What Makes a Good Game? Part 4

So far in this series about what makes a good game we have covered the design intent, mechanics, and player interaction and how all of these facets contribute to making a good game. This week let us look at the game itself abstracted away from these previous concepts and look at the actions of a turn and the overall flow of the game and how they contribute to a good game or can detract from it.
The actions of a turn can be broken down into what are called atoms which (not unlike in science) are the smallest units of a turn. These atoms are the individual parts of a turn such as drawing a card, rolling dice, or other actions that the mechanics allow. In each of the cases for an atom it should be something that adds to the game or in other words a good game does not have additional actions, steps, etc. that do not add to the game’s experience.

When the atoms are done right, the turns feel snappy (for the design intent of the game) and contribute to the game in ways previously discussed in earlier parts of this series. Overall, with a well structured turn the actions of the turn and the flow from one turn to the next is smooth and feels satisfying to the player in that they advanced their goals in the game or took the best action they could.

Now in a good game these turns eventually build up to an end scenario and a game comes to a completion at the right time. This is a very fuzzy description but basically means that a game does not overstay its welcome by taking too long or isn’t too short leaving players frustrated. The length of a game can be designed around in several different ways ranging from have a fixed number of rounds, to a score limit, objective to achieve, or even, in some odd games, players agreeing on a end condition or termination of the game. In each of these cases the goal is to ensure that the players in the game are playing the game long enough to enjoy it but not long enough to feel frustrated. This becomes complicated however in games with player elimination, but that is a discussion for another morning.

To help with the length of a good game, good games should have mechanics for rubberbanding (catching up when behind) and/or snowballing (having the leader have an advantage for leading). Now these two different sets of mechanics have different purposes rubberbanding lengthens a game but allows for players to feel like they still have a chance. Snowballing on the other hand, when done well, speeds a game to ending when it becomes apparent that a player will win no matter what. These mechanisms are difficult to quantify but suffice it to say if a game allows for all the players to feel like they have a chance but ends the game when it becomes apparent that a player will win, then it is more than likely a good game.

This leads me to the final topic I wanted to talk about this morning with a high overview of a game: strategies. There should be multiple ways to win a game i.e. in my opinion if every player has the exact same strategy or is completely optimized for one kind of play it is not a good game. This does not mean that there need to be multiple win conditions (though it is an interesting design concept) or more mechanics in a game but simply that the game should allow for people trying different things. Several games fail at this including Ascension and Power Grid which make them unenjoyable since it becomes a race for the same things and if you get that first you win and the rest of the game is just playing out the turns with little hope for the other players. Several games try to tackle this with having different powers for cards, social dynamics, random board set up, special synergies, etc. Regardless of the method of design, a good game should have more to who wins than “whoever gets to X first (or the most of X) wins.”
But all of this is just food for thought this morning. I hope as you play your next game you think about the flow of the turn, each action you can take, how long the game is, and if there were multiple strategies you could play with or just one? Have a wonderful morning!