What makes a board game fun?

Carcassonne bothers me.

It bothers me because it is a lot of fun to play… but I feel like it should not be fun.

For those not familiar with the game, Carcassonne is in my opinion one of the better so-called German-style board games.  I think this way for several reasons.  The game doesn’t suffer from the bloat of equipment and rulebook pages that plagues many other games in the genre; it has the “minutes to learn, years to master” feel.  (Sort of, anyway– more on this later.)  The game is relatively short, and it also has the rare quality among German-style games of allowing just two players to play.  My wife and I play the game quite frequently during evenings after work.

And yet I have a sneaking suspicion that the game lacks something critical that a “good game” should have.  Sometimes after finishing a game (and yes, after winning as well as losing), I have the impression that we just completed a half-hour coin toss.  That is, the outcome of the game was more a function of the random draw of the tiles than of any strategy of mine or my opponent’s.

At other times during a game, sometimes just once or maybe twice throughout an entire game, I seem to recognize that the next move is crucial somehow, and perhaps that that next move should be one of only two or three possibilities… but I have very little insight into which move is best.

Despite these impressions, I really enjoy playing the game.  Why?  What makes this game fun?  Why do you love (or hate) to play chess, or backgammon, or Settlers of Catan, or Carcassonne?

Before presenting my attempt at answering these questions, I recommend J. Mark Thompson’s Defining the Abstract.  This is an interesting short article that I think does a great job of describing four key characteristics that distinguish good games from not-so-good games.  (The article focuses on “abstract” strategy games, and there are a few specific claims with which I don’t quite agree, but it certainly does a good job of provoking thought.)

In discussing these four properties, it is useful to consider the idea that every two-player game of perfect information may be viewed as a tree.  The start of the game corresponds to the root of the tree, and each branch corresponds to a possible move by one of the players– or by a possible random outcome such as a die roll or drawing of a tile in the case of games involving elements of chance.  The leaves of the tree correspond to end game states.  A game progresses from the root, down a particular path from one branch to the next, as players select a specific sequence of moves, draw particular tiles, etc.

(Note the progression “down” from the root.  Computer scientists always visualize/draw their trees upside down, with the root at the top, and branches extending downward, with leaves at the bottom.)

Thompson’s four characteristics are easily expressed in terms of a game’s tree structure.  A game’s “depth” is the simplest example: a game has depth if its tree is “deep.”  That is, even at some distance from the root, the tree still looks like a dense tree with many possible choices and outcomes, and better players are able to “see farther down” the tree than more novice players.

“Clarity” is also rather easily described in terms of a game tree… and this is one of the properties that I think Carcassonne may lack.  When evaluating which move to make– which branch to take– there should be a reasonably sharp difference between the estimated value of the “best” moves and the value of the “worst” moves, at least during the mid-to-end game.  (In more mathematical terms, the principal variation should stand out, so to speak.)  In other words, you should not frequently find yourself just guessing, not knowing whether this move is much better than that move.  I wonder if the random element in Carcassonne (i.e., the remaining shuffled tiles) diminishes too much the strategic value of one placement of a tile over another.

I’ll let you read the article for details about the other two properties, drama and decisiveness.  They also have simple descriptions in terms of the game tree.  For example, I think Settlers of Catan is an example of a game that suffers greatly from lack of drama– you can lose a game very early on, with no hope of regaining any ground.  Check out the article and see what you think about games you like or don’t like to play.

(Postscript: my latest project is a computer version of Carcassonne.  There are several goals here: (a) keep me busy; (b) let my wife and I play the game with an automated aid that I think is missing from the board version, namely keeping track of not only the points from completed features, but also those from incomplete features and farms; (c) implement a computer AI player; and (d) use (c) to do some interesting analysis that might provide some definite answers to the questions raised in this post.

The game is coming along very nicely… and in the process is raising some very interesting questions about intellectual property, which will probably be the subject of a post in the near future.)

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3 Responses to What makes a board game fun?

  1. loraStoob says:

    Hello all

    Interesing article. I look forward to further development of the site.


  2. Pingback: Carcassonne and intellectual property | Possibly Wrong

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