The Road to Heavyweight

Through the Ages

I was playing Ticket to Ride with my family and one of my wife’s friends (we’ll call her Betty) recently.  Ticket to Ride is classed as a ‘light’ game on BoardGameGeek (BGG), meaning that it isn’t complicated or difficult to learn.

However, I could see Betty’s eyes starting to glaze over while I was explaining the rules.  We made a start and she really struggled to get the hang of it.  After a few turns, she picked it up, but you could tell she was out of her element the whole way through.

Now Betty is a fairly intelligent individual and very competent at her job, but so many of the concepts involved (hand management, route building, set collection) were foreign to her.  There’s a lot to take in when you first enter the world of modern boardgames.

I can remember feeling overwhelmed by 7 Wonders the first time I played it, although it feels very light to me now.  I happily play ‘heavy’ euros like Through the Ages without batting an eyelid these days.  These are games that require a good half hour of rules explanation.  How does someone increase their capacity for game complexity?  Today we examine the road to heavyweight.

The BGG complexity scale is very straightforward really.  Every game has a rating between 1 and 5 according to its ‘weight’ as follows:

  1. Light
  2. Light-Medium
  3. Medium
  4. Medium-Heavy
  5. Heavy

In practice, the BGG users vote on how light/heavy they think a game is and the overall rating is an average of all the ratings people have given it.  Ticket to Ride, for example, has a rating of 1.9 whereas Through the Ages has a rating of 4.3.

We made the mistake once of playing Orléans (rating 3.1) at our weekly game night with a player who was fairly new to boardgames.  He was a bright guy, but you could see the strain on his face the whole way through.  By the end he had a look of pure bewilderment – he wasn’t impressed!

We take for granted the number of game mechanics that are reused from one game to the next.

The thing that many experienced gamers take for granted is the number of game mechanics that are reused from one game to the next.  I could say, when introducing a new game, that it’s a worker-placement game and my gaming friends will know exactly what I mean.

I don’t need to explain that each player will have some workers that we take it in turns to place on spots that give us actions, but you can’t place your worker where someone else has been.  They all know this.  Not only do they understand what that means, but they also have experience with the kind of strategies that are typically involved in a worker-placement game.

For example, having more workers means you can take more actions usually, so they will all be on the lookout for any way in which they can increase their number of workers as quickly as possible.  For anyone who isn’t familiar with worker placement, they need to get their head round the basic concepts, like the idea that other people can block you from using the actions you need so you have to take account of where they are likely to go if you don’t want to be shut out.

That’s a lot to think about if you have no experience with it!  But like many things in life, the more experience we get with the task at hand, the easier it becomes and the more comfortable we feel about it.

One of the things that makes heavy games difficult to cope with is not that they have one particularly complex mechanic, but rather that they have a number of different mechanics that each interact with each other.

In fact, I think there are four primary things that contribute to the ‘heaviness’ of a game:

  1. Several interacting mechanics

It’s not enough to understand how each of the mechanics works individually.  How they interact with each other can be difficult to predict (and incidentally, this is often where much of the interest lies in these kind of games).  It can often take a couple of plays to really appreciate the interplay of the mechanics involved.

  1. Lots of rules

I usually consider this to be poor game design personally (we’d say that the game is in need of streamlining), but some games just have a lot of rules.  You have to remember one thing in one situation, but something else in a different situation – it can all be too much!

  1. Lots of choices

Good choices are at the heart of any great game, but some games can provide so many possibilities that it can be really hard to choose!  Picking the best option out of two is reasonably straightforward.  Picking the best option out of twenty?  That feels like work!

  1. Exponential ramifications

Chess is the classic example here.  If you move a piece, your opponent might realistically move 4-5 possible pieces and for each of those moves, there might be 4-5 good moves that you could make.  But what if you moved a different piece at the start?  The ramifications of any individual move seem to grow out of control very quickly, which is why computers are so adept at processing these kinds of situations.  Games that require a lot of mental processing like this are definitely heavy!

So in terms of increasing the weight of games that you (or your friends) can cope with, there are a couple of things I would recommend.

Play a wide variety of light games.

Firstly, play a wide variety of light games.  Each light game is likely to have a couple of key mechanics in it.  Then, when you move onto a medium weight game, you should be familiar with most of the mechanics involved, even if you’ve never experienced them all together before.

My other main recommendation is one of adjusting your attitude.  After playing a few light games, most people work out that the winner is usually the person who made the most of their choices.  They were the most efficient or took account of what other people were doing, but it was the evaluation of their choices that allowed them to win.

Now with light games, you might have a couple of choices to make on your turn.  You can evaluate each of the choices and with a bit of thought you can usually work out which choice would be best.  However, with a heavier game, it might not (realistically!) be possible to do that.  If you took 10 minutes for each of your turns, then maybe.  And it’s this possibility that creates the psychological difficulty.

Light games train people to make the most of their situation.  In heavier games though, trying to make the absolute best choice each time usually leads to what people call analysis paralysis (AP) because there are just too many possibilities.  It takes too long to evaluate them all.  Slow play often annoys other players, which makes for a stressful experience for all concerned!

Don’t make the best choice each time, just a good one.

My advice is not to make the best choice each time, just a good one.  Evaluate a few possibilities and then pick one that looks good.  You probably won’t win, but you’ll enjoy the game far more and the more you play the heavier games, the better you’ll get at them.

Finally then, just be aware that some people aren’t going to enjoy careful evaluation of complex choices no matter how much practice they have.  Some people will never like heavy games, and that’s fine.  There are plenty of games of all weights to satisfy us all.

What ‘weight’ of games do you enjoy most?  Are you able to find people to play the kind of games you like?

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Jonathan Hicks

Jonathan is the director of Maven Games. He blogs and records podcast episodes several times a week. Whenever he isn't doing anything else, he designs games.

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