Tuesday 10 July 2012

Short Games

I've had a draft of this sitting around for a while. Then this post by @potatojin showed up and made this a lot easier to finish because now I can just refer to that for half of what I wanted to say: I Like Short Songs.

To summarise his post:
- Short games are awesome.
- A short game is one that you can get good at, because you can play it over and over again. Replayability is excellent.
- Designing a small game, you can hold the entire thing in your head and really make sure it works, rather than just building up a structure and hoping.

I've heard a few times recently games the length of movies described as "short". Let me be clear here: 3 hours is not short. A short game is one you can play multiple times in one sitting. If you play a game and it takes 3 hours, you're not about to play it again today. It's much harder to get good at a game if you can't play it more than once in a row; a tight feedback loop really helps with learning, being able to try out different approaches, see how they work, rethink them, and try again while the previous attempt is still fresh in your mind.


Let's use the classic Sid Meier aesthetic for games; "a series of interesting decisions" - for different aesthetic goals the following is going to be largely meaningless. What makes a decision interesting? I see two aspects: ambiguity and consequence. If there's no ambiguity, if it's obvious what the correct option is, there's no real choice at all. If there's no consequence, if a decision has no real impact on the game, it's similarly a fake choice.

It's implicit in the word "decision" that there's some level of ambiguity and consequence. These aren't binary values though; a decision can be more or less ambiguous and more or less consequential. So we can ask how much ambiguity, how much consequence a decision should preferably have. This is going to have different answers for different people, but for me: I like decisions ambiguous enough to not be obvious, but not so ambiguous that I'm just choosing blindly; there need to be clear reasons to pick one option over another. I like decisions to be quite strongly consequential, to feel like they have a significant impact on the game; I don't enjoy micromanaging for incremental gains.

This last is a reason I like games to be short. In a smaller game, there's room for more consequential decisions. Shorter games have a higher density of decisions; either you cram the same number of choices into a smaller amount of time, or you have fewer choices but more consequential.

Consider the board game 7 Wonders: it lasts for 18 turns, and on each turn you make one main decision. So on average, each of these decisions contributes 5.6% of your total influence on the game. There are 3-7 players, so each turn you're determining about 1% of the outcome of the game. That might seem like a small number, but it's a big chunk compared to a game like Civilisation, where you make thousands of little decisions across hundreds of turns and several hours of play, and most of them don't matter in the slightest. (It's odd that for all that "interesting decisions" are famously Meier's idea of what makes a game good, I find his own games pretty terrible in that regard, being over-long and riddled with tedious micromanagement.)

There's a possible counterargument here that I'd like to acknowledge. I'm measuring the consequence of a choice by what proportion of the game it affects, how much it affects the outcome. But in a longer game, there's scope for pivotal decisions with a larger absolute effect, that still have an impact hours later because the game is still going. However, there can't be many such decisions; I'll take big decisions in a small game over a few giant decisions mixed in with hours of micromanagement.


I'm going to make an analogy with chaos theory, and I'm not going to be very precise - vague and inaccurate analogies to chaos are traditional, even among chaos theorists themselves. Roughly speaking, the study of chaos deals with systems that are neither easy nor completely impossible to predict. Systems balanced between order and disorder, that produce interesting complex behaviour according to deterministic rules. As you evolve a chaotic system, you get feedback effects - positive feedback amplifying perturbations, or negative feedback damping them. There's a delicate balance there, it's easy for them to fall into order or disorder.

Similarly for games, they're best when balanced between predictability and randomness. Positive feedback helps whoever is winning to maintain their lead, and negative feedback helps their opponents to catch up. Both of these are valuable effects: If there's no way to catch up, then the outcome of the game is determined near the start and there's no consequence to subsequent decisions - order. But if it's not an advantage at all, if it's too feasible to make a comeback, then the outcome ends up being essentially random - disorder.

This balance pushes games towards being short. It's easy enough to make a game behave chaotically for a little while, but it's very difficult to maintain it for an extended period - to have whoever's in the lead benefit from it, but still have their opponents having a chance of dethroning them; to have the game continually progress without falling into order or disorder.

But even if you break the balance in either direction, it's not so harmful if the game is short. When positive feedback kicks in and the winning player can't possibly lose, that's dull for them and horribly frustrating for any opponents, but it doesn't matter if the game's over pretty soon after that - it's when it drags on for another hour that there's a problem. Similarly, if there's no way to hold onto a lead and the game constantly swings back and forth, that's frustrating if it goes on for a long time and nobody can make progress, but it's okay in a short game because you only need to be ahead for a short time to win.


  1. Good post, but from my perspective you skip over the meat of the issue as obvious. Can I rewind a little?

    You say that "short games" are replayable. That sounds good, as you say. But when I criticise a game as "too short", which I frequently do, it's never a game of that form. By this I mean that I do not intend to replay it so I got 3 hours of play in total for my $10.

    So, back one step: When a player declares a three hour game to be too short, instead of responding "That's not short!" maybe we should ask how they feel about its replayability? If they indeed don't feel like replaying it then the game has indeed failed in some way, even if the player expressed it in a different way from the objections you might have raised.

    1. Yeah, a 3-hour game can be "too short" if it's not worth replaying. This is more a problem with developers making games to be consumed once then discarded than with players having bad expectations about length.

      Although - I'm not sure 3 hours of play for $10 is a bad ratio (need to calculate average amounts of leisure time and disposable income and estimate number of entertainers a given population can support). I'm totally gaming the system with ZiGGURAT by getting 30+ hours of play for $1.

    2. I tend to buy and judge games on 'well, how much money would I waste in an arcade' analogy. A bog standard arcade game with some nifty peripheral (say, Time Crisis, or what have you), is about a buck. It'll last 5 to 10 minutes.

      By that standard most every indie game that's under 10 bucks is usually 'worth it', to me if I enjoy it for an hour. But, usually, if I really enjoy a gameplay concept or the world or the feel, I'll play it for around 5-10 hours.

      I don't think I've personally ever not liked a game because it was 'too short'. Crappy gameplay, horribly mechanics, no feel, sure.

  2. Another dimension I'm interested in is the ability for players to make intuitive big decisions about their strategy (of which the turn-to-turn tactical choices are a small component) and see how those choices pan out in determining the winner. So for instance in Dominion, even a beginner player can articulate something like, "I'm going to try to buy a lot of money this game," and it will be obvious that hey, this game I end up having a lot more money in my hand, and it allows me to do this but not that.

    I'd say Race for the Galaxy ("Military!") and Ticket to Ride ("I'm gonna try a bunch of short routes this time") have similar qualities, but other short games have problems with it. You can usually decide on a vague strategy in Seven Wonders ("Let's get a lot of science!"), but I've always felt like the effect of that decision was hard to perceive at the end of the game--basically, you win because of arithmetic, not because your command of the green cards allowed you to be more efficient in your Age III purchases or whatever. In some sense this is the large-scale version of chaos: it can be easy (like in Seven Wonders or San Juan) to learn how your decisions affect the turn-to-turn balance of resources, but tough to get feedback on how that plays into the overall arc of the game.

    On a completely unrelated note, Brog, have you designed any board games? A lot of your writing, as well as the mechanics of the Kompendium games (particularly Ora et Labora, Exuberant Struggle, and Chang Chang) have an intense board game sensibility to them, so I'm curious if you've made anything in that field.

    1. Yeah, that's what I'm talking about with trying different approaches and seeing how they work out; short games let you test out the different paths and learn.

      Although, I don't think it's great for a game if you can pick a strategy at the start and just follow it through like a script. Dominion and Puerto Rico suffer somewhat from this - the turn-to-turn tactics can still be interesting, but to a large extent you pick your course at the start of the game and nothing ever makes you change it. Race for the Galaxy though, while there are clear-cut "strategies" you can commit to - military, production, aliens, etc. - doing so is usually sub-optimal; expert players usually end up with a mixture. The clear strategies still make the game easier to learn though.

      I've tried making board games a few times, but nothing worth mentioning yet. I'm not sure if it's because it's inherently harder than designing videogames, or because once I start coding a game it starts to feel "real" and that makes it easier to keep going.
      (this is my proudest little bit of board game design: http://www.riograndegames.com/news.html?id=31)