Friday, November 05, 2004

The Quest for the Holy Grail... of Gaming

“Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add,
but when there is nothing left to take away.”

Antoine de Saint-Exupery (1900 - 1944)

Like the Perfect Storm, the Perfect Woman/Man or the Perfect Hamburger, the Perfect Game is likely to exist only in the realm of theory and sweet, sweet dreams (well, not the storm, but you get the idea).

But that doesn’t stop us from theorizing about them.

Strangely, though I have found video games and movies which I find to be as close to perfect as is possible, I’ve not yet found a board game which seemed to succeed quite as well as those other media. Some come close, but at least for me, none seem quite ‘perfect enough’.

Obviously, the ideal will vary from person to person, and, perhaps more significantly, from gaming group to gaming group. The concept of “meta-gaming” – that esoteric atmosphere of groupthink which affects how any player games in a well known circle – has a marked effect on what games might “fly” and what games might not in any given group.
So, keeping in mind my own preferences, but also that of our own illustrious Weekly Amateur Gaming Society, here is my rough outline for the perfect game:

  1. PLAYING TIME: Playable in 60-90 minutes – 120 minutes at absolute outside.

  2. PLAYER LIMIT: Playable by 2-6 players, and scales well at all player numbers

  3. DOWNTIME: Has low levels of downtime and low amounts of “move paralysis” – that is, the number of action options available to a player during any given turn or turn phase should be neither so numerous nor so complex as to be daunting.

  4. BUILDING: Involves “building” in some way – creating and improving on something, so that you end the game with something “better” than you started. For example – more money, better city, more powerful character.

  5. CONFLICT: Involves “conflict” in some way – either actual fighting or economic/qualitative/quantitative competition.

  6. NOT TOO RANDOM: Minimizes randomness – players should never feel as though the luck of the die/draw is the only factor in success

  7. SOCIAL INTERACTION: Involves enough player interaction that a social atmosphere is created, while avoiding interaction which otherwise slows down the game.

  8. EASY TO TRACK: Minimizes calculation or the need for extensive record/bookkeeping – i.e. everything is at your fingertips or in front of you and does not have to be closely tracked by a complex process.

  9. SCREW YOUR NEIGHBOUR: Gives the opportunity for “screw your neighbour” tactics – a way to play to thwart the plans of others, but in a manner that is otherwise avoidable by careful play and not overly frustrating.

  10. DOWN BUT NOT OUT: A mechanic for dealing with the possibility of being knocked out of the game – that is, if someone is in a losing position, there is a way to fight back if carefully played.

  11. LEADER REWARDS: A mechanic to address the standard “kill the leader” situation that rewards being in the lead without making being the leader unstoppable.

  12. VICTORY CONDITIONS: A victory condition track (victory points or score) which permits the fun of being able to see how roughly how close other players are to each other (fostering competition) while maintaining some element of surprise.

  13. THEME/FEEL: Game has a strong and interesting theme that is colourful but also relates to the game mechanic without bogging down the game. Execution of the mechanics of the game and the theme should mesh well at all levels. It should “feel” right.

  14. REPLAYABILITY: Game should have enough “depth” that it can be played more than once – conversely, it could be simple enough that complex strategies are possible (like chess or bridge) even given relatively simple rules.

That’s all I can think of right now in terms of criteria. I’ll now analyze the top-rated/most-liked games in our group based on these points.

Puerto Rico – generally considered by popular opinion to be the best game out there. Going through the list, it’s successful on points 1-4, 6, 8, 9,12-14. Items 5, 7, 10 and 11 are less successful.

Pirate’s Cove – Does well in points 1-5, 7-9, 12-14. Only item 6 and 10 are not as well addressed. No one is ever knocked out completely, but if you fall behind, you’re probably screwed.

Tigris and Euphrates – This one is debateable, just because my mind doesn’t deal well with the more abstract strategy involved in some areas of this game. Points 1, 2, 4-6, 8, 9, 12-14 are done well. Point 3 (for me), 7, 10-11 are not as good.

Settlers of Cataan – Very popular world-wide, but very flawed. Points 1, 2 (sorta), 3-5, 7-9, 12-14 are good. Major drawback is point 6; 10 and 11 are less successful.

Bang! Done well are 1-3, 5-9, 11-13. A major, major drawback in this game is point 10. The other weakpoint in this game is almost complete lack of building/improvement – point 4 – and point 14, due to the non-fun of being forced to sit out.

Deadwood. Good: 1-4, 6-11, 13,14. Not so good: not so much conflict (5) and its generally hard to tell who’s winning (point 12) if the money is hidden, which it generally is.

Princes of Florence: Well done: 1-4, 8-14. Less well done: 5 (virtually no direct competition except in bidding, which might be enough), 6 (card draw at the beginning can make or break strategy) and 7 (no real need to talk to anyone except during bidding process)

El Grande: 1-2, 5-9, 11-14 are all good. Downtime/Move Paralysis (3) is a bit of problem for me in this game because of the depth of strategy involved. You never actually feel as though you’ve “built” anything (4), even though your kingdoms generally become larger. If you fall behind in this game (10), you generally stay behind, but the mechanic of the bid cards does permit a certain degree of comeback possibility if played correctly, so it’s half and half.

Civilization: (only included because I like it so much, but admit its flaws) 2, 4, 5, 7, 9, 12-14 are done well. 1 is way out (6-8 hour play time), 3 can be a problem if you don’t pay attention, 6 is a problem with combat, 8 for resource difficulties (though they probably did as well as they could), 10 because if you’re out in this game, you’re OUT. 11 – big time kill the leader issues with this game, with no real tangible benefit for being the leader to offset.

Now – if I’ve forgotten a popular game in our group, let me know.

During the comments, I’ll look for suggestions and possible themes for a possible future “perfect” game. Feel free to throw out suggestions or additions/modifications to the list of “perfect” criteria.


  1. Wow.
    Very interesting.
    This one should get a permanent link on the front page, I think.

    The criteria you determined for "the perfect game" are pretty close to what I would come up with. My only major comment is that any good collection of games will have a variety of types of games for a variety of occasions. By that token, I think the major criteria of a "Great" game is one that accomplishes what it sets out to do very well. That means that it might contradict many of the rules on your list, but for the better (an example here would be a deduction type game, where revealing the leader or score would be a detriment). Still, maybe the difference between a "Great" game and "the perfect game" is that it manages to be all things to all people? I doubt that it could ever happen, but let's imagine that for the context of this "Perfect Game", we are looking for the ideal one to be the main course at a WAGS session (or any similar group of at least somewhat games oriented people).

    The criteria:

    1. Agreed. Shorter games can be very fun, but are rarely as satisfying. Longer becomes to hard to accommodate, and makes any other problems with the game worse since you have to live with them longer.
    2 and 3. Agreed.
    4 and 5. A part of me thinks that there could be significant exceptions to these, but since I can't think of too many, I'll agree. I might reword "Building" to "Tangible Progress", to accommodate more esoteric advancements such as accumulating bodies of evidence and/ or points.
    6. Agreed. I would also add that in most cases no randomness is just as bad.
    7. Many games I really enjoy fall short here. I think that any game which could fulfill the other criteria and still excel here would be exceptional.
    7-11. Absolutely agreed. In my mind, these ones are the most essential. A game which is meaty but not too heavy, has people laughing and talking, allows for aggressive/ defensive and sneaky play and give the leader an advantage without counting out the last place player would land at the top of my list whether they satisfied any of the other criteria.
    12. I could give or take. Different games would have a different approach to this and each could be successful.
    Modern Art, for example, wouldn't benefit from this.
    13. Since I enjoy cards and abstract games, I can say that this one is low on the list for me. One thing is for sure, theme has never carried a game very far for me when the mechanics were otherwise weak.
    14. Agreed.

    I think one item that was missed would be "Flow" or "Elegance". This is hard to define, but a great game has a way of sewing toghether every phase in a fluid and pleasing way. El Grande, Princes of Florence and Puerto Rico distinguish themselves in that respect. There are aspects of building, bidding, choosing roles, etc which all come togehter very smoothly. In contrast, Betrayal at House on the Hill, Civilization, Traders of Genoa, etc all have seemingly unecessary complexities that don't really "feel" right.

    I'm still waiting to get ratings from many of you, so I can't really use the current ratings as a good measure of WAGS preferences (although we've got a good sense of Captain Feeble and Dumb Boy's tastes). Your analysis of some of our top rated games was interesting and pretty accurate to how I feel about them. The most revealing thing for me was that some things you consider deal breakers or problems don't bother me much, even though I can acknowledge that it could be better. Example, El Grande. It's no secret I really like this game. Anaylsis paralysis would be a huge problem here if the action cards weren't random. As it is, you can't plan too far ahead (other than using the king or Castillo), keeping the decisions meaningful but not overwhelming. Also, it's true that you don't build anything (other than points), but in this context that seems like semantics... more of a description than a fault. My main complaint for this one is that it is very difficult to come from behind and win. Kill the leader is often a good endgame strategy in many games, but I prefer the ones which have the players doing it on a "tangent". By that, I mean that it's not done only by actively attacking or denying the leader. Illuminati and Ideology both have this problem. Those games tend to just sort of stalemate until the leader is deposed, and then someone has to come out of nowhere to win. El Grande avoids it by constraining you to the card you picked. It makes Kill the leader less effective, encourages players to look for ways to advance themselves at the same time, which is good, but the balance isn't quite right... making it very difficult to actually accomplish (Pirate's Cove, with it's rule about defeated ships getting a card, is going in the right direction.).

    Anyway, lots to think about! I'm sure I'll be back!

  2. hmmm,
    I was expecting more discussion on this one!

  3. To be honest, I don't have much to add in response, except to say that though theme might be important to me, I can see how for game "purists", theme is (should be?) pretty much incidental. To me, I have to have some manner of engagement with what's going on outside the mere abstract game mechanics - games like Go, while probably technically ultimate refinements of the medium, don't do it for me.

    My main concern with analysis paralysis is not that I don't like taking time to think over my moves, but that I am conscious of the fact that other people are waiting for me to finish. I think I would enjoy Tigris & Euphrates a lot more if it were possible to take as much time as one liked to figure out the next move, without having opponents wait on your decision.

    Of course, that's impossible in a table-top board game setting, so the point is moot.

    As for "flow" or "elegance" you could go either way on having a separate category. I could counter-argue that "flow" is encompassed by the downtime and easy to track criteria, but I suppose you could do the opposite and further refine some of the criteria into higher-level categorizations like "flow".

  4. I guess I was referring to that intangible "This is more than the sum of it's parts" feeling that you get when things just "click". In many games, that's not an issue because they are very simple and/or there is only one mechanic involved (Carcassonne comes to mind on both counts, although it buggers it up pretty royally at the endgame with the farmers). Puerto Rico, Princes of Florence and El Grande are stand outs in my mind because I really admire how well everything works together (in addition to being fun). I really like Tigris, but I admire the "Puzzle" of decision it forces, not the smooth integration of the game system (this seems to be true of all Knizia games I've played... the whole thing revolves around one or two clever mechanics, which pose interesting and often conflicting problems for the players). On a smaller scale, Modern Art is exactly the same.
    Pirate's Cove excels on many levels. In addition to being high on the social scale, the low downtime, the easy to track "Score" and the great theme, there is also a very elegant system. Simultaneous decisions, upgrading, delivery and confrontation are all put together in a smooth cycle which is easy to get into (my only complaint is that at the end of the turn, the cashing in phase is a little awkward).
    Duel of Ages, on the other hand, doesn't have very good flow. Although it's pretty easy to track who's winning, and downtime isn't much of an issue because of combat. Still, many of the equipment rules are awkward, the way Op Fire vs Regular Fire vs Movement works doesn't quite feel right to me, and there are a lot of fiddly rules. I still like it, but it's not art.
    Star Wars Epic Duels is another game wich has "flow" issues. In fact, even though I like the game I can't help but feel that there is something wrong EVERY TIME I PLAY IT.
    The movement rules are awkward, the number of actions per turn seem unecessarily constraing, the healing ability of obsolete cards is underpowered.
    Zombies! is another perfect example of bad flow. All the rolling at the end of your turn is a bad mechanic which slows everything down.

    Anyway, that's all for now.

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