I've discovered that trying to become a game designer has changed how I play games. Instead of just playing, I now feel compelled to look at the mechanisms, how everything fits together and the reasons for my enjoyment or disapproval of a game.
I have been noticing that some games I really like have remarkably serious flaws in their mechanisms. Battle Cry is strongly driven by the randomness of the dice, and the limited options of your hand. Lord of the Rings is a very abstract game that only ties to its theme through artwork and names of events and cards. The outcome is also strongly determined by random forces (especially the event tiles turned up during the last third of the game.) The core strategies for both take a few games to learn—and you reach a plateau where your skills will not get significantly better.
Figures that these two games were two of my favorites of last year. And it comes down to drama. Watch a Lord of the Rings player as he flips over a tile during the last part of the game. Some inhale sharply—or wince or close their eyes. I have heard Battle Cry players scream at loud volumes for their right flank to do something. Both games seem to involve people in a way more than the quiet mental gyrations of Chess or Go.
I tend to remember events in these games much better than many other games I've played. I remember well having our party of hobbits wiped out on the plains of Rohan, as well as watching my seemingly invulnerable lone cavalry unit take out four infantry groups in succession without taking a single hit. (My opponent and I were convinced that we were playing a time travel variant, and that I was illegally using the third armored division in the Civil War.)
There are quite a few possibilities for why these games have such drama. The first I've hinted at already is the luck factor. This is relatively high in both games. So why isn't Candy Land the most dramatic and involving game on the planet? You have to have some capability to struggle against the force of chaos. Lord of the Rings cleverly gives you Gandalf cards and the yellow action cards which can save you from just about anything... until you run out of them. Battle Cry forces you to have to consider other options. You have three flanks, and can always do something—even if it isn't ideally what you want to do.
Wildlife Adventure has a similar sort of chaos and control. You have no control over your opponents moving the expeditions, but you do have trip tickets. But eventually you run out of them. You cannot always win the battle against luck, so the agony comes in as to how to best use the resources you've got. (Battle Cry has a different version of this, where you time playing a good card for just the right moment.)
Secondly, many of the more dramatic games seem to have unusual goals. These are not the X number of rounds and most points wins games, but games about achieving some goal. Battle Cry is the first to take 6 flags, Wildlife Adventure is about photographing X number of critters. Lord of the Rings has the incredibly compelling single goal of dropping the ring into Mount Doom. (Much of its drama comes from trying to find out if the party will make it. )
Racing games have the same sort of limited goal. Be first. What this does to a game is that the end of the game gets more tense. Because players have been focused on the single goal from the start, the furrowed brows start to show up during the last few turns.
Of course this can backfire. Sometimes it is patently obvious that you are not going to come close to the goal, and that becomes really frustrating.
Which is why you want subgoals in your design. Battle Cry has 6 flags. Lord of the Rings has the 4 boards to cross. But does having many small subgoals give folks the feeling that they accomplished more over the course of the game?
I'm not so sure about that. There is some point at which having too many small goals detracts from the meaning that people place upon the goals. Look at Java compared to Princes of Florence.
Java has a point system which gives lots points during the game, and many different possibilities for scoring those points. So much that if you try to recall what you did during the game, it would probably come down to, "I did stuff."
Princes of Florence focuses mostly on producing works. A goal for which you have to be planning a few turns in advance, and the game really centers around that.
So which one did you prefer, and more importantly, why?
One other aspect of games based on smaller numbers of subgoals is that you do not seem to lose ground easily. Battle Cry makes it hard to regain troops in a ravaged unit. You are never forced to move backwards in Lord of the Rings. In Settlers of Catan you never lose your structures. More importantly, your goal cannot be stolen. These games have ways of making it harder to achieve a goal (Princes of Florence's limited resource auction, the robber in Settlers of Catan, dying units in Battle Cry), but your resources stay with you until you can build your goal. (Imagine Princes of Florence where you could destroy each others buildings...)
So, what is the real point to this rant? It is to prod people to try and figure out and explain what it is that draws us to games. At least I know for me it is drama of the play, and not actually who wins or loses.
- Frank Branham