Exploring Fun and Game Complexity

Sometimes it’s the simple games.

Recently I bought a house and moved. It’s great that my wife and I own our living space… but moving sucks. We’re unpacked but I’m still very busy, getting things taken care of around the house, and that’s not likely to change anytime soon. Lasting disruption, basically.

I’m not sure if it’s that disruption or the weeks without gaming, but this past weekend I played some simple games with my group… and had a lot of fun doing it, even though I’m usually biased toward complex gameplay.

Let’s take a look at the desire for complexity in games and how it relates to fun.

What is a Complex Game?

What do I mean when I talk about simple or complex games? Game complexity is a relative thing. I think a game is more complex than some other game if, while playing it, the players bear a greater cognitive load.

If the game encourages players to take in more information, or develop more detailed or far-reaching strategies of play, that can make it more complex.

By this definition Poker is a fairly complex game. Yet it’s really the metagame bluffing aspect of Poker that brings the game to that level; the rules of Poker are actually pretty simple, stating how play progresses and how a hand comprised of one set of cards claims victory over another hand.

So I’ll extend my definition to state that I’m primarily interested in complex games where a significant portion of the complexity is in the rules as written, without considering the emergent metagame play such as Poker’s bluffing or Magic’s deckbuilding. Those are valid aspects of gameplay to consider, but I tend to ignore them while discussing complexity of games.

Back to examples. Magic is one of my favorite games. Jyhad and Robo Rally are a couple more examples of games I really enjoy which are rather complex. Dune, Cosmic Encounter, Netrunner. We didn’t play any of those games this past weekend nor anything at the same complexity level, and what surprised me is that I didn’t mind one bit.

What did we play?

  • Foosball (thanks, mom and dad, for the old table)
  • Vegas Showdown (somehow always enjoyable, even when I lose)
  • Adel Verpflichtet (aka “That German Game”, aka Lords & Thieves, aka Hoity Toity, etc.. also, that Scott in the link, of Board Games with Scott, is not me, a different Scott)
  • Gain Ground (a video game, but its design almost resembles that of a simple and elegant board game)
  • Bandu (like Jenga, but not…)

Every one of these was fun, and sits more toward the simpler end of the gaming spectrum.

Why Gravitate Toward Complex Games?

Many gamers I know who’ve been in the hobby for a while seem to seek out more complex games. I haven’t constructed a detailed theory, but my intuition suggests some reasons why that is the case.

Like other hobbies and activities, most gamers are introduced to the hobby through some simple games. There’s a natural need to progress which takes them beyond the simple and toward heartier fare.

It’s kind of like cartoons. Children’s cartoons are usually simple affairs, full of plucky characters following simple storylines. I tend to have trouble watching them now, but somehow when I was younger I devoured such shows.

People who manage to remain interested in the animated artform after they mature might seek out more complex programs, hence the popularity of mature anime like Ghost in the Shell which features more challenging ideas and complex storylines.

The same is true of games. I can remember playing games like Chutes & Ladders and Parcheesi as a kid, but these days I tend toward games which involve more mental energies.

If We Only Play One Game…

Busy gamers like myself just don’t have time these days. Sitting down with friends and trying to select a game to play, we might be choosing the one game that all of us play that night. It had better not be some waste-of-time fluff game.

Or so the consensus seems to go. I know I often feel this way, and I’m not alone. When gaming time is is spent dearly, we’re likely to buy more complex gameplay that we feel is worth it. This doesn’t always translate to more fun. However, it might translate to a greater likelihood of satisfying another “requirement”, namely escapism.

Games which encourage greater involvement, more attention and mental processing, might be more successful at pulling us into the “magic circle” created by the game, better at distracting us from the concerns and obligations of daily life. Whether we state it out loud or not, that’s often an important factor for us when game time rolls around; it’s certainly a factor for me.

Where Does Fun Come in?

While I haven’t had a chance previously to let these thoughts coalesce, I’ve been forming them on a subconscious intuitive level for some time. I’m sure on numerous occasions they’ve affected my decisions about which games to play. Which is why I was caught by surprise to discover how much fun I was having while playing a number of less complex games.

I think this is where the elusive quality of fun in games comes in. Here’s how: I’ve already stated that complex games do a good job of fulfilling the escapism requirement. Of absorbing players’ attentions. The same thing happens when having fun, even while playing a simple game; you lose sight of the world beyond the game’s magic circle and become focused on your interactions with the game and your fellow players.

Clearly this can happen without enormous complexity in a game. And it’s also true that a complex game which you’re not having fun playing can fail to draw you in, leaving you bored and less involved in gameplay.

Perhaps game complexity is an assisting factor, not capable of sustaining full involvement in the absence of fun, but given at least a little fun it might be enough to keep you occupied. Experience a lot of fun while playing a simple game and you’ll also be occupied. Fun is probably the more important quality, but maybe complexity can make up for loss of a little fun – or maybe complexity is a synergistic component which can amplify fun under the right conditions.

If fun really is an elusive condition that can’t always be reliably reproduced, your best bet in such uncertain circumstances may be to reach for the complex game. Even if you don’t succeed in having a tonne of fun, experiencing at least some fun while navigating the game’s complexities may be enough to keep you entertained.

Unless we, the players of complex games, have allowed ourselves to be deceived. How will we know? The best way to find out seems to be playing more games, simple and complex alike.

Further study is required.


    I’ve been thinking a lot about fun in games recently as well. I was thinking of doing some interviews of different games and ask questions like “Why do you play games?”.

    I have personally found many fairly simple games to be a lot of fun. History of the World is a fairly simple game but it was long the favorite of my circle.

    I think time of play needs to be considered in all of this as well. Race for the Galaxy is not a very complex game I suppose but it is more complex than some. Still, it is a fairly quick game which certainly helps its popularity in our circle.

    Good to have you back writing Scott, hope everything moves along with the moving!