What Makes a Good Game? Part 6

This week I will start to wrap up this series on What makes a good game with a discussion about two areas I could not fit into the other parts: replay value and theme. Now when I talk about replay value what I mean is can you easily ‘solve’ a game or does the game lend itself to not being played more than a few times and how different parts of a game can help or hinder making a game good. As for theme, I am referring to the background and art involved in a game and how it impacts if a game is good or if can make a game good.

Everywhere you look games market themselves as being replayable that you can have as many experiences as you have played the game. For me (and many other people who design games) replay value is key to making a good game and a good hallmark of one. There are several ways that games are made to be replayable though and some of these contribute to better games than others. Some common mechanics used are random factors like dice or cards, character powers, boards that can be put together, or even providing a deep gameplay experience that reveals a interpersonal meta-game between players (like poker).

The key here is that good games have different ways of promoting replay value so that players keep enjoying them. There are some exceptions like the Legacy series of games but because it follows through on its design intent of having a mutating game that is about a story instead of just a single repeatable experience it is the exception rather than the rule. Even with Legacy games though they have a replay value factor for the duration of the game with players having a vested interest in each of the game sessions for the Legacy game and the accomplishment afterwards.

For me what it comes down to in terms of replay value is can I solve this game? When I say solve here I mean from the first few moves or from the seating arrangement or what powers  players have do I know who is going to win. Once a game has been solved for me then it is no longer fun and there are several games that people like that I refuse to play because after a few games of playing it there is no replay value for me. As a player it is exciting to find a great strategy but if the result is the same every time it is either a frustrating time-sink to a loss hoping for a slight slip up or a lack of a challenge for a victory. Even more than the result, the question is ‘is the journey to the result the same for each game?’ if the answer is yes then it is not a good game. With some of the previous techniques described, this frustration or lack of challenge can be mitigated in several games which makes me want to keep playing them.

Now shifting gears, theme is also a hot question for games ‘how important is it?’, ‘is it required?,’ or even ‘how much should it influence the design?’ are all questions commonly found (in some form) on forums or in blogs. While I like themes for the games I play I do not believe that they are indicative of a good game or not. From my previous post on Licensed games, I found that while these themes could draw me in or repulse me that they did not necessarily (in moderation) detract or add to the experience. What I do have to say, however, is that if the theme of the game enhances the metaphor of the mechanics and the design intent then it certainly can make an ok game good. The reason for this would be that it does not provide a cognitive dissonance for the players and can put them in the correct mindset for fully enjoying them game. On the other hand a theme that is a second thought tends to be neutral or even detract from the experience for the reason provided: cognitive dissonance. A good rule of thumb is that if the theme helps my understand the mechanics and strategy of the game better then it is good. Regardless though a good theme does not by itself make a good game.

Now these are my observations this morning on replay valueand theme and if they help make a good game and I would love to hear your thoughts this morning. Enjoy the start of this day and may the dice be in your favor!