There are two ways to make gameplay “feel” more thematic: by letting players do thematic things, and by having players do those things in thematic ways. Both of those approaches can work, but the former creates more room for design errors and balancing pitfalls. Achieving thematic play through a focus on how players carry out their tasks, rather than by letting them choose from the broadest possible array of options, is thus the safest course.
Many games seek to create immersion by matching play to theme. In fact, getting play and theme to line up is often considered central to having a compelling game. One need only compare the rave reviews given to the experience of playing a driving game with wheel and pedals to the critiques of board games with “pasted on” themes to see the great importance placed on theme coming out through action, and not just through art.
At Your Fingertips: Immersion Through Plentiful Options
Play and theme are frequently connected by seeking to give players all the options they would have if they were “really there.” Thus, in Starfleet Battles—a game of Star Trek space combat—players can use the transporter to move crew members . . . or to beam proximity mines near opposing ships. Shuttles can be sent out to act as fighter craft that harass the enemy vessel, or even to ram them. Whatever a person in the setting might be able to do, games like Starfleet Battles seek to let the player do. The hope is that the player will therefore feel herself an inhabitant of the fictional world.
Unfortunately, this approach has two major weaknesses. First, its limitations quickly become apparent. Shuttles in Starfleet Battles can’t (to my knowledge) have their engines tied into their parent ship’s engines, even though that’s something a starship captain who’s “really there” might want to do. Transporters can’t be used to reposition asteroids to act as navigational hazards, or to pluck out key pieces of opposing vessels, or for many of the infinite uses one might find for pinpoint matter relocation. It’s just not realistic to give the player every option, and before too long the player starts to notice these invisible walls.
Second, and more critically, the quest to make all the possibilities accessible to the player leads to severe design issues. Options might be so unrelated to each other as to need entirely different mechanisms to be satisfying: adding diplomacy to Starfleet Battles, for example, would mean more than just putting a “Talk” entry on the weapon charts. Bringing a wide range of strategies into a game’s ambit can quickly lead to the worst kind of feature-creep.
Even if whole new mechanics are not required, giving players additional choices still opens a can of worms. New capabilities imply a need for counter-capabilities, which may themselves require counter-counter-capabilities. If I could tie the shuttles into main power to get stronger phasers, my opponents would probably need access to better shields lest they get steamrolled by my Voltron-ship—and then I would need a way to break those shields when I don’t have a bunch of shuttles available. Complexity mounts as the options pile up.
By itself, complexity is generally something to be avoided. It’s particularly to be feared in this context, though, because game-breaking design problems lurk below its surface. Left unchecked, the profusion of choices and counter-choices leads to a game that is balanced (hopefully, anyway—it would be hard to tell) but nigh-impossible for anyone but the most invested players to come to grips with. Intimidating rulebooks are not conducive to attracting or retaining people!
Some miniatures games fall prey to this situation. Rules stack on rules: this faction gets to be invisible, so another faction gets tools to see through the invisibility, and then the first faction needs a new trick because invisibility isn’t reliable anymore. The see-through-invisibility faction can also see people hiding in underbrush, so now the “guerilla fighters” faction gets caught in the crossfire, and they need something new as well. By the time balance is restored the rules are a lot thicker!
Moreover, that’s not the worst possible outcome. Arguably a greater danger is the possibility that some choice won’t get its counter, or that the counter will prove too weak. Sooner or later players will notice, and when they do the game will devolve toward a dominant strategy. At that point the game will still be learnable, but it will no longer be worth learning!
Fighting games sometimes end up in that unfortunate situation. Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike is a lot of fun . . . but the things that were supposed to keep Yun’s Genei Jin super move in check didn’t work out. The entire game warped around the Genei Jin, such that much of 3rd Strike strategy boils down to landing or avoiding it. 3rd Strike is a tremendous entry in the pantheon of fighting games—more current games struggle to live up to its art, and that’s to say nothing of the gameplay—but among its astonishing wealth of options an overpowered one slipped through.
Giving players lots of capabilities is, therefore, a double-edged sword. It can contribute to immersion, making the player feel like she is “really there.” However, it can also highlight the options that aren’t available, and can lead to problems with complexity and balance. There are thus good reasons to think that a different approach to immersion might be more attractive.
Tending the Earth: Immersion Through Focus on Process
One such is to put emphasis, not on providing a wealth of choices, but on the nitty-gritty of each individual option. Rather than allowing shuttles to do 10 things (but not any of the 90 others one might want, and #8 is too good owing to a miscommunication with the playtesters), they might only do two—but executing each of those options is challenging and rewarding. Players thus feel that they’re “really there,” not because they can do anything they might choose, but because they get involved in carrying out the choices they make.
As an example, we might go back to flight simulators. Flight sims don’t really have very many options. Players can’t choose instead to drive a tank, or fight on foot, or resolve the issue diplomatically, or apply pressure through NGOs. Many don’t even have any sort of combat; the only thing players do is take off from one airfield, fly in a more-or-less straight line, and then land at another!
Yet, these games have enduring appeal—and that’s because they’re so good at capturing the process. A good flight sim makes the player feel like he’s the captain of the flight, living an entirely different life. Managing the plane is not easy, but doing it well feels great, and having to attend to all of the details maximizes the “you are there” feeling.
This approach to immersing a player in theme can be just as satisfying as providing lots of options. What’s more, it’s much safer from a design perspective. Since options are not proliferating, there’s less need to be concerned about layering of counters and counter-counters. It’s easier to recognize each possibility, to understand its full implications, and to ensure that it’s balanced within the game.
Furthermore, games taking this approach are often easier to learn. Actions have clear implications: do X to achieve Y, at which point you’re ready to do Z. That kind of stepwise process is much more intuitive than a slew of rock-paper-scissors relationships, many in number and some of them (all of them?) involving more than three possibilities.
This is not to say that games focusing on process necessarily have shorter rulebooks, or that they are easy to learn in an absolute sense. Falcon 4.0, a now-venerable flight sim, memorably came with a technical manual describing how to fly an F-16 in such depth that it served as the game’s packaging! By the time a player was ready to take on missions in Falcon 4.0, she was well on the way to actually being able to handle a real Fighting Falcon.
The point instead is that process is easier to learn than arbitrary counters and counter-counters. Falcon 4.0 was workable for those willing to invest the requisite time; a list of options as long as Falcon’s technical manual would have been completely unplayable. Given a length of rules, those rules will probably be easier to grasp if they’re about process than if they’re about alternatives.
As a recent example of how this approach works, let’s look at Agricola. Agricola is a highly-rated game about farming set in Middle Ages Europe. Players feed their families, and farming is the only way to do it; there’s no option to become a trader, or to resort to banditry.
That limitation might seem unthematic—why can’t I apprentice myself to the local builder, and raise beautiful cathedrals for a living?—but it leads to a much better design. First, the game is surprisingly easy to learn considering how much is going on. There’s worker placement and cards and resources and a mini-map for each farm, but the focus on process makes it all manageable. Whenever a player isn’t sure how to do something, he can just ask “well, what steps would I take if I really were a farmer?” The answer is usually very close to how it works in the game.
In addition, focusing on process allows Agricola to create variety in a way that avoids balance issues. One of the major strategies in Agricola can be summarized as “feed the family with grain products;” another is “feed the family with meat from farm animals.” So long as those macro-level options are kept balanced, it’s much easier to let players acquire grain or animals in lots of different ways suitable to middle ages townspeople. The limitations on the “grain strategy” and the “animal strategy” as a whole provide a safety valve and ensure that none of them will get too far out of whack.
Experience has demonstrated that this works surprisingly well. Agricola has lots of cards that give players unique advantages, but only one has received official errata for power reasons. While other cards have prompted discussion as to whether they’re overpowered, the checks and balances that control all strategies—competition for action spaces, in particular—has served to, at the very least, keep the issue open. Limiting players’ food options to grain, vegetables, and meat keeps the number of things to be balanced reasonable, and that contributes to the game’s excellent play-balance track record.
Diplomacy is another example of a game about process rather than options. It offers players very few choices: they can move their pieces to a small number of neighboring locations, and try to bump other pieces out. Most of the elements that have come to be associated with the empire-building genre—technological advancement, a wide variety of military units, resources that build up—are absent. In fact, there are so few possibilities for much of the game that Diplomacy has named openings and defined midgame positions, in the manner of chess.
Nevertheless, Diplomacy is a deep, fascinating game. Like Agricola, the how is interesting even though the what is not; there are a lot of situations that could lead to “A Marseilles -> Piedmont,” all of them different and all of them worthy of exploring.
Furthermore, Diplomacy’s paucity of options helps maintain the balance that has kept it worthy of tournament play for decades. There’s no unexpected combo that can take a game over on the third turn, and no technology that hard-counters Austria’s primary weapon. Simplicity ensures that the multiplayer dynamics Diplomacy relies upon for balance have room to work.
There’s no one right way to achieve immersion—but there are ways that are more or less likely to cause problems in the long run. Providing lots of options, allowing players to try everything they might conceivably try if they were “really there,” is appealing but hard to do thoroughly and even harder to balance. Default instead to detailing the process of a smaller number of choices; the immersive effect can be just as powerful, and the design problems will be fewer.