Kevin B. Smith
Recently I played Nefertiti for the first time. It was ok, but didn't really grab me. As I was playing, it reminded me of Ilium, a(nother) game I only played once. It took me a bit to figure out what it was about those games that I didn't particularly like. After all, both involve Set Collection, which I'm fine with, and neither involves heavy conflict or screwage. Ilium does use area majorities which I don't like, but Nefertiti doesn't (it uses auctions to obtain tiles), so that wasn't it.
Further thought revealed that in both games, the first time you play, you have this overwhelming universe of possibilities. There are a few dozen place you can place your first meeple, and you really don't know what would be best. After playing a bit, you start to understand the game and can see better or worse places. But even then, it's hard to form a coherent strategy. At that point, my dislike of Nefertiti shifts in a different direction.
Cue the flashbacks to my one game of El Grande. As with the other games mentioned here, when you first start, you have no idea what to do. And like Ilium, it relies on majorities. But the thing I really dislike about El Grande is the chaos. Until the player before you starts his or her turn, you don't even know what card you will get, and the card will dictate what you will be allowed to do this turn. So you can't really plan a lot in advance. Compounding that is that each player's turn can completely shift the board around, so something you thought you might want to do might no longer be beneficial.
At one point during El Grande, I couldn't even figure out whether I wanted to go early in the round, or late. The player next to me jokingly pointed to a card in my hand and said "Play that one". I should have listened to her, because it ended up being a lot better choice than the one I actually ended up playing.
With Nefertiti, there was such a delay from placing my first worker on an auction until the auction closed and I could decide what to buy (or whether to take money instead), that I just couldn't plan. Too much changed, and even though it was like slow-motion chaos, it was still chaos.
This is all a long way around to say that I have learned one thing I really like in games: To have a short-to-mid-term goal in mind, with a reasonable chance of achieving it. The goal should span multiple turns, but generally would not be a game-long strategic plan. None of the games mentioned so far have that attribute. Or at least I lack the proficiency in those games that would be required to be able to pick a goal and aim for it. And none of these games have enough appeal for me to want to play them enough to develop that proficiency.
Contrast that with some games that I do enjoy. These are not my favorite games, but they are some arbitrarily-chosen games that illustrate my point.
Bombay. At any point in time, you pretty much have one or two destinations in mind. You might be planning to move your elephant to where you can buy silk. You might be heading to one of two cities where you could sell silk. Maybe along the way you will change your mind and decide to build a palace. That's fine. I like games where the situation changes and you have to adapt. But most of the time you can pick a goal (or two alternatives) and pursue it (them) to completion. This may be why I tend to like pickup-and-deliver games.
Thebes. In this one, you know you are going to dig for artifacts. You'll have to decide how much knowledge to accumulate first, and then where to dig, and then for how long. While accumulating knowledge you might get distracted by a conference, or a tool. You might change your mind about where to dig based on where another player went. But you can have a general plan in mind, and more or less stick to it much of the time.
World Without End. This one has a fair amount of chaos, but I find it to be manageable. Each chapter, I know I need to get 2 food, 2 piety tokens, and 5 gold. There are multiple ways to get them, including a potential windfall in each of the 6 turns per chapter. Each chapter I will play 6 of the 12 cards in my deck. Some events throw wrenches in the works, perhaps requiring a whole new plan. Sometimes a free good will land in my lap, allowing me to choose an even better course. But by and large, I can have some goals in mind, and work toward them.
Aside from the three games I mentioned at the start of this post, here are some others that I don't like for similar reasons:
Troyes (overwhelming options when you are new to the game; unpredictability of dice)
Go (overwhelming options)
Guillotine and Give Me the Brain! (total chaos)
Mr. Jack (not knowing until almost your turn which character you will get to move; sometimes overwhelming options)
I think many of the games I have criticized in this post are actually very well-designed games. It's a bit hard for me to see the appeal of El Grande or Guillotine, but I do acknowledge that they each have their fans, so there must be something there. If you enjoy overwhelming options, or extreme chaos, that's great for you. I'm glad I have identified more attributes of games that can help me predict whether or not I am likely to enjoy a game before I play it.