Friday, April 29, 2011

TIMELY TOPICS - I like to Fiddle with my bits (Fiddliness in gaming - what's the big deal?)

I love my game bits! This is of course why I'm so obsessive about storing them properly. I love opening a game and seeing lots of bits or having lots of chits to punch out and sort.

So what's the deal with everyone bothered by fiddliness in games? No really!? Most games have stuff you have to mess around with - pieces all over the board, drawing tiles or bits, etc. And, honestly, I'm sort of tired of hearing about games being 'too fiddly'. I love fiddly!

Well, I thought I did. But then I wondered: what exactly is 'fiddly'? Once I started looking into it, everyone seemed to think 'fiddly' means something different. And, often, 'fiddly' seems to be associated with something 'bad' in relation to evaluating and describing games although I didn't really see that at all.

If I'm going to be writing more game reviews, I really want to make sure what I'm saying comes across clearly without ambiguity. And, although I like the word fiddly quite a bit (because to me it means a game has lots of bits that you might have to move around a lot) it seems there is too much confusion in it's usage.

So, my first stop was the dictionary (well, several online dictionaries rather). Here are some 'official' definitions I found:

  1. Small and awkward to do or handle (
  2. Requiring dexterity to operate (
  3. Requiring close attention to detail : fussy; especially : requiring an annoying amount of close attention (
  4. Difficult and annoying because you have to make small complicated movements with your fingers (
  5. Difficult to do, especially because you have to deal with very small objects (
  6. صعب  ( - arabic)
  7. Requiring dexterity to operate (
  8. U.K.: tricky to do; difficult to do, handle, or use, usually because intricate work with the hands or small objects are involved (
  9. Nitpicky, detailed, fine, small, repetitive, possibly boring. Usually used in reference to a task. (
  10. Complicated or detailed and awkward to do or use (
Ok, formal definitions are all fine and dandy, but do these REALLY describe what people are talking about when referring to board games being fiddly? Somewhat I think - they are definitely related. And, I'm a little disheartened as fiddly seems to be more of a bad word than a good word, even by those definitions above depending on which dictionary you're looking at. But, I suspect there's something more to it than just that when relating to games.

So, I poked around a bit more and I found these discussions on BGG and elsewhere talking about different definitions/examples of 'fiddly':
Interestingly, two of those discussions are both negatively focused on the game Tobago! Which, I personally don't think is problematic myself.

Even more interesting is that if you go through all the discussion there are 30-40 well known (in most cases) games that are popular and well loved that are suggested as being 'fiddly', despite this being used pejoratively in most cases (in some cases, fiddly was described as being a feature or reason to LIKE the game).

So, what were the most common definitions of being fiddy?

Here's a few I identified:
  • Lots of specific rules that are difficult to keep track of (this is often the case with simulation type of games - games that try to emulate something real in life)
  • Excessive amount of record keeping (perhaps 25% or more of the game is strictly tracking things in the game)
  • Lots of bits that have to be manipulated and managed/moved around a lot in the game (greater potential for 'messing things up', complicated setup/take down, etc)
  • Poor design of the board/components such that it is difficult to see what is going on in the game.
  • Complicated calculations (multiple levels of calculations either mid-game, during scoring/payouts, etc)
  • A defining element that causes you to come out of the game to handle elements of the game (i.e. it goes against the theme of the game and causes you to detach yourself from it rather than being integrated)

Interestingly, the general consensus seemed to be that the term 'fiddly' varies in definition depending on the situation.

Fiddly is generally 'bad' but perhaps only in the context of 'bad' games - if you enjoy a game, fiddly might actually be welcome or an integral part of the game. Thus, fiddly may or may not control the fate of a game in terms of whether you'd play it again or not, but it is certainly a factor.

But this still doesn't speak to a solid definition of 'fiddly' - this sort of statement is still dependent on that definition - what IS fiddly?

I think the problem here is that multiple definitions can be applied and it means something different to each person and might even be different from game to game. Even the dictionary definitions vary.

I have a sense that perhaps fiddly is a word that came into being (interestingly from the UK it appears) to describe something having small parts and requiring dexterity or intricate work to manipulate. This is effectively the definition I have in mind when I think of fiddly. And, it seems that fiddly can be either good or bad depending on what it's relating to.

I realize definitions of words can change over time, and in the case of board games, perhaps it is changing, BUT changing in this case is complicating the word and perhaps causing it to be incorrectly applied it in some, perhaps many cases.

Usage of fiddly in relation to games seems to have expanded to encompass not just the physical manipulation but also the intricate/detailed nature of rules in games and, in some cases, the actual appearance of the board. This last usage I think is incorrect. In fact, I feel it's usage toward rules isn't really true to the spirit of the word as well.

For detailed rules, it seems perhaps a different terminology is required, perhaps more like intricate, tweaky or 'difficult to learn and understand' rules. I would like to have something I can use that will be clear and definitive here.

I did a bit of looking around and found a word that I didn't know of previously but seems to work here:

abstruse - hard to understand; recondite; esoteric. Synonyms are: incomprehensible, unfathomable, arcane.

Hmmm, I'm liking abstruse to describe the rules in this ways - when there are a lot of detailed rules, it does make the game difficult to comprehend. Even though it's not a common word it seems clear once you know it.

Now, as to detailed record keeping, I think there might be a better direction to go as well. This relates to how things are counted up and tracked - accounting essentially. However, 'accounting' has many other meanings and connotations which defeats the purpose of finding a better word. So, looking at the synonyms I see that enumerate might work here:

enumerate - to ascertain the number of; count; specify in a list.

Excessive enumeration might then be the phrase for too much record keeping. Now, there still might be some aspects this doesn't capture and perhaps 'accounting' would be sufficient, but enumeration is fairly straight forward and clear and can encompass a number of areas including score tracks, various calculations, looking up information, etc. Of course, some qualifiers will need to be applied as to which aspects I am referring to.

As to a board that is 'fiddly' (i.e. too detailed, confusing, etc), I don't think fiddly really works here. Just saying it's too detailed or confusing or has too much information is fine. Done!

So, what of fiddly? What can I do about this word? I like it. I know what it means to me. But it confuses other people when I use it. Looking up fiddly doesn't suggest any good synonyms specific to this situation (i.e. relating to having lots of bits that you have to manipulate). Manipulate! I looked that up and, well, I didn't get any help there - nothing in it's synonyms that suggests what I'm looking for. Well, wait a minute! How about.....manipulate!

manipulate: to handle or use, esp with some skill, in a process or action

Better yet: bit manipulation (where bit refers to a variety of game pieces, figures, chits, etc). I like it! It's catchy (I love alliteration) and it is fairly clear in it's description. Then, I can apply adjectives to it to give it different degrees: lots of bit manipulation, some bit manipulation, too much bit manipulation.

Well, here's my list that I think I'm going to start using in describing games now instead of using fiddly:

  • abstruse rules - hard to understand (due to lots of detailed rules and nuances)
  • excessive enumeration - lots of book keeping, accounting, etc, that happens outside of the normal game playing
  • bit manipulation - lots of game pieces that have to be moved around
  • confusing board - duh
  • other meanings of fiddly - just use them directly instead of using a confused word such a fiddly

Now after going through all this I have to say in all honesty, I still prefer the word fiddly when talking about lots of bits. And I know what it means for me. And I like it. I will use it all by myself, for just won't see me using it in public anymore.

Now excuse me while I go fiddle with my bits.....

(NOTE: I had a very difficult time writing this post. I don't know why exactly - partly due to being tired at the times I was writing it, I think. But also because it was really difficult to pin this subject down. At first I thought this was just going to be a 'fun' little rant, but quickly realized that my rant might be invalid and that I needed to look into it further. I think ultimately it ended up being more work than I expected it would until I hit upon the idea of finding replacement words/phrases for different terminology and it then started clicking for me. Apologies if this post seems pretentious, but it is my own blog after all - you can keep using 'fiddly' in any way you like. I suppose you like walking through minefields in real life as well  :)  )

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