Thursday, January 20, 2011

What Makes a Good Game?

If I could answer this question, I wouldn’t be sitting here blogging. I’d be in Aruba, sipping Mai Tais from Natalie Portman’s navel. Because to successfully answer this question would be to catch lightning in a bottle; every game I ever produced would become an instant sensation. I’d become the Reiner Knitzia of RPGs. And let me assure you, he’s sipping Mai Tais from someone’s navel right about now. But I’m going to try to answer this question as best I can, in order to get closer to tropical navel sipping heaven. What does make a good game?

What makes a good game isn’t rules. It makes no difference if you’re rolling percentile dice or a d20; it’s all just a way to randomly generate a number. I don’t think it makes a difference if you’re rolling above a target number, or below it. Neither does it matter if that number is static (based on a fixed number like an attribute) or dynamic (a variable number based on the phase of the moon). That’s one of the problems with designing a game system -- there are too many options, and each one is really just as good as another.

This isn’t strictly true, however. Playing Call of Cthulhu is different from playing Traveller. Certainly, the subject matter is different. But at base, you’re still rolling dice to get a random number. So what makes them different? And why is that beneficial?

The difference is “feel”. The games feel different. It’s the difference between playing chess and backgammon, or the difference between playing bridge and poker. In the former example, in both games the player moves pieces around a board. But the manner in which they move those pieces differs. There is strategy in both games, but this depends on how the pieces move. Personally, I prefer backgammon, because I like the randomization factor of rolling dice, and it’s more fast-paced. Both bridge and poker use little pieces of paper with numbers and symbols on them, but both games play very differently. Those reasons lie within the rules, the manner in which they’re played. So rules do have an effect on a game, and contribute to their “feel.”

For example, I know of no one who played AD&D using “speed factor” for their weapons. It, quite frankly, slowed play down. And you’d also end up with everyone using the fastest weapons. Yet while no one cared if they got a +2 to hit against plate mail with a dagger, they certainly did care about their +2 magic dagger. Why care about one bonus, and not the other? Was it because the +2 magic dagger provided its benefit against all opponents, while the speed factor only depended on the type of armor your opponent wore? Was it too much of a pain to continually consult the speed factor table? I don’t know. But I do know that the same person who didn’t want to include speed factor in D&D absolutely, positively wanted to account for the most minute variables when it came to shooting a gun in Traveller. (I’m using a gauss rifle with spin-stabilized, armor-piercing ammo, a bi-pod, and a scope. I get a +8 to hit). I think that’s largely a function of setting.

That is to say, the setting defines the type of rules one should incorporate. Imagine playing Call of Cthulhu without the sanity rules. There would be no point. You may as well play poker without the aces in the deck. No. Rules clearly are important to a game, but not in the way we think. It’s not the die-rolling mechanic. It’s not how you calculate saving throws. It’s something that happens in between the assumptions the designer makes about the game, and how those assumptions are expressed in the rules. That brings us to setting.

One of the things that made Deadlands so much fun to play, so unique and interesting, was its inclusion of cards and chips. Cowpokes and Dudes playing poker in the saloon is a stable of the genre; you can’t have a wild west movie without a card game occurring somewhere. But rather than including rules for playing poker (using dice, no less), Deadlands flipped it. You were sitting there at the table, roleplaying, while tossing chips on the table and holding your cards close to your vest. You felt like you were playing a Western. It was genius. It’s also an extreme example of what I’m trying to get at.

What makes a good game is its setting, and how that setting is expressed as a function of its rules. There should be a harmony of form and function. You wouldn’t include sanity rules in Traveller, but you sure as hell had better have decent gun rules. (Also, having a one-in-six chance of your character dying during character generation doesn’t hurt, either). And you can ignore speed factor in D&D, and it doesn‘t hurt the player‘s experience with the game. I’m not entirely sure why this is the way it is; like I said, it‘s like catching lightning in a bottle. Which means I’m no closer to Natalie Portman’s navel.


  1. Good games are like porn. You know it when you see it.

  2. Correction, Greg. You should have said, "Good games are like good porn. Besides knowing it when you see it, they are both addictive and fun to watch." ;)