The Games Journal | A Magazine About Boardgames

What Makes a Game Good?

Wolfgang Kramer

July, 2000

Games are a matter of taste! The perceived value of a game depends greatly on the individual preferences of those who play it. Some players prefer games of luck; others prefer games of tactics; still others enjoy communicating with fellow players. Then there are those who like games based on reaction, manual skills, or memory, etc. But whether a game is considered good or of little appeal does not depend entirely on personal preferences. There are also objective criteria that must be considered:

Originality

Any new game must be original. It has to possess elements that have never—or at least not in this particular combination—been part of a game before.

Freshness and replayability

The more a game makes its players want to play again, the better the game. An important aspect of this is the course the game takes should be as different as possible each time it is played. A game lacking this quality will soon become boring. A good game will be as exciting each time it's played as it was the first time.

Surprise

A game should be rich in surprises. Repetition in sequence, progress, and events should be strictly avoided.

Equal opportunity

At the start of the game, every player should have an equal chance of winning. In particular, the first player should have neither an advantage nor a disadvantage over the rest of the field.

Winning chances

A similar rule applies to the end of a game. Every player must have at least a theoretical possibility of winning until the very end. This possibility might be infinitesimal, but it must be present.

No "kingmaker effect"

A game loses its appeal if, at any stage, a player who no longer has any hope of winning can somehow determine the winner. This problem arises primarily in strategy games.

No early elimination

All players should be involved in the game until it's almost over. No one should be eliminated until the very end.

Reasonable waiting times

Nothing kills players' interest as easily as long periods of inactivity while they wait their turns. Chess provides a useful counter-example: a player can use the waiting time to plan his or her next move.

Creative control

Any game that is not based on chance must give players the opportunity to affect its progress and direction. Nothing is more boring for a player than the feeling that he or she is being "played by the game" instead of the other way round. A good game should be challenging.

Uniformity

The title, theme, format, and graphics of a game must give a unified impression.

Quality of components

Durability, functionality, and the visual appeal of the materials contribute greatly to the perceived value of a game.

Target groups and consistency of rules

Games differ in the demands they put on their players. Some games require special skills. It is important for game rules to be consistent. A strategy game, for instance, cannot be influenced in any way by luck. Imagine a player conceiving a plan, deciding on a particular sequence of play, and then having to roll dice in order to execute them. Clearly, the two concepts are at odds.

Although it would seem logical to expect rules to be consistent, there are a great many games whose target groups are not clearly defined. It is often hard to tell whether a game is meant for players interested in strategy, luck, or some combination of the two, or maybe for people who like communication games.

Games of chance must have simple rules and offer few alternative possible moves. This should result in short turns and a generally fast-paced game. Games of strategy, at the other end of the spectrum, should offer abundant alternatives each move. This will let players realize their potential. It must be possible for a player to achieve mastery.

Tension

Every game has its own unique tension curve. But long periods of relatively low tension must be avoided in any game. The following is an illustration of a common tension curve:

This illustrates a linear increase in tension. Game A is preferable because it begins at an initial level of tension. To achieve this effect, one can shorten a longwinded opening and make sure that players get to the most interesting game-play right away. This has the desirable side effect of shortening the game.

This graph illustrates two games with multiple tension peaks. Game A with more frequent peaks and less-pronounced valleys is the better, more interesting game.

Learning and mastering a game

Surely it is an advantage for a game to start quickly and be easy to learn, and the clearer and simpler the rules, the better. A game also benefits from incorporating elements that players are familiar with from everyday life. These elements do not have to actually replicate real life; a general similarity or familiar logic will suffice.

Not all games suffer from having complex rules. In general, the more opportunities players have to influence the course of a game, the more readily the players will tolerate a complex set of rules.

Complexity and influence

Short, simple games must have short, simple rules. Complex games, on the other hand, may have more complex rules. These concepts are illustrated by the following graph:

The extent to which a player can influence the game increases along the x-axis, while the complexity of its rules increases along the y-axis. Once we place some games into this coordinate system, we immediately notice a void lying above the diagonal in Region 1. The games are all located below the diagonal in Region 2. The unavoidable conclusion is that complex sets of rules are acceptable only in conjunction with the players' relatively high level of influence on the course of the game.

Are good games necessarily successful?

Unfortunately, no. There are many good, even great, games that have had little or no success. In Germany, for example, several attempts have been made to market Twixt, Acquire, and Focus, all of which failed, sad to say.

There is more to a successful game than just being good. The game must be introduced to the market in the proper way. Marketing and advertising are of the essence, although even those strategies can do little to boost a game that does not reflect current taste. The special ingredients for success that a game needs to start an avalanche and keep delighting people for years to come would seem to consist of timeliness (zeitgeist), intuition, and luck. Never in a million years would I have anticipated the enormous success of such games as Trivial Pursuit, Magic: The Gathering, or Pokémon.

All this is not an attempt to instruct you on how to invent a good game. Rather, it's a set of guidelines on the kind of characteristics a good game should have.

These two sentences best express the qualities of a good game:

A good game will stay with us all our lives.

A good game makes us long to play it again.

- Wolfgang Kramer

(Translated from the German by Anne Kramer.)

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