What makes this fun? A critical look at several board games.

One of the (few) things I love about the transition from warm sunny summer days to cool rainy fall days is the opportunity to play my favorite board games, and find new favorites. As I’ve gotten more into the hobby, I’ve continued to scour Board Game Geek for new games to try.  As I play more and more games, I’ve considered trying my own hand at making a compelling board game.  (Conveniently, a new avenue to get your game published has appeared: Kickstarter, which lets you market your idea and allow folks to commit to buying your product so long as you achieve the minimum dollar amount in investments.)

To aid in this process, I’ve started to look at the games I play with new eyes: trying to identify what makes each game fun.  (I’ve found that even games which I don’t prefer overall can have a design touch, or an interesting game mechanic that I find particularly fun.)

 

Settlers of Catan – the chance to win from behind…
As this was the first  Euro-style Board game I ever played, it seems fitting to look at it first.  While it may be an imperfect game which relies too heavily on the luck of the dice, it is definitely one of the few games I’ve played a lot where you can come back from pretty far behind and win.  This is achieved by recognizing that several elements of the gameplay are built on luck, and you can bet against the odds for a chance to win.

  • Building settlements on a couple unlikely numbers.  (If you are losing, why not bet on 4’s… If they are rolled more often than usual, you can grow when your opponents get nothing.)
  • Development cards.  They are rarely bad, and the chance of a Victory point card for just three resources is the best exchange rate in the game.

Not so great: Of the games I play somewhat regularly, Settlers is the least fun game to lose.  It’s too easy to blame “bad luck” for a loss, and it is possible to get cut off early in the game such that you know you are going to lose an hour before the game ends.

 

Carcassonne – simple core mechanics leading to an ever expanding game…

Carcassonne is ever expanding for two reasons: 1) outward growth, as each player adds tiles to the game board is the core game mechanic. 2) The simple core mechanics have led to nearly 20 expansions which add tiles and rules to the game, as well as numerous standalone games based on the same basic game mechanics.

I find an elegance in those games which can be easily expanded upon without breaking their essence – usually the core game mechanic that propels the game.

  • Carcassonne is easily expanded since you just add more tiles to the deck with new abilities and shuffle them all together.
  • Deckbuilding games (like Dominion) are similarly expandable, as the draw/discard pattern can be preserved while adding new cards to the mix.
  • Ticket to Ride can be expanded by providing new maps/routes while preserving the balance of collecting cards, claim routes to complete tickets and drawing more tickets.

Many of the other games I enjoy are less obvious to expand upon because the game is built on the ability to take multiple actions which have been carefully balanced against one another.  This is particularly true of popular “worker placement” games such as Agricola or Puerto Rico.  A rich expansion to either game is difficult to achieve without changing the game’s essence.  (Puerto Rico’s expansion have simply added building types and has little appeal, and “Farmers of the Moor” the only major expansion to Agricola added an awkward new type of action to make up for the new burden of heating your home.)

 

Race for the Galaxy – One game, many roads to victory…
Race is unique in many ways, notably the manner in which cards in hand are valuable both in the abilities they provide and their use as currency to buy other cards.  Race is also rather unique in that there are so many ways to win the game.  There are strategies that involve producing and consuming goods to get victory points, developing many of one type of card to maximize bonus points from the various 6-cost development cards, strategies to end the game quickly to prevent opponent from accruing too many points, all while using some combination of military, exploring or trading to fund your growth.

I’ve played more games of Race for the Galaxy than any other game we own.  This is due to the many ways to win, it’s strength as a two-player game, and the compact game size with no fixed board (which makes it easy to travel with).

Not so great: Race for the Galaxy also happens to have one of the most complex and cryptic set of icons of any game I’ve ever played.  This is why we have rarely played with more than two players – the game is incredibly difficult to teach and the first couple games aren’t much fun.  (The game would be a lot easier to teach if it had better icons and/or relied less on icons in favor of text.)

 
 

A few more noteworthy games:

  • Dixit – I’m having fun even when I’m losing…
    This is a game we just got, but so far I enjoy the beautiful artwork and the creative gameplay which rewards a clever player.  That said, it is nearly as much to see who scored points during each round as it is to win.
  • Dominion – Tipping point…
    I already mentioned Dominion as one of the great games when it comes to expandability, but my favorite element of the game is an invisible one…  In this game, there are two phases of play, but no clear distinction between them: building your deck, and acquiring Victory Points. The player who prepares the best deck and is able to shift focus to acquiring victory points at the right time wins.  If you switch focus too early, your deck will get diluted with victory points and lose effectiveness while others get more points overall.  If you switch too late, you won’t have enough time to get a winning score.
  • Galactic Emperor –  Political influence…
    This is the only “4x” (explore, expand, exploit, exterminate) game I’ve played, but it had a noteworthy game mechanic that I really enjoyed.  When the “influence” action is selected, each player can place two tokens (and may buy a third) to conquer planets with political influence, or defend against the influence of other players.  The advantage of going last is significant, since you can defend against the political attacks others made, and take over other planets without contest.  You must exert your power with care, since everyone has roughly the same amount of influence. (2 or 3 tokens)

What’s your favorite game, and why?  Or, is there something about a game which you really like, even if the game isn’t that great overall?

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