On the arbitrary nature of complexity

Ok so, on my ongoing quest to dwindle my list of unplayed games in the last month I’ve played my first games (at 2 player) of Food Chain Magnate and Dune:Imperium (no expansions on either) with my partner (who as the main person who plays games with me must begrudgingly at this point be considered into the hobby, by proxy).

Both teaches went relatively smoothly and both games have been well enough received to stay in the collection.

However… I was surprised by how much quicker they grokked FCM VS Dune.

Dune allegedly is the simpler game (3.05 vs 4.2 for FCM on BGG, I know it’s all BS) but although they’re familiar with both deck building and worker placement, the combination of these paired with what seems like 5 currencies at first proved too much.

I kinda agree that Dune has a lot of moving parts with complex relationships in generating resource. FCM is more aligned with its theme such that the teach and play is pretty intuitive.

Is it simply that FCM looks sooo much more complex and unwelcoming that you approach it with trepidation?

Anyone else had a similar experience with these games or other games where they’ve been surprised by the complexity, one way or the other?


There’s a school of thought that says there’s two axes of complexity.

Rules complexity - the rules are a tightly woven knot and the enjoyment of the game is undoing this knot.

Emergent complexity - the rule set is less tightly woven and the joy of the game is navigating player actions and board state. Splotters are a subniche of this as they have no guard rails against bad actions.

See Roads and Boats where you have enough to buy a goat and woodmill (?). You don’t have to buy them, but you’re facing a huge struggle in the game if you don’t.

IMO, FCM is the latter and Dune is the former. Give me more of the latter


I haven’t played FCM. Dune Imperium strikes me as having one solid baseline mechanic (you need symbol X to put a worker on space Y) but then lots of complications (you have to have influence in Z, you have to pay resource A, etc.) and that not only makes it complex but makes it frustrating: I have been collecting the various bits I need for my grand plan, but I missed one bit of iconography and so I can’t do it.

Harpoon, the naval wargame, has a reputation for being excessively complicated (4.38/5 on BGG), but I’d argue instead that it’s involved; yeah, if I want to know whether sonar B has detected submarine C there’s a lot of calculation to be done, a big long list of modifiers to this and that, but the steps of that calculation are all laid out plainly and if you follow the recipe from start to end you’ll get the right answer. It’s not a game I would play casually, but I’ve run play by email games of Harpoon 4 and once I’d got the procedures into my head I didn’t have to think very hard to apply them.


The danger of this approach is that the game ceases to be fun. If I make a mistake in the first 30 minutes and you have to struggle through the remaining 3.5 hours, then I don’t want to play. If the game only lasts 90 minutes, then maybe it is not so bad.

How much investment do I want to give into a game to learn the strategies not just to do well, but simply to have fun? What strategy tips should the teacher give to make it a better overall experience for new players? And should these then be included in the rules? I’m not saying the game mechanisms should prevent bad decisions, but there is an opportunity to help players not make the “if you do (or don’t) this, you will lose” decisions.


FCM is relatively simple to teach, but utterly uncompromising. Someone can potter away hiring a couple of people and advertising to a house or two, then I reduce my burgers by $1, advertise cola to “their” houses, and suddenly I’ve stolen all their custom and they lose all money accumulated so far and have to fire their staff. The problem is when people don’t grok those threats from the off, it can lead to a lot of bad time having.


I think this must be correlated with skill-based games. For me the ur:example is chess: I know the moves and some basic ideas, but if I play someone who’s learned properly neither of us is going to have fun. So you need this whole structure of ratings and challenge ladders and so on just to have an enjoyable game.

And fcm looks like that to me, and Dune Imperium not quite as much.


I do think some games work best when you’re all “learning” the game together for the reasons @RogerBW just articulated

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That is not a property of emergent games. It’s just that FCM are one of these snowball games. A lot of Euros are pretty much this, because they are a game of efficiency. Once you play enough Concordia you can figure out who the potential winners are and who are the losers (with zero agency on catching up), which are determined at early game.

Also my 4 player games of FCM only last around 2 hours with newbies. The top crticisms on FCM are pretty much meme responses, at this point.

Which games snowball or not doesnt seem to fall neatly on low interaction vs high interaction. Chicago Express is one of these emergent high interactive games but arent snowbally due to the fact that the game gives you the tools to ruin other players.


To discuss more on topic: people are surprised on 18xx and how it is easier to learn than what they expected. Lacerdas are certainly more complicated.

I have On Mars as my unplayed and I am dreading the process of learning and teaching this.

Another game is The Crew: the weight rating on BGG is weird where it is rated on the same way as mid weight games but it’s a rather simple small box card game


I’m 100% on with the multiple axes of complexity, and I think that is where the BGG rating breaks down. In addition to rules vs play/strategy, there is also room in the conversation for intuition and abstraction.

I don’t have time to explain what I mean here in full. But Agricola has a lot of rules but they are all so familiar that it is simple to teach. The rules are intuitive and connected so you hear them once and remember them. New York Zoo the rules are all arbitrary and specific to the game, and so in many ways it feels more complex.


Another example: early D&D has a separate mechanic and die roll for each sort of thing you might want to do. You have to learn each one on its own; you can’t extrapolate from things you’ve already done. Most modern RPGs have basically one mechanic (some function of your capability, task difficulty, and a die roll) so climbing a wall works mechanically like picking a lock or writing an inflammatory pamphlet.


I think rules weight is often used as a euphemism for rules volume. Some things just have lots of rules, this is possibly a rules weight issue but it’s not what I’d focus on.

The most difficult game I had to learn was Mottainai. Doing it alone from the rule book was tough. Now though the rules seem easy. I think though it’s still a game with weighty rules just I’ve played enough to have internalised the system. Why was it so difficult? I think the inter connected nature of each action and resource is a big barrier to getting system understanding as you need to understand most of it to understand any of it. You can’t build up small abstractions, you need to understand the superstructure. Another barrier is that Chudyk games don’t fit within normal bounds, so there’s much less reusable knowledge from other games. Handily the game has a ton of strategic/tactical weight to go with the rules weight so it’s deep and worth it.


I was lucky that I half-learned it to play with a friend who doesn’t mind some chaos on a first game. We quickly grokked it while we were playing. But yes, that one is a bit beastly.

I found On Mars on the difficult to learn side but the rules and the general nature of the game have pretty good retention so that speaks for the game in my opinion. Relearning it after a year’s break was far easier than learning it the first time.

I was lucky to get taught Spirit Island at SPIEL. I know some people who had trouble learning it on their own. I also got taught Ark Nova which is also a bit of a beast in terms of rules density and details.

I think that breaking a game down to a single complexity score by “gut feeling” is probably a necessity for a database site like BGG. It can only be some general indicator and that’s how I take it.

I tend to differentiate between various types of complexity I perceive when people ask me about a game’s complexity.

  • Complexity to teach and/or learn the first game
  • Complexity to play subsequent games
  • Complexity to play competitively/master a game
  • Complexity to run a game–mostly for cooperatives–vs complexity to just participate.

When I told my locals about receiving Firefly, the first question one person asked was “How complicated is this?” and I told him “not very.” Because I know that when we play this I will need to be the person watching out for all the details and rules, just like I do when we play Outer Rim. These games are simple to play if there is a person at the table who keeps all the details in mind–that person however has a far more complicated job than the others. It is nice when I don’t have to do that but just like teaching I am often the only person at the table with any previous knowledge of a game…

One game that I just remember failing to teach on my first attempt was Race for the Galaxy. That was some time ago. By now the phase selection has made its way to a few more games and isn’t quite so weird anymore.