Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Repetitive Mechanics

There are two types of games with repetitive mechanisms:

1 - Games where, at the end of the game, you want to play again.

2 - Games where, at the end of the game, you hope never to see that mechanism again.

Why does one game with repetition succeed while the other fails?

The answer is what changes happen within the game as these repetitions occur.

'Begin at the beginning,' the King said gravely, 'and go on till you come to the end: then stop.' - Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

With the exception of a few oddballs such as RPGs, most games have a decisive beginning and end, with a progressive feel in the middle, at points which may feel 'close to the beginning' or 'close to the end'.

The length of time required for each repetition, as well as the number of times it occurs, and the knowledge of where you are in the game, all play a role in how the user experiences the repetition of the game mechanics. If something happens four times at the beginning of the game, four times at the end of the game, and four times in the middle of the game, the repetition will not be overly felt. On the other hand, if something happens twelve times in the middle of the game, it will feel repetitious.

A few examples.


If you play a twelve hand game of Bridge, switching partners after every four hands, you are essentially playing one-hundred and fifty-six card tricks; that's a lot of repetitious card play. Yet the play never feel repetitious. Why?

Firstly, not counting the thought that goes behind a play, each card play is very fast. Secondly, the plays at the opening of a hand are very different from the ones at the end of a hand. Your choices are often constrained, or you have new information. Thirdly, the number of plays is exactly prescribed and its end point is well-known. Therefore, your exact progress through the hand is keenly felt.

By Hook Or By Crook

Each turn you choose a card to play, and then another card to play, and you then gain or not as a result of the cards others have played. Repeat until the game is over.

In this game, your pieces sometimes move a bit along the board after each play. Some card factors change as the game goes on: you lose available checks, unless you gain them back with a thief; you lose available thieves, unless you gain them back from the jail; and you gain or lose works of art.

This type of up and down results in very slow changes, compared to the very real changes that occur in Bridge. There's no guarantee when the game will end or whether one person's relative position to the end of the track signifies that the game will end soon.

Essentially, from round to round, not much changes. As a result, the mechanics feel repetitious to me, depending on how the game actually plays out.


The game's state changes as properties are bought up and developed.

But even using the official rules, where money is not added to Free Parking, the game has quite a lot of repetition owing to the continuous influx of money every time someone passes "Go", as well as the back-and-forth nature of the dice rolls.

The game is, as I like to say, not guaranteed to terminate (at least, not nicely). As a result, you have no way of knowing when you are in the middle or the end of a game that may take several hours.


This game is also highly repetitious: each time it is your turn, you either take a card or put a stone on the card.

However, the number of rounds is strictly prescribed, the value of the cards changes as the game progresses, and the game takes an entire ten minutes to play, generally. As a result, the game does not make you feel bored.

Settlers of Catan

In this game, you roll the dice, collect resources, trade, and build, again and again.

Here is a game that is not guaranteed to terminate, yet it doesn't feel repetitious for a few reasons. Firstly, the repetitious part of rolling the dice is interspersed with other activities. Secondly, the die rolls may be the same, but the rewards for the same rolls change as the game goes on.

Ye Standard Video Game

By which I mean most video games that I have played. These games aren't guaranteed to terminate, and they sure can feel repetitious. What's the deal?

One of the factors that reduces repetition is breaking the game into levels, where there appears to be an end point at each level. That gives the user a feel of beginning / middle / end while playing. However, if the game just continues with level after level, the repetitious feeling will return, as there is not enough perceived difference between each level (one more bad guy, or slightly faster monsters is not enough).

Another factor is changing the results of the action, by having the player achieve better weapons or skills, and so on.


So why do some people like games that can feel repetitious, such as By Hook or By Crook, Monopoly, or Citadels?

Because games can succeed in other ways. Many people like "surprise", the seemingly unusual events that occurs during gambling-like mechanics, such as card picking during Citadels or dice-rolling during Monopoly. In general, this surprise is enjoyed most when it is a result of player actions (choosing a card or rolling a die), even if the player had no real control over the outcome of the actions.

Other alluring features that can carry a repetitive game include a good theme or good company.

The Magic Number

What's the magic number for "too repetitious"? Off the top of my head, I will suggest that the number is around 7.

When I play, I feel that doing the same equal thing 6 times is not overly repetitious. Doing the same equal thing 8 times is repetitious. 7 is a nice, dangerous number in the middle.

To sum up

- Give players a sense of how long the game will go on.
- Make the number and length of repetitions commensurate with the length of the game.
- Interrupt the repetitions with other things.
- Include layers of subgoals, such that each series of steps to a subgoal is not too long, and each series of subgoals to a goal is not too long.
- Make the effects of repeated plays change as the game goes on.
- Make the choices for repeated actions change as the game goes on.
- Add other alluring features to the game.
- Don't repeat the exact same sequence of choices more than 7 times in a game.



Mikko said...

While Catan isn't bound to terminate, it's still very much forward-going game, as you can't lose victory points, only gain. In Monopoly, it's quite possible to go backwards, go forward, go backwards again... That's boring.

Yehuda said...