Wednesday, December 27, 2006

What makes a game "great"?

I am writing an article about a game which is supposed to be one of the all-time best hobby games. Naturally, I'll need to explain why I think this. So my question today is, what makes a game "great"? Not good, not a flash-in-the-pan, I mean an all-time great game. I'm sure this must have been discussed before on BGG, and perhaps someone can provide links to known discussions of this type. In the meantime, here's what I've been thinking about (rambling included).

To me, a game is great if you can (and want to) play it again and again with great enjoyment over many years, if you can almost endlessly discuss the intricacies of good play, if you can create many variants that are also fine games.

Obviously, a game is not "great" to everyone. Chess is a great game, but many gamers can't stand to play it (though a great many have tried).

Longevity is important. A new game may be "great", but we simply cannot tell until years have passed. Perhaps not every great game is great by current "design standards", but it may still be a great game in terms of how it affected people and the enjoyment it gave to people. "New" certainly doesn't mean "good" and "old" certainly doesn't mean "bad". In other words, I ignore the "cult of the new" so prevalent in today's gaming tastes.

Popularity is not a criterion. There are many popular tunes, movies, games, books, that disappear from our notice in a year or two or three. Great games should continue to be loved year after year after year, just as great novels, movies, music are enjoyed perennially.

If a game is one of hundreds that people might want to play, can it be a great game? No, it should stand out from the crowd. If I play a game just to kill time, then the fact that I'm playing it certainly doesn't make it a great game, no matter how many times I play. It's not "oh yeah, we can play that" it's "I'd love to play that"--again, and again, and again. If I can spend my valuable time playing this game or thinking about this game, when I have other valuable things to do, then it may be a great game. If lots of people don't play it hundreds of hours each, over many years, can it be a great game?

I thought about including the criterion that solitaire play is rewarding. But for hidden information games, solo is not so practical. Nonetheless, if it's a game that can reasonably be played solitaire, then a great game will be played very often solo, by a great many people.

It's difficult to generalize concisely. Perhaps you could say, if a game is played by a great many people, who love to play it, who play it for hundreds of hours (by each person) altogether over the years, who can still enjoy it many years after it was first published, then perhaps it is a great game.

Is Monopoly a well-designed game? Given the likelihood of stalemate or very long games, perhaps not. Is it a great game? Here you can argue that it is played by default, because it's traditional, rather than because people truly want to play it. Nonetheless I think a case can be made that it is a great game.

A young person might look at this differently than I (55 years). I am interested in your comments.

Lew Pulsipher

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