I had a conversation with my wife recently about the elements of a game that make a game surpass expectations and deliver a top quality experience, and as a result, I decided that it was time for me to sway from my golden path of reviewing and head into the world of design. I've interviewed enough designers and have played enough games that I think I've got a good grasp on what separates the good from the great, and I thought I'd share it with you all and perhaps spark some discussion on the subject. I may be full of crap, but I also might be onto something. I leave that for you to decide.
Why Theme Is Important
The first thing people see when they research a game is the artwork and the general theme. I'm sure that playing a game that attempts to re-enact the amazing and interesting world of export is incredibly compelling to some, a la Container, and to others there's nothing more compelling than having a Space Marine carry out the Emperor of Mankind's orders by emptying the skull of a Genestealer onto a nearby wall. Theme matters, and while you can't be all things to all people, designers must strive to create a compelling, cohesive game world that allows the players to suspend their disbelief for the duration of the game, allowing them to feel as if they're in the game world rather than a sitting in a darkened room eating pretzels and playing a board game.
Designing a game with a concept in mind and then building the game around that world is always going to be more engaging than developing a set of mechanics and then figuring out what to wallpaper those concepts with. The key is not to figure out what people would be interested in as much as developing the world based on a concept, because with little exception, the game's integral theme will be executed far more effectively than making a game and trying to figure out what the game should be
From the ground up, a game should have every aspect of the mechanics exude the game's theme. A great example of this concept is the recent Merchants and Marauders, where you feel like a salty scallywag from the moment you look at the box to the end of the game. You can tell that the entire game was built around the theme, and both the art and execution make the game completely immersive.
The antithesis is a game like Lost Cities that appears to have been designed with a poker deck and then, after the fact, it was decided that it should be a game about archaeology. I'm not saying that a game with a weak or pasted-on theme can't be a success, such as Tigris and Euphrates, but I am saying that designing a game that has theme elements permeating through gameplay will always be more successful.
Now all of that being said, even a great, popular theme that is executed well will not save a mediocre game, but it most certainly will help sell units. Witch of Salem is a great example of a mediocre game that has a rich, engaging theme that was adhered to well. At the end of the day, if games were meant to be nothing more than an IQ test between friends, all games would simply have Scantron sheets, number two pencils, and a SAT pre-test in the box. People want to, by and large, live something outside themselves and take a small, reasoned break from their own realities, and in order to offer this, a game needs to have a well executed, integral theme.
How Art Can Shape Perception
I cannot stress how strongly I feel about artwork enough: it is critical to making a successful product. Games are a visual medium in most cases, and the more evocative and pleasing a game's art is, the more it will allow a player to suspend disbelief. I'm not saying that a game has to have Cyclades quality murals, although I'd personally love that, but I am saying that having the bare minimum of passable art will certainly not aid the game's cause. Using the Lost Cities example again, had the game had far more appealing visuals, even with a painted-on theme, the game would feel more thematic and interesting.
When I think of a game that was done spectacularly well, I think of Space Hulk. Notwithstanding the full barrel's worth of oil required to cast all of the plastic in the box, the art alone is enough to make the game stand among the top tier of published games. Art is not an afterthought, and when you consider that some games, such as Magic The Gathering have made millions of dollars by being consistently beautiful to look at, you have to accept that art is not only a requirement, it's a necessity.
While it is arguable that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and there's no accounting for taste, you have to admit that there are certain things that everyone can agree on when it comes to visuals. The magic is to have art that is the outward face of the theme, because no matter how compelling your theme is, if it's not believable and viscerally "real" then it will almost certainly be relegated to be remembered as a passable effort rather than a masterpiece.
Why The Components Don't Need To Be Expensive To Be Good
There is a lot of division over the subject of components, and while some will say that without a pound of plastic in the box a game is only half produced, I think that having the components mirror the theme, no matter what they are made of, is a key ingredient of success. I don't see much distinction between Arkham Horror using the standies or the same game using the pre-painted miniatures aside from the fact that buying the figurines will triple the total purchase price.
I don't know about you, but I'd rather have a reasonably priced game with exceptional, thematic art than a bunch of miniatures in that same game at twice or triple the price. What it really comes down to is what best serves the design, though, and in some cases, miniatures are really the best way to establish the theme's overall feel, and in those cases, the extra price may be warranted.
An example of a design that would have failed without the miniatures is Heroscape. The gameplay is exceptional and the design is dripping with theme, but without all the wee plastic army men, the game likely would've flopped. Part of what made the game appealing was the tactile aspect of moving soldiers across tiered, plastic terrain, not to mention the collectability of the series.
The fact is that you cannot discount, as a publisher, the innate hoarding and collecting gene that seems to be inherent to a large contingent of the gaming community, so if the game is compelling enough to suck in the consumer and the design is such that unlimited expansions of plastic bits will sell, there's nothing wrong with having premium bits.
Another key issue regarding components is the durability and quality. When you look at games like Betrayal at House on the Hill's recent re-release, the quality just not there due to tile warping issues, and the wide array of complaints has most certainly turned off quite a few people. Not only does using subpar materials hurt the individual game's sales, it can also taint the publisher's name. In the case of Betrayal, it seems like it was a one-time lapse, not a systemic issue with Wizards, but were they to make the same mistake again, it most certainly would begin to sow the seeds of doubt in the consuming public's mind.
In short, taking an interest in a game's bill of materials can be immensely important to the long term success of not just the individual product, but to the long term reputation of a publisher, and to ignore the quality aspect of a game is sales suicide. The fact that technology has matured to the point that a small, previously unknown publisher like Clever Mojo Games can produce a world-class product at a reasonable price reinforces the idea that a larger publisher failing to produce a quality product is not only harmful, but it can be fatal.
My final sentiment on components is that there is really only one truly unforgivable sin when it comes to the contents of a box, and that is completeness. There is no excuse, in my opinion, to force players to go out and get extra items to play a game that they just bought. The prime example of this, and the one that I beat up on most often, is Munchkin. There is simply no reason for a game with an MSRP of $25.00 to NOT have level counters within, be it nice plastic ones or just plain old 10 sided dice.
I can understand running out of counters in a game due to an oddball situation that was likely an unforeseen event, but not putting required items in the box is, in my opinion, a sure fire way to anger the consumers whom you wish to peddle your wares to. Even if you put a disclaimer on the box that tells a purchaser that they'll need to have something on hand to play, it's always better to spend the extra change on the game and put everything needed to play the game right into the box.
Complexity For Complexity's Sake
Games need to have the Einstein philosophy of design that, "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler." Tossing in complexity for the sake of complexity can take an otherwise exceptional product and turn it into a pariah. Android is a perfect example of a game that would've been far more widely lauded as a success had Fantasy Flight focused far less on chrome and boiled the core game concepts down to a far less complex game.
Conversely, very complex games that have tremendous upkeep between rounds are not necessarily destined for failure, as evidenced by Arkham Horror. It is a complex game that has just the right balance of chrome and core rules to give players an exceptionally rich gaming experience without making it so ridiculously hard to grasp that people give up on it.
Another key aspect of the complexity conundrum is that the complexity of a game should closely mirror what the designer wants to accomplish with the design. Forbidden Island was clearly meant to be a light, cooperative puzzle game and it completely nails that design concept. The rules are very light and understandable, and the bar to entry is very low while still providing enough depth to warrant multiple plays. Conquest of the Empire, a twenty-six year old game, is another example of a game that, while substantially more complex than something like Forbidden Island, doesn't have so much excess chrome merely for the sake of complexity.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, games like Tannhauser or Earth Reborn that have much higher levels of complexity are immune to overwhelming players because the chrome that has been added significantly enhance the enjoyment of the products. Chrome is not a bad thing, in other words, but it really has to fit the design goals and it has to be executed in such a manner that it does not make the game a burden to play. The upshot of this is that the complexity of the game has to be adequately explained to the players by the rulebook, which is likely the number one reason that a game can be accepted en masse or dismissed as a poor design.
Far too many games have gone to the wayside because the design was "trying too hard", or forced the players to absorb too much information too fast. Earth Reborn is arguably the antithesis of this, with a tiered rulebook that slowly builds the player's understanding of the game up by having a series of tutorial scenarios with increasing amounts of complexity being added into each, climaxing with the full game rule set. It is a clever teaching mechanic, and far more games would do well to learn from the idea of teaching little pieces at a time, slowly stacking people's understanding of the game until the final lesson where the player has become fully adept at understanding the complete package.
How Coherence and Tempo Can Make Or Break A Product
Sometimes games attempt to do a lot of diverse things in the box and it works, but other times the game will give players the feeling that a part was bolted onto the end of the game as an afterthought, creating a "disconnect" between the game's overall feel and its mechanics. While coherence is an extension of the theme to a degree, it really is more about having everything come together in a symphony that is greater than the sum of its parts rather than being a poorly unified group of good ideas that don't work especially well together.
An example of poor coherence is the revised Fantasy Flight version of Dungeonquest. It is superior in a lot of ways to the original Games Workshop version, but because the game has a more complex combat mechanic than fits the game's fast and furious style, bogging the game down and making players wonder why combat extends a player's exponentially, turning what was a fast game into a game that has an uneven tempo.
The end result of this instance was that FFG realized it and almost immediately released "optional" combat methods to amend the game back into what it originally was thirty years ago.Tempo is equally important with coherence, as I alluded to, because there's very few more frustrating things than having a player's turn taking far longer than normal because of the designer neglected to keep the tempo of a game consistent by design. A jilted, stop and go tempo can absolutely ruin a player's time, and the proof is in the fact that people prone to analysis paralysis are often derided and scorned.
It's one thing to create a design that affords paralysis prone individuals the opportunity to slow a game down by taking long turns through the dreaded move optimization spectre, but it's entirely another to force the game to a grinding halt because performing a specific action is so time consuming, by design, that whenever the mechanic comes into play the table collectively moans in anticipation of five minutes of waiting.
This is not to say that a game has to have a fast tempo and short turns to be a success, but rather that if a game is meant to be deep and complex, with long turns being the norm, it should not switch between fast and slow gameplay. When you sit down to play Risk, you know the game is going to take forever, but when you sit down to play Dungeonquest, the expectation is that the game will be very brisk throughout. Building in a mechanic that causes the game to essentially pause for all but one player is, in my opinion, a recipe for disaster.
Why A Well Written Rulebook Can Singlehandedly Save A Design
Some companies seem to think that "less is more", and I'd tend to agree with them with the caveat that while it is better to have less fluff in the manual than more, the rules have to do a good job of explaining what it is the players are supposed to be doing and how to do it. Twilight Creations is the poster child for rulebooks that, on balance, do a terrible job of explaining how to use their games.
I equate it to buying a piece of stereo equipment, but finding that none of the hundreds of buttons are labeled and that the owner's manual has no illustrations in it and refers to the controls in such a manner that you're expected to instinctively know the product as if you were on the design team. While I understand that paper is getting more expensive, there is simply no excuse for a game that cannot be handed to a random person on the street and played through, without significant issues, using only the rulebook.
I am so terribly disgusted by the swath of games that are released and then subsequently have large "FAQ" documents released to explain what was not adequately explained in the original rulebook. If you spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on publishing a game, do yourself a favor and get as many schleps off of the street as you can find to play the game using only the rules so you can find out what you missed. It seems that there are very few games that do not require tremendous after-the-fact explanation, which indicates to me that there was simply not enough effort put into the rulebook to explain the game with any degree of precision.
I am not saying that the solution to this problem is a fifty page rulebook in all cases, but I am saying that if you're going to produce a boardgame product, you should most certainly make the rules as easily understandable as possible, with illustrations and examples where needed, so that your game is completely playable right out of the box. It's totally acceptable to have "FAQ" documents produced in answer to rules lawyers that need to have every single thing explained in triplicate, but when a game's core gameplay is ambiguous, especially in a complex game, is simply not made plain by a good rulebook.
Games like Space Alert that take the time to not only explain the game, but create an atmosphere through clever narrative and humor, are always going to be more interesting to read than a dry one like those found with many Victory Point Games. That being said, a game like Return of the Heroes that uses a story-driven rulebook doesn't get points for style because as interesting as it is to read, it fails miserably to explain key points about the gameplay. It is great that publishers go the extra mile and want to craft the story into the rules to help augment the theme, but it doesn't pan out if the rulebook fails to achieve its ultimate purpose of explaining how to play.
As mentioned above, the rulebook is, at its core, a teaching tool and should be written from the perspective of a teacher attempting to explain complex and abstract concepts to an amateur. It is a mistake for a company to simply assume that if a player was interested enough to buy the game that they must have some level of expertise in playing similar games. One has to consider that many publishers release the rules in advance of the game's availability, and if the rules are not appealing and understandable, the consumer may decide that the effort is not worth the time investment and not purchase that product.
The Final Analysis
While this article is obviously not all encompassing, it certainly does point out, at least from my perspective, things that can make a good design great or make a great design turn into a commercial failure. As someone who spends my treasure and time buying, playing, and reviewing games, I believe that many of the games on the market should've taken the time to assess how their design meets the above goals.
Yes, some games are beyond salvage, such as Munchkin Quest, but at the end of the day, if publishers would think a little more about the individual issues that consumers make purchasing decisions on, their sales will be better, product reviews will be more favorable, and their final product will be much more attractive to buyers than many of the things we see on the market currently.