Thematic Solitaires for the Spare Time Challenged

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What makes a game fun?

Morten Monrad Pedersen
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The most important question you can ask if you want to design a board game is what makes a game fun? I might as well admit at once, that I don’t a full answer, but I’ll take a stab at a partial one and I think that that’ll help as a guide when designing and analyzing games.

Apart from attempting to tackle the question of what makes a game fun I’ll also discuss factors that in themselves won’t help make a game fun, but if they’re not handled well willl lessen the player’s enjoyment of an otherwise fun game.

Of course, trying to answer a question like this is impossible without venturing very deeply in to subjective territory, so a lot of what I write will depend on the player. I think, though, that there’s a core here that is important for many players.

Before we get started please note that in this post I’ll focus on the direct fun of a game and will ignore whether it stays fun over repeated play.

We’ll start by the most important part: The factors that make games fun.

Decisions and decision impact

One factor that really sets fun games apart from games like Klondike and Snakes & Ladders and from storytelling is that you get to make interesting decisions. When you agonize over whether to commit one more meeple to a field in Carcassonne or save it for better scoring opportunities that could arise in the future, then you’re likely having fun.

So one of the factors that can make a game fun is that most of the time there are a number of options that all seem good and where it feels like the decision is important for what happens. That said, care should be taken not to swamp the player with too many options and decisions, since that will overwhelm many players and will lead to the other players having to wait for a long time, which is boring.

As said the decision needs to feel like it’s important, otherwise it won’t really be interesting. So, what does that mean in more concrete terms? It means that the player’s decision much feel like it’ll have an impact on the result of the game. E.g. in Carcassonne: “If I don’t try to add an extra meeple to this field I risk the other player taking control of it and then he’ll get too many points and win, on the other hand if I commit the meeple to the field, then it might prevent me from scoring enough other points.”

Such a decision feels like it could potentially have a large impact on the outcome of the game. Winning a game where your decisions are highly influential in determining the outcome is fun – most people like to feel that they won because the played well. On the other hand, many players feel bad if they lose because they played badly, which means that it can actually make the game more fun if there’s a random element, so that a player can blame randomness when he loses. This might sound silly, but that’s the way human nature works and it’s unpleasant to feel like you lost through being less intelligent when other people are watching. That said this factor is less important in solo and coop games, since when you’re losing, you’re not losing to another human and everybody is winning or losing together.

Having randomness affect the outcome of a game also washes out the difference between veterans and inexperienced players, which can make it more fun to play if you’re playing in a group with mixed experience levels, since otherwise the inexperienced players will easily feel dominated by the veterans, which isn’t fun.

Tenseness

If we go back to the hypothetical decision in Carcassonne, then there’s another element that makes that decision fun: Tenseness. The decision is smack full of tenseness because it seems to the player that there’s a lot at stake here: The outcome of the game could be decided by the decision.

I think that tenseness can be a great driver of fun in games. Some of my best memories of solo gaming is from games where winning the game hung in the balance until the very end, so that there was lots of tenseness and that tenseness made the game exciting and fun.

So interesting decision are fun because they lead to tenseness and because they allow you to think that your decisions and skill have an influence on the outcome of the game. But there’s more to it than that.

Intellectual challenge

Another part of what makes an interesting decision fun is that it presents an intellectual challenge and a lot of gamers enjoy those. They similarly enjoy coming up with new strategies, gain insight into the game’s inner clockwork, solving puzzles, and optimizing their moves, so creating a game with multiple viable strategies and features that can be optimized can be an important factor in making a game fun for a large group of players.

Thus, a way to make a game fun is to make it complex enough that it takes some thinking to understand most of what’s going on in the game engine (but not all, because then you end up with a bore like tic-tac-toe). There needs to be enough balanced complexity for there to be multiple paths to victory, and there should be multiple options that the player can tweak to make optimizations. On the other hand, the game can’t be so complex that the players can’t understand the consequences of their actions.

Sense of achievement

The joy of the intellectual challenge is tied to a sense of achievement. If you cook up a new strategy and win using it, or if you grok the game well enough to overcome a particular challenge you’ll feel like you’ve done well, and humans like the accompanying sense of achievement.

Games can also give us a sense of achievement even when we don’t win. It can do this by letting us build or improve something. This can be in engine building games, where you build up a system in the game that gets more and more powerful like in Race for the Galaxy where you can build up a production engine that generates lots of points very quickly at the end of the game. Those last few turns where everything you’ve built up clicks together and you race past your opponents feel great. Any deck builder like Dominion or the Legendary series also plays into this, where your deck gets more and more efficient during the game and you feel more and more powerful. There’s a simple joy, shared by most humans, in building something.

Similarly, games where you put down more and more pieces on the board, so that you can visually see, what you’re building, give a nice sense of achievement. In Agricola for example the fact that you can see the farm that you’re building gives the player a nice sense of achievement.

If we look to video games then a game like World of Warcraft has seen tremendous success and a large part of the reason for this is that you’re continually improving your in game character. After you’ve seen all of what the game’s environment has to offer, you’re still spending hours, days, and weeks making little numbers increase slowly. Basically, World of Warcraft can be described as one of the least inefficient ways that humans have invented to update numbers in a database, but it’s highly addicting to make these numbers go up because doing so gives the player a sense of achievement. Board games can also play into this as can be seen in games like Mage Knight: The Board Game where you level up your character.

Theme and sense of adventure

Games can be placed into one of two categories: Thematic games and abstract games. Thematic games are those that are about something, like settling an Island, fighting a war, or escaping from a dream labyrinth, while abstract games are about nothing, e.g. tic-tac-toe. In reality things are not quite as clear cut, as I make it out to be.

For thematic games the theme itself can make the game fun for the player. For the grognard the act of playing a game about tank combat can in itself be fun. If you can make the theme of your game come alive, then there’s a category of gamers for whom that will contribute a lot to the fun.

In the same vein then games that tell a story can be fun for many gamers. One of the main reasons that games like Lord of the Rings: LCG, Legendary: Alien, and Dawn of the Zeds are great is that they tell exciting stories and that in itself adds a huge amount to the fun for this kind of game.

TL;DR

To sum up, the fun generating factors that I discussed above are:

• Interesting decisions each with a reasonable number of relevant options.
• The right amount of decision impact.
• Tenseness.
• Intellectual challenge.
• Sense of achievement.
• Theme and sense of adventure.

It depends on the kind of player how much you should focus on each of these factors, but considering all or most of them when designing a game is likely to help you make a game that is fun.

Hygiene factors

OK, we now know what we should aim for to make a game fun, but even if you make a game that does well for all six factors you still risk to have your game held back if you don’t consider the hygiene factors. Hygiene factors are elements of a game that won’t contribute to the fun, but can keep an otherwise good game from being enjoyed.

Barrier of entry

If your game is so complex or the rulebook so poorly written that most players give up before they even get the game to the table, well then your game might very well be extremely fun, but very few people will actually get to enjoy it.

Of course, there are gamers who revel in complexity and if they’re your target market, then go crazy, but otherwise you should work very hard to keep your game as simple as it can be, while still doing what you want it to do. Similarly, a game that takes 100 hours to play will only be played by a very small number of hardcore gamers, so again I advise avoiding to be too ambitious.

As a final barrier to entry, you should consider the setup and teardown time. If those take too long and becomes a significant part of the playtime, then you risk having your game stay unplayed on the shelves of your audience’s game collection, since it will seem like too much of a chore to play it.

One way to combat a high setup time that I’ve seen used to great effect in Mound Builders is to turn the setup into part of the game. The game is a part of the States of Siege series, which is a series of tower defense games where you’re given an “empire” to defend from an onslaught of enemies.

In Mound Builders. your empire is more complex than in the other States of Siege games, which could lead to a high setup time. The problem is solved by having the player spend the first ten turns create his empire through a mixture of player decisions, randomized action resolution, and exploring chits that are drawn randomly as you go along.

This approach turns boring setup into a fun part of the game that has the added advantage that, since you yourself build your empire you get much more attached to it, than one that was handed to you by the game designer, and thus the game feels more tense when your empire gets attacked during the main part of the game.

Downtime

Getting over the barriers of entry is not enough. Another surefire way to kill the fun in a game is to have a lot of downtime for the players, where the turn of the other players take so long that by the time it’s your turn again you’ve fallen asleep. Luckily, this is often less of a problem in solo and coop games where you’ll often want to join in and give advice on the other player’s turn, since you’re on the same team.

Downtime through excessive bookkeeping and through administering the environment of the game can be a worse downer. Solo and coop games can have problems in this regard, since they often have an environment or artificial opponent to manage that isn’t present in a competitive game. Because of this, it’s important to keep the procedures for handling the environmental opposition as simple as possible.

Ergonomics

Ergonomics is a word that isn’t often associated with board games, which is a pity, since bad ergonomics can hamper the enjoyment of a game. If the colors of the game pieces are hard to tell apart, then you annoy your players, slow them down, and make them notice that they’re pushing cardboard around, not fighting an evil wizard and thus you kill their suspension of disbelief – and if they’re color blind you might have made your game impossible to play.

Making the game fiddly by for example requiring the player to stack tons of chits in tiny hexes or have the game so big that players can’t reach the components they need will also annoy and lessen enjoyment.
Putting lots of tiny text on the board that makes aging players have to get up and lean close to the board is another example of bad game ergonomics that lessens enjoyment, and the same is bad or overdone symbology that makes the player refer to the rulebook repeatedly.

On the topic of rulebooks then placing important tables or other references in multiple places inside the rulebook will similarly make the players annoyed, because they have to flip through the rules repeatedly. Instead, you should gather such stuff on easily accessible player aids or the back of the rulebook.

For the player aids care should also be taken in choosing what is placed on them. If you overstuff them, then they lose their value for quick referencing.

Finally, I’ll mention the game Onirim, which I very much enjoy, but my one major complaint with the game is that it requires constantly reshuffling a deck of cards, and few people find shuffling a deck of card repeatedly a satisfying use of their time.

Aligning expectations

If your game is fun, but the way you sell it draws in the wrong kind of player, then few people will have fun with your game. E.g. if your game appears to be a deep simulation of modern warfare, but actually is a light game that plays out like an Expendables movie, then you’re likely to have your game trashed by disappointed grognards.

Even if your game would actually appeal to the player who plays it, he might end up being disappointed if the gameplay doesn’t align with the expectations you set via your choice of theme and the descriptions in the rulebook and marketing material. I gave a couple of examples of this in a previous blogpost.

Summing up the hygiene factors

Like with the fun factors I’ll provide the hygiene factors in a handy bullet point list:

• Ease of learning
• Playtime
• Setup time
• Downtime
• Ergonomics
• Failing to align expectations

Feedback wanted

I’m pretty sure that I’ve overlooked a lot of factors in the above discussion and I see this post as my first stab at the subject. I’d love for you to chime in with suggestions for fun and hygiene factors that I have overlooked.
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