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Barnes and the red herring of "fun"

Martin G
United Kingdom
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First off, I think Michael Barnes is one of the most interesting writers on board games we have, and I always find his opinion pieces thought-provoking. But his latest: “Fun-First Design”, contains several things I disagree with and I wanted to talk about why.

Up front, Barnes acknowledges the problem with using the word “fun” when we talk about games -- it is subjective and overloaded, thus becoming almost meaningless as a descriptor. But he then goes on to stake out ownership of “fun” for a particular type of games that happen to be those he enjoys, in the process dismissing other people’s idea of “fun”.

Barnes describes a dichotomy between “casual” games which “have a single mechanic and the intent is to entertain and engage the audience without demanding commitment or that drilling-down action through layers of systemic rules” and “hardcore” games, which “insist that the player work for the fun, and in fact that process of working for the fun often is the fun”. But then he begs his own question of “which of these kinds of games is fun to you at the time you’re playing them” by naming the first type “fun-first games”.

Barnes elaborates further on how to identify such games, but in the process almost acknowledges the circularity of his definition: “Fun-first designs also seem to favor heavy interaction, metagaming, and socialization, which is what I’m looking for when I get together with my friends for a game night.” So “fun-first designs”, for Barnes, are designs that engender the experiences that he finds fun.

While I certainly recognise (and often enjoy) the type of game Barnes is talking about, I don’t think “fun” is the right way to distinguish them, nor that these games somehow get “closer to a state of pure intent and the essential purpose of the games medium”.

Barnes also harks back to the dismissive caricature of fans of heavy Euros as ‘fun-murderers’ who aren’t looking for enjoyment in games. “Games are- well, they should be- fun. We play them with friends and family to have a good time, to enjoy ourselves, to laugh, and to interact using the game as a social centerpiece. If you’re playing games for any other reason, as I’ve always said, then you’re doing it wrong.”

But he rather undermines his own argument by describing the different type of fun he has had himself “from the sense of discovery of strategic routes through the mechanics, how the mechanics describe setting and concept, and in the hobbyist notion of drilling down through layers of depth to get at those nuggets of entertainment”.

There’s also a weirdly contradictory aside in which Barnes describes the “elaboration of detail and coordination of mechanics” found in “mechanics-first” games as “in some ways the true technical artistry of game creation”. Here he almost sounds like he’s siding with the Eurosnoots -- surely the artistry of game creation involves more than just clever mechanics.

I have a deeper problem with the idea of “fun-first design” though, in that I don’t think fun is an intrinsic property of a game design at all. Fun is something experienced by an individual, influenced not only by the game they are playing, but also their personal preferences and the social context created by the other players.

Barnes cites Cosmic Encounter as an example of a fun-first design in which “the fun rises to the top almost immediately and there’s no buy-in or lead-in to get to it. I’ve come to treasure game designs that respect my time and practically guarantee that my table is going to have a good time”.

Much as I love Cosmic myself, this is not how I would describe it at all. Several of my best gaming friends would rather gouge their eyes out with a spoon than sit through Cosmic again, and it’s not because they hate fun or because they’re “doing it wrong”. And what’s more, if I was playing with people who disliked it, I’d have no fun either; Cosmic is one of the most group-dependent games I know. As for no lead-in, try playing with a table full of newbies who are still trying to get the eight-phase turn structure and elaborate timing conventions straight.

Another thread running through Barnes article concerns criticism of games. He sets up the article with the idea that his recent review of Abbadon “very nearly undermined years of trying to write “serious” board games criticism” because he “attacked certain aspects of it before giving in to its “fun-first” design”.

This claim seems to rely on the straw man that “serious” board game criticism means talking solely about the features of the game itself -- mechanics, artwork, theme -- and not about the type of experience it creates. I absolutely disagree! Barnes’ Abbadon review seems to be a good piece of serious criticism because it talks about the designer’s intent and the way in which the design choices he made shape a particular type of experience for the players.

Barnes then merges this idea of mechanical vs experiential criticism with his dichotomy of fun-first vs mechanics-first games, saying “It’s hard to apply the same critical rigor and valuation that can be used to quantify what makes a game like Magic Realm or Up Front great to simpler, fun-first fare like Bohnanza or Heroscape.”

Why? For me, good criticism can and should talk about any game in terms of the choices it presents to players, the atmosphere it creates and the type of interaction it fosters. This allows readers to decide for themselves if it sounds like the game will make for the type of “fun” they are seeking, without being told that it’s the wrong kind.
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