Games are fun, that is why people have played games since (probably) the beginning of civilization. However, as designers we have to ask ourselves, what makes our game fun? Why would someone what to play our game over the others out there? What will keep players coming back? There is no singular answer but let us look at several popular games and what parts of those games make them fun. Throughout these examples we will see that there are different components that contribute to a fun game: challenge and competition.
Challenge is the goal of a game and the steps needed to accomplish it and every game has a challenge to it. Sometimes the challenge is to get a certain number of points, or it could be controlling certain points, or working together to solve a mystery, but there has to be a reason to play. The other part of the challenge is that there are obstacles for the player to overcome and the tools to do so. This challenge does a couple things in a game, first it establishes a goal for the players, second the challenge lets the player know the problem they need to solve and how they could solve the problem. An example of challenge can be seen in Terraforming Mars (a tableau building area control game), in players trying to control as much area as possible to increase their score. A second part of the challenge in Terraforming Mars is that the tools a player has are to build a tableau of abilities and one-off actions using cards. This is an example of a goal and means of achieving that goal in a game but this can take the form of many different mechanics. When it comes to the fun a game the challenge provides the basic framework for the player and helps set up their expectation for playing the game.
What ties the challenge into the fun of a game is competition. What I mean by this is that challenge on its own can be fun; puzzles are an example of this phenomenon but that competition is a part of the fun in games. Competition can also be a challenge as players vie to be the winner of a game but more importantly competition comes from the desire to win. This desire to win can come in many forms from simply having luck on one’s side to having a mastery of tactics and understanding of the game to be admired. This competition can also be against the game itself, against teams of payers, or any number of permutations of player configurations however the important aspect is that there is a concept of me (or us) vs. them.
This competitive mindset paired with the framing of the challenge of a game brings out the fun in a game. This comes from players having a goal, tools to achieve that goal, and then attempting to defeat each other. While this is a broad overview of what makes a game fun, in each and every game has the components of challenge and competition in them. With challenge players can (in the simplest terms) feel smart achieving the goal with the tools provided. The competition enhances the challenge by giving players a measure of their skills and understanding of the systems a game puts in place.
As you play you next few games, try to see how the designer laid out the challenge and competition in their game to make it fun. As you may see, different players find different challenges to be fun (and this will be examined another morning) but those two components are still present. Have a great morning!