A thought occurred to me after a game of Ascending Empires tonight, as I put the game away into my game closet. I looked over the variety of games there, thinking about the ones I liked and the ones that just didn’t seem to get as much playtime. I picked up Munchkin and looked at it and thought about why Munchkin, despite it’s enjoyable humor and appealing theme, didn’t get played much anymore.
The last couple of times I played Munchkin, at least that I remember, one person got stuck around level 2. Every time it was their turn, they kicked down the door to find either a monster far too powerful for them, or a new class or race that didn’t really help. They never became powerful enough to help anyone else… so they couldn’t really play. At least, not the main part of the game, the fun part.
I realized that some games – the best games – inherently propagate players forward. Simply by playing the game – even if they don’t know exactly what they’re doing – advances their position in some way. In Ticket to Ride, cards are collected and eventually sequences will be met. In Smallworld, you can always conquer – no luck of the dice can prevent your turn from moving forward (or you can abandon your race which is a viable option.) In 7 Wonders, you have to play a card either for the bonus or for extra money.
The point is, all of these games keep you in the game just by playing them. You don’t have to figure out some weird strategy to advance. You don’t have to wait for luck to roll your way. One of the reasons some people don’t like Settlers of Catan is that you can go several turns without gaining any resources if the dice rolls go against you – if that happens, there is nothing you can do but wait til luck runs your way. Your turn only advances you if you’ve gained the resources necessary to do anything.
In my opinion, this is one of the most important elements of a game design. If a designer hits the spot on this, that means everyone gets to keep playing. No one is left out because of bad luck or because they didn’t realize there was a second game within the game that they needed to be playing to actually advance.
Of course, you can also go too far in the opposite direction. Games that play themselves – such as Monopoly, Life – you know, the roll-and-move-and-do-what-the-space-says games – do ultimately push players forward (except for the classic “lose a turn” or “go to jail” or “go back 3 spaces”) but they forget the other important elements of choice and strategy.
It’s a tough balance to hit – the balance between variety of strategic choices and inherent forward motion, but when a game hits that balance, you usually get something golden.
Just a thought.