In the video for 404 I described it as a "medium weight" game. It's been a while, but it's come to my attention that I have no idea what that means. I thought that I did when I was saying it, I thought that I was saying "The rules aren't trivial for non-gamers but people who are used to games will get it together pretty quickly, there are some interesting decisions but this isn't the sort of game that will generate anyone that you might describe as a grandmaster." but now I think that what I was actually saying "Woob woob woob woob wob."
A conversation with some other gamers quickly convinced me that no two people mean the same thing by weight. Some talk about rules complexity, others about play time and others about depth. The board game geek wiki page for weight describes it as an "ambiguous overloaded term", which seems to fit the bill - so is it time to get rid of the idea?
I don't think so. One of my axioms for playtesting is that "Stupid things are said for good reasons.", even the daftest possible suggestion is normally rooted in there being a problem that the tester is trying to fix and addressing the problem is important even if including a live bobcat in every game isn't a practical solution. Similarly there must be a reason that we use this concept of weight so widely, despite it being so widely defined as to approach meaninglessness.
It's not hard to see that weight is informative, if someone tells me that they've got a weighty game for me I've got expectations about that game, at least some of which are true. However it's less informative than more specific labels, they could tell me they've got a game that's complex and difficult to learn, but rewards the effort with deep, satisfying gameplay. Understanding the value of the thing will require understanding why people don't do the alternative.
The detailed explanation is wordier, though generally that's not an issue because by the time someone's talking about a game in these terms we're normally already having a more involved discussion. There's some social risk in the detailed explanation, if you tell someone that rules are "complicated" and they consider them "simple" then they might come to think of you as simple, "weighty" is comparatively safe as it encompasses so many attributes. While the world definitely contains delicious over analysers I don't think that this consideration would be strong enough to spawn the term on its own - but it's pushing in the right direction.
When someone's trying to sell a game - whether they're a designer or publisher (support my game!) or just a player trying to get their favourite game picked at game night - there's a motivation to exaggerate characteristics in a certain direction: The game isn't hard to learn, it's not complicated to play, it does have deep strategy, it does have interesting decisions. The concept of weight enforces a degree of honestly, by tacitly acknowledging the trade off between some of these ideas and saying in which direction this particular game has tilted the scales.
Improving on the concept of weight would mean having a system that ranked the various considerations that a designer has based upon their importance to the game in question. Obviously a strong designer can work such that they achieve their 4th or 5th priority to the level that a weak designer would manage for their top priority, so the quality of a game would be independent of such a consideration - but it'd be interesting to see games categorised in this way. It could provide focus when designing and more relevant information about making decisions about which game to play next.
Ultimately the attributes considered would need to have the same valence, they'd all need to be things that most games would be trying to achieve to some level. I'll take a stab at a list here but I'm sure I'll miss a bunch of things:
Choice (The game frequently offers interesting decisions for players to make)
Balance (The game gives each player/strategy/startingrace/etc. a fair chance to win)
Depth (The game rewards players who strongly engage with it)
Engagement (The game has little downtime or busywork)
Learnability (The game can be learned quickly and well)
Playability (The game can be played smoothly once learned)
Replayability (The game can be played many times without becoming stale)
Speed (The game consistently plays in the time that it says it will - be that fast or slow)
Theme (The game pulls players into its world, creating an emotionally satisfying result)
Under this system a game's rating is a single word, so were I talking to a friend about setting up a game of Game of Thrones I might describe it as a CERDPBTLS, highlighting that it's full of interesting decisions and that you can be engaged for most of the game (a consequence of simultaneous decision making) but that it can be a pain to teach new players and that sometimes it'll end at odd moments. I can see plenty of room for wholesome debate on exactly where different games fall on this scale and as a designer it'd be interesting to see how my priorities are or are not reflected in how people find my finished games.
I wonder how I'd assess other games with the CBDELPRST system (Hmm, needs more attributes starting with vowels, perhaps I should add Innovation or Originality? Sayable acronyms are great) and whether those descriptions would be any use to a new player. What've I played recently...
Chess ... RDBCPELST
Dixit ... PLEBRSCDT
Discworld ... CRPTBELDS
Space Alert ... SEPRCTBDL
Hmm, I'm not sure if this is working, it might be too complicated to be of any use to anyone. Weight piggybacks on our understanding of ... well, weight, to be immediately comprehensible. CBDELPRST doesn't share that attribute so it can't be as powerful. Still, I think there's something too considering how we talk about weight, what we're intending to communicate (or learn) when we bring it up and if there are more complete ways we could understand that, as designers and players.