As my first post for I Slay the Dragon, I thought it might be a good idea to explain some of the things I value in board games. Here is a list:
- 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 most are easy to learn and teach and allow the player to fill in the gaps. The rules these games have seem intuitive (at least from the inside), and they allow a seamless playing experience. The rules give the player the canvas, but allow him to paint whatever he wants. A game that exemplifies this for me is Dominion. Dominion is so easy to teach and understand–every turn follows ABC. But each game is a new experience, and the cards interact with each other differently. I’ve played games where a card one game is the card everyone buys; it’s one of the exhausted piles. The next game, no one buys a single copy. Simple rules, but lots of strategy within those confines. (Incidentally, I feel the same way about books: the best books are not those that include pages and pages of description for every detail; they’re the ones that allow the imagination to run wild.) Oh, and perhaps the argument most in favor of simplicity: it’s easier to find other people to play with.
- 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. The key element to choices, as I see it, is trade-offs. Choices should be more or less equally good or equally bad. Choosing A might bring consequence X along with it–do you take the good of A with the bad of X? This, I think, is where Agricola shines. Players are faced early on with the reality that they can’t do everything–so now players must determine what is truly valuable and make choices based on trade-offs. It’s tense, but brilliant.
- 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.
- Multiple paths to victory. This goes along with the strategic point, but it’s different enough to deserve mention in its own right. This may not be necessary in a game, but it’s something I value. In some games, there is one way to win, and thus only one strategy to pursue. (I mentioned elsewhere that San Juan felt this way for me, though I know others feel differently.) I love playing games that, after the game is over, the players can compare which strategies they pursued and find that each was trying to win in a different way. (It’s even better if each had an even chance at victory, though really, beating your nemesis in any way is gratifying.) A great example of this kind of game is Race for the Galaxy. Each starting world encourages the player to pursue some kind of strategy, but sometimes the cards dealt out suggest a different one. Players are rewarded for pursuing one path toward victory, so they must choose early on, and rarely do multiple players choose the same path.
- Risk/chance. As much as I enjoy strategy, a good game should have an element of risk or chance. Luck, if you will. 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. We’ve seen it many times in all sorts of competitions: the best team does not always win. Teams can prepare up to a certain point (and they should), but game-day conditions may not be what’s expected, a player may get injured, or the ref may make a bad call. I think this is a good thing–why play the game at all if it’s decided on raw talent beforehand? So I like some luck in games because it’s reflective of life and also keeps things 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 Canasta allows the players to converse while playing. I also like games that require interaction as part of the game. Settlers of Catan encourages trading, as does Bohnanza and even Pit. 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 general things I value in games. I doubt this list is comprehensive–in fact, I updated it from when I originally posted it on my personal blog a few months ago, and there were things I found I had left out. And there are always exceptions. I will still play games I hate, like Apples to Apples, 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. And I still enjoy games with lots of rules because they are so immersive (though they often require a large stockpile of snacks). What you give up in other respects you gain in the game’s sense of immediacy.
But generally, the games I’m itching to play, the games I come back to again and again, are games with the characteristics I’ve listed above.
What about you? What do you look for in a game, and which game is your favorite?