Friday, November 5, 2010

Jon's Rules for Games

Here is a list of things I value in games:
  • Simplicity of rules. This is not to say that I like games that are easy; I like games that are simple. There's a difference. I find that the games I enjoy playing the most are easy to learn and teach and allow the player to fill in the gaps. The rules these games do have seem intuitive (at least from the inside), and they allow a seamless playing experience. I'll give an example from my collectible card game days using three card games I played: Redemption (the Christian card game to draw kids away from Magic: the Gathering), Magic: The Gathering/Marvel Vs., and the Star Wars CCG (the one from Decipher). The Star Wars CCG had tons of rules. The rule book for the first set was around eighty pages, I believe, and each set thereafter contained a new rules sheet with updates. Since I played with cards from 8+ sets, and so did my friends, I had to keep a lot of rules in mind when I played. The game was still enjoyable, but it was hard to attract new players, and in some ways it was harder to interact while playing because I was so busy remembering the rules. On the other hand, Redemption had too few rules. I joke about this, but I'm also absolutely serious: my friends and I had more fights over this "Christian" card game than we ever had over a "secular" game because the rules were so poorly written. At least with Star Wars we could normally find a rule clearly in print somewhere...even if it took us an hour to find. With Redemption we either had to make something up (which normally made one person unhappy and resulted in the game ending) or end the game early. I think the ideal card game, though, is Magic, and that's why it has caught on so much. I never owned any cards, and I don't like a lot of the artwork/fantasy aspect, but I know how to play. And I also play Marvel Vs., and it has essentially the same rules. The reason this game is so great is that the rule book is super short (eight pages or so), but the possibilities are endless. The rules give the player the canvas, but allow him to paint whatever he wants. Any additional game elements are on the cards themselves, but they all work within the frame of the basic rules. It keeps things clean. 
  • Good-natured. I don't like games that encourage meanness because this often bleeds over to the after-game time. My sister beat me consistently at Risk, and it was hard to spend time with her afterward because she was so merciless within the game. The game encourages ruthlessness, and when you see those characteristics brought out of your friends in one context, you imagine it's possible for them to resurface in other contexts too. This is not to say that a game cannot be competitive. Games have winners and losers; that's the nature of games. But losing in a game should not make a person question his worth as a human being. The games I like best are the kind where the players can walk away as friends, saying, "This time it happened this way, but next time could be different!"
  • Choices available. Candy Land is great for babies and toddlers and whoever the game is designed for; it's terrible for adults. So is the Game of Life (though this can still be fun in certain contexts as a way to comment on how your life is compared to how the Life board dictates it to you). The reason is that no (Candy Land) or few (Life) choices are given to the player. A game without choices is rarely worth playing. This is why Bunco was the roving white elephant gift among my friends.
  • Strategic. This goes along with choices. A good game should allow the player to form a plan for victory. A really good game might force a player to make several such plans as the game goes on, since other players will affect the choices he makes. I enjoy Stratego because the whole time I may have an idea of where my opponent's flag is and I work to find it, but if it isn't there, the strategy changes quickly. Similarly if the opponent is close to finding mine. I can't send resources after his flag if mine is about to fall.
  • Risk/chance. As much as I enjoy strategy, a good game should have an element of risk or chance. Or luck. Battle-of-wits games are fun, but most of the time I'm not looking for a strict battle of wits. Life itself is rarely a battle of wits. I didn't play sports, so I'll use a Bible quizzing analogy. There were many times when the best team did not win. Some people would balk at this and cry foul, but honestly, this is why we have quizzes in the first place and don't just run a stats program. There are things you can control (e.g., how much you study, how well you know the material, how well your team quizzes together), but there are so many factors in a quiz that you can't control (what questions are asked, the mood in the room, who the quizmaster is) that these upsets are bound to happen. I think this is a good thing. It's reflective of life and it also keeps the game more interesting.
  • Interaction with other players. I'm a bit of an introvert, and sometimes it's hard to have conversations with others. Part of the appeal of games is that they give a basis for conversation with someone else. Do you not know what to talk about? Talk about the game. They offer a bridge that allows interaction. A game that stifles conversation is harder to enjoy for me (depending on who I'm playing with). This hits on one reason why I love Canasta. The rules are simple (at least after you get the hang of them), so it allows the players to converse while playing. Sometimes I would rather play a simpler, easier, worse game if it allows this connection with other players
  • Balanced. Monopoly is a terrible game for two players. It might just be a terrible game. I'm the youngest in my family, and I can count on one hand (maybe even one finger) the number of times I've won this game. Every other time I've had to sit and watch as another player slowly bleeds his opponents--or be the one bled. Risk is the same way. Both games encourage ruthlessness because they are both all-or-nothing games. You either have everything or you have nothing at the end. You feel good if you have everything, but woe to you if you have nothing. I like best games where every player has some kind of chance up to the very end.
These are just some thoughts on games. I'm not sure if this list is comprehensive, and there are always exceptions. I will still play Monopoly occasionally (if the crowd is right), and I'm not always in the mood for a strategy-heavy game. (Dutch Blitz, for instance, is not heavy on strategy, but it's fun; it's more of a skill and multitasking game.) I still enjoy games with lots of rules because they are so immersive. What you give up in other respects you gain in the game's immediacy.

One game that I think embodies all of these gaming virtues is Settlers of Catan, which is probably why it's so popular these days. My favorite game, which is not quite as balanced as Settlers, is Acquire. But maybe I'll talk about these another time.

What do you look for in a game, and which game is your favorite?


  1. Monopoly may be the worst game ever created by mankind. First of all, not only does it eliminate players, but it drags on for a long time even after players begin to get eliminated. I remember playing a game of monopoly with college friends and I was the first one eliminated - about an hour or so into the game. There was nothing left for me to do, so I just kind of left and went to do my own thing while everyone else kept playing... for another 2 hours.

    The dragging-on aspect itself is pretty bad, for it's anticlimactic. It's rarely ever a long drawn-out battle between two or three players for control of the board. Usually it becomes pretty clear who's pulling ahead, and then it takes another hour and a half for them to slowly siphon money out of the other players until finally driving them bankrupt.

    Oddly enough, while I usually disapprove of making different versions of a game to capitalize on a target audience, (star wars monopoly, high school musical monopoly, etc. etc.) some of these variations actually improve the game. For example, in Lord of the Rings monopoly there is a "ring" token that moves forward every time the "eye of sauron," which is simply a 1 on one of the dice, is rolled. When it gets back to start, the game ends. This gives a reasonable limit on game length and games tend to end before players are eliminated.

  2. In other news, I used to play Stratego all the time. Great game.

    In Other Other news, at Gencon I played a variation on the Candyland theme, which was called "Run for your Life, Candyman!" It was basically an inverse candyman, where you're running from the castle to escape the king. Same game mechanic of drawing colored cards, but with the addition of a few rules - you can attack the other players, and you can choose to move forward or backwards (if you want to go back and attack another player, or avoid being the player furthest along and thus the biggest target). After all, only one gingerbread man will make it out alive. Maybe.

    An added bonus is that when you damage a player's limbs enough, you get to tear them off - each player has a sheet of paper with their character on it.

    It's pretty fun.

  3. Those variations do seem like they would improve the games. I had Star Wars Monopoly, but sadly there were no variations. It was just Monopoly--in space!

    That reverse Candy Land sounds fun. I really like the "reverse Clue" I have, Kill Dr. Lucky.

  4. Very good post. Even though I don't enjoy collaborative games, I enjoyed reading this (I say collaborative games because I do enjoy some video games but only if I can play by myself). I wish I enjoyed playing games of sort you talk about here, but I really don't. It took me a while to figure out why, but, after some self-analysis, I've decided that I don't like playing the games because I take them so seriously that I can't enjoy them at all. Winning is mere relief while losing is absolutely crushing. As a result, I'm inclined to not get involved at all. I can't say I like this about myself, but I'm not to sure that I can do much about it.

  5. @Socrates43: I guess that explains why you abstained from Family Game Night in college. :-)

  6. Since I (we) had such a great time playing it at a pre-wedding party years ago, I decided to get a friend Canasta for her birthday last year (she loves games) and we just recently broke it out. It took us awhile to get used to the rules and learn the spirit of the game but even after the first game we all had a good time. This same friend has a very fun game that I supposed is similar to Settlers (having never played it before) called Carcasonne (spelling?). We enjoy that one, too. Growing up, my younger brother and I played Payday all the time but hen I played it in college with some friends, I realized that my brother and I had our own complete set of rules. But they worked and we were amused. Dutch Blitz is a blast but I think Euchre is on of the best card games ever created.

  7. Canasta remains one of my go-to favorites and is a frequent wedding fit.

    I have played Carcassonne, and I love it. Its rules are very simple, but there's still a lot of enjoyment to be had.

    My opinion of Euchre is not favorable. Euchre is for people who for whatever reason don't want to learn Rook or Pinochle. Then again, I may just bear resentment toward the game because of all the losses I've had. Oh well. :-)