Variant: What Separates a Good Game from a Bad One?
I often tell people that I only play “good” board games. In fact, I’ve been known to say that Mystery of the Abbey is “like Clue if Clue were fun.” So none of that Monopoly/Risk stuff. But what really separates a good game from a bad one? I’m talking about it in the abstract. There are tons of good games that I don’t personally like. Talisman is a “good” game that I find to be way, way too long. And Imperial 2030 is another that I saw that could be enjoyable but just really wasn’t my thing. So I’m not asking about personal preference, but more about a demarcation between “good” and “bad” in some objective sense.
There are lots of little things that might separate good from bad. Component quality is a good indicator, or whether there is a designer’s name or just some faceless corporation. But if I had to distill it down, and just look at the game itself, the main thing that elevates a game into the realm of “good” (and there is a wide range within “good”) is the number of meaningful decisions in the game. Decision points are what separate the good from the bad.
A couple of extreme examples might be Candy Land or Chutes and Ladders. Both are roll-and-move (or draw and move) fests with absolutely no individual player choice. And, while Candy Land might help a young child learn their colors, as a game it absolutely fails to bring anything meaningful to the table. At the other end of the extreme is a game like Chess. Nearly every decision is meaningful. As the game progresses, choices made earlier in the game – and the position gained or lost thereby – dramatically impact available choices for the late game.
Of course, most games have some level of choice. Monopoly allows you to buy or not buy property. In Clue, you can make the suggestion you choose. But much of the choices are determined by events outside of your control. In Clue, you can only make that suggestion if you get into a room – and that is determined by die roll. Similar with Monopoly.
So, the decisions need to be freely available. But they also need to be somewhat opaque. If you have three options available, but option 2 is clearly the best, then there’s no real decision to be made. If the right decision is always immediately obvious, then it takes any benefit from having a decision. A great example might be Tic-Tac-Toe. Sure you can make your mark in any available space, but it is obvious that most choices will result in a loss.
That opacity need not come from random chance, though. In many “good” games, it comes from the unpredictable (or, at least, less than predictable) actions of the other players. So maybe you move in to take the points in Notre Dame, but some other player also swoops in and cuts into their value. In Puerto Rico, you have to be aware of not only what role might be best for you, but what roles you might be leaving open for the next player. This makes each choice in the game meaningful, allows the player to feel in control of events, and ultimately provides the satisfaction of a “good” game experience.