It’s not enough to have a good idea. It’s not even enough to have a good idea that works. When making a game, you must reach a certain amount of perfection for it to even be playable. I found this out the hard way in my first attempt at making a board game a few months ago. I succeeded in making the game I wanted to make, but I failed in making that game fun.
Luckily, this has given me a certain amount of perspective as to what goes into making a game fun. It is almost inspiring how one failure can actually lead to a greater knowledge than if I had succeeded completely on my first attempt. Any success would have been completely accidental and also completely useless.
Part of the problem with loving both board games and video games is it is hard to keep the correct perspective on how exactly these different mediums require different mechanics to be fun. The surface differences are obvious. You can directly interact with the game world in video games better. They are also more expansive and require the player to rely less on his imagination — often creating linear, story-based game play and win conditions entirely impossible in a board game. Board games are more tactile, more social, and require a certain baseline of strategy that is not necessary in all video games (not that some video games don’t have more strategy than board games — strategy just isn’t a huge prerequisite in video games).
These difference are unavoidable, so there is no need to consider them in this discussion other than to mention them and throw them away completely.
The important difference between board games and video games is the ability to take care of tedious actions. Video games can keep track of an infinite amount of information for you and display this information in a way where you avoid the tedium of constantly having to reference different game trackers. Game trackers, of course, are any changing number, ability, or penalty that you need to keep track of during the game (thus “game” and “trackers”). This is not a worry for video games, and I forgot that completely when designing my first game — Urban Expansion.
I should have realized this would be an issue during the game testing. After each round, we had to write down several numbers: the game score (which also doubled as the money received at the end of each round), money off of buying new stuff, and penalties for money received at the end of the round. We would go person-by-person and ask them what changes occurred to each of their numbers. Then we would go person by person and subtract their penalties from their game scores and hand out the appropriate money.
If you think reading a few sentences about it is tedious, you should try actually playing the game (except you can’t, and you shouldn’t). The time between each round took almost as much time as the rounds themselves, and the game drug for that reason. I succeeded in making the game part of the game fun and balanced and competitive. But keeping track of everything going on in the game was too much.
Add into this some other small mistakes, and it was a complete failure. I made the text on all the cards in the game too small ( you had to hold them up to your face to read it). I made everything too textual when board games are usually a visual medium. Those mistakes, combined with the game tracking mistake, and it wasn’t any fun at all. In fact, the game was actually more fun when I was play testing it and writing down all the information on a pad of paper after each round. When I added a game board to track the information, it actually became less fun. And here, I thought that would fix some of the issues!
On my second attempt at a game, Flatworld Shipping, I initially made the (easily correctable) mistake of taking the Monopoly approach to winning a game. If you somehow aren’t familiar, players lose in Monopoly by going completely bankrupt in the game — at which point, they are out of the game completely. Which means the winner is the one player who never went bankrupt and thus holds the entire market share of the fictional business world. In general, this is a bad game mechanic that even Monopoly barely pulls off.
The problem with this mechanic comes when playing with people who aren’t idiots. It’s completely possible to not be an idiot and lose quickly in the game. Monopoly is a game of chance, so a string of bad luck can wreck even the smartest player’s ability to win. But in most cases, if the people playing are smart, they know how to hold on in the game and slowly, slowly die. They can end the game earlier by taking bigger risks designed to basically suicide themselves, but the most stubborn of players will fade away slowly.
A few months ago, my wife and I were visiting some friends in Boston, and we played some Monopoly. The game pretty much played out where I lucked into a bigger initial foothold on the board, so I controlled where all monopolies would go. As my wife and friends started to lose money against me, I would keep them in the game by giving them huge amounts of money for some of the properties they wanted.
In short, they were selling their own properties to me in order to pay debts they owed to me. This cycle kept repeating itself for the longest time until they went bankrupt one by one. It was both a depressing example of how the world kind of works and a really boring game. That’s coming from the guy who won.
The problem with domination-style games like Monopoly and Risk is the game is often over before the game is technically over. Some people playing the game are eliminated and have to sit around for a long time waiting for the game to end. Other people have almost no chance of winning, but often have to play out the game anyway. I’m not sure if it is technically a balancing issue, but both those games provide greater and greater rewards the better a player does. It creates a snowball effect of in-game success.
In Risk, this often balances out in games of three or more players because everyone will gang up on the player who starts to pull away too much, but at some point in the game, there will be two players left, and the snowball effect will come into play. At least it’s less drawn out in a game like Risk over a game like Monopoly.
The best games allow everyone who has employed a good strategy to be in the game until the end. It punishes players for not playing well, but not by giving an exponential advantage to any player who starts the game quickly. It punishes players for not playing well by refusing to employ rubber-banding effects.
Anyone who has played Mario Kart should know how awful that is. A game uses rubber-banding when it has some mechanic that punishes the best players for being good and rewards the worst players for being bad. It’s a version of handicapping that adjusts based on in-game performance.
I’ve found that the best designed games allow any player with a good strategy to stay in the game until the end. Games that reward a game-long strategy, so a player who thinks short term won’t gain the advantage too soon and pull well out of reach. And a player who constantly makes bad decisions can’t win based on some random action that has nothing to do with the players’ abilities.
This is why so many games we play have similar mechanics and win conditions. Certain things just work from a design perspective. In board games especially, games rely on a certain set of guidelines and mechanics. Picking up cards. Some variation on victory points (almost every game has it, whether you realize it’s a victory point or not). Bidding on stuff. Some form of payment for in-game actions. Most games rely on standard, unavoidable stuff because they help facilitate the parts of the game that are unique.
The next you are playing a game that seems all too formulaic, try to imagine if those formulaic parts could have been done in a different way that also works equally as well. Try to isolate the parts of the game that you haven’t seen in other games — or that are at least combinations of mechanics you haven’t seen in other games. In most cases, we don’t want to know how the sausage is made, but in games, it creates a higher appreciation for a seemingly simple thing.
All that, and I haven’t even talked about the pricing concerns that go into creating a game, which is an even worse layer of Hell.
Spacefunmars has a photo-blog about his pets. He designs the world’s best ever board games. He lives in Buffalo and loves chocolate milk. All he wants is to love and be loved. You can find him on twitter @spacefunmars.