Theology metaphors make everything better, right? For all the different kinds of games, the good ones, just like good saints, tend to have traits in common. It’s like virtues. While still leaving room for differences, we can say some things a great game does, and these are some of them.
EASY TO LEARN. If it takes an hour explain the rules or multiple practice games before you have any idea what you’re doing, the game needs to go away and re-think its life. Most good games can be played with a five-minute explanation and one or two practice rounds.
Different people have higher or lower tolerance for complex rule madness, but as the meme puts it, I literally can’t even. I don’t have the life to spare for Twilight Imperium. People can learn how to learn new games better, because that’s a skill that improves with practice, but a game is responsible for its own difficulties. Besides, it’s better design to have only a handful of rules and lots of things you can do with the rules. That’s where the, you know, fun comes in.
STRATEGY. My principle is: you should play the game and not let it play you. A good game has a mix of chance and strategy that makes it fun to play. There’s a whole continuum of how much of the game relies on strategy as opposed to chance, from War (the card game), up through Uno and Pass the Pigs, all the way over to chess.
Games lack the virtue of strategy if they allow the player no meaningful decisions at all, games like Candyland and Chutes and Ladders. You spin or roll and have only one possible piece to move. These games are the equivalent of an alphabet chart, and they’re useful to teach children to take turns and spin the spinner. They tend to drive adults crazy bored. I’d rather upgrade to Parcheesi or Sorry, where at least you choose which piece to move.
Pass the Pigs relies heavily on chance, but the player’s actions can turn mediocre rolls into a win or great rolls into a loss. What you do matters.
ELEGANCE. A game should be elegant in the sense of a well-engineered invention, with every piece doing its purpose well and hopefully doing things simultaneously. Games shouldn’t be needlessly complicated or have useless afterthoughts. If there’s a whole stack of cards in the corner of the board that never gets touched, the game may not be elegant.
VARIETY. Whenever I get together with different friends, I’m amazed at what games appeal to them. Some groups want to play social games so they can spare the attention to catch up with friends. Some groups want the most detailed of political strategy games. I believe, sort of to my horror, there’s actually a presidential election game out there. I like games with dwarves, myself, like Smallworld and Saboteur. Another batch of friends won’t be caught dead playing with dwarves, but becoming a rail tycoon amuses them. These differences are beautiful.
Since there are so many games, a new one needs to bring to life something a little different. There’s always room to recombine game elements and cool things from out in the world creatively. We want to avoid playing yet another rehash of Rummikub. That’s been done, thanks.
REPLAYABILITY. Some games are like those puzzles where you try to get the metal ring off the horseshoes chained together: once you’ve mastered it, it’s just moving your hands. Great games open up more possibility the better you get to know them, like Othello and Scrabble.
Settlers of Catan rocked the game world because the board itself changes every game. It’s a whole new approach to replayability.
REASONABLE LENGTH. There really is a stage in a person’s life, such as one’s upper teen years, when a game that lasts for 20 hours or so is a great use of a weekend. These people should absolutely play Risk and attempt to become sole master of Asia.
I am not in that life stage.
I appreciate games that have the self-discipline and the courtesy to actually come to an end. It also provides a social escape for people who get stuck in a boring group; when the game ends, you’re allowed to go do something else! I don’t like games where a person gets eliminated and has to wait around for others to finish. Also, if the game lingers so long you never get to the end-game, you’ll never learn how to play the end-game.
AESTHETIC EXPERIENCE. One of my favorite parts of the new games that have been coming out is just how gorgeous the art is. Done well, like in Sushi Go, it can absolutely make the game. Also, it can make you crave sushi.
C.S. Lewis talked about the way some books evoke a particular emotion or concept. Games do this too. For high adrenaline, Escape has you frantically rolling all the dice you can in a limited time to try to steal the treasure and get out of the temple alive, with a CD soundtrack bringing the (terrifying) atmosphere. Do you want to help the CDC stop a worldwide pandemic? Bop around the galaxy trading, smuggling, and fighting monsters? Identify all your country’s agents in a city without triggering the assassin? There’s a game for that.
Sometimes a game will lack some of these virtues. In my experience, it usually suffers the natural consequence of its privation: it stays on its shelf, unplayed forever. It’s a terrible fate for any game.
Tell me, what games have you been playing lately? Be sure to check out Playing Games, Part I.
Photo Credit: Graphic design by Charity Klicka