board games

Game Theory

I know, I know – I said I’d use original artwork, and this is a piece done by TeeTurtle – it just fit the subject matter of my post better than anything I could think up.

So, here’s my first gaming review post – it’s more of a general overview of the different qualities a board game can have, and how those elements can come together to make a game that’s enjoyable to play. Feel free to mention any elements you think I missed!

Game Theory

What makes a game fun? To me, it comes down to four factors: simulation, evocation, elegance of design and humor. A game may have all, some or none of these qualities but it will need at least two of them if I’m going to play it more than once – all four or three done especially well and I’ll probably end up buying it.

I listed simulation first because of all the traits I listed it’s the one most likely to make a game interesting. For instance, if the game is about a historical battle, are all the decisive elements of that battle present, and if so, are they modeled in a way that they behave the way they did during the engagement? Are all strengths and weaknesses of those elements realistically portrayed? If all of this is done particularly well, a player can learn a great deal about why a particular battle turned out the way it did.

“Command and Colors” is an example of good simulation. Different types of infantry, cavalry, missile troops and artillery are all represented, with different modules of the game covering pre-industrial warfare from ancient Greece to the Napoleonic wars. The elegant rules system allows the game to be taught in 20 minutes and set up and played in an hour or two. The communication problems between commanders and their units so endemic of that era are simulated by a movement system based on a card draw that allows a player to command only a few of her units each turn. Missile troops can harass from a distance but are very vulnerable to damage if caught or cornered, while heavy infantry can inflict great damage, but is slow and may not engage at all or at the wrong time if held back to long or committed too early.

Of course, a good simulation game doesn’t necessarily have to be modeled on true events as long as the elements portrayed in the game act in a way that’s consistent with the reality being simulated.

The game “Firefly”, for instance, does an excellent job in choosing which elements of that story to simulate and does so in such a way that the players feel like they’re creating a new episode of the show with each game. The ships, gear, contacts, cargo and crew have all the advantages and drawbacks that make them interesting in the show.

The mirror side of this is what a designer chooses not to simulate, as some elements may add needless complexity without appreciably adding to either the simulation or enjoyment value of a game. Too much complexity can lead to decision paralysis as players try to choose between several options or to misunderstandings in regards to interpretations of rules.

This is a controversial opinion, as there are many gamers out there who are willing to trade playability for a more sophisticated reality model, but I firmly believe the game that models simplest models best. Most aspects of simulation can be abstracted, and it’s part of the game designer’s art to do this while still maintaining the feel and effect of the behavior being simulated.

Again using “Firefly” as an example, given the big picture scope of the game, combat is handled in an appropriately abstract manner that is both easy to learn and takes a minimum of game time to accomplish. If the game focused on tactical combat in the Firefly universe, a more complex   model would be warranted.

How the game’s reality model is presented to the players is the aspect of design called ‘elegance’. Elegance includes such attributes as concise and logical presentation/organization of the game’s rules and how intuitive those rules are in relation to what’s being simulated. Elegance also includes the coherent arrangement of information on the game’s various components (cards, pieces etc.)

The game “Star Wars: Armada” gives us examples of both good and bad elegance. Layout of information on the components is superb – vital information is available at a glance and is attractively presented – this makes game play go smoothly, as all the information a player needs to make game decisions is right in front of her with no need to access complex charts or matrices. With all of this elegant simplicity, there should be little need to consult the rulebook during play, which is a good thing, because the rules are a disordered mess.

Needlessly spread out over two books, the rules bury important concepts of play, are full of imprecise terminology, lack examples and don’t provide an anatomy for all of those elegant components, instead spreading this information across several different rules sections.

Fortunately, forums are available on the internet to help clarify and define vague game terms and concepts – without this resource, the game would be unplayable.

Evocation is more subtle than the other attributes, but no less important for an enjoyable game. The key question here is: Does the design of the game immerse the player in its reality?

There are several ways a game can accomplish this – photographs, well executed artwork, pieces designed with care and an eye for realism, and rules that add fun mechanics not strictly necessary to playing the game (also known as chrome).

Good examples of well-designed components are the ship photographs used on the cards for “Modern Naval Battles”, the miniatures of “X-wing” and the beautifully rendered cards and heavy poker chip pieces of “Splendor” that turn an otherwise mediocre game into something that is a joy to play.

Chrome is something that needs to be used sparingly, because the price for its implementation is added complexity. Almost any game can benefit from it, however, as it often adds a role playing element that personalizes the game experience. For instance, it’s cool to fly an Advanced TIE Fighter in “X-Wing”, but it’s much, much cooler to fly one that’s piloted by Darth Vader.

While it takes a few added rules to incorporate Vader’s abilities into the game, the payoff is worth it as you picture the Sith Lord hunting down rebel scum.

Finally, humor, while not appropriate for all games, can seriously increase the fun factor of others. Humor, however, is a difficult concept. While welcome if well done, it can make an otherwise good game unplayable (Munchkin’s Cthulhu expansion “Unspeakable Vault” comes to mind). It’s for this reason that most games skip it entirely – it can fall flat, and it isn’t really necessary for the creation of a good game.

Some games, like “Munchkin” and “Chez Geek”, are entirely about humor and gamers who are inclined to be serious forget this at their peril. In these games, the simulation aspect is replaced by satire and the point is to have fun by being silly.

In conclusion, a good game exercises the mind and the imagination. Situations outside the player’s experience are simulated with some of the excitement but none of the consequences. Games also bring people together into a shared experience, directly communicating and interacting in a fashion that in other spheres of life have become uncommon.


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