Monday, December 19, 2011

Editorial: The Ten Things Every Game Needs

Recently I read two great articles by Mark Rosewater.  Mark Rosewater is the lead game designer for Magic: The Gathering, and naturally has some great insights into what makes a great game.  M:TG has been one of the most successful games out there and clearly reigns as king among card games, second only to poker.  Since the game has many years of success - and is lots of fun - I really took his articles on Ten Things Every Game Needs (Part 1 and Part 2) to heart and thought it applied also to miniatures games out there that I have played.  I figured I would share his ten points summarized here, with how I think they apply to Warmachine/Hordes.

#1) A Goal or Goals

There needs to be a point for your game. What are your players trying to do? How do they win?

#2) Rules

There needs to be a list of what players are and are not allowed to do. Restrictions are an important part of a game. Accomplishing your goal shouldn't be too easy.

#3) Interaction

There needs to be some aspect of the game that encourages the players to react to one another. What does your game do to make the players interact?

#4) A Catch-Up Feature

There needs to be a way for players that have fallen behind to catch up. A game becomes frustrating if a player feels like he or she has no chance to win.

#5) Inertia

There needs to be something in your game that moves it along towards completion. You have to have something built into your game that makes sure it ends.

#6) Surprise

There need to be elements of your game that the players cannot predict. People enjoy being surprised. You have to make sure that your game has moments that are unexpected.

#7) Strategy

There needs to be something in your game that allows players to get better over time. The reason people like playing games again is that they want to use knowledge from past games to do better in future games.

#8) Fun

There needs to be something that allows the players to enjoy themselves. The number-one reason people play games is for entertainment. If your game isn't fun to play, people won't want to play it.

#9) Flavor

Besides having mechanics, a game wants to have a trapping. It wants to be about something. Sometimes this comes first and the game is built around it. Sometimes the mechanics come first and a flavor is found to match it. Either way, games are more fun if the elements of the game refer a story or an environment or a theme.

#10) A Hook

If you want people to play your game, there has to be something about it that encourages people to want to try it. If you're selling your game, the hook is what you use to market it.
These were taken from Mark's articles and he naturally elaborated on these points in the context of Magic: The Gathering, but he emphasized that these apply to any game, really.  I agree and I think that one of the reasons why Warmachine/Hordes has been so successful is because it hits all of these points spot-on.  However I do think that there needs to be an important balance struck between all of these points in order to be truly successful.  There are lots of game systems out there and they each have their own ways of achieving each of these points.  I would like to highlight some of the above points to emphasize what will edge one game out against another, at least to me.

#2 - Rules
Rules are important to create restrictions for players, but I must add the caveat that rules should be simple and intuitive.  Explaining the rules should make sense to players so that they don't feel like they are being restricted unnecessarily.  The simplest rules are also the best because it lets the player focus on the action and imagination, instead of rolling lots of dice and referring to different charts.

As a teacher, I guess I appreciate this aspect of a game the most, as simple rules mean it's easier to teach a new player.  If they're going to be doing tons of math to figure out their intended result, they're gonna be less likely to keep playing.  M:TG is a great example of this, where you really just have to compare power vs. toughness on creatures or mana costs (which rarely exceed 2 digits).  In Warmachine, the rolling mechanic is the same (2d6) regardless of hitting with melee, ranged, or magic, or damage rolls.  It's simple and lets players focus on the other parts of the game.

#4 - A Catch-Up Feature
I realized recently that I really don't like playing Settler's of Catan or some of the other Catan games for this reason - there's really not a very good catch-up feature, at least in my experiences playing the game.  If a player is hit with a string of bad luck, it can be very difficult or nearly impossible to catch-up.  If someone is getting hammered with bad rolls, you want them to be able to come back and still win the game.  This keeps both players on their toes.  No one likes it when someone concedes - you either aren't having fun anymore or you have been having fun at your opponent's expense. 

It's demoralizing to get your butt handed to you and know that there's nothing that you can do to win.  In 40k this can happen by someone wiping out all of your troops in an objective-based game, for example.  In M:TG a player can catch-up by finally getting that super card that they've been waiting for, I guess, but I think Warmachine captures the spirit of this feature the best, with the caster-kill mechanic.  A player can lose a majority of their army and still win by clearing a line to the opponent caster and taking care of business themselves.

#6 - Surprise
This is always a difficult thing for me.  I really don't like it when my dice rolls don't go my way.  I don't mean that they favor me, but I mean it's really unfortunate when the odds are 90% in your favor and your statistical reality is more like 50%.  To me, it can really alter how much fun I'm having (I'll explain why in the next point).  Luck should be a part of any good game - you shouldn't be able to do everything perfectly the way you want, there has to be something outside of your control.  However, the game should not feature luck too heavily or else it can ruin the fun of the game.

I've played games where the opposing player said "I think I did everything I could, but the dice just didn't work in my favor when I needed them."  At least in the times that I've played Warmachine, dice rolls can certainly have an impact, but usually I find myself thinking about other things I could have done differently.  It's important that choice becomes more valuable and more important than luck, otherwise you will get frustrated and not want to play again.  Which brings me to...

#7 - Strategy
This is probably the most important aspect to me.  I grew up as a lover of RTS computer games well before I ever even knew that miniatures games existed.  I crave strategy, resource management, and controlling the battlefield.  While luck didn't play as big of a part in strategy games, it's much more significant in miniatures games, so the strategic element for me has to be pretty huge for me to be interested.  I don't mind losing games, but at the end I want to be able to analyze my decisions to see how I can improve next time.  The game should provide some legitimate strategic choices, ways of achieving your goals, and the luck of the game should enhance those choices rather than detract from them.

In Warmachine, you can emphasize various strategic plans like attrition, denial, flanking, stealth, or assassination - let alone the tactical decisions made during the battle itself.  You can create a battle plan to fit the faction of your choice and have a truly unique way of achieving your goals.  The best part though, is that the rest of the game gets out of your way so that you can easily focus on the game itself.  The point values and creating lists is simple and straight-forward, with no charts or obnoxious point values (like there were in Mk I).  The rules are simple and well-written so that you can focus on the rules on the cards themselves, instead of constantly referring to books and external explanations of what the rules "really mean."  In the end, you can focus on playing your game and learning from experience, instead of studying and memorizing.

What do you think?
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