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Player Experiences

Richard Vickery

February, 2003

When I've asked what game we should play next, and a gamer says "I'm in the mood for .....", it is my experience that rarely do they say "a game with a train theme" or "a game with tile laying". More often they say something along the lines of "something light" or "silly" or "bluffy" or "with a story" or "one with no down time", and of course often it is "short" or "new"! Now there are lots of ways to classify games, and "short" and "new" are qualities that are easy to assign, as is "number of players" or "box colour"; however these don't capture the essence of the "I'm in the mood for..." feeling. Theme and key mechanic are classification systems used in many reviews, but these two don't usually capture the essence for me either. For example, Chess and Tic-Tac-Toe are both two player abstract games, and both are open information, sequential move games with no randomizers, but the feel of playing either game is completely different. I'm going to propose a system based on the primary experiences of the players, because although the core idea of gaming is that it's fun, there are clearly shadings within this experience of fun. Playing Chess is a very different experience from playing Charades: not just a difference in intensity, but also a difference in focus, in the skills exercised, and ultimately in the type of pleasure derived. My hope is that this list might assist game reviewers and their readers, because telling me that a game is "about trains", or "involves tile-laying", gives me no clue as to whether I will like it or not (although I am happy to concede that other people may find such a description adequate to decide that a game is compelling or a turn-off).

This list can only be a starting point and I welcome comments, additions and refinements. Inevitably there will be some common ground with mechanic lists and theme lists where these lists are dealing with high-order concepts. I have tried to avoid making my categories overlapping, and I do expect that most games will provide several of these experiences, although some will be focussed just on providing one experience. At the end of the list I will classify a few games to give a sense of how I see it working, and explain a few omissions.

The list of Positive Game Experiences

Magic: The Gathering cardsThe Plan. Here the game is really just a testing field for a plan the player has developed before the game proper begins. Any game with a major pre-game phase includes this experience, and this preparation can be the most enjoyable part of the game experience. Examples: Magic: The Gathering, Star Fleet Battles.

Forward Evaluation. These games are brain-intensive struggles of will, with no surprises, and winning relies on the ability to look several turns ahead. This experience differs from The Plan, because most of the work is done on the fly. Two-player games tend to deliver the best fix of this experience because third parties can't deny you your rightful victory. Examples: Chess, Paths of Glory.

Aha! This refers to clever and complex tactical play, which usually involves surprising the opponent. It differs from Forward Evaluation in that the move is often not the result of long-term planning but a serendipitous discovery, and that the overall game can be very chaotic. Pulling off a cunning move can be a pleasure, even in a game where one loses. Examples: WizWar, Expedition, Murder in the Abbey.

Mind Games. This experience is related to getting the better of your opponents by reading their minds and concealing your own thoughts. It is part of the skill required in negotiation. Examples: Poker, Bluff, Diplomacy.

Tension. Here the pleasure of the game resides in the excitement, and frequent yells and laughter are signals of this experience. I include it as a separate category because games that include none of the preceding experiences can still induce tension by adding luck in an appropriate manner. Examples: Can't Stop, Backgammon, Exxtra.

Narrative. A major pleasure of these games is the experience of being part of an unfolding plausible and compelling story. Examples: Tales of the Arabian Nights, Advanced Civilization.

Roleplay. Games that demand silly accents and "getting into the spirit", and where the fun lies in the quips and repartee, are likely to have a major element of Roleplay. Card games with a "take that" aspect often qualify, as one attempts to soften the blow to another player by some amusing justification. Examples: Meuterer, Bang!, many of the Star Wars & Lord of the Rings games.

Simulation. The experience here is learning, as an effective simulation can be a great way to gain insight into the situation depicted, especially the dynamic relationships. The simulation is usually of a battle, but could be of evolution, pre-history or a myriad of other topics. Examples: American Megafauna, World in Flames.

These later categories are less compelling to me, but I think they are still informative.

Communication. The focus here is on clear signaling, usually to a partner. Examples: Bridge, Lord of the Rings (co-operative board game), Charades.

BarbarossaLateral Thinking. The experience here is somewhat similar to that in Aha!, but now you are working outside the game rules to achieve the break-through rather than inside. Examples: Pictionary, Barbarossa.

Knowledge. This is the application of real world knowledge to the game space (in most games real world knowledge might be deemed a hindrance). Examples: Scrabble, Trivial Pursuit.

Time Pressure. This seems justified because many players dislike this experience in a game. The most stressful examples are probably the games played in real-time. Examples: Brawl, Bongo, Speed Chess.

Dexterity. Certainly a different set of skills is required than is needed for most board games. Examples: Jenga, Villa Paletti, Cairo.

Constant Engagement. Some people use the word "interactive" for this, but I prefer "little downtime" as I use to interactive to mean how dependent one player's fate is on the action of the other players. There is a different nature to the experience of a game like Risk where you spend an afternoon at the game, but most of it engaged in small talk, compared with Puerto Rico where there is little time for chat as your attention is constantly required. Examples: Settlers of Catan, Mah Jongg.

Now to classify some games...

Settlers of Catan. I would say that the main experiences are Tension as you wait for the right dice roll, Mind Games as you try to strike the best deals, and Constant Engagement. Secondary elements might include Narrative as your settlements expand, and The Plan and Forward Evaluation.

Puerto Rico. Primary experiences are The Plan and Forward Evaluation. Secondary experiences include Narrative and Constant Engagement. Games with both The Plan and Forward Evaluation tend to feel "heavier" than those without.

Cosmic Encounter. Experiences are Mind Games and Aha! Secondary experiences are Roleplay and Tension.

Carcassonne. Tension, with some Aha!

Experiences that I considered for the list but rejected were spatial evaluation and risk management (which I have lumped into Forward Evaluation). These both relate to the experience of forward planning in a hard fought contest, but seem more related to mechanics that to the player experience (I feel the same exhaustion at the end of both types of game). I am sure that there are differences between players in their ability to see a visual pattern, or to extrapolate board positions into the future, or to evaluate a set of inter-locked events, but I think these differences of skill are probably very subtle and lead to a near infinite proliferation of categories. The things that make a game fun are usually not the details of mechanics but the types of interactions you have with fellow players.

- Richard Vickery

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