BrettSpiel is a blog about board game design, written by game designer Brett J. Gilbert.

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Game Design 101: Simplicity

In which I consider (some of) John Maeda’s so-called ‘Laws of Simplicity’: what they are, what they mean, and how we might apply them to board game design.

I recently stumbled across the website of John Maeda, an American designer, artist and technologist who has written, amongst other things, a book called ‘The Laws of Simplicity’. The book’s subtitle is ‘Design, Technology, Business, Life’ and helps to explain the book’s focus. He is not primarily concerned with the inherent simplicity of the thing itself — be it a product, service or piece of technology — rather with the simplicity of the way in which we, as users, are permitted to interact with it.

In the book he enumerates 10 laws which should govern the process of ‘interaction’ or ‘experience’ design. The website lists these laws and explains a little about some of the concepts, although anyone interested in a full exposition is (reasonably enough) required to buy the book.

Board game design may not get a mention in Maeda’s book (I don’t know; I haven’t read it) but it seems to me that at least some of his laws apply just as well to game design as they do to other fields. After all, is not ‘interaction design’ an ideal description of what a game designer actually does?

Before we start the discussion of the laws themselves, I think it’s important to reiterate Maeda’s thesis, principally by stating what it is not: what he is not saying is that the objective of all design is somehow to create a ‘simple thing’. Instead he is saying that the ‘system’ being designed — the product, service, technology or indeed board game — may indeed be complex, and necessarily so, but that the ‘user’ — the game player in our case — will always benefit if the interaction with the system can be made as simple as possible.

And I personally think this must be true in all cases: for all ‘systems’ and all ‘users’. Anything less deliberately devalues the system in question, and is something of a slap in the face to the user! Anything less is (simply) bad design.

In Maeda’s scheme, each law is given a short title and a one-sentence description. (Maeda also created simple graphic representations of each law, which I include in this article.) I said I was only going to consider some of Maeda’s laws, and it is his first four that seem to me to have the most to tell us about game design:

  • Law 1: Reduce
    The simplest way to achieve simplicity is through thoughtful reduction.
  • Law 2: Organize
    Organization makes a system of many appear fewer.
  • Law 3: Time
    Savings in time feel like simplicity.
  • Law 4: Learn
    Knowledge makes everything simpler.

Some of the laws might be criticised as mere restatements of ‘common sense’. I personally think that even a restatement of the blindingly obvious can be useful, not least because so-called common sense isn't perhaps as common as it sounds!

Law 1: Reduce

Law 1 states that ‘the simplest way to achieve simplicity is through thoughtful reduction’, which is essentially a restatement of the ‘less is more’ principle albeit with the important corollary that any reduction must be ‘thoughtful’. Creating something that is less than it otherwise might be just for the sake of it is most definitely not the point.

How might this principle be applied to game design? First, remember that Maeda’s brand of simplicity refers to the user’s interaction with the system — the player’s interaction with the game — and not directly to the game itself. So one interpretation of the law is to consider the simplicity of the game rules and their presentation to the players (usually as a printed ruleset).

Any gamer knows that overly complex printed rules can be a massive stumbling block to new players of a game. And I think it’s clear that necessarily complex rulesets are intrinsically better, precisely because they are ‘simpler’. By ‘necessarily complex’ I mean rules that are as complex as they need to be but no more. Incomplete rules are just as bad, if not worse, than complete but badly written ones.

Writing a good ruleset is tough, and judging it ‘goodness’ is subjective (different readers will of course have different reactions and opinions), but I think adopting a principle of ‘thoughtful reduction’ is an excellent place to start!

Are the rules the only place that the game player interacts with the game? Not at all; every game component — the board, pawns, cards, dice, scorepads, etc. (the list is endless!) — each represent a point at which the player ‘meets’ the game. Hence they too are at their best if they are only ‘necessarily’ complex, and the intent behind the design of all these elements should be to make the game appear as simple and straightforward as possible. This statement doesn’t mean we should ‘dumb down’, by the way, or that all illustrative or whimsical design elements should be ruthlessly removed, only that features that may trip up or confuse the player should be removed or reconsidered through a process of (you guessed it!) ‘thoughtful reduction’.

What else can the game designer do? Well, if all else fails, he can simplify the game itself. Here we deviate a little from Maeda’s thesis, I think, since as I said he does not concern himself primarily with the simplicity of the thing itself, rather with the simplicity of the way in which people use it. However, the game designer, privileged and god-like, can do more, since he designs not only the solution but also the problem. He designs not only the presentation of the game (through its rules and components) but the essence of the game itself.

And my own experience has been that both evolve at the same time, and hence that there is a genuine opportunity to apply ‘thoughtful reduction’ at every step. Indeed, my own experience is that part of the fun is doing exactly that! For me the game design process can be a wonderful, surprising, alchemical distillation of a collection of problems and solutions into a game ‘system’ whose eventual ‘simplicity’ appeals personally and directly to me.

I constantly wonder if other designers see the process in the same terms, and even if they do I am once again at pains to point out that the need for ‘simplicity’ that Maeda espouses and I find so appealing does not mean that all games must be inherently ‘simple’. The goal of game design is to create a ‘good’ game (an obviously subjective qualification); an ancillary goal of mine is the ‘simplicity’ we have at length been discussing, and which is no less a subjective judgement. Your mileage, as the Americans say, may vary.

Law 2: Organize

Law 2 states that ‘organization makes a system of many appear fewer’, a maxim which allows us to make a direct observation about our ‘necessarily complex’ ruleset: that is, that complexity and structure are not the same thing. A complete, necessarily complex, yet badly structured ruleset can present as big a hurdle to players as an incomplete or needlessly complex one. Again, writing a well organized ruleset is difficult, and writing a perfectly organized one is often impossible! However, the designer must try if they wish to present their game in its best light.

This organization applies equally to the games components too, of course, just as the idea of ‘thoughtful reduction’ did. More specifically it applies to any game elements which contain information important to the gameplay. Components such as game boards, cards and player aids can all be ‘information rich’ and may bewilder the novice. Just because regular players will in time get used to the organization of your game’s information and learn how to adequately ‘read’ the game does not mean you should be careless in its organization and presentation to start with.

Law 3: Time

Law 3 states that ‘savings in time feel like simplicity’. This is a subtle point and makes most sense when applied to the sort of everyday products and services that we interact with, and that can often seem complex purely because they take a long time.

In board game terms, there are a couple of ways to interpret this law. Some games, for example, may take a long time to set up before play can start, a long time to ‘reset’ at certain points during play or perhaps simply a long time to understand. These steps may all be necessary, but it is the responsibility of the designer (or possibly the game developers working to publish a game) to design a game’s components and ruleset in a way that mitigates (as far as is practicable) the effort and time required by the players to undertake these steps.

It is also worth observing that the time taken to play a game is a metric often mapped directly to a game’s complexity and is sometimes used as a sort of shorthand when talking about a game’s strategic depth. So, in the same way that a long game is assumed to be ‘complicated’ by prospective players, a short game is usually assumed to ‘simple’ — this truth is, of course, precisely what Law 3 codifies.

A problem however may arise for the game designer if he creates a game that does not fit these assumptions. It is probably a good thing if you can create a short game that has strategic depth — the gaming community will likely congratulate you on the elegance and power of your design! — but it is conversely probably a bad thing to do the opposite, and create a long game that is strategically weak. At the very least your game is going to be a hard sell: casual gamers will be unlikely to want a game that takes so long to play, while hardcore gamers, more accustomed to longer playing times, may be left dissatisfied by your game’s lack of depth.

Law 4: Learn

Law 4 states that ‘knowledge makes everything simpler’. Maeda’s point is to suggest that a user’s experience of a system (a product or service) will appear simpler (and hence empirically better) the more knowledge the user possesses about the system. It is therefore a plea for the providers and designers of those systems to pay attention to the need to educate their users, possibly subtly and incrementally, about the products and services they create.

Which is all well and good, and fine and dandy, but what help is this possibly obvious observation to the game designer? My own view is that, rather like Law 3, by highlighting a natural assumption this law can offer its own warning to the game designer. It is of course true that knowledge of your game system will help your players experience it more ‘simply’; however, knowledge of other game systems that players bring with them and assume applies to yours may do precisely the opposite!

Your ruleset may indeed be both well structured and necessarily complex, but it is likely that the approach of most of your readers will be neither! New players are usually keen to get going with a game, and may skim through sections of the rules, all the time filling in the bits they haven't read word-for-word with assumptions, however small, about the game’s workings. Only the most diligent and careful readers will both read and take in every sentence. This slightly slapdash approach is simply human nature, and something that I am as guilty of as the next man.

So, as game designers, what can we do to prevent this? What can we do to make a new player’s experience of our game as correct (and therefore as simple) as possible? We can’t prevent people skipping ahead, nor can we know their personal assumptions, but we can do our best to mitigate this problem by putting ourselves firmly in the shoes of the new player. Are there any points in the game where something novel or counter-intuitive occurs? What are the game’s core rules and where are the exceptions to these rules? We must be prepared to think as carefully and as dispassionately about these issues as possible, and to take on board any and all criticism made by playtesters when they come up against these hurdles.

You can’t control whether players will actually like your game; but you can and must do your best to make damn sure they understand it!

The lessons of the laws

Hopefully I have highlighted how Maeda’s first four laws can be applied, usefully, to the process of board game design. As I said earlier, some of these conclusions may seem like nothing more than common sense, but if their analysis can help me (and hopefully you, dear reader) to think with greater clarity and purpose when designing a game then this has to be a good thing.

Of Maeda’s remaining laws, I shall mention only the last two. Law 9 states that ‘some things can never be made simple’, which seems sensible and even-handed advice. There is a lot to be said for these laws, but to follow any code slavishly, or not be prepared to fail when trying to match your design to these specific criteria, is unwise. And if your brilliant idea is somehow irreducibly complex, please do not let these so-called laws stop you from pursuing it!

Maeda presents a tenth and final law that he calls ‘The One’, which attempts to sum up his entire thesis. In a way it is a retelling of his first law, which established the principle of ‘thoughtful reduction’, although this time he points out that what you put in needs to be just as carefully considered as what you take out.

Simplicity is about subtracting the obvious, and adding the meaningful.

John Maeda

A corollary to all these laws is to point out that a thorough process of ‘thoughtful reduction’ will almost always reveal a tension between what you, the designer, wants the thing to be, and what the thing itself needs to be. And the greatest lesson a designer can learn is how not to be driven completely mad by the inability to reconcile these two ideals. Good luck and fair winds!

This article is part of a series examining various aspects of board game design. The story so far can be found at the following locations:

Interesting stuff!

It seems your link to thelawsofsimplicity.com is broken, and should simply be lawsofsimplicity.com.

This book looked so interesting that I just ordered it. Even if I don't read it, it will at least look good to have sitting around the office.

@Russ: Thanks for the note about the broken link. Ooops! I have now fixed it.

@Dennis: I hope you enjoy the book. It is at least short, I think. A long book about simplicity wouldn't have been terribly appropriate, after all!

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