What makes great games great?
It's not mechanics. Gamers enjoy a variety of games including those with auctions/bidding, area influence, hand management, role selection, and trading. So scratch that.
It's not theme. Gamers enjoy games dripping with theme, as well as game literally dry as a desert. Scratch that as well.
It's not bits. As much as we love nice bits in our games, we will play great games with poor quality...to a point. Conversely, we still dislike bad games with great bits. 0 for 3.
The common thread that holds great games together is the choices. But not all choices are created equal. Great games have great choices.
What makes a choice great? A great choice must be difficult. Easy choices are not choices at all. In order to make a choice great, there must be many forces at work, pulling you in different directions. Finding the right balance between these forces--one that is correct for the current situation, and perhaps your strategy--is what makes the choice, and hence the game, great.
Reduced to their simplest form, there are 4 forces that are common to most choices. In making any given choice, you will likely be asking yourself:
How does making choice A:
...help me?How does not making choice A:
...hurt my opponent(s)?
...help me?Great choices, by design, have specific answers to these questions that must be carefully weighed. Sometimes the answers change over the course of the game. Sometimes the weights of the factors change over the course of the game. But they are always present, causing you to chart a careful course between the extremes of disaster.
...hurt my opponent(s)?
Let's take a look at how these forces play out in a sample of various games...
Taj Mahal: The main choice in this game is whether to play a card (and of course which card) or withdraw. By playing a card, you continue to compete in the "auction" for influence over the 6 areas. By withdrawing, you "cash in" what you have.
A helps me? Playing a card allows you to continue to fight for one or more of the 6 areas, with the potential of winning: palaces, goods, future influence.Go: Go has more choices than most games; you can play on almost any empty location. The results of these choices are very difficult to predict. Let's take a very simple choice: make a concrete play to live, or play elsewhere? Every choice in Go is like squeezing a balloon full of water. You can't compress it into a smaller volume, just control its shape.
A hurts others? Playing a card denies opponents a lucrative withdrawal.
B helps me? Withdrawing from the auction allows you to immediately claim any rewards you have accumulated. You may be able to claim the bonus chip, or the best placement for your palace.
B hurts others? Withdrawing denies any claimed rewards to the opponents, allows you to place palace(s) on key locations to disrupt their chains, and saves your cards for future use.
A helps me? Playing to live guarantees the group cannot be killed. The stones might be used as a base for further expansion.Alhambra: Surprised to see this one? It definitely qualifies for me. The choice this time: pick up some money, or buy a tile.
A hurts others? A live group is a threat to neighboring stones/groups. The opponent may need to deal with that.
B helps me? Leaving a potentially living group to play elsewhere allows you to gain influence, while still having the threat of making the group live at some point in the future.
B hurts others? The opponent may attack the group. Even if he wins, the outside loss may be more than the inside gain.
A helps me? You gain cash, of course. It may be a large value, or a handful of small change. Having a large handful of money cards gives you much more flexibility.Ra: I added this one since it was the topic of a recent Musings On article. Ra is a unique auction game with set collection. The main choice in Ra is to invoke Ra (initiate an auction for the current tiles) or draw a tile.
A hurts others? You deny the necessary amount/color of money to an opponent looking to buy a specific tile color.
B helps me? You gain tile(s).
B hurts others? You prevent opponents from gaining the tile(s). By not drawing money, you prevent new money from showing up that the opponents may need.
A helps me? If you win the auction you gain all the tiles, as well as the current sun token. If you lose the auction, an opponent has used one of their suns, leaving you in a stronger position, and their sun is now up for grabs.Now a couple "not great" games...
A hurts others? You may be denying an opponent a tile they need (majority of pharoahs, flood, 3rd civilization, 7th/8th monument type, 3rd monument of the same type, etc.). You may win the last auction before all the Ra tiles come out (ending the epoch).
B helps me? If you draw a tile, you are modifying the available tileset. This usually has a good effect, but you can also draw tiles that kill pharoahs, civs, and monuments. If the tile set is not particularly attractive to you, perhaps you can make an opponent pay handsomely for it, making room for better tiles. You are also potentially bringing the epoch closer to an end.
B hurts others? If you draw a bad tile that does not hurt you, then the tile set is worth less to your opponents making it easier to win. Granted, you have no control over this, but the more tolerant your position is to bad tiles, the easier it is to allow the tile set to grow.
Ticket to Ride: Let's see. You have a handful of train cards and a couple of route tickets. There's a green 5-link that will complete one of your routes. You have 4 green cards. You can draw cards, or... Or what?
A helps me? If a green card is visible I can pick it up. If not, I can draw one off the deck. If I get green, I can play my link next turn.Monopoly: You roll the dice. You move your token. You land on an unowned property. Do you buy it? Of course you do. Turn over. You land on an owned property. You pay the rent. Turn over. Blah blah blah. Wake me when it's over. No choices, no forces, no fun.
A hurts others? If I pick up a card, no one really cares...unless they happen to want green as well. But this situation is not really under player control.
If I don't draw a card, I can what? Draw more routes? Play another link? Draw colors I don't need? There are not really any alternatives. Ticket to Ride completely falls apart in the choices/forces department. Even as a gateway game, it doesn't even hint at greatness, and is a poor choice to present to new gamers.
Forces make great games. Forces require you to think. Non-gamers like games without forces because they play games as time-killers and not as intellectual exercises.