Wednesday, 20 August 2014

What Makes A Good Game? (Part One)

I have enjoyed playing games all my life. From board games and card games to begin with, but moving to traditional pen and paper AD&D (Advanced Dungeons and Dragons) and then computer games as time has passed. As my own interest has developed over the years, (and especially after discovering D&D), I found that I began to have a greater interest in game development itself; first as a DM (Dungeon Master) designing my own 'pen and paper' world and scenarios, and eventually onto designing games and modules on the computer as the tools required to do so became more readily available. Writing of the latest content for my campaign, the World of Althéa, has all taken place using the toolsets that have come with the NWN 1/2 games.

It was as I was considering the design of my own campaign, that I reflected upon what had made me "design my game" the way I had. In all fairness, the "game" called NWN, or what I would prefer to refer to as D&D, has been around many years already in one format or another. However, I think I can still use the term to "design" reasonably fairly when referring to "designing my game", because I believe there is enough scope and differences between the many D&D type games and modules already available to be able to do so. With respect to these, I believe I can say there are some that are "good" in their design and some that are "bad"... and there are, of course, many in between. Before I start to analyze the differences within this specific field of "game" (Computer based NWN/D&D/RPG), however, I am going to take a step back and consider all those other types of games that I have found enjoyable in my own life history and see if I can recall those elements which have entertained me within them all. I will also be considering the different genre of computer games that I play, to add another angle, but in my next post.

Board Games

Escape From Colditz: I'll start with board games, because, if I recall correctly, that was my first introduction to "games" outside of normal "child play" and "sport activity" type games. In no particular order, I can recall playing many of the classics, such as Snakes & Ladders, Monopoly, Cluedo, Mousetrap, Scrabble, Backgammon, Chess, etc. However, there was one board game that stood out to me more than any other I played. It was introduced to me by my cousin one day and is called Escape From Colditz. If you know the game, you can probably see why this game stood out for me. At the time, I recall being astonished at how "involved" it was compared to any other game I had played to date. While it has been many years since I last played it, one element still stands out to me in particular: One player was elected to play the Germans, and the remaining players acted out the persons of other countries who had been taken as prisoners by the Germans. These other players had to plan together to escape from the POW castle environment, while the player who played the Germans tried to stop them. It does not take a huge step in the imagination to see an element of "DM and Players" was present in this game.


Before I leave board games, I would like to point out some of those elements that I enjoyed in them, which may have also had some bearing of where I am today in my own design:


Snakes & Ladders: For me, probably the first introduction to the die roll, which also came with "blessings" in the form of ladders, or "curses" if you landed on the snake. Although in the most basic of form, this game had the delight of discovering what a die roll would do for you. I would suggest that this is an element that still thrills (even if only in some minor way) in most games today, and is an essential element in any game where any certainty of game events is called into question.



Monopoly: A game that introduced an element of enterprise and the accumulation of wealth and property. While I do not enjoy this game for its overall goal, I do appreciate those elements that deal with chance, and the ability to try to build upon what you have by careful choices. Basically, it introduces the element of buying and selling stuff, which is certainly well placed in a RPG today.



Cluedo: A game where you are not told where you must travel. i.e. Games like Monopoly or Snakes & Ladders have a board outline that you have to follow. In Cluedo, however, you can choose to move your piece to a "room" of your choice (within the confines of the game itself). This game also allows for more player interaction, where each has to ask questions of each other to help solve the crime, the object of the game. A mystery with interaction! Another essential element for any good RPG.


Mousetrap: This was probably the first game I played that seemed to have lots of props, which the player got to build as they played the game. Not only that, but the props all worked together (usually) to make an elaborate trap, which gave a sense of great satisfaction ... at least when you were young ... and for the first few times. Dare I say, what is a dungeon in a RPG without the laying down of a good few traps.

Scrabble: Word games! The simplest of concepts, but quite intriguing if the person applies themselves to the game idea at hand. There have been a number of spin-off games to this classic, but all have the player work a different part of their brain compared to games of chance. For me, this is a good example of a "thinking" aspect in a game. Not strictly strategy, like I consider games like Chess, but one that mixes chance (of letters drawn) with the player's ability to manipulate what they have with the environment they face. More akin to puzzle-solving. It comes as no surprise to me that puzzles in RPGs can have word related elements to them, even if it is as simple as resolving an anagram to find a password.

Chess: This game must be the all-time classic game when it comes to one of strategy. Now, while I enjoy a game of Chess, I do find, however, that such pure strategy games leaves me wanting. As I say, it's not that I don't enjoy the challenge, but that I feel like I also want to be able to do something else as part of the game ... it's as if the part of my brain that likes to imagine a scene has to take a back seat to strict strategy. The strict logic is certainly something I admire in the game, and a strong element I desire in any RPG. If such hard core elements of logic (like Chess plays) are missing from an RPG, then I believe the RPG game can fail due to such an imbalance.




Board Game Summary

I have only touched the surface of this huge category of games, and I am fully aware that there are many that I have overlooked. I have played many other board games over the years myself, but they usually tend to fall into a similar category as the ones I describe above ... or may be slight variations/combinations of those above. E.g. Backgammon has elements of chance (with dice) combined with a degree of skill/strategy.
Lastly, however, the question has to be this as far as I am concerned: What is it about the game that made it "good" for me? And I suppose when we talk about "good", I mean "fun" or "enjoyable" as much as anything else. In some ways, this question is easier to answer with hindsight due to my own experience with other "newer" games I have played since playing those above. That is, I have been able to compare my experiences and make the following conclusions about games in general, with respect to my own interests in certain games. I'll let you decide which games have which.

Game Player Aspects
1) More Players The Better: I have found games that involve more players have always been the most entertaining. While some two player games can be fun, personally, I find playing a game that allows more players to be more rewarding.

2) Us v Them: Games that encourage teamwork or group co-operation are the most satisfying games, whether there is "one against many" or "many against many".

3) Encourage Personality: Games that allow some element of role-play or quizzing between players can make interesting game play.
Game Mechanics Aspects
1) The Random Element: Having a die (or dice) in a game (or other such random generators) adds a whole level of "unknown", and helps level the playing field with respect to an ability to play a game.

2) Open Gameplay: I have always preferred games that give the player freedom to move where they want to (within the boundaries of the game). Such elements appear to add depth to a game.


3) Character Development: Games that offer some form of growth or development within the confines of the game itself, adds another dimension to it.


4) Props Usage: Whether it's "tiled letters", "chance cards" or a collection of "trap pieces" (real or virtual), having something to represent the game environment is either an essential element or a great way of interacting with the game, encouraging involvement.

5) The Puzzle Element: A puzzle element, be it trying to work out some unknown mystery using logic, or resolving a letter puzzle by careful thought, encourages a player to use a different part of their thought process when playing.

6) Clear Objectives: No matter the game, having a clear achievable goal to bring a game to its conclusion is the main driving force behind a good game. However, a game with more than one objective, or one which may include helping a fellow player, adds fresh dimensions to a game compared to one with only a single objective.

Next time I hope to spend a little time discussing my move from board games to D&D, and computer games in general, and relaying my preferences between the different game genres available. In the meantime, if you have any fond memories of any particular board game, or have something to say about this blog, please leave a comment.

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