Qualities of Great Games
What is a great game? For me, it's a game that I enjoy from beginning to end, that I am immersed in from beginning to end with very little conscious knowledge of the passage of time, that I think about after playing, and that I can't wait to play again. While we may not all have the same games that we would call great, I think these criteria for the most part are universal.
Over and over, as I evaluate what it is I like about my favorite games, I find the same set of factors. Each contributes to the enjoyment of the game in different ways. Not every great game has all of these.
I use the word meaningful very deliberately here. If you are presented with 5 choices in a particular moment, but a survey of 100 gamers shows only 1 of them to be attractive, then you have only one real choice, hence none. Meaningful choices are all valid choices. There may be short-term or long-term goals in mind. A choice may be geared more towards thwarting opponents, or exchanging one advantage for another.
I've discussed forces before. Forces are what make your choices difficult. Forces are what make you want something and not want something at the same time. Every choice has reasons for and against. Well-designed games--no matter how light--have forces applied to every choice.
Tactics are short-term goals often confined to your current turn. Games with high levels of chaos and volatility end up being mostly tactical.
Do you go for a few quick victory points at the expense of position? Do you use up your extra action points to block? Do you go into debt in order to purchase something before someone else does? Do you play more cards now and have fewer for later?
Strategy is the actions you take to accomplish the main goal of the game. When you make a choice to do something that might hurt you in the short-term but helps you in the long-term, you are using strategy.
Games with strategy almost always have tactics as well (the reverse is not true). This combination is also a force unto itself. You may need to balance grabbing victory points while you can with setting up the conditions for larger scores.
Matching Weight and Substance
As I stated here, I feel there needs to be a correlation between the weight of a game and the feeling of the game. This topic is particularly difficult for me to quantify. I'll simply say that there needs to be roughly equal amounts of complexity and choices, and a matching degree of seriousness or silliness.
Rich Player Interaction
I enjoy the occasional multi-player-solitaire game, but they will never be great. In great games, everything you do affects every other player to some degree. You should always feel like you are playing against the opponents and not against the game++.
Sometimes you can go after a specific player, or a specific resource. Sometimes you can make alliances, make threats, or bluff. Sometimes you can create situations that force opponents to do things sub-optimally for themselves so they don't give you a huge advantage.
A Touch of Randomness
I play Go, and rate it 9.5. It is a great game, but it's a rare exception to my feeling that great games need a tiny amount of randomness. Whether it's random setup, drawing from a deck of cards, or die roll resolutions, a certain degree of change of flow or uncertainty in a game gives it texture and keeps it fresh.
The worst feeling in a game is when it's your turn and you know what everyone expects you to do...because you all do it the same way every time. If you deviate, you somehow disappoint or disrupt the "system".
Some games do not work unless people are laughing. Humor in great games results from players' creativity or sometimes from unexpected/extreme results. These games tend to be lighter.
I don't put much stock in the notion that the theme is the game. I see mechanics. However, a well applied theme can help players remember the mechanics or at least give them a sense of realism.
I believe theme is a wonderful thing upon which to base a design. It helps to find mechanics that fit together, as well as invent new ones. I think it's rare that a game is designed in a void with a theme added on later, regardless of how thin the theme ultimately feels.
Theme is also the factor in the physical design of the board and bits...
The greatest game in the world would cease to be great if the physical design was unsatisfactory. Games that have no physical or visual consistency of theme and function, games where the physical design gets in the way of play, and games that are simply over-designed lose points with me. Notable examples of presentation failures are: Die Macher (Valley Games), Rheinlander (Face2Face), Cleopatra (Days of Wonder), Lord of the Rings: Confrontation Deluxe (Fantasy Flight).
++Shadows Over Camelot is a rare exception. Everyone is playing against the game, but you are constantly evaluating everyone's choices because of the traitor mechanism.
Goa image by s.pauchon