Board Game Weight: Weighing in on Game Complexity – Ask The Bellhop

Do you like heavy games or lighter games? What exactly does that mean? Today I’m talking about game weight in response to a “question” we received from Sean Hamilton.

Sean Hamilton writes:

Not exactly a question, but I feel like it’s a point that should be addressed. The importance of different ‘weights’ of games. A discussion how it can be useful to have a light game at the start of the night when you might be waiting for people to show up, and a light game after a heavy game just to recover. I don’t know if you could get a full episode out of it, but it might be a valid point to bring up anyways.

What exactly is weight, in regards to tabletop games?

Azul is a great light board game, perfect for starting off a game night.

Weight is one of those words we used to talk about games, to help define and separate one game from another game. While there aren’t any hard and fast rules about what game weight means, over the years the term has been adopted by many people in the hobby to reference how complex a game is. A more complex game is heavier than a less complex game. A very complex game has a lot of weight.

One of the problems when talking about game weight is that it is very subjective. A game that one person considers light, another may consider heavy. I’ve found, over the years that a lot of this is driven by player experience. The most games and variety of games a person plays and the more experience they have with a variety of different mechanics the easier games are to learn and play for that person. All games overall seem less complex. Due to this, over time as a person learns more games their perspective as far as weight shifts, games slide down the scale towards the lighter side of things.

CV is a lighter dice rolling game that is a good step up from Yahtzee.

Despite being subjective, I think weight is a useful term to use when talking about games. The thing is that you need to know something about the person talking to really get anything about of any conversation about game weight. You need a frame of reference, so you know when that person it talking about medium heavy games, you know that they mean games like Terra Mystica and not Cities & Knights of Catan. Once you have this frame of reference talking about weight makes a lot of sense, and gives you another measurement for discussing games and figuring out if a game is right for you and/or your group.

What contributes to a games weight?

One of the problems when trying to define a games weight is that there are so many contributing factors. It’s not just one thing that makes one game heavier than another, but rather many factors all of which contribute to a games weight. Here are some of those factors:

The rulebook – How thick is it, how easy to read. Are you looking at a wargame with chapter, sub chapters with headings and sub headings where you need to reference rule 1.5.7(c) or does the game have one sheet of paper with rules that fit on one side?

The Classic Settlers of Catan considered light by many but actually rather hard to learn at first.

Game Length – In general longer games are heavier and short games are lighter. I find the second part of this to be pretty much universally true, it’s hard to have a fast heavy game. This isn’t as certain with longer games. I’ve played some pretty light games that go on for a long time. Either way length can contribute to weight.

Luck – Games with high random ness are often lighter than games without as many random factors. Randomness removes from the cognitive load by removing the ability to plan ahead and strategize. Now this isn’t saying that a heavy game can’t have random elements and sometimes having those elements can make a game more complex.

Cognitive Load – How much do you have to try to keep in your head in order to successfully play the game. How many factors influence each decision that has to be made? The more you need to keep track of the more complex the game becomes.

Clank! In Space has a lot going on at once and can be overwhelming for new players.

The size of the Decision Tree – How many options are presented to the player each turn. Is there an obvious action to take each round or are there multiple options each of which could be equally valid. I personally think this is the biggest contributor to weight there is. You can have a very complex looking game with lots of different moving parts but if each time I have to make a choice there are only a small number of options then the game isn’t as heavy as it looks. Anachrony is a game that falls into this category for me.

How hard is the game to Grok – Will players “get it” after the second round, or will it take multiple plays before everyone has picked up on the nuances of the game. This one is a bit nebulous and very much player dependant but to me an important factor in determining how heavy a game is. The mechanics in Red 7 are really simple, but you really have to play a full game to totally get how the game is meant to be played, and it takes a few more plays after that to learn to play it well, and it’s generally considered a lighter games.

The Skill Required – Some games require technical skill to play well. The most common in our hobby is games requiring you to be good at math. There is a reason that Power Grid is called Math The Game by some, and some games are called Spreadsheet games. These reward players for being good and quick at math. Besides math some games require the players be good at deduction or logic puzzles. All of these add weight to a game.

Terraforming mars is still one of the best games I own.

Learning Curve – I generally don’t consider Race for the Galaxy to be overly heavy, but that game has a steep learning curve. You can teach Fluxx in under a minute. How long a game takes to teach not only influences it’s weight but is also a good indicator of how heavy a game is. If I have to sit down for an hour to learn how to play a game I know it’s going to be a heavy game once we get playing.

AP or Analysis Paralysis – how long does it take to actually figure out what to do. This is tied closely with Cognitive Load and that is a big part of what causes AP. A changing board state is another big factor here. Can you plan your turns ahead or do things change so much between turns that you need to figure your move out at the start of each turn. The amount of time spent thinking is a big factor in a games weight.

All of these factors contribute to how complex a game not only is but feels and that is how we try to determine a games weight.

How can we use game weight to improve our game nights?

Hansa Teutonica is on the low end of the heavy game scale.

Game weight is a useful measurement for determining what games to play during a game night or what games to bring to a gaming even. A couple weeks back when we talked about the potential of gaming at a wedding I strongly suggested sticking to very light, filler games that were easy to teach and quick to play.

When talking about games for new gamers I talked about finding a common ground and part of that is determining what weight of games the prospective new player may be interested in. Weight is just something else to consider along with player count and game length when picking what games would go over best with a group of players. I use game weight in a variety of ways when planning a gaming event.

As Sean mentioned in his question, it’s always good to start off a gaming event with lighter games. We do this for a few reasons. For one it warms up the group. It starts things off slow and gets people into a gaming mood. Short light games are also great to give people something to do while waiting for more people to show up. I’ve yet to be at a single gaming event where the entire crowd showed up on time. Light games also help break the ice for new players. The low barrier to entry means everyone can be involved and the low cognitive load means there’s plenty of socializing and getting to know each other before moving on to heavier games.

Gaia Project has a steep learning curve and takes a few plays to fully get, a solid Heavy Game.On the opposite end of the spectrum are my really heavy games. These I save for special events. I don’t bring them out to regular game nights and will never suggest them off the cuff. Any time we’re sitting down to play one of these it’s a planned event, usually scheduled at least a week in advance. I plan out an entire evening including a rules teaching, usually a break for dinner and then a night of playing games.

I’ve done this for many games of Twilight Imperium, we did this when I learned my first COIN game (Fire in the Lake) and when I taught Indonesia for the first time. The first game of Arkwright I taught at the CG Realm was also like this, we planned ahead for it and  had a break for Coney dogs between teaching and starting to play.

Most events fall somewhere in between. I start off with something light to get things going, then move onto something heavier. I try to avoid teaching and/or playing two heavy games in a row as they can be mentally draining and I want people to leave having had a good time, not being totally exhausted. If there’s time I like to follow up a heavy game with something lighter. Not too light, something that’s not too silly and still requires some skill to play. Games like Azul and Gizmos have filled that spot perfectly as of late.

Zhan Guo a great Chinese unification themed Heavy Game. In general you want to pick game weights that match what people are interested in playing. Almost everyone is going to be fine with something light to start, and some players are going to want to stick to that for the whole event. Other gamers are going to want to sink their teeth into something heavier as quickly as possible. The only real way to know this is by getting to know your local group and what people enjoy, and a great way to do that is discussing game weight with them.

So where do you fall on the scale? Do you like lighter games or are you all about heavy gaming? Let us know in the comments below!

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2 Responses

  1. Heavy games feel much better for me, but I still play (and can enjoy) lighter games. All in all, though, I feel I get more from heavier games. Of course, being a war gamer probably contributes significantly to this mindset.

    1. Phil,

      I do agree that heavier games are more rewarding, even as someone who’s not big into war games. There’s a sense of accomplishment finishing off a 3+ hour game you just can’t get from a game that’s over in half an hour.

      Thanks for the comment,

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