Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Analysis of Some Traditional Games

This is written with my students of electronic game design in mind, but should be of interest to boardgamers. The best way for students of digital game design to learn game design is with non-electronic boardgames and card games. This kind of game can be brought to playtest stage far more quickly than electronic games, and by their relatively simple nature they reveal the essence of gameplay much more quickly and clearly than electronic games. However, my students are rarely familiar with non-traditional boardgames such as Eurogames, and the traditional ones offer many “false lessons”, that is, what has worked in traditional games is often not good game design.

Put another way, game design students often adopt characteristics of traditionally popular games in their designs. Part of the reason for discussing traditional games is to point out that they are not necessarily designs worth emulating.

So I’ve tried to write a brief analysis of what is wrong with (and right with) some of these games. Sometimes I’ll use the following questions as a framework, after a general discussion of the game.

1. What are the challenges the player(s) face?
2. What actions can they take to overcome those challenges?
3. What can players do to affect each other?
4. Is the game replayable many times without becoming "just the same" over and over?
5. Is the game fair?
6. Is there an appropriate mixture for the audience and game type (consider "take that")?
7. What is the "essence" of the game?

General comments about “traditional” games

There are two types of “traditional” games, the public domain ones that have come down to us over centuries such as chess and pachesi, and those that are commercially-produced games that have become habits with the buying and playing public. The former tend to be for two players only, while the latter are often for two or more players.

I must say I am NOT a person who thinks that recently-designed games are necessarily better designs than “old” games. I am definitely not into “the cult of the new”. But I do believe that the really old traditional games often benefit greatly from the lack of competition when they were first devised/published. Most “traditional” games are played because “everyone knows how to play”. They are bought because “everyone is familiar with it”. They are not traditional because they are particularly good game designs, in many cases. They have attained a place in contemporary culture, have become “a habit”. When you ask boardgame fanatics how well such games would fare if published today, the response is often something between “a dog” and “just another game”.

I have one general comment about the “roll dice and move accordingly” mechanic used in many commercial traditional games. This mechanic gives a player little to no control over what happens. It is almost universally despised by experienced boardgamers. I pose it to video gamers this way: “if you were playing a video game, and your avatar suddenly slowed down for a while, and then sped up for a while, and periodically changed maximum speed at random, wouldn’t that annoy the heck out of you? And what if other player’s avatars were moving at different speeds than yours? You’d hate it. So why would you want to do that in a boardgame?” Yes, it’s easy randomization, but there are better ways to randomize, and in any case don’t we usually want to make games of skill, not games of chance?

I may as well dispose of a class of traditional games here: Bingo, Candyland, and Chutes and Ladders are all entirely random games. This is OK for little kids, who don’t recognize the randomness, and who aren’t up to “strategizing” to beat older players. It’s OK for gambling, too. But it’s worth nothing to people who like games involving skill, who want to take actions to overcome meaningful challenges.

Another point worth discussing is player elimination. Insofar as multiplayer (more than two) traditional games tend to be family games, the possibility that players can be eliminated is undesirable. The argument runs, when a player is eliminated, he’s no longer part of the fun. The counter-argument is, why stay in the game when you don’t have a chance to win? My response is that in family games the purpose is not to win but to enjoy socializing with your family, and there is more interaction if you’re still in the game even if there seems to be little chance that you can win. Some games, such as Careers (one of the best traditional games, but evidently out of print), do not include player elimination, but some do, including our first subject.


As this is the game people often think of first, I’ll discuss it first. Monopoly is a “family game” with a leaning toward adults. It is an average game at best, though quite despised by many boardgame experts. The “roll and move” mechanic is the first point of complaint, but there are others.

There is a dominant strategy--buy everything you land on, if you possibly can, early in the game. This leads to the strong possibility of stalemate, as players may choose not to trade properties to make the sets that allow house building. Consequently, there is a strong possibility that the game can go on for many hours with experienced cutthroat players. In any case, it is a long game–-my students often say they’ve never actually finished a game.

Further, the game works poorly with fewer than four players.

Let’s examine the questions:

1. What are the challenges the player(s) face? The player must get sets of properties, construct buildings to raise the rent, and avoid big payouts.
2. What actions can they take to overcome those challenges? Not much. Movement is random, and decisions are fairly simple. Trading is a major action, as is management of funds (how much to spend on buildings, how much to hold against the possibility of paying large rents).
3. What can players do to affect each other? Trade properties. Otherwise, next to nothing.
4. Is the game replayable many times without becoming "just the same" over and over? Replayability is low, I think. The game quickly becomes repetitive. Few people actually play Monopoly a lot in a short stretch (say a year), but they may play a lot over a very long period, where they will forget how repetitive it actually is.
5. Is the game fair? It’s symmetric, and the advantage of moving first doesn’t seem to make much difference in the long run. There are no “take that” cards to drastically change the game, though a bad roll or two can be deadly.
6. Is there an appropriate mixture for the audience and game? It’s a family game, and there can be big changes in fortune depending on the dice rolls, but it seems appropriate to a “game for all ages”.
7. What is the "essence" of the game? Theoretically it’s a real estate trading and development game, but the emphasis is on the chance of movement rather than on the trading, unfortunately.

There are many variations of Monopoly, in fact most people don’t play according to the rules. I’ve never thought about how to “fix” the game, but one notion that comes to mind is this: instead of playing through rolling around the board a few times, why not allow players to choose some properties to start with? This could be arranged to remove the advantage of playing first, as well. So players might write down a list of five properties (no two from a particular group such as the red properties or the railroads). All are revealed, everyone pays for their first choice (or next, if there’s a tie), etc. until all have three (not five). Then play proceeds.

An interesting variation from Boardgamegeek is, every unowned property landed on is auctioned! The “lander” does not get an opportunity to buy before the auction.

As with most traditional games, Monopoly has a very poor score on Boardgamegeek: http://boardgamegeek.com/game/1406.


Here is a traditional simple game popular with kids. It is so simple that it has been “solved” by many, and it’s easy to write a set of instructions to follow that will result in a draw every time, or a win when it’s available (I have done so). The problem is that there’s a dominant strategy, which amounts to “occupy the central square whenever you can”.

A major advantage of the game is that there is no chance, other than the big difference-maker of who plays first. The major value of the game is to teach kids that they can play a game and not understand its strategy, but as they get older they can learn to be a perfect player in its context.

A much more interesting variation on this game is a four by four grid. You win with four in a row or four in a square.

I am not going to ask the seven questions, which would be overkill here. BGG: http://boardgamegeek.com/game/11901.


I have not played this game in 40-50 years, but it is simple enough for limited comments. It is a race game dominated by chance (roll-and-move again). It does have the virtue that more than two can play. There is some strategy in the use of blockade, either to stop opponents or to clean up behind the blockade by “hitting” stopped opponent pieces. The frustration factor can be high when you’re the one who’s blockaded.

The seven questions would again be overkill. BGG: http://boardgamegeek.com/game/2136


Next I’ll turn to the ultimate Western traditional strategy game, Chess. Chess rules are fairly complex for a traditional game, though it’s really quite simple to learn and play. The play is very complex and highly strategic, of course. Theoretically the game may represent Indian (subcontinent) warfare, but practically speaking it is abstract.

Also unlike most traditional commercial games, there is no chance element other than who moves first. As with Tic-Tac-Toe, a perfectly played game will always have the same result, but because no one has specifically “solved” Chess, we don’t know which result it would be, white win, draw, or black win. In practice, as played by experts white has a significant advantage, and draws are common (55% of top-class human games, 36% of top computer-program games (Wikipedia)).

One of the flaws of the game is that a big advantage accrues to those who know “the analysis” of certain situations, such as the openings. Chess has a vast literature, and the solution(s) to certain situations are known, but only to those who learn the literature. In effect, other people have done the thinking for you. Yes, this is a possibility in any game, but other games have not been intensely studied for centuries.

For most people, there are too many possibilities to calculate once the game gets going. This can lead to what is called “analysis paralysis”: people cannot decide what to do and take a long time. Even when played by experts, chess can be a very long game, hence the artificial limitation of two hours for 40 moves imposed via chess clocks.

Finally, many people would say there are too many draws. In a game designed today, the designer would try to find a way to avoid draws; though given the advantage of moving first, perhaps it’s best that draws are possible.

I’ve read that former champion and famous recluse Bobby Fischer advocates a variation of chess that would remove the “prior analysis” advantage, at least for a while (Fischer was one of the best at knowing prior analyses when playing). IIRC, he suggests scrambling the order of pieces in the back row, imposing that order on both players. So from one side of the board you might have bishop, queen, knight, rook, rook, etc.

Despite all of the above, chess is obviously an excellent game. But would it stand out among other games if published today? In an era that values short games, simplicity, and “that was easy”, perhaps not. Let’s consider the questions:

1. What are the challenges the player(s) face? Deploy pieces in a superior arrangement in order to take more of an opponent’s strength than one gives, and finally to capture the king.
2. What actions can they take to overcome those challenges? With perfect information, it’s all about looking ahead, anticipating your opponent, finding ways to make your opponent feel that he is defeated even if, in reality, he is not. Everything revolves around the moves of the pieces.
3. What can players do to affect each other? Player interaction is very high in a two-player, eliminate-enemy-pieces game.
4. Is the game replayable many times without becoming "just the same" over and over? History shows that it is, despite its fundamental simplicity.
5. Is the game fair? Symmetric, but significant advantage to first mover in expert play.
6. Is there an appropriate mixture for the audience and game type? Yes.
7. What is the "essence" of the game? Movement and position.

BGG: http://boardgamegeek.com/game/171


This is a traditional game popularized by Milton Bradley’s boxed plastic version. It is largely a guessing game, though some would call it a “deduction” game. As with any game, you can “play the player”, predicting what your opponent will do. For example, a colleague of mine has noticed that his sons will not place their ships in the outer rim of squares. Consequently, instead of 100 squares to shoot at, he has 64. Chance should tend to award him the game most times.

Beyond simplicity, there isn’t much to recommend this game.

BGG: http://boardgamegeek.com/game/2425


An excellent word game. I would eliminate two-letter words from the game, or at least many of the 101 “official” two-letter words.

1. What are the challenges the player(s) face? Make words from random letters, and find places on the board where those words can be placed and score well
2. What actions can they take to overcome those challenges? Very much a thinking game.
3. What can players do to affect each other? It may be possible to block occasionally, but in general, not much.
4. Is the game replayable many times without becoming "just the same" over and over? Given the complexity of language, yes.
5. Is the game fair? There may be a very slight advantage to playing first.
6. Is there an appropriate mixture for the audience and game type? Evidently.
7. What is the "essence" of the game? Creation of words preferably using uncommon letters.

BGG: http://boardgamegeek.com/game/320

Checkers (Draughts)

This is a simpler-than-chess strategy game. The game is sufficiently simple that it has been “solved” by computer using brute-force (trial and error) methods (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/6907018.stm).

As with most of the public domain traditional games, this one is only for two players.

BGG: http://boardgamegeek.com/game/2083


Game design students who have played hardly any commercial games, have usually played Monopoly and have often played Risk. Risk is very simple to learn and to play, with so little real strategy that there is rarely “analysis paralysis”. Although the theme is world conquest, it has abstracted the world so heavily that few players will feel like there’s a real war going on.

However, Risk is a weak strategy game, and a “dicefest”. There’s a heavy dose of luck in combat and in the cards. It is a long game with player elimination, a poor combination in today’s terms.

The turn-in-cards-for-armies mechanic is necessary to end the game in a few hours, but fairly random.

The “Mission cards” victory condition introduced “recently” mitigates some problems, but unfortunately the missions aren’t tailored to the number of players in the game.

As with Monopoly, most experienced boardgamers dislike, if not despise, Risk.

1. What are the challenges the player(s) face? Management of resources to end up with more armies than the opposition; there’s a little strategy involved in acquiring armies; and choosing the right time to try to wipe out an opponent and obtain his territory cards.
2. What actions can they take to overcome those challenges? Choosing where to attack, with how many armies. Choosing where to defend with more than one army.
3. What can players do to affect each other? When it is not a player’s turn, he is usually inactive except when attacked. However, every move affects at least two players.
4. Is the game replayable many times without becoming "just the same" over and over? Strategies are limited, but there’s a fair bit of variety.
5. Is the game fair? Symmetric, but there may be a slight advantage to moving first.
6. Is there an appropriate mixture for the audience and game type? Well, lots of people fondly remember playing it as kids, so there must be something to it.
7. What is the "essence" of the game? Some would say “interminable dice rolling”. Choosing where to attack is probably the essence.


Game of Life

This game appeals to younger people, and actually has more choices than Monopoly. However, it is strictly a family game, and players have little control over what happens. It does have the appeal of a partly three dimensional board, and a spinner instead of dice. There’s a story involved (the story of life), and that is nearly unique to traditional games.
I remember it as one of the worst games ever, but this may be too harsh. It is very positive–nothing really bad happens, everyone succeeds in life–but it may teach the wrong habits for the 21st century.


The Chinese/Japanese game of Go, the analog of chess in East Asia, is an outstanding abstract strategy game. It is played on a 19 by 19 line grid, with black and white stones places on the intersections of the lines rather than in the squares. The rules are very simple, though I find them slightly difficult to grasp. The strategy of controlling areas is very deep, even compared with a game like chess. From a game design perspective, the game is so unusual that there may not be many lessons to learn.


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