Tom Vasel asked for my input for the latest Dice Tower episode, which I was happy to provide.
Unfortunately, we couldn't work a Skype hookup, so I had to call from Israel to the U.S. to leave my items on his answering machine, which he then picked up for re-editing in Korea. Tom's answering machine can only hold 2.5 minutes of sound, and my list went on for four messages. Needless to say, it sounds really awful. I'm sorry about that. It was not Tom's fault at all, but mine.
In addition to the poor quality of audio, I was reading from the email I had previously sent him, and I ended up sounding bored, smug, or I don't know what. Anyway, since you may not be able to make out what I was saying, here is the text from which I was reading, my top ten important aspects to look for in a game.
Tom and Sam,
Thank you for the opportunity to participate in your show. You guys are doing a great job, so keep it up. I hope the following list is entertaining and informative. About the only thing I can guarantee is that it will be quite different from Tom's!
10 A Non-Offensive Theme
I suppose that this should really be number one, since I'm not going to play a game with an offensive theme, no matter what else it has going for it. But that would make an anti-climactic list. So I will place it here. If you want to know what I feel is offensive, my Ethics in Gaming 6.0 article should be coming out or have just come out on The Games Journal with more information. Basically, a game that tries to push decency standards, that finds humor in racial, religious, or sexual stereotypes, or whose mechanics include explicit violence, rape, or humiliation, would be over the line.
Along with a non-offensive theme, I would also probably not play any games from an offensive company, i.e. one that practiced racial, sexual, or gender discrimination, offensive politics, or was ecologically irresponsible.
09 Limited Decisions on Each Turn
Probably my biggest problem with war and grand scale civilization games is the vast amount of decision opportunities on each round. For instance, I enjoy Civilization up until the point where you have 50 units on the board that all have to be moved each round. Aside from the massive amount of downtime and analysis paralysis this causes, it just gives me a headache.
I don't think that this means that a game is bad if it has it, only that this is not my thing.
08 Heaviness, without Dragging
I cannot help but say that I like middle-weight to heavy games better than light games. That's who I am. A game to me is a meal; I want it to be full and satisfying. It's almost impossible to get that feeling without spending an hour or two playing. Less than that is fine and appropriate for many situations, but not what I'm looking for in a game. More than that and you get into dangerous territory where the game begins to feel more like work than play.
Really good play adds to the bearable length of the game, but it is a vastly sharp drop off. Caylus is 5% over the line at 2.5 to 3 hours. Die Macher is 20% over the line at 4 to 5 hours.
07 Multiple Strategic Goals
For this I have to explain, because this is a very tough balance to achieve. Some games have only one basic strategic goal, and they be fine but boring.
Some games have multiple strategic goals, but they are all essentially equal, which makes them just as boring. Just having multiple paths doesn't make them good. There has to be a reason to assess why in one game, a particular path is going to be better than another. Both Goa and Thurn and Taxis appear to fail here. The best you can hope for is to achieve a one or two point difference, and it will be mostly by luck.
Other games appear to have multiple paths, but one or more of the paths are simply flawed, which leaves you with only one real path. If you still have multiple paths, fine, but if you end up with only one, bad. I feel that St Petersburg falls into this category.
Which leaves the truly balanced games, such as Puerto Rico, Tigris and Euphrates, Princes of Florence, Age of Steam, and so on. Great games, with multiple meaningful strategic paths. (Naturally, I disagree with those who feel that PR is purely a tactical game, a subject for another discussion.)
06 Randomness, without Luck
I have written extensively on the difference between what I call "randomness" and "luck". Randomness is when something random happens, and then everyone uses that as a starting condition to play. Luck is when everyone does their thing, and then something random happens to determine the winner.
Regardless of whether proper strategic play can achieve you odds of winning at 100 to 1, it is simply boring to me to roll dice, flip the cards, or whatever to see whether or not you win. You have already won. Rolling a 1 on a d100 doesn't make you suddenly a loser, just like rolling 2-100 makes you suddenly a winner.
Luck is gambling, pure and simple. Cheering good dice rolls or flipped tiles appeals to people because gambling appeals to people. Lovely, if that's what you like. I don't.
What I like is when every game is different because the initial starting conditions are different every game, or because a very small random event occurs at the beginning of each round, like goods available in Age of Steam, or plantations in Puerto Rico. It happens, it makes the game different, and the tactics begin after the event has occurred, so barring huge anomalies, from there on it is skill versus skill. Note that in some games, bad "luck" can also be mitigated by good play, such as trading or negotiation, so it is not always so bad.
05 Interaction, without extensive negotiation
The best prominent feature of Eurogames is constant player involvement; not that we never had such a thing before. After all there was always Hungry Hungry Hippos.
This involvement is due to staggering the game phases and a lot of player interaction, often in the form of auctioning, trading, or negotiation. Of these three, I like negotiation the least, since some personalities dominate too much, others get left out, and people who are otherwise enjoyable to play with suddenly aren't. Negotiation also always goes on for far too long and rarely stays within the described rules of the game.
Trading is a form of negotiation, but a severely limited form, so more enjoyable to me.
04 Depth, Depth, Depth
All of the previous factors now begin to combine to make the remaining four factors. The first of these is depth.
With limited decisions each round, multiple paths to victory, and random setups, you get an exciting game that has depth. Depth is what it is all about.
Games where you can master the game in one sitting, or where the entire game is tactical, do not achieve the same sort of love from me as ones where game after game, play after play, more of the game becomes revealed. The ideal game will have never ending layers of this, where you get better and better as you play, only to discover that you still have new avenues to explore.
The downside is that games with depth are difficult to play between unequal players, with some exceptions (such as Go). But even then, some great games give new players with radical new ideas a fighting chance, either to win, or to feel that they've played well. After all, games are not only you against your opponent, but you against yourself. Good play is a victory, regardless of the winning scores.
I am a massive game tinkerer. A game that can be broken into parts and that provides an opportunity to add or modify the parts makes me excited. That is why I love PR (because I can make new buildings), Cosmic Encounter (new races), Magic (new cards), and so on.
A good game is an entire game system. It is a springboard to a whole new set of game designs and ideas. Which leads me to ...
02 The Game Experience
The reasons that most great games are great is that they offer an entire game experience. I wrote an article about this on Gone Gaming once.
It is a combinations of depth, uniqueness, and extensibility, that makes this happen. An RPG is not just a game for a few hours, but weeks of immersion in creating the game, creating the characters, and discussing the results. CCGs are days of deck tuning and discussion on on-line boards. Bridge is weeks of working on bidding systems and discussing hand results. Online computer game worlds also provide this experience.
Not every game with that type of immersion appeals to me, nor do I necessarily have the time anymore to immerse myself. But when I do, the game becomes a way of life far beyond a simple "game". It becomes brilliance.
01 Replayablility for a Lifetime
Maybe this is now redundant after all, but the best game is not a game that makes you say "Oh, that's clever" a few times and then sits in a corner collecting dust. The best game offers you a good experience every time you play it, whether a hundred times or ten thousand times, and whether you are young or old, male or female.
My best game is a game for a lifetime.
Thanks, and I hope you enjoyed,