CCGaDay Day 23: Most complicated CCG

Well, damn. Back on day 7, I talked about SimCity CCG as a complicated game. Completely forgetting that two weeks later, "complicated" was the term to use.

And when we're talking complicated, SimCity really is tops. But, we've already used it, so time to dig into some other games.

Complicated is a weird term, though. It can mean "lots to keep track of" (which SimCity qualifies as in spades), but that's not the only way a game can be complicated.

Take Magic, for example - the Comprehensive Rules for that game run several hundred pages - and have a disclaimer telling players *not* to read it. But if you buy a theme deck of Magic, it'll show you the rules on one-side of a poster. So, is it complicated or not?

The answer involves how a game deals with complexity. Magic is a pretty simple game at it's heart, and each block has three or four mechanics to teach you. Nothing too terrible. But if you take the entire history of Magic (which the comp rules do), you now have to explain *all* the mechanics. And how those mechanics interact with each other. And those really terribly-written cards from Alpha. You end up with a massive rulebook, but like a dictionary you never actually need to know all of it.

Trek 1E is more complicated - you need to hold more of the rules in your head. But again - the core game is pretty simple. Play cards, fly around, encounter dilemmas. The difference is that Trek never did a major re-write of the rules (so there's old 90s era idea in there), and unlike Magic, it's far more likely that you're using old cards - which means you need to deal with all those old interactions on a far more common basis.

I've always said that complexity and depth are different things. Depth is good in games - it adds replayability and strategy. Complexity is the price you pay for depth, and you want to make sure that it's spent wisely. SimCity has the problem that all it's complexity is really just number-crunching for scoring. It's the sort of thing you make a computer do. So the game suffers because instead of thinking about your next move, you're trying to count things.

Magic reduces complexity by cycling out old cards - you can add a new trick to care about here, and the game isn't more complicated because you removed an old trick at the same time. (At least in Standard or Block play - the assumption is that if you've got enough cards to play the larger formats, you've been around long enough to know what you're getting into).

The other trick for complexity is that a mechanic that "makes sense" can actually be complicated, but the player generally doesn't notice it (or more properly, it doesn't add a cognitive burden). Take cloaking in Trek 1E - I think there's 10 or 12 bullet points on what happens when you cloak. But it boils down to "you're there, but hiding". The bullet points deal with the mechanical implications, but most of the time you just need to know that you're invisible but still at the location. Keywords and consistent templating are good ways to hide complexity as well, by bundling complex concepts in simple, easy-to-remember wordings.

Of course, you can actually make your game more complicated if you screw this up. Being inconsistent with wording on cards is probably the #1 culprit. Having two cards that do the same thing, but are worded differently means that the player not only has to think twice about the same thing, they'll constantly be looking for the difference ("why does it say Y instead of X? It must do something different form X, right?"). The other culprit is overusing keywords by attaching too much (or too many different) mechanics to it. At that point the player can't remember what the keyword does (removing the advantage), plus since it's not written out on the card anymore, you have to pause the game to go read the rulebook! (Worth noting that Magic uses keywording a lot, but they put the short form of the rules as reminder text, just in case.)

All this has real-world implications as well - when you're teaching a game, you're trying to get a player hooked quickly. If they're new to CCGs, too much fiddly bits will scare them off. If they're already playing a game, you don't want them deciding that it's too much work to figure out a New Game. (Keep in mind that D&D is still around after all these years is because some players just can't be bothered to learn a second system. Magic has a lot of inertia that way as well).

An example.

The last three weeks have pretty much established that I play a lot of games. A lot of that is because I'm a rules junkie - I love seeing different mechanics at work. So, one year (apparently 2003 according to BoardGameGeek) I get sat down for a demo of Cyberpunk CCG. I likes the Cyberpunk, and I'm hoping to see something resembling Netrunner. OK, it's in the same universe, but it's different, that's fine. Then we get to character cards, and there's one who's a "Med-Tech". (The word is printed on the card). Turns out that there's a whole pile of gametext hiding behind that label. Two different abilities, and no hint on the card. And *all* the character types have extra abilities. And no hints on the card. That's when I bailed as politely as possible. (I think we'd already tackled a mess of other mechanics, and it was the last straw - I just have the memory of flipping through the little card-sized rulebook and going "yeah, I'm not going to want to remember all this").

So, moral of the story - complicated games aren't necessarily bad, if they handle it properly. And learn to do proper demos.

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