My mate Chris and I often debate game design, and specifically simulation versus playability. Wargamers typically think of these as opposites, with a set of rules being either realistic or playable. Chris is, for example, an advocate of simulation and is willing to sacrifice playability to get something he considers more realistic. But I don’t think these things – simulation and playability – are opposite ends of a single dimension. I’m an advocate for playability and simulation is also important to me. I want both. Abstraction is the key to unlocking this combination and is an important third dimension.
Simulation VERSUS Playability
What got me thinking about simulation and playability was Review of the wargaming rules WGR 1920-1950. The summary was “the game is an incredible well-detailed combat simulator, but isn’t that much fun to play.” And “Great Simulation… Poor Game Playability!”
The simulation versus playability debate has been going on a long time.
What semblance of realism we were led to expect is sacrificed on the altar of playability
The quote is by Victor Madeja back in 1973 (cited in Geerkatimedia) and he clearly had a strong preference for simulation over playability.
And that is the often the level of the argument. Either realistic (good simulation) or playable (good game). A linear axis from one to the other.
Simulation AND Playability
But there have been contrary voices around for about as long. John Hill, who later designed Squad Leader, said (cited in Geerkatimedia) :
One of the hardest problems facing any war game designer is the careful balancing between playability and realism. Actually, any reasonably competent wargamer could probably design a realistic ‘simulation,’ but to design a good game is something else. As an example, 1914 was an excellent simulation of corps level fighting of that era, but as a game it was worthless — it couldn’t be played.
In other words, simulation and playability are different dimensions. The example is a good simulation that is a unplayable but this view also allows for a good simulation that is also be a good game.
Simulation AND Playability … AND Abstraction
Apparently John Hill later became an advocate on “abstraction” (Geerkatimedia). A game design philosophy I’m very keen on.
Dave Eng, describes abstraction as “just another method of ‘leaving it up to the imagination’ for players” and comments that “abstraction takes a complex concept and makes it easier for the player to grasp” (University XP: Abstraction in Games). That is true but I think misses the key difference about attraction in game design.
Christian Lindke, when discussing Simulation vs. Playability, explains that a designer using abstraction is less interested in “what actually happened” and more interested in the “effects” of what happened. In other words, the designer models the effects and not the action itself. Crossfire, for example, abstracts shooting to a single die roll that glosses over how alert the shooters are, whether they have ammunition, whether their weapons are in a good state of repair, whether they spot the target, how many bullets were fired, whether the bullets hit, where each bullet hit, and the target’s response to the shooting, both individually and collectively. In Crossfire the player just determines the effect of the machine gun shooting, i.e. whether the target is PINNED, SUPPRESSED or KILLED.
Christian Lindke observes that “most gamers or designers are a combination of abstractionist/simulationist”. I agree in general, but I disagree with the implication that abstraction and simulation are the opposite ends of a single dimension.
I think simulation (realism), playability and abstraction are interrelated but separate variables. Games range from realistic to unrealistic, from playable to unplayable, and from abstract to concrete (detailed).
Steven’s positions on simulation, playability, and abstraction
Of course I wrote this post because I have a firm view on game design.
It seems to me that some game designers strive for realism via concrete mechanisms. They write detailed rules with special sub-rules for every contingency. From my experience these game designs are unlikely to achieve my playability goals. They might work for other folk but not for me. My main gripe with this type of game is that they take too long to play, often because the players have to play with the rule book in their hands.
As an example of an concrete unplayable game, I recall my father and I tried to play a board game of the War in the Pacific, I can’t recall the name now. It took two days to set the game up. After two days of effort, and no gaming, we just packed it up again. It might have been realistic, although we couldn’t confirm because it was too detailed to play. Too concrete. Unplayable.
Detail in rules (concrete mechanisms) does not guarantee realism. My impression of Live Free or Die is that it is playable, concrete, and not very realistic. Massive caveat there because we only tried it once.
Personally I like game systems that are both realistic and playable. From my experience these game systems tend to be more abstract and less concrete/detailed. I’m not so interested in what actually happened, I can leave that to player imagination. I’m more interested in the effect of what happened. Crossfire fits that design criteria, for me anyway. A machine gun stand fires and there is a rule for whether the stand hits or misses. It is up to the player to explain why the stand missed (distracted, out of ammo, target was veteran and just shrugged the casualties off, whatever).