Complex Gameplay

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Gameplay where planning or performing actions is complex, or understanding the consequences of actions are.

Games often strive to challenge players. One of the ways this can be done is through providing Complex Gameplay. This can be done in several ways, it can be difficult judge which of the actions one can perform will be best because there are many to perform, there are many combinations of actions perceivable in the future, or it can be difficult to know how the whole game system works.


The perfect information games Chess and Go show how providing a rather small set of possible actions to players can create very Complex Gameplay if they can make calculations many moves ahead, especially since players are motivated to try and do this as it gives a gameplay advantage. Conway's Game of Life and Magic: The Gathering have another type of complexity in that players try to create combinations of cells or cards respectively with certain characteristics. Another claim to their complexity is that they are Turing complete, i.e. the same calculations can be done in them as can be done with a generic computer.

Nomic is an example of a small category of games which typically becomes more complex over time since new rules are added to it as part of playing it.

Minecraft shows how computer can be used to procedurally generate game worlds that are very complex due to their size and ways of using the materials found in them. The Crusader Kings series and the Europa Universalis series shows how computers can handle large rule sets that are very heavily intertwined with each other. Dwarf Fortress shows how a computer game can have both of these types of characteristics.

Using the pattern

Complex Gameplay can be a design goal for several reasons in game, common ones being to provide Challenging Gameplay, Solution Uncertainty, and, more generally, Cognitive Engrossment. It can also be used to increase or decrease the likelihood of Analysis Paralysis or Stimulated Planning since a certain level of complexity might increase the presence of these patterns but adding even more complexity might decrease them. The generic ways of providing Complex Gameplay is through number of game components (and their relations), through numbers of rules (and their inter-connectivity), and through the number of actions with Predictable Consequences players can perform.

Adding game components is typically a question of adding Resources. However, adding game components tend to also add number of actions so the approach is twofold, for example adding Resources is likely to lead to Resource Management. Adding Units under player control is a more particular way of adding Resources in this sense and leads to an increase in number of possible actions although not necessarily different types of actions. Producers can be used to add game components during gameplay for added complexity, and Converters or Producer-Consumer can be used to create complexity through having hierarchies of game components. Given a set of game components, complexity to a game can be "added" simply by letting players have Perfect Information amount them if there are many components while in cases where players do not get to know the complete game state Red Herrings or Secret Goals can be used instead.

Just having many rules or have many rules interacting with each other can create Complex Gameplay (e.g. how game values influence each other in the Europa Universalis series), but Evolving Rule Sets and Varying Rule Sets as in Nomic can be used to create Complex Gameplay through adding or changing rules as gameplay progresses or between game instances - Optional Rules can be used to let players decide how Complex Gameplay they want.

Providing players with many Abilities is an easy to increase the amount of Complex Gameplay through increasing the number of different possible actions, while Units under players control can add more number of total possible actions although many may be the same. Enemies or Units under control of opponents add complexity in having more opposition to handle and having more actions possible in that actions can typically be taken towards defeating each individual enemy, and Algorithmic Agents can add significant complexity to the behavior of Enemies (as well as Non-Player Characters). In addition, Enemies add complexity to completing Quests. Further, Orthogonal Differentiation can be used to multiply the effects of adding Abilities with adding Units. Of course, the type of actions possible can affect how complex gameplay is. While Movement might seem like one of the simplest types of actions possible in a game, the possibility to move repeatedly quickly can create a complex set of potential future actions, and complexity might further be increase by adding other game components that move and requiring players to avoid hitting Obstacles while moving. Puzzle Solving typically creates Complex Gameplay by requiring thinking several steps ahead or innovative ways (one example of the former is the use of Limited Resources together with Traverse). Rhythm-Based Actions is an example of how a few very simply actions can be combined to create Complex Gameplay in which order and with which Timing they should be performed. Variable Accuracy is basically a pattern for making more Complex Gameplay of Aim & Shoot actions. While individual Skills in themselves do not create complexity in gameplay, games which have large numbers of Skills (such as GURPS) adds Complex Gameplay in that these begin to function more or less like Abilities.

Given a set of actions possible, there are several ways of adding complexity to these. Goal Hierarchies (potentially together with Quests) can put requirements on what actions players need to perform to succeed with goals as well as in which order the goals need to be done. Indirect Control creates Complex Gameplay by requiring the use of actions to trigger other events that have the consequences one actually wants to make happen. Trumps can make some actions better than other (but often limited by Resources) while Rock-Paper-Scissors make power relations between actions non-transitive and requires players to either have best information about the current game state or try to read other players' intentions. Attention Swapping requires players to move between several different gameplay foci, while Combos stress learning specific combinations of actions and Budgeted Action Points highlights the necessity to choose between actions. Card Building, Deck Building or Pre-Customized Decks are also likely to create Complex Gameplay since player typically use these to try to maximize there chances of getting Combos.

However, Collaborative Actions and Cooperation are probably the richest areas in which complexity can be added to gameplay actions. First, they can require Negotiation and Coordination. This can be complicated through requiring that the Collaborative Actions have to be done as Asynchronous Collaborative Actions or using Delayed Effects so that knowing the effects of the actions isn't instantaneous (or even that one does not get confirmations that the Collaborative Actions have been made at all). Collaborative Actions can also be made more risky through the use of Delayed Reciprocity so that one part of the Cooperation needs to trust that the other will return the favor or fulfill an obligation in the future; Trading used together with Delayed Effects have similar effects. Secret Alliances can facilitate the need to do these Collaborative Actions in secrecy while Uncommitted Alliances introduces complexity in the form of possible failure of fulfilling promises of Cooperation. Betrayal can also be introduced to assign players into being the ones that are supposed to hinder Cooperation or Teams to function properly (see Battlestar Galactica: The Board Game for an example of this). Complexity can also be added through requiring players to both have Competition and Cooperation with each other at the same time; Republic of Rome does this through making players compete with each other but force them to together fight barbarian unless they should all lose. Internal Rivalry is a more specific form of combining Competition and Cooperation that only needs to apply to specific pairs of players.

Providing shifting goals during gameplay can also make for Complex Gameplay. Role Reversal for players that they are not aware of is an example of this (Battlestar Galactica: The Board Game is an example of this since players may discover that they are Traitor cylons halfway through the game).

All of the aspects described above for Complex Gameplay can be further supported by Dedicated Game Facilitators or Game Masters. Dedicated Game Facilitators can keep track of all game components and rules, avoiding making the complexity of manipulating these distract from the actual gameplay, while Game Masters can in addition add or change these while gameplay is ongoing. They can also increase the complexity of Non-Player Characters significantly.

There are several ways of limiting or adjusting the complexity of gameplay or how players perceive the complexity. Smooth Learning Curves lets players only be exposed to a small part of the whole complexity of a game, and only let them have more complexity after they have proven that they can handle the amount they have been experiencing so far. Exaggerated Perception of Influence or Limited Foresight can make players not be able to perceive the true complexity or be able to try and analyze it. Time Pressure and Limited Planning Ability works similarly but can make players notice the complexity but forcing them to act without completely analyzing the current situation. Ability Losses and Varying Rule Sets can be used to remove complexity during gameplay or create complexity in that players need to make use of different parts of the available actions and rules during different parts of the game. The subsections below for also describe ways this can be done through diegetic, interface, or narration design.

Diegetic Aspects

While breaking Diegetic Consistency, Extra-Game Information can be used to provide players with direct information about how the game system works from within the game and through this both make Complex Gameplay easier to understand and point out game rules that might be missed otherwise.

Interface Aspects

Game State Indicators can provide players with clear presentations of parts of the game state and thereby make it easier to get an overview of what is happening in a game with Complex Gameplay. Similar to Extra-Game Information, Loading Hints and Tooltips can provide players with direct information about how the game system functions.

Narration Aspects

Narration Structures can be used to make Complex Gameplay easier to handle through having the narration provide another level of description that players can make use of to keep track of how various game components (typically Characters) relate to each other.


Complex Gameplay can have several different far-reaching consequences for a game design. First, it can lead to Challenging Gameplay and possibly FUBAR Enjoyment. Second, it can lead to Solution Uncertainty and make Predictable Consequences absent so players may be inclined to do Experimenting. This also leads to Complex Gameplay making Surprises possible but at the same time making Anticipation more unlikely. Complex Gameplay has a dual relation to Hovering Closures, it can provide these by having many simultaneously requirements that need to be fulfilled at the same time but when they are too many of these, or their status is not clearly presented, players may not experience them as being close to being reached. The pattern does however not need to lead to both Solution Uncertainty and Challenging Gameplay at the same time, and when a game with Complex Gameplay lacks challenging aspects (at least sometimes), it can provide Creative Control and let players engage in Pottering (Minecraft can be seen as an example of this). Third, the complexity of gameplay can lead to Varied Gameplay since players may only be focusing or interacting with specific parts of the gameplay in each game instance. All these consequences can lead to Cognitive Engrossment so this is perhaps one of the more predictable effects of Complex Gameplay. Finally, being able to handle the complexity of a game with Complex Gameplay is a form of Gameplay Mastery, e.g. when being able to skillfully make use of all possible Combos.

Complex Gameplay can give Excise if players need to manipulate many individual game components as part of gameplay. When the Complex Gameplay relies on Resource Management, this can take the form of Grinding.

Winner determined after Gameplay Ends can be supported even when players have all the information needed to calculate current positions if Complex Gameplay makes the calculations too complex to realistically be done while playing.

In games with clear gameplay phases, Complex Gameplay tends to be found in the Middlegame after players' initial moves have created a sufficiently complex game state but before their struggles with challenges have been concluded. Exploitation is an example of such a phase. For this reason, Complex Gameplay may be seen as an indicator of that one is in the Middlegame phase and used to create phases of Exploitation.


Can Instantiate

Challenging Gameplay, Cognitive Engrossment, Creative Control, Excise, Experimenting, Exploitation, FUBAR Enjoyment, Gameplay Mastery, Hovering Closures, Middlegame, Pottering, Solution Uncertainty, Varied Gameplay, Winner determined after Gameplay Ends

with Resource Management


Can Modulate

Analysis Paralysis, Stimulated Planning

Can Be Instantiated By

Abilities, Algorithmic Agents, Asynchronous Collaborative Actions, Attention Swapping, Budgeted Action Points, Card Building, Collaborative Actions, Combos, Coordination, Converters, Deck Building, Dedicated Game Facilitators, Enemies, Evolving Rule Sets, Game Masters, Goal Hierarchies, Indirect Control, Internal Rivalry, Movement, Negotiation, Optional Rules, Orthogonal Differentiation, Pre-Customized Decks, Perfect Information, Predictable Consequences, Producers, Producer-Consumer, Puzzle Solving, Red Herrings, Resources, Resource Management, Rhythm-Based Actions, Rock-Paper-Scissors, Role Reversal, Secret Alliances, Secret Goals, Skills, Surprises, Trumps, Uncommitted Alliances, Units, Variable Accuracy, Varying Rule Sets

Betrayal together with Cooperation or Teams

Collaborative Actions together with Delayed Effects or Delayed Reciprocity

Competition together with Cooperation

Limited Resources together with Traverse

Trading together with Delayed Effects

Can Be Modulated By

Ability Losses, Exaggerated Perception of Influence, Extra-Game Information, Game State Indicators, Limited Foresight, Limited Planning Ability, Loading Hints, Narration Structures, Smooth Learning Curves, Time Pressure, Tooltips, Varying Rule Sets

Possible Closure Effects


Potentially Conflicting With

Anticipation, Hovering Closures, Predictable Consequences


An heavily updated version of the pattern Right Level of Complexity that was part of the original collection in the book Patterns in Game Design[1]. The update has made the pattern be rather close to the concept of analytic complexity described in Costikyan's book Uncertainty in Games[2].


  1. Björk, S. & Holopainen, J. (2004) Patterns in Game Design. Charles River Media. ISBN1-58450-354-8.
  2. Costikyan, G. 2013. Uncertainty in Games. MIT Press. Official webpage for the book.