The Games Journal | A Magazine About Boardgames

The Mysterious Fun Factor

Frank Branham

March, 2002

Occasionally, I come across a game that I just do not like. Some of these games even elicit a strong enough reaction to wonder how anyone could ever enjoy playing them. Invariably, I read half a dozen reviews describing the game as "fun", or "very fun" or "a riot."

Recently, after starting, witnessing, and egging on a couple of discussions/flame wars on a few mailing lists—I think I have finally found an answer.

Games are not fun.

That is, a game can innately be challenging, strategic, long, short, interactive... but not fun. The players have to make the game fun, the game itself adds very little to that factor.

The easiest case to see my point is the type of game that Mike Siggins referred to as "Take That" games. You know, the sort of card game where you have a hand of cards—you play good cards on yourself, bad cards on your opponents. Someone took the basic design from Mille Bornes, added a new theme and a few differences, and tossed it on the market.

The humor on the cards themselves cannot last more than once through the deck. And when you are part of a group that is thoroughly enjoying a game you notice...

It is the players that make games fun.

They are either actively placing themselves in the game, making amusing comments about how the cards are played, the torment of another player, or just being creative.

To have "fun" at a game requires a sort of work similar to the enjoyment that players get from playing a seriously challenging game. You can play Through the Desert at a light level, and without thinking through your moves, but unless you put effort into working through the challenge—you are not going to enjoy yourself.

The game simply provides a basic toolkit or theme for the players to amuse themselves. However, a game can wreck the chances of players having fun. Long, complex rules or a game that requires serious mental gymnastics are probably not going to start people giggling. (I personally love really hard puzzle games, but playing a game like Black Vienna is almost grueling.)

Games can also be constructed to pretty much force their players into being hilarious. When you look at games that get solid reviews as great light games, the list often includes things like Apples to Apples, Times Up, The Big Idea, Guesstures. These games make people construct tenuous and silly comparisons, make sales pitches for insane objects, or stand up and wave frantically as part of their gameplay.

However, even these games cannot make you have fun. I've played dreadfully dull games of Apples to Apples and Times Up, due to players who did not get into the spirit of things and work to enjoy themselves.

So, if you are writing an online review, and want to call a game "fun" or "no fun"—please tell us why.

- Frank Branham

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