In my last post I talked about various game elements that make a game fun and entertaining: strategic options, luck, twists and turns, the addiction factor, and physical skill. I’d like to talk about one last element and then wrap it up with an example. I was originally going to conclude with a general discussion of how the different elements could be combined, but I think an extended example will serve very nicely.
Various Effective Strategies
Good Examples: Diplomacy, Chess, Poker, Magic the Gathering
In my previous post I talked about strategic options but really that was more like tactics than strategy. The difference between the two is strategy is an overall method or philosophy to try to win a game, whereas tactics are the individual moves, choices, or plays you use to accomplish that strategy. So for example in No Limit Hold ’em Poker your strategy might be to play very aggressively and take down pots through sheer intimidation. The tactics you would then use would be lots of raises, big bets, and playing any two cards. Games with different strategies are fascinating because you can win through various methods and you can experiment with different ways of playing to see how you do. It’s the thing that makes a game “deep” and can keep people playing it for years on end. “A minute to learn, a lifetime to master” types of games are ones with lots of effective strategies.
To look at how some of these elements make for a fun game I’d like to talk about the game of Golf and how it has evolved (the card game, not the knock white balls into the woods one). If you haven’t played the rules are posted here. At least, those are the rules I first learned. But through my parents I’ve been introduced to different rule sets and each one provides a deeper and more fun game experience.
The “original” rules called for 6 cards at the beginning with 2 flipped up, like this:
This made for a fun game that we played a lot, but it was pretty simple. In the above example, if you got a Six or an Eight to match you would obviously take it no questions asked. It was pretty easy to match your cards up since you only had three columns with two cards each, and scores were usually pretty low.
The next iteration of Golf was a 3 x 3 matrix:
This made the game a lot more interesting because now you had to make some strategic choices along the way. With the six card version it was pretty much a simple either/or type of decision: either this card matches what I have or I throw it away (unless it’s a really good card like an Ace, King or Joker). With the nine card version it gets a lot more interesting because now it’s not so clear-cut. In the above example hand, if you draw another Jack you might want to take it or you might not; if it’s early in the game you can probably safely take it and get a third one to zero them all out, but if it’s later in the game it might be too dangerous. Choices like that make the game more strategic and more interesting, so the nine card version quickly took over as our preferred version. Although I do admit I missed the “nuclear option” of the six card version, where you could try for six-of-a-kind and an automatic win. But that was a small price to pay when compared to the overall better nine card version.
Last night I was introduced to an 18 card version. At first I thought, “What, 18 cards? That’s just silly.” I immediately thought of the abomination that is Double-deck Pinochle. But after hearing a little more about it and playing it I think it’s the best version yet. You start out with 18 cards arranged as so:
You can then turn over any two cards. After you turn over those two cards you can move them to another spot (that rule is there so that you can turn over cards in two different columns but then match them up if you turn over two of the same card). It’s then like nine card golf with one big rule change: if you match up three Queens it’s -25 points and three Jacks is worth -20.
This is a huge change and makes it almost like a totally new game. Whereas before Jacks and Queens (along with Tens) were the worst cards and you would never take them unless you happened to start with one, now they’re the most desirable cards in the deck, at least early in the game. And because you’ve got a lot of cards to work with and get rid of you can afford to keep them around while you try to collect a set of three. But again you have to be careful because you don’t want to get stuck with a bunch of 10 point cards. Not only do you have to decide when to try to collect a set and when it’s too late in the game, but you also have to watch everyone else and see what they’re doing. If they’re close to a set you might want to try to quickly go out to prevent them from completing it. Another interesting thing is that it starts becoming worthwhile to count cards, namely the Jacks and Queens. If you know there aren’t many left in the deck it may influence your decision to try to collect them, and sometimes it gets to the point where you know there are some still waiting to be flipped in peoples’ stacks, so you might be reluctant to flip any more cards!
Oh, one other rule I should note is that once you collect a set of three in a column they get discarded. And in this game you usually end up going through the whole deck and reshuffling the discards, so you can see cards more than once. And that can affect your strategy as well!
As you can see, a couple little changes to the game of Golf made a big difference in how it plays out and how much fun it is. By adding more strategic options and reducing the luck factor a bit, it made for a much deeper and ultimately better game in my opinion. But everyone might not agree; some people might like the smaller, simpler game. And that’s what’s great about games: there’s something for everyone. And it would be totally possible to tweak the rules in a different way to add more luck and make the game less strategic but still a lot of fun; I know there’s a version where you have to flip cards every time for example, and while that reduces your choices a great deal it would make it more exciting to draw a really good card. Making a game more strategic isn’t the only way to improve it, any game element can be enhanced to make a new and improved version.
I often see and play games where I think “If they made X and Y change this game would be really good”. It’s hard to get that mix of elements just right but it’s worth the effort to try to make a deep, balanced, and ultimately fun game.
Thanks for reading!