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That Which Makes a Game

Abdiel Xordium
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I've been playing games for a long time now, a really long time. I've played many a brilliant piece of game design. But most games end up being only a shade on the brighter side of mediocre. I've even played a few outright dogs and when a board game esthete like myself is stuck in a steaming pile of bits for an hour -- or more (shudder) -- it's like a food critic being forced to choke down a can of cold SpaghettiO's.

I love to play great games; I'll give a borderline game a chance at proving itself to me; but I absolutely hate having to endure playing a bad game. I'm harsh and judgmental about new games because I already have a closet full of boxes and I don't really need any more. The merest hint of a flaw is likely to doom a game from ever appearing on my table. For someone as opinionated as myself it's useful to have some criteria by which I can determine a good game from a bad one. But I've never been able to find a good measuring stick. (The only guaranteed way to avoid playing a bad game is to exclusively play the games I've already validated. While I'm fine with this for the most part, there are several unsatisfying side affects of this policy.)

I've tried to analyze games based on components, theme, genre, complexity, game play, uniqueness, and so forth. But in the end it all feels like determining the quality of a game comes down to a gut reaction. None of these criteria provide a consistent way for me to tell if I would like a game. VPG's Circus Train (First Edition) and FFG's StarCraft: The Board Game have wildly different production values, but I love them both. I like Caylus, but I can't stand Agricola despite the fact they are both heavy euro worker placement games.

So I'm still at square one when it comes to determining what makes a game good rather than bad: I have to play it.

I should just end this post now, but another idea has been bubbling up in my mind recently. It's not fully formed nor well reasoned yet. But for a game to be good, I'm thinking, it needs to have proper balance between tactical and strategic choices.

I hate playing a game where the players have to come up with a strategy at the outset and spend the whole game focusing on said strategy. Tactical interaction with other players should be able to undermine any strategy. Players need to be able to win after implementing secondary and tertiary strategic options in response to other players' actions.

Similarly a game without strategic depth can quickly overstay its welcome. Games of a purely tactical nature are best suited to short play times.

It's not my favorite game, but a game that expertly balances strategy and tactics is Taj Mahal. Players look at the board at the outset of the game and determine a strategy: what provinces to fight over and why, and which provinces to ignore. Yet each province must be fought over individually. The outcome of a fight in a single province can change the whole dynamic of the game and send the players scrambling for a plan B. I love it when that happens.
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