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Game Design Question #2

This isn't really about your opinion on game design, but on games themselves, although I will be using the answers I get as input data for a potential game-design project.

What games do you think aren't as good AS A GAME as their commercial popularity would indicate, and, conversely, what games do you think are better AS GAMES than their commercial popularity would indicate? Since it's hard to define criteria (other than commercial popularity, i.e., copies of the game (or its equipment) sold) for how good a game is, please explain how you made your evaluation(s). I'd like more emphasis on board games (e.g., chess, checkers, pachisi, snakes-and-ladders, goose, Monopoly, Scrabble, etc.) than on other styles (cards, dice, etc.), but comments on those other styles will be welcome as well, as such comments may provide additional insight into what people think makes a game "good" or "bad".


Let me open with Monopoly as the classic example of a game that is not as good as its popularity might indicate. It has a very low level of decision making and player interaction - 90%+ of your turns have no decisions to be made at all. It eliminates players along the way, meaning they have to sit around doing something else while the remaining players keep playing, making it fairly antisocial and potentially boring. The endgame is interminable, even when one player has a clear lead - from a given position it may be obvious that you have a 90% chance of winning, but that chance doesn't get resolved quickly... you have to sit around rolling dice dozens of times. Prolonged inevitability is something to be avoided in game design.

Another example bad game is Cluedo (a.k.a. Clue in the US). While the idea of a deductive game has potential, there is no real deduction as such - it's more of a bookkeeping exercise. The dice movement serves no purpose except to randomise things and frustrate players who want to get to the next room to do something actually related to advancing the game. The deduction mechanics are clunky in that it's to your advantage to make poor "guesses" to hide information from other players. And the theme integration is very poor - you can win the game by revealing yourself as the murderer, a fact that you didn't actually know at the start of the game.

For games that are better than their popularity indicates, take almost any board game produced in Germany. These game designers know how to design games that don't fall into the same old traps as mass-market American/British games. Yet they remain obscure to much of the general public, who perpetuate the cycle by buying their kids Monopoly, resulting in another generation who think board games intrinsically suck.

Sorry, I got a bit ranty there. :-)

Monopoly was the first one I thought of too!

My comment is too long so I have split it.

Part I:

David has already hit on the two "bad" games that immediately came to mind for me.

Monopoly is the classic "bad" game. It's really a terrible game. The inevitability of it (halfway into the game timewise you almost always know who will win) sucks - it needs a much better goal than simply eliminating everyone. The lack of strategy is also a problem. If ever there was a premise that should make mileage out of deal-making, this is it. Illuminati (and INWO for that matter - though both have some - relatively lesser - faults) gives some clue as to how to do a better game where you have to screw everyone over, and they go much further to give you opportunity for good dealmaking. The centrality of the screw-your-neighour mechanics don't work well. I've seen feelings hurt in this one; if you're going to do that, the game needs to be otherwise really good, and this one isn't.

Cluedo is a game where the premise/setting has potential but the mechanics don't make for an exciting game. Kill Dr Lucky is a far better game - though it too has a few faults of its own. I would love to see what James Ernest could do with Cluedo itself (i.e. keep the premise, do the game from scratch).

Pachisi (and other ludo-like games in general, such as Sorry and Trouble) are generally not a whole lot of fun for me. A better premise can help (I've played a dinosaur-based game where the 'getting sent back to the start' is caused by a T-Rex that's (mostly) not affected by the players, reducing the "screw-over" factor, making it a litte better for kids (fewer hurt feelings). These games also need more strategy and at least some form of interaction other than land on someone and send them back to the start.

Some of the "German games" have decent gameplay, and often innovative mechanics. A few are too complicated for the relative benefit. I think the problem with the German games is generally that the public is unaware of them - outside of Europe they are popular within the group of hardcore 'gamers' (the sort of person that would look at boardgamegeek.com or play RPGs and go to specialist game stores), but mostly unknown outside it.

(I know it's a card game but...) A couple of years ago I would have said Apples to Apples was a classic example of a game much less popular than it should be, but it does seem to be gaining some recognition now.

Cheapass games are often much better than their price or popularity suggests. A few of them are only worth what they actually cost, but many of them are much better games than their price suggests.

Scrabble is a popular game, and I think deservedly so. It went through a pretty long development phase before it became a popular game, and it shows. If I was designing a game like that now, I'd do several things slightly differently, but I think the game stands up very well. There's a tradeoff between tactics and strategy (scoring more now often screws up your rack for next turn, hunting for a 7 letter word that you can nearly play can hold you down to a lot of substandard moves in the interim), there's a degree of screwing with your opponent, but you often also screw with yourself when you do it (and the more you interfere with them the more incentive they have to do it back) - so choosing to screw with your opponent is strategic (I'm 30 points ahead, now's the time to tighten the board) as well as tactical (like taking a lesser-scoring word so your opponent can't snag that triple word score they're eyeing). It's a game that works fine two player and for 3-4 players, and that's fairly rare.

Part II:

Speaking generally I like games that:
- are simple enough to play with a six year old (no 20 page rulebooks - chess is "simple" in this sense);
- play in no more than about 90 minutes;
- can be played both two-player and multi-player;
- have strategic and tactial choices, preferably of several entirely different kinds** (where it's not hard to make a good choice, but the best choice is not obvious, possibly requiring some tradeoff between strategy and tactics);
- either allow some way to win unexpectedly or give an opportunity to come back from a setback (multiplayer can help with that, since if you take a hit you're generally less of a target). One should never hear "oh, you're going to win", unless the delay to the actual win is on the order of a few seconds (or where such a claim is itself a tactic - see Munchkin and INWO);
- have some degree of interfering with the plans of other players, without overemphasizing the screw-your-neighbor-until-they-cry aspect (you should be able to make life a little harder (plan-altering harder) for someone, not end their game - unless you're in the process of winning when you do it);
- have opportunities for a degree of short-to-medium term (compared to the length of the game) co-operation between players;
- a modest degree of luck, but not so much as to blow away strategy completely;
- I often like a nice premise where the mechanics fit the premise (nifty game components can help that if they don't push the cost up too high), but a game completely abstract of premise can work if it's good enough (Falling would not work nearly as well as an abstract game).

** an example of a game with two levels of quite different choices is the original version of Button Men where both players chose how many sides were on their X-dice each round; later James made the tournament rule that only the player who just lost a round could change (when to my mind it was tournaments that /most/ needed to keep the both-players-choose rule). The original game was actually two games, one nested inside the other. You played a sequential-move game where your tactical choices were about what dice attacks to make nested inside another simultaneous-move game where your strategic choice was what one of your pieces were.

I can't think of many games (including some good ones) that don't break at least half of those criteria and I don't imagine all of them can be done (all that well) at once. Note that many of my preferences only work in multiplayer games.

Duck, Duck, Phaistos

I just came across a site that suggests the Phaistos disk is essentially a game related to Goose.

Thinking about good games vs bad games...

One thing that I found that drove me up the wall is where a pretty good system is doctored to make it easier to win.

Mechwarrior created the clans, double heat sinks, and targetting computers, rather than rework the experience system. In one campaign, we halved the experience numbers to progress, and it still took longer than we thought was appropriate. But it still boiled down to whoever took the clans, with their Gunnery-1, targetting computers, and pulse lasers started off at a significant tactical advantage over someone who took the "standard" character with a "standard" mecha.

Magic the Cash Cow is a continual procession of updates and boosters, which means that the player who most recently bought a box of cards, is most likely to win. I thought about playing it, but I just don't have the money to throw away on it.

Warhammer in general, the army that was released most recently is the army most likely to win. At least they do their game update releases on a rotation, so you get a year or two off, while they work on a game you don't play. Another thing that irritates me about Warhammer is that the official rules say things like "if you're not playing with painted minis, they get a -1 on morale", or "Only Warhammer minis are allowed in tournaments." Another game I don't play because I haven't decided that's how I wish to hemorrhage cash.

D20 is filled with tweaks and cookies, such as Feats, that munchkinize the game. Now, since they're OGL, players can purchase supplements to their hearts content. Not satisfied with the D20 stuff, they can find rulebooks to give them whatever the hell they want. Damnit, we had elves as a class and a race, when I started playing. Now they want Great Cleave and Detect Stuff as racial abilities. Don't even get me started on the D20 Modern, where characters start off as 3rd level or higher.