Tuesday, February 14, 2012

I Tried and I Tried and I Tried

(but everybody wants to pull me down, they say I'm going crazy. Lyrics from Somebody to Love)
But that's not why I wrote this article.  I want to talk about games that we've given a chance or two or three, and they just don't work.  Now, my goal is not to attack specific games, but rather talk about why they don't work.  This is highly subjective, and something that flops for me may be a great success for you, so don't take it personally.

Two games specifically stand out, though others exist.  Both games are published by the same company and have long rulebooks.  Now, I enjoy other games from this company, so it isn't a widespread problem, but these games have both lead to ending the game halfway through.  Both games had themes which I thought would be interesting in a boardgame, but the implementation of them seemed clouded in terms of game design.  Maybe I've been spoiled with the elegance of games like Ticket to Ride and Cosmic Encounter, but when a game feels more like work than fun, a red flag goes up.

There's no hard and fast rule as to how long a game needs to be played in order to determine if it's a hit or a miss, but I'd say 3-4 hours is a good starting point.  For one game, we'll call it game "A" the issue was to knowing what it really took to win the game.  Now, this is fine in a game like Dominion where you play for ~30 minutes, and then it's over, but when you're facing a 6 hour playtime, that's not such a good thing.  Game A also had a lot of sub quests that players could partake in order to score points, which is interesting, but once again, without understanding how they relate, it's hard to know what is worth it and what isn't for your specific character.  Game A is the only game that I played once, stopped part way through, and completely refuse to play again unless someone who knows the game sits down and teaches it to me.

The problem with game B was a dependance on each player to keep the others in check.  This is Game of Thrones, the first edition. There has been a reprint which incorporates expansion elements which supposedly balance the game so that any house can win.  The problem we ran into was probably more in play styles such that we didn't want to work together, so attacking was rare, and it became a giant stalemate.

So what causes games to flop in general?

  • First, games that make players play the game a specific way.  Most people like to try their own strategy and do something different, so forcing them to play a specific way in order to win isn't much fun. Players want the ability to make choices and still win the game even if they didn't make the right choice every single time.

  • Second, convoluted rulebooks.  I'm not opposed to long rulebooks; complicated games are great fun every so often, but the game needs to be teachable.  The Ares Project took an interesting approach to this problem by having essentially a learning game rulebook.  It takes the big rules and boils them down to maybe 33% of what the full game has.  This gives players the ability to try and make mistakes without becoming overwhelmed.  If the game is going to have a 30+ page rulebook, there needs to be some form of teaching guide included, and if possible a way to learn without playing the whole game.

  • Third, theme.  Not everyone worries about the theme in a game, but to others, it can be the sole reason to play or not play a game.  Personally, I don't care for zombie games with high zombie theme, or horror for that matter, yet I play Give Me the Brain, which is lightly zombie themed, and Space Hulk: Death Angel, which has a dark side.  Those themes appeal to certain people, and if you love them, great, there's games out there, but they don't strike everyone's fancy.  

  • Fourth, playtime.  This isn't saying that any particular playtime is good or bad.  I like 10 minute games, I like 3-4 hour games, if I had a longer game that I liked, it would be good.  What I mean by playtime is that the game should be engaging for the duration of the time.  Players should be involved and choices should matter.  You don't want to feel like you're going through the motions, but you also don't want to play a 2+ hour game knowing you have no chance at winning.  
One play is rarely enough to determine if you like a game or not.  If the entire group isn't enjoying it, then the odds are it will never work for that group, but maybe another group will love it.  Many games depend on the people playing it, so don't give up after one play.  Also, don't force a game you don't enjoy on people with the hope that it will get better.  I guess what I'm saying is that there's a balance between a flop of a game and a flop for a group, try not to confuse them, else you might miss out on some good games.  The flip side, if a game doesn't work for you, don't be afraid to sell it, trade it, or carve it up for spare parts.

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