The Most Common Design Mistake

I’m back home for vacation and playing a lot of tabletop games with my friends and family. While a  lot of my friends are deep-dive hardcore gamers, my family tends to look at a tabletop and think “coffee and conversation” rather than “dungeons and dragons”.

Here’s the thing: My family often enjoys games of deep strategy, even if they don’t admit it. My father loves chess, and my mother is a wizard at many difficult cardgames played with a classic 52 card deck. However, they tend to have a very difficult time getting invested in many “better” strategy games. This even applies to many games we’d normally consider “simple”, with rules we can teach very quickly.


The most common design mistake in strategy titles.

There are two types of puzzles you can create in a strategy game. They are…

1) What is the best way to accomplish my objective?

2) What the heck am I even trying to do? What does a good move even look like?

The first question is something anyone can dig into, assuming the game has a reasonably simple ruleset. The second is where the problems set in.

The most important issue to overcome with new players is uncertainty. Uncertainty paralyzes players, makes turns drag out and makes decisions less satisfying. Players should instantly have a clear understanding of what they’re trying to accomplish and what a good move looks like. Then, with that sign-posted certainty, they can work on figuring out how to accomplish those goals.

I recently played Forbidden Desert with my mother, a very challenging co-op title. It was a huge hit, and in her second game she found better moves than I did on several turns (which is impressive when you consider she’s a board-game novice and I’ve played Forbidden Desert many times). Many simpler games have caused her endless confusion, but Forbidden Desert worked well. Why? Because I was able to tell her, “Our goal is to flip over as many desert tiles as possible, as efficiently as possible, but without running out of water or sand tiles.” With that guideline, she could quickly puzzle out the most efficient way to accomplish these goals.

However, I recently showed her a physical copy of Gwent. The original Gwent’s rules are so simple that they can be explained in under a minute, far less learning time than Forbidden Desert.

She quickly put it down, saying it was too complicated for her. Why?

Simple. Gwent’s objectives are very foggy. Your goal is to win 2 out of 3 rounds with mostly the same collection of cards. In round 1, this makes it *very* difficult to figure out what you want to do on your turn. Do you want to play a really high number card or do you want to save it for later? It’s not clear what a good move looks like.

In the Witcher 3, Gwent’s card base was so simple that this layer of uncertainty is where all the strategy came from. This worked beautifully for the simple cards of the original game.

In the new standalone version of Gwent that is in beta right now, this added layer is causing significant issues for new players. On top of that strategic layer of uncertainty, you also have lots of cards with special abilities that require calculation to figure out just how much they’ll swing the powers on the board by, and of course you need to play around all your opponent’s potential for mischief. Then once you figure all that out, you still have to determine if that even looks like a good move or not. Showing the standalone version of Gwent to someone who has never played the base game in The Witcher 3 is often an exercise in madness.

TLDR: When making a strategy game, make sure new players can instantly tell what a good move looks like (or at least THINK they can, it’s okay if they value the wrong things so long as they’re confident in their understanding of their goal). Build the strategy around how best to accomplish that goal, not figuring out what their goal should be.

One thought on “The Most Common Design Mistake

  1. “Players should instantly have a clear understanding of what they’re trying to accomplish and what a good move looks like. Then, with that sign-posted certainty, they can work on figuring out how to accomplish those goals.”

    Exactly this.

    Also, thank you for bringing up the issue of explanation time. Often, the length of time to explain a game will shed light on whether the objective is clear. But this isn’t always the case. ‘Choose a profession, draw some card, and get as many VPs as possible’ sounds clear, but if the gameplay is riddled with multiple interacting mechanics, hidden knowledge, situational events, and worse still – exceptions.

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