What are the building blocks of a good board game?

An attempt to combine game theory and empirical "studies" to discover what makes a good board game. The blog goes through various different kinds of game mechanisms and ponders about games from quite a few viewpoints from types of randomization, over-the-table gaming, themes, learning curves, interaction between players etc.
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1. Randomness/Luck

Antti Karjalainen
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When pondering the different characteristics of various board games, one cannot get very far without running into randomness, or luck. Luck in games varies from one extreme to another with everything in between Chess to Bingo. Chess has no luck whatsoever, as the board is open to analysis and no information is hidden from either player. This setup creates a 100% skill-0% luck situation, where the more skilled player will always win. Sure there is a remote possibility that a person with no clue about strategy or tactics could play the exact perfect moves and win by pure luck, but that is about as common as a chimpanzee writing a Shakespeare-like novel. Wise-assery aside, luck does not factor into the game. Bingo on the other hand is pure 100% luck - 0% skill. You choose a sheet and then wait for the right numbers to come. The only time when player participation (or skill) is required is when a row is completed and the player must bother to yell out bingo. Let's compare these extremes and see which is more fun.

Chess is a very intense game, where the slightest mistake can, and usually will make or break your game. It is a pure battle of intelligence, wits, cleverness and strategies. In a vacuum the better player should always win, though this is not the case in real life. Restlessness, environmental stress, tiredness or any other mental condition will play a part in the game's outcome. The player's focus must be completely in the game in order to achieve the best result. While I am a competitive person, I find Chess to be more of a mental exercise than actually fun. I do play the game occasionally and do enjoy it, but it would never become an obsession, or a daily game. I feel that a game needs more luck in order to alleviate the mental stress it causes. If the player cannot control everything on the board, it relieves of some of the stress as well.

Bingo on the other hand gives no control to the player, so it could be said that Bingo plays itself. There is absolutely no stress in playing Bingo, no mental strain or feel of achievement when winning. As the game itself is without any aspect to grab the player's attention, it has to introduce external motivators. These would be the monetary assets placed into the game in order to win that packet of coffee, blender, whatever. Imagine a game of Bingo without the betting aspect. Boring as hell, one could be flipping coins for the same level of commitment. Every time a game has to introduce external motivators, it is a clear sign that the game itself is not interesting or fun. The same could be said about all casino games. They all create varying illusions of player control, while the correct choices are mathematically obvious and require very little gaming experience or skill. But I digress...

So Chess is too intense a workout and Bingo leaves player commitment out of the picture. As keen readers might have already figured out, neither are my favorites. I have to admit though, that Chess does have its time and place for me, so I would not be surprised if someone informed me that they prefer Bingo over Chess. Some no doubt enjoy the other side of the extreme more. Anyway, the golden medium must be where the best games are. But how do they scale? For me Go is more enjoyable than Chess because while it is a pure skill game with completely open information to both players, it is impossible to calculate all outcomes of all situations on the board. At that point, no matter how hard the player counts, he must ultimately make the choice using his gut feeling. While this isn't exactly luck, it is getting nearer to it. Here I have to remark, that I never was an excellent Go player (1-3 kyu on KGS), so many can calculate longer variations than I can. On the other end, Battleship games bring in basic levels of tactics, while still relying heavily on luck. Again neither are my favorites, but we are getting closer with Go.

Skipping to the point, my favorite games include a good amount of luck without it overcoming the need for skill. Games like Dominion, Race for the Galaxy, Last Night on Earth and Space Crusade are what I enjoy the most. They all have luck in them, but the player's choices can have large effects on how big a part luck plays in the game. Dominion's deck building, R4tG specialization Vs. diversity strategies, LNoE crowd control, teamwork and tactics, Space Crusade team formations, sweeping patterns etc all have clear and undeniable effect on the outcome of the game. Player control is high, while luck is still included to reduce the "seriousness" of playing as well as enabling unforeseen consequences. I like the unforeseen; I like to be surprised while playing.

Ok so the amount of luck is an important part of what makes a game good. No extreme is perfect for a fun, relaxing gaming session. The correct balance is found from between the extremes, but the exact amount must be highly subjective and always open for debate. Luck in gaming does not stop even nearly there, however. In my next posting I will go deeper into luck and how it is implanted into games and how it affects game play.

Finally we have the statistics. Here are most of the games I own listed in order of overall rating. The bars show the relative amount of luck included in the game. As can be seen, there is a slight pattern between the rating and the amount of luck within a game. The games I enjoy the most (rating 9 and 8) have an average of 4.15, decent games (rating 7 and 6) have 3.68 and bad games (rating 5 and below) have 3.88. The highest total was with the 9 rated games (4.17 average) and the lowest were the 7 rated games (3.1 average). This shows that I surprisingly like more luck based games than others. This can be explained by the rather lukewarm ratings of the many trivia games at the low end of the list. Very interesting start, as I would have guessed that I prefer more skill based games!

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