach.

I don’t want to have to work that hard to play a complex game. And I don’t want games that embrace simplicity just for simplicities sake, providing no redeeming game play or story (something I’m a bit bitter about having played a few hours of American McGee’s Grimm).

I want games, in short, like Spore.

I've only played through the first half of the game. After such a short time, I'm in no position to say this is or isn't a great game all the way through, or what kind of a game it really is. But I do know that it engages my intuition at least as much as my intellect.

I look back at the desk, with its rules and paints and minis. And its release list.

This is the long Christmas for gamers.

I sit here on the floor, with the smell of spruce and my wife telling me I can’t unwrap anything until she’s had her coffee. I know that inside all the shiny wrappers are Warhammer Online and Viva Pinata and Fallout 3 and Agricola and half a dozen other shiny new toys.

But I’m secretly afraid of all of them.

Please don’t let there be “Some Assembly Required.”

I want an Apple Christmas, not an Ikea Birthday.

Comments

Nice piece, Rabbit.

"I want an Apple Christmas, not an Ikea Birthday."

Brilliant! Did this popped into your head and then you built the article around it, or was it the other way?

Anyway, awesome!

Good sh*t.

Fantastic, Rabbit.

Good grief. I had never traced my own gaming history, but you hit it dead spot on. Thank you for explaining me to me!

Only 83.7% of your brain was allocated to women!!!!! I thought you were in the mid to high nineties at least from 1983-1990.

My reluctance to play complex games is more of a recent development, which I can only really put down to having a job and a girlfriend (similar theme here)... which is a shame given my neglect of Supreme Commander, Sins of a Solar Empire, and my hilariously abortive attempt at playing Eve Online.

For what it's worth, Agricola is not an elegant game. It's an excellent game, but it will take a full play through before it even makes sense. Once it does, it is rewarding.. unlike Advanced Squad Leader.

oMonarca wrote:

"I want an Apple Christmas, not an Ikea Birthday."
Did this popped into your head and then you built the article around it, or was it the other way?

Nah, just spewed out there when it needed to.

As for Agricola, I did finally play a game, and I agree, it was worth the pain. I can't wait for Game 2. The whole game is better if you put "in space" after every noun. Otherwise, the game's theme is pretty darn depressing: become the worlds most average subsistence farmer. But Space Cows and Fireplace in Space make all the difference.

Amen, brother. My mental bandwidth is consumed with child discipline, dealing with co-workers in a job I dislike, and (metaphorically) gasping for breath at the end of a long work week. Sometimes I long for those days in college when I could play a D&D game Friday night from 7pm to 3am, sleep in Saturday, do homework, then DM a 10-hour D&D game on Sunday. The wheel of time turns inexorably, though, and it's more fun to be an adult with spending power, even if somewhat limited.

This is what I enjoyed so much about Braid's gameplay even if it's story was a mess. The rules and mechanics for the game are simple and can be grasped very quickly. The challenge lies in the application of those rules. Whether or not I'll be able to manage even that game when my first child is born next April remains to be seen.

I've found that as I've gotten older I've also slowed down. I'm not as good a twitchy games as I used to be (but to be honest, I was never that great at them to begin with). If Spore allows me to slow down the game a bit to respond at a reasonable rate (like the original SimCity did), then I'll pick it up the moment it hits the Wii.

That's one of the reasons I was so attracted to many Cheap Ass games. Particularly Starbase Jeff, which I seem to have misplaced and it really upsets me. Those guys, on multiple occasions, managed to strike the hammer right in the sweet spot of elegance, depth and fun.

They have made some of their out-of-print games available as downloads, finally: http://www.cheapass.com/free/index.html

See, this is why you need to stop allocated brain-cells based on percentage-use by task, and take the Eye of Sauron approach. For example, I think about medicine almost exclusively right now, but when I start gaming again, I'll devote 100% of my raw, seething, malicious intellect to it during those hours. Much like the Eye of Sauron, it means that you'll have to occasionally put up with a couple of small, childlike individuals sneaking into your living space to destroy your valuables, but it's a small price to pay to enjoy a deep, complex game. A change is as good as a rest, as they say. Actually, blowing people up in TF2 is also excellent, and would let the rest of my neurons curl up in a corner and cry themselves to sleep...

Nevermind, perhaps your approach works too.

I think elegance is a euphemism for game design.

But yeah that's exactly what I look for in games and why I pass on most of 'em.

Amazingly for a recent EA game, Spore has a 50 page manual. I tried to read it, got distracted by all the things buzzing around in my house, and just started playing without it. I didn't need it anyway.

As a chronic game downloader, I don't get paper manuals. I'm sure I got the information with my download somewhere, but I doubt I'll need it.

Well put, sir. Civ 4 is an interesting example of an excellent game that got elegance half right. The interface admittedly made my head hurt at first blush, but it redeemed itself for me by having plenty of automation available for detail elements.

That's key to my enjoyment, I far prefer games which let me play in broad strokes at first, and then drill into the details as I buy in. As a [poor] metaphor, let me take the automatic around the block once or twice before you spring the manual shifter on me.

trip1eX wrote:

I think elegance is a euphemism for game design.

But yeah that's exactly what I look for in games and why I pass on most of 'em.

I think you are exactly right. It is an old saw in design that the design is complete when there is nothing more that can be taken away.

Elegance is something that is easy to grasp and that is full of depth.

I also find myself losing interest quickly in any game that can't be played within a few minutes of tutorial with everything else being picked up as your progress through the game. This is the one thing that has killed EVE for me every single time I have found myself wanting to play it. I love complexity when it comes to creating and individualizing a character so I can geek out on that for quite a while before even playing a game however once I discover I have to spend a long tedious time just figuring out basic gameplay my interest drops to zero.

When I didn't work and I was too young for women I could wade through the tedium fairly easily. Now when I come home from work and want to relax and play something the least appealing thing to me is easily having a long learning curve before even getting to the actual gameplay. I want to turn on my PC or console and be having fun ASAP. Sadly this is a big reason MMOs have become such an easy waste of time. All of them (with the exception of EVE) tend to be similar enough that I can just log in to any new game and be off without needing to know anything beyond a rough estimation of the playstyle of the character I will be playing. Also the slow pace of most MMOs is a good wind down from a long day. I don't really know if any of them would exactly qualify as "elegant".

Really nice piece Rabbit. I have to admit, I used to love slogging through complex games. Hell, I had a Rise and Fall of the Third Reich board set up for over a month, playing an hour or two a day at one point (a long, long, long time ago).

Now, it pains me to admit, that I am faced with the difference between the gamer I want to think of myself as (hardcore) and the gamer I actually am (Castle Crashers anyone?). Robear has been trying to get be back into complex games with things like Europa Universalis, but honestly I would rather play Madden.

Same principle applies to my Tivo, by the way. It rapidly distinguishes between the television viewer I pretend to be and the one I actually am. 'John Adams' sat recorded in my queue for months but I didn't miss an episode of 'Two and a Half Men'. I know I should finish 'Generation Kill', but 'So You Think You Can Dance' called.

Spore, eh? I think I am protesting based on the DRM scheme, at least for now...

Great article!

My evolution tracks along a similar trajectory, though with some significant points of deviation. I have a 9 month old at home, and while I am surprised by how much gaming I can in fact get in on a given week, it really sums about to about 3-4 hours per week at the best of times. And I imagine it will go downhill from there.

Now I have always been fairly discerning in the games I elect to purchase and play, perhaps not to others tastes, but I do a fair amount of research into demos, previews etc. and only buy those games that really capture me. I also regularly crave a complex game, both board and electronic, and I never mind pouring through the rules, creating player aids and otherwise shepherding my friends through the games, in effect running the game as a referee more than a player. Largely this last point is because I am the one who buys the games, reads the rules and otherwise doesn't mind teaching fairly complex systems.

So what I am finding these days, though, which jives with your article is I find myself too tired or occupied to delve into something I really don't believe I am going to end up playing or enjoying. I find myself, out of necessity of time as well as the limitations on my brain cycles, focusing in only the few games I have now, or the clutch of games on the horizon that I know I must own (Fallout 3 anyone?). Sure, something bright and shiny on the horizon catches my eye, and I dream a 15 second dream about how much fun it would be to play that... but then I snap back to reality, realizing with a sigh that I kind of don't want to invest the energy to learn it, teach it, share it, whatever. I just want to make with the play already!

So, it's Tide of Iron, Descent, and BattleStations for the meaty boardgames. It's the every once in a while game of GalCiv II, Company of Heroes on the PC. Those are all systems I've already learned and can recall.

Still most of the time these days, it's a quick game of Race for the Galaxy, or now Spore. They're easy to jump into, easy to grok, they load quick (literally as well as figuratively), and they pass the 20 - 45 minutes of game time I have. Sadly, it means I don't get to write or run Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay anymore... but I can cut loose with the very odd Sporelings.

This reminds me of that Seinfeld episode in which George stops having sex and quickly turns into an erudite genius. Good stuff.

As long as I don't notice the DRM, I don't really care. In this case, I hit "download" and some hours later I was playing the game. I'll bitch when it stops me from doing something I guess.

As for elegance=game design: I'm not sure I agree. I do understand why you say it, and I think that the two are definitely correlated, but there are many elegant games with limited long term value (the aforementioned Peggle, for me), and many brilliant, wonderful games that are not elegant in their entry. Sins of a Solar Empire comes to mind, as does World of Warcraft. My recent experience teaching a non-gamer friend to play WoW was a real eye opener in this regard. Simply sitting at the character generation screen, she had myriad questions about what the choices on that first page even meant.

rabbit wrote:

As for Agricola, I did finally play a game, and I agree, it was worth the pain. I can't wait for Game 2. The whole game is better if you put "in space" after every noun. Otherwise, the game's theme is pretty darn depressing: become the worlds most average subsistence farmer. But Space Cows and Fireplace in Space make all the difference.

German games have a tradition for weird or irrelevant themes (especially Knizia's). Some gamers really embrace the theme. Look at the people who make their own bits like animals, food, and families out of polymer clay.

Coldstream wrote:

See, this is why you need to stop allocated brain-cells based on percentage-use by task, and take the Eye of Sauron approach. For example, I think about medicine almost exclusively right now, but when I start gaming again, I'll devote 100% of my raw, seething, malicious intellect to it during those hours. Much like the Eye of Sauron, it means that you'll have to occasionally put up with a couple of small, childlike individuals sneaking into your living space to destroy your valuables, but it's a small price to pay to enjoy a deep, complex game. A change is as good as a rest, as they say. Actually, blowing people up in TF2 is also excellent, and would let the rest of my neurons curl up in a corner and cry themselves to sleep...

Nevermind, perhaps your approach works too. ;)

Genius. Pure, evil, genius.

rabbit wrote:

As for elegance=game design: I'm not sure I agree. I do understand why you say it, and I think that the two are definitely correlated, but there are many elegant games with limited long term value (the aforementioned Peggle, for me), and many brilliant, wonderful games that are not elegant in their entry. Sins of a Solar Empire comes to mind, as does World of Warcraft. My recent experience teaching a non-gamer friend to play WoW was a real eye opener in this regard. Simply sitting at the character generation screen, she had myriad questions about what the choices on that first page even meant.

It is a correlation, but I'll agree it is simplistic to say a simple game is elegant and that is the end of the story. Depth is also a necessary prerequisite for long term enjoyment. Peggle, while fun, is extremely shallow. So the gameplay is over simplified.

I have never played WoW, but I would imagine that character generation is the same as pretty much every other cRPG ever created. For someone with no experience of gaming that may seem impenetrable, but for someone with some history it would seem accessible and elegant.

MrDeVil909 wrote:

I have never played WoW, but I would imagine that character generation is the same as pretty much every other cRPG ever created. For someone with no experience of gaming that may seem impenetrable, but for someone with some history it would seem accessible and elegant.

Ah, yes. Interesting point. Elegance has context. The cockpit design of Embraer Jets is truly elegant. But completely impenetrable if you sit in the seat as a non-pilot. Likewise, Team Fortress 2's elegance probably requires the context of having played first person shooters before.

This is one of the reasons I like the first level of spore so much. It's a simple, elegant, and fun little game that I could play on its own for hours (if it gave me more DNA points, thus more customization, after I reached the final stage).

When I was younger, I could seldom amass the attention span necessary to play longer games (including games that were actual representations of Napoleon's winter holiday). As I've grown older, I find I instead suffer a scarcity of will and time.

At both ends, though, I note a preference for shotguns over sniper rifles.

Umh .. tell us, did you read the Agricola rules ? Or did someone else teach you?

Because maybe is not the lack of elegance, is more that you are lazy

However I undestand you, the other day I found a very old copy of Republic of Rome in a closet in my parents house, and after cleaning the dust, and fixing some cards that were a little bend, I have to read the rules, so some day I can play, but it's not a trivial task read those AHs manuals.. those were made for real men, not wimps like us (I also get lazy with the pass of the years)