You have probably heard before someone talking about a game system being elegant. Yet, there is currently no consensus over a specific definition nor a method to achieve it or improve it among game designers.
So I will try my best in this essay to define the way I interpret and work with elegance, confronting it with opinions of experienced and influential game designers along the way.
What designers say
For most designers, the definition lies in the relation between simplicity and complexity co-existing within a game or a system:
I’ve grown weary of games with many rules and/or many ways to earn VP´s. So, now I tend to design simple, elegant games.
- Rüdiger Dorn
We call simple systems that perform robustly in complex situations elegant. Elegance is one of the most desirable qualities in any game, because it means you have a game that is simple to learn and understand, but is full of interesting emergent complexity.
- Jesse Schell
The term “elegance” is often used to describe such games as I mention, but I prefer the word “simplexity,” by which I mean having the most complex and interesting interactions and outcomes which result from the simplest rules.
- Alf Seegert
What games are elegant
Despite the definition of elegance differing, most seem to agree on which games express it and why:
Ticket to Ride
Ticket to Ride is a competitive game in which players collect cards of different colors and spend them to build railroads to connect cities across the country.
[About Ticket to Ride] The one action per person per turn system is super elegant. It makes the game really easy to learn, but the game still allows for satisfying amounts of planning and strategy
Alan R. Moon’s Ticket to Ride is a game design masterpiece. […] Learning the rules is a snap because the game is so elegantly designed. It does a lot with very few rules. Players enjoy clear frameworks, not confusing ones.
- Paul Dennen
Settlers of Catan, Ticket to Ride, Carcassonne. All great, popular, and elegantly designed games which should give new designers something to aim for.
- Richard Breese
Carcassonne is a competitive game where players build a map tile by tile, creating roads, cities, and territories, winning points when they complete constructions.
Carcassonne is a great example of the elegance of simplicity.
- Alan R. Moon
Carcassonne because of its elegance — less rules and a certain kind of “game depth.
- Rüdiger Dorn
So by crossing all those information and for this essay, I will consider elegance as the embodiment of “Easy to learn, hard to master,” or “Less is more.” The idea of offering the maximal amount of depth for the minimal cost in complexity.
And while elegance can seem somewhat ineffable and hard to capture, you can easily rate the elegance of a given game element by counting the number of purposes it has.
- Jesse Schell
Let’s see it in context.
How they did it?
Board games are especially prone to elegance. Not as an exercise of style, but because they often need it to survive. When designing video games, you can afford to have limitless elements, content, visual cues, and hidden balancing systems. Not with physical games though, the player is the game, and every component is expensive to produce.
One genre has seen a lot of evolution and iteration upon a similar system: deck-building card games.
In 2008, Donald X. Vaccarino designed the game that defined the genre of deck-building: Dominion. It became an instant classic with its simple mechanics and tough decisions.
The principle is quite simple: You start with a set of base cards from which you will draw each turn. Those cards will then let you improve your deck by buying new, more powerful cards or removing the less useful ones.
But, to win, you have to stuff your deck with victory cards, which are useless when drawn. So the more victory cards you own (the closer to victory you are), the less efficient your deck becomes—an elegant, well-balanced system in itself.
Valley of the Kings
5 years later, designer Tom Cleaver took a twist on the system and made it even more minimalist with Valley of the Kings.
Like Dominion, Valley of the Kings presents you with cards you will use to buy better cards and get rid of those you do not need. However, to win, rather than having to stuff your deck with useless cards, you have to get rid of your best ones.
The amount of points you get depends on the value of the cards placed in your tomb. This creates even more dreadful choices as the more useful a card is, the more you gain from removing it from your deck. The game also gets rid of coin cards. Instead, the value of discarded cards constitutes the currency you use to buy new ones.
The game keeps all the choices and options from Dominion while having overall less different components.
Finally, in 2018 designers Trevor Benjamin and David Thompson increased the options you could use the components for in War Chest.
War Chest slightly differs from the previous two examples as it plays with chips drawn from a bag, placed on a board like chess pieces.
All chips represent a type of unit. When you draw one, you can discard it to play a similar unit from the board. But you can also place it or upgrade a unit on the board, or even discard it to purchase new chips. However, creating and upgrading units require you to remove the chip from your bag. Thus the more useful a unit is, the less you will be able to play it often.
The game unifies all components, openings up the options of the player.
Why it matters?
In an era of increasingly powerful technology and video games, it is easy to fix a problem by adding things. Nevertheless, we should not forget to design by removing or re-design efficient functional systems from the start. Because elegance is not just a demonstration of style, it effectively makes games easier to learn, teach, and reduce cognitive load during play.
In game design, I refer to this as ELEGANCE. The best games, longest lasting games have few rules, and few special cases, and achieve their replay through the core puzzle to solve. If you find yourself adding a rule to patch a rule, you may need to go back and redesign.
- Raph Koster
This also makes them more accessible to all type of players, which increase their audience and the number of players who can enjoy them.
Most “classic games” are considered to be masterpieces of elegance.
- Jesse Schell
The hard question is, how to know what to remove, what to keep, and when a component is non-essential to your game?
How to achieve elegance?
Remove elements and rules.
As seen with the evolution from Dominion to Valley of the Kings, much clever design comes to removing inessential elements or fusing them to give more importance and depth to the essential ones.
For me, the art of game design is all about the elegance of simplicity. I try to take everything out of a game that can be taken out, leaving just enough to make the game fun and challenging.
- Alan R. Moon
Increase options and interactions
Like with the evolution from Dominion to War Chest, another approach is to unify different components and leave the players to decide how he wants to play them to increase his options.
Use context to imply behaviors.
Finally, another way to make systems simple to grasp despite their potential complexity is to make them more organic by giving them a narrative explanation in the game context.
A perfect example of elegance (to me at least) is the wagon system in Team Fortress 2 (or in Overwatch). The game has one team pushing a wagon to the other end of the map while the other team stops them. Simple enough.
The twist is that the first team’s spawn point is the starting point of the wagon, the one for the second team is its destination point.
This naturally and effortlessly creates a negative feedback loop: a situation where the closer you are to victory, the more punitive mistakes become. As when you die, you have to walk all the way back from your spawn point. Thus creating twists and epic saves mere seconds before defeat.
Players expect this behavior because it makes sense in the narrative context of the game.
An elegant system is:
- Is functional
- Adds depth to the game
- Despite relative simplicity
It adds value to a game because:
- It makes the overall game more accessible.
- It reduces the cognitive load during play.
To achieve it, consider:
- Removing rules and fusing elements.
- Adding interactions and choices.
- Using context to make rules seem natural.
Thanks for reading!
Did you ever encounter a game or a system you found elegant? Please share them in the comments :)