The “Playfulness” Property of Strategy Games

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the properties that I appreciate the most in strategy games, and going through my collection of games I noticed a trend about my favorites. They all exhibited a high degree of an element called playfulness (term suggested by Keith Burgun, we talk a bit about it on his podcast here. Alternative names might be Smooth, Easy, Intuition-Rewarding and Streamlined)

To describe the property, let me first use a counterexample.  There is a common design aspiration to make games “simple to learn,but hard to master”. Games like Chess and Go embody this; they are both simple to learn (they have low inherent complexity/few rules) and hard to master/deep (they still exhibit a varied and interesting strategy space after a ton of intense study and play).

On the other hand, Caverna, StarCraft and Keyflower are quite complex and deep, but in my experience also don’t lend themselves to playfulness. In StarCraft, it can often feel like you are on a knife’s edge, and one wrong move can send the game spiraling out of control. In Caverna, it can often feel like there are large amounts of information you could be studying/calculating (like the building market), but don’t because it is overwhelming or tedious. (This can be a big problem if other players don’t mind the calculation).

So I’m not talking about simplicity/complexity, and I’m not talking about depth. (Although depth is  another property I aspire to in BrainGoodGames)

Instead playfulness refers to a property of games that encourages players to play with their gut/creatively, and minimizes the incentives to calculate/count/solve. Games that have this property include Race for the Galaxy, Wingspan and The Castles of Burgundy.

Race for the Galaxy is quite complex, and notoriously difficult to learn to play, but when I play I am often playing by feel rather than calculating out card probabilities or doing a lot of calculation. I think this in part can be attributed to the fact that you know some of the properties of the draw deck but not to an exhaustive degree.

The Castles of Burgundy also has quite a bit of inherent rules complexity, but gains a lot of playfulness by utilizing something I like to refer to as an “action funnel“. There are a ton of possible varied game states, actions and effects possible in the game, but on your turn you are constrained to actions that correspond to the values on the two dice you rolled. In this way you can focus your attention on a smaller part of the game system.

This player only has actions for a “3” and a “1” readily available to them (they can adjust them, but at an efficiency cost, so the heuristic to just focus on those values can be useful.

Wingspan also features an “action funnel” in that there are only 4 possible “main” actions available each turn (play a bird, or activate one of 3 habitats). In addition, it also features a system of “sub-goals” like “collect a bunch of birds with large wingspans” or “be the player with the most birds that have eggs on them”. It also features “sub-goals” on the bird cards themselves, such as a bird that encourages you to play birds with a certain nest type to gain more eggs.

“Sub-goals” on cards is also used by the 6-cost development cards in Race for the Galaxy, with similar effects. Players that are lost in the complexity of the game state can use the “sub-goals” as ready made heuristics to circumvent calculation and aid decision making. The labor-intensive process of picking through the huge decision tree can be circumvented with the expectation that the “sub-goals” are at least sometimes reasonable to pursue. (As the player plays more they can replace this rough heuristic with subtler/more context dependant ones)

Here are a few other game design techniques I have thought of that can contribute to playfulness (i.e encourage players to play with their gut):
Action Funnels
Turn timers/real time games
-Simultaneous actions/”Yomi” mechanics/Donkeyspace
-Information horizon/ambiguity engines
-Trying to not punish player’s mistakes too harshly
-Increasing the complexity threshold until players give up calculating
-Using systems amenable to pattern recognition/chunking
-Avoiding snowballing mechanics
-Allowing risky play/”going all in”/comeback potential
-Thematic nudges (suggested by Keith Burgun) like having a cute, low-stakes or unthreatening theme

I plan to elaborate on some of these in future articles, but hopefully you get a sense for the concept and why it might be useful to optimize for. I’d be very interested to hear any ideas you have about techniques for maximizing playfulness so please leave a comment, drop by the discord or tweet at me @brickroaddx. If you’re interested in games made with an eye towards playfulness, please sign up for the BrainGoodGames mailing list here.

7 thoughts on “The “Playfulness” Property of Strategy Games”

  1. You’ve done your research! This shows your passion of game development and specifically strategic playfulness. Brilliant!

  2. Thanks for your post and ideas! I’m thinking about some kind of a missing element since a while, where your “playfulness property” fits perfectly into:
    IF play is something evolving / emerging out of game…
    AND every game has a toy in its core (as hinted by the idea of “build the toy first”)…
    THEN playfulness MUST be the significant experience of each game.
    But it is hard to find concepts diving more deep into this type of a categorisation of playfulness. Sure, you can refer to Caillois or Sutton-Smith or even De Koven, but I have the feeling there must be something more directly game design related. Should every game be more like a sandbox in its core?
    I like your approach and arguments a lot.
    Any ideas? Or am I missing something?

    1. Hey glad you’re finding it useful! It’s been something I’ve had a hard time putting my finger on/articulating for a long time too!

      I would shy away from staying that “every” game should maximize playfulness. Rather I think of it more that high-playfulness games are something I want to strive towards in my own work, as those are the sorts of things I tend to have the most fun playing.

      Some players seem to be much more mastery/competition focused, or enjoy doing “system 2” type calculation, arithmetic, analysis and “proofreading”, and games that are closer to perfect information/lower playfulness might be more suited to them.

      I forgot about Caillois categories! Will have to re-read. Haven’t heard much about the others.

  3. Excellent article. Playfulness is one of my favorite elements in design. It’s that thing that invites curious exploration. Often rewards you for it, but sometimes hits you on the head. It keeps changing over time to keep you on your toes. Allowing you to make the best judgments in the current situation with everything you’ve learned about the world. 🙂

    Have you by any chance read: The Aesthetic of Play by Brian Upton? It goes into a lot of detail on the topic.

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