A recent Mark Rosewater article made two really interesting points about complexity that I wanted to respectively expand upon and disagree with. You can read that article here. The section on Call of the Conclave is what I will dissect in this article, but the whole thing is worth going through. Also, if you need a primer on complexity, you could do worse than my article here.
Using Complexity As A Focal Point
This article is all about this card:
and why it is so different from this card:
These two cards play identically in most situations, but players are used to seeing the latter and not the former. As a result, this card can be jarring for a player, not because it does anything difficult to understand, but simply because it is not the normal way to get this effect. This causes a moment of confusion for the player where they try to figure out why this isn’t what they expect it to be. When this question has no good answer, it is detrimental to the player’s experience. This is why most first-person games use the same controls. There’s just no reason to surprise the player.
Here however, this curiosity is easily resolved. The key mechanic of this color combination has you making copies of existing tokens and so a card that makes a token is better than it would normally be, and so Call of the Conclave will normally be better for you than a Watchwolf.
This little puzzle does two important things. The first is that it is just fun for players to solve puzzles. Players like to feel smart and solving puzzles helps them do so. The second thing is that it gets players to realize that cards that make tokens are more valuable in this set due to the number of populate cards. Seeing this card helps players understand the value of tokens in the set and so helps them correctly evaluate a card like Seller of Songbirds.
It’s not just that these benefits feel like they outwiegh the complexity cost of this card, it is that the benefits of this card derive entirely from the fact that it is complex for a new player to understand. This is fascinating and I think it is really important in understanding complexity in game design.
Simple Doesn’t Preclude Complex
The previous point is the crux of my disagreement with his second point on complexity about this card however. Mark Rosewater details a fight that he had about this card, in which he states that if you were to staple this onto a normal 3/3 creature as an ETB, that is a card that people would print without a second thought. This card does less than that card and so is simpler. The implication seems to be that players should find simpler cards easier to understand, which while apparently tautological, is something I believe to be false.
Players form mental shortcuts to understand cards and cards that fit these established patterns are easier for them to understand than ones that do not. Players are used to sorcery speed cards that create a token doing something that a normal creature card cannot. The most common case of this is making multiples of exactly the same creature. When players see this card, they spend some time looking at it and thinking about it with that pattern in mind. Essentially, they try to fit the card into their existing pattern and struggle when it does not fit. This is not the case for the 3/3 with the token stapled onto it as cards like this are an established pattern. The first case of any pattern always has to deal with this.
To further illustrate this, I’m going to take everyone’s favorite flier, Storm Crow.
Now, if you were to take flying off Storm Crow, it would have less text and be a simpler card. However, players would naturally have questions when they see it, the biggest of which is “Why doesn’t this crow fly?”. Adding text and reducing simplicity here also reduces the amount that a player has to think to understand the card, which I feel is the true measure of the card’s complexity.
Finally, disagreement or not, I’m really glad that Mark Rosewater wrote this article. I feel that concrete examples like this help us better understand of complexity in game design which, surprisingly enough, is pretty complex itself.