Design Case Study: Rock, Paper, Wizard

Rock, Paper, Wizard hit my radar this year primarily because of the designers, Sen-Foong Lim, Jay Cormier, and Josh Cappel.  While the Bamboozle Bros have never let me down with any of their designs, I arbitrarily decided this particular game sounded a bit too silly for my tastes, and dismissed it.

At BGG Con, however, I passed by the Wizkids booth and saw Rock Paper Wizard all set up, and the strangest thing happened.

I knew exactly how to play the game.


And now you do, too.

In fact, I can tell you everything this picture doesn’t tell you in the space of one breath:  Closest player to the hoard gains 5 gold, second closest gains 2 gold, then pawns get sucked towards the middle as suggested by the sawtooth lines.  If you and another player cast the same spell at each other, you each reveal the top card of the deck and cast that spell as a “Wild Magic” spell instead.

After learning the game in the space of a few heartbeats, I knew it sounded like the kind of game I’d love to play in my casual circles and with my nephews.  I didn’t hesitate to pick up my own copy, and I admit I’ve really enjoyed playing it.

The tabletop market has grown very rapidly in the last five years, and at the crest of this wave is a population of new gamers that gravitate to what they can access and understand.  Rock Paper Wizard is a great example of an appeal to this segment, but maybe not for the reasons you might think.

Let’s talk about what makes a game simple, what makes a game complex, and how to bridge the gap between the consumer and your rules manual.


Intuitive Systems Design

Imagine for a moment that you’ve just emerged from Plato’s Cave.  You’ve never interacted with the outside world.  You walk outside, and you find yourself at the tabletop.

What do you need to know to learn to play Rock Paper Wizard?

You certainly need a broad foundation of information.  Language and mathematics, sure…but let’s say you already have a firm grasp on the bare basics.  What do you need to know to learn the basics of gameplay?

Well, that’s what the manual is for.  It turns out, Rock Paper Wizard has 1,918 words worth of rules.  Granted, some of it is spent on examples, but that’s still pretty close to Ticket to Ride’s 2,048 word count.

So…how did you learn to play this game within the first 30 seconds of reading this artice?  Carl Sagan has the best explanation:

“…the brain does much more than just recollect–it intercompares, it synthesizes, it analyzes, it generates abstractions. The simplest thought like the concept of the number one has an elaborate logical underpinning. The brain has its own language for testing the structure and consistency of the world.”

Over the course of your life, your brain has been building a network of shortcuts.  We’ve all built our networks differently, but certain trends appear more commonly in some cultures.  In Western culture (and many others), we tend to be quite familiar with the concept of “roshambo.”

This isn’t to say that you should start designing your games so that they’re always based on widely-understood cultural touchstones.  In fact, you probably shouldn’t do that very often at all.  However, Rock Paper Wizard perfectly illustrates the power you can tap into through designing your game’s systems to be intuitive.

Ask yourself…

  • When I’m teaching my game, what individual rules do I need to go out of my way to specifically mention to players?
  • How often do they forget those rules?  If reminders are frequently necessary…
    • Can I bundle those rules with thematic elements in the game?
    • Can I bundle those rules into other mechanical structures?
    • Can I bundle those in some other way that players might find easier to digest?
    • Can I eliminate those rules, or the need for them, entirely?


Walking the Line Between Simplicity and Complexity

The difference between simplicity and complexity is raw volume of information.  In game design, we measure this volume subjectively as the amount required to understand and play the game as intended by the designer–though, usually not to master the game.  We’ve talked about managing complexity before in a closely related blog entry.

The key takeaway here is that the volume of information presented in your game’s rules systems is not necessarily indicative of its accessibility.  Remember, players will bundle and sort and interpret this information in their own ways.  The more intuitively you design your systems, the less frontloading will be involved in approaching your game, and the more marketable and enjoyable it will be.


And he’s right.

Your game should never be more complex than is absolutely necessary for its core experience.  The complexity that is necessary can be mitigated in part through clean and intuitive design.

Intuitive games are not necessarily simple; rather, intuitive games are understood simply.

Go forth and design accordingly!


1 Comment

  1. Richard Garfield has a great example of using Rock, Paper, Scissors, as a design mechanism in one of his design lectures on YouTube

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