POSTCARD FROM BERLIN #45: Limits

By Jeffrey D. Allers

As I rolled up the exterior window blinds on our ground-level apartment one morning, I noticed that the room did not seem to be getting any lighter.  Sure enough, it was a typically rainy winter day in Berlin.  And although I hate reinforcing the American stereotype among my German friends that we get in our cars for even short distances, I had no desire to drag my twin sons on foot through the cold wetness to their kindergarten this time.

After breakfast, we scooted the boys out through the door and into the van, and I navigated down the narrow cobble-stone streets that make up our Kiez, or neighborhood.  It’s actually a very quaint, completely self-contained village within the city and I rarely have to leave it. Berlin is known for being a city full of villages, and each has its own distinct character.  It makes visiting other areas of the city fun and different, but since everything I need is right around the corner, venturing forth is a rare event.

And on this particular day, I only needed to drive the five blocks or so to the kindergarten.  It turned out to be much more challenging than I had imagined.  First, a produce truck was blocking the main café-lined street.  No problem, I thought to myself, as I veered off in another direction.  No good—that way was taken up by a garbage truck, with no room to pass.  I backed up and tried to turn around, but found myself in a jam with several other cars who were also frantically trying to find a way out.  It seemed that almost every exit was blocked, as restaurants were in the process of restocking, the recycling trucks were making their rounds, and heavy machinery were blocking the roads at several construction sites—all synchronized perfectly to limit my movement.  What began as a fun challenge soon turned to frustration, until I finally discovered a way through.

There are both positive and negative aspects to limits.  On one hand, we need them to function, as we would otherwise be overloaded with information and stimuli. Limits can also be a challenge that motivates us to use our creative facilities to find another way.  Or they can simply be frustrating and make us feel too constrained.

Every boardgame has clearly defined limits, of course, and each one tries to find the right balance of rules and materials that keep the players from becoming overwhelmed, while trying to remain deep enough to give the players plenty to explore within those boundaries.  It’s not unlike parenting, actually, or creating a good classroom atmosphere.

If the game’s mechanisms are engaging enough, the limits should be virtually undetectable once the rules have been read and the game is underway.  The players’ minds are occupied—not by what they cannot do—but rather, what could be possible within the framework the game has created.

Likewise, if the theme is engaging enough, the limits in the game should be intuitive, whether they mirror the normal limits we face in everyday life or those we watch on film or read about.  If a game is logically consistent with its theme for the most part and, even better, allows for some thematic role-playing, the limits are quickly internalized into the subconsciousness and the players can focus on strategies rather than constant rules-referral.

If the limits are glaring or unintuitive, however, the game can become frustrating to play, as the focus is drawn to the constraints of the game.  Telling signs are when players claim that their turn options seem too obvious, the game is too scripted or it seems as if the game is playing them, rather than the other way around (see Greg Schloesser’s recent review of Desparados for an example).  Playing that kind of game is like trying to find one’s way out of a neighborhood where most of the streets are blocked.

And, as a game progresses over its story arc, it’s even more important that any new limits entering the game be logical to the mechanisms and themes established earlier.  Otherwise they run the the risk of seeming authoritarian.  It reminds me of how the island residents felt in the novel, Ella Minnow Pea, by Mark Dunn, as they were forced to use less of the alphabet while letters kept dropping off their monument to “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.”  In game terms, for example, having less track-building options in the later stages of a train game seems quite natural, while a sudden rule imposed at a specified round incurring a tax on deliveries does not.

Limits are not only important to games and the gaming experience, but also vital to game designers.  Physical limits of cost and components, for example, are often a determining factor, although the artist in every designer would rather not admit it.  A game’s target publisher or target group provides limits to a design as well, as a game must then have a specified minimum age, playing time, and fit into a company’s established brand.

Although one might think that these kinds of limits are too constraining—that more freedom is better when inventing games—limits of many kinds are not only helpful, they are absolutely vital in the design process.  In fact, it is even beneficial for a designer to impose limits on him- or herself.

I once watched a clip from one of renowned speaker Robert McKee’s screenplay seminars in which he spoke about the freedom/limit balance. “That desire to be free—for an artist—is one of the most suicidal notions you can have,” he pleaded. “You do not want to be free.  What you wish is to impose upon yourself creative limitations.”

Too much freedom keeps a story—or a game—from gaining definition, focus, and meaning.  Just as an action-point game needs a limited menu of actions and a goal, the designer needs a design goal and a limits that keep him or her focused.  There can be detours—that’s the beauty of the creative process—but there also needs to be roadblocks, and in the beginning, these are almost entirely self-imposed.

An excellent example of the need and benefit for self-imposed limits is my first published card game, Circus Maximus (2008)one of the first games I started to design after I was introduced to modern baordgames.  I started work on it with the only limit being the theme, which was ticket scalping (or buying and selling tickets on the black market).

For several years, it remained an extremely bloated design with lots of different components, and plenty of inelegant rules tacked onto what should have been a quick, small and intuitive game.  Finding myself at a dead end, I shelved the early prototypes for awhile, finally dragging them out after a few years to see if I could bring in some fresh ideas.  It turns out, the only thing I needed in order to tap into those ideas was a self-imposed limit.  Since I wanted the game to be simpler and smaller, I tried to redevelop it using only a deck of 110 cards.  Thanks to this new limitation, I almost instantly found the solutions to my design problems, and the game came together quickly.

An architecture professor often encouraged us that “most walls have windows…to something better,” that limits can be a good thing in the design process.  And the proper design of limits in boardgames are instrumental in their success as games.

Interestingly, the Opinionated Gamers owes its birth to both the limits imposed on BoardgameGeek News—where opinions about games are not allowed—and the lack of limits in the forums at Boardgame Geek—where everyone’s opinion is encouraged, but often drowned out in the noise.  Its balance between limits and freedom defines its identity, just as the interactive space of every other website is defined by its limits and the limits of its users.

And so it is with every boardgame.

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About jeffinberlin

Jeffrey D. Allers lives in Berlin and has worked there as an architect and youth pastor. He is a published game designer and has been writing "Postcards From Berlin" since 2005 on GameWire, BoardgameNews and now, the Opinionated Gamers. He enjoys writing about game design and his experiences as an American expatriate living in the midst of German boardgame culture.
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5 Responses to POSTCARD FROM BERLIN #45: Limits

  1. Adam says:

    What an excellent article! I very much agree with the observations concerning limitations in design. You might be interested to read Eugene Jarvis’ interview where he makes the same central point.

  2. Larry Levy says:

    Very nice article, Jeff. I agree with the main premise, but, as a fan of unforgiving games, I think even overt limits in a design (that is, limits that exist purely for game purposes) can work. For example, you mention having a sudden tax in a round as being jarring, but it can lead to challenging play if the players are aware it’s coming. Thematically, it can easily be explained as a change in government or something. As always, it takes a seasoned hand to be able to judge when such limitations are enjoyable to the players and when they seem needlessly authoritarian.

    I also absolutely agree about the benefit of limits on the design process. Nothing is harder than trying to create something when you are given total freedom.

  3. frankhamrick says:

    Isn’t “limits” simply another way of saying “focus”? In one sense, it is. I’ve noticed the value of limits in basketball and other sports, for example. A team whose players know their roles, limit themselves to their role – giving up other things they might do for the better good of the team. They must focus on what they do best. In more general terms a point guard is better when he focuses on what he does best – penetrate, pass, get the ball to the shooter that is open, or shoot – depending on his skill set. When he fails to focus on what he does best, the whole team hurts.

    The same in life.

    An excellent article that can be applied in many social and cultural contexts.

  4. Kathrin says:

    Bookmarked, I love your site! :)

  5. jeffinberlin says:

    @ Larry: perhaps the tax example isn’t the best, but, yes, you understand my point.

    @ Frank: in team sports, the self-imposed limits a player may put on himself might better be described as focus, and that certainly applies to a game designer, as well. I still think, however, that my example of limiting my design suddenly to a card game wasn’t really a “focus” as much as it was a limit, whereas many times, when I am having difficulty with a design, I will also try to focus on the main goals I had at the outset. And, in team sports, oftentimes the coach will be the one to impose limits on the roles his player’s play, which I would certainly lable “limits.”

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