05-01-09 - Bad Board Games

Kim linked this article about some fruity pants board games . I think it's a great article, because I think it's a fantastic example of totally retarded wrong-headed board game design.

I've been going to board game night recently here, and it's been rather hit or miss. There are some good interesting games, but a lot of stinkers. (BTW I classify board games & card games as pretty much the same thing).

Good board games create a dynamic system where you can make real strategic choices. That is, you should have decision points where there is not simply one provably best move. There should be multiple choices that allow you to play in different styles.

The most interesting thing in real board games is when there's interaction between the players; playing against the rule system is not interesting, it's always the same, but playing against other people adds variety and lots of metagame; the metagame of the human interaction outside the rule system is perhaps the most interesting part of board games. Really retarded board games like Monopoly or Risk can only be saved through the metagame. A lot of bad board games basically have you playing against yourself, to try to get as high a score as possible, other people are playing too but you don't really interact much with each other.

Conceptual games like "Train" are some of the worst. There are a lot of them, if you go into any board game shop probably half of them are what I would call "conceptual". That is, the whole point of these games is basically just the idea of them - the setting, oh aren't the characters cute, oh this one is about killing kittens to harvest their souls, what a cute idea. The actual play of these games is trivial and uninteresting. If you want a freaking story, read a book. This is not an appropriate use of the board game medium.

Rather than having a moment of "revelation" in conceptual games, I usually have a moment of abject depression and futility when I realize that the game I'm playing is totally pointless and retarded and I'm just rolling dice and flipping cards for no good reason. Someone could've just told me the concept in one sentence and then we wouldn't have had to waste our time playing this damn game.

Which brings me to the next type of game that sucks - games where all the difficulty and "skill" just come from overly complex rules. For one thing, it sucks playing these games for the first time because you spend hours trying to learn them. Then once you learn the basic rules it takes a little while to really learn what the strategy dynamic is. Then once you understand the strategy, you realize the game is totally trivial. If you have opponents who actually know how to play, then the game is random. Once you get to the level of understanding the game system, then these games have no more complexity at all. There are actually some games that are widely considered to be good games that fall into this category, such as Settlers or Domaine. Those games can be saved by playing in a group and relying on the human metagame to make them more interesting, but basically they are just very complex strategic systems that don't have real depth. Perhaps the most extreme example is the old game Axis & Allies where the static initial layout made it so that once you were an expert your entire move was predetermined and the game just became a giant dice toss. Random board setups prevent the complete destruction of a game in that way, but don't actually make the strategic system any more interesting.

The test for whether a board game is actually really good goes something like this : 1. convert all the pieces to abstract solid colored blocks, convert the board to just squares with no graphics. 2. teach all the players the strategy so they know exactly what the right way to play is. We've reduced the appeal of the game to only it's rule system, and we've removed all the difficulty due only to unfamiliarity or over-complex rules. Is it still interesting to play ? If not, then it's basically a garbage game dressed up in a pretty outfit. The truly great games are still interesting in this format (chess, go, poker, diplomacy) but most are shit.

A really good game (chess, go, poker) is a beautiful thing. It can teach you about yourself and the universe. As you get better and better, you keep reaching plateaus where you see something new in the strategy system that you didn't even know was there before. You can play opponents who use some weird style that you're not familiar with that can teach you new things about the game.

1 comment:

James said...

dungeon siege won't be any better going back.
Morrowind has large graphics packs these days, both system killers and not, but getting mods working on bethesda games is a game to itself. It might be worth it as morrowind is probably the best singleplayer experience I ever had, until you accidentally figure out any of the millions of unbalanced enchantments, but by that point you sort of feel like you deserve your power.

I can't think of many decent games in this genre since the heyday of the infinity engine.

There's a modder named Laz for diablo 2 who makes and remakes a mod called Median which alters everything but the tileset and is a masterpiece in game design, especially considering it's done without code modding. It's extremely punishing and well thought out, it takes intelligence to survive even the first act. I played the version called 2008 and it was absolutely brilliant.
Of course diablo is pretty miserable to play at any length by yourself.

There's a game called divine divinity which outwardly seems just like every IE game but is very very different in some way I can't very clearly explain or remember, but it definitely brought something over from tabletop rpg's that no other game i've played seemed to. The game itself just seemed like a picture of what was going on in some DM's head, the world was really mysterious and it reacted in completely unpredictable ways. It's not an incredible game, and I quit about halfway through because at release it was riddled with crash bugs, but I'm definitely glad I bought it.

old rants