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Subject: What makes a “well-designed” game? rss

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Enrico Viglino
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Barticus88 wrote:
ekted wrote:
lxiaol wrote:
:d10-4: When the game is 3/4 done, everyone must still have a chance to win
Wow. I couldn't disagree more. This is one of my definitions of a bad game.
I am strongly with lxiaol here. If a game has player elimination, then the rules should very clearly have the concept that a player is out and no longer participating. If a player has not been eliminated, then 15 minutes before the game ends that player should still have a 2% chance of winning. A game that abandons a player but expects him to keep playing is a bad game.

I have had Power Grid fail me in this regard once (in about 600 plays). I misplayed my way into over an hour of watching the parade go by. I won't let that one happen again, and I try to advise noobs to keep them from killing themselves.
I won't blast a game for forcing people to keep playing after they're
out of contention - I just view those games which do allow for early
departures as somewhat advantageous.

Games which DON'T allow for easy exit seem to make choices which
a player make to end their agony early perfectly reasonable -
which may be as bad as any other solution.
 
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Nate K
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This is a tough one, for me, because the features that I like or prefer in a game may not be features that indicate a well-designed game. So I'll try my best to leave personal preferences out of my comments.

The following features indicate to me a well-designed game. In no particular order:

1. Decisions. Some games are nothing more than chance. Player's decisions have little or no impact on the outcome. This is extremely frustrating. Simply rolling a dice to see who wins would save everyone half an hour or more. See Killer Bunnies as an example of such a game.

2. Pleasant player interaction. Multi-player games are, in this designer's view, supposed to be a tool for social interaction. Yet some games are essentially multi-player solitaire. The actions of one player has little or no effect on the rest. Even worse, I feel, are the multi-player games where the ONLY interactions are negative. Dominion, I feel, suffers from this problem. Other than Attack cards that try to screw over opponents, there are only two or three cards that generate any player interaction at all. I hate playing Dominion with my mother and sister, because they play completely silently. It's disturbing. Games should allow for players to enjoy each other's company.

(There are some exceptions where entirely-negative interaction is understandable, such as tournament-level Magic: The Gathering. But such situations tend to be limited to one-on-one combat-oriented games, which certainly have their place in the gaming world. There are also games designed for solo play, in which case, generating pleasant player interaction is a moot point. Still, multi-player games that are not specifically advertised as slugfests between two opponents should allow for pleasant interaction between the players.)

3. Mechanics match the theme. If a games has a particular theme, the mechanics should be connected to that theme and help bring it across. I am not opposed to playing games that have a disconnect between theme and mechanic. However, the experience is certainly enriched when the game functions mechanically in a way that can be clearly understood in terms of the theme.

Chess, for example, is somewhat easier to understand when thought of as a miniaturized battlefield, with different troops possessing unique skills, training and roles. Ticket to Ride, on the other hand, has never made a lot of sense to me mechanically. I just don't know understand what the various colors of cards represent in terms of constructing rail lines. It's still a fun game to play--and in fact, I prefer Ticket to Ride to chess--but I don't think it is necessarily a well-designed game. The flavor disconnect is strong for me.

4. Balance. I can accept that a 2-6 player game might be slightly more balanced with three or four players than with six. But if it's not balanced at any point, then clearly it should have been playtested further. Warhammer 40K fans know that Games Workshop has trouble with this one. Well-designed games should also be well-developed--that is, well-tested to ensure that the game is fair and fun, with a diverse set of strategies to be pursued.

5. Fun. If a game isn't fun, then any other design decisions do not matter. Games are meant to be enjoyed. If the experience isn't enjoyable, then what's the point? This category is more subjective, obviously. Some players are looking for a particular type of experience when the play a game. Some people think certain things are fun when others do not. Some games are not marketed correctly, and that's hardly the designer's fault--I can't blame the designer if the marketing team fooled me into thinking I was buying a certain kind of game when in fact it was a different kind of experience entirely. But SOMEONE has to find the game enjoyable. If no one does, then the design has failed.
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Randall Bart
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Now I will give examples. Some good, most bad.

1) Time and pacing appropriate to depth
Killer Bunnies and Munchkin strike me as prime examples of game that ought to run 30 minutes, where I could tolerate them at 45 minutes, but they ran for two hours. Six player Catan has an hour of depth and ran for two hours. Fluxx has no depth, and worse yet, such fluid game state that five minutes into the game is as near the end as an hour in. Fluxx is fine when it doesn't drag but there is no way to stop it from dragging.

2) Players regularly have choices which are both interesting and meaningful
In Steam, if there were no points for complete links, there would be very little building on the last two turns. That looks wrong (to some people) so they score 1 VP each. This is just barely enough that building links for points is profitable, but the profit margin is so low that it is ridiculous. If I drop two income to take $10 on the last turn, that cost me a VP. If I spend $8 to build a link, I have my point back, and $2 profit. Whoop. T. Do. Clearly the value of the links should be 2 VP (to make the decisions meaningful) or 0 VP (to avoid wasting time).

3) Player scaling
Steam is okay with four players on the New England side or five players on the Ruhr side. Fewer players the map is spacious and there is little interaction. With more players, it's too tight.

Endeavor is quite different with 3 than 5. The expectation is that players will leave out some areas, but this means if the players don't play right it ends before it looks finished.

Bohnanza is a trading game. You can;t have a trading game with two people, so someone designed a different game for two players. The box says 2-7 players, but 2 players is not the same game. It's a (minor) deception on the box. If you remember liking it with several players, but only buy games that work two player, you could be suckered into buying this.

4) Tension
I am understanding this more recently. Two games where tension is in alternate victory conditions, coincidentally by the same guy. In Attika, the alternate win by connecting temples leads someone to block someone else. Unfortunately, the player who does the blocking is a sucker, so tension leads to kingmaking and unhappiness. In Taluva, you can win by placing all of two kinds of buildings before the tiles run out, but if the tiles run out it's the player with the most Temples. I had a game where I had placed both Temples, and I placed my last hut on my last turn to win the game, but I had no Temples. If I had built a Temple along the way, I would have run out of time. This is tension working correctly.

5) Appropriate use of luck
Steam and Endeavor start with random distribution of goodies to set the scenario, after which there is no luck and no secrecy. This is fine for people who like luck-free games. In Agricola, most of the luck is the initial distribution of cards. Unfortunately, someone might reveal a card which affects you in the middle of the game. In the last half of Agricola, there are two binary random reveals (turn 10 and turn 12), which have minimal impact. Thus you can be screwed by luck anytime, but you are less likely to be saved by it, which is discouraging. Worse is when the card that suddenly appears and affects me a is a card I have never seen before.

6) Theme
Funeral: You lose two pharaohs. What does that mean? This is at least a case where Dr K was observing my point #7 (lose two civilizations, lose two buildings, lose two rivers), but all four calamities seem a bit weird in Ra.

In Agricola, it's a little odd that a room of the house takes as much space as a pasture or a field of grain, but there is something thematically pleasing about building your farm.

7) Consistency and simplicity (Occam's razor)
In Race for the Galaxy, in the two player game you can choose two Settle actions. There are a few technicalities in the rules related to it being two separate phases. Then in the expansion they added Improved Logistics, which give two actions in one phase, which is so subtly different. It just makes the rule confusing, while not making a more interesting choice.

There was once a foot ferry to Birkenhead, a factoid memorialized by a special rule in Brass. There is also a rule about cotton mill/anchor spaces, which is not in the main body of the rules, but is in the notes separately for Preston and Lancaster. The organization of the rules seems to assume that it's normal for each city to have rules of its own.

8) Either elimination or no elimination
I played a six player game of Catan, where two players were strangled after 25 minutes, and it was a two player game after 45 minutes. I won the game after two hours. It is unfair to leave players sitting around the table watching for that long.

RoboRally is problematic this way. Someone gets ahead and can't be stopped. Sometimes my goal is just to get to flag 1 before the game ends. That is why we don't play long 8 flag scenarios.

Killer Bunnies, though lacking any depth, had the refreshing feature that on the last turn I was able to black mail someone into giving me one of her bunnies, and therefore I had a 1 in 20 chance of winning. Fluxx of course is the same way, because there is so little game state in Fluxx.

I understand Brass and Age of Industry have a problem where a player is out of the game, but is expected to execute a kingmaking action. This is the scenario: Players A, B, and C are very close, while Player D is far behind. On his last turn, Player D can use Player A's coal and make Player A win, he can use Player B's coal and make Player B win, or he can fail to use coal and let Player C win. Player D is expected to choose Player A or Player B, but if he decides he doesn't care whether he loses by 40 points or 50 points and fails to use anyone's coal letting Player C win, he is ruining the game by kingmaking. (Some Brass/AoI player tell me if I misunderstand this.) IMO, the problem is not in Player D but in the game for creating this situation (and in Players A, B and C for caring). If player D cannot help himself by making a choice, he certainly has the prerogative to choose to do nothing.

9) Components should be functional
In Witch's Brew: I find the drops slightly too small and hard to pick up. Each blue action card has a character picture and a role and a name and spell type and a picture of a pot. Each potion has a picture of a pot and colors of drops. You need to match the pots. The brass pot is taller, but the silver and iron pots are similar in shape and color, and they are set at different angles on different cards. I would have put the character picture on those potion cards.

I found Notre Dame unplayable. There were two pairs of colors that were two similar, so it was a game of identifying color then confirming details of the architecture. A word on each card would facilitate play immensely. It doesn't have to be an English word. I would like the hospital to say "Hospital" or "Hôpital" or "Krankenhaus" of just a great big "H". I was trained from a very early age to identify the letters of the Latin alphabet. If I had been similarly trained in identifying gables, I would like Notre Dame a good deal more.

10) Replay value
Some games just feel solved after a few plays. I can play Power Grid forever (though three player gets a little stale). Starfarers of Catan was a game I really liked after one play and grew bored with after 3.

11) Clarity of rules
I am going to stick to the positive on this one. Once again today, there was a question in the rules forum for Glory to Rome, and the rulebook provided a clear answer. I liked the rulebook for Taluva, too, but others did not, so I wrote an FAQ.

12) A paucity of ties
The NFL has a tie about one game in 1000. They have reasons not to fix that. Bohnanza ends up tied about one game in 30, which is a bit high. Agricola is tied about one game in 10, which is too much. I don't recall the game, but I recently played a game which ended in a three way tie. It was rather unsatisfying. People don't want ties. People want a result, even if the result is arbitrary.

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I think the game has to play super smooth. In other words, if there are excessive rules that bog down a game and squash the fun factor, the game doesn't work. If there are insufficient rules and people are left wondering "what am I supposed to do now"? That is not well designed. The game should be flowing. It should be natural, obvious (not for lack of choices), what to do next given the situation.
I think a poor example of this (that has turned into a better example recently, as we've learned the mechanics) is Twilight Imperium.
Until you know what you're doing, you can get so confused you wished you didn't bother. (Why the game stayed in the closet for almost a year...) But once we relearned the rules (which, granted, took a while) we can now see how the game flows smoothly.
I suppose one could argue that with that much effort, the game really doesn't play smoothly.
But is it understandable?
I constantly ask myself that as a game designer?
Will this be understandable? Will it make sense to those playing it?
And not that I always succeed, but my efforts are getting better with time.
Bottom line: If people get so distracted by the rules that they lose the theme, a game isn't "well-designed"; if people are so distracted by the lack of rules that they lose the theme, again, not "well designed".

EDIT: Not to argue, Randall, but I find a TIE immensely refreshing, especially if it's not supposed to happen. For example, you get into a heated game of Risk 2210 (where the game is resolved in years rather than last standing), and though there should always be a clear winner, in year 5, 2 players tie for the win; that is amazing.
Carcassonne: Not supposed to tie, ever. But if you do, after that many points gone through, that is truly epic.
Dominion: If you tie in dominion, ehh, 3 way tie: "WOW". 3 way tie with a negative score (Dang curse cards!), that is, to this day, the 1 game of dominion we always remember.
There is just something truly amazing about a tie when it shouldn't happen. So, if I have an issue with the beautiful article, it's the question of ties. Ties are perfectly satisfying if they're a freak of nature.
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Randall Bart
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XendoBreckett wrote:
There is just something truly amazing about a tie when it shouldn't happen. So, if I have an issue with the beautiful article, it's the question of ties. Ties are perfectly satisfying if they're a freak of nature.
There is nothing wrong with a rare tie. I believe in 600 games of Power Grid I have seen two actual ties, and one that was resolved by the secondary tiebreaker (cities owned). That's okay. But if ties are frequent they are just disappointment all around.
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My list, in approximate descending order of importance:

1. Elegance: The rules should be clear, intuitive, and as simple as possible. Mechanics should feel smooth and not clunky, and without the need for lots of little special cases to "fix" them. More complex rules for more complex games are fine, but the best games always manage to do more with less. (I'm not sure this is really the most important aspect of game design, but I put it first because it is the most obvious distinction between well designed and poorly designed games.

2. Interest: It's not enough for a game just to work well; there also has to be some reason why you want to play it. I would identify four main things that add interest: Depth of Strategy, Excitement, Interaction and Theme. A game doesn't have to have all of these elements to be well designed, but it should have some, and whichever ones it does have it should do well, and be clever and innovative to boot.

Depth of Strategy: lots of meaningful decisions. A real decision is not just a calculation (although there may be calculation involved), nor is it a random guess in the absence of information. In order for there to be lots of decisions a game has to be well balanced, without a single dominant strategy or the possibility of one person winning well before the game is over.

Excitement: I learned this lesson in my own (very amateur)forays into game design - having lots of decisions isn't enough if those decisions are boring. Excitement is fundamentally about non-homogeneity. You don't want every turn to feel the same. There are many ways to add excitement, including luck, tension, the possibility of epic failure, etc, but in the end, a game should produce memorable sessions. It should have great moments and small moments; strategies and turning points. Once the game is played, it should create an interesting story that you could tell another gamer, or remember years down the road. "Do you remember that game where..."

"Theme" and "Interaction" I don't think I need to define.

3. Integration: Everything has to work well together. The playing time and amount of luck should be right for the game depth; the mechanics should integrate with the theme; the player interactions should be appropriate to the game flavor, etc.

4. Playability: Here I would lump together how well it scales between players, how long it takes, how easy the components are to use, how well the rules are written, etc. - basically, no stupid flaw should interfere with an otherwise good game.

5. Aesthetics: Theme, quality of the artwork and components.


As a final comment: Points 1 and 2 are clearly the most important. I think they would correspond loosely in literature to being able to say things well ("elegance") and having something important to say ("interest"). A great book has both, and so does a great game.

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I'm going to offer a list with a somewhat different flavour. Rather than listing general characteristics and rules of thumb about good design, these are some more formal properties to which I believe well-designed games should adhere.

•The rules should specify an outcome for each situation that may arise within the game.
This one is, to me, critical to the entire idea of a "game" in the first place. A game is a closed universe. Every action taken by a player must have a well-defined (perhaps probabilistic) outcome, else the rules don't define a game. Games have an intrinsic mathematical structure, so there's no surprise that this is similar to a mathematical closure property. Just as one can't have a group or a field unless the operations are defined over every pair of elements, one cannot have a game unless the ensuing game state is defined for every allowable action taken at every reachable game state. One way to see the reasonableness of the criterion is by the (often useful) analogy to video games. An undefined or inadequately specified state, when reached in the execution of a video game, must result in a crash. The analogous statement "A well-designed video game should never crash" sounds appropriately uncontroversial.*

•The rules should place a finite upper bound on the number of atomic actions that can be taken within the game, regardless of player choices.
Many people have voiced game length as a consideration that goes into judging a well-designed game, and this criterion is actually lenient as compared with any other criterion on game length. It is the de minimis of such criteria. However long the game is, let's not have it go on ad infinitum under any circumstances. It goes without saying that in practice, no game proceeds without termination. If, however, the termination is motivated by extrinsic factors, then the "closed universe" of the game has been violated.

•The game should not rely on an assumption of imperfect recall.
Human memory is not very good, nevertheless, just having a good memory shouldn't break the game. If nothing else, this makes AI competition utterly pointless. More philosophically, I would prefer a game to test capabilities at which I'm actually good, rather than capabilities at which I'm beaten by the incredible intelligence that is a pen and a pad of paper.

•The game should not allow mutual inaction to be reasonable.
If both sides attack, it's interesting. If one side attacks and the other defends, it's interesting. If both batten down the hatches and sit inert, it's extremely boring. It will often happen that even though there's no incentive to attack, one or the other player does so to avoid the penalty of extreme boredom. Game designers should motivate their players with victory, not the avoidance of boredom. Furthermore, this extrinsic psychological motivation once again violates the "closed universe" of the game.

* Of course some crashes, caused by operating system or hardware failures, are unavoidable by the game. A crash must not be inducible by any feasible set of inputs.

†It's perhaps debatable whether or not games that have a recurring fixed probability of coming to an end should satisfy the ideal. It's true that the probability that such a game will continue without eventual termination is 0. "Atomic action" rather than the more natural "turn" must be used, because some games allow unbounded exchanges of action and response within the nominal turn.
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The first thing that popped into my mind isn't on anyone's list so I guess I'll chime in:

Contains BOTH strategy and tactics.

I really hate games that are just one or the other. Unfortunately, most games really do seem to be just one way.
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Jayolas wrote:
The first thing that popped into my mind isn't on anyone's list so I guess I'll chime in:

Contains BOTH strategy and tactics.

I really hate games that are just one or the other. Unfortunately, most games really do seem to be just one way.
I've always srtived to design games that get's at both strategy and tactics. Can you elaborate on what you feel makes a good "strategic" element as compared to a good "tactics" element? Any examples of games that you feel do both well?

Thanks!
 
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herendil66 wrote:
Mezmorki wrote:
I think a well-designed game has these properties:

1)The game delivers on its intent.

If the experience I have playing the game doesn’t match the ideas conveyed on the box or promotional material, I find that a detriment. People like to know what they are getting into. If the box says it takes 2 hours, and it takes 6, there is a problem there. If it says "fast paced gameplay" and there is a ton of downtime, that’s a problem. In a way, this is a measure of how well the game is aligned with expectations, recognizing that our expectations for any particular game need to be cautiously optimistic and not overly swayed by hype, bashing, etc.
I like the idea that I infer from your header, but I'm not sure if I agree with your sub-text.

A game can be well-designed, but poorly marketed or poorly re-themed by the publisher. The "design" wouldn't have necessarily changed from the original intent (in fact if it was poorly done the publisher might have made very few changes), but the re-packaging and promotional work might not match it well.

OTOH, I agree with you that the overall impact of a game is dependant upon the design matching any re-theming, or even being enhanced by the artwork, promotional language and re-theming.

Perhaps that's another valid addition to your list, or at least a needed qualification?

(I think cosine is getting at the same idea in his response)
I think I may have misrepresented my idea behind the "game delivers on its intent."

That idea doesn't have anything to do with the theme per se. Rather, its meant to act as a "check" for any other criteria to make sure the other criteria is relevant or appropriate.

For example, a "Party Game" might lack certain elements in its design that we're suggesting are hallmarks of a well designed game simply because our "Party Game" doesn't require that element. Likewise, take a horribly ranked game like LCR ... is it really a badly designed game? The "intent" of the game isn't to offer some deep and drawn out intellectual experience, so it isn't really fair to judge it against a set of deep and intellectual benchmarks.

That said, we might determine that LCR is intends to offer a light, no-thinking type of gameplay and nonetheless decide it isn't well-designed, but we need to recognize what the game is trying to accomplish before judgeing it.

Another way to think about it is that games might need to be judged on their own merits and in relation to similar types of games, rather than against a singular "ideal" understanding of well-designed.

Does that make any sense?

Also, we can't forget that the "well-designed" conversation is seperate from the "is it fun" conversation. I reocgnize for many people these two go hand in hand, but I think well-designed can also stand on its own, putting the fun question aside for another discussion (like this one).
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Is this all going to be compiled into 1 big list?
If you have 1 list of let's say 10 things, you can post a poll and let everyone rate each item from 1 (less important) to 10 (very important) and you'll have an order
 
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lxiaol wrote:
Is this all going to be compiled into 1 big list?
If you have 1 list of let's say 10 things, you can post a poll and let everyone rate each item from 1 (less important) to 10 (very important) and you'll have an order
Shsssshhhh....don't spoil the secret agenda!
 
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Mezmorki wrote:

4) Mechanics fit the theme.

In a well-designed game, I think there should be a clear relationship between theme and mechanics, and they should each reinforce the other. An integrated theme-mechanics creates more continuity and immersion (for me) and allows you to play the game more fluidly and intuitively. The mechanics don’t get in the way of decisions that would be valid from the standpoint of the theme. While abstracts don’t have a theme so to speak, I do think the artwork, name of the game, component design, etc. can be aligned to work with the mechanics in a similar fashion. The inverse, is that the theme, graphics, artwork shouldn’t interfere with understanding the mechanics.

This one I agree with the most. The easiest way for me to enjoy a game is for me to become "lost" in it. The less theme that has been integrated (or the less interesting the theme), the harder it is for me to become "immersed" in it, and the less fun I will ultimately have.

I feel similarly about video games. I most enjoy video games that are grand-scale ("epic", if you will). For me, it is important for a game to not just be a "game" but also an "experience" that I won't easily forget.
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Reasonable_Doubt wrote:
Mezmorki wrote:

4) Mechanics fit the theme.

In a well-designed game, I think there should be a clear relationship between theme and mechanics, and they should each reinforce the other. An integrated theme-mechanics creates more continuity and immersion (for me) and allows you to play the game more fluidly and intuitively. The mechanics don’t get in the way of decisions that would be valid from the standpoint of the theme. While abstracts don’t have a theme so to speak, I do think the artwork, name of the game, component design, etc. can be aligned to work with the mechanics in a similar fashion. The inverse, is that the theme, graphics, artwork shouldn’t interfere with understanding the mechanics.

This one I agree with the most. The easiest way for me to enjoy a game is for me to become "lost" in it. The less theme that has been integrated (or the less interesting the theme), the harder it is for me to become "immersed" in it, and the less fun I will ultimately have.
For me it's the opposite laugh
I could be playing a medieval game with cars in it and only notice it after 30 plays laugh
 
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I could have sworn I posted in this thread a while back. I guess not, oh well.

There are a lot of little factors that go into a well-designed game, but these are the main things (not in a particular order):

1. Variability/Replayability - Some games get old fast if you play them a lot. Some games don't.

2. An appropriate blend of strategy and tactics - I like being able to have an overall strategy outlined before going into a game, but having to change what I do based on certain variables.

3. Nice components/board - I love the aesthetics of a game, but I also feel that some games are just a tad disappointing because it looks like the publishers didn't put enough into making the pieces.


I also agree with a lot of other people's points. Scalability is good, but a game could be great and only play with 4 players. To me, that's more a matter of the designer being able to identify what players it plays well with. I understand wanting to appeal to both large and small groups, but if it doesn't play well with 5, then there's no harm making it 3-4 players. Rules are also important.
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I would say a well-designed game is a game that tries to offer a good goal and does it well.

By definition you can't really get much more precise as the options are limitless. It's similar to the categorical imperative described by Kant.

We know that certain things tend to make good games but we can't say a game that goes against that can't be good.
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Well, I'm back with a bit of a final tally ... again with another round of creative lumping. I've aggregated all the suggestions into a 9 bucket categories and provided the total votes for all items within the buckets. You can also see the specific comment references and number of votes within each bucket.

(14) Tension and Uncertainty
Tension, a lot hangs in balance, no pain no gain (8)
Right amount of luck, players can adapt/respond to randomness (6)

(11) Choices and Execution
Choices that matter, wide range of choice, interesting AND meaningful choices, depth of strategy (6)
Ambiguity, uncertainty in decisions, risk vs. reward, no one "correct" move (3)
Understandable "game state" (2)

(10) Balance and Interaction
Keep players engaged - all players should be able to work towards winning throughout (2)
Player interaction, game as a social tool, appropriate level of interaction, avoidance of "mutual inaction" (4)
Balance, avoidance of runaway leaders/looses (2)
Either elimination or no elimination (1)
Appropriate challenge (1)
*** Counterpoints (2)

(9) Clarity and Simplicity
Clear, unambigious rules, streamlined rules/play, "consistency and simplicity", elegance, avoid "special cases", rules should cover all possible outcomes (7)
Easy to learn / lifetime to master. (2)

(8) Depth and Scope
Pacing matches depth / Play time commensurate with level of competition, integration of design, synergy… appropriate amount of actions, choices (4)
Appropriate scope, right amount of detail to fit the concept (1)
Multiple pathways / multiple layers to victory (1)
Appropriate use of strategy-tactics to match game intent, Contains both strategy and tactics - have an overall approach that requires particular executions (2)

(8)Mechanics and Theme
Mechanics fit theme, believability of mechanics, minimize themeatic absurdities, immersion (7)
"Invisibile" game mechanics / all components work in synergy (1)
*** Counterpoints (3) Feeling that theme is not criticial to the "design"

(8) Ergonomics and Aethetics
"Ergonomics" (avoid repetitive tasks), efficiency in use , functional components (4)
Good Component quality/artwork design, aesthetics, easy to comprehend board state (4)

(7) Design Intent and Outcomes
Intent / execution (2)
Clear goal or objective (1)
Decisive results, avoid draws or inconclusive outcomes, need tie-breakers (2)
Clear endpoint / endgame condition, controlled game length, don't go on forever (2)
Scales well across players (2)
*** Counterpoints (2) NPlayer scaling not a critical quality, but nice

(5) Variety
Variability, Replay value, variety, each game could be different, each turn could be different (5)

That's it!

Incidentially, you might also refer to this article by Wolfgang Kramer, which covers a very similar listing of "good game" qualities.
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Oliver Kiley
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Little followup...

I'm interested in what we might do with the results of this rather lively conversation, purely from an acedemic standpoint.

Professionally, I do a lot of priority setting exercises with various community planning projects. One of our favorite "games" to help communities set priorities is using a weighting and rating system.

The first step is generating the list of goals/objectives that the community feels are important to them. In our case, we have the list of goals/objectives for a "well-designed game".

The second step is usually to have community members rate, individually, how important or crucial each of the goals/objectives are to them. The reuslts are typically averaged to define a "weight" for the relative importance of goals. We've somewhat done this above, although a proper poll would generate more consistent data with more responses.

The final step is to take your alternatives (in our case different games) and have each person score how well they think the option meets each of the goals. You process the maths and get a fairly agreed upon ranking/order of preference, priority, or whathave you.

I'd be curious take grab the top 25 or 30 "most voted" games or some other logical selection and try a little rating sceme. Depending on how many responses we get, it would be fun to run some statistical tests for signfiicance, and/or compare against the GeekRatings and see if things line up.
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Joker Smiley
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Interesting questions! Let me try to answer the first one, by standing on the shoulders of giants (the previous posters) ... "1) What attributes, qualities or properties of a game do you, as an individual, feel makes for a 'well-designed' game?"

Executive Summary

A well-designed game needs to satisfy the Golden Rule Of Fun ("The game is maximally fun for all players in the target audience, within the design parameters"), while avoiding traps which can ruin that fun as embodied by the Design Hygiene Factors. Note that the Design Hygiene Factors are necessary but not sufficient - a game's design could be technically elegant, thematically integrated and tick all the boxes, but if it's not fun, it is not a good game, let alone a well-designed game.

A well-designed game does not need to be very original (though if it is, and it influences many game designs subsequently, then it could be termed a "Significant Game") Finally, a well-designed game that is maximally fun across all players, groups and design parameters is a "Grail Game", which is about as common and achievable as, well, the holy grail.

Golden Rule Of Fun

"The game is maximally fun for all players in the target audience, within the design parameters". The design parameters consist of the Four Dimensions of Fun for the game's target audience, and Situational Requirements that vary according to the audience's need.

What is considered 'fun' depends greatly on the target audience for the game, and therefore may vary on four key dimensions, which are:

1. Outstanding Inter-Player Dynamics: The game should quickly, sustainably and consistently produce the dynamics, player interactions and in some cases, emotions, which are considered most fun by the players - which could vary from brain-burning zen-like concentration (Go, Chess) through to feeling of satisfaction from developing your board position in a 'multiplayer solitaire' (Puerto Rico, Agricola), through to bartering, negotiation and alliance forming (Genoa, Bohnanza, Diplomacy), creativity (Dixit), shared role-playing-like immersion in a fictional milieu (Arkham Horror, Battlestar Galactica), to out-and-out trash talk and duking it out to generate a memorable narrative (Nexus Ops, Risk Revised)
- This is sometimes called the intangible 'spark' by game designers - you could have all the mechanical/ mathematical elegance properties of the game right, but if there's no 'spark' with its intended audience, it is dead in the water. In movies one could distinguish between a technically well-made film which has beautiful cinematography, literate script and impassioned acting, etc. but if it doesn't have that 'spark' it will never be a great classic.
- You can tell when a game has the 'spark' by observing what the players do after the game is played: they post-mortem analyze it, they think about it constantly after they go home and what they could have done better, and/or they immediately ask "when can we play again" and look forward to their next play (or even better, they simply play again!)

2. Meaningful Decisions: the players should feel they are making interesting, meaningful decisions that affect the outcome of the game. Exciting decisions, if possible. The key difference between games and passive entertainment such as film, books and music is the ability for players to make choices that affect play - so if they aren't interesting, meaningful and exciting, ingesting passive media would be a better use of your time!
- Whether these should lean towards 'strategic' type decisions (e.g. I will be an animal farmer in Agricola - i.e. which of the "multiple paths to victory" will I take?), or 'tactical' style decisions (e.g. I better take that pile of 6 wood, then figure out what to do with it later - i.e. implementing a path to victory, but with an eye out for opportunistic moves), or a blend, depends on the players and what they find 'fun'.
- Also, this implies that generally players should be able to easily calculate (or intuit) who is ahead at any point in play, or in some other way tell what is a good move that progresses their position. Otherwise any given move is not meaningful decision and only a 'shot in the dark'.

3. Retention of Attention: players should be engaged consistently during the game, and never become bored waiting for something interesting to happen while other players take their turns. This usually means short (or distributed) player turns, and no player elimination - two of the hallmarks of today's euro games - but not always! For a brain-burning game, longer turns are OK (since the other players are deeply thinking about their next move while waiting), and for a short duke-it-out game, player elimination is par for the course - and if you're knocked out, you're not waiting long for the game to end. (The exception here are low-engagement games that are designed to played almost 'on auto-pilot' so that the participants can multi-task, e.g. watch TV at the same time)

4. Fair Balance and Consistently Elevated Tension: Generally, players of roughly equal skill and knowledge of the game should have an equal chance of winning the game from the beginning (though the sides may be asymmetrical), and have some at least some chance of winning even when put in an inferior position during play.
- Whether or not roughly equal skill' encompasses a narrow ('exactly equal') or wide ('not really equal') range of skill depends on what type of 'fun' the players are looking for: a narrow range is called for in a brain-burning game (i.e. the better player will almost always win), while a wider range is needed for a social 'beer and pretzels' activity (i.e. the brand new player has a meaningful shot at winning).
- Two common techniques to cater for a wider range of skill are luck/ randomness and catch-up mechanisms. It should be noted though that these can be looked upon as 'pet hates' by some gamers (see below), even just a smidgen of luck or a hint of catch-up!
- In any case, soon after it is clear who the winners and/or losers are, the game should gracefully end - to provide some occasion for the winner to gloat and enjoy their superior position, but also mercifully to cut short the losing players' agony.

In addition, "Situational Requirements" are design parameters which can change depending on the player and group, and their particular needs at a specific time and place. These include:
- range of supported player counts (e.g. only ever 3-4 players ever show up to my gaming group vs. it can range from 2 to 8 or more ...)
- player age/ mental ability
- duration of each game (whether long or short, including predictability in game length)
- effort the players are willing to put in to become conversant with the game and its theme ("accessibility")
- number of times the players would like to be able to replay the game in the future ("replayability", which can be introduced via variable player powers, asymmetric sides, randomized setups, scenarios, expansions, etc.)

Design Hygiene Factors

If followed, these principles don't necessarily make a game more fun per se; but if they are not implemented well, they could ruin the game experience and leech out its fun:

1. Professional Presentation: aethestically pleasing and functional bits with an easy-to-use "user interface", well-written and clear rules

2. Elegant Rules and Components: as simple as possible, producing the smoothest possible gameflow given the "fun" requirements for the game. Streamlined setting up and tear down times. Cut all complicating rules, mechanisms, actions, or components - without leaving behind any glaring rules 'holes' or ambiguities. Cue the obligatory reference to Occam's Razor.

3. Thematic consistency (if there is a theme): the theme reinforces the mechanics/ rules, and vice versa. This helps players remember the rules and smoothe the gameplay; and for players for whom theme is a key component of 'fun', helps the theme to come alive.

4. Avoid or mitigate "pet hates": e.g. and this is by no means an exhaustive list:
- hidden trackable information (e.g. players' cash balances in an auction game)
- excessive randomness (luck) or chaos (unpredictability from players' actions)
- overly repetitive tasks (e.g. too many die rolls)
- kingmaking (a losing player can decide who wins)
- opaque and/or complex victory conditions and VP formulae
- reducibility to math such as stochastic NPV calculations (which encourages analysis paralysis)
- collectability (which gives advantage to the player with a bigger wallet)
- etc., etc.

Tolerance levels for these "pet hates" can vary greatly by player and by gaming situation. It should also be noted that many of these "pet hates" are unavoidable if a game is aiming for certain dynamics and design parameters, e.g. a multiplayer game which encourages meaningful negotiation interaction betwen players will always have somewhat of a "kingmaker" issue.

Originality and Well-Designed Games

A well-designed game does not have to be very original - it could be a rehash of existing mechanics, rules, components, themes and ideas into a coherent whole as long as it fulfills the Golden Rule of Fun without falling foul of the Design Hygiene Factors. In fact, most well-designed games are in this category.

The rare game which introduces an original player dynamic or mechanic so surprisingly and successfully that it inspires a fresh wave of game designs which explore the bold new idea is a "Signficant Game" to be cherished and studied by the designer game hobby. It doesn't have to be very first (e.g. Verräter and role selection) but it has to be the first broadly successful, well-designed game (e.g. Puerto Rico).

Parting comment on "Grail Games"

Within this framework, a "perfect" or "grail game" is a game that is fun for the widest range of design parameters for a player - i.e. if it is maximally fun, across all types of fun that the player might want to experience across all games, for a wide player count, etc. The "grail game" (which satisfies all players across all design parameters) does not exist. I have discovered a truly marvelous proof of this, which this website's storage capacity is too low to contain.
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Joker Smiley
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Oliver Kiley wrote:
Professionally, I do a lot of priority setting exercises with various community planning projects. One of our favorite "games" to help communities set priorities is using a weighting and rating system.
From what I can tell, the methodology you propose works in a community when you can only build one building, so you need to develop the weighted average design that optimally compromises among the different constituencies.

For BGG (a boardgaming community), there is no constraint to only "build one building" (i.e. select to play only one game forever), so it's somewhat artificial to construct the "weighted average best game" from everyone's preferences. (Or to put it another way, the BGG rankings have already done that, and there are already loads of alternate analyses that de- and re-construct that problem set.)

What I'd find more interesting and original is to survey people on where they sit on the different design parameters (a starter list of which I set forth in my post), and see if there's any natural segmentations or groupings of like gamer preferences (plus how big each is) ... We've seen commentary about big schisms e.g. between euro-geeks and ameri-trashers, but it would be interesting to see if, and to what extent, those kinds of divides truly exist, and whether gamers really differ more on other dimensions ...
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Dean Adam
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cosine wrote:
[q="Mezmorki"]
Quote:
4) Mechanics fit the theme.
Here we disagree. This I don't find to be particularly important. It seems clear that Go and Chess and Poker are great games. How do their themes fit their mechanics?

This is, I think, a modern hubris of the hobby gamer. I am reminded of how early 20th century literature studies were very quick to think that European literature of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centure was pretty awesome but dismiss all other literature from all other regions of the world for all time as beneath their notice... really? The stuff you happen to like today is the best it's ever been or is ever going to get, huh?

Games are models of abstraction. It is not important that they be about anything at all. It is nice that if when they are about something that you can see that something in them, but it is equally valid to say that Ra, Amun-Re, Cleopatra and the Society of the Ancients, and a hex and counter, CRT wargame about the conflicts between Ramses and the Hittites are all equally "about ancient Egypt" and do fine jobs representing that - some with only images, some with more elaborate mechanics.
I think there is a difference between 'having to have a theme' and the mechanics fitting the theme. I don't mind how much of a theme there is for a game, but I find it a pain when I'm having to introduce the rules for a game to new players and continuously apologizing for the rules not making sense in the context of what the game seems to be about.

I mean I liked the comment someone made in another thread, a theme is just a framework for the rules and mechanics to be understandable. So if the mechanic doesnt fit the theme, or is inconsistent in some weird way, its not a game wrecker, but can be at least a minor irritant
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