One hallmark of highly successful games in recent years is discovery within the game. Every game should strive to make the player think in different ways, but just the game itself is not discovery enough. You need elements within your game for people to discover. At the same time, you can risk putting too many routes to discovery within a game and making it too complex.

So, how do you do both?

First, let’s look at why discovery is important.

One really interesting question in the essay portion of the Magic Great Designer Search 2 test was, “What do you think design can do to best make the game attractive to experienced players?”

In one word, my answer was discovery.

The thrill of discovery is what keeps most people playing a game past the point where they have beat it once and simply understand the rules. Why are people still playing through the Ocarina of Time and Chrono Trigger years after they have been released? Because those players see new things on each playthrough.

These games have a low learning curve but still hold discovery as hidden (or, in some cases, forgotten) aspects of the game are unraveled. Side quests that were never finished the first time around. Rooms that were never explored. Characters that you never talked to before. Items that were never acquired. These all build toward a new experience each time you play.

The key to success is a low learning curve coupled with discovery. The problem is it’s very hard to hit the right note between the two. Let me give you two examples: the classic card game War and the European board game Agricola.

War is extraordinarily simple to teach and to play. In fact, if you don’t know how to play, I can tell you all the rules in three sentences:

Divide a traditional deck of cards out to each player, then each player flips up the top card of his or her deck and the higher number takes both cards and puts them on the bottom. If there is a tie, you both add an extra card face down, then repeat the process until one player flips higher and then takes all the cards at stake. The game ends when one player has all of the cards.

What is one of the main problems of War? There’s no new discovery after learning the rules!

The game has many core problems – practically no strategy or ability to control what’s going on, for one – but most of all there’s nothing to keep you coming back. Even if every game was utterly devoid of strategy, it could still be exciting for a while if there was something new you could discover. The closest thing you get is the “discovery” that you can order cards you win on the bottom of your deck to try and beat theirs. Despite being easy to learn, War quickly becomes unexciting because there’s nothing new to do.

Contrast this with Agricola.

Agricola is one of the most intricate board games you can play. It’s another game in a long tradition of “games for serious gamers” that have come from Europe. I doubt it’s possible to even give you an idea of what’s going on in three (properly punctuated) sentences. Agricola is full of discovery because different things are happening and every game is different.

This is your brain...

The problem? The learning curve! A single game of Agricola can take hours to play, and teaching it to someone can often take upwards to an hour. The problem is that games like these make the new player feel “stupid.” It’s a classic case of analysis paralysis. This threat doesn’t just pose a hurdle the average gamer either. In fact, I have played a lot of games, and I still

always feel this way when I start playing a game like Agricola… It’s so overwhelming, there are so many pieces, there are so many variables….What is even going on?!?!

In time I grow to enjoy these games, but at the beginning, without fault, I find myself hesitant to play them.  When you’re starting out, you know that you won’t understand everything.  At the same time, you know that if you play 10 games you’ll have a better idea of how to manipulate all of your pieces in a solidly strategic way. But during your first game? Forget it! A lot of people don’t want to put in that gigantic initial investment of feeling helpless or overwhelmed during times when they’re just trying to have fun.

Let me liken this to a recent study I read about in The New Yorker that I found fascinating.

...This is your brain on Agricola.

Participants in the study were given a list of movies and asked to pick one to watch now and one to watch at a later date. Most people picked something simple and easy on the mind – a comedy or action movie they may have seen before – to immediately watch, and then something critically acclaimed like, say, Benjamin Button to watch later. Of course, when the designated later period rolled around, often they’d choose another comedy or action movie to watch and push the highbrow film off.

I often feel the same way about European board games.

When I’m playing them and know what I’m doing, I enjoy them a lot. In the abstract, I know I should play them more. However, when facing down the task of learning how to play Agricola or going to play a quick game of, say, Connect 4, I think a lot of people will choose the latter. I know learning and playing Agricola is going to eventually be more mentally stimulating and rewarding, but it’s difficult to dedicate yourself to it because you know it’s going to be a harrowing process.

(For those who are interested, the full New Yorker article by James Surowiecki, which focuses on the topic of procrastination, can be found here.)

Okay, so that was a bit of a detour, but I figured you’d find that aside interesting… and okay, I give, I mostly wanted to sound smart by referencing The New Yorker.

In any case, I know Agricola is incredibly strategic and is going to benefit me the more I play. More importantly, I know I’m going to discover new strategies and routes to victory every time I play. However, the barrier to entry is ridiculously high. It’d be like if you remapped every basic action in Zelda to a Street Fighter-esque combination of six sequential buttons.

This might lead you to believe that discovery and simplicity are mutually exclusive or, at the least, always a balance. The closer you get to one, the further you get from the other. However, that’s not true at all. A game can have both.

Let me show you two very good examples which are, not coincidentally, extremely popular to different player groups.

The first is Dominion. Dominion is an extremely simple game to learn how to play. In fact, it’s another game you can teach in a handful of sentences. However, the replayability, complexity, and, yes, discovery are extremely high. Despite the simple rules, you create situations inside of that rule set which allow for limitless strategy.

The fact that the cards you can buy in Dominion from rotate from game to game, that each card promotes a slightly different plan, and that no game plays out the same leads to constant discovery as cards synergize different than how you expect. You can try playing the game a different way 20 times in the way and be able to discover something new each time. That’s impressive.

At the same time, even with everything that’s going on, you don’t feel left out. You understand – or at least think you understand – what’s going on, and that’s what is important.

The second example is, of course, Magic.

I don’t think anyone will argue that, overall, Magic is an extraordinarily complex game. It’s played by very smart people, won all kinds of intellectual awards, and has more card interactions over the thousands and thousands of cards than any player could ever try. There is near infinite potential for discovery.

Yet, somehow it remains highly approachable to the masses. Especially in recent years, Magic has had booming success. Why?

The answer can be found in cards like Glint Hawk.

I’ve praised the design of Glint Hawk constantly. Simply put, the card is great because everybody thinks they understand what is going on. Nobody is alienated. I said it in a previously blog post, but simply put, the new player gets what Glint Hawk does: it’s a 2/2 flier for W, and to compensate for that it needs a drawback. The experienced player sees something different: a 2/2 flier for W that they can hold to play later on because it has an upside.

Now, neither group is incorrect. They’re both playing the card “right.” But what’s important is that the new player doesn’t feel like they’re missing anything on what is, in fact, a very complex card.

Additionally, the first time you see a Glint Hawk return an empty Tumble Magnet, your mind begins to whir. You “get it” and see a new way of using your card. You discovered something, and now want to try it yourself. That’s a perfect example of what keeps people playing.

One more excellent example, this time from the video game category, would be World of Warcraft. The highly successful MMO couples an intuitive experience and easy accessibility alongside all of the always-changing and fresh discoveries of a MMORPG experience. The formula of easy to understand plus full of discovery has once again created a highly successful game.

People love to discover. It “feels good.” Furthermore, discoveries make the people that take the time to explore your product feel rewarded for doing so.

Whenever you find a hidden “Easter egg” in a game, it’s there for you. Things like the Magic card Deep Analysis, or Mario and Luigi cameoing in the Ocarina of Time are built to create discovery and reward the person who wants to explore your product without making the player who doesn’t see those Easter eggs feel like they’re missing anything.

I remember how Patrick Chapin once talked about how he’ll occasionally and randomly hide links to things in the periods of his articles. Almost everybody will never notice – but for the .001 percent that do, it makes them feel important. On this very website I’ve added numerous things that I don’t expect every casual viewer to notice and find – but for the people who do find them and enjoy them, they’re my gift to you. They’re yours to discover and cherish.

I’d love to hear your thoughts below. Which games do you feel have the best mix of discovery and simplicity? Do you disagree with my assessments? Let me know!

Have fun discovering!

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