The Complexity of Depth

Words are important to me. They have weight and meaning. But meaning isn’t immutable, words are not carved into stone. They flex and change as culture requires. Every sub-culture has its own words and our hobby is no different. Worker Placement, Hand Management, Push your luck, we know what these words and phrases mean. We use them to get ideas across quickly, to shorten the need for deeper explanation each time around. Sometimes those words are misused though, the concepts unclear, and it is the role of folk like myself to talk about such issues. To expand and define the language, at least for the snapshot of the hobby we are looking at. 

Depth is one such word I think is misused, overused, misunderstood. It is often tied to the idea that a game requires lots of mechanisms in order to achieve depth. It needs to be a complex system that you have to figure out how to manipulate. Depth in this case is seen as an expression of understanding of mechanisms. 

I’m going to attempt a different definition:

Depth is an expression of the choices and space to improvise a game gives you to achieve victory.

Starting from this concept lets go deeper. The decision space of a game is the range of choices that the game presents to us. What happens if we think of depth as a measure of decision space against the complexity of the mechanics? 

Think of a lot of the games we consider classics. Not we the hobby games market, but wider culture. I’m thinking of games like Draughts, Chess, Go, Poker, Backgammon, and Mancala. All these games have simple rulesets that give rise to great depth. They are games that can be taught with relative ease, passed on from parent to child, they live in the culture of wider society.

As the modern boardgame hobby evolved we saw games that tried to emulate the feel of those classic games. Titles we now consider ‘classics’ of the modern hobby like Tigris & Euphrates, El Grande, Catan were produced in these early days. They had simple rulesets that were easy to hold in your head, with a lot of opportunity for improvisation and bold plays. 

Tigris & Euphrates on Boardgame Arena
The game that got me thinking about the concept of depth again

More recently we have games like Azul, Agricola, and Pandemic. All considered modern classics by a wide selection of the tabletop community. We could go on and on naming examples but there is one thing a lot of these games have in common. They have emergent depth. 

Games with emergent depth use a paucity of mechanics to create a wealth of choices and possibilities that are not obvious from a reading of the rules or even from your first playthrough or two. 

There feels like a trend to me in some sectors of modern boardgame design towards explicit depth. This is depth that comes from the puzzle of the mechanisms. It might be the sheer number of mechanisms, the mathematics involved, or the interaction of those mechanisms that provides depth. 

Explicit depth has an issue. It is restrictive. By its very nature it can only be as deep as the designer intended it to be. That’s fine and a lot of people love the puzzles provided by such games. A lot of the modern German school of game design represents this style of design. Sometimes these games actually have little depth to them, they are merely complex. There may be a few paths to victory, but you must walk them. You can move between them, but you are always on the path set by the designer.  

Emergent depth has no such restrictions. Depth in an emergent system is teased out over time. They rely more on the actions of the other players around the table than they do on the complexity of the systems on the table. This type of depth allows for improvisation and creativity that explicit systems do not. You can wander off the path and find your own way through the woods. 

Now that is not to say that complex games never have emergent depth. I have not played every game and I am certain that you can think of some examples where a game with complex systems also has the properties of emergent depth. It always feels to me though that the more complex the system, the less opportunity there is for emergent play. 

A hand places tiles on the Azul board
A modern classic and current evergreen title.

Is one type of depth better than another? In terms of what you enjoy? Of course not. You have your own preferences and may move towards explicit over emergent depth, or vice versa.

In terms of longevity of a game in our tabletop culture, I do think games with emergent depth win out. These games tend to have simpler rulesets so are easier to teach. The properties of emergent depth means there is always something new to discover each time you play. They are often quicker to play as well, requiring less investment from players on a variety of fronts. This makes them a more attractive proposition to those that don’t have hours to spare. 

I see a lot of crowdfunded games where the campaign seems to focus on the idea that because they have this set of mechanics, their game has depth. Maybe it does. Designers should not mistake complexity for depth though. It is a hard thing to design a game with depth. Some strive their entire career to make such a thing. 

I don’t think games need depth or complexity to be fun. That’s a whole different article though. I do feel that confusing complexity for depth can lead to a philosophy of game design that excludes the wonder of emergent properties. If we were to lose that sense of improvisation, the wonder of discovering new choices within games we thought we knew inside out, it would be a crying shame. 

Iain McAllister

Tabletop games reviewer and podcaster based in Dalkeith, Scotland.

3 Responses

  1. 30 Jul 2023

    […] Inside the venue is clean and well appointed. A large selection of games to buy occupies the left hand wall as you enter. The staff have organised these well, making it easy to find the sort of game you are after. The range is impressive covering a wide selection of genre, theme, setting, and complexity. […]

  2. 19 Aug 2023

    […] throughout the game that just seem to add work to the game without being very much fun. Mistaking complexity for depth feels like a common trap in a lot of designs. Whilst the former can lead to the latter, it is often […]

  3. 26 Oct 2023

    […] that get people fired up. For some they seek out depth beyond all else, often mistaking it for complexity. Others rail at the presence of chance in games, wanting a deterministic game state over any other […]

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