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Subject: American style games vs German style games: Fiddly is good. rss

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Alex Rockwell
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A complaint that is sometimes made about a board game is that the game is 'fiddly'. Meaning that it has a lot of little rules and abilities and exceptions and things that you have to learn about in order to play the game.

The term is generally derogatory.


However, I find that I tend to like games with 'fiddly' parts, for a number of reasons. In general, American style games are fiddly, and German style games are not. (Also, the traditional American style games tend to feautre a lot of luck, while the German style games have a lot of decisions).

I tend to prefer games that are fiddly, and that have a lot of decisions (and not so much luck).

One of the best examples of fiddly games is customizable card games. (Either collectible ones that want to gouge you, or ones where they arent trying to get a ton of money from you, and just sell you all the cards they need up front, such as Blue Moon).

Here, every card has its own fiddlyness that you must learn. If the cards do not describe their own functions and interactions with other cards well, then it is a disaster. If the rules are clean and well done, then there is a ton of stuff to get into, and some people will really love it.


Why is fiddly good? There are several benefits of fiddlyness in a game:

1) It increases replayability. The game with a lot of things to learn tends to stay interesting for longer, because you keep discovering new things about it. You see new situations and new abilities, and new combinations, and you have to react to them. You have to figure out a strategy which incorporates all these different pieces.

For example, Puerto Rico is fiddly. Specifically, all the buildings give you different aiblities. But because of this, it takes a long time to figure out the strategy of the game, and thus provides a lot of replayability and depth.

2) It improves theme. Generally, theme and the fiddlyness of aiblities or rules will be tied together. Generally the theme will help those fiddly parts be developed, and the fiddly mechanics that you want to include will find something thematic to represent them. It increases the connection of theme and game mechanics, to have a lot of fiddly abilities or rules in the game.

For example, War of the Ring is fiddly. It helps make the game feel very thematic that Gandalf can, after his death, be brought back in a more powerful state, that there are all of these event cards translating story events into game mechanics, and so on. All of these things make it harder to learn the game, because there are many more rules to learn, but they increase the immersion factor.

3) They make the game unique. Many german games feel recycled, feel similar to each other, because they have a few rules, a few mechanics, and you play a game with them. They dont have a ton of things unique to that game, that you have to learn and figure out. Just some rules and a scoring system.

4) They create discussion. There arent so many things you cna discuss about the strategy of an average german game. You tend to be able to make a few general statements about what you should be doing, that most people who play the game a few times will figure out. Whereas with a bunch of different fiddly parts gives you a lot of thigns to talk about. Which is better, the factory or the harbor? What circumstances is this dependant upon? Is the hospice good or bad? What do I want to focus on early? There is a lot of depth of strategy there which is very discussable.


When is fiddly bad? There are certainly times where fiddlyness hurts a game. The drawbacks:

1) It increases the learning curve. This is especially severe when the player actually must learn all these things up front, instead of just learning the ones that come up in the game (based on cards that are drawn, or whatever). And its also worse when the game components dont explain what they do. If they only have symbols (a language that the player must learn), or worse, the rules have to be looked up in the rulebook, then being fiddly is not a good thing. However, if things are presented well, and are not overwhelming to the new player, then it is not a drawback.

I personally prefer games where there is a lot of stuff to learn, and you have to learn the game over the course of a few plays, as new things come up. The learning process is interesting, and it keeps the game feeling new for longer. This is a matter of personal preference however.

2) It can create rules problems. When the rules are not clear, or do not describe well what occurs when different fiddly abilities interact, then it is bad. This creates endless FAQs and rules questions. Rules and descriptions of fiddly parts must be very clear, and hopefully, fairly simple, in order to minimize this.



In general, fiddly parts cause a game to have more hardcore fans (because there is a lot more stuff there for them to 'get into'), and more detractors who disliked parts of it or didnt get into it because of the learning curve. Games that arent fiddly will tend to have more middle of the road reactions, with a lot of people saying 'yeah, its pretty good, I'd play it a few times'. But then after some time they lose interest.


Most traditional/order American style games have fiddlyness but dont do it well. For example, you might have an adventure game with a bunch of different characters who all have abilities. You can analyze all you want how helpful those characters are, and which ones work well together, but if the game doesnt give you much control over which characters you get, it doesnt really matter. However, if instead there were times when a number of characters can be acquired, and there was some auction mechanism for acquiring them, or something like tha,t then the game could be very good. Fiddly parts dont work well if you dont get to make decisoins about which aiblities you want to acquire and use. If you just get them at random, it just tends to be imbalanced.

A customizable card game is a good example of having control over fiddly parts. You choose which cards to include in your deck when you build it, so you have to analyze which ones are best for the situations you are going to face in the game.

Puerto Rico is a good example of doing it well. You choose which buildings you want to build, to go along with your position and what you have already. I recently played Hunting Party for the first time, which bills itself as 'American fantasy meets German strategy', and in that game the characters are auctioned off to the players in an interesting share system, which gives you more control over who you get. (Though I do wish that the amount of control was even greater than it is).

Power Grid is a good example of a German game with a bit of American fiddlyness in it. The power plants are all different, and they feel very different from each other. You can talk about how great the #25 plant is, and how the #11 really sucks.
Most of the games near the top of the ratings list tend to be german style games with at least a moderate portion of fiddly parts like power grid, if not a lot, such as Caylus or Puerto Rico.


Anyway, I feel that 'fiddly' shouldnt be a derogatory term, but rather, its something that can be very good for a game if done well, and bad if done poorly. Fiddly parts need to be very clear rules-wise, not hard to figure out, and hopefully a new player should not have to learn them all up front, before playing the game. You need to have control over which of these fiddly aiblities you gain access to, or else it will tend to be random and unbalanced. If they are done well, and combined with a lot of decisions, you get a strategy game that invokes a lot of analysis and discussion, and can have a lot of very hardcore fans. These things add the 'spice' to the game in terms of both mechanics and theme, that keep the game interesting for a long time.

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Michael Barnes
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An _excellent_ post- it actually encapsulates a lot of my own objections to German-style game designs. I really appreciate how you used popular Eurogames to illuminate your points in a positive and insightful manner.

I think that BGG has created a large number of sycophants that parrot back the negative criticisms they see on the various forums available here- often without context or completely understanding them. "Fiddly" for me has never been a derogatory term because of all the reasons you listed and if I see a large number of "fiddly" complaints regarding a certain game it usually makes me want to investigate it further.

Go Fiddly! laugh
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Alex Rockwell
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Of course, the opposite of being 'fiddly' is being 'elegant', or not having a bunch of little rules or exceptions or things to learn.

Go is very elegant. That doesnt mean I like it. I appreaciate it, of course, but for the most part I dont really want to play it. Of course, there are many people that do.

Elegant games tend to have lower learning curves, at least in terms of understanding the rules of the game. (Go definitely has a very long and steep learning curve, but its all learnign the strategy, not learnign the rules). You are investing more effort and time into learning a fiddly game.


An elegant game tends to either not be very deep, or to have all of its depth arise from the difficulty of the analysis/calculation. In a tactically and strategically deep game like Go or Chess, you are spending a lot of effort analyzing a position, and trying to find the best continuation. But you know all the things that you can do.

In a fiddly game, you can explore the game. In a customizable card game, there is a nearly infinite number of combinations of cards that you could work with. You never run out of things to explore. In Puerto Rico, there is a large (especially compared to most board games) number of combinations of buildings you can create, and strategy paths you can persue. There are a lot of ways to get to the goal, and you need to explore a lot of them to find which are the fastest. There is alway more area to explore.

Playing an elegant game is more like working a mathematical problem. It tests calculational ability. Playing a good fiddly game (with lots of control and decisions), is like doing a puzzle. There is a lot to explore and figure out.

There are times when I like to do calculational problems, but much more often I would rather explore a puzzle. Having lots of decisions to make in these fiddly games is critical, because then you can choose what area of the puzzle you want to go explore. Its not randmly determined for you.


There are people who prefer each type of game. For me, I'd rather explore a maze of strategy options, and figure out the solution to the game's puzzle, than to solve repeated mathematical problems that the game presents me with, trying to calculate the best move.

I'd rather do a lot of the work outside of the game, discussing different strategy paths, than do the work during the game, calculating something while everyone else has to sit there and wait for me to analyze it. I feel this tends to work better for multiplayer games.


In a calculational game, with more than 2 players, you spend a lot of your time waiting for other people to do the calculations. In a fiddly, more puzzle-like game, you cant really figure out while playing it which strategy path is best.
You have to talk about it after the game. During the game, you just make the decision that seems best at the time, and you see what happens. And next time you try the other way. And then youve learned something. This kind of game tends to bog down in analysis paralysis much less, which is a very good thing when you have more than 2 players. Because you often cant analyze it. You have to play it a bunch of times to see what happens, to figure it out.
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Alex Rockwell
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crackedlcd81 wrote:
"Fiddly" for me has never been a derogatory term because of all the reasons you listed and if I see a large number of "fiddly" complaints regarding a certain game it usually makes me want to investigate it further.


Yeah, me too.

I find that the best games are good in BOTH areas: Lots of interesting decisions combined with lots of things to learn and explore.

 
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Matthew Watson
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Re: American style games vs German style games: Fiddly is g
Yes I agree - my taste is definitely on the fiddly side.

My favourite game of all time is Magic the Gathering. I stopped playing it a year or so ago because of the cost, but the game is still excellent. The thousands of different cards can be combined in countless interesting ways; this is what ensures its longevity. It's hard to imagine a more satisfying game, other than the same but cheaper.

I must have spent a thousand hours in one year playing MtG Online. And the only reason it could hold my interest (and thousands like me) for that long is due to the "fiddlyness" factor.

I also like games like Caylus (its dryness doesn't worry me) and Puerto Rico. As the OP said, they are also fiddly.

And I mustn't forget the "fiddly" computer games that I also love - Civilization and Masters of Orion, for example. Both "fiddly".

However, and now we get into more dangerous ground, I also like RPGs, and they have ALSO got hundreds of fiddly rules. I somehow think that wasn't what you had in mind.

Just to balance things a bit, I also like a number of less fiddly games: Railroad Tycoon, Carcasonne, and - yes - Ticket to Ride. They have the advantage that my friends and family will play them, and we would have time to play them!

But you know what? I still have my Magic the Gathering Online account, with its 5000 cards just waiting for me...
I might just be tempted back!

[EDIT]

Just saw your next message about "elegant" mechanics. I honestly feel that Magic the Gathering is elegent. The way that the thousands of cards mesh together can be a beautiful thing to behold.

(Ok that's enough gushing praise for Magic for now)
 
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Alex Rockwell
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Magic is probably my favorite game ever, and yes, its main 'problem' is the cost. It would be almost perfect if they would just sell you all the cards at a reasonable price, instead of making you pay hundreds of dollars and a lot of assle to get them all.


I agree that it is elegant. Because the rules are very clean. This was not the case in the early days, but over time they gradually cleaned it up and now its very elegant.

So maybe fiddly and elegant arent opposites.
 
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Re: American style games vs German style games: Fiddly is g
I think by fiddly you are meaning "full of options" or "chrome".

I always took the term 'fiddly' as being too much going on outside of the gamespace. E.g. figuring out counts and sums over and over as well as tedious physical operations of a game. I find that 18xx is incredibly fiddly by having to compute route payouts over and over.
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Bill Herbst
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I think many people on BGG might use the term "fiddly" in a more restrictive sense than you are, Alexfrog. I agree with you that the most elegant games are often not as engaging as many of the games that you discuss but I'm not sure I would consider some of the games that you discuss "fiddly." To me "fiddly" implies a degree of over-complication that will make it difficut not only to understand the strategies of a game after a few plays but make it difficult to even remember the rules. There are many wargames that I find a bit fiddly because I will often find out that I've made rules errors if I reread the rules after playing. Wilderness War is an excellent game that I enjoy very much but I think its many distinctions among provincial troops, drilled troops, auxiliary troops, are a bit difficult to grasp without playing the game a bunch. In that respect I would say that the game lies at my upper threshold for fiddlyness.

Puerto Rico, Blue Moon and Caylus do not strike me as fiddly even though they do have the variety of building types, card types, etc. that would seem to make them "fiddly" because the rules are handled in such a way that they don't burden the memory during play.

My point is not that one particular definition of "fiddly" is better than another so much as to say that there are different interpretations of what "fiddlyness" is in a game. From my point of view, the word itself implies not merely complexity but an annoyingly difficult to remember ruleset with a bunch of minor exceptions etc.
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Re: American style games vs German style games: Fiddly is g
Just to show how little consensus there's on these terms: I usually relate "fiddly" to the physical parts of the game (not the rules!), like games with lot of bits to be often moved around for bookkeeping (e.g. Antiquity).
 
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Great post, Alex.

And Aldie, too. Yes GOOD fiddliness seems like it's often called chrome.

M:tG is probably my most-played game of all time, and I agree that it's partly because there's so much to discover about the game. It's an incredibly intricate world with rules which are generally quite elegant (though the corner spaces are still a bit complicated and at times counterintuitive--witness the old Waylay rules abuse, which could not be fixed by changing the game rules but had to be fixed by changing the card text).

Auction and bluff games are often a nice mix of elegance and less analysis than many of the luckless abstracts out there. I find poker-y games often more FUN than chess-y games, so that's one way to have elegance while avoiding too much mathematical/algorithmic thinking. Knizia is one of the best designers in working in this space I think.

Seems like a wave of threads lately about people leaning more towards American-style "fiddly" games! Great! Maybe more people will be drawn into the wargame world!

Edit: And good point Luca--often I refer to things as fiddly when I really mean you actually have to fiddle physically with a lot of stuff.
 
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Alex Rockwell
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Interesting. It seems that people do not use these terms in identical ways

I had always thought of 'Chrome' as meaning 'beautiful bits'. Or even, overproduced bits or excessively nice bits. Bits that are nicer than they need to be functionally, but that you enjoy because they are so nice.

But I see how you could call what I refer to as 'fiddly' in that way.


I can see how you could use fiddly to mean that there are a lot of pieces that you must pass around and keep track of for accounting purposes, and how that is generally bad. That type of game tends to work much better on a computer than in a board game, where the computer can take care of it all.


My main point was that this thing that I called 'fiddly', basically there being lots of details or abilities or different things that have their own characteristics that you need to learn, is a very good thing if they are clear, and you have a lot of choice over which ones to get, and are a bad thing if they are unclear/confusing/hard to learn, or if you dont have much choice over what you get. They also tend to be a good way to incorporate theme, and make the game feel very thematic.
 
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Ralph H. Anderson
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Re: American style games vs German style games: Fiddly is g
I like elegant fiddly games!

And thanks for taking back the word from the naysayers!
 
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marc lecours
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Re: American style games vs German style games: Fiddly is g
I see it like Scott.

Alex, I don't think you are describing what I always thought was meant by "fiddly". To me "fiddly" has always meant spending a lot of time doing mechanical chores to update the game state without making decisions.

For example:
1. In Kremlin, rolling a die for each member of the politburo, then looking up on a table, to see if he is going to get sick is "fiddly".
2. In "history of the world" or "britannia" counting up the victory points is fiddly.
3. In "civilization" counting up your population to see who has the most for turn order is "fiddly".
4. Counting up the final score in "Santiago" is fiddly.
5. Making change in a game with money is "fiddly". Why not have round numbers for costs. (yet as a kid one of the things i liked about monopoly was all the specific prices. It somehow made the game feel more real and less of a game )

"Fiddly" also occurs when there are tons of counters in a wargame in each hex and it thus takes fifteen minutes to count up the attack values, defense values, die roll modifiers, look up results on a CRT, then look up the retreat and losses rules.

I think that in the last few years one of the neat mechanics that has appeared are the card driven war games. If the cards are simple and well designed they give a lot of "chrome" (flavour, theme, detail, character) without being "fiddly". I love chrome in a game but I dislike fiddliness in a game. Card driven games are chrome without fiddly.

I agree with you that the average Eurogame is kind of dry and superficial after a while. After a few years of Eurogames I find myself craving games with more details to digest and think about.

P.S. Alex, your name is familiar to me. I think you're the one who taught me how to play Attika a few years back. Thx. But I might be wrong.

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Re: American style games vs German style games: Fiddly is g
I disagree with your definition. There's a difference to me between special abilities and component-based-exceptions versus rules-wide exceptions. I wouldn't call the buildings in Puerto Rico fiddly, and I DEFINITELY wouldn't call the power plants in Power Grid fiddly. The Puerto Rico buildings build off all the existing rules in the game, adding only slight changes, but overall work with the game system instead of breaking outside them. Power Grid's power plants all function the same, just differences in the amount.

Collectible Card Games run the gamut... while obviously they thrive on the exceptions to make the game interesting, if the rules themselves of how the game is played is fiddly, that can get annoying quick. Fiddly rules and mechanisms don't just "increase the learning curve" as you say, they also derail games. People are far more likely to forget small exceptions in the rules and at best play the game incorrectly, and at worst get frustrated and lose because of some forgotten rule.

For me, elegant rules/mechanisms + interesting component exceptions = fun. Elegant rules/mechanism + no component exceptions = dry/work (like Chess and Go), and fiddly rules/mechanisms nearly always equal trainwreck for me.
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Alex Rockwell
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rubberchicken wrote:
Alex, I don't think you are describing what I always thought was meant by "fiddly". To me "fiddly" has always meant spending a lot of time doing mechanical chores to update the game state without making decisions.


I definitely see that others are using the term in a different way that I thought of it. I agree that lots of 'accounting' with bits isnt good. It would be good if everyone used 'fiddly' to describe that, but didnt use it to describe a game with lots of different building abilities or cards or powers or whatever.

I've seen chrome used for this and to describe nice bits.
Is there any word we can use for 'lots of different special powers and little thematic rules', that is better than these?


Quote:

P.S. Alex, your name is familiar to me. I think you're the one who taught me how to play Attika a few years back. Thx. But I might be wrong.


I played it a fair amount on BSW, if oyu learned it there, and I live in the seattle area. I played it a couple times in person in a game group south of seattle, federal way area. Those would be the ways in which you might have learned Attika from me.
 
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marc lecours
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Re: American style games vs German style games: Fiddly is g
it was on BSW
 
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Alex Rockwell
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davethegame wrote:
For me, elegant rules/mechanisms + interesting component exceptions = fun. Elegant rules/mechanism + no component exceptions = dry/work (like Chess and Go), and fiddly rules/mechanisms nearly always equal trainwreck for me.


Yes, I agree.

I think this is a good point: The components should create the exceptions or differences among things. The rules should be 'elegant', and the components describe clearly how they modify the rules. Thus a player learns the rules, and knows that components can change them, and then starts learning the components as they come up in the game. You shouldnt have to look up what the components do, they should say clearly on them how they work.
 
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Re: American style games vs German style games: Fiddly is g
"Fiddly" seems to be a rather ambiguous concept. It is either 'lots of components', 'lots of chrome', 'lots of options', or any combination of these. On the other hand "fiddly" is opposed to elegant. While I have to disagree with the latter statement - games can be elegantly fiddly in my opinion - I think the first three generally go together.
Personally, I prefer to have it all: components, chrome, choices, complexity, the more the better. Fiddlyness is bliss.
 
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Re: American style games vs German style games: Fiddly is g
I too think of "fiddley" less the way you describe it and more like the others have said - bookkeeping and physical annoyance (in this respect PR is a bit fiddley when played in real life - online it's not fiddley at all!)

I can't think of a word off the top of my head, except maybe "complex," to describe things like different building powers in PR, Magic (or homesteaders )

 
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marc lecours
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Re: American style games vs German style games: Fiddly is g
the "components should describe the exceptions not the rules" is a very good principle in designing a game.

A good example is the terrain in wargames. Good use of terrain in a wargame is important. You have 5 to 10 terrain features each with simple rule differences that can easily be remembered. Then your map can have 1000s of ways these terrain features can interact. The combination of terrain features in any part of the map is a unique problem waiting to be analysed.

Caveat: If each terrain feature has tons of rules to learn it is not so good (stacking limits, supply limits, movement point effect, die roll modifiers, line of sight, victory points, effects on retreats,and terrain rules that change with the weather, different effects on different units, etc)

Lots of fun information can be carried on the map. Lots of fun information can be carried on cards (event cards). (it is not for nothing that a large proportion of games on BGG come with either a board or cards or both). Information on charts and especially in a thick rulebook are not so much fun.
 
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Joe Grundy
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Hmmm.

(Note to self: Never use the word "fiddly" in a game review.)
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Jim Cote
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Re: American style games vs German style games: Fiddly is g
To me, fiddly means that the FLOW of the game is not elegant. This relates to the steps you take on each turn, and as you say, exceptions and special cases.

Magic has a good flow. Puerto Rico has a good flow. In both of these games, the per card/building rules (you can call them special cases I suppose) do not interfere with the flow.

Power Grid has a fiddly flow. Without even considering what decisions each player makes on their turn, there are many special cases to manage the plant market and filling the resources.

I can tolerate almost infinite amounts of the former, and almost none of the latter.
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Re: American style games vs German style games: Fiddly is g
I think of this as "unique components". (Ironically, that's a pretty fiddly term.) I also think it is the single most important factor in what makes me like a game.
 
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Re: American style games vs German style games: Fiddly is g
I think you're right; "fiddly" or "elegant" to me almost always refer to playflow (including looking up rules, adjusting indicators, calculating, etc. Though I also refer to an "elegant" design, meaning that the game doesn't need a bunch of specific rules to cope with with "special cases" or singular units, whatever. In an elegant design, as much as possible is intuitive and flows directly from how the parts of the game interact (part of why I generally hate victory points...though I use 'em). But the opposite of that "elegant" is "kludgy", at least in my vocabulary.
 
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Re: American style games vs German style games: Fiddly is g
Quote:
3. In "civilization" counting up your population to see who has the most for turn order is "fiddly".


Just a quick response, if you just count the tokens in your treasury and stock then go in reverse order. Fewest tokens in those two places go first. Seems like its not too fiddly to me. Civ is actually a very elegant game IMHO.

I believe MtG is NOT an elegant game! It is fiddly in the extreme. That does not detract from its beauty, however. It is still one of the great games, perhaps of all time.

The OP has made excellent points regardless if you call these features Fiddly, Chrome or whatever. Perhaps we can agree on a terminology for what we are talking about.

A problem arises in this example of Fiddly where there seems to be a good type of Fiddly and a bad type of Fiddly. Do these deserve seperate terms? (Fiddly/Foddly? just joking) How about some help with this from someone with a lingusitics background?

 
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