The focus is on game mechanisms - what makes a game exciting and why. How did the board game designer make his game fun? Components and theme are secondary. The play's the thing.

Monday, October 09, 2006

The Well Constructed Game - Reader's Comments

There were two people who responded publicly to "The Well Constructed Game", along with a few private emails.

One theme that came up a few times questioned my experience with Oasis. In my playing, I've never found the threat of being closed out on the game board to be very consequential. That's not to say it never happened at all, but it was infrequent and tended to have a marginal effect on the players. People who wrote in had different experiences with the game, finding that the board had a very significant effect.

I mention this just to hedge my own opinions. I've only played the game a few times (because, after all, my experience wasn't favorable). However, I don't feel that uncomfortable with my criticism because:

1) The game has lots of other problems (most especially, the auction mechanism in which you neither know what you're bidding with nor what you're bidding for.)

2) The point was just to illustrate how if a game board isn't constructed well, and doesn't sufficiently threaten to close off a player's options, the effect is to create a boring superfluous mechanism.

3) Hey, even a "review" is typically based on just a few playings and is similarly limited.

I always feel a great responsibility to be fair to a game I criticize, though.

Richard Abrams questioned whether my (modest) complaint with Caylus, that it has inferior privelege tracks, can't be mitigated by players tweaking the rules.

"...what's stopping us from re-doing the favor track to make each of the tracks approx. equal in value? ... Tweaking the favor track should be easy, and would allow players to choose the track that best fit into the strategy they were pursuing."

It's not easy. It requires playtesting (in a 3 hour game) to properly balance. And that's the job of the designers. Yes, any game's problem can theoretically be solved by the players, but then it's a different game. I think it's fair to say that a Well Constructed Game doesn't need to be stamped "Assembly Required".

Markmist agrees that the hard work comes in playtesting:

"To design a "well constructed game" is an exhaustive process - one in which you need to constantly be analyzing playtests (looking for what works and what doesn't work)."

Markmist writes as though he himself is a designer. Are you?

He also agrees that Caylus makes much better use of the different commodity types (cube colors) than does Keythedral:

"I played Caylus first and then played Keythedral and I felt that Keythedral was the vastly inferior game based on the points you mentioned. The color of the cubes in Keythedral seemed inconsequential and arbitary compared to Caylus."

Perhaps I'm too cautious, but I feel more comfortable praising a well rated game (on the Boardgamegeek) and criticizing one with a mediocre rating. But Keythedral, with its 7.5 rating, is a game in which I feel that the Emperor has no clothes. I can see the appeal: the whole way of building cottages and claiming resources is really fascinating. However, every time I played it, I found that there seemed to be little cause and effect going on in that system. You can bid for control and get totally screwed. You can hang back and see things just fall into your lap.

I also agree with Markmist that Through the Desert is an exceptionally Well Constructed Game, and one of my favorites. See my article on Story Arc for more details.

Coming attractions:
My next article will examine how possible it is to identify a specific style in the works of any given game designer. I am trying (foolishly!) to get it out within a reasonable time - hopefully within about a month of my last article.