We play games–all kinds of games from sports to board games to video games–in order to do. When you play a game, your choices will hopefully determine your ultimate success or failure. Those who make the best choices or perform most successfully will have an advantage to win the game (if not guaranteed victory, in games that do not utilize randomness as a mechanic).
So what is the worst feature you can pack into a game?
It is the antithesis of what games are about: Inaction–either enforced or encouraged.A game plagued by inaction suffers from it in one of these ways:
- By making use of skipping turns as a game effect. (NOBODY likes losing a turn).
- By not providing a way to interact with the game outside of your turn.
- By allowing a strategy of turn passing or action deferral to be potentially powerful.
- By making player turns arbitrarily long and complex. (Especially when compounded with #2)
- By making player turns difficult to understand, repetitive, or uninteresting. (Especially in conjunction with #4)
- By limiting the player’s power in such a way that their turns cannot accomplish anything of value. (Often with over-restrictive rules)
Such games are commonly called ‘snore-fests’, ‘sleepers’, ‘lemons’, or more commonly just ‘boring’, and are not invited back to the game table for a replay.
In most games, turns are an inevitable part of the game’s simulation that cannot be removed. If everyone just did whatever they wanted to at the same time, the fastest would win, or the game would devolve into a wrestling match (I’ve tried it with my brother before, so I know). So turns are a necessary evil in almost all cases. However, there are a number of techniques that can be used to keep the game interesting to players who are not directly interacting:
- Allow optional cooperation – If you are building a co-operative game, it makes sense for other players to be able to jump in and help you if the going gets tough. Too many good co-op games are not interactive at all–players in your location can’t help you fight the monsters better. Players at your location can’t share their gear or expertise with you. Players nearby can’t drop what they’re doing and rush to your aid. Instead, if allies can work together–and actually benefit from working together, then the game becomes much more interesting to all involved, since they could be called on at any time to provide aid.
- Allow interruption – Interruptive effects that can be played outside of your turn are difficult to balance and can create a great deal of chaos at the game table if they are over-present in a game. However, in games where turns are long, a healthy number of interrupting cards can keep players interested. The best mechanic I have ever seen for interruption cards is actually in Yu-Gi-Oh, the Collectible Card Game, in the form of trap cards. When you set a trap, you have to watch your opponent carefully to see if they will do a certain kind of action that allows you to spring your trap. This means that the inactive player is paying close attention to his opponent, which keeps things interesting for them both.
- Stagger Turns – In extremely complex games (mostly euro-games and trading games) where the players need to make many actions and calculations, game designers can space the turn out over multiple phases. Each player completes phase 1 in order, then each player completes phase 2, and etc. This minimizes the downtime between player actions, and also allows players to stagger their thinking, since most players don’t start considering their next action until their own turn or the turn before.
- Punish Inactivity / Encourage Activity – There are some games where doing nothing is not harmful to the player. In some games, doing very little can actually be more beneficial than acting. Imagine a game of monopoly where the players have the option to pass a turn. Of course, after all the properties were bought, all anyone would do is pass turns. This is because the benefit of $200 at “Passing Go” cannot hope to offset the deficit players will incur by traveling around the board once. A good game requires players to act in order to prevent themselves from losing or falling behind. A great game encourages players to act by tempting them with escalating power, property, or status in the game.
- Create vested interest in others’ actions – There is one great flaw to Dominion (and it is shared with a large number of victory-point scoring games as well), and that is a lack of vested interest in the actions of other players. In a game where another players’ actions will rarely help or harm you–where they score a number of points and then end their turn, with no ultimate effect on the game state–inactive players quickly become bored. When another player’s actions can stand to severely boost or hamper your own plots, however, interest in what everyone else is doing becomes a matter of course. Just like a sports event is uninteresting if you don’t have a favorite team, if we’re going to play a game where we all need to sit back and watch each other take long turns, then those turns had better have an impact on our own schemes.
Sometimes a game’s premise or design begs for such a mechanic to be introduced–and it’s usually easy to do. For example, a game I designed called Kill the Overlord (set to be published by APE Games next summer) uses a mechanic of non-linear turns. That is to say, players do not take turns in a set order, much like hot potato or tag–whoever has the potato or who is ‘it’ is the one who needs to act. After several play tests, it became apparent that if a player was ignored by the others or was not considered a threat, he wasn’t really playing the game, as he would never get a turn (like the kid no one chases in tag). This problem was fixed by allowing players the opportunity to interact outside of their turns using a number of interruption cards. The interruptions gave players the power to force their way into the action when they deemed it appropriate.
However, interruption like this does more than just giving players a chance to act when they otherwise wouldn’t–the very possibility allowed by the option forces them to watch the action for the best opportunity to utilize it–thus, vested interest. So even when a player is not acting directly, they have to be watching the action for the chance to cut in and act, making for a very involved game.
Downtime inherent in your game’s design is something to watch carefully for and to avoid. If your players look like they’re falling asleep at the table, or if they’re running off to talk or browse the game store or send a text message, consider that your game might not be involved enough to hold their interest (of course, you could just have rude players). Thankfully, using the techniques above, it is not hard to remove downtime from a game’s design until it holds the group’s attention fast. Of course, even bad games can hold a player’s attention, much in the same way as a car crash can stop traffic, so make sure your games are actually fun to play too. ^_^