Monday, July 17, 2023

Wargame Design: N/G/S- Narrative, Gamist, Simulationist


A frequent, and hot topic in game design is something called N/G/S.  This roughly breaks down into what aspects a game wishes to "lean" into.  These are Narrative, Gamist, Simulation.  This discussion comes up with Wargames, Board Games, Card Games, and Role-playing Games.  Today, I wanted to spend a bit of time talking about these different aspects and how they may relate to your game design.  

  • Narrative
Such games are primarily designed to "tell a story" and have a strong sense of plot, character arcs, and setting.  They lean heavily into these aspects in the game play.  A common trope, but not a universal one; is the ability to incorporate RPG-Lite elements to the rules. 

  • Gamist
These lean heavily into the "game" side of things.  The goal is to win the game, and the mechanics and manipulation of the mechanics is the process used to win.  The game leans heavily into creating a space where knowledge and use of the games rules and applying them is imperative. 
  • Simulationist
These games are trying to re-create something, often the "real world" in their game experience.  For example, what it is like to be a submarine commander during the Cold War.  The mechanics and order of operations is designed to recreate what the game is trying to simulate, which in itself could be fantastical. 
With these, three categories in mind, let's dive into these dangerous waters! 

The Designer's Triangle
I am sure we have all heard the old analogy that you can have something Cheap, Fast, or Good; pick two.  The same applies to Simulationist, Gamist, and Narrativist. 

When you set-out to design, these three types of games are at different points of the triangle.  As you move closer to one of these points in your design, you naturally move away from the other points of the triangle.  So, as your game incorporates more simulationist aspects to it, that moves the game further away from being gamist or narrative in focus.  If you add gamist elements, it moves the game away from narrativist and simulationist.   

You don't need to pick two of the three, so that makes it easier!  However, the more you lean into one, the more it moves away from the others.  Therefore, no game will be able to balance between all three points of the triangle.  At best it will be able to emphasize two of the three. 

Where Do You Want to Be? 
This is the crux of the dilemma as a designer.  Where do you want your game to fit on the Designer's Triangle?  You need to be sure you understand what you want your game to be when you put together your design goals.  These design goals will help you decide where you want to lean in towards one of the points on the Triangle, and help you decide if you are going to try lean in across the board, or try to off-set in certain areas and defer towards a different point.  

Castles in the Sky and the Designer's Triangle
In the five year development window for Castles in the Sky I had to use the Designer's Triangle many times to help me solve various challenges in the design.  I had my design goals written out.  

Castles in the Sky had the following design goals: 
  1. Scale and Model agnostic
  2. 3D battlespace
  3. Meaningful choices to be made
  4. Ships that can take a pounding, until they can't
  5. Battleship > Cruiser > Escort > Battleship
  6. Maneuver matters
  7. Some relationship to naval warfare of the period..... but flying
You can see that these goals were a mix of all three points of the Designer's Triangle.  

- Maneuver Matters
- Meaningful Choices
- Scale and Model Agnostic

- Ships that can take a pounding, until they can't
- Battleship > Cruiser > Escort > Battleship

- Some relationship to naval Warfare
- 3D Battlespace

You can see that these goals were all over the Designer's Triangle.  Some were closer aligned to other points more than others.  In theory, the game is relatively balanced between the three points, but individual choices are not.  

For example, I decided early that I wanted Maneuver to Matter and be a big part of the game.  This is contrary to Some Relationship to Naval Warfare.  If you really study WWI era naval combat, the idea was to create two battle lines that than steamed along at range and pounded on each other until one side folded.  Jutland is the classic example of these tactics in action.

I have seen and played my share of Naval games.  I have even played WWI games using these tactics.  To be honest, I found such tactics to be effective in the games, historically accurate, and just an exercise in dice rolling.  That was not the experience I wanted.  

Therefore, I had to make a choice.  Mirroring Naval Warfare of the period (only in the sky) was one of my Simulationist goals.  However, I decided that choices and maneuver were more important even though they are Gamist options.  Therefore, I focused on the Gamist side of the triangle when I decided that instead of long lines of ships shooting at each other, I wanted to incentivize getting closer using the Power Rating and Firepower mechanic.  I made a decision that moved the game closer to the Gamist side of the Designer's Triangle.  

Final Thoughts: 
Many gamer's like to talk about if a game is a simulation, a narrative, or a game that focuses on the game itself.  However, the truth is that no game is all of one type and none of the others.  They are a combination.  They have elements of all three games hidden inside of them.  

The key decision a game designer needs to make is how and when to lean into the appropriate corner of the Designer's Triangle to create the experience they are looking for.  Often times, their own goals can be contradictory, so deciding which goal and design choice to lean into will make a difference in the outcome of the game.  Be sure to guide the game to the outcome you want, and make the choice for yourself.  Do not let it happen be accident.   

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  1. Amazing how a bit of theory from the rpg world, where it became popular but also received heavy criticism and has somewhat lost its shine, has made it's way yo the wargaming world after some two decades. two decades! :-)