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Random Factors

Robert Markley

July, 2003

Gamers, or at least serious gamers, are a funny breed. A common intricacy among gamers is a need for orderliness manifested in lists of games, statistics of results, session reports etc. But amongst the trickiest problems posed in meeting this urge is the problem of how to rate games. A rating should at least be partly descriptive of why a game rates well, as there is something intensely dissatisfying in a simple 1 - 5 stars rating. Of course movie reviews followed by a rating have existed in this unsatisfactory universe forever. Furthermore, most unfairly there is no basis to argue with the reviewer that rates The Empire Strikes Back 5 stars ahead of 3 stars for Star Wars because the reviewer doesn't have to justify the criteria by which his stars are awarded (quality of end credits?, political affiliation of the director?, the bottle of wine he consumed before watching the movie?). But we all know you can't trust a movie review unless you also trust the actual reviewer.

I guess most of us do buy our games on the basis of reading these kinds of reviews (generally by the trusted oracles of the gaming world) and by the reputation of the game designer, so the point is moot. On the other hand, we are gamers and therefore demand something more systematic and descriptive!

In coming up with a game rating system there are certain factors to consider, such as luck—is there a heavy dose of this nasty element? Then there is the complexity of the game—perhaps this is covered by the suggested age range, but not very satisfactorily. Is it a fun game? How do you measure fun anyway—no I don't giggle like a schoolgirl when I play it, but then again I might enjoy a good mental puzzle such as Ricochet Robot (in actual fact I don't) and that might meet my definition of fun. Then we can add in the aesthetics and production qualities. Before long there is a virtually endless list of criteria all to receive a rating and still no satisfactory overall rating system. What is called for is a systematic dissection of the game into various elements that can then coalesce back into some kind of summary, but if we're not careful we'll complete the circle and end up with the old 5 stars again.

One helpful step is to apply a bipolar scale to the rating rather than a simple score. If a game has no luck then it must rely on skill. Therefore instead of rating a game for both skill and luck, the rating might as well put skill at one end of the scale and luck at the other. Similarly a game is either simple or it is complex. There is a certain economy in halving the number of factors that have to be rated this way, but with some scales—for example fun versus serious—it depends what you want from the game, and consequently it is perhaps less of a score than a choice between alternatives. Therefore while the scale is a more comprehensive rating method; sometimes the scale is descriptive (luck vs. skill), sometimes presents choice between alternatives (manual dexterity vs. cerebral) and sometimes it is a more straightforward measure (good game vs. bad game).

There would however seem to me to be four quite distinct factors in rating a game. Firstly there is the feel of the game, and we all know how intangible feelings are! Nevertheless the atmosphere a game creates is a vital ingredient in the gaming experience. Secondly there is the success of the game system itself. A good game system is what gaming is all about. Thirdly there is a criteria that neither good nor bad but nevertheless important: is it a heavy or a light game? Most would agree that a heavy game is inherently the better game although light games are still valuable; but hey, dramas always win over comedies at the academy awards too! Finally there is the presentation of the game. Those Cheapass games are sometimes remarkably good, but do you think Kill Doctor Lucky got nominated for Spiel des Jahres (even though if it has produced spin offs like a winner)?

Colour

My first factor I call colour rather than "feel" or "atmosphere" (regrettably gaming is still predominantly masculine and feel or atmosphere are for interior decorating class). Colour is about the total gaming experience, and being sucked up into a game is pretty important ("So Dorothy, if this ain't Kansas anymore, then where the hell is it?"). Therefore theme is the first element in colour. Through the Desert is a pretty clever game, but as a themed game it stinks—camels simply don't line up in endless chains across the burning wastelands. At the other end of the scale Lord of the Rings manages to capture the ideals and atmosphere of Tolkien's novels perfectly. Ra, would seemingly be quite abstract and yet manages to convey its Egyptian texture remarkably well. All this is not to say that abstract games have no value, just that it is seldom that an abstract game contributes much colour to the gaming experience.

That is, unless of course the game makes up for it in other ways. A second aspect of colour is where on the scale the game sits in terms of interactivity versus reactivity. Die Glücksritter is a lot of fun because the cost of your actions is determined by the actions of the other players. It is this kind of interaction between players that makes for groans and laughs and well, colour, despite a pretty loose theme. Elfenland, (when played in friendly fashion where obstacle tokens are held out as a last resort) is the sort of game where players work out their moves in isolation and just hope that someone doesn't put down a troll wagon counter before you can use your giant pig.

A third factor that adds colour to the gaming experience is whether the game builds to a climax. The game that tells a story is infinitely more colourful than one that simply meanders along at the same place. Elfenland redeems itself for colour by a neat progression to a finale as the Elves struggle to make that last leg home. Detroit/Cleveland Grand Prix is just two rounds on different boards and tends to tail off after the first player crosses the finish line and the others are left with inadequate cards.

Therefore, Colour is a combination of the rating on three scales:

Abstract 1  2  3  4  5 Themed
Reactive 1  2  3  4  5 Interactive
Flat 1  2  3  4  5 Progresses

Rate the game on each of the three scales, sum the totals and this describes whether the game has a lot of colour or not.

System

The core of any game is its system. Without colour one might say that games are nothing but systems and that mathematicians should never be allowed to come up with over elaborate scoring systems based on complex statistical analysis of the outcomes from a range of choices (oops Reiner Knizia). Seriously, it isn't the maths that makes the system. One element that every serious gamer is looking for is originality. There is nothing new under the sun and I guess everything has been done before. However, one reason Princes of Florence debuted so spectacularly was because the system was such a breath of fresh air.

The system has to work well too and this is where that dreaded element, luck, shouldn't feature too heavily. What do we do when we have to explain to someone "what German games are about", we say they are "…skill not luck based….blah blah blah". The trouble is many games need an element of randomization whether this is card and tile draws or dice. The alternative is a game about direct inter-player conflict like Chess or Diplomacy, which is generally what German games try to avoid. El Grande probably won the Spiel des Jahres because of a superbly effective system for varied play with the randomizing effect of action cards that present very little in the way of luck. Alternatively you can feel really unlucky in a game of Settlers of Catan when 11 rolls all the time but your 9 never does! Yet Settlers of Catan owes its success to one of the most effective game systems ever conceived.

So the game has to be effective. Part of this is preventing luck overwhelming and defeating the game system (Snakes and Ladders is a good concept for a game, if only there was some means of exerting control), and the other half is whether the game system succeeds in creating the type of game intended. Krieg und Frieden is not a bad game but its system can be criticized—first, everything depends on Privileges and second, everything depends upon winning the last bidding round, both of which defeat the overall intention of the game system.

The flip side of effectiveness is efficiency. Another of the characteristics of German games is the playtime and this has a lot to do with how efficiently you can complete your turn. The problem with El Grande is the interminably long turns while you wait for players to select their action card and "um & ah" about which caballero to move. In contrast, turns in Settlers of Catan are almost always crisp and quick so that everyone's turn comes around quickly. This makes Settlers the perfect game to introduce newbies to the world of German games. You certainly don't want to start them on Die Macher. Carcassonne is elegantly simple in play but the cumbersome scoring of the fields has troubled many, including the publisher. One daunting aspect of Puerto Rico are the millions of fiddly components just looking for the opportunity to make a break for freedom (only to be sucked into the vacuum cleaner the next day). Puerto Rico only saves itself by rigidly instructing players how to lay out all the bits. Freight Train gets trickier and trickier with more players as you run out of table space (even with those half size cards). Serenissima has lots of fiddly flags and lightweight sailors to delicately place into ships. Three things can undermine efficiency—rules too complex to allow you to learn and play the game in one session, the game degenerates into a logistical nightmare controlling the components and excessive downtime.

Thus System is a combination of the rating on three more scales:

Cliché 1  2  3  4  5 Original
Feeble 1  2  3  4  5 Effective
Cumbersome 1  2  3  4  5 Efficient

Rate the game on each of these scales, sum the totals and this measures the success of the game system.

Weight

A heavy game is not necessarily a better game and therefore the scales here are more like alternatives. A heavy game is usually multi faceted while light games are usually based around one element. Collectible card games are based around the premise of endless possibilities and countermoves for every one, whereas Lost Cities is as straightforward as you can get. Heavy games are usually highly aggressive cutthroat competitions between players where light games are pretty friendly affairs. With Tigris & Euphrates every round might see your kingdom absorbed and your leaders expelled from the board, but with Take it Easy everyone plays their own little board and if one tile doesn't fit the next one might. However, when you play those heavy games do you ever get the feeling that the human computer sitting on your right has memorized every point and calculated the exact outcome for every possible action? Heavy games like El Grande, Tigris & Euphrates, Die Macher or Chess; rely to a large extent on the vastness of the calculative process being beyond human certainty, therefore making it a game rather than a puzzle. Perversely it wouldn't truly be a "game" to play chess against Kasparov but it might be if we played Draughts instead.

In a heavy game we are seeking interlocking mechanisms (such as the two forms of conflict in Tigris & Euphrates), direct conflict to keep it interesting and complexity to add uncertainty. It is quite possible to overload on "heaviness" and move out of the sphere of "German" games, perhaps into the realm of vast simulation games. This of course is perfectly acceptable but also beyond the scope of this system.

Thus Weight is a combination of the rating on three more scales:

Mono-dimensional 1  2  3  4  5 Multi-faceted
Friendliness 1  2  3  4  5 Competitiveness
Simplistic 1  2  3  4  5 Calculative

Rate the game on each of these scales, sum the totals and this determines where the game is positioned on the light to heavy scale.

Presentation

One shouldn't judge a book by its cover, but I was influenced, more than once, to buy truly excellent albums on the basis of truly excellent album sleeves! Show Manager has some real quirky actor and actress cartoons on the cards, but their names surely ought to be more amusing! Why does Entdecker's score track only go up to 50 when every game I've played scores more than that? What's cooler than the pictures on Lost Cities as you draw closer to each destination? Therefore, getting the graphics right is absolutely critical. This is still pretty subjective and at the mercy of personal taste, but the assessment is still valid. Who did the better job of Settlers of Catan—Kosmos or Mayfair? Which is the better Medici—Amigo or Rio Grande?

With the presentation of the game we have to revert to the simple score rather than position on a scale. This applies to the packaging as well, which although only indirectly affecting the game, is very important if you are collecting games for a lifetime. German games have set a high standard for packaging and it is worth recognition lest standards once again decline. The same is true of the quality of components. Starfarers of Catan has those cool spaceships, Wallenstein has its Battle Tower. On the other hand, Mayfair's Modern Art substituted tacky plastic money for Hans im Glück's cardboard counters.

Thus Presentation is a combination of the score given on three factors:

Graphics 1  2  3  4  5
Packaging 1  2  3  4  5
Components 1  2  3  4  5

Rate the game on each of these factors, sum the total and this gives a score for the game's presentation.

Summary

All this coalesces into four neat and meaningful marks out of 15. Does it all work as a game rating system? As someone asked, "Does it also show why I don't like a game?" Let the reader be the judge. I have given my ratings for a few well known and excellent all round games.

Lost Cities El Grande Puerto Rico Settlers Tigris
Cliché/Original 3 5 4 5 5
Feeble/Effective 5 5 5 4 4
Cumbersome/Efficient 5 4 4 5 5
   System 13 14 13 14 14
Abstract/Theme 4 4 4 4 4
Reactive/Interactive 4 4 4 4 5
Flat/Progress 5 4 4 5 4
   Colour 13 12 12 13 13
Mono/Multifaceted 1 4 5 4 4
Friendly/Competitive 2 5 4 3 5
Simplistic/Calculative 3 5 4 3 5
   Weight 6 14 13 10 14
Graphics 5 5 4 5 5
Packaging 5 4 4 5 5
Components 5 5 3 5 5
   Presentation 15 14 11 15 15
OVERALL 47 54 49 52 56

- Robert Markley

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