Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Game Experience Variables

“A game for me is nothing absolute. A game lives through the people who play it.”
-- Reiner Knizia, German Board Game Designer

We had a small gathering of friends at our house this weekend for burgers and gaming…and it reminded me that, no matter what merits a game’s components and rules bring to the table, the quality of everyone’s game experience depends on a good mix of engaging players. Every player around the table is a potentially exciting variable contributing to the game experience.

Players each have their own style, often a different one depending on the game. They bring to the table an individual sense of sportsmanship, strategy, and personality that emerges through gameplay. Over the course of the afternoon we pulled out Pirateer (one of our favorites) as well as Carcassonne and Kill Doctor Lucky. Most folks were new to the games, but they asked rules and strategy questions, helped each other along, and quickly started scheming for victory. Everyone exhibited different player characteristics. We had the quiet planner simply waiting for an excellent opportunity for a clinching move. The exuberant player voiced good-natured frustration with other moves and triumphant cheering when she achieved her own victories. Some openly or privately scrutinized each move for opportunities to maximize their chances to win and hinder other players; and some even aided them in their analysis and understanding of the rules. The openly antagonist player made no attempt to hide her strategy, warning some of her intentions and provoking others to purposefully foil her. Even when gameplay dragged on a little too long in Kill Doctor Lucky, most players rolled with the punches, laughed with the silly descriptions of murder attempt failures (or read them with cheesy faux British murder mystery actor accents), and enjoyed (or contributed to) other players’ antics. All fostered an entertaining and friendly dynamic at the gaming table that encouraged everyone to enjoy themselves whether winning or losing. The afternoon would have been completely different with another combination of players.

I personally employ a variety of approaches as a board game player, depending on my mood, the company, and the game. With most new games I play primarily to learn the rules, testing out basic strategies and harboring no expectations that I’ll win. When teaching games to newcomers I sometimes make moves to better demonstrate key rules or subtle nuances. When everyone’s on the same level with the rules I like to dive completely into the game, not worrying whether I’ll win but playing a particular strategy: recklessly making whatever move seems best at the time, inconsistently trying different tactics, or mischievously setting out to hinder other players rather than strive for my own victory. I try not to win when I’m hosting a gaming event, but sometimes my approach to having fun blinds my sense of good form and etiquette.

Some folks had played a few of the games before, especially Pirateer, our “go-to” game for newcomers since the rules seem simple enough but the strategies can become complex during play. Though these experienced players might have an advantage over newcomers, familiarity with the game can’t always take into account the unpredictability of players learning the rules and testing out different tactics. Since the game experience varies depending on the players, every game’s replay value increases given the greater range of potential players and thus combinations of players for a particular game.