As all game designers, I have a vision of creating fun games. But what makes a game fun and how do you know when a game is fun? I have discussed some aspects of the latter in my article on testing and will now elaborate on the fun factor. Let us start with the objective criteria listed by Wolfgang Kramer.
There are many definitions of games but most of them revolve around the core characteristics of players, rules and goals. Given this definition, games can be looked upon as representations of life but in a structured and "safe" setting. Games may allow us to simply pass time, to engage in a social context or even to play roles and take on challenges that we would not normally do.
Why then do we need so many different games? Wikipedia lists more than 40 different categories. Why not simply resort to classical games that most people know rather than learning new games?
I think the answer is our curiousity. Just like we want to try out new and different things in life, we want our representatons of life to be different. Granted, very deep games like chess and go will provide enough originality for a lifetime, but there is something special about discovering a way to play that you've never played before and that allows you to try out completely differents means and ends. I'm a chess player since childhood myself but that doesn't prevent me from feeling as a little boy on Christmas every time I learn about a new and original game. The key message here is that originality is an important fun factor.
But what if the opposite happens? What if you get a new game with old mechanics that you already know? You're likely to get disappointed, even if the new game by all measures is better than the old one. Why is it so?
I think the explanation here is the simple rule of diminishing return. We've invested time to learn an old game and been rewarded with that game's unique playing experience. Even if the experience of a new but similar game would be slightly better, it would still not be worth learning. This is why we don't see any new chess variants with pieces moving slightly different. This is why Monopoly and RISK remain on the shelves although there are many better economic and strategical games out there. The key message here is that it's OK to get inspiration from existing games but your own game must be original, not a pale copy.
In conclusion, I would like to list some games that have given me the feeling of originality and managed to bring back the child within me.
RISK without the random dice and the massive stacks. The simple but elegant battle system, where the actions are simultaneous and the outcome is determined by counting strength and support is a brilliant representation of Machiavelli's advice on diplomacy and Clausewitz' theories on concentrating forces.
Take Monopoly. Replace the abstract money with concrete resources. Replace the random piece movements with deliberate worker placements. Replace the houses and rents with cities and production. Settlers encompasses a surprisingly large amount of economics in a surprisingly short playing time. Yes, there are better worker placement games out there but Settlers was the gateway to Euro games for me and many other players.
When I thought I had seen all conflict mechanisms, I discovered Tigris & Euphrates. Relieve yourself from the ideas of eliminating opponents or controlling areas. In this game, you do build kingdoms and wage wars but it's not the kingdoms that score, it's the leaders in them. Use internal conflicts to overthrow other leaders, use external conflicts to destroy other kingdoms but above all, make sure that your leaders claim the biggest share from the ever changing game board where kingdoms arise, prosper and turn into dust.
In my own games, I have strived to find new and inventive game mechanisms, such as the circular relation of Iconoclasm, where each players has a defined relation to each other player when determining strength and support in conflicts. Whether you like playing my games or not, I want you to feel that you play something original, and I encourage you to design your games with the same objective. You know you have succeeded if your test players can't think of any similar games.
Many conclusions from the discussion on originality above apply to replayability as well. Just like we want new games to be original, we want new sessions of old games to be original. Imagine a game where some or all parts of the game are similar in game after game after game... Such a game would not be played many times. Variation is thus the key to replayability but how do we add that to a game?
Let us again take chess as an example. Chess has a virtually infinite number of possbile positions. Already after one move each, there are 400 possible positions. Assuming that players are good enough to avoid common opening traps, they are not likely to ever play two identical games, tremendously increasing the replayability of chess.
But it's not enough to have a mathematical variation in a game, it must also have a perceived variation. In chess, the different positions and stages of the game have different challenges and opportunities. It doesn't matter if a game has many unique positions if the players are still faced with similar options. Options are thus another key to replayability. There are basically two types of options that a player may face: tactical and strategical.
In this context, tactical options are defined as the paths open to a player to play the game optimally while strategical options are defined as the paths open to a player to win the game. The more different tactical and/or strategical options a players has, the more likely it is that he or she will want to return to the game and explore new paths. It's not necessary to have both tactical and strategical options. A game like chess has only one victory condition (check mate) but several ways to reach it (positional play where you go for positional advantage, combinational play where you go for material advantage etc.). In a game like poker on the other hand, there are several different card combinations that can give you the victory.
When designing a game, you should put yourself in the position of the player and imagine the different tactical and strategical options you have. Which are they? Are they equally good? Do they offer different play? This will help you assess your game's replayability.
But it doesn't stop at the tactical and strategical options. You should also remove or reduce all repetitive parts of a game, since they decrease a game's perceived variation. Are there opening moves that are legally forced? Remove them by adding setup steps or starting from fixed positions. Are there starting moves that are optimally forced? This is actually worse than the preceeding example, since this gives experienced players an unfair advantage, and they should also be removed. Is the end game forced? Let it end earlier. The opening moves of backgammon would not be very interesting if the game would start with an empty board while the introduction of the ingenious doubling cube among many other great things helps ending game where the outcome is obvious.
One game that I feel have a lot variation and hence a lot of replayability is Amun-Re. There are several tactical options, such as outbidding the other players for provinces, building a viable economy, playing the right action cards at the right time, paying high/low taxes to promote your interests and harm others' and so on. Add to that a game board that is cleared half-way through with only the time-less pyramids being left and you have a game that is never the same.
In my own games, I have experimented with different ways to achieve variation. Nova Suecia has several production and tax options that are related to each other in an intricate web of dependencies as each produced good will have to be traded with other players and each paid tax will have positive and negative effect on other areas. Knights & Damosels uses asymmetric and ambiguous scoring, where knights and damosels have opposite objectives and one player's attempt for one victory condition may help another player to reach another victory condition, to create varied sessions. When testing your games, document how they progress and assess what is varied and what is repetitive. You know you have succeeded if your test players try different options.
Whether you explore new games (as in Originality) or new paths in old games (as in Replayability), would you want to know exactly what will happen? Would you enjoy a game where you know exactly which actions you need to take to win? Probably not. Instead, you want to be uncertain, you want to be surprised.
The game designer Greg Costikyan argues in his book Uncertainty in Games that uncertainty is necessary for a game to be fun. Costikyan identifies eleven forms of uncertainty:
Performative uncertainty (“Will I be able to physically execute this maneuver?”)
Solver’s uncertainty (“Can I solve the puzzle here?”)
Player unpredictability (“How is my play experience contingent on the actions of others?”)
Randomness (“What will fortune give me?”)
Analytic complexity (“What decision will I make, given this complex decision tree?”)
Hidden information(“What information is being deliberately withheld?”)
Narrative anticipation(“What’s going to happen next?”)
Development anticipation (“What new additions/releases will the publisher make?”)
Schedule uncertainty(“When will I next be able to return to this game?”)
Uncertainty of perception(“How can I filter out certain data to perceive the important data?”)
Semiotic uncertainty(“What will my playing this game mean?”)
A game like Jenga, where players physically have to remove blocks from a tower without cuasing it to fall, applies performative uncertainty while narrative anticipation is a key source of uncertainty in role playing games. So the more forms of uncertainty in a game, the more surprises and thus a funnier game? Not exactly, it depends on the game you want. While role playing games can combine the narrative element with the random dice, chess would be a worse game if battles between pieces would be determined by dice. So what forms of uncertainty fits what forms of games then? I would like to boil down the discussion to four main sources of uncertainty: randomness, hidden information, own actions and interaction.
Randomness is a simple source of uncertainty. Throw in a couple of dice and your players will never be sure what will happen. Some games, like Snakes and Ladders rely entirely on the dice (leaving nothing to the players) while Backgammon weaves in the actions as well (both your and your opponents' ability to use the probabilities to your advantage).
But randomness is not only created by dice. Cards drawn from a pile is another option that can be used in different ways. If the range of cards is known, like in Poker, the players can use the probabilities to their advantage, just like in Backgammon, when assessing which sets to collect or whether to bluff or not. Drakborgen ("Dragon Castle"), on the other hand, is an example of a game where the entire player experience (the rooms in the castle, the creatures in the rooms, the hidden doorways, the treasures found etc.) is ruled by drawn cards.
Randomness can be used in many ways. It can rule the outcome of a player's actions (and tell if he or she succeeds or fails), it can rule the outcome between two or more players (and tell who wins and who loses) and it can rule the actions of a third party, affecting some or all of the players. The latter is an example of artificial intelligence, where the players have to adapt their gameplay not only to each other but also to this uncertain being. This being can be something tangible, like the robber in Settlers, or intangible, like the calamities in Civilization. The latter is an example of randomness which players can mitigate (by trading them off to other players).
In my games, I generally try to avoid randomness and leave the game in the hands of the players. Knights & Damosels use drawn cards for random events but they merely provide the setting for the players' actions. Tre Kronor Infernum uses artificial intelligence to spread the fire but it's simulated through combination of cards played by the players themselves.
While randomness provides uncertainty at certain times in the game, hidden information keeps the players in continuous uncertainty. Hidden information may concern the players and/or the game. In The Resistance: Avalon, each player has a hidden identity which the other players must try to reveal, while Orientexpressen ("Orient Express") revolves around the unknown identity of a murder that the players compete to reveal.
My game Christina Regina uses a hidden player system, where the players balance between moving a piece towards their colors and keep their colors secret. Find the Treasure!, as the name hints, use a system with a hidden treasure, which the players try to find by acquiring maps.
Randomness and hidden information are two sides of the same coin but what if the information is open? Will there still be room for surprises?
Many euro games answer this question with analytical complexity, where the winner is the one who best utilizes his or her scarce resources. Agricola is a game that rewards good long-term planning. However, critics claim that such games end up as dry accounting exercises. Puerto Rico adds another dimension as a player may choose roles that not only maximizes own benefits but also minimizes other players' interests.
I have experimented with similar mechanisms in Bake the Cake!, where a player's careful collecting and compiling ingredients may be ruined by other players taking them for their own purposes (or even eating them!). This leads us to the fourth source of surprise: the interaction.
For interaction to be a source of surprise, two conditions must be fulfilled. First, the other players' actions must be unpredictable, and second, their actions must affect your own play.
As discussed in Replayability, many tactical and strategical options increase the variation of a game but also decrease the predictability as it will be more difficult to predict other players' actions. Nevertheless, if their actions affect your play, you must constantly try to be one step ahead of your opponents to win the game.
Diplomacy is a game where interaction is everything. The simple system with simultaneous moves and majority victories results in a game where you are constantly uncertain about the other players. Agitation, persuasion and manipulation are your weapons in your struggle to get the critical support when you need and deliver the surprising stab when you can.
In my opinion, interaction is the best source of surprise as this emphasizes the social aspect of gaming. Analytical challenges are best saved for solitaire games. I do appreciate analytical masterpieces in chess, where one player finds a combination that leads to a forced victory, but they shouldn't appear until after a fierce interactive struggle.
Nevertheless, my most memorable games are games that are decided by a perfectly timed guess or bluff or something similar. One such memory comes from Diplomacy, where my Austria had a strong alliance with Germany while yet encouraging her enemies until I was strong enough to claim a solo victory.
My game Vasa Regalis is based on the unknown actions of the players. If they spend a lot of material on a part, you should do the opposite and vice versa, but you don't know until the end of the game. In Iconoclasm on the other hand, the board and the remaining tokens are known to all players but you will never know where on board the others will place their tokens and hence if they will support or ruin your strategy.
Life may not always be fair but we do want our games to be fair. If some players have advantages, it may cause an imbalanced game where the winner is questioned in the end. But how do we create equal opportunities? To answer that question, let's first look at the different reasons for unequal opportunites.
First-mover advantage: The player first in turn has an advantage.
Last-mover advantage: The player last in turn has an advantage.
Starting differences: The players have different starting conditions.
Ending differences: The players have different victory conditions.
Experience: The game rewards experience.
Let's look closer at each of those.
First-mover advantage is typically a problem in games where the players play for positional or material advantage. The first player in turn will be the first to claim territory or accumulate resources. If the game ends when a certain condition is fulfilled, the first-mover may also enjoy the benefit of more moves than some or all of the other players. Symmetric games like chess and go may suffer from this problem.
Last-mover advantage is less common but may appear in games with take that mechanisms, where the last player can perform an action against another player without fearing retaliation. Trick-taking games may risk this problem if the last player in turn can benefit from knowing the other players' actions.
Starting differences appear where the players have different starting conditions. The players may play characters with different skills or start at different places on the board. Asymmetric games may suffer from this problem if not well-balanced.
Ending differences appear where the players have different victory conditions. One player's objective may turn out to be easier to accomplish than that of another player. This is also a problem that asymmetric games may suffer from.
Experience is a challenging aspect of equal opportunity. A game where experience doesn't matter at all may be perceived as too random while a game where experience is everything may have a high barrier for beginners. A beginner will never beat a grand master in chess whereas the outcome of Snakes and Ladders will always be open but that doesn't make the latter a better game.
Adding or removing inequalities?
To overcome the inequality problems, there are basically two approaches: add inequalities to balance them or remove inequalities (or at least reduce them).
To add an inequality would for example be to compensate players without first-mover advantages with better starting conditions or to compensate players with worse starting conditions with simpler victory conditions. The inequality is inherent in Britannia, where the players play many different nations invading Britan (from the mighty Romans to the puny Jutes), where the first nation in turn (the Romans) sweep the board before the defenders can fortify and where the last nation in the last turn (the Normans) may expand with no risk. To solve this, the players are allotted both weak and strong nations (starting differences) and the nations score differently for different areas and periods (ending differences). This may work but requires a lot of testing to get the balance right. In the case of Britannia, it creates a game with a lot of variation and replayability but most players agree that it's difficult to win with the purple/yellow color (Romans etc.).
Another frequently added inequality is the handicap system, where a weaker player gets an advantage. In chess, a stronger player may play with less pieces at start or less time for the game. Although this works to make the game more even, it also diminishes the value of the victory if the weaker player should win.
To remove an inequality is generally better, as it addresses the root cause of the problem, but it's also difficult. Some games try to mitigate or "hide" them instead. In War and Peace, it would be strange if France was just as strong as the other powers in the Napoleonic Wars, but this is mitigated by the expectation that the other players will ally against the Emperor. Talisman is a game full of inequalities, as the many different characters have different skills that are good or bad in different situations. However, the sheer amount of information makes it difficult to identify "good" or "bad" characters and the long and random games tend to even out differences.
Other games are better at actually removing the inequalities. The simulatenous moves of Diplomacy eliminates mover advantages and the random production of Settlers gives beginners a chance. However, if the inequalities are inherent in the games, it's difficult to remove them without also removing the core of the game.
My game Bellum se ipsum alet uses balancing inequalities by giving the first player the advantage of conquering cities first (necessary to gain strength against the other players) but also the disadvantage of losing them first (as the cities revolt). The early versions of Iconoclasm suffered from a last-mover advantage, where the temple of the first player in turn would have to survive all the other players' actions for victory. This was finally removed by a rule that the game ends immediately if, in the last turns, a player is unable to build or destroy a temple. By this rule, the last-mover advantage became something that the players could play for rather than accept.
The previous discussion on Equal opportunity showed the importance of equal winning
chances in the beginning to get the players engaged in the game. Equal chances in the end are also important
to keep the players engaged throughout the game. A game where every player has a chance of winning in the last
turn will be exciting to all. But should a game always have an open end? No, the players must still feel that
the ride towards the end has a meaning, otherwise they may just as well skip the early turns. A game must thus
be meaningful in all stages, from beginning to end.
Let's start by looking at some extreme examples.
is a game where the players collect carrots. However, only one carrot will award the victory in the end so even the player
with the least amount of carrot will have a chance. This keeps the game open but may also be perceived as too random.
A player who plays a brilliant game only to lose in an end game lottery will not think the game is fun.
The other extreme is the runaway leader problem.
This is common in games suffering from the "Matthew effect", where players in the lead also have an advantage that further increases the lead. (The "rich" get richer.)
Puerto Rico's ingenious role mechanism, where
a role a player selects may give the other players actions as well, creates an interesting tactical gameplay in the beginning as
the players try to take the lead. However, once a players gets ahead (or falls behind), it's difficult to
catch up as the roles generally benefits most to the players already having the most.
To prevent runaway leaders, there are basically three options, as discussed by Matt Pavlovich in
the article Positional Balance:
Feedback neutrality: A player's previous scoring in the game doesn't affect the future scoring.
Trivial Pursuit and
similar are examples of such games.
Hinder the leader/promote the loser:
The leader gets a diminishing return on resources or even disadvantages. Generally, mechanisms that
"punish" good game should be avoided but Yinsh
has an interesting scoring where each row you make brings you closer to victory and also makes you weaker.
Hidden scoring, secret objectives or ambiguous scoring may not hinder runaway leaders but make it unclear who is in
the lead and thus keep the game interesting. Ticket to Ride has
such a system, where route cards can score both positively and negatively in the end.
I have experimented with various neutralizing meachnisms in my games where perhaps
Vasa Regalis and Tre Kronor Infernum are the ones that are the most open in the end.
Here, the players are entitled to the same amount of scoring actions (building the ship and saving/stealing from the burning castle respectively) so
they always play on the same conditions. In addition, similarly to Ticket to Ride, it's the sum of all players' actions that determine whether an
action is scored positively (if the ship sails/the castle is saved) or negatively (if the ship sinks/the castle burns down).
Kingmaker. To some, the word may bring feelings of politics and intrigues, where an éminence grise works behind the stage to further his or her interest through someone else. To gamers, the word may indicate a broken game. Why is it so?
Let's start by discussing whether kingmaker is a problem or not. The concept of someone without enough power wielding power through someone else sounds like good idea for a game. However, it's difficult to transfer this relation to the more black and white world of a game. If you help someone else to win, you will still be among the losers. Republic of Rome is a game with a kingmaker problem. As a leader of a faction in ancient Rome, you need to manipulate your way to victory but need the other player's vote to succeed. If all players play for victory, they will continuously bash the leader and the game will never end. If one player decides to give up her game and vote for another player, the game will be ruined to all other players. Thus, the kingmaker effect may reduce a game into a simple voting contest where not the best player wins but the player with most friends. Perhaps it reflects life but it's not fun in a game.
There are also example where it's less clear whether the kingmaker effect is a problem or not. In RISK, the players' strength is all about the number of units on board so one player's attack on another player will inevitably put both players in a worse position. The kingmaker effect may here be used a diplomatic weapon. "Attack me and I will not rest until I've brought you down" or "Join me in the attack on the leader or I will withdraw my army and leave Europe to her". This mutually assured destruction threat can thus be considered as a negative version of the less controversial mutually beneficial agreement. If it makes the game fun or not really depends on the player style.
Assuming that the kingmaker effect is a problem, what can we do about it then? Wikipedia lists different solutions to the kingmaker problem and I would like to group them into "tanginble" and "intangible" solutions.
Tangible solutions would prevent the ability to act kingmaker. If the game doesn't allow you to help or hinder another player, there can't be any kingmaker effect. In Yahtzee, every player plays for him- or herself and the randomness further prevents kingmaker actions. However, the lack of interaction and the randomness is an expensive price to pay.
Intangible solutions would prevent the players' willingness to act kingmaker. One way to achieve this is to ensure that all players have winning chances as per the discussion above, another to simply eliminate players without winning chances. The former contributes to a fun game while the latter works in the opposite direction. Other options include hidden scoring, which makes it more difficult to identify both winners and losers until the end of the game, or ranked scoring, where a losing player still has an incentive to do his or her best to reach a higher position.
Other solutions include adding rules that prevent "sub-optimal" actions or unsportsmanlike action but they have the disadvantage that they remove creative control from the players.
My favored solution is to go to the core of your game and either incorporate the kingmaker effect as a natural part of the game or accept it, since attempts to remove it often affect other "fun factors". Diplomacy manages to do this by giving a losing player the option to take on the role of pivotal power and play out major powers against each other. My game Knights & Damosels goes one step further and offers kingmaking as a victory path as a damosel that manages to give her cards to one and the same knight will claim the victory before him.
In conclusion, beware of kingmaker opportunities in your design or tendencies in your test. If there,
try to take advantage of them or, if not possible, to limit its effect without ruining the rest of the game.
All games have winners and losers - that's part of what makes a game fun. But games also have a social aspect. To lose a game can still be fun if the journey to the loss was fun. To lose a game and have to wait for the others to complete is never fun. This was common in many older games like RISK and Monopoly and is one (of several) reasons that they seldom make it to the game table nowadays.
So why do games have elimination? One answer is audience appeal. By eliminating the worst players one by one and continue with fewer but better players, you build up the climax to a final where the best settle the game between themselves. It's no surprise that tournaments favor player elimination. But if a game is played for the players' amusement only, it should be amusing to all players. Another answer, I would say, is laziness. By using elimination to determine the winner, no victory conditions are necessary. So to avoid early elimination, one way is to look for alternative victory conditions.
Euro games generally favor positive scoring, where you win by building something on your own rather than destroying something for someone else. Settlers is won by the player first reaching a build level while Puerto Rico is determined by victory points. This must be balanced by the ability to harm the other players, without eliminating them, to maintain the tension in the game.
Another way to handle the early elimination problem is to absorb it and use it as game mechanism. In post at Elemental, the options of Exile and Vassal are discussed. Exile would give the eliminated player a possibility to continue by trying to regain power (but if all players are exiled, a normal elimination victory would take place). Vassal would create a bond between the eliminator and eliminator, which may or may not be broken. I haven't seen this fully implemented in any game but Britannia uses something similar by allowing weak nations to submit to strong nation as a way of surviving until the time is ripe to reemerge.
Finally, we should bear in mind that it's early elimination that is a problem. If elimination takes place towards the end of the game it's usually acceptable since the game will end soon anyway. Tsuro is a game where the objective is to lay path tiles that lead the other players out from the board. Since this usually takes place in the end and the game is so short, it's fully acceptable. In addition, the intricate path patterns created by the tiles is so elegant that even an eliminated player can appreciate the beauty in the eliminaton.
In my own games, I have strictly stayed away from all kind of elimination but Tsuro is very inspiring for any designer interested in making something beautiful out of this concept.
A fun game keeps us engaged throughout the game. But the engagement is usually limited to our own - direct or indirect - interests in the game. If there are sequences in the game where we can't act ourselves and are uninterested in other players' action, we will be waiting and, if the waiting is too long, bored. The shorter the waiting time, the better the game then? Not necessarily, a game may benefit from some natural breaks, where the players can reflect on their positions and think about long-term strategies. Already the first world champion in chess, Wilhelm Steinitz, recommended that players use time during their own turns for tactical calculations and the time during their opponent's turns for strategic calculations. A reasonable waiting time is thus desirable but what is reasonable? Let's look at different options for reducing the waiting time.
Games with no turns naturally don't suffer from any waiting time as the the players compete to reach the victory conditions all at the same time. This is typical for high-paced sports or computer games but may fit some board games as well. Stress is a classic card game where the players simultaneously and without breaks try to play all their cards to the table. As you may imagine, this is best suited to short and fast games.
Turn-based games where the players act simultaneously are also free from waiting time. Diplomacy applies this both to the movement phases and to the diplomacy phases between them. This keeps the players' attention but be sure to add an end to each turn so that not some players are done while others continue forever. Diplomacy combines simultaneous turns with time-limited turns where the limit is at a level that "always feels too short".
Another way to remove waiting time is through interaction. If a player in his or her turn interacts with other players, all players will be engaged in the turn. Interaction can be either direct or indirect. One common example of direct interaction is when the players trade with each other. Such actions can't take place without engaging the other players and as soon as no player wants to trade anymore, the turn ends without waiting time. Indirect interaction can take place when one player's actions affect all other players. Such actions do engage only one player but the other players will have an interest in them so the perceived waiting time will be short.
Beware of two common traps, though. Direct trading may take a long time before all players agree and it may very well happen that some players do not participate throughout the trade. Perhaps they've traded all they need already, perhaps they're boycotted by the other players. Such players will find this phase very boring. Time may also be an issue if your actions affect other players as this adds to the analysis complexity. In the worst case, this may lead to "analysis paralysis". Limitation of choices is the best way to avoid those traps. The seemingly bulky barter trade of Settlers limits the number of possible trade deals and thus the trading time while the many choices of Puerto Rico are streamlined into a limited number of roles.
If the nature of the game requires the players to take independent actions, the best advice is to make those actions as short and streamlined as possible to reduce the waiting time for the other players. An old-fashioned time study is a good tool for this. Critically review each and every action that a player has to take in the game. Can any of them be done more effectively through the use of adapted components? Can any of them be done simultaneously? Can any of them even be removed without affecting the gameplay? Don't hesitate killing your own babies!
Game of Thrones is an example of a game with many "time thieves" in the shape of phases (events that may not affect all players, planning unit by unit, action unit by unit etc.) that all add up to make only ten rounds last a long time. Tzolk'in on the other hand employs inventive "gears" to automate complex worker allocation and speed up the practical parts of the game.
If you still end up with many independent actions, try to divide them into phases where each player may act rather than having one player working his or her way through the entire turn before handing over to the next player. This has to be balanced against the complexity of the turn. Civilization has long turns but they are divided into sequences clearly listed on players' aides and the game applies simultaneous actions where possible.
To put a time-limit on turns is the simplest way to reduce waiting time but this is the very reason why you should use it as a last resort. If you need time-limits in your game, it probably has potential for improvement in other areas first. But time-limitation certainly has its merits too. Chess can't really do much else to reduce waiting time but through the use of different time limits, you can create completely different games (from the fast-paced "blitz" chess to the long and study-like games of correspondence chess).
Accept waiting time
In some cases, waiting can and should be accepted. This is typically the case for deep and complex study-like games, where the players not only play against each other but also explores the game and its theme together. Napoleon at Leipzig is a game that is best played if the players carefully investigate their options before acting and even take time to reflect on the game during the play and discuss each others' strategies. This also means that the entire campaign lasts several days (just like the real campaign) but if you're interested in Napoleonic warfare, it's worth it!
In my own games, I rely mostly on interaction and short turns to reduce waiting time. Most time-reducing mechanisms are found in
Mare Balticum, which contains simultaneous turns (the production phase),
interactive turns (the battle phase) and sequenced turns (the movement and investment phases).
Creative control is about being able to control the progress, both your own and the game's progress. The opposite is a game where you can't choose your actions, only react to the events of the game.
Role playing games typically have a high degree of creative control. There are no limits to what the players may do as long as they stay within the boundaries of the game world. It's up to the game master to respond to the players' actions and ensure that the game flows. A board game typically has to manage without a game master and rely on rules and mechanisms instead. They give the game structure but also restrict the players and remove the creative control. The challenge is to find a good balance.
In Snakes and Ladders and similar random games, the players are restricted to one action only, as told by a random dice. In Love Letter, you can choose between only two actions (play one of two cards), of which one is often better than the other. On the other side of the spectrum, we find games like World in Flames, which has the ambition to recreate the entire second world war from production to battle (including over 1 400 counters!).
The suitable level of creative control is usually a designer decisions. The more deep and complex a game is, the more creative control is needed. What is important, however, is that the creative control is consistent throughout the game. A player does not want to spend time and effort building an empire just to see its fate being determined by a single dice roll. Many popular Euro games are successful in this by letting the players start from scratch and build the setting themselves. In Tigris & Euphrates, you start with an empty map where you build kingdoms based on your own tactical and strategic decisions only (and lose them based on other players' decisions...).
Generally, I avoid adding events beyond the players' control in my games but in Knights & Damosels, I broke against my own advice with the random events. I reasoned that the events would affect all players equally anyway but in early testing, this was something that disturbed the players. By letting them choose events, I returned creative control to them.
Uniformity refers to the title, theme, format and graphics of the game -
everything that contributes to the first impression of the game. This is
important for several reasons.
First, a game that is not uniform will give mixed impressions. If a player
doesn't know what to expect from the game, will he or she really invest the
time to find out when there are so many other games to choose from?
Nowadays, artists are very good at giving games a uniform look so if you're not an artist yourself, make sure that the artist understands your game and then give him or her artistic freedom to bring it to the next level. One of my favorite piece of artwork is found in Samurai, where the beautiful components convey a sense of Japanese art. On the other hand, it may also be argued that the game gives mixed impressions; gamers expecting a samurai war game will be disappointed while friends of tactical Oriental games like Go will be happy.
Second, a new player to the game will relate everyting in it to his or
her first impression. A game that promises something on the outside but
delivers something completely different on the inside will either make players
disappointed or again discourage players that would have liked the game to
invest the time to learn more about it. A common cause of complaints among
gamers is pasted themes that don't relate to the game experience at all.
This is the reason why I avoid games based on books or films.
Game of Thrones
is a game with an artwork that brings the players to the world of Westeros but with a gameplay that has nothing to do with the politics and intrigues from the books. It's a standard war game with a pasted theme.
Third, if a game has a good exterior, it will facilitate the learning and
playing. If the game is about farming, the players will naturally look for
farming actions. Try to change the names of the different actions and products in
with neutral number codes and draw the relations between them in a diagram. You'd end up with an unplayable game. But by using farming concepts that even children understand, a potentially complex accounting games has been turned into an approachable family game.
Unfortunately I lack the artistic skills to give my games the look they deserve.
Instead, I try to keep the artwork at a simple level, using uniform symbols.
Free art is available at sites like Openclipart
but I use it with caution and try to stick to images from the same artist to maintain a uniform look.
Two of my games are based on a similar mechanism - use clues to find a hidden item - but they're
aimed at completely different audiences so uniformity was very important to distinguish them.
In the game Find the Bug!, which is aimed at IT professionals,
I used simple process flow images to give the game an "IT look".
The game Find the Treasure! on the other hand
borrowed map symbols from one artist and weapon symbols from another artist to
give a the game a pirate look more appealing to children.
Even the greatest games can get better with high quality components. It's no wonder that we keep seeing luxury versions of popular games, aimed for gamers who already love the game and want to bring ther gameplay to a higher level. But what is quality?
One definition of quality (as stated by the Project Management Institute), quality is the degree to which a solution fulfills the requirements. Well, the main requirement is that the game is fun and this is fulfilled by many more criteria than the components, so let's instead focus on the components themselves. Requirements are usually grouped into functional requirements (what does the component do?) and non-functional requirements (how does the component do it?). Using this grouping, you should first ask yourself what the component does to the game (what kind of component do you need?) and then how well it does it (what color, material etc. do you need?).
The first question is all about realizing a game idea. If you have a game board, should it be fixed or modular and should the movements be open or hidden? If you have a random mechanism, is it best accomplished by dice, by cards or perhaps by a spinner? If you have trading, will it be physical (components exchanged between players) or virtual (exchanges tracked in score sheets), monetary trade (notes, coins) or barter trade (resources)? A game may look great on paper but if you don't ask yourself those questions (and find the best answers!), it will be unplayable.
Tzolk'in's inventive gear is a good example of a well applied game component. Not only does it eliminate the often cumbersome and repetitive worker placement process of collecting resources but it's also visually appealing and has contributed to the game's well-deserved attention. The classic game Waldschattenspiel takes the components to another level by the introduction of a candle to literally create the lights and shadows on the game board required for the gameplay (where dwarves must keep to the shadows to win). For similar examples I recommend the latter part of the article Building Game-Defining Concepts by Alex Harkey.
The next question may be easier answered than realized. For my games, I rely on The Game Crafter's print on demand service and have to adapt to their assortment of components (which is good but still limiting). Nevertheless, there are still choices that can be made. Are cardboard chits, wooden tokens or glass gems best for the playing pieces? Which colors and/or symbols should be used to distinguish the players? How is the information best organized on cards, mats and boards? A card with beautiful art that clutters the necessary game information will not have good quality, nor will an eye-catching component that disrupts rather than supports the gameplay. El Grande makes use of a "castillo" to maintain a hidden score of placed caballeros but it may also cause problems for players sitting behind it and being unable to see the entire game board. Sometimes, simplicity is the best as the example of Go shows. This elegant game only consists of white and black stones on a grid board and really needs nothing else.
For the playing pieces in my game Iconoclasm, I weighed back and forth between elegant glass gems (similar to Go) or more functional double-sided cardboard chits. I finally chose the latter, since I needed a way to visualize to the players whether a playing piece is part of a temple area or not (by flipping them and display a temple side). Ideally, I would like the temple area to be marked by the temple instead (perhaps a hexagonal ring of pillars or something similar) but had to adapt to the limitations and make the best of them.
"Know thyself" may be a good advice in other areas but game design is all about knowing your players or your target group. As we've touched upon in previous articles, no game will appeal to everybody so don't try to get too much into your game. Instead, think about who your game is for and make sure that all your elements appeal to them first and foremost. Even if each element in a game is good, the overall game may still be bad if the elements are inconsistent. Let's look at some element decisions where you need to be consistent.
Strategy vs Luck
The strategy vs luck dimension is perhaps the most critical when it comes to consistency. If you design a game for party gamers, they're happy with simple and/or random decisions, while hard-core strategic gamers will be disappointed if a game full of strategic and tactical decisions are determined by a dice roll. The latter happened to me in my first (and only) game of Kingmaker, where hours' of play ended with the last heir of the throne randomly being placed next to my units. I got the victory but without satisfaction.
Experience vs Beginner
This is partly related to the first dimension. Do you want the game to reward experienced gamers or be approachable to beginners? If your targeted gamers enjoy the challenge of digging deep into a game and learn its different ways, they may feel that their time has been wasted if a beginner beats them. Casual gamers on the other hand may prefer games where experience is less important. Abstract tactical games can be very rewarding to experienced players but unforgiving to beginners while party games can be played by anyone at any time.
Long time vs Short time
This is also partly related to the first dimension. A luck-based game is usually best if it can be played in a fast pace while the players of a strategic game generally accept (and expect) to have time for their actions. But a mix of fast and slow actions may feel frustrating to all players. The inconsistency can also manifest itself in deviations between playing time and realistic time. A boardgame simulating ice-hockey where a player's rapid movement across the ice would take several minutes to play would feel too slow (which is why I gave up designing one). Fortunately the opposite isn't true - an epic civilization game can be played in shorter time.
Seriousness vs Humor
This may be a personal thing but I find it hard to relate to a game that switches between serious mode and humorous mode. The role-playing game Mutant is situated in a dark future after a catastrophe, inviting to a sinister gameplay. However, the world is full of comic characters and references, making it difficult to take the world and what happens in it seriously. That kind of humor can work in a role-playing game is shown in games like Paranoia, where the world is crazy and the players have to adapt to it.
Abstract vs Realistic
There is often a sharp line between abstract and realistic games if you ask gamers. Chess players are not interested in Star Wars chess sets while war gamers want to move around legions or divisions, not symbolic counters. Some players refuse to play games with miniatures, some refuse to play games without miniatures. Make sure that you know what your targeted gamers expect.
Adults vs Children
Is your game for adults or for children? That knowledge is important in all design decisions, from rules and mechanisms (difficult or simple) to components (small or large) and artwork (realistic or cartoony). As long as you're consistent, your game will be appealing to your audience and even help bridging real life gaps. Robot Turtles is a pleasant game that has taken an adult real life concept (programming) to children's level through good decisions in rules (children picks command cards), mechanisms (adults execute the moves), components (large and sturdy components) and artwork (cartoony turtles and "iPhone style" cards).
Cooperation vs Competition
The cooperation/competition dimension isn't black and white as games like Battlestar Galactica proves. Here, the players must cooperate to win but some have competitive agendas while hiding their true identities. I often take advantage of this balance in my games, for example in Nova Suecia, where the players cooperate for the survival of the colony but compete to benefit the most from the colony. Just make sure that the two conflicting objectives can be combined. In the classic arcade game Wizard of Wor, both players earn double score if one kills the Boss (cooperation) but they also score for killing each other (competition).
A game where the players have no pressure and follow simple predefined paths is seldom fun. Instead, we want to make interesting and challenging decisions; interesting in the sense that our decisions are meaningful and challenging in the sense that our ability to make decisions is limited. In other words, we want our games to have tension.
Meaningful decisions can be achieved by letting the players' decisions have a concrete result in the game. A player who leads an army or builds something will get a feeling of accomplishment (at least if he or she wins). However, this is not enough if the player is not challenged. In Excalibur, the players both leads armies (of knights) and build counties (with agricultural improvements). However, since the cost of attacking someone is high (the knights are needed to supervise the sowing and collect the taxes), the players tend to sit in their counties and improve them instead. Pleasant for a while but not very fun.
The conclusion is that we need tension but where does it come from and how do we achieve this? The excellent article Sources of Tension lists a number of sources to tension (partly regrouped by me):
Press your luck
The outcome of the decision is random but you must decide whether to gamble for more and risk losing all. Black Jack is good example of pressing your luck combined with assessing probabilities of success or failure.
Outguess your opponent
The outcome of the decision is dependent on other players's decisions. Variants of the rock-paper-scissors can be used to achieve this, as in the tactical part of Diplomacy. It's often the case that your opponent may make one attack but in two directions and you must correctly guess his or her intentions to decide where to defend. The outguessing can also be combined with press your luck, as Poker is a good example of. Not only must you decide whether to drop cards for a better hand but you must also assess how good hands your opponents have.
"First to" condition
Many games have conditions of some form that the players compete to reach. It may be expressed as advancing, like in Civilization where the first player to reach the end of the Archaeological Succession Table wins, or collecting, like in Settlers where resources are combined into improvements, or majority, like in Samurai where only the player with the most tiles around a city scores. The condition may or may not be a "winner takes it all" condition. In Civilization, all players can advance and there are no penalties for lagging behind. In Settlers, only the first to complete a set can build a settlement at a specific point, although the other players can still use their resources elsewhere. In Samurai, the minority players cannot use their tiles and have in effect helped the majority player to complete the surrounding of the city.
"Last to" condition
A game can also give a benefit to the latest or last player to achieve a condition. The set collection in RISK returns an increasing amount of armies and the players may constantly weigh the advantage of getting armies early against the disadvantage of letting another player get more armies later.
Scarcity may be expressed in the time, actions or resources you have at your disposal. In a game like Puerto Rico, the players produce goods to invest in improvements and although the production increases throughout the game, so does the cost of the improvements you need later in the game, and you often feel that you lack that last gold you desperately need. Beware that this may lead to analysis paralysis as the players try to calculate what is needed to exactly reach the required level (or prevent other players from doing so). Terra Mystica applies an interesting mitigation by allowing players to exchange power for money and Settlers have a similar solution that allows players to trade for scarce resources.
Short vs Long term
Related to scarcity is the balance between short term or long term. Can you take a decision that give you a benefit in the long term or should you decide to go for a short term benefit? This is often a dilemma in economic games, where you have to decide whether to spend or invest, and in war games, where the decision is between attacking and building. Sid Meier's Civilization combines both aspects in a brutal way; investments in economy or science will give you long term benefits but if you neglect your army, your civilization will not live to see those benefits.
In games with a lot of direct interaction, negotiation is a common source of tension. Can you negotiate a good price deal in the trade? Will your diplomacy form the alliance necessary to win the war? Settlers is a good example of the former and Diplomacy of the latter. As discussed before, beware of the risk that interaction may be time-consuming and lead to downtime for other players.
Alternative sources of tension can be a way to bring new perspectives to old game ideas. Bellum se ipsum alet started with an idea of combining the typical American war game with the tension of Euro games. In a game like War and Peace, there is no relation between size and army so even a small power can produce unlimited number of units if left alone. The opposite isn't perfect either - in a game like Diplomacy, even the greatest army will dissolve if the power's supply centers are lost. I aimed for a middle way with a lagging relation between size and army. A captured or lost city will only gradually increase or decrease the army's size. In addition, the cities are not a permanent source of supply as they eventually will revolt and are worth less to each new conqueror (scarcity in both time and resources). This not only added realism to the game but also tension.
"A moment to learn, a lifetime to master" is a label sometimes attributed to games to indicate a particular quality. But is this attribute desirable and if so, how do we attain it?
Learning a game
Let's start with the first question. A game with a gentle learning curve is generally more approachable to beginners. Complex rules are a barrier to beginners and a game must have other visible qualities to motivate them to overcome this barrier. It's not enough that the game is the best ever designed if no player ever bothers learning it. If the game is simple, the rules are usually simple as well, but if the game is complex, you need to make them as clear and concise as possible. (I will return to the concept of game complexity in the next article and focus on rules complexity for now.) As mentioned in previous articles, a good theme can make a game more approachable if the decisions and actions are linked to everyday activities so that the rules feel "natural", like in Agricola, where you play a farmer developing a farm. In many cases, rules can be adapted to how test players play the game instead of forcing the test players to adapt to the rules. However, in this article I will focus on how to write the rules.
da Vinci states three important goals with rule writing:
Enable beginners to play after one reading
Enable beginners to explain the rules to other players
Enable players to refer to the rules as needed
Assume that the reader has never seen the rules and the game before, nor has access to the physical game. Many players will have their first exposure to a game when they download the rules. This means that the rules must be organized sequentially (the reader is not enough acquainted with the rules to jump back and forth) and that all components must be clearly described, preferrably with images where possible.
Also ensure that your language is consistent. If you refer to a component as "pawn" in one paragraph and "token" in another, your reader will not know whether it's the same component or another component. A good advice is to prepare a glossary, either for internal use or (if the game is complex) for inclusion in the rules. Be particularly careful with words like "may" (the player can do but doesn't have to) and "must" (the player has to do).
In addition, structure the layout of your rules so that it's easy to get an overview. Clear headers, possibly in the margins, and lists with bullet points help both reading and reference. Don't overdo the layout - good artwork is appreciated and attracts readers but clear and concise content remains the most important.
Returning to da Vinci's advice, the following rule sections are suggested:
Number of players, age, components (may also appear on the box)
Objective of the game (what am I doing in the game?)
Setup of the game (how does the game start?)
Course of the game (turns, actions and results, i.e. the actual rules)
End of the game (how does the game end and who wins?)
Strategy tips (if needed to help players master the game)
Game examples (if needed to help players understand the game)
Special rules for other numbers of players (if needed)
Game variants (alternative way to play the game)
The following rule sections may also be useful depending on the game, both for navigation during the first-time reading and for reference during the gameplay:
definition of game elements critical to understand the game (e.g. overview of trades or conflicts)
glossary of game concepts important to distinguish during the game (e.g. description of what "gold" or "unit")
appendix of information recorded outside the rules (e.g. instructions on cards)
A good way to start with rules is to look at your favorite rulebook and follow that structure. One of my (many) favorites is Amun-Re. It starts with an overview of the gameplay that summarizes what you can expect in one paragraph. Next follows an illustrated list of components, list of the setup steps and another illustrated lists of the gameboard details. After this, the actual gameplay is described, first with an overview of the phases and then with the details of the phase - each followed by an illustrated example. The rules are concluded with a section on how the game ends and the score is calculated followed by an appendix listing all power cards and their functions. Today, the artwork and layout may seem as ancient as ancient Egypt, but the rules are as clear as the Rosetta stone.
A final word about about information recorded outside the rules; a game can be defined not by its rules but by its components. This is particularly true for collectible card games like Magic: The Gathering, where there are 17 000 different cards, each with its unique abilities. There is no way a player can learn all those cards and instead they are evaluated when played during the game. Personally, I'm a bit sceptical to those kind of games due to their unpredictability. I prefer games where all the rules can be summarized in a rulebook and all the decisions be predicted using the rulebook, not to make the game easier to learn but to make the game easier to master. That leads us to the next topic.
Mastering a game
While it's often good with a short time to learn a game, the same isn't always true about mastering a game. Tic-Tac-Toe can be both learnt and mastered in a short time but after that, the game really hasn't much more to often as all games will end with a draw. A game that's impossible to master isn't good either, as players may feel that their engagement in the game isn't rewarded. As mentioned above, the game Magic: The Gathering can never be mastered, since there will always be new cards to learn, nor can chess with its immense depth. On the other hand, while a Magic player may be surprised by a new card, a chess player will always have the same rules to master. It's a matter of personal taste but I prefer the chess player's game experience.
A good "mastering" curve is step-shaped curve where the first is only about learning the rules and where each new step brings new dimensions to the game. A player that keeps finding new things in the game, not because there are new things as such but because he or she sees the game with new eyes, will keep returning to it. The typical development of a chess player serves as a good example. At the first few games, chess may only be about finding and taking undefended pieces. Later, tactical tricks may enter the game, such as double threats or forced moves. A strategic sense is slowly growing, where the pieces begins to act together rather than individually and where positions are more important than material. The various openings are explored, as is the typical endgame positions, and the ability to calculate moves and foresee positions is developed. It's no longer a game of random moves and exploitation of mistakes, it's a battle of brains. The game is still the same - it is the player who is different.
This sounds all great but how do you accomplish this in your own games? The first step is to offer your players options. Add variation, open paths and differentiate elements to create opportunities for the players to play the game their way rather than being played by the game. However, don't overdo it but always stay close to the core of your game. Add only elements that support the game core and remove elements that don't. Second, critically assess your options simulating different player styles. Which tactical and strategic options do you have? Are any clearly overpowered or underpowered? What will a defensive game look like and what will an offensive game look like? The only anwers to those questions are test, test and test. If you can test a game in just a few sessions it's probably too easy to master and if the testers keep playing without plans there may not be anything to master.
As part of my game design, I always write strategies and annotated games based on my testing experience. They help me critically review my games and see what strategic options they have and whether they are balanced.
Complexity can be defined as how easy it is to differ between legal and illegal play and depth as how easy it is to differ between optimal and suboptimal play. Relating to the previous article, the less complex a game is, the easier it is to learn it, and the deeper a game is, the harder it is to master it. However, the important thing is not the levels as such but the relation between the complexity and depth. If a game is deep, players generally accept complexity and if a game is complex, the players expect to be "rewarded" with a deep playing experience.
If you have a game that can be played with little or no reference to the rules, it has a low level of complexity, but if you constantly need to refer to rules, tables or information on cards to evaluate decisions, the game has a high level of complexity. Let's take the battle mechanism in war games as an example. In the simplest of mechanisms, you take an opponent piece by simply moving your piece to it. This is the case both in shallow games like Ludo as in deep games like chess.
A slightly more complex mechanism involves some kind of evaluation as to which piece that wins the battle. It may be the strongest of the two pieces, as in Stratego, or the piece with the strongest support from other pieces, as in Diplomacy.
The most complex mechanism can be found in realistic war games like Napoleon at Leipzig. Here, it's not enough to consider the strength of the engaged units but you must also take into account factors like terrain, leaders, morale, initiatives and much else.
Does this mean that Ludo is a better game than Napoleon at Leipzig? No, the latter may be more demanding but it also rewards the player with more depth. The Ludo player will only have the choice of which pawn to move while the Napoloeon player will have a range of factors to consider in his or her decision to make an attack or defence as optimal as possible. Should I advance along the road or take a shortcut through the forest? Is it better to fortify in the village or establish a position on the hill? Are my men motivated enough for an attack or should I withdraw and route them during the night? Those are the kind of decisions that add depth to a game and makes us wanting to return and discover new layers.
So a game can always get better through additional rule details? Again, no. A game can always get more complex through additional or detailed rules but the lesson from the previous article can never be repeated enough: add only elements that support the game core and remove elements that don't. Diplomacy is played over the entire European continent with plenty of opportunities to add rules on politics, terrain, production etc. But should such rules make the diplomacy more interesting? No, Diplomacy is about diplomacy and the more other rules that would be added, the less important would the diplomacy be. (And don't even consider the idea of introducing special skills and hit points to the chess pieces.)
In my games, I've been careful with adding complexity unless I've been sure that it adds depth as well. Mare Balticum comprises several elements from other games, such as politics (acquisition of titles and voting for national actions), economy (production of goods and building of units) and war (land and naval battles against a simulated enemy). It's complex but it works because the elements are not something that make your decisions more complex but something that you must include and balance in your overall strategy to win. In other words, it adds depth.
With that I would like to conclude the article series on what makes a game fun. There are may things to consider and few games will satisfy everything. But I hope that the articles will help you understand why a game is fun or not and what to add, keep or remove to make it fun. I would also like to extend my thanks to all you game designers out there - experienced as well as thriving - that have inspired me to my games and to those articles, and who make the world a funnier place.