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Game Designs: The Recipe for Success

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Anonymous

Most of the people on this site have an immense love for playing board games. I can't imagine that too many people so devoted to designing them, wouldn't first have fallen in love with games by playing them. So on that note, "What makes a game fun?"

Each person will have a distinct answer that may be altogether different from the answers of others or it may share similarities. I thought it might be interesting if each of us wrote up a small summary on the elements of a game that, from our perspectives, make it fun. It will provide us with an overview of the diverse reasons that make us all like games so darned much! It will also provide us with ideas for integrating coveted elements into our designs--call it a recipe for superior game design.

I'll start with my recipe, and then others can provide theirs. If someone mentions some ingredient that is also in your own personal recipe, then second it. Don't worry about being repetitive. In addition to wanting unique perspectives on what makes a game good, I'm looking for overlapping opinions--in fact, I'm especially looking for overlapping opinions in order to form a concensus of the elements important to the greatest number of game players/designers.

To make this a little easier for everyone, start off each new ingredient with a word or phrase that's in all caps and then elaborate. This way, as we refer back to each others ingredients saying, "I second that!" we can clearly make special reference to the individual ingredient by name saying instead, "I agree with Mario that THEME makes a game more enjoyable."

(As fair warning, I *may* use the overall results of this thread to write an article for The Games Journal.)

Anyway, here's my list...

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1. THEME

Although I like several abstract games, there's something about painting a vivid picture as storywriters do that makes a game all the more captivating to me. Sure, some people may differ on whether a certain game conveys theme or not, so I don't expect everyone to agree when I name certain games where THEME was driven home for me.

Tikal is one of my very favorite games. While every game could be boiled down to an abstract version, Tikal does the trick for me--it creates a sense of theme. The actions that I'm taking seem like excavating a temple, or digging up treasure, or exploring ruins in the jungle. All of these things work together to paint what I consider a vivid theme.

Puerto Rico does it too. Although the building chits are pictureless, their fiddly adjustments to the base rules makes it seem like each player is developing their plantations and shipping their goods based on their own unique business practices.

La Citta is just as successful at conveying theme. The buildings that can be added to ones cities make sense. It feels I'm on an Italian countryside competeing with other city developers.

Iron Dragon (The Empire Builder system) gives me the feel of developing railways and route planning for profits. Again, I don't wish to argue over what games seem like they have theme and which ones do not, just that theme is a vital element to me. Games like Medici, Balloon Cup, and Clans seem like abstracts with pasted-on themes. There are no special mechanics that really seem to make sense within the context of the given theme.

What makes a theme work, often, is fiddly rules. That is, actions that players can take (through the use of cards, action points, whatever...) that relate to actions that would exist within the given theme in the real world. I guess the true test of whether a game's theme is strong is to gauge how hard it would be to strip away the theme and paste on another. If this is a difficult task, the game has what I call "theme."

2. ASTHETICS

I'm a lover of beauty. Beautiful girls, beautiful scenery, beautiful bits. To me great artwork, while it may not contribute to the function or design mechanics built into the game, really takes the game to a whole new level. Often, having quality artwork goes hand-in-hand with conveying theme. Good artwork will almost alway improve what players think of the game.

And sometimes it can detract from the game...

Take the American version of Medici, for example. The commodity cards and their respective pyramids on the board are difficult to decipher. In the German version, there are no confusing pictures, instead commodities are conveyed by colors. Although I can certainly figure out what card is what commodity in 2 or 3 seconds in the American version, I don't even spend a millisecond making the translation when playing the German version.

Tigris & Euphrates is one of the best games to date. I've played both the American (Mayfair) version and the original German version (Euphrat & Tigris) and the German version is so much better. The bits are better quality and the game looks so much better. In my opinion, Mayfair has an awful eye for art.

3. COME BACKS

A game is always more exciting for me whether I'm in the lead or bringing up the rear when there are no sealed victories. I love to know that I have a chance at a come-from-behind victory.

While this is possible in Settlers, often one guy takes a commanding lead and then--Guess what?--he actually wins. I'm not saying that there should be lucky events that happen to launch the loser into first place, but a game is even better if the possibility of winning always seems within reach.

4. FRESHNESS

One thing that truly sets a game apart is freshness. If the game is really different from one play to the next it is more interesting and exciting--it's fresh. I thought to call this element "replayability," because that's part of what I'm talking about, but that's not quite it. To me, I like it when the beginning, middle, and end of a game feels like I'm in a place I haven't been before.

Repeat plays of Puerto Rico seem this way. I've seen all sorts of different things happen.

Setters having a variable board, accomplished this for a while--that is, until I played it 50 times and got sick of it. (But, hey! Any game that gets someone to play it 50 times is deserving of praise.) That's part of the reason that I think variable set ups improve a game.

4. CONTROL OVER LUCK

I certainly like a degree of randomness in my games, but nothing so overpowering that random events can seem like a crushing tornado to the leader and promote the little guy to the king of the mountain. German games do this well; they reward intelligent decision making.

I'll reiterate: I do like like some randomness. Take La Citta. In it, the voice of the people is random from turn to turn and the political-cards panel is ever chaning. One player may have opportunities to buy the coveted hospital and another player, due to the shuffle, may never have that chance. Yet, despite having fewer good opportunities than others, an adroit player can still manufacture a victory. Sure, sometimes the "luck of the draw" can repeatedly work against a wise gamer and he will lose despite making solid decisions; I have no problem with that, so long as it's not often the case. Over the long run, the superior player should win more than weaker players.

5. TOUGH DECISIONS

In some games I have only a few possible moves, I make relatively easy judgment call, and I chose my best move. There are some games like this that I do like; however, most of the time I prefer to have 4 really good possibilties that rise above the dozens of moves I could take and to have to make a really tough decision about what to do.

This happens to me all the time when I play La Citta. It also happens when I play Union Pacific ("Do I play a train in order to take a share enabling me to protect my monopoly or my front-runner position, or do I lay down stock because the dividend card will be up anytime now?).

This is one of the things that I read most frequently in the reviews of the games that lots of people seem to like. They say, "Plenty of tough decisions..." I guess another way to put it is to say that you've got 10 things you want to do, but you only have enough to do 5 of them. This really makes a game!

6. TURN ANGST

I love this! Who wants to watch a superbowl where their team blows out the competition. I love to watch a superbowl where the game goes into overtime and after 2 failed Hail Mary attempts the 3rd attempt is caught in the endzone to win the game! What about that makes the game so enjoyable? Well, it's the lack of security; it's the being on edge. It's exciting and exhilarating.

I like it when it's not my turn in Tigris & Euphrates, and I can see a grandiose opportunity for a game-winning external conflict and I have to wonder if anyone else sees it. I like wondering whether the next 3 players are going to try to seize that opportunity for themselves or if they'll play a disaster to protect against it. Can I tell you the feeling of elation that I have when turn rotation returns to me and no one spotted the move! It's that feeling of tension that hangs off your back like a monkey that makes a game so fun, so exciting.

You know you've experienced turn angst when, as it becomes your turn, you sigh a breath of relief and resume breathing.

7. CLEVERNESS

I prefer deep games over light ones. I like games with a good deal of complexity--fine intricasies--built into them. Puerto Rico and El Grande have complexity. Often complexity is engineered through fiddliness. That is, a player is able to take certain actions which are outside the scope of the normal or base rules of the game. The buildings in Puerto Rico provide this; the action cards of El Grande are as fiddly as any game I've seen.

All of this design complexity allows for players to discover new ways to accomplish game winning objectives or new ways to combine back-to-back actions. It allows players to be inventive and clever.

Basically, you know that cleverness is built into a game when you hear someone comment about your move, "Wow! That was a great move!" I mean--be honest--who doesn't like to hear that?

I might have chosen to make "complexity" or "deepness" (as in light or "deep" games) the desired element, but I think "cleverness" is better categorization. Just because someone designs a complex game doesn't mean that all the intricacies gel and work together to create a beautifully elaborate and "clever" game.

Magic the Gathering is one of the most "clever" 2-player games out there. I haven't come across any 2-player game half as fun. Like most of you, I prefer strategy board games to Magic because I like the social aspect of playing with a handful of friends. When friends aren't abounding and my only choice is to play a two-player game with the one guy who could make it, there's usually no two-player game that gives me that "game night" feeling. Of all the two-player games, Magic is the closest. When you think of cleverness, consider all the "combos" and theme decks that exist in magic--now that's clever stuff. This same quality of cleverness exists in strategy board games, and it makes for a great game.

Again, let's hope our games make someone exclaim, "Now that was an awesome move!" or "Wow! I didn't see that coming."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Now, let's hear some of your ideas for what really makes a game great.

Mario

jwarrend
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Joined: 08/03/2008
Re: Game Designs: The Recipe for Success

Mario wrote:

(As fair warning, I *may* use the overall results of this thread to write an article for The Games Journal.)

FYI, there's a great article on this very subject on the Games Journal by Wolfgang Kramer. I try to apply Kramer's rubrik to every design I complete to see how my game measures up. His is the most concise exposition of what makes a game good. I think I posted a link to it in the Web Links section.

-Jeff

Anonymous
Game Designs: The Recipe for Success

Yes, Jeff, thank you. I believe I read Kramer's article a while ago. I was considering an up-to-date rewrite on the same. The difference with my potential article--I haven't committed to write it just yet--is that I hope to incorporate the views from many gamers and designers to form a more overall, more complete perspective.

I know that Kramer's article is a good one though.

In any case, I hope you'll reflect and consider a few of the elements that matter most to you. I tried to think of the games I really liked and what commonalities made them appealing tome.

hpox
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Joined: 12/31/1969
Game Designs: The Recipe for Success

Quote:

1. THEME
2. ASTHETICS
3. COME BACKS
4. FRESHNESS
4. CONTROL OVER LUCK
5. TOUGH DECISIONS
6. TURN ANGST
7. CLEVERNESS

I agree with all of that. REPLAYABILITY is also very important.
All of theses elements are usually what I'm thriving for when making a game, a type of game I'd enjoy. I have yet to design one including all of that though. Excellent post! It's really nice to have a list

REPLAYABILITY (EDIT: Ooops, I realized, you talked about it under FRESHNESS. I had read it, I swear. But that was two days ago)

It implies the game is fun and good enough to replay it more than twice(or thrice). But replayability is so much more than that. I think for a game to be replayable, It must feel different enough each game. The starting position/set-up might be completely different every time or the game almost always take a different turn in middle/end game (DUNE, unlike AXIS AND ALLIES which is the same every time).

Random elements are an easy way to add replayability, granted you have enough different outcomes that will modify the game a different way each time. Complexity can do that too, when a player do a particulary good move and people talk about it later. "Last time we played, Dude pulled off a Trimo while having an alliance with the Nefotos. He could supply his entire tribe for 4 turns and went into full production! Crazy shit!".

FastLearner
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Joined: 12/31/1969
Game Designs: The Recipe for Success

I think you've hit on what makes a good game replayable: multiple potential paths to victory. If while you're playing you think "Aw geez, next time I'm not gonna do that... instead I bet you could really pul ahead by..." then it's a good sign that you have a replayable game on your hands. Multiple paths to victory (which I actually abbreviate as MPTV in my design notebooks) are the single biggest thing that really makes the game one I'd like to try again.

Anonymous
Game Designs: The Recipe for Success

Excellent posting Mario ... I think you should pursue its publication ;)

Anonymous
Just to Add a couple of things

DIRECT CONSEQUENCES/INDIRECT CONSEQUENCES: Meaning I like when certain actions are realized to be good right away and others are more subtle and it's not until 3 turns later that you realize why someone did what they did or that you were undermined and didn't even know it.

The best example of this I can think of is chess. Where a player makes a move planning ahead of where I'm thinking (I think only a couple turns ahead at most and thus lose chess a lot to people who think 3-4 moves ahead).

SOCIAL INTERACTION: I prefer games that when you play them you can't hear a pin drop. That people are talking about what they are doing or psychologically trying to gain an advantage through social interaction. This usually takes place in some form of Negotiation or Plotting Strategy.

GAME LENGTH: This is far more variable then other things but as a general rule I like games that take under 3 hrs. maximum. I think that one would be hard pressed to find a game that lasts more than say 8 hrs that tons of people really love...

I think the other things listed already are important too.

Scurra
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Joined: 09/11/2008
Re: Just to Add a couple of things

jjacy1 wrote:

GAME LENGTH: This is far more variable then other things but as a general rule I like games that take under 3 hrs. maximum. I think that one would be hard pressed to find a game that lasts more than say 8 hrs that tons of people really love...

Um, I think there are two: Civilisation and Diplomacy. And neither of them should take that long, but any game where a turn can potentially take 30 minutes to complete is a candidate for the 8hr+ slot.
I have played an 18xx game that took 6hrs, but that felt dull at that length, whereas games of Civ and Dip are rarely dull...

We did this somewhere before though. One way of categorising games is by their typical length. (Examples below are all Reiner Knizia games :))

1. FILLERS. 15-20 minutes. KATZENJAMMER BLUES
2. STARTERS or ENDERS. 30 minutes. KINGDOM
3. LIGHTWEIGHT. 45 mins - 1 hr. AFRICA
4. MIDDLEWEIGHT. 1hr - 90 mins. RA, TAJ MAHAL
5. HEAVYWEIGHT. 2hrs. EUPHRATES & TIGRIS
6. EPICS. 3hr+ (not a field Herr Knizia has gone in for really!)

These days, many people find that a game lasting more than 2hrs is pushing their limits, although that doesn't mean there isn't room for heavyweight or epic games.
And, importantly, it doesn't mean that all games of a certain length automatically fit into those categories, although it seems like a good idea to try and get them there. IOW a 2hr game that has few meaningful decisions is clearly running twice as long as it should. And I've built a few 30minute games with some very deep tactical implications. But hey, that's what makes games designing fun.

zaiga
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Joined: 12/31/1969
Game Designs: The Recipe for Success

Funny, I would put Ra into the lightweight category, E&T into the middleweight category and Taj Mahal into the heavyweight category.

There's not a game that burns my braincells faster than Taj Mahal. It also takes us usually almost 2 hours. A game of E&T we can finish in under 90 minutes. We think of Ra as a light game that plays in under an hour.

jwarrend
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Joined: 08/03/2008
Re: Just to Add a couple of things

Scurra wrote:

These days, many people find that a game lasting more than 2hrs is pushing their limits, although that doesn't mean there isn't room for heavyweight or epic games.

This is kind of interesting, and I find myself doing it as well; if a game lasts longer than 2 hours, I find myself tending to be down on it just for that reason. I think part of this is that the "German revolution" has given us a lot of games that pack as many interesting decisions into 1.5 hours as some of the longer games pack into 6. A good example is a game called "ThroneWorld" which is basically Axis and Allies in space; the early game takes 4 hours, the end game, another 4. Yet, one doesn't really feel like all that time is necessary to achieve the result. On the other hand, "Shogun/Samurai Swords" can frequently run 4-6 hours, yet it feels like it's time well spent; there's a progression to the game where you start out by consolidating power, then you start impinging on foes, then you need to start going for the big goal, etc. But I think that most of the length in longer games comes from bookkeeping; battles that take a long time to resolve, a board composed of too many territories such that resolving actions for each takes a long time, etc. The other thing is downtime. Many of the longer games, you can go 30 minutes without doing anything, except maybe roll some dice. It's just not that much fun to do that. So, I think the only reason I'll play a long game now is for the "epic scale" effect, which you really can't get in a 60 minute game.

I think one thing you do lose in some of the German games is the idea of biding your time, of mid-game development. A good example is New England, which I just got, and which I like. But man, it's over so quickly! There's a mid game, but not a long one. You really don't have much time for positioning yourself in that one; you'd better be going for the win from the beginning, or you're going to run out of time! And that's one thing I think you can get out of the longer games, the idea that patience in achieving your goals, and developing your position, is more allowable. Obviously doesn't apply in all cases...

Anyway, I think Scurra is right that the bottom line is that the game's length should mate well to its intent. I, and most others on this group, I think, rate a game's "fun factor" in direct proportion to the number and quality of decisions I have to make in the game. If I am going to game for 4 hours, should I play one long game of Shogun, 2 games of Wallenstein, or 4 games of Puerto Rico? I think the last of these will likely give me the most decisions, however, the experience you get from a longer game like Shogun or Wallenstein is different than that of Puerto Rico, so if I'm in the mood for that, I'll probably go for one of those other games. But since 2 hour slots are easier to come by than 4 hour slots, it's likely that I'll play Wallenstein much more regularly than Shogun...

zaiga
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Game Designs: The Recipe for Success

I almost never play games that last longer than 2 hours. I'd rather play a couple of shorter games than one really long one. This does mean I miss out on the "epic" scaled games, but I don't think there are that many good ones anyway.

Perhaps one of the few German games that gives an epic feel in under 90 minutes is Euphrat & Tigris. You also start out small, have a significant midgame and certainly an important end game. Seeing the rise and fall of several kingdoms over the course of the game really gives me that epic feeling. I think what makes this possible is that in E&T players do not "own" a kingdom and the fact that you need to balance your score over 4 spheres.

Shorter, more tactical games like Clans or TransAmerica can also be a lot of fun, but you do not tend to remember them after say a month or so while epic games can be food for discussion and grand tales after even years.

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