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?