Can games be bad? Seems like an obvious question. We’ve all had bad experiences with games in the past. Many board gamers like to point to Monopoly and say “that! That is a bad game!” But there are people out there who collect Monopoly games and love them. So there is clearly a strong degree of subjectivity here. But can we be more objective about it? Can we measure whether a game is bad? Quantify it?
Game designers need to figure out this question quickly, to waste as little time as possible on a ‘bad’ design, to try and think about what is missing that might make a design ‘good’. As a playtester I have found it challenging to provide meaningful feedback after a single play, and I have perhaps been over critical of a prototype because it was not to my taste, rather than being an objectively poor design. Having things to think about as I go into a playtest would help me a lot!
This is obviously also an important question for a reviewer! In fact, this post grew out of a discussion on Twitter with fellow reviewer Bored? Games who had asked how people approach giving negative reviews, and whether it’s right to trash a game because you didn’t like it. Can a reviewer provide an objective discussion about a game?
We have no problem gushing over a game we think is great. But when criticising a game we feel is “bad” it might seem unkind to be too cruel. After all, some designer put a lot of time into this game (even if it might not seem like it sometimes), some publisher has a lot of money invested. If you’re going to say a game sucks, should you not be certain that you’re right? Or can I ever say more than it sucked, for me?
Regardless of how you feel about reviewers and negative reviews (I firmly believe that reviewers are obliged to give negative reviews of games they don’t enjoy!) I’m more interested in the deeper question. Can a game be objectively bad? Can we find some objective ways of measuring a game’s quality? To try and answer that, let’s look at the opposite question.
What defines a good game?
A game should be ‘fun’, or enjoyable, to play. You have to want play it. This is the obvious answer and isn’t especially helpful. What is fun? Can we measure it? Not really. We know it when we feel it and we can tell when others aren’t. But different people have fun with different things. I have endless fun with social deduction games but my partner who can’t lie doesn’t enjoy them at all. Whether a game is objectively good or not must be independent of one player’s subjective feeling of fun.
A game can last anywhere from a minute to tens of hours but game length doesn’t affect whether it is good. The key is whether it is engaging. Do you look up having been playing it to discover it’s much later than you expected? Or do you find yourself fiddling with your phone between turns? Engagement is important but again, different people have different tolerances. Yet the amount of time we spend not engaged is something we could feasibly measure.
A good game offers something new and unique. Some great games have redefined how we play. The degree of novelty need not be large, even retheming an existing game can offer something new, though often there will be something new to the mechanics of the game as well for it to be a contender for a truly good game. A game that does nothing new, in many ways, has no reason to exist.
A good game is balanced. If there are multiple ways of playing the game (multiple strategies to pursue, different starting conditions, etc) then no single approach should be superior to any other. Dramatic imbalances in a game will tend to ruin it as a single strategy becomes dominant. Games can cope with some imbalances in one area if the gameplay allows for players to correct for this imbalance (Cosmic Encounter, or the gang up on the leader play of a dudes on a map war game). Certain mechanics intentionally leave balance up to the players (auction mechanics, for example). Over many, many plays we can measure imbalances (eg, this faction wins twice as often as this faction) but that is difficult to do in practice.
Games don’t necessarily have to be story driven or highly thematic to be good, but the best games leave you with unforgettable stories. Even games that fall short in other areas can still be good if they leave you with a great story to tell. Betrayal at House on the Hill is terribly unbalanced and random, but it never fails to tell a fondly remembered story.
Quality decisions, I think, are the key characteristic of a good game. A player should have some sense of agency, the feeling that their decisions have an impact on the out come of the game. This drives engagement as you want to make the ‘right’ decision. Quality decisions are ones that are interesting, that make you sit and think. The longer you need to think, the harder it should be for someone to undo it. If you invest energy in a process that takes coordinating several turns worth actions, that shouldn’t be undone by the flip of a card. Otherwise those decisions you’ve made are rendered meaningless. Balance comes in here too, when different options aren’t balanced, the decision of which to take becomes obvious: the most powerful one.
An important contributing factor to quality decisions is having things that are unknown. These can be your opponent’s future moves, the next cards to become available from a deck, the random dice roll of a battle. It is essential for the future game state to be unknown otherwise you can’t be making interesting decisions, the future is already set and you are merely going through the motions. This is why it sucks to know half way through a game that one player is going to win, or that you are going to lose. Although factors like story can give players a reason to happily continue playing even then.
Good games will feel different towards the end than they do at the start. An obvious example is in engine building games, where at the start you might be scrabbling for resources, but by the end everything is firing and you are having big, powerful turns. This gives the overall game an arc, in the same way a story has an arc, and is often valuable for generating those stories I mentioned earlier. It’s often not enough to have quality decisions if all those decisions end up feeling the same, and this is especially important in longer games.
From a pure design standpoint, I might consider a game to be a good game if it knows what it wants to be. That there was an objective, a vision, for its design. When this happens you can evaluate it against how well it achieved that vision, whether you liked it or not. For example, last year I looked at a game called Krosmaster Quest, which absolutely knew what it wanted to be. For some people, that game would be incredible, even if for me it was just too much!
Consider the book, Ulysses. It’s one of those “great” novels that few people bother reading. It’s a great novel because of its symbology, it’s endless layers of deeper meaning. It’s a work of art. But I wouldn’t enjoy reading it because it’s a ridiculously complicated, long and obtuse book. Games that in a similar way aspire to provide greater meaning, even if they fail on all the other qualities of a good game (including fun!) could be considered good, in an artistic way, because they are more than the sum of their parts. But obviously they’d be better if they could be fun too!
The most important take away from the above list is that while many of these elements are present in good games, a game does not need to have all of them to be good. Can you think of more qualities that I’ve missed here? Be sure to drop me a comment if you do!
Can a game be bad?
Presumably a bad game would be one that was missing the qualities that we agree makes for a good game. The difficulty is identifying objective qualities which we can measure, or quantify. Let’s see what we can do here.
To my mind the most important factor is the presence of Quality Decisions, which as noted above draws in a lot of other factors. How do you spot a Quality Decision? I would describe it as one where you sit and think about it, are unsure of the correct choice, and are tempted by multiple (2+) options. These decisions should matter and have some affect on the outcome of the game. Note you don’t have to be thinking about it on your turn, and the best games let you do your thinking during the time between turns.
If a game offered you zero decisions then it would be a bad game. Hell, it would be a film or a book, not a game. But how many decisions are enough? How many decisions are too much? That will depend on the player, and on what sort of game you are playing. In an hour long game, you would want more than one quality decision. That suggests the idea of a “quality decision density”: the number of quality decisions per unit time.
So a bad game would be one where the quality decision density is “too low”. That’s still a little vague, so I would say a game needs at least 1 quality decision per player turn, on average. That ensures you always have something to think about. I’ll allow some flexibility here but it’s a solid starting point. In addition to this, those decisions should vary over the course of the game (if the game is long enough for this to matter).
Now in different games, the difficulty of those decisions will vary. A complex heavy euro game will demand you take a multitude of elements into account, and that’s not for everyone. But it is for someone and it’s a good game if it fulfils that audience’s requirements. Likewise a light game may be too light for those heavy euro fans, but if it still features meaningful decisions then the number of factors to worry about doesn’t matter.
The next measurable to consider is downtime, how long you are typically waiting between turns. This is intrinsically linked to engagement. You will naturally be thinking through your next turn and watching what other players do, so you want to measure the amount of time you feel like you are waiting with nothing to do. This inevitably varies with who you play with, those infamous analysis-paralysis sufferers ruining more than one game for a fellow player in the past. A good game generally tries to mitigate this but likewise some players just weren’t meant to play certain games! At least not yet.
So, the game has failed to offer plenty of quality decisions and still has a ton of downtime, can anything save it? A good story might. If the stories keep you coming back to the game, or sat at the table eager for next round even if you have to wait for it, then you can forgive a game its random nature or its downtime because when it is engaging you it does so wholeheartedly. It entertains you and you tell other people about the times you played it. Of course, this one takes some empathy. If it didn’t generate stories for you, you have to try to ask how typical that experience was.
If it fails even that? Then I think you can probably say the game is bad!
Objectivity vs Subjectivity
We’ve managed to identify two measurable quantities to act as a bench mark for deciding whether a game is good:
1) the Quality Decision Density – the number of interesting decisions per unit time (per player turn is probably the most meaningful measure), averaged over the course of a typical game
2) the downtime per turn, again measured over the course of a game, and importantly, with different players (to handle those unfortunate AP prone players). Remember that here we mean specifically “unengaged time”, not just time away from your turn.
Neither of these are perfectly objective. What makes a quality decision, what feels like downtime, are both subjective to a degree, but these aren’t intended as absolute guidelines with rigid cut offs. Oh no! 0.36 decisions per turn? Out you go! Of course not, rather this gives us a first estimate at whether a game might still be good whether we had fun with it or not. There are further factors, story most especially, that we can’t measure so easily, beyond do you remember what happened in a game of it you played?
We can’t be perfectly objective, but we can find some more objective measures to judge a game when we want to try to be. I hope these might be a useful starting point when evaluating games in the future!
But what do you think? I don’t think there are right or wrong answers here and would prefer for this to start a discussion! Let me know below!