Lesson 6.3 - Rubber Ducks and Simplification - The Cardboard Designer

Lesson 6.3 – Rubber Ducks and Simplification

Game Design Lessons - Talk to the ducks!

Simplification in game design is hugely important. And so are rubber ducks!

I stepped off the bus from London to Newcastle young and fresh faced. I had a job as a game designer! Ready for my first day at work at a game studio. I excitedly stepped through the door, greeted my line manager and eagerly began tour of the office.

Rubber Ducks….

As I walked around, I noticed a rubber duck sat on one of the programmers desks. That’s fun, I thought to myself. Looks like I won’t have a problem gluing a few mascots onto my own monitor!

Then I saw another one. Bit odd. Maybe the local pound land were doing a bulk saving on ducks. Then another and another. Then I noticed one programmer talking to his duck.

Game Design Lessons - the rubber duck - with this you can rule the world
Don’t let anyone pick your duck for you! It’s a very personal experience for any game designer.

I paused and thought about if I should say anything. I didn’t want to make a bad impression on my first day. But I also wanted to know what I was actually getting myself into. I tapped my hiring manager on the shoulder and cautiously asked, “what’s with all the ducks?” He laughed at me and said that I’d be grateful when I got mine!

The duck acts as your very own portable play tester. It gives you a sounding board to bounce you ideas off. And it never criticizes you or stops you mid thought. This is very useful for programmers, but it’s very useful for game designers too.

There are times where you will look at your board game. You will at the way the mechanics dynamically interact. You will look at the way the UI and components work together on the board. It will seem difficult to make sense out of all of it, especially if your trying to isolate an imbalance or tweak a small element. How your supposed to piece through everything can sometimes seem overwhelming. Not when your buoyant yellow friend is around!

Take your duck and talk to your duck very simply about each step in turn through your board game.

  • And so now player 2 moves to here
  • And then they take this card
  • And they read the card and do this action
  • And that forces player 4 to do this…

Looking at a game as an abstract whole, is important. It’s where you find if the theme gels, if the overall player experience thrives, and if it feels right. You will also get a sense of balance, an idea of if things need to be tweaked.

The problem is, that at this high level, identifying the specific details of what actually needs balancing and tweaking can be difficult. By using these steps to enforce simplification you are focusing yourself. Remember what we identified in the article on 5 whys? Sometimes the actual problem will not be obvious. Sometimes you believe you know the problem and it turns out to be incorrect.

By employing the duck, you force yourself to walk through things one at a time. It becomes a lot harder to miss irregularities when you have to explain ever step.

It can feel silly. In many ways it is quite silly. But it’s also very useful. It lets you think through small steps one at a time rather than clumps of actions all in one go. And it’s in the small steps where you get the detail. Sometimes, it is this detail you need to tweak.

Get yourself a duck, and talk to it. It will be worthwhile, I promise.


When I say simplification in terms of game design, I will stress that I am not talking about thematic simplification or story simplification. I specifically mean the act of simplifying game play and player action into a gratifying experience.

When computers came along and we started to make games on them, a lot of simplification was thrown out of the window. Under the hood games no longer needed to be simplified because the calculations were carried out by machines.

You could have a near infinite number of variables affect a damage roll or modify the chance of something happening. Video games still need to limit how they are presented to a player. Too much detail and a game will still seem too complex. But the game can do pretty much what it likes under the hood.

The same luxury cannot be applied to board games. They are an analog medium. Everything that is tracked or rolled or calculated has to be done by human beings. That means, we have to limit the amount work that a player has to carry out.

Now this doesn’t mean that any complexity at all is a bad thing. On the contrary, a lot of pleasure can be taken from games like Twilight Imperium. The inherent complexity in titles like Magic The Gathering because of the deluge of card combinations is part of it’s unpredictability and fun.

Game Design Lessons - don't force too much thinking
Players will not appreciate having to have an advanced degree in physics to calculate their score!

But games should be no more complex than they need to be. When you design mechanics, and walk through player actions, ensure that everything that is being done is necessary. For example, that beautiful new wagon component you’ve added to the game that let’s your meeple ride on it’s back? Does that actually add anything to the game? Adding a new resource or giving cards a new attack value? Do they enhance the player-experience and the gameplay, or are they unnecessary filler?

It is very important that you as a game designer watch out for these things. If they are problematic, you will often find out in play tests – and that is what they are there for. But before you add a new mechanic or player action, it can be useful to ask yourself why, and what it brings to the game.

If the answer is little more than just another button to push, the chances are it can be left out!

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