Abraham Quicksilver
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What makes a good game - some thoughts from new games

OK, in the past 2 months I have purchased and played:

Warfighter: The Tactical Special Forces Card Game,
Legendary Encounters: An Alien Deck Building Game,
Dawn of the Zeds (Second edition),
Diamonds,
Till Dawn,
Unexploded Cow,
Spyfall

And in a frantic but very enjoyable birthday at Thirsty Meeples Board Game Cafe in Oxford I have played:

Dead of Winter: A Crossroads Game,
King of New York,
Forbidden Desert,
Ca$h 'n Guns (Second Edition)

Now, I don't want to review all these games, but rather extrapolate a few thoughts about game design, play and so on from what's been a deluge of new games and styles.

I will be making plus and minus comments about certain games in certain areas as examplars of what I am talking about.


THE RULEBOOK

OK, will all know a good rulebook, but the day in the cafe was interesting. I had read the Dead of Winter rules in advance. ALthough the rules are simple, there are a lot of them. I wrote a summary sheet of that I thought we would need, but we still ended up looking up a lot of the rules details. All in all our first game was 3 hours, not the 90 minutes.

I pickedf KoNY and Cash and Guns because I knew they had short rule books.

This highlighted to me a couple of things:

1) If you are writing rules - ALWAYS add a rules summary / player guide that gives more than just turn order information. Even coming back to older games this things are great. Good old Universal Head has so clearly shown the way this should be done and no serious game publisher should consider publishing a game with paying him to write the summary.

2) Despite that, rules could always do with (a) Give the rule in summary, give the rule in detail. There's too much wordiness around full rules explanations when all you want is "a player can take 3 wounds" or similar.

3) Blindtest the rules as often as you can - when playtesting DO NOT explain the rules - let your testers discover them.

Rulebooks are still the biggest weakness in games - they serve to put people off, confuse them and generally get in the way of playing rather than encouraging it.

They fail to distinguish between new players, experienced players and returning players who've forgotten the details.


GOOD EXAMPLES:

Dawn of the Zeds has a big old complicated rule book. But, they give you comprehensive but concise player aids and an "instant start playing quickly" short rule book too. Full marks

LE:Aliens, by transferring a lot of the rules to the cards you don't have to eat them all in one go.

BAD EXAMPLES:

Warfighter - which has one of the worst rulebooks I've seen a long while, just confusing layout, order and lack of explanatory graphics.

KoNY which has very short rules (plus point), but actually because of the shortness some of the rules were very ambiguous.



THE BOARD

Boards are being designed so well, both in art terms, but also in the way they guide the play, hence making the play process more obvious through good design.

GOOD EXAMPLES:

The rubber play board for LE:Aliens

BAD EXAMPLES:

The badly laid out, oversized and over-folded card sheet for Warfighter

The somewhat misleading sheets for DoW (why the empty room in the middle? why not spaces for all the cards? Why are the locations on separate sheets)




THE COMPONENTS

Production quality on games now is just quite amazing. Lovely chunky tokens, good figures, easy to handle components.

While there were a couple of glitches, mostly games have a production quality that was rarely seen 10 years ago. If you are new to the board game world you have no idea how lucky you are.

The quality of components makes playing games a joy.

GOOD EXAMPLES:

The standees in Dead of Winter

The tokens in Dawn of the Zeds

The airship in Forbidden Desert

The guns in Cash and Guns

The "bling" diamonds and rubies in Diamonds which could so easily have been tokens.

BAD EXAMPLES:

Can't think of any.....





THE ARTWORK

Some cracking artwork around now. While in most cases the artwork doesn't affect gameplay and after a while doesn't get noticed there is some really brilliant art around now.

GOOD EXAMPLES:

Unexploded Cow with it's brilliantly dressed and costumed cows, every one unique and with character

Dead of Winter cards

Warfighter using photographs of real serving soldiers, taken by real serving soldiers.


BAD EXAMPLES:

Diamonds because the background patterns on the cards make the suits harder to distinquish.




THE GAME PLAY

Obviously this is a very mixed bunch of games, but there are a couple of points that stand out to me:

1) Games are better at giving you a closely fought challenge, rarely in any of these was there a runaway success problem obvious.

2) Very few games have player elimination - such a plus. 10 years ago elimination was the norm, now it's getting rare

3) Huge diversity of mechanics. I never conceived you could have games without dice until Dominion. Now there are so many different ways of play mechanics

4) Story-telling and/or investment in characters. Did you care that you were the Shoe or the Top Hat, no. Do you care if the Sheriff is going to die? If the chestburster is going to surpise you?

What about those lovely moral decisions in Dow ("Meh, let the kids" we laughed).

5) The many different ways we can make play decisions and the many levels of "sandboxing" that are now supported.


The explosion of gaming has driven this brilliant diversity and sophistication in games. And vice-versa of course.


GOOD EXAMPLES:

Dead of Winter, LE:Aliens, Warfighter, Forbidden Desert

DIamonds, just because it shows how simple twist of Whist gives you a completely new game.

BAD EXAMPLES:

Till Dawn, because the decisions don't seem to matter and it is so luck driven.






THE FUN

Yeah!!! Seriously I've had such a fun time WITH the games, just as much as with the players.

At this point I'm just going to sample each with 1 or 2 reasons why, your mileage will definitely vary!


Warfighter: Struggling with this one because of the rules - I think there is a good game there, but not sure if I'm having fun yet.

LE: Aliens: Knockout - best game ever for me. Well balanced, tense, strategic and tactical, unfolding story

Dawn of the Zeds: Pretty good, I'm on the fence about this as I'm not sure the burdensome complexity helps or hinders the game

Diamonds: Simple, fun, good filler game

Till Dawn: Disappointing, there seems to be no real control or purposeful decision making, just luck

Unexploded Cow: A good laugh, but also some quite clever strategy required. Better than you might think

Spyfall: I want to like this, but it needs the right group I think.

Dead of Winter: Enjoyed this, maybe slightly too many rules for little added play. Crossroads are clever

King of New York: This game is ever so popular, but this just fell completely flat for all four of us today. I think because (a) we couldn't care less about the characters and (b) it seemed a bit abstract strangely.

Forbidden Desert: As one of our players said "it's a bit dry", liked the challenge, but it didn't pull us in, good puzzling though

Cash and Guns: Fun, who knew pointing guns at each other would be a laugh?





THE THINKING

So, let's try and draw some conclusions:

LE: Aliens and Dead of Winter are definite "play it agains" because:

1) A variety of mission objectives, both group and individual

2) Stories that unfold and plot twists

3) A sense of tension all the time.


Till Dawn, King of New York are not on the playlist because:

1) They didn't pull us in as players

2) Our decisions did not feel meaningful

3) We felt we had no real control over our play

Unexploded Cow: play it again

1) Because it's funnier than the above

2) Because your decisions count



Warefighter, Dawn of the Zeds: still working on those, they are going to take a while to get to grips with and I am HOPING will be rewarding

Spyfall: not sure, will play one more time with a different group.


Forbidden Desert, Diamonds. Yeah I'd play 'em again if asked

1) They are easy to pick up

2) They are kind of abstract

3) There's no special "bite" to them.



Cash and Guns: is a play it again

1) Quick, fun, loud

2) Is not over-engineered as game, but self-balances to play

3) Foam guns






Moral of the story:

1) Publishers still need to try MUCH harder at rule books

2) Games are really well made nowadays

3) Players should be invested in their role

4) Decisions need to count for something

5) Fun games should be quick



Thanks for reading, your comments and thoughts very welcome.

However, I would say, try and keep to the discussion around the PRINCIPLES of games, not whether Game A is better than Game B.



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Mindy Basi
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Very nice summary.

I have played Dead of Winter, and although the rule book looks clear, many important points get buried in the text. Our first game was long, no one had much fun (and I am the one who owns a copy!) and I was very disappointed the group just didn't enjoy it (in fact, no one wanted to play it again). I blame it on the fact that the rules were confusing and we were not prepared to play, and it really did take a very long time to finish the game. I liked it and want to play again.

I wish they did have very quick rules summaries in books, and frankly, I am going to start to write my own as suggested. People get frustrated and crabby when they get confused about rules no one can easily find the answer to.

I have had arguments about the rule book for For Sale, of all things, because it doesn't specify if you have to declare what card you are bidding on. We play you don't, but who knows if that is right, actually.

I got KoNY for Christmas and I hope I enjoy it, your review was well done and now I am thinking, oh no, hope it doesn't suck ...soblue

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Abraham Quicksilver
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DoW definitely play again now you know the rules

Kony is ever so popular, so you'll probably enjoy it.

For Sale, a really good example of brevity over clarity
 
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Abraham Quicksilver
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I've also started doing a rules summary for every game.

A) I've got a memory like sieve and have forgotten half the rules by turn two

And

B) at least it makes you closely read the rule book....

And

C) I've got a reminder when I get the game out again


I recently replayed Fire Rescue and had essentially completely forgotten how any of the rules worked. I could remember HOW to play, just no details at all. Actually reading the rules again was tedious, I just needed a one page reminder

 
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Adam P
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Your analysis is too subjective.

Quote:
LE:Aliens, by transferring a lot of the rules to the cards you don't have to eat them all in one go.

But then players need to sit and read every card when playing a game. I call this "heads down" playing.


Quote:

Moral of the story:

5) Fun games should be quick

WTF? I've played fun games that were not quick. I've played quick games that were not fun. Highly subjective.
Game Play + Fun needs a mixture of a balance of many things to make a successful game.

Quote:
Till Dawn, King of New York are not on the playlist because:

1) They didn't pull us in as players

2) Our decisions did not feel meaningful

3) We felt we had no real control over our play

King of New York is meant to be chaotic, not meaningful. I don't think the game's characters are meant to pull you in. Our group just enjoys beating each other up, regardless of what character we are.


Quote:
However, I would say, try and keep to the discussion around the PRINCIPLES of games, not whether Game A is better than Game B.

But yet, that's what you did above. Not only that, but "fun" is highly subjective. Some people find foam guns "fun", I do not.

I think you've pointed out some good ideas for critically analyzing games, but overall you're being too subjective.
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Abraham Quicksilver
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Oh, absolutely subjective I agree.

Games are doubly subjective, there is your personal view, but also, there is your playing groups dynamic.

Spyfall is a good example, our group played too hard to win, rather than have fun.

 
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Wim van Gruisen
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Nice post. Some odd conclusions, however.
aqsgames wrote:
THE GAME PLAY
3) Huge diversity of mechanics. I never conceived you could have games without dice until Dominion. Now there are so many different ways of play mechanics

Have you never played Chess? Checkers? Poker? Bridge? Most of the real classic games were played without dice.
Roll and Move type of games are only a subset of the large variety out there, but thanks to the dominance of games like Parcheesi and Monopoly, most non-gamers think that these are the apex of gaming. So it's good that games like Ticket to Ride, Carcassonne and (I think) Dominion reach the mass markets now; it teaches people that there are more interesting mechanics out there.

aqsgames wrote:
THE GAME PLAY
3)4) Story-telling and/or investment in characters. Did you care that you were the Shoe or the Top Hat, no. Do you care if the Sheriff is going to die? If the chestburster is going to surpise you?

What about those lovely moral decisions in Dow ("Meh, let the kids" we laughed).

5) The many different ways we can make play decisions and the many levels of "sandboxing" that are now supported.

Something that has been done for ages in RPGs. I think that it's mainly their influence that has brought role-identification, storytelling and moral decisions to boardgames. That said, in board games the focus is still on winning the game and not on 'playing your character', as in role playing. Picking which character to play with is mostly done for strategic reasons, not for storytelling reasons. And that is because in virtually all boardgames the individual characters, player races, or whatever, are primarily defined as a collection of strategic options, instead of as a psychological or cultural entity.

In Arkham Horror, for instance, players pick Harvey Walters because of his ability to reduce stamina loss, not because they want to explore what it is to be an old academic type. They choose Sister Mary because she gets the 'blessed' card, and thus the double number of successes. Not because it is interesting to play a religious type.
In RPGs, playing a person of a different gender is quite something. In board games, your character's gender plays no role, unless you get in-game bonuses for it.

Likewise, moral dilemma's in board games are resolved by checking which way leads to the best chance for victory. Slaughtering the children gives three more VP than disarming the bomb? Then let's do that.
 
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Abraham Quicksilver
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Whymme wrote:
Nice post. Some odd conclusions, however.
Have you never played Chess? Checkers? Poker? Bridge? Most of the real classic games were played without dice.
Roll and Move type of games are only a subset of the large variety out there, but thanks to the dominance of games like Parcheesi and Monopoly, most non-gamers think that these are the apex of gaming. So it's good that games like Ticket to Ride, Carcassonne and (I think) Dominion reach the mass markets now; it teaches people that there are more interesting mechanics out there.


Agreed, I did sort of have Chess et al in the back of my mind as I wrote it - but I mean in the context of board games


Quote:

Likewise, moral dilemma's in board games are resolved by checking which way leads to the best chance for victory. Slaughtering the children gives three more VP than disarming the bomb? Then let's do that.


Yes, I'm sure you are right about it being an RPG crossover thing. I don't agree that all players play to the game though.

I think of lot of players genuinely play to their in-game character. Players will play the game, but they will also play "What would Sister Mary do?" Granted we're still playing a board game, not an RPG.

Of course, with clever game design, then players are sucked into playing the character anyway.


 
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Kwill2 wrote:
I got KoNY for Christmas and I hope I enjoy it, your review was well done and now I am thinking, oh no, hope it doesn't suck ...soblue


I had my first play of it last night (I have previously played KoT) - and I thought it was great, light fun. Its all about throwing sexy, chunky dice (seriously, this game has the best dice), stomping buildings and military, and smashing your mates.

Channel your inner 50 foot monster ;-)
 
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