Family games and complexity…

Ellie Dix

Game designer Ellie Dix interrogates the idea that family games need to be simple – and identifies the root of this misconception! 

Games designed for families are usually less complex than games designed for hobby game players. That will surprise nobody. But the reason for this may not be what you think…

The general assumption is that family games need to be easier so that children can understand and play along with parents. But that is not my experience – not in any way.

Most children of keen board game players know how to play many of the games their parents enjoy. They understand the rules, even complex ones. They don’t have to team up with an adult. They can make their own decisions within the game and play as any other player would. I’ve seen it over and over.

It’s true that not all complex games are great for children, but I think that’s more to do with downtime. We know children can concentrate on playing games for long periods of time. You only have to watch a child playing video games to know that.

Downtime within games – where you’re waiting for other players to take turns or make decisions – tests many adults. So it’s not surprising that children will disengage.

If children can deal with complexity, then what’s the problem? Why can’t we just make complex games that minimise downtime? Those would be perfect for families… Right? Wrong. It’s not the children that are the problem. It’s the parents.

Family games are designed for the average family, where the parents are not avid board gamers. While board gamers are used to reading rulebooks and learning from them, non-board gaming adults are not. The rulebook is the barrier.

For a game to have any hope of getting to the table, the rules have to be really easy to understand. Ideally, you have to be able to work out how to play from the box, the TV advert or the pictures in the rulebook. Then when you read the actual words, you’re just looking for supplementary information. This may sound harsh, but I think it’s true.

Most adults are out of practice at learning things. Advancements in technology mean that we can just turn new equipment on and it will be obvious how it works. A new phone leads you through the set up. A new video game teaches you as you play. Board games are an outlier – you have to read the rules.

When you play lots of games, you can skim bits of new rulebooks because you have a frame of reference in which to understand the terminology and mechanics. For the uninitiated, that’s not possible. Learning new rules takes a lot of concentration. It’s a hurdle that’s too big to overcome for many. Games that are perceived as being complex are left on the shelf or not purchased in the first place.

Non-gaming adults are more likely to be happy with complexity in board games if someone else teaches them the game because it pulls down a barrier. But, as anyone that has tried to teach a game with much complexity to non-gamers will know, adults are still liable to get overwhelmed and walk away.

And what about the children? Well, they’re far more used to learning new things than adults are. Maybe not reading rules from a rulebook, but certainly listening to instructions. They’re also far more used to embarking on things without having all the information – learning as they go.

So, if you’re interested in making family games, don’t make the mistake of thinking that children can’t cope with complexity. Focus on how you’re going to communicate the rules of the game, so that adults will be happy to play.

You can read more of Ellie’s thoughts on board game design over at The Dark Imp Blog here:

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