In a strategy game, reading is the process of parsing the information on the board. This allows players to identify threats and opportunities; for example:
After reading the board, the remainder of the player’s turn is spent deciding on the best path of action. When a move is chosen the enemy responds, the game state changes, and the cycle repeats.
As a result of their abstraction and formality, reading is an especially important component aspect of Chess-style games, from Advance Wars to X-Com; but the proportion of mental effort spent reading vs decision making is very different.
The raw complexity of reading the chessboard several turns ahead (the information horizon) means that players must decide for themselves when they have enough information to act. Games with more information that players could use than they can feasibly read can be incredibly deep.
Conversely, “wide” games offer the player a huge amount of information that has to be read before any decision making can occur. Just like reading a book, literacy is the skill required to access the content. Expecting players to learn (or already have) the literacy required to read a game can be very intimidating and can reduce the size of a game’s audience. This might not necessarily be a bad thing; incredibly sophisticated works can be produced for highly literate audiences. In the gaming world, genres allow developers to build off a common language.
The fluency lifecycle
The process of learning to play a game can be broken up into several stages.
By changing rules and adding new content designers can extend a game’s life, but few games are evergreen. It’s worth pointing out that while longevity is often seen as a virtue, the rate at which a player is able to learn and the sense of mastery offered by less-complex games can create incredibly rewarding experiences which are accessible to a far wider audience. On the other hand, games which are able to support rich decision making allow the game’s challenge to transition from reading to strategic thinking which can be far harder to grok. These games may never be solved and are able to retain the interest of a certain breed of player for a lifetime.
Understanding your game
When considering a new design it’s important to consider how much time it will take for players to understand the information you’re laying out for them, but also to understand whether your game’s inherent focus lies in reading or decision making. Since Hoplite is far more about spotting enemy attack patterns than strategy, adding Fire Emblem’s enemy attack range overlay may not be a good design decision. For a game like chess, there are strong arguments both for and against! Whatever your focus, it’s always important to pay close attention to what you’re making players read, and consider how you can make reading more fulfilling to learn and practice.
Thanks for reading! I'm @tomkail, a developer on Inkle's upcoming Heaven's Vault and hobbyist game designer. This article was originally posted on my personal design blog