Downsizing In Game Design

by Charles Vasey


Downsizing, as a concept, means making your design fit for its purpose in all categories (historical accuracy, playability, playing time, decision level etc.). The purpose of each design is vital to its sizing and the same historical topic may have different sizes depending on the purpose of the design. Downsizing? shouldn't that be rightsizing (as we Jargonauts say)? In strictness it should be so titled were it not for the practicality that I can hardly ever remember a design that needed upping in content for its purpose, our problems are those of excess and indulgence, not self-denial and discipline. The nearest I can come to the concept of Upsizing is Enemy In Sight which had it been designed as a historical game could have done with a smidgen more of history (and a campaign game which we designed recently). However, in strictness as the purpose of the designer was to give a playable game with only a smattering of history the game was correctly sized.

It seems to me that many games when put together could worthily be downsized to make them more fit for their purpose, but in saying this I must take a guess as to the purpose behind their design. I cannot do this, so let me instead move the concept slightly to say I will look at the purpose of the game from the point-of-view of the purchaser and not the designer. Some years ago I produced a game kit on the English Civil War called The King's War, it was a mighty beast with lots of scenarios playable in an evening, but it had horrible counters needing cutting and mounting (and double-sided at that). My purpose had been to produce a game on a topic that was playable and historical. I submit I did this very well. However, if your purpose was to acquire a game on the English Civil War that you could punch out and play I must admit it was a singular disaster. So in looking at downsizing techniques we must remember we are being totally subjective, it is not a question of right or wrong.

The examples I have used in this article are from my own work, so there is a bias towards historical wargames. But this bias is not reflected in the applicability of downsizing. Just because the 18xx games take forever does not mean one cannot have a good railway game that plays quickly. The sports game hobby can have game that simulate the players on the grid-iron, the play calling of the coach, or the management of the teams. The difficulties occur where all three are present in too bulky a package. By working out clearly what you want, what you can have, and reconciling the two you can downsize any game. Downsizing is a discipline of general application.

So what's the problem fatso?

Let me take as a basic purpose of any game that it is designed to be played by the majority of its target audience. Palpable nonsense of course, a game is designed to be sold, but to the extent it cannot be played you may find you do not buy it. Played by the majority of the audience means it must address the number of gamers it requires (is it going for four player only, or two to four player) and time constraints (some gamers like a couple of hours, some a couple of weeks, most live somewhere in between). You might therefore expect most games to be aimed at (say) the three to five hours that constitute the "afternoon/evening" of the traditional game. Yet in my submission many games are designed and sold on an entirely different principle (not surprising in that the designer and publisher have hit their target at point of sale) but (much more surprisingly) may be bought on the same criteria. How many times have you read the following:

Storm of Stuff: Monthly turns with seasonal interphases covering the whole war. Units are battalion/division level with special formations, jaegers, stosstruppen and NKVD. Historical designations included from recent research. Three maps which can be joined to maps from Another Storm of Stuff to make a complete map of Europe. As well as land combat, naval and air combat is covered at squadron level. Political factors factored in to the exciting and challenging victory conditions that allow you to play the whole war. What ifs include: Germany developing an Atomic Sense of Humour, the price of eggs rocketing and the possibility of US intervention on Mars!This should be a real monster but lots of fun, available soon $60.

Wow! Storm of Stuff a must-have! Of course we all know in reality that SoS will be an unplayable mish-mash of rules presenting a wide-range of potential strategies usually ruined by one or more of:

It certainly will be a real monster but, tinkering aside it will not be a game. The designer produces this plum duff of a game for a number of reasons:

Yes, he knows it will sell, produce the biggest load of old nonsense you can imagine and you can sell it providing you follow these handy tips from Uncle Chuck.

Surely not, you cry, gamers cannot be this easily fooled. Oh yes they can (and they are) although fooled may not be the right word, they are caught for the most basic of reasons. They want the above things more than they want such factors as accuracy, playability or balance because most games are trophies and most of us have to nerve ourselves to spend enormous sums of loot (more than a decent premier cru for example) on games we know nothing about. We want some plausible deniability about the things and size, cost and reputation will do nicely thank you.

But hang abaht a bit squire. Just because I want a game that makes me look terrifically clever does not mean it has to be badly designed. Absolutely correct (and welcome to the land of the living), the oversizing factors can be supported if they are just selling gimmicks ("just" selling gimmicks, this man is talking about the thing I love!) but do we really need them getting in the way of the game? I can think of only three Avalon Hill games that had intellectual credibility amongst the hoi polloi: Struggle Of Nations, The Longest Day and Advanced Squad Leader all of which could inflict a serious wound if dropped on the foot. Yet that company has produced simply mounds of excellent games, some not bad history and a lot of highly challenging playing. Indeed playing (say) War At Sea well is possibly harder than the above silicone implants.

So although I certainly think you should design games and their advertising copy to attract purchasers I do not think you need to supply a large amount of regurgitated data disguised as a game. Enough of the preamble, prepare to downsize boldly.

Downsizing for fun and profit

Let us take the simplest way of downsizing, but sadly not the cheapest for the designer. Let us say I am passed Storm of Stuff to downsize and have elite teams of Avalon Hill testers available, what do I do? Rip all that surplus information untimely from its mother's womb? Certainly not. I collect the information out of the rules and whack it to the back of the rule book and slap the title "optional" on it. Of course many gamers will be too manly to resist playing the whole lot (including the poptastic "Prince of Orange quite literally a French Spy" rule), but the rest of us quiche-eaters play the basic rules. (Of course we weaklings neglect to further condition the sentence "I played Storm of Stuff last week" with "well, only the basic rules 'cos I'm bone idle", just because we are lazy does not make us stupid. No, we are stupid for other reasons).

I could stop here but I want the game to be playable (call me a sentimental old fluff if you will) so I need to take the 52 turn game and render it into smaller scenarios. The sheer work involved in preparing scenarios is seldom recognised by any other than those who have tried it. Firstly, you need to have decent information of start positions (and that means a deal more research than starting and finishing positions). Secondly, you will want to balance the scenarios (hence the need for the crack team of testers). Thirdly, your scenarios will soon expose the inner strength of your design because some irritating smart alec is bound to discover you cannot reach scenario three if you play scenarios one and two (I ask you, what business is it of his!). Fourthly, you need to understand the topic well enough to grasp one phase from another to give your audience some different feel to each scenario.

Of course some games may require that you play five years and five yearly scenarios are not on. In that case you must attack the number of turns and the level of detail, but do try and think about scenarios because they permit that extra detail to continue to exist.

OK, so its a pain but I think rendering down a game for scenarios has significant advantages. Firstly, it allows you to go overboard in certain other areas. You can keep that over detailed system for a 50 turn game if you provide five ten-turn scenarios instead. Despite all this worthy prattling about downsizing I am as barmy as the next designer and I welcome the chance to be both detailed and playable. Secondly, although it is a bind the rigour introduced by the scenario review allows you to pick up some dramatic failures in your own design. Like doing the final check of your parachute yourself it gives you added confidence before you leap into eternity with the name of an Indian on your lips. Thirdly, I believe it enhances sales to be able to say there are a number of shorter scenarios, it appeals to me certainly. Fourthly, having sold the game I believe scenarios help induce the purchaser to play the game. If he plays the game one has to believe that he will be only too happy to recommend it to his chums (certainly more happy than if he had not touched it).

Although the use of scenarios can allow us to "cheat" on detail levels as compared to designing a game with only one scenario it cannot allow the designer to breach the fundamental rule that you must give yourself a limit and stick to it. The limit (or limits) can be counter-mix (the most commonly observed because breach of it is pointless), rule book size or playing time. I prefer playing time because it is the ultimate test for any game. Short rules may give shorter games than longer rules (I am not sure this always applies but let us take it as read) but a short set of rules with a multi-player option may still result in a game that is too long. Indeed the management of multi-player games to ensure good interaction and avoiding the longeurs of the other players turns as you slowly grow older waiting for turn two is one of the hardest tests of design ability and it is to the credit of the "fluffy" market that they acquit themselves better than the historical game market. Designers should beg borrow or steal a range of these games and shamelessly plunder their wealth.

The easiest way to downsize is to start with it in mind. Write down (yes I mean write down, anything short of this will not work) a summary of the intended game ensuring you state a time limit for normal play and the level of simulation. We all know the Napoleonic games where we command every unit from battery to Grand Armee, no-one does that in reality so why do we try. Instead you need to pick your level (Corps Commander) and then have the system run your divisional commanders and the Emperor. Having done this select what you consider the most vital areas are, let's try an example our topic is Formula One Grand Prix Racing. What is important:

Taking this you may decide to have a three tier game: sponsorship, pre-race, race. Or you might decide to do one Grand Prix in great detail with different weather. The solution is not important for these purposes what is important is that you restrict yourself to those major topics. If you do not want to deal with pre-race in detail in your game you will still need to have a pre-race module, probably basing it on average results.

Off you go and write your basic rules and do your research (and these two processes will toggle back and forth as you validate one by using the other). I always recommend that you do not worry unduly about sizing at this stage. If you have an idea just write it down (I favour drafting directly into the WP with a category at the end in italics or a different font for ideas that strike you while drafting). Running parallel with this (it depends on your personal preferences) is preparing the map and counters (or cards) in rough. Having sated your desire to design you can now play your first test version.

At this point (or just after the first playing) you will be able to form a view of how close you are to your stated aims. If you have a five hour design for a three hour game fear not. Simply take each rule and hit it with the following questions

The last point is vital because there are many bits of chrome that appear to be of tertiary importance but are such fun that it would be a crime to miss them out, let's not get puritanical chaps. Balance always balance, mes braves. In practice retaining a few of these lollipops is a good way of rewarding playtesters (and no Mike we are not having a Marduk counter......yet).

Having measured each facet of the game you must then take the lowest performing elements and remove them (totally or by substitution with a simpler rule) until you get back into your target time. You then apply this build-up, cut-back process until you arrive at the rightsized product with which you are happy. Remember in this process that you will never get it perfectly right, as Pablo Picasso used to say to me over a bag of Uncle Joe's Nigger Balls "Great art is never finished, always abandoned". What would he know though, he makes perfume doesn't he?

Let me take some examples. I have a part completed game on the Byzantine Empire (that is full rules and counters plus map, one play-test). Now I love this topic, all those exotic nations, religious arguments and family warfare. Loving a topic is both the best reason for doing so and the most likely reason for having to downsize. Accept it, mes eleves. So I produce these rules which have the lot. A sub-system to recreate Byzantine warfare (heavily frontier linked, few deep wars, recruitment limited); another sub-system that handled family relationships ("So I married a Ducaina" as Mike Myers would call it); and, religious stuff that was utterly great ("Sorry Charles that theme has gone iconodule and you are iconoclast" "Dash it Mike, looks like you've got me dead to rights, you worshipper of idols you"). All great and all utterly unplayable, not only unplayable but capable of derailing most gamers who were having enough trouble telling their Aghlabids from their Abbasids. With tears running down my cheeks I saved the rules, copied over and gutted the copy. THE RESULT WAS STILL 50% TOO LONG! That said, I still recommend working on those extra rules some of them may come back as we wrestle with the game (perhaps there are too many turns, less turns more detail he cackled).

When I sat down to do my Napoleonic design for Austerlitz I already knew the major downsizing technique as compared to most Napoleonic games. I was going to reduce the level of simulation of regimental combat and use the time "saved" to simulate the confusion of army command. This meant that rather than concentrating on what the Perm regiment did I looked at brigade or division or corps. A typical technique here is to take your favourite account and precis it one level up. Suddenly paragraphs of good stuff about Lieutenant Siggins having his head struck off become a laconic "Enemy artillery failed to damage morale".

With your reduced account you not only identify the key activities but their frequency. A medieval battle is a number of hours of bashing or gouging but it may have a reduced number of key events: The Plan, The Approach, The Fight, The Lucky Break, The Pursuit. If you want to avoid twenty turns of blood you might substitute five turns as above. This element will come through when you "storyboard" the events you wish to simulate, or by listening to the comments of experienced historians or experts. For example, one could do a lot of work on Formula 1, but the comment of one expert that the race was now three sprints suggests immediately a way of storyboarding the races. The trouble with storyboards is that you need to know what time period is probably best before you analyse the evidence, so you will have to cut the Gordian Knot by making a guess. It is cheating but you could do worse than taking a number of turns (five or ten seem to work for some reason) and divide into the total time period. In The Good Old Cause I knew a monthly turn was too long, but an annual turn too short, four months came out right. To achieve this I storyboarded events monthly and then aggregated them. I wrote an article on storyboarding in Games International for those of you who want to pursue this area.

Now you know the events that occurred at your level and what mattered you can further reduce them by dealing only with what you as King (or whatever) could influence. In my Flodden design the King of Scots can send orders and devise plans, but once he hits the English line he is busy fighting and cannot influence the battle other than as a pikeman.

Now of course the fact that events are neither important nor capable of influence by you does not mean that they did not occur. If you reduce the level of simulation you are going to have to accept a wider range of results. Are the units in square, well we do not know because we got rid of the square formation counters. Maybe they are and maybe they are not. But the probability of success must reflect the possibility that they are either formation. Sometimes you will see a brigade break before cavalry and in irritation wonder if they would not have been in square. Yet a moment's reading will show that many a corps commander must have wondered the same as his men streamed past. There is a story of Napoleon at Austerlitz observing troops streaming to the rear and concluding they were fleeing cavalry because they keep looking over their shoulder. The Emperor did not know what happened because he could not see what happened. The feeling of confusion that many computer games have needs to be reintroduced to board games if this assists the downsizing.

Of course in putting forward the above principle I begin to trespass on my favourite topic Chaos in games. The reasons for introducing Chaos are mostly centred around the historical accuracy and atmosphere engendered. Its application to downsizing arises because when we must cut, we might as well cut out the inaccurate rather than the accurate.

Two important concepts in downsizing are Distance and Rationalisation. Distance is the term I use to cover the situation where matters tertiary to the main game are dealt with in a much more simple level than the main structure. My Mediterranean galley game has a number of theatres attached to it (Hungary, Volga, Persia, Red Sea, Spanish Main, England, France, Netherlands and Germany). These may individually or collectively exert tremendous influence over the main game subject (if Spain is funding campaigns in the Netherlands and sending the Invincible Armada against England it will probably not mount a large galley campaign, and if the Great Turk is in Persia or campaigning against Hungary things could be quiet in Malta). Yet if we are to avoid increasing the game size by a further nine times then these tertiary theatres must be simulated using Distance. I discovered that 1550 to 1600 in France could be handled by only a few event tables, requiring one or two rolls a year (say every eight turns of the main game). Of course this is much more deterministic than playing a full game but honestly I think one could have assumed at least fifty years of indifferent rule until Henry II's sons shuffled off this mortal coil. Oddly enough gamers find these simple systems take longer than is strictly necessary because they like to sit around and talk about it all, which helps the atmosphere but not the playing time.

Rationalisation is a different concept. Rather than simulating everything in terms of Means downsizing may require you to accept the Ends. Let me give a simple example. In my strategic ECW game (The Good Old Cause) I have generals trying to control areas (say two or three counties). In my more detailed The King's War one actually manoeuvred back and forth seeking to dodge or trap the enemy. The result of all that detailed stuff was that ultimately there was a battle or there was not, and the better general was more likely to get whichever of the two he wanted than was his less skilled opponent. So in The Good Old Cause that is all that happens. The battle-seeking general goes rushing into North Yorkshire and forces a battle on 1-3 (with a plus or minus one to the better rated general). Some gamers may object to such rough-hewn simplicity on grounds of accuracy (unfortunately for them it happens to give a reasonably historical rate of battles); but I think a stronger criticism is that it is all a bit abstract. My solution was to simply give each score a "story line" a 3 was something like "scouts bump into enemy rearguard at crossroads and force battle", a 6 was "Attempts to surprise enemy strike into empty air, a forced march takes him through your lines into your prime recruiting area". The descriptions were the merest persiflage, although based on real campaign events, but they proved remarkably popular with the gamers. They permitted the gamer to re-establish the atmosphere by rationalising what is a pretty boring simple die-roll. Yet that die-roll also allows me to play the whole Civil War in three hours.

Where one die-roll really is too bland try making a number of decisions from a number of dice thrown in one lot. In Le Beau Soleil d'Austerlitz the three dice give the score for Attacker, Defender and for Defender Fire, and all three scores roll forward into one result. You can even introduce a "wobbler" with a fourth dice which amplifies the luck range. These systems are a hassle to design and model, but they save the gamer time, time which he can spend on the more interesting aspects of the topic (I assume dice rolling is not one of these).

It may seem trite but downsizing can often be achieved by reducing the discrete segments of a game ("less turns" in English). Simply reducing the number of turns cannot reduce the range of what is done however. In my Chariot Lords game the Assyrians still have to rule in the historical period, but the rules have to permit them to cram more into less turns with the same result. The reduction in turns is thus aimed at removing repetitive and ineffective routines, and accentuating key decisions and trends. From memory Chariot Lords started with 50 year turns and then moved to 90 years turns (with a bit of back and forth to get the coverage correct). The time saved over a game was something of the order of three hours (from an average eight hours to five). That saving permits the game to be playable in a long evening a very important sales consideration.

The medium of the design may permit significant downsizing. I enjoyed Die Macher and wanted to do a version of it called Die Maggie (no pun intended). But the time spent fiddling around in the German game with only a few constituencies did not fit the UK. So in my Election the population markers are placed in a number of rounds each of which covers one element of an election: the Grass Roots, the Campaigning, the geographical biases (in which your opponents place your population), and the final push. Policies are handled parallel with the system by consulting a number of face down cards and making your policy statements accordingly. The complexities of Ulster politics are handled by a single dice-throw based on the range of events inherent in the party structure at any one time. This is thus a pale imitation of the "by-election" style of Die Macher but it does what I want which is exploit the three player nature of politics to come to a decision in just over an hour (depending on chat). Rather than weep about the centre party squeeze I provide two mechanisms: a game mechanism that usually produces twice as many Liberals as in reality and a simulation mechanism where the best way to get seats per population marker is by being in an area contested by lots of small parties. The style of Election is very different from Die Macher and they are not rivals, but this arose because downsizing indicated to me how the key features could be dealt with more quickly.


There are many other techniques to downsizing, but I believe it is a vital part of the designer's weaponry. By using ownsizing on the toggle principle (build it up, reduce it down) we can combine what appear to be opposite elements. We can retain the discipline that is going to let gamers play our design to a satisfying conclusion, and yet also retain the fruits of our enthusiasm atmosphere, excitement and inspiration. Finally, it means that each historical event, or sport or business concept (or whatever topic we cover) can be covered at a number of levels allowing the player to find the one that satisfies him the most.

Charles Vasey

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