Fiddler’s Green

I will come clean here. I am a fiddler and I need to stop. And so should you, my fellow fiddlers.

What I mean by “fiddling” is the designer’s compulsion to make minor adjustments to a game when it is nearly ready – or much worse – already submitted for playtesting.

To be sure, “fiddling” does not refer to fixing up obvious and glaring mistakes and rooting around for major errors. I’m a firm believer that if you find an existing rule that just doesn’t make sense as it is written, you should rewrite it until it’s clear. Also, you really should fix typos because you want to be nice to your playtesters, who are not being paid and therefore should not have to deal with your crap.

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No – fiddling is far worse and more insidious. It means making seemingly minor changes to rules for the sake of (insert reason here – fidelity, replayability, marketability, balance, whatever). Even with such noble justifications in mind, I have found that the fiddling compulsion really comes not from a desire to improve a game, but more often because of my own insecurities as a designer.

For example, when I finished up “That Others May Live” and declared it ready for playtesting, I sat down and read another book about my game’s topic (big mistake) and decided that, “Hey – wouldn’t it be neat and more realistic if the player had to go through the process of pinpointing the downed pilot’s exact location before a rescue can begin?”

I had the new rule already written out in my mind.

“Before ordnance can be used or attacks made on enemy positions, the Player must pinpoint the exact location of the downed pilot. To do so, an A-1 Skyraider unit must spend at least three consecutive turns in the survivor’s zone.”

Douglas A-1E Skyraider > National Museum of the United States Air ...

Before I could fire up my PC and start making changes, I forced myself to reconsider the net result of this seemingly “small” change. What finally pulled me back from the brink was this realization:

Yes, it would add a degree of realism to the game. However, it also would hobble the player in the early stages of play. Players like to “do” stuff with the counters in front of them. Wargames are essentially about movement. Having a crucial playing piece just sit there for three turns would probably not excite too many people. Can we just assume that this process of pinpointing the downed pilot has already occurred before the game begins? What would be lost by that?

And the answer was:

Nothing.

As I thought more about the other minor changes I had considered earlier, it seemed to me that it was all just an attempt to push back against what I had created. I would hesitate to call it an impulse toward destruction, but it wasn’t too far off from that. In essence, by fiddling around with the design, I was chipping away at my own creation and killing it with a thousand tiny paper cuts.

Part of it is also the reluctance to let go of something. The design phase of “That Others May Live” took up a considerable chunk of my life and now that I’ve passed it on to someone else, its sudden absence brings uncomfortable questions about my life goals bubbling to the surface once again.

But you need to resist the urge and see it for what it is. Because fiddling is how we get games with 37 die roll modifiers and a stack of charts and player’s aids that need to be consulted each and every time the player wants to do something.

Don’t get me wrong – there are always going to be people who crave that sort of stuff. But I’ve always aimed for accessibility in my design without watering down the essence of whatever I’m trying to model.

I knew going into TOML that I did not want a complex game. I did not want players to calculate the airspeed and maximum turn radius of an F-4 Phantom at 2,000 feet AGL. That game has already been made – it’s called “The Speed of Heat” – and it is excellent.

Somewhere deep inside of myself is the meanest critic ever who is telling me that my game actually sucks and would suck a bit less if only X, Y, and Z were fixed. I think this is why negative reviews have never really bothered me very much. Whatever criticism you can dream up to say about my game, there’s a good chance I have already said the same to myself and in much more brutal language.

Any new designer needs to recognize the fiddling impulse for what it is and cut it short before it spoils your original intent. Trust your publisher. Trust your playtesters. Most of all, trust yourself.