BrettSpiel is a blog about board game design, written by game designer Brett J. Gilbert.

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No-One Eats Cake to Taste the Flour

For a while now I have been struggling to make progress with some of my game designs. I have plenty of ideas, and many prototypes, but when a particular design doesn’t quite cut (which is, on sober reflection, most of the time) it can be difficult to see the path ahead.

Gil Hova, a game designer from New Jersey whom I met in New York a couple of months ago, recently tweeted that one of his own designs wasn’t working, and that “it just doesn’t have that pop”. I thought at the time that this was a particularly eloquent and efficient description of a sophisticated problem. All I can say is: I know the feeling.

A game is not — cannot be — merely the sum of it parts. Take a box of components, a few mechanics, a little, or a lot, of theme; add some choice, or some chance, or mix the two to your pleasing; throw in a helping of tactics, or maybe a slice of strategy. Shake, stew, blend, bake or even leave in a warm, dark place for a few hours covered with a damp tea-towel, and what have you got? Well, 9 times out of 10 — if not 99 times out of a 100 — you’ll get something that looks exactly like its constituent parts. Only more messy. Which is to say you’ve got something only a mother could love.

The only question that counts, of course, is to ask of the game: “Is it fun?”

“Is it fun?” (bellows the incredulous and imaginary designer). “Didn’t you notice how clever it was? Didn’t you stop to admire all these hand-picked, top-quality ingredients! Or marvel at my cunning for putting all of them together with such subtlety, novelty and elegance? Did no-one ever tell you that a definition of genius is the ability to connect the unconnected?”

“Yes, I noticed all of that” (whispers the patient, implacable and equally imaginary playtester). “I’m not an idiot — and you, I hope, are smarter than you look — but you have created an experience that I don’t enjoy. And this isn’t the first time. Did no-one ever tell you that a definition of madness is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results?”

So I would say the following, principally because I think I need reminding: if a game isn’t fun then it isn’t much of a game. The point of creating it is to entertain, and not to demonstrate either the ingenuity of its construction or that of its designer.

Like I said, no-one eats cake to taste the flour.

Hi Brett,
I think this is one of your best entries so far.
I identify with that feeling too.
The best part (or the lesson I get) is "a definition of madness is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results"
I love that sentence.

Scurra said...

July 16, 2010 1:32 pm

I think it can sometimes be even worse than that. There is also the problem that you can create something that is indeed "fun" but still doesn't have the "pop" that pushes over into being worthwhile. This is most apparent when you build off an existing structure. For instance, there is still a rather massive design space just based off Rummy variants, and many of them will be fun (because the basic game of Rummy is fun) but will frequently not do enough to justify their existence, despite all your efforts.

@Roberto: Thank you for the complement; I too love the sentence about the definition of madness, and I smile whenever I read it or am reminded of it!

@Scurra: You are right, of course! "Fun" is a necessary quotient, but is hardly sufficient, at least not if a design has any chance of being elevated to something genuinely "worthwhile" (which is a good word to use to help define the problem). I want the games I play and design to be fun, but I also want them to have wit, charm, novelty, excitement, surprise, tension... and maybe somewhere in that list is the "pop" of which Gil was truly speaking.

To extend my analogy: perhaps most people just eat cake for the icing!

People I know tend to eat it for the shape it is in, and turn their nose up at one in the shape of a train or Renaissance-era economic activity… (While I go by the logic that if something has such a shape and is loved then it's got to taste wonderful, and I've personally no problem as I'm interested in Renaissance and early Baroque times mostly via the music from them that I hear and enjoy so much of). OK, rather lost sight of the original analogy there…

There is an introduction questionnaire for board game designers among the geek lists at boardgamegeek.com, and one of the questions we were asked was what makes a game fun. (http://www.boardgamegeek.com/geeklist/56677/)

I have heard a number of opinions on the subject, and a lot of them tend to be giving up and calling it an eternal mystery.

I am too analytical to pass by the challenge of defining fun in board gaming. :)

1. Simple rules. The longer someone has to spend learning and/or teaching the rules to a game, the more it detracts from FUN.

2. An evocative theme and/or evocative artwork. If the mechanics of the game can be narrated easily in the metaphor of the theme, it increases players' roleplaying, which is a form of FUN.

3. A mixture of luck and strategy close to 50-50 will be FUN for the greatest number of people. The strategists will have plenty of tough choices to analyze, and the funseekers will have plenty of little surprises that upset things and get the strategist recalculating their plans.

4. Game turns that proceed quickly (especially without need of a cheat sheet) are more FUN. The amount of FUN decreases the longer you have to wait for your turn to come around again. And a game that can be played in fewer rounds tends to be a bit more FUN, because it allows more possibilities for a second play and a new winner.

5. Games that keep all players hopeful of winning until one of the last two turns are more FUN. If a player is eliminated while others play on, it is less FUN. And if you can't track your progress as you play, finding out only at the end of the game how you did is a bit too random to be FUN.

I am open to additions to these five principles of boardgaming fun, of course, but I consider them the basics. They seem to apply to all types of board game groups and types of board games.

@Brett, you're absolutely right. There's something beyond "elegance of design" that makes for a fun game, and that's the difference between a game we play and a game that sits on the shelf.

@NYCgameguy, wow, what a thorny nut to try to crack. I'll have to go back and check out that geeklist. I pretty much agree with your five "fun elements." I could quibble here and there - I know someone who enjoys Third Reich precisely because it is complex and realistic - but really, any departure from your "fun elements" only comes as a matter of individual taste. It would be too much of a cop-out to say, "fun is in the mind of the player."

But is that just another formula? Could you find a counter-example, a game that meets all five elements but which the general community agrees is just a dud of a game? I'll have to think about that...

Anonymous said...

December 02, 2010 6:40 pm

Spiel is a german word and means Game or play.

Anonymous said...

December 02, 2010 6:42 pm

Also Brett is a Board like a piece of wood..Therefor Brettspiel = Board Game

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