Somehow even quite deep games like Magic: the Gathering or D&D (or indeed chess) manage their complexity more elegantly, by having fewer concepts iterated many times (although in the case of D&D this is managed by the DM who certainly has a terribly complex job).
For example, Mage Knight in some sense tries to create a simplified version of parts of D&D, but it does it with so many moving parts that I freak out at the thought of event getting it out of the box. Whereas I can play actual D&D with one dice and some words.
There are many, many, MANY games exploring the opposite end of the design space. If you want simple, there are designers and publishers working on that.
I mean, there's also Mage Knight, but lots of people love Mage Knight. It's a big hobby! Very few games will appeal to more than a small subset of the fan base.
I don't want to recommend anything as such (I have no idea what you're into!) but games like Azul, Splendour, and Patchwork have been super popular recently, and are very clean, minimalist designs. Or a couple steps up the complexity level, Wingspan.
Obligatory "I just bought an item, no other affiliation" notation.
I really like the game, mainly as the rules are incredibly simple. Also don’t have to keep track of what cards were played and what’s left in the deck.
Hive is another simple rules game that’s really fun to play.
So go now, and play "Give me the brain", "Lord of the Fries", "Kill Doctor Lucky", "Spree", and "Unexploded Cow".
On the other hand, skip entirely "Bitin' off Heads", "Devil Bunny", and "The Great Brain Robbery".
There are so many games out now, the choices are overwhelming.
I really wish more board-games had a "low-parts mode" or a "trial" mode where you could experience the gestalt of the game without having to cram all the minutiae. Basically: do what this guy did for his daughter but put it in the rule book.
We included new, simpler, components in the game that are exclusively for this tutorial, have players add mechanics and components and systems one or two at a time. During playtesting we went from about 2+ hours to read and semi-understand the rules enough to play, to playing in about 10-15 minutes.
It can be done, but it can add significant cost (materials, development time) to the game.
For example we got Carcassonne recently and it includes an "extension" (Abbots & Farmers). The rules has an additional sheet, so you can play the raw game and pick up the extension later once you've grokked the normal rules.
Settlers of Catan does a similar thing, they have a slightly more basic gameplay in the rules for people starting out.
Of course, that only works for a game like Carcassonne which plays in 45min or less on the first go and can get down to 20min if you're playing with people who know the (base) game well.
Some of the games are notorious for having half-empty rule books that you will eventually fill with stickers for more rules.
One particular well regarded Legacy game for it's slow, careful reveal of rules is Seafall (which is noteworthy for being the first non-licensed Legacy game by the Legacy genre's "father" who built the original Risk Legacy and has contributed to many others like Pandemic Legacy). I've got it on my shelf and have been hoping to find the right group to play it with, so I've mostly tried to avoid spoilers, but the way it was described to me is that it is a full 4X (strategy gaming acronym from videogames for Explore, Expand, Exploit, and Exterminate) that starts with only the rules for Explore and expands out from there. (And it is proper exploration with players encouraged to sharpie their discoveries to the board.)
Even the initial state is too complex for young children but it might suit what you're looking for if that's not actually a requirement - I don't think you'd really enjoy playing phase 1 of his Carcassonne adaptation either.
Every edition after streamlined things and took away detail. The biggest changes came when wizards of the coast bought up tsr and the 3rd edition came out. It barely felt like playing the same game. I haven't played the newest editions, but i've read through the player and DM's guide for them, much of the original complexity of ad&d is gone, in its place are systems that seem.complex, but are far more simple to grasp and play using.
Not just the systems, but the general feel and flow of the game seems to be simplified. It was more about being a fantasy adventure simulator before, where as now the purpose seems to be a fantasy hero story game.
Much of the darker grittier aspects of the game were toned down and generally gone through that sanitizing process most niche things go through when they become popular.
It's still fun of course -- when I was young we would play D&D with no character sheets and just a few dice -- but I agree some of the spirit is lost. I'm sure there are some custom settings out there with the depth of detail you're looking for.
Though I still had to resort to automated character sheets to roll my character because there was shit I just could not figure out how to do from the PHB...
1e was kind of a mess though, remember how Bard was a weird expansion class you could only play after like 20 levels of three other classes instead of “you are a person who has about as much training in music, social engineering, and magic related to those things as anyone else at your level has in whatever they do”?
My 1e/2e groups sure did tinker with the rules to work around shit like that, my GURPS groups mostly went by whatever set of books the campaign was using, and my recent 5e experience after a long time away from RPGs felt like I remember 1/2e being without all the bullshit and confusion that nostalgia elides.
His games comprise a deck of cards, and then perhaps a few supporting items like money counters or victory point cards. There are two characteristic things about the cards. Firstly, each card can serve several purposes. In Glory to Rome, it can be a plan for a particular building, raw material for a building, an action somehow related to building (starting a building, adding material, robbing your neighbours), or a member of staff who carries out an action. Secondly, one mode of a card will have some sort of ability on it that modifies the rules, or lets you do different things. In Glory to Rome, if you build the insula (a Roman tower block), you can have three more staff than usual; if you build the scriptorium, you can now complete any building using one card's worth of marble.
The basic idea is fairly simple (but not trivial, because of the multiple uses of a card). But there is enormous emergent complexity. My brain fires on all cylinders while playing it.
This looks like a reasonable explanation of the rules:
It took us 4 tries to REALLY ramp up Innovation to the point where everyone (group of 3) understood how you could combo up and compete against others who fell into certain card combinations. It did get particularly fun at that point even as we would regularly discover new Age 9 and Age 10 cards (with somehow even more absurd mechanics)
It is definitely not a game I would recommend for children though :/
Anecdotally, I tried to find a fun solitaire game to play during lockdown and ended up getting Arkham Horror. After reading a ton of rules and even watching some YouTube videos, I still felt like I never truly understood the game and haven't really played it. I can't image cracking something like Gloomhaven and reading through the rules.
If you're selling physical product that needs an app to run, there is no reason for the app not to be Free Software, or distributed in some other friendly way (e.g., Space Alert has a CD-DA disc that plays the scenarios as audio).
Those games work well, but for me, I wouldn't want to play a board game that leans on an app any more than Mansion of Madness; at that point it's a video game, and while I enjoy those, it's not why I play board games!
I highly recommend it, even as a solitaire game. There is a digital version on Steam as well, which approximates the mechanics and gameplay well.
Who cares? The game was still fun, now we play more correctly (God knows what I haven't noticed I do wrong yet). I'm a firm believer in playing early, and learning from mistakes / as you go.
In a group with engineers and lawyers, it was bad enough that each session started with "what will we get wrong this time"
to give you and example: it took 2 weeks to figure out that there is a difference between +1/+1 as a result of an instant or sorcery and a +1/+1 counter.
I disagree about the complexity being associated with only cards that are never used. the "Spells, Abilities, and Effects" is the thing that makes the rule book grow with every release. they keep introducing abilities and it gets more and more complicated
They do tend not to have a strong melding of theme and mechanics, which I think is how/why theme-heavy games can end up being so complex—tighter theme integration implies, if not requires, more mechanics and bits and bobs.
I also love games that are conceptually simple but require mastery like Chess, Go, and their like.
There is a range and the explosion in popularity of boardgaming in this last decade has been a boon as we've seen such a wide array of games and play styles cater to everyone on the spectrum!
I feel you! There's a niche of complex boardgames where they try to "simulate" things, like a colony or a submarine or a spaceship or a party of RPG characters, and I think... this is what computers are good for. This is a videogame. Boardgames ought to have a different design space. If there are lots of things to keep track of, that's a bad sign for a boardgame. Some even try to have a computer do the bookkeeping, which in my opinion is just a band-aid over inadequate design.
All in my opinion, of course. And I do love "lite" dungeon romps and "lite" RPG-like boardgames. But adding complexity I think is both a temptation and a mistake.
Another old set with some great ideas is Loose Files and the American Scramble, for the American Revolution. Originally a magazine article (from the 80s I think?), you can find the pdf floating around online. Three pages of rules, and super tightly focused on what makes the AWI unique. 100% worth a look if you have any interest in the period.
I think you’re right about computer games when it comes to hardcore number-crunching simulation. Computers being better able to portray fog of war is also a huge advantage. But I think tabletop games can do certain things better, especially when it comes to things like command friction. On the tabletop, when an order fails to go through or an unlucky break sees your units dissolve in a rout, you can easily understand what happened and it just becomes part of the story of the game. But in a computer game not having precise control can be very frustrating, like you’re at the mercy of opaque mechanics and the RNG.
"Piecepack is to board games what a Standard Deck of Playing Cards is to card games"
Since it is a common denominator, it enforces some economy in games that are designed for it or adapted to it. I recall a Catan adaptation that had several simplifications in the spirit of the OP.
They pair well with piecepack or playing cards.
Loss of momentum will kill your odds of getting a scenario running.
Munchkin went too far the other way. Do I need deck 3 or 4 next? I can't remember. But at least they sell a big empty box to organize all your sets into. Much easier to stack with the other games.
If you avoid that problem, you then also have to resist 'refreshing' your game look and feel. Otherwise I end up with a base game and expansions that don't match in style, and I am not happy. For instance, I bought a Settlers of Catan addon that barely made it out of the box because it didn't match :/ My friend bought one before the change and we always played with his copy instead.
As an example, Carcassonne is I'd say 95% human. The computer parts are the physical placing of tiles in aligned fashion and counting score, but those take almost no time and effort, compared to actually playing the game. Mage Knight (or god forbid Relic) score very low on that scale - the computer activities start dominating and there is too little game left.
My cutoff point is basically "this would be more fun to play if implemented as a program". Conversely however, if implemented as a program, such games become very good fun. Even just simulating the pieces in a way that frees you from physical constraints (i.e. Tabletop Simulator implementation with almost no scripting) can make a game like that enjoyable to play.
That said, I think complaints about complexity sometimes miss the way elaborate steps can be a sort of calming ritual rather than a part of the game as intellectual strategy and one's preferences there are personal. I personally love the game of Go, a game that probably achieves maximal complexity among face-to-face strategy game but I have seek out other players of this since none of my friends are interested.
I think expansions are the sweet spot. Produce a base game, then add complexity with expansions.
If you want real elegance, look at the core of the old Star Wars Customizable Card Game. Each player has the same number of cards in their deck, and the cards are used to track resources, life totals, and provide randomness to combat in a unified way.
Atop that core, Decipher took an attitude of "which parts of Star Wars should we emulate? How about... ALL OF IT!", so the full rules are pretty gnarly. But it's also one of the last major card games that were developed before M:TG became so entrenched that its conventions shaped how we think of CCGs.
Despite the game being out of print, a dedicated committee of players manage the game: running tournaments, releasing new cards, and keeping the dream alive.
I.e. sometimes I am really in the mood of having 40+ little colored cuber in neat stack on my table ... other times I just want to sit around the table and insists that I am not the Mordred/Hitler/Werewolf ... the other guy is :-)
I.m.o. Mage Knight doesn't really attempt a D&D ... more of a simplifies Heroes of Might and Magic ... but then he goes and invents Galaxy Trucker and Code Words :D
I remember meeting Vlaada Chvatil when he was designing the boardgame port of Factorio and some of his friends were kinda dunking on him along the lines of "Nice game, but don't you think it would be better as a strategy on a PC" :-D
Usually use Shut Up and Sit Down as my recommendation engine, because while they can really appreciate a good mechanic, they seem to be most of the time in the theme over complexity camp :-)
Agricola is a good example. It's basically a resource management game from hell. You've really got to be in the right headspace with the right participants to get into it.
The rules are fairly simple but there are a whole lot of variations and the game is very dynamic.
To me the problems are the "micro rules", those that apply to very specific circumstances and are very hard to remember.
These kind of games get also obliterated by those with a short ruleset but same type of depth.
I'm thinking of Azhul, 7 wonders duel, century. Those 3 are very deep, but the rules are barely a few pages comoared to the 40 pages of mage knight.
Granted that i do like mage knight, committing to it is problematic to say the least. And I have a board game table to keep it out!
“Traders of Genoa” is one of the few games where the bits are relevant to game play. So often the bits are just window dressing to distract from otherwise uninteresting game concepts.
It's not unusual for only one person in a group to have taken the time to learn the rules, by reading the rulebook, or more often these days, by watching a video. Then, that person is informally responsible for communicating the rules to the other players, tutorial-style.
For games beyond a certain level of complexity, I have sometimes found this process to be absurd. For example, it might be obvious that the rules are not being followed correctly or consistently. Or more frequently, players are playing their first playthrough haphazardly, with no real understanding of the games mechanics. And no one wants to be a rules lawyer.
These things are normal and the games are meant to be fun, above all else, but at the same time, playing a game incorrectly or with partial knowledge is unfun to me, especially since it's not unusual to only play a game once these days.
I think the suggestion for gamemakers to include graduated tutorial materials, written or video, allowing players to trivially pick up the basics and begin playing immediately is very useful, and will encourage players to come back to the same games more than once.
I'd much rather see board game instructions written as starting out with a VERY short summary of the game and its objectives (e.g. for Dominion: "in this game, you build a deck of cards that you use to purchase victory points. At the end of the game, the player with the most victory points wins."). Then you can follow that up with set up instructions, a simple explanation of a basic turn, followed by more detailed descriptions of gameplay and ending conditions, and finally close with detailed reference material.
For example "When it is the players turn, the player must immediately draw a card and place it into their hand."
compared to "The player starts their turn by drawing a card."
People who haven't tried board game design before underestimate how difficult it is to write the rules they think they're writing - very slight wording differences have MAJOR gameplay implications and will decide games.
Here's just one example of two widely different table interactions which result based on the example you've provided.
>Scenario: Immediacy Matters
>Context: I have just become one point away from victory. I have a card that I can flip over on any player's turn to score 1 point, but my friend is wrapping up their turn, and I'm next. My friend says: "Okay I'm done with my turn", and I now remember I have my hidden flippable one point card, because he said the word "turn".
There are two VERY DIFFERENT endings to this scenario depending on which of the two above rules you've written down.
In the verbiage,
>"The player starts their turn by drawing a card.",
If the game doesn't have any other explicit rules about how a player ENDS their turn, there's an ambiguity in the word "by" - it's not clear whether the action of drawing STARTS my turn, or describes WHAT happens DURING my turn (which ALSO ambiguously may or may not take precedence over my ability to flip that card before I draw a card).
This difference seems small, but it will decide the game, because if the act of drawing STARTS the turn, then by not drawing, my opponent's turn is still going - so I win the game by flipping on their not-finished-until-I-draw turn.
This will become a heated table argument if players are invested in winning, because it becomes a question of designer intent, which will probably dissatisfy everyone because suddenly the game's turned into "guess what the designer meant" and "let's debate the definition of words the author didn't even know were important."
In the former verbiage,
>"When it is the players turn, the player must immediately draw a card "
There's still ambiguity (When did my opponents turn end?), but less:
If everyone agrees my opponent's turn ended when he said it did, and it's my turn, because the rules say IMMEDIATELY draw, IMMEDIATELY implies it's pretty explicitly disallowed for me to do something else before fulfilling the thing I need to immediately do, like flip a card on the table. If the card I draw when doing this subtracts points when drawn, I will not win the game when I flip my card.
Disgustingly verbose rules like the above are the scar tissue from play sessions where these heated arguments took place and the developer decided that being overly wordy is worth avoiding race conditions and being unambiguous.
I wonder whether maybe game-makers are usually in this sort of environment, and so don't think as much about the experience of a group of four beginners sitting down to try out a game?
Only if you and all of your friends play from a very limited, range of games. In my experience, people like this exclusively play games that are currently or have been recently heavily marketed.
I'm friends with a lot of people who play games, I own a disturbing amount of games, and I sit at a table and play a game that no one at the table has played about weekly during normal times, maybe biweekly now that I'm stuck online. As a person who researches and finds a lot of games, it's very often me who's teaching the game that none of us have played.
In my experience, people who are really into games are constantly playing oddball, older, and obscure games, from the rules.
It takes a little more time to replay the start of the game, but if people are in the spirit of it, the exploration phase of it can move quickly. You don't have to try to make the right play. Just try something. If there's a thing in the rules that can happen, do it and see what happens, even if you think it's probably not the right way to do it.
Example: Eclipse, which we play whenever we find time and people to spend 7-9 hours for a single game. Just starting to play would not really work here, because you can not easily play multiple games to learn the rules incrementally.
That said, Eclipse is currently my favorite game as it's fairly complex, but the goals are laid out pretty simply: Collect victory points (VP), everything with a golden shield with a number gives you VP.
From there it's mostly about teaching the players about the actions they can perform each turn (of which there are six) and the associated costs. But in the first turns everybody will use a single action (explore) so the learning ramp starts of manageable. The move and the upgrade actions are not relevant before ships where build, complexity builds up over the game.
Also: Complexity arises from having a whole load of researchable technologies and discoveries on the board. But all of those are introduced slowly while the game progresses.
All of this falls out of the window when you play with the alien races which changes the rules for every player ... which is why play all humans whenever we have new players at the table.
Long text ... I just love that game ;-)
I think that it is much more efficient to simply drop the first part and go straight into the game. Whenever an action is required, simply tell the person their options and focus on reducing the information as much as possible.
Like, if you were teaching someone to play chess, you could prepare the board and play as white, while your friend plays black. Then move a pawn while explaining the way pawns move. Let your friend move a pawn. Continue until the capturing rules for pawns become relevant. Explain those. Then, one-by-one, introduce the other pieces and their movement over multiple turns, when they can actually move. At some point, a check will happen (or you can make it happen). Now you can go into the check rules, and how a game is won. There is no need to explain everything in the first game either, things like castling, pawn promotions or en passant can be postponed until they become relevant.
Also, there is no need to involve strategy. The focus should be on teaching to play, i.e. take valid game actions, not on how to play well. In addition to being unnecessary information, there is also a lot of fun in figuring things out by yourself.
Usually, for board games the designers thought about the best way to teach the rules and the manual is helpfully structured in that way. So it will first describe how to prepare the game, then the turn structure, then the possible actions, and so on. Often you can start a game parallel to reading the rules, which is handy when no one knows the game.
Simplifying the game, as in the linked article, is also quite useful. There are some good examples of explicitly changing the games to be simpler, but you can also do some more subtle manipulations. For example, in Go (the board game, not the programming language) beginners play with the full rules (which are already simple enough) but on a smaller board, which leads to shorter, less complex games. In Magic: The Gathering, you can teach someone by preconstructing the deck to contain only simple cards. (I have seen some board games incorporate this as well, but there it is usually framed in terms of 'extensions' to the rules.)
Another one that nobody believes me about (because it sounds like such a preposterous cash grab) is Super Mario Brothers Monopoly. But the changed some of the fundamentally boring aspects of the game to make it really quick to play and introduced the concept of "hero" characters with unique abilities to it.
The HABA publishing series is always a hit. Rhino Hero working for kids and adults alike.
First Orchard teaches the basics of game mechanics to younger kids.
Set Junior simplifies Set for kiddos.
Ice Cool is a great dexterity game.
The Magic Labyrinth (2009) involves mental mapping and memorization skills.
Looney Quest is a great drawing game as you try to collect coins and avoid the bad stuff.
Not to mention all the Junior games of heavy classics like Ticket to Ride: First Journey, My First Stone Age, etc.
Obviously the downside is they likely will outgrow these simplified versions. So the value of hacking the games you love as an adult is definitely a big plus and lets you save money and work them towards great board games. But on the other hand, why strip out all the pieces when you can play something designed for that age demographic?
There is also the fact that some games won't even have reduced sets (Guillotine for eg), or will have it but it will be impossibly hard to get where I live. I can easily get a copy of TTR in India, but finding a copy of TTR:1st Journey is much tougher.
All the standard rules, no-one can modify them, runs the auctions for you, plays very fast. D-pad and four buttons (counting select and start) so even young kids (or oldsters) with no gaming experience can pick it up fast. I wouldn't ordinarily recommend a video game as a complete replacement for the physical version of a board game, but in the case of Monopoly, yes, definitely, find the simplest video game version you can and use that.
Monopoly is not a well-designed game to play with people but, surprisingly, amazing and interesting to play against an 8-bit computer.
Other games like Pigasus and Snowman Dice (both by Brain Games I think) have been a hit too.
When we play with younger kids we try really hard to emphasize fun and downplay stringent rule following, for better or for worse.
Some games, like snowman dice, are fun just for the sake of it. It's fun to roll the dice and push them around.
I'd say Catan Junior is fine for a 3 year old, but make sure to spend the first few times just familiarizing the rules (i.e. making the connection between getting a resource and spending it by matching up the resources on your resource card).
Ticket to Ride Junior is a little bit harder, but a 3 year old should do ok with help. Again, if you really "take it easy" about the rules a very young child can have a lot of fun with these if for nothing other than the colors and manipulatives/meeples alone.
Magic Maze Kids we did starting at 2.5-3ish and it was fine.
Pigasus, on the other hand, a 2 year old can do and really enjoy. That game is absolutely amazing because it's one of those things that a small child can do better than some adults (like... for real!). Also the sound the pig makes when you squeeze it is incredibly funny to most kids and very rewarding. It's a fun one.
OTOH, I typically teach adults how to play Race for the Galaxy by starting out with a few hands of San Juan... It's a very similar, but much much simpler game.
Shout out here to Heroscape, which is my favorite game and is basically a simplified version of a miniature war game. It is an interesting case study for this article too because Heroscape comes with two rulebooks, one for a basic game and another for the advanced game. (Although even the "advanced" game is much simplier than most minature games). Heroscape also introduced complexity over time with its many expansions (primarily new miniatures which each of special powers).
The game was discontinued back in 2010, but still has a community of fans going strong at https://www.heroscapers.com. The forums are great.
I’d like to add that the Star Wars monopoly is also very well designed and has a lot of new features that solve the biggest problems of the game taking too long, of those ahead almost always staying ahead and for the game being boring when itnisnt your turn.
Games finish in under an hour. They have cards that opponents can play during your turn to block or change your moves. Best of all, it’s only possibly for you (as a single player) to win if your side (datk or light) has the most point, making it an interesting semi-team game.
It’s a great game and I’ve played it with many professional game designers who also really like it.
But it's good to hear that they seem to be moving 'Monopoly' into a direction of something more playable.
We recently got a game called Outfoxed! which says it's for 5+, she picked it up after the first round. The hardest concept for her was moving diagonally and that you aren't allowed to in the game. It's a great game for learning to read names since all of the Foxes have unique and not trivial names to pronounce.
The recommended age on the box is a hilarious 13+. But I've played it with bright 5 year olds.
The project is still in the very early stages, basically a draft, but I'd love to know what you think:
(For people who have some good ideas about the rules, or want to contribute ideas for spells, magic items, and adventures - project is open source and available on github: https://github.com/raymestalez/mirage)
No shortage of rules-lite RPGs out there, with varying degrees of similarity to D&D. FATE and FUDGE are the two that come to mind, but there are lots of others.
There Is No Spoon, a simple RPG that was big on RPG.net a while back is another good example.
I run games using a modified version of "Rolling for Shoes"  to much success with friends & family as a way to pass the time on long car rides.
The setting is amazing, but it's dying for a rewrite (and I don't mean Shadowrun Anarchy). There's been some attempts to make a Powered by the Apocalypse version, but none have gained a large amount of traction.
But also have a look at the modern 'German' style boardgames. They are much better than the bad old American classics like Monopoly.
'Ticket to Ride' and Carcassonne are a good gateway games for example.
Especially in this pandemic moment it has been a very useful technique to have around.
Of course even in role playing one doesn't require a boxed game to play. A few dice and some cards often suffice. Simplifying Microlite20  and throw in a kid-friendly setting with some problem solving is a great way to pass the time and see how your kids think!
One thing I would like to point out is that a lot of software (including applications, languages, frameworks, etc) would benefit from a similar approach. When the tutorial starts out with "install these five things and then set up this environment and take on board these thirty pieces of jargon and now we can do something", it is hindering its own growth. Usually, it was nothing like that when it started, and just added things to make it "easier" (for people who already knew the basics), without realizing that they were cutting off their flow of new users.
Here is what worked .. my first castle panic .. this was super simple and got her engaged. There was another simple game called kraken attack that had cool looking pieces and got her engaged. Finally, we play a randomish game with the agricola board and kingdomino. Moral of the story is relax, bend the rules, teach simple things like turn taking, post-game clean up, and have fun!
And I couldn't agree more on the "relax, bend the rules" side of things. It's all about fun.
For fun I've been trying to develop AIs which can play games, mainly so I can then try finding the "minimal viable rules", the simplest version of a game which is still in some sense "interesting".
I.e. have been playing Carcasone when my was 4y, we just didn't play with the 'farmer' or we played KingDomino, and she just didn't have to adhere to the rule that your kingdom needs to fit 5x5 grid.
The owner is very good at curating them. Sloth in a Hurry is for ages 5+, my daughter loves to play it with us.