Dave’s out of town this week, doing whatever it is that those “gamey” types of people do, and so I’m posting a (late) Critical Threat to keep the trend. Every week he discusses a new idea or concept that comes up to him about game design, playing board games, and living in the world of trying to be a professional in an overlooked field. He’s discussed things ranging from elegance in overall design to how theme interacts with a game’s mechanics, and one of the things I’ve noticed is that theme comes up in pretty much every one of these posts. He’s even discussed how theme effects which games we decide to play. There is one word that I have rarely if at all seen in his posts, that word is FUN.
Why do we even play these cursed things?! I discussed what seems like a hell of a long time ago (1.5 years) that having friends who are game designers somehow ruins many of your naive experiences with playing games. The first thing you have to understand is that these people are not human, they are game designers. They’re the exceptions to the following rule: We play games to have fun. I say “we”, but that excludes them, only satan really knows why they do it, possibly the only explanation is to hone their dark arts.
I view this exemption of the word ‘fun’ from his articles as a dangerous oversight, and I am challenging him to define what it is that makes some games fun and some games the opposite – not fun. As we were talking earlier this week, Candyland is not really much of a game because there are only two decisions involved in playing it. It’s so far from a game that I didn’t even italicize its name, that’s how serious it is. Now we come to a definitive problem area though, as it is quite clear many people can have loads of fun whilst playing the game Candyland. Surely not everything that is fun is therefore a game, but does everything that is a game also not need to be fun?
For me with board games specifically the amount of fun I have is the result of many, many things. Theme is a big factor, if I’m playing a game based around the escape from a race of hungry hungry hippos on planet vulcan I’ll be far more interested than with a game about changing diapers. Now, if those diapers were made of C4, everything changes… Definitely how the theme interacts with the gameplay mechanics can help how much fun there is, but I also do not think a disconnect here really hurts it. It’s a great example for me of something that helps, but does not necessarily hurt if it is missing. Synergy of the overall idea can be pure gold for a game, but solid mechanics can overcome the greatest of disconnects.
The next factor is actually uncontrollable by the game’s designer, and that is who I am playing the game with. A designer can encourage entertaining interactions, or create interesting situations and scenarios, but if I’m playing with a group of total douchebags it’s probably not going to be very fun. Seeing as this is uncontrollable on a design level, I’ll leave it at that.
The last factor I’ll talk about is something very special to me. I have the most fun with a game when it helps me to experience new things, even during repeat play. Power Grid is one of the latest examples I can think of, where a board game has allowed me many different styles and options of play, and since the bidding for power plants system is completely interactive, how things turn out is different every time. Another great example is Acquire, where the decisions I make can be totally different from one session to the next based on how the game and players have acted up to that point.
Based on theme, the players involved, and how many new experiences it can provide, we get a better idea of why we plays games in the first place. This explains why we view Candyland so lowly, because there are fewer new experiences to be provided. The number of decisions may be directly related to experiences, but the final deciding factor is how much fun you have with the game.