Happy New Year, let’s try to get a few articles up. I have a few half written that I want to get off my drive, so we shall suspend the Matt/Sam rotation as Sam is *cough* really busy at the moment.
Catering for unequal investment
“It is sometimes said that poker is a game that can only be played for money, and certainly a game of poker in which players did not mind who won and how much would be fairly boring and pointless. It is possible, however, to play poker without money if the players care sufficiently about how many chips they win or lose.”
– John McLeod, Poker Betting and Showdown.
Grab a board game off your shelf and flip it over. There will be a little white square in the bottom right that gives you all sorts of different metrics about the game: average duration, age suitability, number of players supported and the like. I have never seen one that gives an indication of the degree to which all players need to be equally invested in the game’s outcome in order for it to function as a game – that’s a curious thing given how important this is in determining how a game is experienced.
Having an equalised investment in the outcome of a game can simply mean playing to win- it is the most obvious reason to play a game. It need not be though. Every player could be equally invested, for instance, in:
- Learning how to play
- Exploring the limits of the game
- Having the most entertaining time within the game’s framework
- Attempting to break the game (this is what playtesters are all about, for example)
Aside: one thing that consistently depresses me about the stats of this blog is how many page views the Horror of Card Games post has got (>4000, far more than any other single post). It was a list of stream-of-consciousness-ramblings written in despair at seeing yet another CCG thread appear on a games design forum. Our audience, it seems, likes lists.
So which games are prone to breaking down more with unequal player investment? If games are viewed as points on a scale from those that are flexible enough to support unequal player investment and still function well as a game to those that require precise levels of equalised skill or else they fall apart or snowball, consider the following:
- Wits and Wagers
- Ticket to Ride
- Settlers of Catan
- Puerto Rico (the poster child for this situation)
- 18XX games
- Container (some people love this about it. Me? Less so)
My thought is there is more to this than a simple divide between gateway and non-gateway games in terms of how well they function with unequal investment. Take, as examples, Chicago Express and American Rails. These are very similar games, American Rails acknowledges a debt to Chicago Express in it’s design. Fans of Chicago Express tend to decry the later design as being ‘too loose’, lacking the fine balance and minimalism of the predecessor. Dealt with in a purely mechanistic sense, this is entirely true. However, played with unequally invested players American Rails shines as a fun way to engage players with a taste for thinking in a competitive endeavour for 120-180 minutes (it runs slightly longer than Chicago Express, although without a good knowledge of the value of each share at the start of the game it can be ‘over’, effectively, in 15 minutes).
“What occurs to me now is that this search for a well-played game is already a radical departure from what we do, as adults, when we play games together.
Normally, the only common intention that we have been able to establish with each other is that we have each wanted to win. Though we have been playing games together, the only effort in which we are usually united, the only accomplishment that we have all been able to validate, is winning.
It is clear to me, now, that the result of such a union is separation, always separation.”
-Bernard De Koven. The Well-played Game: a Player’s Philosophy
Adults coming together to play a game arrive as a unified group all trying to win and leave separated as winners and losers? This must assume equalised investment: a unification of investment in the outcome is paramount for the game to stand any chance of being viewed as well played by all players.
“When people talk about group-dependent games, I think they mean ones that need a particular type of player investment to become ‘well-played’. Players that can’t or don’t want to invest in that way often blame the game as a result, but players who can often find this kind of game their favourite.”
-qwertymartin, QWERTYUIOP: “Playing to win or playing to play?”
Whilst I might take issue with the assumption that ‘wanting to win’ is the driver that unites adults in games, I think there is a scale here and that games like Carcassonne, Witches’ Brew and even American Rails are more likely to leave players of unequal investment in the outcome satisfied. Importantly, I don’t think any less of them as a result. A game’s ‘flexibility’ in engaging players who care AND those who don’t is a metric that should be sung from the roof tops! Surely it could be included somewhere on the box, and that gives rise to a dilemma: how could you use iconography to depict it on a box?
GMT Games use scales of complexity and solitaire suitability (something I have always felt to be binary, rather than scalar) on the back of their boxes. Having a similar 1-9 scale to investment required would forewarn players of the type of game they were getting into and inform purchases. A GMT style scale might be fine at the heavier end of the market, but how do you communicate the same concept to the family market? Is it even relevant to them?