What Makes a Good Game? Part 1

First of all sorry for having our Morning Table Talk on Monday instead of Sunday this week due to the flurry of conventions PDXAGE and Bellingham Anime Con both were amazing. Being at a few conventions in the last week, I had a little bit of time to think about what makes a good game and how that is different than a great game. As a note: the games that I will describe are some that I like and some that I don’t really enjoy; what I am focusing on is if these are good games from a design perspective for the aspect I am talking about.

There are several things that make a game great: a solid design intent, meaningful player decisions, active player engagement, responsive turns, easy understanding of rules and the game itself, allowing for players to catch up, and flexible strategies. Given the large scope of this topic I will make this a multi-part Morning Table Talk series. This morning I will start off by talking about the one thing I think is key to all of the others: Design Intent.

For every game that I make or play I think about the design intent of the game. The design intent can answer some of the questions: Why was this game made? What makes it different than the other games on the market? What experience does it deliver? Why would I play this game over others that are similar? From those simple questions the theme (if any), mechanics, and experience are grown and defined.

So having said all of that what makes a good design intent and how does that make for a good game? To look at that I will go to an example of good design intent: Monopoly. Now before you leave this blog let me explain, as I described in a previous Morning Table Talk Monopoly was initially made to show the evils of a monopoly based economy and how that only benefits a single person. Now think to the times that your family has played Monopoly and think to the games that did not end due to frustration or boredom of the players who were eliminated? That was part of the experience that the original designer Lizzie J. Maggie wanted to convey. If the intent of the game was different there would have been other choices made to make the game more fun for instance having the game stops when one person goes bankrupt or when a player reaches a certain amount of money. Another example of the intent affecting the final game comes from the some of the basic mechanics around jail and its ineffectiveness or event benefit of hindering the player currently in the lead. Now Monopoly has other issues that make it a very frustrating game to play and there are several games on the market (such as The Grizzled) that combine good intent and mechanics for a fun experience. For me the Intent would inform the mechanics of a game and from there help shape the player interactions and thus the whole experience.

Most games that make it to market do not have issues with the design intent but while creating a game it can be apparent. While working on Affectionate Cats and Cuddles, I quickly found the base rules and mechanics with the intent that the game would be short, simple, and about cats being sweet. This simple game worked perfectly but I wanted to try to make a ‘Advanced’ version of the game. Suffice it to say the mechanics were clunky; players were rewarded for not rolling dice, the actions were becoming more confusing, and the game was simply less fun. I worked on these rules for months before I realized that the idea of a advanced and more complicated rule set put me at odds with the original intent and from that people found that they were having fun but something was missing or off. As a result of that I realized that this advanced version was not in line with the original intent I wanted and thus the design of the game did not lend itself to having an advanced version while also trying to be simple. In short, if there is a disconnect between the implementation and intent then the game suffers as a result.

Over the next several weeks I will be going into other things that make games good (or not) and the foundation of that, in my humble opinion, comes from this initial intent of design. If someone wants to make a game that will grow over time, then they will leave mechanics and rules to allow for that growth. If someone wants a game where players must guess each other's loyalties then they will put secrets or agendas in there. My point is that as a starting point for what makes a good game you have to see what the Design Intent is to understand the decision that came afterward and that eventually affect the player.

This is something to think about as your week starts off and I hope you have a great morning.