Elegant Design

Posted on Aug 28 2012 by pomomojo in Uncategorized

In a recent blog post, a noted game designer pondered the meaning of the word “elegance,” a term often used to describe board games. I have often used this word myself when discussing games but have never tried to exactly pinpoint its meaning. Instead of trying to give a universal definition, however, I thought it might be helpful to look at a few games to see what aspects strike me as elegant or inelegant and then build from there.

First off, when speaking of elegance, most board game critics are not referring to the way the game looks, but the way the game plays. But perhaps the look of a game is not totally unrelated. Zontik has several items that one could describe as elegant looking – from chess sets to board games to accessories – and I would suggest the common characteristic is a simplicity of design that is both attractive and functional. After all, something can be beautiful without being elegant and something can be functional without being elegant, but that combination of the two seems to encourage a new form of description. Just as an example, take this acrylic dice cup that incorporates the trips into the decorative design. Rather than have a set of trips to perform the function of the dice cup (rolling the dice) and a separate decoration to make the cup more attractive, the two goals are accomplished by a single design element.

So even though elegance in game design is not something one can see with the eyes, the example of combining form and function as simply as possible is a good place to start. Elegant rules are those that limit exceptions or apply universally. I discussed this in an earlier blog post when I complained about castling in chess. Castling seems inelegant because it breaks the general rule that only one piece can move per turn. Likewise, promoting a pawn troubles my aesthetic sense since it can result in two queens of the same color being on the board, and if a spare set of pieces isn’t available then some other token will have to be used to represent the second queen. By promoting a pawn to a second queen the rules have lost some elegance, but so has the visual appeal of the board.

As seen in chess, a game can combine a number of elegant or inelegant elements. If some pattern ties together several rules, then the ones that stand out as odd often strike me as lacking elegance. The rule requiring partners to declare their bidding conventions in Bridge seems odd to me if only because explaining your bidding conventions would seem to make the no table talk rule superfluous. The waterworks and electric company spaces on a Monopoly board have always stood out from the other properties because they work and look different. The symmetry of the starting positions and goals in Backgammon is elegant, but the restriction on when you can start bearing off bothers me since it limits the freedom of choices a player normally has.

Of course one man’s elegance might not be another’s, and elegance is no guarantee that a game is fun. But, in general, I have found that the more strategy and depth a game can squeeze from the fewest number of pieces and rules, the more elegant it seems and the more I admire the design.

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