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Untold Play

Learning games can achieve more with less: a love-letter to simplicity in game design

Learning games can achieve more with less: a love-letter to simplicity in game design

by Terry Pearce

3 months ago


Sometimes the simplest games are the best

A lot of people participating in learning experiences are not gamers. But learning game designers often are, and that familiarity can lead us to underestimate how complex our designs might seem to somebody who doesn’t, as a rule, play games.

The game ‘Love Letter’ has been around awhile, but I played it for the first time yesterday, and its design struck me. It does a lot of things very well with extremely few elements and rules. I think learning game designers could learn a lot from it.

The rules are very simple: There are eight card types (shown above), some with multiple copies in the deck. Each player gets a card. Each turn, you draw a second card and then play one card, leaving you with one again. The winner of the round is the person with the highest-value card when the deck runs out. The winner of the game is the first to win three rounds.

That’s it. The only other rules are those on each card, to tell you what happens when you play or discard it.

Here’s what Love Letter does well, how it keeps things simple, and what I think it can teach learning game designers.

Make things elegant by giving elements more than one function

To use the term properly, an elegant game achieves more with less. Rather than adding extra elements, existing elements are pressed into service in multiple ways. In Love Letter, the values of the cards are a decider of who wins the round, an indicator of how ‘good’ the card is, and a way to decide the ‘battles’ the Baron initiates. The cards make up your hand, the thing you draw and play, and more than half the ‘rules’. The only extra elements are index cards to quickly see what other cards do, and tokens to keep score.

Lean into your theme and allow it to shape the game

Theme is something game designers often struggle with. How do you make the game work as a game, but also have the elements represent things from your game ‘world’? But done well, theme can make design choices easier. 

In Love Letter, you’re competing to get a love letter to the princess in a traditional mediaeval fairytale-like setting. And the game could work with any other theme, or none. But I’m sure that the rules and theme of Love Letter grew up together, informing each other. 

The Princess, like the King in chess, is valuable but doesn’t really do much. The Handmaid protects and serves the powerful. The guard effectively shouts: ‘halt, who goes there?’. The Priest takes confession. 

Each power reflects the card’s identity in a pleasing way. The theme has clearly informed the exact choices of power, inspiring the designers. And the whole reinforces the theme much more than if the pictures and names of cards were as deep as the theme went.

Allow complexity to emerge from simple rules

The game doesn’t create complexity directly, but it is there, rising out of the simple rules. You might think that the thing to do would be to get the Princess and hang on to it, but the amount of powers that can root out and threaten the powerful mean that you’re rarely going to be able to do that.

And nowhere in the rules does it say that the real key to the game is to keep your card secret and work out what others have. But it’s an inescapable result of the way the powers interact. If people know what card you have, you’ll soon be caught out.

I’m sure the designers arrived here on the back of a lot of playtesting. They probably went through various iterations of the powers, exploring the interactions and seeing what emerged. Seizing on the most interesting combinations. Pruning the less interesting.

Emergent complexity like this is fantastic because the player learns it as they go along. They don’t need to digest the complexity in the form of a lengthy tutorial or rulebook. They learn by playing, and the game feels deeper the more it’s played.

This is even better from a learning game perspective, because that’s how learning works in real life. Learning games where the skills emerge from the game like this are powerful because they’re not overt. They don’t say: here, learn about this. Players feel the learning is their own: precious and hard-won.