Designing by Deleting

It’s easy to get carried away while designing a game. Everyone has a mountain of ideas, and anything goes during the early exploratory phase of creating a game. But once the core gameplay emerges and major flaws are resolved, game design becomes more about focus.

It really comes down to two questions when evaluating whether some new addition or change belongs in the game. What problem does it solve, and does it enhance the core gameplay?

Early on when designing Fantastic Factories, I realized that I discovered something fun and playable. Fantastic Factories is a game that uses cards, dice, and resources. Discovering all the ways these elements could interact was awesome and a great exercise in creativity. But once I started showing and teaching the game to people outside of my core play testing group it became clear to me how complex the game had gotten.

Fantastic Factories is largely a card game and the beauty of card games is that the majority of the game “rules” are written on the card itself. As Donald X (designer of Dominion) has said, “Because you don’t need to learn those rules to play, which is fantastic … they sprawl in their secret way.”

Fantastic Factories is also a tableau building game (that means those cards remain in play in front of each player). When players have to be able to read other players’ cards from across the table, you want to use iconography over words and keep it as simple as possible.

As a game designer, I wanted to explore unique situations and stretch the capabilities of each card but I began to realize that simplicity and focus was more important than supporting fringe scenarios. You should eliminate an extra line of text or secondary functionality if the card still serves its original purpose without it.

When introducing the game to new players, simplicity is key. Simplicity leads to focus, and focus creates tight and intuitive gameplay. The fewer rules and fiddly bits there are to a game, the cleaner and easier it will be to play.

Turns out that nobody really bothered to activate Refinery twice in the same turn. Removing it keeps the card pure and simple.

To provide a concrete example, in Fantastic Factories, the Refinery used to be able to be activated twice. The reality is that the second activation didn’t solve any particular problem, and it was rarely used so I eliminated that extra functionality, and it cleaned up the card immensely. Players were then able to understand the card from across the table without having to read fine print details. A single line of text may not seem like a big deal, but when new players have to absorb the content of many cards, it all adds up and can become intimidating.

2x build is cool, but rarely used. Removing it simplified the card while still maintaining the spirit of what it’s supposed to do.

I gave Constructor the same treatment. Being able to build twice seemed cool but it rarely happened because of the resource cost. Once again, it wasn’t solving any particular problem so I removed it.

As you enter into your 100th or 200th play through of your game it may be tempting to add in extra gameplay elements but you need to ask yourself, what are the current problems with the game and does adding this help solve those problems? The game may begin feeling stale once it’s stable and you’ve been play testing it for a while, but keep in mind that the average board game is played fewer than 10 times. Resist the urge to add complexity to your game for complexity’s sake. In fact, do the opposite. Analyze each piece of your game and decide, is this really necessary?

Let me know your thoughts in the comments and if there are any particular games you feel have really tight focus in its game design.