Sunday, November 06, 2005


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 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: me?
...hurt my opponent(s)?
How does not making choice A: me?
...hurt my opponent(s)?
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.

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.

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.
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 helps me? Playing to live guarantees the group cannot be killed. The stones might be used as a base for further expansion.

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.
Alhambra: Surprised to see this one? It definitely qualifies for me. The choice this time: pick up some money, or buy a tile.
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.

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.
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 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.

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.
Now a couple "not great" games...

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.

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.
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.

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.


At 6:57 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't think you're being fair to Ticket to Ride.

There are usually multiple ways to complete your tickets. If there's no green showing, you might be able to make your connection using two other colors (claiming two other routes).

Or you could try claiming a route to block one of your opponents from completing one of their tickets.

Or you might also just want to claim a route to make your longest, continuous route even longer in hopes of scoring the 10 point bonus at the end.

You didn't mention any of those choices.

(I usually end up winning Ticket to Ride because I purposely make my connections longer than they need to be so I can get my points for completing my tickets and score the 10 point bonus. In some games, the 10 point bonus has pushed me into first place making my choice a good one.)

With Alhambra, you claimed that taking a certain currency card could hurt your opponents by denying them the chance of getting that card. Isn't that same card drafting mechanic in Ticket to Ride? In both games, your opponents may or may not need the card you just drew.

I'm not a Ticket to Ride fan boy but I do find it to be one of the best choices for gaming with non-gamers. It's always fun and easy enough for them to pick up.

Personally, I'd rather play a meatier game like Puerto Rico or Power Grid but I still enjoy Ticket to Ride for what it is and even appreciate it for the choices (and, more importantly, fun) it offers.

At 7:11 PM, Blogger ekted said...

If you have a route to complete, you will usually need 1 or 2 colors to complete one of the segments. If you get blocked (intentionaly or not), then you have to go the long way. If it's intentional, then you are not playing very intelligently. If it's accidental, then you were just screwed randomly. Either way, it's boring and random. I would rather play almost anything else, including nothing.

Teaching Ticket to Ride to non-gamers as a "gateway" game is like taking friends to Pizza Hut as an introduction to Italian food.

In Alhambra, you have a lot more information. You know what tiles your opponents need and what money they are collecting. You are making informed decisions, and your goals are selectable and public. Therefore, your decisions are meaningful.

At 11:49 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I realize that this is your weblog and you are entitled to post your opinions as you see fit but do you realize that you just insulted somebody who actually takes time out from his day to read your posts?

Saying that a strategy I admitted to purposely using to win games is "not playing very intelligently" is an insult whether it was intended or not.

I enjoy reading your weblog for the analyses you offer (which I usually find rather insightful) but peoples' taste in games are like peoples' taste in art or music. Belittling others' opinions is a distasteful trait that too many gamers have a tendency to exhibit.

At 5:08 AM, Blogger Pawnstar said...

I think Jason has probably taken your criticism a little too personally. Perhaps you shouldn't anti-evangelise TtR - evangelisers might get upset!

I think the best decisions you have to make in any game are not of the "help you, hurt others" variety but what have been described (and I like this description)as "agonising decisions". It's give-and-take with these; you generally have to decide which is the lesser of two (or more) evils, or greater of two goods.

It's often just another way of looking at the "help you, help others" family, but there is more to it. Take Taj Mahal, for example, and an agonising decision could be between taking the priest now or fighting a bit longer to grab the vizier as well at the cost of a few more cards.

In Go it might be choosing which soldiers to defend or which area to strengthen.

In TtR it would be something like taking a three-space red route now or waiting to take up two red cards nobody seems interested in to make the five red the following turn.

In simpler words, the help decision is just a subcategory for the agonising decision.

At 2:05 PM, Blogger ekted said...

Jason, I wasn't using "you" to mean you specifically--more like "one". What I meant was that "one" should not play TtR so as to make "one's" route obvious. If "you" are able to block them intentionally, then "they" are playing a bit too obviously. This strategy would not work against me.

At 3:02 PM, Blogger ekted said...

fellonmyhead, I am not anti-evangelizing TtR. I am explaining why I don't think it's "great" based on this articles topic. If you like it, that is great. DoW has fantastic quality. They have done extremely well making low-end games that are accessible to most people. I also own Memoir '44 and Pirate's Cove, and plan on buying Mystery of the Abbey. But none of them are "great" games either.

At 3:19 PM, Blogger Pawnstar said...

I know, I know. Just a little standard dry humour; I can't help myself.

I actually think TtR is far from great myself; to me it is good but unchallenging. This is more because I am playing against the system not the other players; blocking is fairly straightforward but it won't affect the game for you or others half as much as game elements will (namely the tickets themselves - luck of the draw which you may or may not overcome).

The only real thing this game gains my favour on is the fun factor; and in all honesty that will often depend on the player.

At 5:37 PM, Blogger dave said...

"The common thread that holds great games together is the choices. But not all choices are created equal. Great games have great choices."

I think your post and examples lean too heavily towards tactical choices. Your Ticket to Ride analysis doesn't even address the real decision points in the game. In Taj Mahal, the most important choices are not made in the middle of battles.

So, I think the correct thing to say is that your favorite games have great tactical choices. I myself prefer a balance, leaning towards strategic choices. It says something about Taj that it is both of our favorite games. :-)

- d

At 6:36 PM, Blogger ekted said...

dave, maybe too many of my examples show tactical reasons, but I don't really think that is my preference. In Taj, for example, I say you can withdraw in order to place your palace first. This is a tactical decision, but a strategic play, since scoring VP by connectivity is a long-term scoring aspect of the game. Likewise, collecting goods is strategic early in the game, but tactical late in the game.

Strategy vs Tactics is a good topic for a future post, though. :)

At 11:49 AM, Blogger Steve Janecek said...

I have a funny story about "Strategy vs Tactics" but I will save it for another time.

I think I am in agreement with Ekted on the TtR conversation. Only at very few points in the game (and certainly not every turn) can you have any idea that your decision affects anyone in any way whatsoever. Therefore, it is more like monopoly than it is Go.

However, there are those ridiculously obsessed players of TtR that have memorized every route card and are able to determine someone's route based on a few layings of track. For these people, the facade of "strategy" exixts.

From what I have seen the game has three different types of players:

1 - Non-competitive people who don't care and are playing for fun or like to stack colorful railroad cars

2 - Competitive people who have just sat down for their first game and are in the process of realizing the game is more like parcheesi than puerto rico

3 - Competitive people that cannot handle real games that have memorized every route card and have recently triumphed in a tournament of Guillotine (once again won by out-"strategizing" their opponents.) These people make what they consider strateguc decisions, but they are based on more knowlecge, i.e. an unfair advantage.

However, TtR is a great gateway game. It allows one to determine out of their "new to gaming group of friends" which have potential and which do not. Those that realize that the game is a mindless exercise=good gamers, those that want to play again= "It was nice knowing you"

At 2:30 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 2:31 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

I agree with jason... your treatment of TtR decisions was grossly simplified and omitted most considerations. I'm sure that by now you've been told what those are.

At 3:20 PM, Blogger ekted said...

I have played TtR enough to understand the game thoroughly. My opinion stands. There are lots of games I dislike more than TtR, but it's simply easier to pick on a game that so many people unjustly put on a pedestal.

At 5:08 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I feel that Monopoly was unfairly characterized. The beginning of the game goes as you say, but as you go on there are auctions and trades. These give you many more options than most non-negotiation games provide. Also, don't forget the choice of metal figure!

At 6:37 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

As much as serious gamers hate Monopoly, I don't think you're being fair to it, as you left out the only "game" part, which is the trading. If you have one orange, do you offer to trade for the second before the third is owned? Which is better, a poor monopoly plus development cash, or a great monopoly that you can't immediately develop?

The problem with Monopoly isn't that there are no significant decisions to make, it's the length of tedium sandwiching those few important decisions, and the randomness of distributing the properties before the trading phase.


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