Eloquence vs. Elegance: Beyond theme, mechanisms, and components.


Lately I've wondered if I have advocated too strongly for elegance in game design when I really want to see more eloquence. The difference? "Elegance" has, ironically, built up a lot of minimalist dogma around it. It strays from one general design philosophy to design aesthetics. These days, I wonder if "elegance" is the beginning of a strong design, but not necessarily the end.

"Eloquence" in game design allows for abstractions, complexities, and general grit on an otherwise perfectly faceted gem. Think of it as the organic flaws in an perfectly symmetrical rug. A master could have made this rug or game perfectly but where they chose to place those flaws says more about their intent than if it had been absolutely perfect. The trick is knowing where and when to implement "flaws" to best suit your play experience.

That brings us to the classic dilemma of theme, mechanisms, and components and how all three affect the game. I find these discussions rather tiresome because they so often focus on magic-bullet seekers asking "where do you start first?" But some very smart people have been discussing these topics from interesting perspectives, so I thought I'd share a few links here.

  • Post-Colonialism: Bruno Faidutti discusses colonialist and orientalist subtexts in tabletop games, but stops short of a call to action. He observes how often civ- or city-building games imply an uninhabited terrain into which you are expanding. He also points out how games "colonize" the past because it is a convenient pop cultural short-hand, and also because those figures can't defend themselves against misrepresentation.
  • Perspective: Michael Barnes defends Knizia as a master of theme, despite his rep as being more of an abstract designer. To Barnes, that rep mostly comes from Knizia's habit of placing the player's perspective at a distance from the on-the-ground action. Even when you are placed in an individual's POV, Knizia would rather model the decision-making than a punch-by-punch simulation. In this manner, Knizia is just as thematic a designer as anybody, when he chooses to be.
  • History: This recent Extra Credits episode sort of bridges the two articles above, by discussing historical video games. (This is still relevant for tabletop games, as are many of the EC eps.) Here, the EC crew focuses on games which have fetishized the details on swords, standards, and terrain, but abandoned the experience of making decisions as if you were a world leader in the era.

So, if Elegance is about saying as much as possible with as few elements as possible, perhaps Eloquence is about saying what you intend with whatever elements best fit that intent.
Daniel Solis
Art Director by Day. Game Designer by Night.