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Hourglass Design vs. Abstraction design

Page: DesignArticle.Article201007111148AM - Last Modified : Tue, 13 Jul 10 - 4003 Visits

Author : Eric Pietrocupo

Abstraction Design

When designing games, most of the time people do what could be called abstraction design. At the beginning of the design you use concepts taken from real life. In order for this concept to be placed in a game it needs to be simplified. For example:

Concept: an Army composed of people, personnel, equipment, tents, etc.

This concept is too complex to be implemented in a game as it is. For example, you really don't care about how many cooks there are in your army, what are their names and what is the next meal on the menu. You want to abstract your concept of army to a level that could be useful in a game. For example, the army concept above could be simplified as:

Players can have 4 type of units: Infantry, artillery cavalry and ships which are each represented by a different miniature.

The concept of the army has been summarized as controlling 4 types of units. So the basic idea with abstraction design is that you start with a larger concept and end up with a smaller concept.

Hourglass Design

In the hourglass design, things works differently, it could be illustrated as start with a large concept, shrink it to something extremely simple and than expand it again to average complex level when a certain even occurs. For example:

Concept: Same as above

We proceed to the extreme simplification. In this case, we will not let the player manage the movement of every type of units. So what we do is represent an army as 1 pawn. All pawns will be armies with the same unit compositions and the same quantity. So at this point, moving a single pawn is much more easier to play. The player will have less things to manage and less things to think about.

Then when a combat occurs, which is our event that will trigger the expansion, we use the unit miniatures that are going to detail the composition of your army. Again, all armies have the same composition, which could be determined by another mechanic of the game. And these units has absolutely no functions if an army is not in a battle.

So in the hourglass design, when you extremely simplify, everything disappears: the cavalry, the artillery, etc. Then when a combat occur, everything appears. But still, the level of complexity is lower that the original concept since we are still ignoring the cooks and other mindless details.

By using an hourglass design, it allows to add more complexity more easily to a board game where normally it would have been impossible to manage. Either there would be too much information to manage, or either there would be not enough space on the board or it would have require too much components to keep track of everything.

So the basic idea is that the complexity only show up in a certain situation when you need it rather than all the time.

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