2011-09-15 : PAX Dev: You Should Play Bad Games

I've been giving this session kind of a bad rap, post-con, but come to reflect on it I need to reverse myself.

Why Everyone Else Loves the Games You Hate
Monopoly, Risk, Killer Bunnies - there's a long list of games that we game designers teach ourselves to hate. They violate some core principles of game design we hold dear: they never end, they reward the leaders, they come down to a coin flip. But Magic: The Gathering designer Richard Garfield has another take on these games, one that suggests that their designers might have been doing something right all along. Come hear Richard tell you why you should play these games and many, many others if you want to be a successful game designer.

Richard Garfield

Coming out of the con, it was discouraging: do we game designers really need to be told to play lots of games? Isn't it obvious? Don't we all have restless imaginations and unfillable appetites for games? Do we really avoid games, of all things? Instead of an hour of "game designers, you should play games," I've been saying, it should have been a first slide of "game designers, you know how we all play games all the time?" and then an hour of something deeper.

But I was missing the something deeper. "Game designers, you should play bad games too. You should study even games you hate." Which, yes, is right there in the description, so duh on me for losing track of it. He said something very cool about Monopoly in that session, for instance: when good things happen to you in that game, they happen on someone else's turn. I've played a certain number of, like, mutually competitive solitaire games recently - Dominion, Race for the Galaxy - and I abandoned a cool game of my own a couple of years ago because nobody cared about anybody else's turns - but come to be told, frickin Monopoly solved that problem.

So that's cool.

But you know what? Even without the deeper point, I think I needed the reminder. I didn't put it together at the time but now I'm pretty sure it wasn't an accident that within a day or two I'd decided to be enthusiastic about playing new rpgs instead of reluctant.

1. On 2011-09-15, Ben Lehman said:

Race for the Galaxy (sans takeovers) is a great study in exactly how little interaction is needed for a game to be fun.


2. On 2011-09-15, Chris Chinn said:

I have a friend who plays lots of videogames, even bad ones.  He's an expert on design in videogames, and can tell you tons of things something does right, something that someone else did right, or why something does something wrong.

I don't have the patience or endurance, so I usually think it's worth knowing what the time commitment is you're going to give to any game.

For a lot of us who fought through not-quite or just straight up unfun roleplaying, it can be hard to make the leap with an open mind.


3. On 2011-09-15, Marhault said:

I just want to go on record as saying that really good RftG play absolutely requires you to know what your opponents are doing and take it into account.  It's not quite as solitaire-y as it appears at first.


4. On 2011-09-15, Vincent said:

No grief to Race for the Galaxy! It's clearly a good game. Dominion too.


5. On 2011-09-15, Ben Lehman said:

To be clear: RFTG is one of my favorite games. I just find it an interesting study in semi-solitaire design.


6. On 2011-09-15, David Berg said:

Ah, Monopoly.  So boring and unrewarding, yet so easy to pick up and play and keep playing and play again.  What are your secrets?


7. On 2011-09-16, Moreno R. said:

The campaign for real Monopoly:


8. On 2011-09-16, Marshall B said:

Am I the only one who likes Monopoly?


9. On 2011-09-16, Ben Lehman said:

Marshall: Yes.


10. On 2011-09-16, Jay Loomis said:

That's a great point about Monopoly and the excitement being on other people's turns.

I think the important thing to realize as a designer is that playing bad games and analyzing why you hate them—where exactly they break down—is really important. Monopoly isn't a terrible game: it's a mediocre game with terrible pacing and endgame.

Another example: I was playing Dixit the other day and exclaiming how much I liked it, when somebody mentioned that it's the same game as Apples to Apples. Thing is, I HATE Apples to Apples. It's clearly not the same game, even though the mechanics are nigh identical. Change it from a game about knowing how your friends make verbal associations to one about visual symbolism and metaphore and I'm sold. Who knew? You've got to play to know.


11. On 2011-09-16, ctrail said:

Some Monopoly games would never end.


12. On 2011-09-16, tonydowler said:

For about a year I played every single interesting flash game that showed up on Man, was that every a game design journey. Some of the games were brilliant and some were terrible, and many were a mix. Funny thing is, these days the general level of games there is much better, but there seem to be fewer really interesting ones. I think that fact that there's now much greater consensus on what makes a good flash game has also dulled the innovation. Interesting for us to think about...


13. On 2011-09-17, Amphiprison said:

Marshall: I like Monopoly too!  I'd never bring it out to play with friends, in fact I'd never wish it on anyone, but if other humans are playing Monopoly and they ask me to join in, I will not be so put off by the prospect that I won't play.  Sometimes, I might even play the game the way it was intended instead of taking as many properties as I can and never improving any properties beyond what I absolutely have to in order to stay in the game!


14. On 2011-09-18, David Berg said:

What do you guys like about Monopoly?

I like that is easy to remember 95% of the rules, and that that the capitalism flavor fits well with the activity.  I like that turns go fast and people usually don't take too long to decide whether to buy a property.  I like the way the board's thorough, public information allows anticipation on each die roll.  I like the fact that everything is easy to read.


15. On 2011-09-18, Amphiprison said:

I like taking property cards and organizing them by color, then by alphabetical order, then by color again.  I like going THIS HERE IS A CLASSY ESTABLISHMENT I GUARANTEE YOU WILL GET YOUR SIX DOLLARS WORTH NOW GIMME.  I like being represented by a Scottie dog, a hat, or a funky shoe like nobody ever wears anymore (why is there a loop on the heel? What kind of madman designed this shoe?)  I like bartering with people to get them to take random non-money stuff instead of paying rent.  I like that the board has ten squares on a side.  I like being the Bank and making change for people.  I like the silly pictures of Uncle Moneybags on the Chance cards and the cheerful, non-ironic presentation of the naked money grab as entertaining endeavor.  I like that different denominations of money are different colors.

I try really hard to be positive about games because it's too easy to point out what you don't like about them, and few people actually appreciate it if you do.

The list of things I don't like about Monopoly is easily twice as long and filled with far more serious complaints, in case this seems childish and frivolous.  This was the best I could do. :-(


16. On 2011-09-19, Marshall Burns said:

I like Monopoly because it's all about leveraging what your opponents need against them. It's always a gamble, but if you can get in your opponents' heads well enough, then you can do some serious damage. Some people try to hang on to every piece of property they get; those people are playing it wrong, and I know that because I always beat them. You have to sell things that you don't need now in order to get the things you're going to need soon, and to do that successfully you have to leverage the other players' needs against them. It's all in the bargaining. If you don't bargain well, then you'll never survive the hurricane of random hurt that comprises traveling around the board.

I also like that, if you're broke, you don't want to land on an unowned property, because then you've quite possibly allowed someone else to buy it for hardly anything thanks to the auctions. (I also play with a time limit for deciding whether or not to purchase a property you land on.)

I also like that if you land on an owned property, and the player next in line rolls his dice before the property owner notices and requests his rent, you don't owe any rent. I'm really good at not owing rent.


17. On 2011-09-19, Marshall Burns said:

Oh yeah, I also like that if you run out of physical house/hotel tokens, that's okay with the game because that means there's a housing shortage. And none of those other poor suckers can build any houses now, muahahaha.


18. On 2011-09-21, Josh W said:

A friend of mine loves monopoly because he's good at it, he likes to beat people at it, and he feels tradition/"desire for social bonding" is on his side to get people to play it. When he entered a house with two games designers, he was very dissapointed. He tried to suggest we all played monopoly, "as a house thing", we said why we disliked it and suggested alternative games. He quickly shifted to poker!

But hearing marshall's reasons I can see why else someone might want to play that. I bet there's better trader/scarcity games out there though, even better rent-games.


19. On 2011-10-01, Jeremiah C said:

Josh: Re: trader games:  Freemarket, or Settlers of Catan



20. On 2011-10-09, esoteric said:

The SpongeBob SquarePants game board includes a Plankton piece that moves every time someone rolls a 1 with the dice (if a player rolls two 1s, the Plankton piece moves two spaces), and the game is over when it reaches the end of the board.


21. On 2011-10-09, esoteric said:

Damnable hyperlinking...

here is an actual link.


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