There's a reason for that.
Now, I would never be one to call Monopoly an elegant game, but the Parker brothers did know how to do one thing right: they made good use of their components. In Monopoly's case, practically everything you need to know about playing the game is right there on the board and the cards.
"Collect $200.00 Salary as You Pass Go" the Start space says boldly. "Community Chest," another space states. "Follow Instruction on Top Card." Sets of property are color coded, and the cost of each property is clearly state on the board. The ownership card for each property displays all possible rents, a mortgage value and the cost of houses and hotels.
Now some game designers (and publishers) think that the primary purpose of components is beauty, so if they want to impress you they use quality materials and plaster artwork wherever possible. The results of this can be very positive. I've found that French games in particular, including Asmodee and Days of Wonder, often wow me with their artistic sensibility.
However any publisher that stops there has only gone halfway, and is omitting the other great advantage that components can offer, the one that the Parker brothers knew: elegance.
A Wargaming InterludeIn 1953 a man named Charle Roberts designed a game called Tactics. It was the first commercial wargame and it is an ancestor of any gamer's game that you might play today. It allowed for the creation of games with more strategy and thoughtfulness than the luckfests that dominated the game scene in the hundred years prior.
However in their quests for simulation and strategy the many designers that followed Roberts at Avalon Hill, SPI, and elsewhere lost track of the idea of elegance. I actually suspect that the problem was that many wargamers didn't really understand game design that well, and thus they were reinventing the wheel. Instead of encoding rules in components--as Monopoly does--wargame designers insteaded filled books with complex charts, requiring constant referencing and re-referencing. When a superb graphic designer like Redmond Simonsen came along, standardized a lot of wargame design, and innovated a lot of practices it really was a notable change ... but it probably shouldn't have been.
Now Eurogames don't exactly come from the wellspring of wargaming, but it's clearly one of several ancestors, particularly in French designs and in new Anglo-American games being published based on German ideals. As such an increasing number of those games we play face a dilemma, as they try and mix more simulative American gameplay with German elegance ... and sometimes they fail, with the result being that charts, tables, and calculations occasionally slip into These Games of Ours.
Catan & Component EleganceFortunately Eurogames enjoy another ancestor which moved in the exact opposite direction as those chart-filled, inelegant wargames: The Settlers of Catan. I have long thought that one of the primary reasons for Catan's success has been its superb component design.
The Settlers of Catan could have felt like a complex game with the constant need to reference rules. After all, you have a number of different land types, each of which produces a specific resource, and a number of different potential buildings, each of which requires different resources to build.
What Catan did well--perhaps even brilliantly--was that it linked together all of this information in simple pictorial form via the components that were constantly in front of all the players. This isn't just about the player aids--though those are clearly a crucial part of the game's success. Equally important, however, was the decision to largely color-code the land types and match those up to the resources they produce. That simple fact made it so blatantly obvious that, for example, a forest produces wood, that you'd never even consider looking it up. However, it would be very easy to imagine a game where that wasn't the case.
Because Catan has been so successful, many Eurogames have followed in its footsteps, and tried to make their gameplay simple and elegant through good component design. Some have been successful, while some think the answer is simply to print muddled icons on everything and hope that players will eventually figure everything out. Clearly, one approach works and the other really doesn't. Memorizing a set of unintuitive icons is really not much better than memorizing a set of specific rules in the first place.
Extending the EnvelopeThe possibilities of improving gameplay through component design are many and varied, and sometimes you don't even realize their usefulness until you play a game without.
For example, many a game has the good sense to place the cost of purchasing a good right on the good. If a card costs a gold coin, you put a picture of a gold coin on the card. It's simple and obvious ... and not done nearly enough. When you have to instead look up that price on a chart, in a rulebook, or even on the gameboard you're slowing down the game for no particularly good reason.
Any game designer should be thinking about every one of his components, from board to cards to playing aids, figuring out how the information about each individual item could be encoded on it--or at the very least nearby.
Some of the most innovative work that I've seen in this regard has been by Kevin Wilson of Fantasy Flight Games and has centered on dice.
Dice DesignFantasy Flight Games are unabashedly Anglo-American designs, with lots of randomness. Most recently I've been playing Descent a straight-up board-game dungeon crawl, with one player trying to foil the rest. In that game the random pedigree is obvious: an attack can randomly hit or miss, can randomly do a little or a lot of damage, and can randomly be boosted or not.
Now a traditional roleplaying design--even closer to wargaming origins than any modern board game--would encode these possibilities in charts. For example to make an attack in Dungeon & Dragons I'd first look up a to-hit chance (on a chart), then throw a 20-sided die. Then if I did hit I might roll again (using the same chart) to determine if the hit was a "boosted" critical hit. Finally I'd look up my weapon's damage (on a chart) and roll that. That's all the same possibilities as Descent offers, on two or three different charts.
Descent instead includes dice which show all this information. One specific die determines hit or miss for each attack. Beyond that, every die includes symbols which show damage and boosts. You just add up all the appropriate symbols, sometimes deciding whether to use one result or another, and you get your total. Granted, the dice are a bit ugly looking with their cacophony of symbols, but they're easy to read one you get used to them ... and surprisingly elegant.
My favorite thing about Descent's dice is the way that it deals with ranged combat, which is perhaps better than any actual roleplaying game I've ever played. Besides all the other info, each die also has a range number. When you roll your dice, you add up the ranges, and if they equal or exceed the actual range to your target, you hit, otherwise you miss. This means that the further away something is, the harder it is to hit, using a very clean formula that increases the difficulty space by space. Likewise as you gain in experience you'll throw more dice, and thus gradually be able to hit things further away.
Compare that to a standard roleplaying game's model of ranged combat. You usually have range bands which only allow stepped differences in difficulty at a few specific thresholds. When you use a ranged weapon you have to look up those range bands, typically cross-referencing them to penalties to hit. Descent instead encodes that all in the dice, showing off just one of several ways that the game keeps players out of the rulebook and focused on the game instead.
ConclusionFantasy Flight's dice work is, of course, not the end-all and be-all of component design, but it definitely shows off how easily this particular corner of game design can still be expanded.
In what other ways can components be used, to keep players playing the games rather than reading the rules? I hope more designers like Klaus Teuber and Kevin Wilson are thinking about that very question.