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Simulation vs. Mechanics in Gaming

Greg Aleknevicus

July, 2001

Like many readers of The Games Journal, gaming is my primary hobby. This is usually met with some perplexity whenever I tell someone this. The usual question is "What sort of games do you play?" For some reason this is always a rather difficult question to answer. I think the problem is the lack of common ground with which to start from and so normally I'll first ask the person what sorts of games (if any) they've played. Usually I'll get the standard responses of Monopoly, Risk or other Parker Brothers/Milton Bradley type games. Sometimes they'll mention that they've seen (or even played) an Avalon Hill wargame. Even more times I'll get a somewhat blank stare and a quiet mention of Chess or Checkers. Depending on which I'll then try to explain the differences and similarities between the games they're aware of and the ones I play.

The best general-purpose term I've been able to come up with (for describing "our" games) is "Monopoly crossed with Chess". One of the main reasons for this is that everyone seems to have a decent enough understanding of these two games so they know what I'm talking about. There are other, more important reasons as well. First, the mechanics of Monopoly are quite similar to most of the "German type" games I'm talking about: pieces are moved around a board, ownership of certain locations are recorded with certificates, money is transferred between players and random events occur. Personally I'm not a big fan of Monopoly, the lack of strategy or decisions in the game does not appeal to me. (I know the game has its fans and they'll state that the strategy is in the negotiating and trading part of the game. While I grudgingly agree I still believe that the game is predominantly luck.) For this reason I don't like to just use Monopoly, I don't see it as worthy of the challenge our games present. Chess, on the other hand, is certainly a game with many tough decisions and strategies but is also not a good example by itself for a couple of reasons: It's highly abstract, strictly two-player and is extremely asocial. (Before the Chess aficionado's jump all over me I'm referring to the actual playing of the game and not any associated gathering or discussion.) The relevant part is that you are usually limited to a few moves (well, okay, maybe not that few) but the decision of which one to do is difficult and the crux of the game. So, what I then state is that these games have mechanics similar to that of Monopoly while having the tough decisions of Chess. To me this seems about the best quick description I can come up with.

Sometimes the person will want a more in depth description of a game, usually something they've seen on my shelf. Here, the hardest part is whether to emphasis the mechanics or the simulation of the game. I find that it's easier to describe the latter: If it were Monopoly I'd state that you play a wealthy landowner buying and trading lots of property. Your goal is to erect houses and hotels and collect the most rent from the other players. Then I'd state how you actually went about doing that.

Settlers of Catan

For Settlers of Catan I'd state that "You're in charge of a growing colony on a newly discovered island. Your goal is to have the largest and most prosperous community. You increase the worth of your colony by building roads, settlements and cities, here's how you do it..."

This is often enough the get someone's interest but it really doesn't tell him or her too much about how the game actually works. Should the person show interest I'll usually delve into the mechanics: "Your settlements are situated on the corner of three hexes. See those numbers? Well, at the start of every turn two dice are rolled. If any of those numbers come up you take a corresponding resource card..." For the most part this approach seems to work really well.

To me, the simulation depicted and the actual mechanics are the two "pillars" on which all games are built. Obviously, some games rely much more heavily on one than the other: I don't think there's much of a simulation being depicted in Gipf and the best role-playing games have no mechanics whatsoever.

One of the biggest criticisms of German type games is that they're "thematically challenged". That is, that they really are abstract games and that any theme is largely irrelevant to the game itself or the reasoning behind certain rules. There are any number of examples that can be used to illustrate this: Why can you only purchase three shares per turn in Acquire? Why can't you use a dragon to travel that road in Elfenland? Why does El Grande end after 9 turns?

Wargames are entirely different in this regard. Here the emphasis is heavily slanted to the simulation side of things. Using Squad Leader as an example, the movement rates are what they are in order to reflect "reality". If, in real life, it took a squad of men two minutes to cross a certain terrain, then the game should reflect that. If it doesn't, then the game suffers.

A lot of the simulation aspect of a game is merely to provide "story". This is simply the method by which we translate the events of a game into "real life". Instead of "rolling a 1 during the movement phase of Bob's turn" we "Shot done a British bomber making a run over Berlin." Rather than "Moving tokens along a track" we're "running with the bulls in Pamplona."

Obviously different games succeed at this better than others. I'm not sure that I can really see the ancient civilizations in conflict with each other when I play Euphrat & Tigris. It's a little clearer when I play Vinci and even more so with Civilization. Similarly, I doubt very much that Squad Leader would have many (any?) fans if it had been presented with identical rules but no "story". Go board and stones If that's simply a piece with x,y & z attributes rather than a squad of six men armed with rifles, where's the interest? In a (rules) simple game I think this is acceptable, the success of pure abstract games such as Go, Gipf or Chess speak to this, but not in something as intense as Squad Leader.

Even simpler games often rely on this, however. In Illuminati, players try to control or destroy various "groups" such as Oil Companies, Trekkies or the IRS. It'd be very easy to remove this information from the game. Really they're just titles and illustrations for certain cards. But so much of the enjoyment comes from the bizarre and humorous situations that arise: "The Loan Sharks, with the help of the Hackers will attempt to control the Pentagon." While the game would be the same, it would lose much of its fun without this "story".

One game that I was repeatedly subjected to was Talisman. Now I should state that the game (2nd edition by the way) in its basic form is probably okay. There's really very little in the way of decision making but at an hour or so it's enjoyable once in a while. However, my friends played with every expansion, which dragged the game out into a four (or more) hour monster. (I'm often at a loss as to why so many people like to ruin a good game by overloading it with expansions but that's the subject for a future column.) Four hours of making the (usually bleedingly obvious) choice of going left or right is just not my idea of fun. So why is the game so popular? Part of the reason could be that very simplicity, the game was and is a hit amongst many non-gamers. I believe the main reason though is that the game provides good stories. This is certainly helped by the role-playing aspects of the game: You play a single character and travel around the board (world), exploring and having encounters. This is very easy to translate into stories about what you're doing and makes for an enjoyable experience for many.

In Simulacrum #5 (p. 39) Joe Scoleri writes in reference to GDW's Belter: "With the influx of "theme over simulation" oriented German games, it is unlikely that we will ever see many board games like Belter again. Today's rendition of Belter would no doubt be a highly abstracted game with large, glossy components and little simulation feel". I can empathize with Mr. Scoleri to some degree. (I say to some degree because a choice between German style games and American style ones is an easy one for me.) Still, I do miss the "realism" that games like Belter provide. I like that I can easily visualize what's represented when I move a piece on the gameboard. Very often with German type games you're forced to come up with a reason why a certain rule exists. This detracts rather than contributes to the games "story".

In all this argument, there's nothing to say that a game which has more detailed mechanics is necessarily more "accurate" than a simpler one. The argument can be made that, in some sense, Squad Leader is entirely unrealistic. The player has far more control of his pieces than his real world counterpart ever would. Hence, the decisions and actions that the player makes don't really simulate what's happening all that well. What Squad Leader is actually modeling is a situation where omniscient beings (the players) are fighting a battle where they can only interact through the actions of WW2 soldiers. The game may be a highly accurate simulation of this situation but it's one that has never occurred in real life. The decisions (or "gameplay") of real life commanders may be very different from what Squad Leader players are faced with. If this is the case then it'd be fair to state that it is, in fact, unrealistic.

On the other hand El Grande might very accurately reflect the types of decisions that 13th century Spanish Grandes had to make. Obviously there's a high degree of abstraction. It could be that the Grandes themselves weren't involved in the actual implementation of their orders and so this abstraction is justified. "Advisers! I wish to contest Señor Carmiguels influence of the Basque peoples. What are my options?"

(Before anyone starts writing a letter on why either of these examples is ludicrous or wrong, please note that I'm only using them to explain the point I'm trying to make.)

This "type" of accuracy is based largely a games particular focus. By focus I'm referring to what role the players are placed in. Imagine a railroad construction game. If the "focus" is as a company's owner then the game should concentrate on the types of decisions that owners had to make. These are bound to be very different than a game where the focus is as a construction foreman. In the former case the important choices might be on what railroads to invest in or what cities to build to. The actual techniques of building the track can be easily abstracted without loss of "realism". In real life it might not have been possible to build a route because a mountain range made it inaccessible. In game terms this might be simulated by the fact that a 60 degree bend tile isn't available. This is acceptable because the tycoon isn't concerned about the reasons why a route can't be built, only whether or not it can be. For a game that focuses on the foreman this would be inexcusable. Why can't he build track that follows a 60 degree curve? It doesn't make sense to impose this limitation. For the game to be believable (with this focus) it would need to more accurately reflect the difficulties a foreman would face. Other aspects could be highly abstract: The amount of money a company pays in dividends (or makes available for construction) could be determined by the roll of the dice. This would be fine, he's got very little control of this in real life so the abstraction is justified.

When I first started thinking about this article I thought that "simulation" and "mechanics" were at opposite ends from each other in regards to a games design. After further thought it occurs to me that they're actually fairly independent from each other.

- Greg Aleknevicus

(This article originally appeared in issue #7 of Counter magazine.)

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