The Games Journal | A Magazine About Boardgames

Managing the Game Experience

Stefan Alexander

April, 2005

Playing games face-to-face is a highly social experience. The rules of the game are only one part of this experience, though. A search through online articles on board and card games will yield a plethora of analysis on the strategy and mechanics of these games—and rightfully so, since these are complex issues and worthy of the study we have given them. Far fewer articles exist focusing solely on the social aspects of games.

How many readers have been in possession of a beautifully produced game, examined the pieces, set up the board, read the rules, even plotted possible strategies—but had to wait weeks, even months to play? In this hobby, there are as many dissenting views as there are different games, but a common point of agreement is that there are too few players. Thus there are again countless discussions, again rightfully so, on "gateway games"—those elusive games that offer the simplicity of rules, captivating theme, and the proper mix of strategy and luck to transform "non-gamers" into "gamers".

Even among seasoned players, occasionally a popular, well-respected game will fall flat. With so many games to choose from, sometimes that single bad experience is enough to ensure the game never comes out again.

This article is about managing the experience of the game. This can be useful in several different scenarios; selecting games, playing games, and designing games.

First, when selecting a game for non-gamers to play, it is tempting to rely solely on a fun game with simple rules. If it's with a spouse of the female persuasion, something with low conflict is often suggested. This advice has evolved mainly from shared experiences of which games worked, and which fell flat. However, a more robust model for gamers, non-gamers, parents, and game-haters would be useful, so that we can predict with greater accuracy the games that will result in a better experience.

Second, games cannot function without players, and many games allow for a wide variety of playing styles. The way we play a game can have as much impact on the experience as the choice of game.

Finally, a designer creates a game with the intention of providing a certain type of experience. Whether the specific experience was by design, or simply revealed itself in playtesting, designers must be able to recognize the type of experience the game is creating, and adjust it as required for the target audience.

Although I will not attempt to fully explore all these scenarios, most of these fundamental questions require an understanding of why people play games. At the most basic level, this can probably be traced back to human nature—the requirements of individual fulfillment and social interaction. But this approach will not be of much practical use to the average gamer who is trying to pick a game to play with his family. So, let's start with the most obvious reasons:

Reason #1: Playing for Pleasure

Many people who play games do it for the simple pleasure of playing. It scratches an itch, whatever that itch might be. Some people enjoy the actual experience of a game, regardless of the outcome.

Reason #2: Playing for Money

Gambling is a huge part of gaming. It would not surprise anyone that there is more money in games of chance than in euro-style strategy games, or that there are more professional Poker players than professional Puerto Rico players. Although many people gamble for pleasure, it cannot be ignored that a huge part of that pleasure is the desire to for monetary gain. Remove the money aspect, and many of these games lose their appeal. Therefore, playing for money involves both the experience and the outcome.

Reason #3: Playing for Status

The final category involves people who play games not for the experience of the game, but solely for the outcome. Why would someone play a game if they don't enjoy the experience? Some people simply like to win—perhaps they are trying to impress someone else, or prove something to themselves. Some honor might be on the line. Imagine a young, arrogant student playing Go with a wise old man, with friends and family from both sides watching the game. Or two Chess masters playing a private game in the park. Or challenging a Chinese bus driver to a game of Tichu (hopefully not when he's working).

Since most readers of The Games Journal fall closely into the first category, I will focus on that for the remainder of the article. So now we are left with the question of "what's the itch that games scratch?" The answer is, of course, "it depends". Before we can manage the experience, we must first determine what we want that experience to be. Games have different elements that appeal to different people, so we should continue this discussion with the different elements of games. These are characteristics that all games have; they define the space of what we call games.

Element #1: Make-Believe

Games are outside ordinary life. Consider your typical day—wake up, get ready, head off to work, come home, make dinner, clean up, pay bills, complete chores, go to bed. Compare this to building an empire that spans continents, or crawling through a troll-infested dungeon in search of treasure, or leading an attack to cripple an enemy's defenses. For those who enjoy the theme, it allows them to escape. Players can do things they normally wouldn't, or couldn't. On the other hand, some people couldn't care less about a game's theme, and are happy playing abstract games.

Element #2: Conflict

Compare a friendly 8-player game of Pictionary with two couples playing Settlers of Catan, or a cutthroat game of Diplomacy. Conflict is intrinsic to every game, although it can take different forms:

  • Individual, or team-based
  • Cooperative, or non-cooperative
  • Direct or indirect

All these games involve very different types of conflict, often mixing and matching types within the same game. Settlers of Catan, for example, is a race to achieve 10 victory points—this type of competition is quite indirect. However a player rolling a "7" can steal a card from another player, which is much more direct. Some players are comfortable with all types conflict, and even relish it—for others, it detracts from their enjoyment.

Element #3: Social Interaction

It's not so much that different people enjoy different levels of social interaction—most people enjoy this regardless. The point is that for some, social interaction is the primary purpose of playing a game. Party games, and games with negotiation or trading tend to score highly among these people. Games where people stare at the board, silently placing a piece each turn without even looking at each other will fare much lower. Some people will play games simply for the social interaction, without as much interest in the game as what it facilitates.

Think of this as taking a date to the movies. Sitting down and watching the movie is probably not what you really want to do. The movie is just an excuse, and the hope is that it will facilitate other types of more (ahem) direct interaction.

Element #4: Decision Making

The degree of decision making in a game boils down to two things; how many choices you have, and how meaningful those choices are. The amount of both of these can yield very different experiences. A large number of choices will open the space of possibility for a game, allowing many different strategies, and varying experiences each time you play. It also becomes a more mentally intensive experience, for better or for worse.

When your choices have significant impact in the outcome of a game, it gives a great feeling of power and accomplishment—it generally takes days, months, or even years to reap the rewards of hard work in real life. In a game, it happens in an hour or two. On the other hand, when we are forced to make hundreds of real-life decisions every day, there is something comforting about allowing something to progress on its own.

Element #5: Uncertainty

There are many sources for uncertainty in a game; Randomizing elements such as dice, random drawing of cards or tiles, and especially other players. Too little uncertainty can make the game boring. Too much can give the feeling that you have no control, and players will lose interest in the game. Some players appreciate the control offered by a low-luck game, and are frustrated when careful plans are destroyed by an unlikely dice roll. Others are intimidated by games with little luck, where a loss can make them feel inferior. Especially with dice games, many of which are mostly random, part of the appeal is that fate can decide the outcome, rather than the skill of the players. Although most gamers will probably shy away from such high-uncertainty games, it is important to remember that different people have different preferences when it comes to uncertainty.

Element #6: Rules

This section is last because rules are at the same time the most important and the least important element of a game. In one sense, the rules define the game, and therefore define how the other elements of a game play out. On the other hand, when most people think of rules, they think of:

  • Complexity of the rules.
  • Number of pages in the rule book.
  • Are the rules intuitive?
  • The number of exceptions in the rules.
  • How hard it is to learn?
  • How hard it is to teach?
  • Is the rule book well written?

These things are certainly important—if you never make it through explaining the rules, even the best game will remain unplayed. But don't stop there—look at how the rules shape the game, and how they contribute to all the other elements.

Having defined these elements of a game, we can now use them for their intended purposes:

Selecting a Game

It is beyond the scope of this article (and this author) to delve into why certain people enjoy certain elements of games. But knowing these elements, and knowing a bit about the person, you can usually find a game that emphasizes the elements you think they'll enjoy, and minimizes the ones they won't.

Unfortunately, the back of a game box doesn't have a detailed breakdown of the elements of a game. The best way to evaluate the elements of a game is to play it—often reading the rules, setting up the board, and playing through a few round on your own is enough. Online reviews can also be a huge source of information, although like all reviews, they are more useful coming from reviewers who think as you do. Practical considerations also come into play such as the age range, appropriateness of the theme, and the actual play time.

Playing the Game

Before the game can be played, the rules must first be taught. Two articles come to mind that should be required reading for anyone introducing a new game to other players.

Mario T. Lanza offers an excellent approach to teaching rules in The Finer Points of Teaching Rules, which leads us to the actual experience of playing the first game, and an article by Mike Petty entitled Making the First Time Count.

The importance of these considerations cannot be understated—the best-chosen game can yield an unpleasant experience by a poor explanation of the rules, or a sloppy first run-through. However, when it comes to playing a game, there are even more things to consider.

I over-simplified earlier when I stated the elements of a game are shaped by its rules. To a degree, this is true, which is why the selection of a game is so important. But just as important in shaping the elements of a game is the actual play itself. There is a space of possibility within all rules—some larger than others—which allows for different experiences based on player's decisions.

Carcassonne is a game that allows for a wide range of experiences. The game can be played casually—laying tiles simply to build up your own regions, chatting between turns, with little direct confrontation. It can also be played much more competitively, and perhaps with a better chance of winning, by strategically placing tiles to block other players, and placing followers to steal opponents' regions. One game is low-conflict and high-luck; the other one emphasizes direct confrontation and strategic play.

It is not enough to simply choose the perfect game for the situation; the game must also be played "perfectly". The way people play and its effects on the elements of a game are just as important as proper selection of rules.

With the focus of this article on making other players enjoy the game, the one question left unanswered is "What about me?". Obviously each reader has his or her own preferences for games, and you don't need to worry about "elements of games" in order gauge your enjoyment of a game. You simply play it, and can tell if you like it or not. However if you're reading this there's a greater chance that you're a more seasoned gamer, and that you both enjoy a greater range of games than the average person, and also that you are willing to play games you don't enjoy as much in order to turn others into seasoned gamers.

Designing a Game

This discussion is also useful for those who are designing games. The interesting thing here is that designers cannot control the playing experience—they can only control the rules. Therefore, they are shaping the experience of a game only by the rules, which is a hard task indeed. Game design is a second-order process—you can't write down "low-luck, high conflict, and medium player interaction" in the rulebook, and end up with such a game. You choose rules, calculate card distributions and limit player's actions in order to manage the elements of the game.

Although the most experienced designers can predict some of the outcomes of their rules, it is still mostly a trial-and-error process that evolves through extensive playtesting.

These elements are just one thing to consider when designing a game—if this type of discussion interests you, the book Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals (Salen/Zimmerman) is an excellent resource.

All of this is made even more difficult by the fact that everything is constantly changing. What works one night might not work another night, and one person added or removed from a group can change the dynamic greatly. Even within a single evening, with the same group of people, different types of games may work at different times. This article is not intended to answer questions. Instead, consider it a toolkit—when things go wrong, it gives you things to consider, and hopefully one of them can help you find a solution.

To bring the discussion full-circle, the task of managing a game experience has many of the elements of a game itself; conflict, interaction, decision making, and uncertainty. Not only can it be enjoyable (as you are essentially playing two games simultaneously), but if you play well, everyone wins.

- Stefan Alexander

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