Playing with Juul's Criteria

In his post on paragaming, Jesper Juul (Half-Real) cites a few fundamental criteria for good video-game design, each of which is violated by China Miner, a game that he enjoys despite, and because of, its faults. (Each of these might be thought of as a Thing Juul Thinks About Games.)

This list of criteria (for video games) has me thinking about their counterparts in other game types… or fun ways in which some of these criteria could be violated. First, the criteria:

  • Don’t break control conventions without reason.
  • Don’t kill player within the first few seconds.
  • Have sound.
  • Difficulty curve should be a rising slope.
  • Save expert moves for later levels.
  • Don’t let players make early mistakes that are only apparent much later.
  • It should be possible to complete a game.
  • [via Jesper Juul’s “Paragaming: Good Fun with Bad Games“]

Let’s consider how these criteria might apply to tabletop games:

  • Don’t break control conventions without reason. What are the control conventions of paper games? Roll dice to generate immediate results? Discard cards to remove them from play or to recycle them? Obviously, that “without reason” qualifier is important, but so is identifying the control conventions of the game type you’re designing for. For example, we presume that a face-down card cannot just be looked at casually; some action must typically be undertaken before a hidden card can be revealed. That’s a control convention.
  • Don’t kill the player within the first few seconds. Sound advice for any medium, but in a paper game — especially one with considerable set-up time — the appropriate built-in play time should be considerably longer than a few seconds. I might argue that it should be a function of the set-up time (i.e., a player should get to play for at least as long as he spent setting up the game), but I’m almost sure that’s needlessly strict. I think it’s fair to say, though, that a player shouldn’t typically be eliminated in the first move (folding in poker notwithstanding).
  • Have sound. Barring electronic gadgets and counterpart DVDs, the way to have sound in a table game is to encourage or demand players to talk as part of play. Chess and poker both have ways to be played that are almost devoid of speech, and I think serious players of both games would say that the ability to avoid speech during play can be an important part of one’s strategy (or table presence). That said, plenty of games imply table talk without explicitly demanding it; I’m thinking here of how Scrabble expects players to announce point scores or challenges, and how both can be accomplished legally without saying a word. Picture the player who tosses the dictionary onto the table in front of you with a demanding point of her finger. When games do demand specific declarations, they sometimes come off as cheesy or childlike, don’t they?
  • Difficulty curve should be a rising slope. This is more difficult to model in a table game than a video game, as it’s not always possible to guarantee that later turns (or later plays of the same game) will be more challenging. Still, the shifts in resources over time makes this a worthy criterion to observe. As pieces are captured, options in chess dwindle and choices become potentially more difficult. As the stakes rise in poker, choices may become more agonizing. But do rising consequences for failure correspond to difficulty?
  • Save expert moves for later levels. I’m trying to think, as I type this, of a table game that has expert moves built in. I can fathom a board game with card combinations that might not emerge until the right mix of cards has been dealt and stored up in a player’s hand, I suppose. But is this a criterion for designers… or for players? Would this amount to advice? Should poker players save their most challenging moves for late in the game? And how do we define later levels — as late in the same instance of play, or later in one’s campaign of games played? Should one save expert moves for one’s later turns or later games? It occurs to me that part of the fun of D&D 4E is that it doesn’t quite do this — not like D&D used to. While options increase over time, higher-level powers don’t necessarily require more expertise to use. Rather, D&D gives players simple and complex powers almost immediately, broken out either by power type (at-will, encounter, daily), or by class (some classes are simply more complicated than others). By not making players wait until high levels to perform moves that feel like they require expertise, D&D has made play more fun from the earliest levels.
  • Don’t let players make early mistakes that are only apparent much later. This is a fine criterion for table games. With longer set-up times, longer clean-up times, and a greater hassle required to achieve the same kind of play circumstances, table games would do well to minimize or diminish the regrets players experience for mistakes. Bad learning experiences can leave a player unwilling to try a game out again, especially if play requires a time investment. Mistakes stemming from interplay, though — choosing a strategy that turns out later not to outmatch the opponent’s, for example — aren’t quite the same as mistakes with delayed consequences; that’s just a part of multiplayer play.
  • It should be possible to complete a game. This might be the equivalent of the German-style play dynamic wherein all players make it to the endgame — it is possible for all players to complete the game. (But not to win.) The obvious violation of this criterion in table games is player elimination, in which it’s not possible for a player to complete the game because he’s been eliminated from play. (A bummer, that.) In a video game, the inability to complete a game is presumably due to bad implementation (buggy software, e.g.). In a table game, it can only be bad design, I think. We have to ask, though, what a game that can be not-completed might look like — is it any game that ends in a stalemate?

And, just for giggles, can we think of a way to run counter to each criterion… that would still be fun?


  1. Will Hindmarch
    September 28, 2009

    For example, how can we break the “Have Sound” criteria and still enjoy ourselves, whether we’re talking about a board game that demands — explicitly demands — silence, or we’re talking about the almost silent parts of Dead Space?

  2. Adam Drew (deadlytoque)
    September 28, 2009

    The issues of learning curve and expert moves had some really interesting discussion in this Story Games thread.

  3. Will Hindmarch
    September 28, 2009

    Adam, that link’s not working. Can you try it again?

  4. Lauren
    September 29, 2009

    Don’t kill the player within the first few seconds.

    I haven’t thought of this much in terms of a table game, but if I can digress into a pen & paper game, I had a GM do this a long time ago. It kicked off a really excellent arc.

    Part of why it worked, I think, was he had us take already established characters. We were between games and looking for a one-shot to tide us over. He told us to go through our character sheets and pick any previous character from any previous game. System/setting didn’t matter.

    Once we’d chosen and he had a few minutes to refresh his memory on who everyone was playing, we started in. Player by player, he led us through short, personal intro scenes. Not a one of us survived.

    Sure, it was mostly a mechanic for getting the party together, and it wasn’t permanent — the next scene was us all waking up in the same elsewhere — but those few moments of “Holy shit, my character’s dead… Holy shit, your character’s dead!” were great roleplay. I don’t even remember what went on the rest of the night, story-wise, but that opening has always stuck with me.

  5. Will Hindmarch
    September 29, 2009

    I consider pen-and-paper RPGs to be table games, for these purposes. And that’s a great example of taking the player expectation and twisting it right around. I used to love running Wraith one-shots, most of which started with that kind of anthology of death.

    I tried to trick people into thinking they were making ordinary mortals or pre-vampires, and then kill them off and play Wraith: The Oblivion with them. Good times.

    Since bringing up these criteria, though, I’ve also been thinking about a card game that demands silence from the players unless the cards enable them to speak, which doesn’t quite violate the “have sound” criterion, but riffs on the idea of table talk a bit.

  6. Jeff Tidball
    October 2, 2009

    I think that “Have Sound” requires interpretation to be relevant to tabletop games, but I think that there’s an easy and valuable interpretation.

    In a video game, sound has two basic purposes: mood and feedback. The music emphasizes the mood of, say, a game’s level (ooh, creepy…) or intended play style (wah! frenetic!). It gives feedback that you did successfully shoot your gun, or pound down the wall, or whatever.

    The tabletop equivalent of “sound,” in the former (mood) case is probably something like “flavor,” “theme,” or “story.” So, Magic: The Gathering‘s implementation of the interpreted “Have Sound” directive is its flavor text, and perhaps its illustrations.

  7. Will Hindmarch
    October 2, 2009

    I’m being intentionally literal with the sound thing. Feedback is important, for sure, but that’s clear enough an idea to me that it’s not as much a plaything as the notion of the role of sound in a table game.

  8. Phoebe
    October 3, 2009

    An example of a pen-and-paper game that succeeds *because* it flouts several of these conventions is _Paranoia_. A classic game of _Paranoia_ will result in immediate character deaths (ameliorated somewhat because you have clones) and will often result in a game that can’t be completed (because all the PCs are dead). It works, of course, because it’s a humor game, and the flouting of the conventions is really the whole *point*.

    Kind of related to that, I’ve noticed that skill in GMing _Paranoia_ is completely different than skill at GMing any other game. The worst GM I ever played under turned out to be an *excellent* _Paranoia_ GM, whereas a lot of the really good GMs I know couldn’t run a decent game of _Paranoia_ to save there lives. (I can’t either, for that matter.)

  9. Queex
    October 5, 2009

    (folding in poker notwithstanding)

    To nit-pick- I’d say that folding on a hand is merely one play in a larger game- elimination only occurs when a player cashes out or loses all his chips.

    can fathom a board game with card combinations that might not emerge until the right mix of cards has been dealt and stored up in a player’s hand, I suppose.

    Dominion, anyone?

    It should be possible to complete a game.

    This is something that, I think, nearly every single table-top RPG does spectacularly badly. It’s almost the default to have an on-going game with no clear destination or horizon. Why is it that we almost never define an end-point to a campaign so we can build up to it? Even if you don’t know how long you’ll want to keep playing it, or what time constraints you may labour under session to session, you can at least attempt it- and having a point at which it’s all or nothing, so you might as well take the big risks, is a potent tool. Games almost always devolve into ‘this week we’re fighting X’. The carefully constructed plot is the be-all and end-all of RPGs (I’m starting to think that slavish adherence to the principles of written or performed drama is poison to good gaming), but it can be used to good effect more frequently than it seems to be. Even solid interim goals seldom appear.

    For example, how can we break the “Have Sound” criteria and still enjoy ourselves


  10. Will Hindmarch
    October 5, 2009

    I admit, I was being flip.


Leave a Reply