Evaluating A Tabletop Game

I went on a game buying spree recently. I focused on games that could be played one player. I’m researching various game mechanics around creature AI and dynamic boards/environments. My starting list was based off the most interesting links Ricky Royal described in his video series here.

By buying 10 or more games at once I’ve been able to think about the whole meta-process. In any new game I think you can break down the experience into discrete phases:

  1. Pre-Purchase You haven’t played it yet – but you’ve seen a link, a video walkthrough, a Kickstarter, etc. You’re imagining what you will and won’t like about the game. You think about who you’d play it with, when, and what you’d want out of it.
  2. Purchase There’s some trigger that takes you from thinking about playing the game to wanting to play the game. Perhaps there were obstacles – you weren’t sure you’d: like it, be able to find other players, find it different/better than what you currently play, or maybe you just didn’t feel like spending money at the time. The key here is that the expectations and story of the game in your head overpowered any obstacles or reservations. In evaluating the game – explicitly or not – this “story” will influence every step post-purchase.
  3. Unboxing I’m not sure how many game designers and publishers think hard about this experience. When I got 10 games at once all of them sitting on my desk/gaming table competed for my attention. Much of this applies to the retail experience as well.
    • Size of the box – depending on what you’re expecting out of the game a big box can be good or bad. If I’m looking for a game rich with possibility – something deep, strategic, replay-able, etc, then a big beautiful box implies there’s quite a bit to explore. However, if I’m looking for a game I’m always in the mood for, easy to pick up and play with my wife or kids, a big box may be a deterrent. If not for me, it will definitely make my wife less likely to want to try it out.
    • The rulebook – much like the box, a thick rulebook can create quite a bit of resistance to get started and try the game. That said, it also might signal a game that allows for quite a bit of strategy, customization, and replay-ability. Even with a thick rulebook you need a quick start – some way to invite a player or players into the game.
    • The board and pieces – I get mixed feelings about sheets and sheets of die cut tokens/etc I have to punch out. In the right context this can build anticipation to play the game – or be a barrier. I’ve noticed that poor quality pieces here (especially when they don’t punch well) sour the experience. The artwork, card quality, and any novel equipment can really help at this point. The best games draw you in.
    • The trays!!! This is one of the most overlooked elements of game publishing. If you give me all the pieces I have to punch out don’t just give me a random plastic tray with different size indentations. And if you have designed it well the last thing you should do is leave me to figure out how the 300 various pieces, tokens, etc should be arranged. I can’t say this enough – in opening 10s of games over the last week, the tray dictated whether I’d play the game or not. A game that takes quite a bit of setup can be fun – but it absolutely sucks if you have to wade through piles of crap to do it. And when you finish the game having an orderly way to put it away can also be fun and not a chore.
  4. Playing – the first time How hard is it to get started? How complex are the rules? How well written are they? How many players do I need? How long does it take to setup? How long does it take to play? All these factors influence actually playing it the first time.
  5. Post-play – the first time So you’ve played it once. This first game post-play experience, much like the pre-purchase experience, is what lingers in the players’ minds. Either they are anticipating the next game or instead they feel dread or indifference. While I didn’t spend much time on the attributes playing the game I do want to spend some time at this phase. Depending on the type of player and what you wanted out of the game, a designer wants to engineer a great first game to deliver against expectations. This means constructing a scenario, setup, rules, or other factors to make a good game experience more likely. This is tricky because you have to anticipate what will make a good post game experience when players could have many different motivations. Some common attributes:
    • Influence – did the players feel like they were able to influence the game?
    • Understanding – did the game make sense? Was a lot of time spent looking up rules, getting clarification, arguing over interpretation?
    • Next Time – do players, win or lose, starting thinking about how they may play differently next time? Do they feel like there’s so much left to uncover and do that they’re just scratching the surface?
    • X Would Love This – do players think of friends an family who they want to introduce the game to? Are they anticipating new people to play the game with?

This is a start to an “Initial Review Criteria” that I’m going to apply to the pile of games I’ve purchased.

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