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  • Writer's pictureAaron K

Adding Visual Complexity to Your Game

Hey Reader!

Over the years I've come to appreciate games that have less rules rather than more rules, as it makes it easier to learn and freer to move within the system. But as I was talking with a friend about how to avoid making actions too simplistic, a single thought began to percolate to the surface.

The best games add visual complexity to break up monotony without making the game harder to understand or learn.

What do I mean by this? A few thoughts.

I. What Is "Visual Complexity"

I'll start with two examples of adding complexity to games to show why visual complexity is a good way to add meaningful choices to the game. Let's think about chess: what are the rules of chess? The first few rules are pretty easy to learn: you take turns, white always goes first, and the second piece to move to an occupied space removes the first piece, no matter how powerful that piece is.

The rest of the rules are not intuitive: why can't knights charge in a straight line? Because horses perform flanking maneuvers, so they always attack from the side of the target, but that's not intuitive to most people. Why do bishops always move diagonally? Honestly I have no clever reason for that one - they just do. How do rooks move if they are towers? Why is the king the weakest piece? You get the idea.

But ironically, consider how much easier it would be to remove a rule like, "A Knight can only move in an "L" pattern" and replace it with a rule like, "A Knight can be hit twice and still survive." We already have an image in our heads of knights wearing heavy armor, so the concept of it living past an attack that would kill a pawn or priest is not an odd or difficult concept. And it's easy to remember, because knights wear heavy armor.

We can see this in our minds, which helps us to easily keep track of the rules. That is visual complexity.

We could simplify chess by making it so that everyone moves the same way, and it would be easier to understand and easier to pick up. The issue is that, at that point, we would not be playing chess anymore: we'd be playing checkers, which is played on the same board, following the same basic rules, except that it lacks the complexity of chess. And we don't want that: we want chess to be chess. But the more that rules strike us as odd, the harder it is to teach. So be mindful of this.

Another classic game is helpful in nuancing this: Risk. What "unit choices" do you have in Risk? One: infantry. Everything in the game is measured in infantry. There are no special rules for cavalry or artillery, they are just placeholders. So why do they exist?

Because you feel like your army is more powerful when it has a cannon or cavalry, and that is accurate for the game. We added variety on the board, it has a purpose (as it's easier to place and move armies), and it did it all without making it harder to understand the rules of the game.

This is not visual complexity. This is simplifying game mechanics. Visual complexity uses something you can visualize in your head and says, "That thing that you know does something? That's applicable here: you can do that. It's a rule in addition to the other rules."

If cannons could fire one territory over, or if cavalry could move farther, or whatever, that would add visual complexity. But Risk, unlike Axis & Allies, doesn't want that level of complexity. It wants simple, and that is also good (more on that below).

So some common examples for roleplay games would be 1) striking someone in the head doing extra damage, 2) awake characters reacting to things before sleeping people, 3) horses moving faster than people, etc. If you told someone "that's a rule in this game," everyone will say, "that makes sense."

And that's the core of visual complexity: it affirms the knowledge of the player from outside of the game and says, "you can count on that in this world/game/story." And that allows you to add complexity to the game without a "rules overload" situation.

II. Visual Complexity and KISS Theory

For those not familiar with the term, "KISS Theory" uses an acronym to guide the creation of the game: Keep It Simple, Stupid. KISS Theory says that simplicity is better than complexity, because it is easier to understand and easier to remember in the moment.

The thing about visual complexity, though, is that it keeps the game simple while adding another level of complexity. If you tell someone, "This is your Armor value, but if you add a shield it goes up," that's not hard to understand because the person can visualize it (visual complexity), and they already know what shields do: they keep you safe from danger.

So when I say that you should add visual complexity to your game, I still encourage you to embrace KISS Theory at the same time: if you can avoid making another game mechanic, avoid making another game mechanic, unless it is obvious and easy to see in your mind how that mechanic should work.

This is why most games don't have a hard and fast mechanic for how to pick a lock. You will see a skill check, typically tied to your Finesse/Dexterity/Agility stat, and they will tell you to set a difficulty for the person to meet. Why? Because not all locks are created equal, and that means that some are easier to pick than others. So there is little to no need to add a new mechanic for how to pick a lock: just use a mechanic you already have (the skill check), but make it a special check so that people who are good at stealing from a person's pocket aren't necessarily good at lockpicking.

The Warriors of Zurn gets a lot of mileage out of its adjective system because of this, as one mechanic serves many needs (background, skill system, and enhancing your equipment) all in one mechanic. So once you learn one thing, you can cross apply that to other things. You could even do things like superpowers or mutant abilities this way, treating each as an adjective that gets more powerful as you advance it.

So when designing a game, homebrewing a rule change, or deciding what rules to use for introducing the game to new players, consider keeping the rules that add visual complexity and streamlining out the rules that do not come readily to the new player's mind.


The biggest hurdle in introducing someone to a game is teaching them the rules. The more rules there are, the more likely they are to get lost. So the more you can touch on their past experience with the world (shields protect you, axes are good at cutting down trees, etc.), the easier you will find it to explain the game and engage them with your story. Just make sure there's still enough complexity to keep their minds engaged, or they will wander.

Until next time,

Aaron K


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