Game Design Rules #2: Counting to 8 is Harder Than it Seems


In the first iteration of “Industrial Revolution!”, workers could move up to 8 squares each turn if they weren’t carrying resources, and up to 6 if they were. I did it to make it a bit more realistic, to simulate the weight of the resources being carried. I also did it so other players could move their workers faster when not carrying anything, and catch the workers with the resources.

I thought it was a very simple rule that would cause no problems. And then I started testing the game.

How Many Did You Said I Can Move?

That was the question EVERY SINGLE PLAYER would ask, many times each game. That alone should have been a red flag. Either there was a problem there, or my friends wanted to see how many times I could answer the same question without kicking them. But I liked that rule, so I kept it for much longer than I should.

At least, keeping it for that long made me get a clear idea of why it was causing so much troubles, which will probably help me in future games.
Here’s what I found.


Confusing for New Players

The fact that there were 2 different movement amounts was very confusing for new players. Even if it seems simple, somebody new to a game has to learn many rules, and some of them won’t be really paying attention to the explanation anyway.

Once everything was explained, they would usually only remember one number or the other. Or maybe they would remember there were 2 different movement speeds, but not know the exact numbers. They would eventually learn them (some of them after only 5 or 6 games), but this was asked a lot during the first turns.


Variations too Hard to Calculate

The game has cards and other items that can increase or reduce the amount of movement workers can do. This usually only means adding or removing 1-3 to the base movement of the workers, but having to do that with 2 different amounts instead of one, made it really confusing for some people. Really, just adding +1 was confusing.

For example, if workers had to move 3 squares less this turn because of a card, that meant moving 5 instead of 8 without resources, and 3 instead of 6 if carrying resources. But I guess, as 5 is lower than 6, some people just moved 5 squares in both cases. They were either forgetting about the other lower value, or that was a poor attempt to cheat.


What if I Grab an Object Mid-Movement?

That was the most confusing part of the system, and the question I was getting more. Here’s the problem:
Resources can be picked up or dropped at any square during the movement. So what happens if you’ve made 6 movements and drop the resource? Can you move those 2 extra squares without the resource?
Or the opposite, what if you’ve moved 7 without a resource, can you pick one up and move that extra square?

I tried to made a very clear rule to avoid confusion: If you move with a resource at least one square, then you use the carrying speed. But even with that rule, it was still confusing. What if I’ve moved exactly 6 squares without carrying, and then I grab a resource? Can I move at least 1 square? Testers were always trying to negotiate that extra square.


Solution and Conclusions

Moving resources is one of the main mechanics of the game, and it was a huge problem that something so important in the game was causing so many problems and questions from the players.
Besides, it wasn’t really adding much to the game. Maybe it made it a bit more realistic, but the chasing mechanic I was expecting wasn’t that useful either, as players had other better methods to stop an enemy worker.

So I simplified the rule to: All workers can move up to 7 squares per turn. That’s all. It solved all the problems. It was simple enough to remember it, people had no problems calculating the effects of cards on a single value, and the confusing cases created by the older rule disappeared. It also made the turns much faster for each player, as they spent less time thinking where to move, and that was a really important bonus.

What I learnt was that, even if counting to 8 (or any other number) seems very easy, when doing it during a game it’s much harder than it seems.

  • Players have many other things in their minds, like thinking what to do with their cards or trying to think about the best general strategy. Counting squares is probably secondary and not something fun to think about.
  • Workers are not moving on a corridor, but on a 2d plane. That means being able to go to many possible squares with each worker. That’s a lot to calculate, so it’s better to make that process as simple as possible, without adding extra rules.
  • Calculations have to be done on the head of each player, as they don’t want to give clues to other players. That means remembering where they want to move a certain worker while thinking on the movement of the other workers. The more variables we add to this, the harder it gets.

Of course, games with units moving different amounts can work well. In fact, I’ve just made a whole post about how I’ve learnt not to do that, and it still happens in “Industrial Revolution!”, when some cards are used and with a few other perks. But it needs to be done carefully, making sure it’s not confusing for players, especially if you want many kind of players to enjoy the game.

And the most important of all. If all players are asking the same questions over and over again, you have a problem that needs to be solved. Either change the rules, or change the players. But the latter might be harder, so change the rules.


On the next blog post, I’ll discuss why adding variety is not always a good thing to do.

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