So I’m about halfway through my deep read of Urban Shadows. It is a masterclass in mechanically elaborate PbtA design.
It eyeballs like it’s also good, as in functional, evocative, accomplishes its design goals. What it isn’t, is elegant.
I’m currently playing another inelegant, mechanically complex game (Motobushido). It also is functional and evocative and accomplishes its design goals. But things don’t fit together so smoothly. The learning curve is long. But it gives you a lot to hold on to, widgets to play with, buttons to push.
I dunno. Elegant design — to my mind, meaning it gets the most possible accomplished in the fewest mechanical steps — is intimidating as a creative goal. Emergent complexity out of a simple start, jeez, that’s great right? I know, as a nacent maybe-designer, it’s so intimidating that sometimes I just say fuck it, here’s another layer, perfect is the enemy of good.
Probably most of the games I play are inelegant and mechanically complex. That’s pretty traditional design, right? I mean, lots of small press games are far more elegant than their hardcore trad predecessors, certainly. A tight focus helps achieve that.
So anyway Urban Shadows. I’m totally okay with how mechanically elaborate it is! The game feels sprawling and epic, like it can go pretty much anywhere you want to take it inside the genre. It’s like…as far from Sagas of the Icelanders as I’ve gotten within the PbtA universe. I would also, personally, characterize SotI as “elegant.”
I know I’m gonna start a lengthy bullshit argument about the meaning of the word “elegant,” and I totally do not intend that. I’m not saying this is how it is, nor am I making a case for this is how it should be. Game design can have many goals, and some of those goals may require a bit of inelegance.