05 August 2017

What makes a game good?

I found myself sitting around with a few friends last night talking about games. This is not surprising, as we had gotten together for the specific purpose of playing some games. In between games, we talked about gaming, gamers, conventions, and some specific games.

There's a sentiment that I hear often when talking about games. I heard it last night, and I've heard it many times before. We'll be discussing a particular game, and someone will say some variation on:
  • I have a great time playing that game even when I lose.
  • That's a game I love to lose.
  • I don't care if I lose this game, because it's so much fun to play.
I've found it to be true for me in many cases: The Red Dragon Inn, Dominant Species, and The Resistance: Avalon to name just a few. 

Now, I will readily admit that these games are not perfect. The Red Dragon Inn, for example, features player elimination. Dominant Species can be pretty intense, complicated, and lengthy. The Resistance: Avalon is difficult for people who are not good liars.

But of course, what game is perfect?

As I think about these things, I find myself analysing the qualities of a 'good' game. What is it that makes a game good? What characteristics does it possess? So I thought I'd talk about that a little bit today.

For starters, in my opinion, a good game will contain the following traits:
  • No player elimination. A good game lets every player stay in until the very end. If one or more person has to leave the game before it's over, then that/those person(s) will be sitting there not having fun with the others. If you're still in the game until the end, you don't have to waste time waiting for everyone else to be done.
  • Relatively simple. Obviously, there are some people who like playing the intensely complex games that have massive instruction manuals and take hours to learn and just as long to play. But for most situations, being able to jump right into a game with a minimal learning curve makes for the most enjoyable time for the maximum number of players. Don't be fooled: games with simple mechanics can have incredibly deep strategy (as one example, I point to Clans).
  • Fun to lose. As mentioned above, the best games are those that people enjoy even when they lose. Of course, not everyone will agree on what makes a game fun to lose. I love thinky-thinky games that require me to exercise my brain muscles. Other people prefer to simulate the great action sequences from their favourite movies (Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures being a perfect example of this).
  • Ends decisively. Some games are over long before they are finished. This is true for games like Risk and Monopoly, in which the winner is evident long before the game technically ends. You know who's going to win those games several turns before the end conditions are met. Yet the mechanics don't let it end until that final condition is triggered. Much better are games like Kingdom Builder or Eclipse, which end definitively and (usually) with nobody feeling like they have been left completely behind.
  • Allows for upsets. In many games, the player in the lead by the two-thirds mark is likely going to be the winner. But the best games are structured such that any player has a chance to zoom ahead in the last turn and seize victory when it seemed certain that they would lose. Power Grid is an excellent example of this. No matter who's in the lead in the last turn, things can always change and the last-place player may end up winning. Thus, nobody has to feel like there's no longer any reason to continue playing.
  • Player agency. The best games give all the power over the results to the players themselves. Sure, some people like games of pure chance, like Blackjack or Snakes and Ladders, but I still maintain that the best way to have fun with a game is to make decisions about where the game is going to go. Games like Scotland Yard leave nearly everything in the hands of the players; the result of the game is determined entirely by the players' actions and decisions, instead of being determined by random dice rolls or card draws.
Those six things are the biggest indicators, in my opinion, of what makes a game good. Of course, people's tastes are very subjective, and there will always be matters of personal preference to consider. For example, I find most deck-builder games to be tedious at best. But other people like them. This doesn't mean a game is good or bad, just that some people will like them and others will not.

What do you guys think? Have I missed any characteristics of a good game? Please, let me know in the comments, and have fun playing games this week. I'll see you back here next week, and until then, don't forget to 

Game on!

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