Math vs Feel in Game Design

An original article, written by Fleet designer, Matthew Riddle on Math vs Feel when it comes to board game designing.

Welcome to another edition of Meeple Speak. This time our guest writer, is none other than Matt Riddle. Designer (well co-designer) behind such games as Fleet, Eggs & Empires, Floating Market and the upcoming Back to the Future: An Adventure Through Time.  Originally, we asked Matt to do a different topic, however, he felt so strongly about writing this one – Math vs Feel in Game Design, what could we say.  While Matt has become a regular when it comes to be interviewed by The Inquisitive Meeple, this is his first article he has written for us. We hope you all enjoy it!


Math vs Feel in Game Design

by Matt Riddle

Math is a fundamental building block of game design. Heck, math is the most powerful force in the universe. I am Matt Riddle, engineer by trade, game designer by passion. There are a lot of very smart guys, WAY smarter than me (including my design partner Ben Pinchback), designing games. Luckily, math is overrated.

Ask a game designer what is more important when designing a game, “math” or “feel.” You are likely going to get a pretty even split. This is simply because both are important and every designer works in a different way. Now ask a player which is more important…

Math is the engine behind the decisions made during gameplay. At its simplest level, it is points per action. How many victory points, or what percentage of goal completion, is achieved when this action is taken. In general, that is not a linear relationship so Google combinatorial mathematics and do some reading. It is interesting I am not remotely qualified to discuss it with any insight.

Feel is what actually happens to players when executing the actions the game presents. Did that action progress their goal? Did they get a sense that it did? Feel is where a game lives. Feel is what people remember about a game. So, how do game designers bridge that gap? How do we make sure that the math is balanced in a way that leads to good decisions and a working game but keep those decisions interesting and variable?

To one end of the spectrum, there are plenty of designers who create spreadsheets full of combinatorial mathematics to determine how actions will play out. Those action pools are assigned a thematic covering and linked to other action pools with a different thematic covering that all work together to create a game. Often time, you can feel this mathematical engine working below the surface. Many abstracts, a genre I have a soft spot for, are almost purely mathematical. For most players, that is neither a good nor bad thing. It is what it is so to speak.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are designers who want to make a game about zombies. And they do. I have played both protos and published games that to me were clearly about nothing but feel. There is often a clear mathematical correct choice and instead of relying on game state or player decisions to alter that choice, those games will often rely on randomness. A player can make the “best” decision but a random factor decided it was no longer the best decision. I do not terribly enjoy those situations in games but clearly many players do. Done correctly, the player will feel like they had a chance, know they might get unlucky, and make the decision to put themselves in that situation.

I am several hundred words in and I can feel you asking; so, what is the point? What are you getting at?

Ultimately while math is necessary, feel and play is more important. The issue is that feel is ambiguous and relative. It depends on the players. Players are affected by their mood, group dynamics, and a host of other factors. It cannot be quantified or counted. I know that seems really obvious, but as designers our answer is often to make a game mathematically sound, slap a theme on and move out. How many games have you played that felt like homework? These are games that work, games that were almost fun… but in the end are often forgettable. The challenge is to balance the math with the feel, to design games where the savvy math focused player cannot always determine the optimal move but still have a rewarding experience but the tactical, fly by the seat of their pants guy feel in the hunt. We do that by getting the feel right.

The issue is that sometimes that means ignoring the math. Making a design decision on how it feels, not how it tracks in your flow diagram. Easier said than done right? What happens if you are wrong? How do you shoot the devil in the back? What if you miss?

With shared information via twitter, podcasts, BGG, etc this has become a real focus for game designers. If something is wrong, they will find it. My favorite example is overpowered. Players love to declare something is OP after one play of a game. I do it all the time! In reality, if there is indeed a broken strategic path or something truly is overpowered, the collective gaming hive mind will figure it out and talk about it and post about it. That is scary.

Equally important IMO, is the perception that something is overpowered… even if it isn’t necessarily true mathematically. We as designers have tools to combat that such as round/turn structure, board state, randomness, player interaction, scarcity, scaling, etc. I will discuss one of those and maybe challenge other designers much smarter than me to pick up some of the other ones.

Round/Turn Structure:

Round/Turn structure is what players are actually doing on a given turn or round. It can be broken down to the quark level as an available action or considered over the course of a game at a strategic level. What matters though, is that when a player does the things they do can affect the feel as much as what they actually do. This lets designers adjust the math over the course of a turn, round, or more often a game because the actions feel different. I will highlight the adjustment that can occur during a turn or round.

Fleet was my design partner – Ben Pinchback – and I’s first published game. It is the first game we ever attempted to design. We learned very quickly that perception is as important as reality. If enough players say something then likely it must FEEL that way… whether we agree or not. In Fleet, it is that processing vessel is overpowered. It’s not, I promise, but many players think it is. You do not need to understand the game or the card for this to make sense, but if you don’t then shame on you! Go play Fleet, its great! Does the fact that over time there is a thought that processing vessel is overpowered mean we should have designed the card differently? No, because it isn’t. What is more important is WHY players think it is OP. In the case of Fleet, I believe that it is because if you do not have processing vessel, you cannot process fish during the processing phase of every turn. What this means is that players with no processing vessel skip an entire phase of a turn. The action/power itself is not actually overpowered, but the feeling that players get when they watch others participate in a phase while they do not is that it MUST be overpowered. We did not get that sense when playing because we knew the math, but it is unreasonable to expect players to get that right away. Cognizance of that may have driven us to a different design decision on the power, but more likely we would have altered the structure of the turn to diminish the “left out” feeling. Adjusting the turn structure could have negated the issues. Lesson learned.

A feeding mechanic is generally a forced task with a detrimental outcome if it is not completed. Often these are scored all at once at the end of a round. This means as a player, I have to watch someone else get points, or at least NOT lose points while I go backwards! This often leads to players being hyper focused on accomplishing the forced task to the detriment of the overall game progress. At a basic level, most players should judge a feeding mechanic on a points per action basis – “If I take these three actions I will achieve the requirements and NOT lose X points.” As often as not, there may be three actions that are worth more points but players are in general loss averse. We HATE losing stuff. What that means is often times a feeding mechanic can – and should – have lower relative points per action! Because many feeding mechanics occur at the end of a shared round, the sense of loss is heightened by comparison to the crowd. The timing of the feeding mechanic resolution strengthens the feeling of pressure that it gives players.

The best games have a sound mathematical basis while managing the experience of players using the design tools at hand. I find the best way to accomplish that is play a LOT. Plays games, play your games, and trust your instincts. If the math says one thing but you feel better about a different answer then go with it. Play it and see. I bet you were right all along… one way or the other.


2 thoughts on “Math vs Feel in Game Design”

  1. I think the best balance of math and feeling is when a designer can create a mathematical situation that allows the player to digest the options and do something they perceive as cleaver. I’d love to hear you thoughts on creating cleverness in the player mind and how math plays a roll.

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