Transcript of our podcast from 23 Feb 2008

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Boredom in Games - part 1

by Moritz Eggert

Hi, my friends - if you remember I have spent some of the recent shows talking about what makes games exciting. Of course this will always be disputable as tastes are different, but still, it was interesting to find out some common features in good games.

Now let's talk about what makes games boring, and perhaps we can agree a little more.

I have simply taken a look at the games that I despise the most on the geek, and easily found some features that I can describe in the next shows. Boring Feature number 1 is:

Repetition combined with futility

You know, repetition can of course be a good thing. If a game mechanic is really enjoyable, like for example the selection of always different roles or actions as in games like Caylus or Age of Empires III, it is good. But to make a repeated game mechanic enjoyable, it has to have some kind of meaningful aspect and a timing to it.

Let's start with the oldest kinds of games: abstract strategy games. These games are usually strictly you go/I go, but they involve an incredible number of choices and a changing situation which produces something one can call tension, at least as long as you feel somehow in control. If the choices become to manifold, of course analysis paralysis can set in, and that can be bad for some players.

Also most card games have basically one repeated mechanic: play a card each turn until you have none left for example. But also here the fun aspect of the good card games is how much your initial decisions will later force you to do things you don't want later on, like in trick-taking games. There is also often the element of the "unknown" that I already described, for example: "Will my opponent have that specific card or not"?

The most sophisticated and obviously successfully designed card game is without doubt Bridge - but that already introduces 2 distinct phases that are completely different: the bidding phase and the actual play phase. The constant change between these two phases keeps players going, more than if there would only be 1 phase, only bidding or only playing.

If we continue in game history we will encounter the elaborate turn sequence - something that has, please correct me if I'm wrong, been one of the major inventions of wargames and later became a staple of Euro Games. Turn sequences can be very varied and consist of many different phases. Some wargames take hours to work through one single sequence, and not one step will be repeated. This is certainly fun as there is little repetition, but you need to be very dedicated to play these often long games.

If we look at most successful gamers' games we will find that they are a good mix of many usually very different phases corresponding to a finite length that has to be carefully balanced to create fun. The designers often throw in what I would call "wild phases" to keep the game exciting. These wild phases usually involve auctioning, bidding or trading. As these phases will very much be unpredictable they usually create continuing interest even if they're repeated.

But the philosopher's stone here is the correlation of the game length to the repetitiveness of phases. If the game outstays its welcome it can be as interesting as it wants and never be a really well-loved game.

Let's look at a game that everybody knows and most people like: Backgammon. Backgammon has a lot of repetitive dice rolling, but as each game takes only 20 minutes or so it never becomes too much. It also has 3 acts, like many good films. First you bring your stones in motion toward the goal, making them vulnerable. In the second act the pieces of each player clash in the middle, with some variation thrown in through reappearing slain pieces. The final act is what I would call release, when you try to bring your pieces out of the game as quickly as possible.

Most successful modern gamers' games have three acts. This could actually be the start of an interesting theoretical approach, like approaching writing movie scripts or finding the golden mean in great art. I don't totally believe in these things, but sometimes they are interesting to ponder.

The 3 acts in a typical Euro game could be like this: First you build up, then there is some conflict or competition in the middle, then there is usually a final phase in which some kind of race for the goal takes place, in which you throw in everything you've got. Not so far from Backgammon if you think about it!

It is interesting to note that many games have also three scoring rounds, which supports the 3-act structure. The first scoring round is usually not that important, the middle one is more important and the final one is all-important. We can count a near endless number of Euro games that have 3 scoring rounds.

Now there are games that outstay their welcome. Every one of you has certainly sometimes played a game, in which a certain mechanic became unbearably boring. For example you played a game of Monopoly and at a certain point it is absolutely clear who will win, but then you have to play for 3 more hours and count endless wads of cash.

Or you play Risk, and somebody gets Australia, and you absolutely know that that person will win, but then there is 6 more hours of rolling dice until you get there.

Repetition combined with the feeling of futility is always a sign for a bad gaming experience.

Many games that are considered bad by many people have that tediousness, they never seem to end. Only great helpings of theme can remedy that, and even that might not work. For example - I am a fan of Talisman from the olden times when it had little competition, but I can absolutely understand that a gamer of today finds it a bit too repetitive and outstaying it's welcome. For me the theme and the memories I have from many game nights let me be less critical perhaps, and that might be the case with people who actually like Risk and Monopoly as well, god bless them, the poor souls.

So, dear game designers - if you have a new game make sure that it has as little repetitive elements as possible, throw in some wild elements that constantly change, and make sure the game has a length that exactly correlates to its excitement.

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2008, Westpark Gamers