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Simplicity is Paramount

June 8, 2007

After recently playing and thoroughly enjoying Stefan Dorra’s Kreta, I began to think about how important simplicity is in setting apart good eurogames. The rules for most of the very best eurogames are simple enough for new players to understand even during the first game. This requires that any unnecessary or superfluous (the subtlety of my irony is unrivaled) rules be removed. A classic sign of when this has not been achieved is when players frequently have to refer to the instructions during a game to remember or clarify the rules. Possible synonyms for this concept of simplicity are streamlined and elegant, although the latter is so vague and disparately applied as to be essentially meaningless. Simplicity (or streamlined rules) is paramount because it allows players to focus all of their mental energy on formulating a strategy and planning their moves rather than trying to remember the rules. The best games are ones where the rules fade into the background after learning them so that they become intuitive and completely unobtrusive. The worst games are those where a player’s strategy and plans are foiled not by the clever decisions of their opponents, but rather by an unremembered or misremembered rule that crops up at an inopportune time. Not only do I not want to lose because I forgot a minor exception to the rule, but just as much do I not want to win because one of my opponents was defeated by the rules. What an unfulfilling way to win and what an unfulfilling gaming experience, which I am positive is not an uncommon occurrence when faced with games that lack simplicity.

The level to which I prize simplicity in a game leads me to actually have a tendency to prefer games that have been labeled as having a “pasted on” theme rather than avoid those games as the person doing the labeling generally intends. The “pasted on” epithet (of the rosy-fingered Dawn variety) has been applied to innumerable games where the designer has clearly prioritized simplicity (i.e., streamlined rules) over theme. This would be a failing rather than an accomplishment in the rare instances when the theme is something meaningful to me (e.g., games based on Dune or Lord of the Rings), but more often than not the prioritization of simplicity over theme to the extent that the latter is deemed “pasted on” is an accomplishment of the highest order. I do not have any significant attachment to renaissance Italy, ancient Egypt, or the far East, so I do not mind in the least (or even notice) when the designer takes some liberties in compromising the accuracy of the game’s representation of its setting for the sake of allowing players to stay focused on strategy rather than rules.

I generally want my games to be as close to abstract as possible without actually being abstract. I have an irrational phobia of truly abstract games, which undoubtedly stems from my incompetence at Chess and Go, but extends further to create a distrust of Project GIPF (despite its wonderfully tactile components). This phobia is not irrational because of the games I avoid as a result, but rather is irrational because of the games I nonetheless enjoy. For example, I firmly believe that Through the Desert is one the very best eurogames ever designed, but I’ll also be the first to admit that the “pasted on” epithet applies more so to this Knizia gem than just about any other game out there. I also really enjoy Pingvinas (better known as Packeis am Pol to the BrettspielWelt addicts out there, and even better known by the title that rivals Adel Verpflichtet’s butchering at the hands of Uberplay as Hey! That’s My Fish!). While not in the same echelon as Through the Desert, Pingvinas is another example of a game where the theme is essentially irrelevant (except for the fact that it reminds me of the excellent Madagascar Penguins Christmas Caper short), but the designers have clearly prioritized simplicity and streamlined the rules so that players can focus on strategizing and planning their moves without any chance of being foiled by a unremembered or misremembered rule or any chance of having their win tainted by having an opponent lose at the hands of the rules. These are just two examples of games with “pasted on” themes (i.e., themes that are irrelevant to gameplay and could easily be replaced by an alternative theme) that succeed with simplicity.

What has all this got to do with Kreta? Despite the fact that Kreta has never been published in English, so all of the cards and player aids are in German, everyone who I taught it to and played it with was able to quickly grasp the entire rule set without difficulty and to operate within the metes and bounds of those rules throughout the game without needing English components. The rules truly did fade into the background once the game started because they had been streamlined to the point where they were intuitive and there weren’t any superfluous rules. This allowed players to compete on a level playing field on the basis of their strategy (and in the case of Kreta, as opposed to Through the Desert, a good deal of luck as well), not their capacity for remembering the intricacies of the rules, and I think made the game highly enjoyable for all involved.

This does not mean that the best eurogames need to be easy. Simplicity should not be mistaken for easiness (because even a more difficult game like Age of Steam can embody simplicity with its prioritizing of the ability to plan over the ability to remember). Games need to have a strategic depth that rewards repeated plays and keeps them from getting stale too quickly, and while it’s admittedly far from an easy task to achieve simplicity and depth together, the stars have aligned enough times and for enough designers to allow a sizeable collection (perhaps too sizeable) for those of us who prize simplicity.