I’ve been a professional video game designer for 15 years. I’ve studied countless other games, read essays and listened to talks, and continually tried to improve my craft. I’ve also been a hobby gamer for almost 30 years. In that time I’ve created my fair share of house rules, and complained loudly about many more. Hobby gaming was something I understood from the outside looking in, and I thought that my professional experience gave me a better perspective when designing rules. It turns out I was only half right: writing a war game has been like going back to school.
I’ve always believed that good game design should be a process of simplification, reducing core mechanics down to their essential components. That doesn’t necessarily mean that games should be simple, only that any complexity should derive from the interactions between rules rather than the rules themselves.
When I first read the rules for Age of Sigmar, Games Workshop’s new skirmish game set in the venerable Warhammer universe, I was pretty shocked. Only four pages long? Given that the previous edition of Warhammer is the largest rulebook I own at just over 500 pages, you can probably see why. I’d read the forum posts from other concerned gamers and echoed a lot of the same concerns myself – but none of us had actually sat down and played it yet.
Earlier this week I had a demo of the game at my local Games Workshop store. And do you know what? Four pages is apparently all you need. So whilst the title of this post may have a faint whiff of click bait about it, Age of Sigmar is actually pretty great. Yes, I still feel like there are some issues that need addressing, the most notable being the lack of composition (no matter what Jervis says, even a casual game is improved when the sides are in balance). But the core rules – the real nuts and bolts of the design – are beautifully simple. They have followed the process of simplification to the point of removing entire sections of the rules that are otherwise ubiquitous in other war games.
This idea of challenging conventions is why Age of Sigmar deserves consideration. It may not be our intention at Massive Awesome to simplify the rules to this extent – as I mentioned above, I’ve been playing war games for nearly 30 years, so a little more depth is always welcome – but there is a modern, video game design philosophy at work here. In hindsight, my career as a video game designer had clearly put me on the right path, but it took a war game to make me realise that.