What Makes A Great Game, Part 2

What Makes A Game Great, part 2

El Grande!

Last time we heard from some my guests about what aspects a great game should have. In part 2 we will continue reviewing what other guests had to say about this and then wrap up all the guests thoughts into a neat package. I’ll then tell you what I think.

Let’s get started with Kevin Nesbitt of Stronghold Games

I don’t think there’s any one, or even any one-hundred elements that make a good game.  If there was a limited set of key ingredients, I doubt we’d see as many good games being printed as we do these days.  For me, a good game rewards those players who observe the changing conditions during gameplay and are the quickest to react.  This can even mean that some luck is involved, though of course, not too much.  

Dave Colson & Stephen Conway from The Spiel podcast

Dave: This one is pretty easy. Dice! Just kidding. I think that beyond solid, well-balanced mechanics, which every “good” game has to have, a “great” game must also be immersive from start to finish. And not just for the first few times you play it. The pieces have to feel good in your hand every time. The choices have to be difficult every time. The paths to victory, although well-defined, have to be elusive enough to feel fresh every time. All of these things combined will give you a “great” game that always leaves you wanting more!

Stephen: A great game is one that enables folks at the table to have fun. There’s certainly no single recipe for this. I see board and card games as vehicles for social engagement and interaction. Any game that can create a sense of fun and memorable experiences at the table has succeeded on a very fundamental level.

GamerChris from Exploring Games With GamerChris

Specifically for boardgames, I want mechanics that work and are interesting.  I enjoy games with multiple viable strategies or paths to victory, where I can explore my options and try out different approaches to play.  And I also like games where you have to be flexible and respond to challenges thrown at you either by the game or the other players.  I like a nice theme in a game, but at the same time, I am no longer willing to put up with sloppy, clunky games

A big ’10’ of a game.

where you’re expected to deal with things that don’t quite work just because they spent so much time working on (or paying for) the theme.  But in the end, I’m pretty much a game slut.  I’ll try any kind of game (as long as I’ve heard decent things about it), and I like to try and find the right game for any crowd that I’m in.

Seth Jaffee of Tasty Minstrel Games

I’m finding that the answer to this question depends a lot on the target audience, and it’s not as simple as I used to think! I think a “good game” offers interesting choices and is engaging for the duration of the game. I used to refer to something I called a “Work-per-unit-fun” ratio. If a games work/fun ratio was too high, then even though it might have fun aspects, I don’t feel like playing it because it’s just too much work. Twilight Imperium is like that for me – I like the idea of the game, and there are fun parts, but the physical work and time involved in playing more than counterbalances the things I like. So I guess I would say that a good game has an appropriate or favorable work/fun ratio.

What I’m learning from the publisher’s point of view is that not everyone is as tolerant or accepting of complicated rules or learning curves as I am. A game that *I* think is good will likely have a learning curve such that you cannot fully experience the game in a single play. Nowadays it seems that a lot of people won’t give a game more than a single play though. There are so many games out there that they’d rather just get a taste for a game and then move on to the next one. I fear that because of this, many games are coming out that, well, CAN be fully explored in the span of a single play or two, and since this is not the type of game I generally enjoy, I think that’s kind of a shame. I hope that Tasty Minstrel can provide games that are both enjoyable enough on first play that players will feel compelled to play again, and also interesting enough that they can stand the test of time and hold up to repeat plays. That’s the kind of thing I look for in a game.

Chad Ellis of Your Move Games

Games provide so many things, so two good games can have very little in common. I don’t think it’s even accurate to say that a good game is “fun” because the fun of a party game is so different from the fun of Battleground that they deserve different words.

Notre Dame

AJ Poriforo of Van Ryder Games

Balance is also a key. I love both simple and complicated games, but it is a major buzz kill to me when a game is “broken” mechanically. In a recent session of a game it seemed our team did everything right only to face an impossible task at the end of the game due to circumstance. As much fun as I had playing the game it stunk that the end came down to that.

Finally, I like rules and events in games to somewhat realistically mirror what might happen (relatively speaking). It is a quality that I think really shows that the designer thought about what is realistic and what isn’t. The example popping in my head is the backpack in D&D. I don’t know about you, but back when I played it was amazing how many weapons, items, and gold pieces my backpack could hold.

In fairness, the trump card is fun. I would rather have an unrealistic mechanic or rule and it be fun than a realistic one that isn’t or breaks the game. A good example of this is hit points or life points found in many games. A lot of games wouldn’t be nearly as fun if a gunshot, for example, killed you right away.

Chris James of Stratus Games

Chris: As I alluded to earlier, I believe that a good game encourages and facilitates interaction between players, or, if nothing else, allows it to happen naturally. Games that are too serious or require too much thought and planning tend to limit the amount of fun interaction, at least in my experience.
In addition, I agree with Jonathan Degann’s
Game Theory 101 articles that explain that a good game has a story arc, steep rewards and sudden catastrophes, impossible choices, and instability. The progression of a game should feel like the plot of a good book, with conflicts, suspense, rising action, and a climax. Turning points in the game are good because they require you to rethink your current path, and impossible choices make you wonder if you chose correctly, leading you to want to play again. In addition, all of this should happen in a reasonably short amount of time.

Brian and Geoff Engelstein, designers of The Ares Project

Geoff: A good game engages the player, keeping them interested and focused. That can be done a lot of ways, and is different for everyone. But for me, I most often get engaged when I have a series of deep choices that requires tight interaction with the other players.

Brian: A good game needs to have a sense of progression. I dislike games that have you making the same choices at the beginning of the story that you do at the end. This is why I love games with RPG elements, even if it just comes down to building up a town, and I always push for the abilities in Dominion and Puerto Rico.

Puerto Rico

Intriguing mechanics and interesting decisions.  That’s why my number one game is Power Grid.  The way the power plants become more efficient (and more expensive) during the course of the game, as well as the shifting commodities market, and the way the board develops based on the players’ actions, come together like a well-oiled machine.  I’m willing to overlook an absence of theme, or a theme that doesn’t quite click, if the mechanics make me sit up and take notice.

Well, there you have it – the opinions of 34 gamers, designers, and publishers on what they think makes a game great. Now let’s summarize what they thought. There were 47 different answers to the question “What makes a game great?”. The element that showed up most was hard decisions/meaningful choices. Nineteen percent of my guests felt that this was essential for a game to be considered great. The next most mentioned aspect of a great game was a three-way tie between 1) many paths to victory 2) a sense of story 3) depth that can be explored all coming in with 8% of my guests mentioning these aspects.

Coming in at 6% of the time were: reasonable length of play, easily understood rules, replayability, wanting to play the game immediately after a finishing a game, the play experience stays with you, and oddly enough – fun. There were a number of other answers that were mentioned less often. Some of these were:

  • immersive theme
  • theme supported by the mechanics
  • interesting mechanics
  • drama
  • progression


  • player interaction
  • engaging
  • rewards players for good decisions
  • balance
  • elegance
  • playable with varying levels of players
  • decisions have consequences
  • produces tension

I knew this question would produce many different opinions and interesting answers. I was surprised by some of the answers and where some of the answers landed in the ranking. In particular was ‘fun’. I was really expecting it to be mentioned more often. I’m guessing that it was probably that ‘fun’ was a given for a great game.

Let’s focus a bit on the first two aspects. The first is hard decisions or decisions/choices that are meaningful. Why are difficult choices so desirable? As mentioned, they make you think. A great game is brain exercise. It allows you to work your mind in an enjoyable manner. Having choices gives sense of victory or accomplishment when those choices turn out well. It’s that sense of accomplishment that keeps a game going and brings you back again and again. Multiple decisions also mean different ways to play and incorporates the multiple paths to victory aspect. They add flexibility in the game. Flexibility keeps the game interesting and alive. Flexibility allows players to explore the game. Exploring the consequences of your choices in a game is interesting and allows you to learn and master the game. So hard choices are linked to many of the other mentioned aspects and may actually enable those aspects.

I want to talk about multiple paths to victory a little bit more. Having more than one way to win is an essential to a great game. It is possible that players can get locked out and not have a chance of victory if there is a single winning path. This is very de-motivating and can sour a game. With more than one victory path players can feel like they are playing their own game also. Not just following the leader. Many paths also allow exploration of the game. That touches on another aspect.

I talked about game depth above in the discussion about decisions. I’ll just add that a shallow game can be fun and enjoyable. But the experience also tends to be shallow. Deep games offer deep experiences.

As for the other aspects, a mix of any of these will contribute to a great game.

Now you’ve probably figured out my answers to the question I posed my guests. But I’ll summarize my thoughts now. Looking over all the games that I consider to be great games, here are my must have aspects for a great game. First and foremost, I agree with the top choice, meaningful decisions or choices. All of the games I consider ‘great’ have this aspect. Macao, one of my ’10’s’, is rife with hard decisions.  I love this.  Trying to decide which dice to take, what card

Memoir ’44

to take, how to use your cubes most efficiently, and whether or not to spend your money to take the first player spot are just a few of the agonizing choices in this game.  And they all impact your game.  It’s great!

I also agree with my guests that multiple paths of victory and depth are parts of a great game. I would have replayability, tension, player interaction, and interesting mechanics a bit higher on my list. I think all of these points add a lot to a game and push it into the ‘great’ category. Replayability is high on my list.  I really think that a great game should have some legs under it.  If it can’t live past one or two plays, I don’t consider it a great game.  Multiple paths of victory supports replayability.  Having more than one way to win enhances a game a lot.  It is one way to inject depth to a game too. Tension can come from different parts of the game and often links back the hard choices.  Another word for tension is suspense.  A game that creates real suspense is a gem.  The best example this I can think of is the rpg Dread.  Dread uses a Jenga tower as its central resolution mechanic.  And man, does this game produces tension and suspense.  I’ve never played a game of Dread that didn’t have at least one of those stand up moments.  Letters From Whitechapel is another game that ramps up the tension.  

Letters From Whitechapel

I like games that have some sort of player interaction.  Whether it’s a ‘take that’ type of game, an auction mechanic, or a battling game, good player interaction enhances a game.  I don’t particularly care for multiplayer solitaire.

Well, that’s about the end.  We can see that the idea of a great game is subjective.  That’s not really a surprise now is it.  There are many elements that make a game great.  A game can be great and not have ALL of these elements.  But great games will include a good portion of the listed aspects.  Great games will bring you back time and time again.  And great games give fun.  In the end, if a game is not fun, it will not be great.

Lastly, I’ll leave you with a few of my great games. All of Stefan Feld’s games that I have played are great games. I haven’t played all of his designs but this includes the aforementioned Macao, In The Year of The Dragon, The Speicherstadt, and Notre Dame. Pandemic (including On The Brink) is a great game. No Thanks! Is a great game even though it is a filler. I think Shogun/Wallenstein, Puerto Rico, Ticket To Ride, and Memoir ’44 great games. Hive and Irondale are awesome games. That’s just a few of the games that I consider great.

Ticket To Ride

Thank you for joining me for this special two-part series.  I hope you enjoyed it and that you learned something.  Or at least it gave you something to think about.  I’d really like to know what you think makes a great game.  And what are some of your great games? Leave your comments and your list below.

all photos except Macao courtesy of Chris Norwood

My favorite game – Macao.
Photo taken by BGG user Antony Hemme

What Makes A Great Game?

What Makes a Great Game? Part One


Pandemic is a great game.

I’ve been doing interviews for Go Forth And Game for a couple of years now. One of the ideas I had with the interviews was spawned by a podcast, I don’t remember which one. They were talking about good players and good games. I thought that was these were interesting subjects and decided to add them as questions for my guests. With the idea of compiling their thoughts on the subjects and forming a discussion around these. This is the first of those discussions.

So what makes a great game? Let’s find out what everyone said first.


Cody and John of the late, lamented Game On podcast

John: A game that makes you think without making you OVERthink.  In other words, a game that rewards optimal strategy, but doesn’t overly punish those who don’t play with optimal strategy.  And, any game that you talk about weeks later is definitely a good one!

Cody: A game that produces great experiences and memories and keeps you coming back to the table.

The D6 Generation folks

(Russ) For me a game has to execute in all areas to be great: Rules presentation, Mechanics, Graphic Design, Component quality, and theme.
Rules: Should be easy and FUN to read. If you just dropped $60-$100 on a game, you want the rule book to look cool and get you and your friends excited.
Mechanics: Easy to learn, hard to master. Even ‘heavy’ games can be ‘easy to learn’ just look at the difference between a game like Rune Wars and a game like Android. Both by the same company, both do well in Rules presentation, Graphic Design components should be more than just bling. They should help you understand, follow, and execute game play.
Component Quality: Components should be good quality that will last under repeated play.
Theme: Theme should be carried through all of the above, even mechanics.

Example? Day’s of Wonder’s Small World is a great game. It nails all of the above flawlessly.

(Nicole): A great game is playable by ANYONE.  That means someone who is a hard-core gamer that looks for every angle to win and a person who is just in it for fun.  If a game is too hard or complex, then a lot of people can’t or won’t play which makes it difficult to break out in a group.  If a game is just way to simplistic, the same thing happens in the reverse.  It needs to appeal and be playable to a wide audience in order for it to be great.  It also needs to have clear, concise rules and a theme that is consistent throughout all elements of the game like board, cards, tokens etc..

(Craig): What Russ calls Rules Transparency: the rules help move the game and theme along, not getting in the way of the fun. They have to be intuitive, but with a depth to present tactical choices and multiple avenues to victory. Elegant: simple, but deep.

(Raef):Great graphic design, nice thick playing pieces, and replayability mixed with fun.

Doug & Shelley Garrett of Garrett’s Games and Geekiness

Doug:  I think we both would say that long games do not equal good games necessarily. I love a game that plays in under an hour, has solid, clear rules, and gets me thinking.  China and/or Web of Power is my favorite game, and we can play a game of it in under 30 minutes; but the entire time I can feel the tension and love the planning of possible options as I wait for my next turn.

Shelley:  I agree with Doug’s sentiments here.  A great game should have many paths towards victory, but be streamlined enough so that I don’t have to memorize too much.  Simple icons and player aids can make a more complicated game feel more straightforward.  I love a good think, but I don’t want to have to have a bionic memory of what others have and I don’t want to have to use a calculator to keep score.   

Gavan Brown, graphic design artist extraordinaire and designer of JAB

This is a great question, and one that I’m sure everyone answers differently.  In my opinion, a good game contains not one, but all of the following criteria:  innovation, replayability (depth) and elegance.  Theme and visual design, while I feel are important components to a game, I feel are secondary.   But an ideal game is one that fires on all cylinders.

Sen-Foong Lim, one of the designers of Train of Thought and Belfort

To me, a good game should:
• Be easy to teach – As the person who usually buys the games in my local group, if the rules suck or the game is too confusing to teach, it’ll sadly never get played as I will invariably fall back on something I know more intimately when push comes to shove.
• Play in a reasonable amount of time – There’s not a lot of time in the day with 2 kids, a day job, game design, and being a competitive martial artists. I gave up RPGs because I couldn’t dedicate weekly 7 hour sessions to gaming. I also don’t think many of the gamers I play with could handle the same game for 3 hours.
• Have multiple paths to victory – Strategy games with one clear way to win are actually not very strategic…
• Have as many players involved at once, interacting as much as possible – The less downtime, the better. The less multi-player solitaire, the better.
• A theme that I can immerse myself in, if warranted – I like to play in game worlds I find interesting. I guess that comes from my RPG days. Theme can also be a limiting factor – My oldest son loves games, but I’m sure his mother wouldn’t want me playing “Mansions of Madness” with him…yet.
• Support a wide range of players (age, number, skill level) – My gaming partners range from 6 and 7 year old kids in a 2 player game to 7-8 players with grandparents involved. A game that can handle all that and in-between is a winner in my book. Scalability is a big plus.
• Have many meaningful decisions made throughout the game that impact on the end result vs. chance. If I lose a game because of a die roll, I am frustrated in a bad way. If I lose a game because of a poor decision on my part, I am frustrated in a good way.
Lastly, the experience of playing a game should live on after the last card is drawn. If there is no post-mortem analysis of the game you just played – not necessarily out loud – then there may not have been enough strategic or tactical decisions, immersion/involvement/engagement, or player interaction.
If a game is good, you should want to play it again immediately with the thought that you could possibly do better – even if you won.

Colby Dauch of Plaid Hat Games (I also asked him, as a game publisher, what does he look for in a game.)

So these two questions belong together, because the things that I believe make a good game are going to be the things I look for in a game. First and foremost is fun factor. It’s not always easy to breakdown why a game is fun, but it has to have that fun factor when it is played before it is even worth breaking it down any further than that. A good game offers decisions to the players that are interesting and have multiple solutions with varying risk, reward and results. I do not like a game where the optimal moves are often clear or mathematical, which brings me to the next thing I like it a game – drama. I don’t like a game where it is decided by luck, but a game completely devoid of any chance lacks a certain sense of drama. I also like story in a game. That drama should help tell some sort of story. The players should have a chance to come together and imagine out the scenes that are taking place in the game. They should be able to tell stories afterwards with big hand gestures as they get excited about how things unfolded.

John Clowdus of Small Box Games

I tend to play a lot of card games. I generally like games with cards in them and some form of player interaction. It doesn’t have to be a knockdown drag out war kind of game, but I like to be able to affect other players, even if it’s just blocking a space on a board so they can’t get it. I generally don’t like games that last longer than an hour.

The Princes of Florence is a great game.

So that’s part one. In part two I’ll continue to review what my guests have said they feel makes a game a great game. And if we get finished with that we’ll talk about what was said.