This past week, I’ve come across two pages that have got me thinking about “fiddliness.”
The first was a post on Boardgamegeek entitled “American style games vs. German style games: fiddly is good.”
The second was about Magic: The Gathering’s new set entitled “Time Spiral.”
Both got me thinking about how there’s good fiddly and bad fiddly.
Fiddly, as I try to definite it academically, is a rule that acts as a marked exception to other rules in a way that does not follow intuitively from the other rules as presented.
Basically, it’s a rule that stands out and doesn’t seem to fit.
Some fiddly rules? I’ll set myself up for some hate mail: Chess is full of them. First pawn move being double, castling, En Passant capture. Those are decidedly fiddly. One could make an argument that pawn promotion is fiddly, but I think it makes sense that you have a rule for what happens when a piece that can only move forward reaches the end of the board. The other rules, however, exist because of some problem in the game that needed to be patched centuries ago, or that somebody important liked and it ended up staying. Either way, fiddly.
To go more recent, take a look at Twilight Imperium 3rd edition. (A game which, if you recall, I have no particular love for.) To be fair, there are lots of worse offenders in the wargame genre. TI3 has gone a long ways to clean their rules up from previous editions and make it flow better. Unfortunately they haven’t quite gone far enough to make it a good game for me. For example, the board is set up by laying down hexes that represent areas of space. (This mechanism works quite well in Settlers of Catan.) In TI3, it gets fiddly because there are several easily forgettable rules in how you place them. The last time we played we did it wrong. If you have to go to the rulebook every time to setup a game, there’s probably some bad fiddliness going on.
You might be saying to yourself by now- “what’s wrong with all that, Mr. The Game? Castling is an important defensive move in Chess. If you didn’t have the space setup rules in TI3, you’d get impenetrable walls of supernovas. All those things have a reason for being there.”
BUT… if you were designing a game, would you rather have fiddly rules or a lack of fiddly rules? When designing, I go for as few fiddly rules as possible. Why? I find it annoying as a player to have to consult the rulebook for tiny exceptions, and I also find it annoying to have played and forgotten an important exception. The best games feel intuitive and give players the feeling that it’s something they have a handle on, even if they don’t have all the strategy right away.
Uh oh, I used the “s word.” In the previously mentioned Boardgamegeek thread, several people talk about why they like fiddliness, and one of the reasons is that they increase the depth to the game.
That can be true, but it can also be false, depending on how the fiddliness is used.
Which also brings me back to Time Spiral. Time Spiral is the new Magic set which makes new cards that mechanics from out of print sets.
Magic is a fiddly game. There’s no denying that. Each card is an exception. We call it an “Exceptions Game.” Here’s where the good fiddly comes in: if the rules to the game are not fiddly, but the components are, that’s good.
Magic’s cards interact with each other in interesting ways and lead to tough decisions and strategic thought based on the cards themselves. The rules, on their basest level, are pretty straightforward and have a good flow. (There’s still a lot of fiddliness in the rules- mostly about timing- but play lands to play cards and attack with creatures is pretty straightforward.)
Fluxx is a perfect example of an exceptions game where the rules are non-fiddly. The rules to Fluxx basically consist of “Find the starting rules card and put it into play. Give each player three cards from the deck. Somebody starts.” Then the cards themselves describe in their entirety what they do. It’s not a strategic game by any means, but very non-fiddly.
(It’s tempting to use Elegant as the opposite of Fiddly, but that term carries with it some other connotations, which I shall save for a future column.)
So the lesson here is: try to create the least fiddly set of rules you can, and if you need to spice it up for strategic depth, try to put the fiddliness somewhere inside the game. That way, you save your players some tedious reading in the middle of an already long war game…