- 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.
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?