Complexity and Learning in Games

For all the complaints about the new SimCity, I think one standout feature is the way complexity is layered into the game design to provide an elegant way of introducing more rules and options into the game environment. I call it layered because the game begins with a few needs—housing, roads—and slowly introduces additional needs and problems as you gain mastery over the former, leading to a pleasing process in which players feel like they are mastering game objectives and using that knowledge on new challenges.


This isn’t a new idea and has been core to keeping games challenging for ages, like the speed increase in Tetris. Instead, I want to use these examples to think about how we learn about games and how varying levels of complexity presents challenges to designing game learning. I mention this because I’ve been recently playing Crusader Kings II, a real-time strategy game developed by Paradox Interactive that simulates dynastic struggles in the Middle Ages. I am passingly familiar with war-games and other grand strategy titles, but I don’t typically play them. The closest I come to those genres is the Civilization series, which could be considered light-weight in comparison.

Crusader Kings II is complex, and that complexity is not doled out in bits and pieces. You start in the middle of it all, like an anti-SimCity example. There is a lot to grasp; I paused the game for 30 minutes before feeling comfortable enough to actually start. Yes, there is a tutorial, but it mainly consists of some audio and paragraph blurbs without providing a holistic overview of the game itself.

I’m not complaining. Sure, the tutorial could be better designed, but I’m not faulting Crusader Kings II for being overly complicated or designing such that the game’s full system is in immediate view. I don’t think that level of complexity is a result of poor design. After all, games are made for audiences, and while I appreciate games that can build a learning curve that is easy to digest, I also realize that some games aren’t intended to work like that. At the same time, I never made it very far in Crusader Kings II, even after watching tutorial videos. I felt like my grasp was incomplete, which can be a frustrating experience. So is there a better way for game learning to be presented?

Most games make some attempt at introducing core game concepts through a tutorial. The tutorial experience usually follows a familiar path: a slow explanation of the very basic—moving around, clicking—to some essential need-to-knows. The fun factor for tutorials is low. It usually doesn’t move the game plot, it’s typically a mixture of painfully obvious (the scroll wheel zooms!) and rare tidbits of usefulness, and the tutorial stakes are low. I’ve never jumped into a tutorial experience with excitement because the general sentiment is that they hold you back from the real stuff, the actual game.

Board games do not approach the learning experience through tutorial because the medium presents its own difficulties. Nobody can be there to hover over you and guide your hand toward what’s what; rather, the board game learning experience typically consists of one person reading the rules while others’ eyes glaze over. Then, 30 minutes later, the one person paying attention has the burden of re-explaining as the game is played out. And even then, that first play-through usually lacks the strategic knowledge needed to fully understand the game.


This approach relies on a single person to digest all information, stalls actual play, and creates a prohibitive learning curve because all game information is learned prior to play, forcing players to abstract that information into future scenarios they haven’t experienced. There are methods used to alleviate some of these pain points. Systemized keywords and symbols help conventionalize game terms so that everyone is speaking the same language. Sometimes that can become burdensome (a few Race for the Galaxy cards spring to mind).

A few weeks ago Aaron, some friends and myself tried out VivaJava, a beautifully crafted game about coffee production. That said, we weren’t prepared for the complexity of the game and had only slotted an hour or so for playing, so after looking at the number of pieces and the number of pages in the rulebook, we scrapped it for another time. I’m sure this is an experience every gamer has encountered. Jokingly, one of our friends said that there should be a video series devoted to explaining complicated games.


All of which is to say that there seems to be no completely satisfactory method to learn a game. The number of approaches that digital and board mediums have taken shows that designers are still experimenting with the process. I don’t think a single approach will fit all game types, but more effort should be focused on the issue. Sheri Graner Ray at Gamasutra addresses this same issue more eloquently than I do, diving into learning types, which raises additional questions if a single approach is possible considering the variety of ways people learn. Ray’s answer is to provide a non-binding, yet repetitive approach that lets bored gamers skip ahead while allowing others to try over and over until they feel comfortable.

I don’t have a specific answer to these questions, but I do think that board games should think beyond the rule booklet and trying to integrate the learning experience into the game itself. The only way I can see that working is through a similar path like SimCity: start with a few elements, and then every once and a while introduce a new element with new rules. That of slow revelation may seem to tedious for some, but I do think a key element of game enjoyment is a fast and natural method of learning the game. Without concentrating more on that design I worry some games will fall short of their true potential

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