The subject of what is "good play" is danced around many times in the course of other discussions.
"Good play" is hard to define, because different people want different things out of games. A person who looks forward to playing Trivial Pursuit is going to have a different idea of what good play is (fast, funny, chosen luckily) from a person who plays nothing but chess (slow, tactical, leaving nothing to chance).
Here are a few things we know about good play:
Good play requires you to make a choice.
Leaving aside the fanatics who believe that you can massage the top of your deck to increase your topdecking skills, there are no good plays in the game War other than correctly following the rules. On the other hand, at least some people will tell you that calling heads or tails correctly is a good play.
Good play often requires experience with the game
You can make some good plays even on your first playing of a game. There are many games where repeated playings won't help you play better. However, in a number of games, you will find that you make more and repeated better plays as your number of plays goes up.
Sometimes this is a progression. There may be several levels of play. You may be able to make "level 1" good plays on your first playing, but have no idea about "level 2" good plays until later on. After achieving a state in which you usually make "level 1" good plays, and occasionally make "level 2" good plays, you may then see the possibility of "level 3" good plays.
Go and Bridge are good examples of games that have these multiple levels.
A whole lot of people seem to get bored of these games way before this happens. For some reason, they are insulted when other people play better then they do, and they get bored of losing, rather than being inspired to do better.
Thinking ahead can often increase your chances of making a good play
When operative, of course. Of course, then you run into that little problem we call analysis paralysis, otherwise known as "thinking a length of time that is longer than the patience of your fellow players".
Is it a good play if it you score better tactically, but take "too long" to do it?
- Only considering tactics, thinking longer will often score better in some games, depending on if you are the type of person who can handle that type of thinking. That is the type of person who can learn from previous experience and not repeat mistakes; who can recognize the overlooked patterns that led to failure the previous time. Even if you are not that type of person, thinking longer can train you to become that type of person.
- On the other hand, thinking longer doesn't guarantee that you will score better. Many people trip up for various reasons. They may be thinking in a hill-climbing pattern, which may be practically useless. Or they may not correctly understand the current position, in which case all of their thinking is based on a false premise. Or there may be enough variables that thinking beyond a certain point is simply useless, or involves diminishing returns.
- Each game or group has their idea as to what "too long" is. Beyond that point, thinking too long is rude. Groups have to agree on what this point is before starting the game. Usually someone is going to have to compromise, and usually it's the long thinker.
For my part, for most games, I usually find that two turns worth of information is about the right balance between enough thinking to make a better move without breaking the game. With certain exceptions, of course.
Good plays involve playing your opponents well
There is no formula for success in Settlers of Catan like trading well, and no better formula for good trading than knowing how to convince your fellow players. Getting the better end of a deal, so long as the other person is not made to feel humiliated at the same time, is usually a good play; especially if your opponents don't realize this until it is too late.
Even if you don't get the better end of a deal, negotiating effectively and promiscuously is usually good play. So is playing to an opponent's weaknesses - again, assuming they will not be embarrassed by this.
All this sounds a little negative, actually, and I don't mean to stress that. There are plenty of examples of good play that involve simply cooperating with your opponents, whether to succeed in a cooperative game, or to band together against one of your other opponents.
Every game has resources to manage. In Bridge, you have to avoid squandering your high cards and hand communication. In Acquire, you have to preserve your money for the right hotel chains. And so on. Getting more "bang-for-the-buck" out of your resources is not always dramatic, but it is good play.
Playing the theme
In many games, good play revolves around playing the game in a certain style. Good play in a party game usually means making the game funny; in a pirate game, it might mean talking like a pirate while moving your piece. That is also "good play", because it makes the game more enjoyable, which is, after all, the point of the game.
The dramatic turnaround
Sometimes by inspiration, other times by carefully laying plans, you can make a sudden move that turns the course of the game in your favor. Many people would agree that that is a classical example of a good play.
Finally, there is no argument with success. While some people (such as myself) would argue that playing poor odds is poor play, whether you win or lose, others feel that a successful move is a good play. It is certainly dramatic, at the very least.
Some games that are not so much fun are ones that don't correctly reward good play.
For instance when a game has a runaway leader problem, players in losing positions can play as well as they like without any hope of winning the game. And on the contrary, in games without a runaway leader position, players who played well early in the game may not be rewarded for their good play if someone who played poorer than they did can still easily win on the last round. Resolving these conflicting demands can be a hard balance.
Another example are so-called "family-friendly" games. If your definitions of good play include better analysis for greater rewards, you will be disappointed by a family friendly game with a large luck element. On the other hand, if you think good play involves quick and dramatic turnarounds, a deep thinking game wherein you have no hope of winning without having played the game several times will be as much of a disappointment.
Overall, good play for me means good manners. Don't think so long as to annoy other players, nor so short as to make yourself an unworthy adversary. Don't take seriously a game with lots of luck, nor frivolously a game with thinking. And if a game has numerous levels of strategy, don't complain about those who devote themselves to getting better at it, and don't recklessly trounce those who haven't.
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