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Cracked LCD: Fun-First Design

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In last week’s review of Abaddon, I very nearly undermined years of trying to write “serious” board games criticism. I attacked certain aspects of it before giving in to its “fun-first” design. Did you see what I did there? I more or less stated that the art and design part of games is irrelevant if you’re having fun. Noted Metacritic rabble-rouser Tom Chick believes that you can’t write about “fun” because it’s so subjective and that is true, but if we as critics are not writing about fun as part of the experience of games are we failing to speak to the core intent of the medium? Are designers that are developing games where mechanics, process, and depth are the focus betraying the purpose of playing them?

Abaddon isn’t a great design. It’s rudimentary, basic, and it’s a stick figure drawing compared to the baroque masterwork represented by something like Mage Knight or Labyrinth: War on Terror. I loved those two very complex games, and they were my picks for Game of the Year in 2011 and 2010 respectively. But in playing a game like Abaddon or other games that focus more on that notoriously subjective and to some indefinable quality of fun, I wonder if we’re actually getting closer to a state of pure intent and the essential purpose of the games medium.

Games are- well, they should be- fun. We play them with friends and family to have a good time, to enjoy ourselves, to laugh, and to interact using the game as a social centerpiece. If you’re playing games for any other reason, as I’ve always said, then you’re doing it wrong. Of course, what that fun happens to be is where it gets hazy. I do have fun playing Mage Knight and Labyrinth, but it’s very different than the fun I have playing Abaddon. The fun I have with those games is from the sense of discovery of strategic routes through the mechanics, how the mechanics describe setting and concept, and in the hobbyist notion of drilling down through layers of depth to get at those nuggets of entertainment. With Abaddon- and other games like Magical Athelete, Talisman, Chaostle, and the Really Nasty Horse Racing Game- that fun is much more at a surface level, not buried beneath rules and process. You don’t have to work at being the kid on the back of the box cheering.

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It strikes me that there is a clear distinction between “fun-first” design and those designs where elaboration of detail and coordination of mechanics- in some ways the true technical artistry of game creation- are the primary focus. This division can extend to explaining one of the chief differences between so-called “casual” and “hardcore” games. In a “casual” game, you may have a single mechanic and the intent is to entertain and engage the audience without demanding commitment or that drilling-down action through layers of systemic rules. “Hardcore” games insist that the player work for the fun, and in fact that process of working for the fun often is the fun. The question becomes which of these kinds of games is fun to you at the time you’re playing them. I’ve come to always ask myself when playing any game, before any other consideration “am I having fun doing this?”

As much as I love Mage Knight, Labyrinth, Starcraft, Magic Realm, and other often terrifyingly complicated games, invariably the ones that my games gang always go back to are the ones that are the fun-first designs. We may talk a lot about wanting to play Here I Stand, but what we really want to play is more Cosmic Encounter and King of Tokyo. Because in games like that, the fun rises to the top almost immediately and there’s no buy-in or lead-in to get to it. I’ve come to treasure game designs that respect my time and practically guarantee that my table is going to have a good time. Fun-first designs also seem to favor heavy interaction, metagaming, and socialization, which is what I’m looking for when I get together with my friends for a game night.

Of course, a lot of what makes a fun-first design work- or a mechanics-first design for that matter- is how your group receives and enacts it. A table of six people that have all learned Here I Stand backwards and forwards is going to have a much shorter rules-to-fun distance than a table of six newbies. A table of milquetoast wallflowers is likely going to shun a rowdy, raucous fun-first design like Ca$h and Gun$. A rowdy bunch of drunk trash-talkers isn’t going to get anywhere near whatever fun there is in a Phil Eklund game. Subjectivity crashes the party again.

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Regardless, I think that there are clear identifiers that separate these kinds of games. Other than the issue of experiential subjectivity (after all, some people somehow find Princes of Florence fun), there is a potential schism that presents itself in approaching how to critically evaluate these games. It’s hard to apply the same critical rigor and valuation that can be used to quantify what makes a game like Magic Realm or Up Front great to simpler, fun-first fare like Bohnanza or Heroscape. It’s like writing about an ABBA pop song and describing it in terms more suited to a Steve Reich composition or trying to evaluate the films of Lars Von Triers with those of Zack Snyder as the comparative fulcrum.

I don’t think that this means that we can’t speak and write intelligently or academically about gaming’s fun-first “pop” games, nor does it necessarily devalue the importance of the larger, more technical designs. But I do question which of these approaches to design are closer to getting at the core potential of games as a medium. I also question whether games truly have the capacity to be not “fun” in the same way that challenging or difficult music and films are, yet still demonstrate the value of the game format as an expressive media. No one gets together with five friends to sit around a game for six hours to contemplate death, drug addiction, infidelity, or the morality of war. Can games truly express these things without the veneer of fun, or does the medium fall apart when fun is not the focus at some stage in the experience? Or is the “fun-first” design that strips away the medium’s barriers and rigorous processes and entertains the purer, more culturally relevant expression of the games format?

I don’t have a complete answer. It’s not a simple question of genre or classification, and it’s not merely a “casual” contra “hardcore” argument. It’s a fundamental discrepancy at the heart of game design and game criticism. Take for example a game like Lords of Waterdeep. It’s abstract and derivative. Critically, it should fail- if we’re examining it under the assumption that its design goals are to tell a Dungeons & Dragons story, innovate the worker placement genre, or offer a fresh take on hybridizing American and European styles. However, if we approach the game as a fun-first design that has an agenda of stripping away rules, process, and inaccessibility it emerges as a successful game. In a field with Caylus, Agricola, and Dungeon Lords it fails. In a field with the D&D Adventure System games or classic German family games it works.

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And then there’s the narrative issue. I’ve long argued that theme, setting, and story are critical points of valuation in assessing a design, even if those things are present only at the highest or most perfunctory level. Yet a game like Sackson’s classic Can’t Stop, which is just about rolling dice and pushing your luck, emerges as a totally successful fun-first design. Likewise, an example could be made of any number of simple dexterity games and those classic German family games that are not focused on expressing narratives because they’re pushing the “fun” aspect to the front. There’s a German game from 1982 called Millionenspiel that’s really just about betting where a pawn will land on a track (shades of roulette) and it’s one of the most fun and dramatic games I’ve ever played- and it tells absolutely no story and features zero sense of setting. Touching on Lords of Waterdeep again, nobody is fooled into thinking that the game “feels” like sending adventurers out to fight beholders- I hope. But in this example, the D&D window-dressing, nomenclature, and setting- no matter how lightly applied or how little story is told- is leveraged itself along with simplistic mechanics to generate and abet the fun-first concept, particularly for fans of the property.

It appears that identifying which games are “fun-first” and which are not is in some ways a matter of managing expectations and appropriately receiving the designer or designers’ intent. You don’t go into a film called “The Sorrow and the Pity” and expect a rollicking good time. You also don’t go into a game called “King of Tokyo” and expect brain-burning efficiency puzzles and gaming in quiet solitude. As the critical standards for writing and discussing games are more or less an ad-hoc, any-amateur-can-play free-for-all, it strikes me that those engaging in reviews or analysis should have a clear sense of when a game is simply telling you to have fun and enjoy yourself, and when it’s telling you to pay attention to its mechanics or process.

Michael Barnes

Games writer Michael Barnes is a co-founder of Nohighscores.com as well as FortressAT.com. His trolling has been published on the Web and in print in at least two languages and in three countries. His special ability is to cheese off nerds using the power of the Internet and his deep, dark secret is that he's actually terrible at games. Before you ask, no, the avatar is not him. It's Mark E. Smith of The Fall.

21 thoughts to “Cracked LCD: Fun-First Design”

  1. An interesting take, and one I’m inclined to agree with. It’s why the games that get the most play often aren’t my favorite designs (looking at you Railroad Tycoon) but the ones my group enjoys most. It’s why I never have trouble getting Ticket to Ride, Carcassonne or The Adventurers (especially the adventurers, my fiancee loves that game) to the table. Getting Tycoon or BSG is a much more difficult feat.

    Obviously there is a limit to how far the ‘fun-first’ design can go. If the mechanics are surface level, and the fun is easy to access then the game needs to play in an hour or less. The Adventurers is great fun, at that 45-60 minute range. Were it to take 3 hours though, I feel it would go from enjoyable game, where we’ll play 2 games in a row, to annoying slog. The mechanics wouldn’t change, but the fast paced, random gameplay, wouldn’t hold up on a long play session.

    They each have their place, and while I like the deeper experience more, I enjoy the quick ‘fun’ game more often.

    1. Railroad Tycoon is a great example. My main group would probably play 1830 if I had it, but it would be a once-a-year, how-do-we-play-this-again thing. But we’ll break out RRT in a heartbeat because it’s just so easy to play…yet it has depth, development, and lots of interesting situations that develop.

      It’s funny because RRT is a redevelopment of Martin Wallace’s Age of Steam, a game that is not any fun whatsoever as far as I’m concerned. Glenn Drover pared out all of the not-fun math and process, and put that fun part of it right up front.

      That’s a great point about length. Fun-first design does tend to favor shorter games for the most part, and this could be why older examples like Talisman that run on to three or four hours tend to be viewed as “too long”. You wouldn’t want to play King of Tokyo for four hours.

      Well stated.

      1. You wouldn’t want to play King of Tokyo for four hours…

        GIGASAUR DISAGREES! CYBER BUNNY MAD!

        So happy it got reprinted just in time for me to pick it up at Origins. Now RotW, that we could play for hours.

  2. Very, very nice article there.

    I will say that I’m very lucky to have a group that is not all that focused on ‘fun-first’ games. Not that I (or they) turn up our noses at such, but part of the ‘fun’ for gaming is the intellectual stimulation. As I had to tell someone else a while back, if a game does not engage me on some intellectual level, it’s not going to hold my attention for very long. There are some ‘fun-first’ designs that do do this very well however (Cosmic Encounter is very good at this, for example).

    So, how old is that photo? Those are both 1st Ed rulebooks, and a 1st Ed Beyond Valor there, so I suspect it isn’t at all recent. Though the picture isn’t big enough for me to figure out which board that is. 😛

    1. To be honest with you, I think that some of the “games as intellectual pursuit” thinking is hogwash. Especially when it’s game night, I’m three ciders down,and we’re hollering at each other over some shit that went down in a game of Intrige that was SIX YEARS AGO.

      The intellectual part for me often has to do more with experiencing and observing the design, how it generates interaction and creates narrative, and how it functions along a couple of different cross-sectional layers of mechanics, subject matter, metagame, and investment. Not so much in “do I buy corn or indigo?”

      That said, if I’m doing one-on-one with somebody and it’s a game like Labyrinth, the intellectual component may be more pronounced. But even then, it’s likely to be more evidenced in the discussion about the game and what it portrays than in actually playing it.

      Not to say that your experience is wrong or invalid, but it’s a very “Chess” way of looking at games.

      1. Actually, I’d say it’s more of a “wargamer” way of looking at games. ~_^ (At least compared to Ameritrash.)

        The intellectual part is looking at the situation, pondering the situation, reviewing the tools I have to affect the situation, and trying to get the latter to actually do anything about the situation. That is, ‘games are a series of interesting decisions.’

        And yes, there are tales too. ASL can be very good at generating them. Here I Stand has been too, such as the Hapsburgs gathering just about every navy in Christendom to completely destroy the Turk’s navy in one big raid in port. The next turn the Turks take Vienna… and then realize they can’t do anything more, because they need naval support, and, well….

  3. Great article. I don’t know where I fall in the spectrum. It seems that my group hinges on one guy being there. If he is there it’s fun first design only, his ADD can’t tolerate anything else. Unless it’s Chaos in the Old World but I think that’s really a fun first design. But without him there we like to play Powergrid, puerto rico, and mage knight. But all of those games are fun to me, part of the fun is learning the game and it’s systems.

    Maybe I haven’t hit that level yet where I’m hardcore enough to make the call. But I know I hate munchkin so that’s gotta be worth some points.

    Best fun first design I think is 7 wonders. Done in a half hour lots of table talk and player interaction and really easy to play.

    1. Ah, here’s an interesting point. See, I don’t think Seven Wonders is fun-first at all. I think it’s an extremely mechanical, very non-interactive game. I like it fine, but it’s not what I would qualify as fun first. The particulars of the process are right up front, and your engagement with practically every aspect of the design and the experience of playing it is going through that system layer before you get to the fun.

      It may sound silly, but I think one way you know that you’re playing a fun-first design is a) when you see it you think “this is going to be awesome” b) when the rules are explained, it makes complete sense because it’s almost intuitive, and c) moments of drama, friction, competition, and laughter are counted more than VPs.

  4. ‘player interaction’

    What is this 7 wonders of which you speak. I’m not familiar with this version. 😉

    1. Maybe it’s just us. We can’t play a game without talking and ragging on each other. In 7 wonders we are always trying to get our neighbors to buy our stuff and some of us clearly try to fight each others, even though military is very simple. Then we have our one guy who will always try to screw everyone else and not win. So while the mechanics don’t allow for direct interaction besides passing the cards it’s a good game for our personalities.

  5. Personally, I like a mix, it depends on my mood.

    Some days you want to play Domaine and sweat the brain cells trying to screw everybody out of land. Some days you want to point a foam gun at some bastard or chase Dracula across Europe.

    You could almost term it fun-top and fun-bottom game design, minus the puerile innuendo it creates. Fun-top would be stuff like, say, Cutthroat Caverns or Niagara, where they immediately or very quickly become less about winning and more about the experience. Fun-bottom would be your hefty designs where you have to mine deep into the strata to completely appreciate what you have there.

    Really it’s like a savoring a small taste of incredibly fine wine versus six cartons of cheap-ass booze you got at the convenience store. Both experiences are completely different, yet you could find both incredibly satisfying. Same feeling of having fun, very different pathways.

  6. Interesting piece, although I disagree heartily with a lot of it. I’m with Tom on this: fun is too subjective a thing to make the clear distinction you’re trying to claim. I think the hardcore/casual breakdown also fails. Scrabble & Chess are both well known, massively popular games but are hardly casual. Whereas Can’t Stop is niche, and yet totally casual.

    I am struck by my own approach to playing board games on iOS. In a video format I have basically zero tolerance for barriers to play: anything other than an exceptionally well-designed interactive tutorial, and I’m out. I couldn’t even be bothered to get to grips with T&E again properly, even though I’d played it before. And yet I have a much higher tolerance for overcoming these barriers in face-to-face play. I guess it comes down to putting in as much as you expect to get out: I much prefer real games with real people, so I’ll put in the effort.

    A final point as regards the idea of not-fun games. I think it’s entirely possible to have such a thing and that it’s actually a valid portion of design space that’s been massively under-explored. One of the more interesting design ideas I ever came up with was a co-operative game in which the group could only eventually win by eliminating a proportion of the players. As an experience, that could be horrible, divisive and the opposite of fun. But I think it’d be totally worth playing.

  7. Very interesting article, Barnes. Having a couple of newer friends who are real into boardgames coincided with me starting to read this website – and that combo has led me to invest a lot more of my time and money in boardgames. I totally see where you are going with the fun-first design. I love the complicated games, because I like to get into them and learn all the bits and pieces. But my fiance and a lot of other people who occasionally join in the games really struggle to have fun. I always thought it was because the games were too hardcore, but maybe it is just because they aren’t fun-first. I’ll have to check some of these out. Now, I have to finish punching out the pieces for Eclipse so I can get in my first game this weekend!

      1. Yes, the reprint is either in shops or on its way within a couple of weeks, depending on where you are.

  8. I think we’ve got to be willing to describe the kinds of fun we have. I get that to some degree, fun is abstract. But at least having a good handle on the circumstances that create fun *for you* is integral to critiquing a game well enough that someone else knows if they want to play it, too.

    My group likes “traitor” games – Battlestar Galactica, Shadows Over Camelot, so on. But our favorite? Mansions of Madness. A game that, I will admit, is unbalanced as hell, fiddly, and easy to powergame into the ground.

    But compare Mansions to Betrayal at House on the Hill:
    *In Mansions, the enemy player is known from the beginning.
    *In Mansions, the storyline is based on the Lovecraft mythos, while Betrayal is more “generic horror”.
    *Mechanically, the two games are similar – items and equipment, stat-whoring, move-and-act, piecemeal board.

    It turns out that the first two bits are the ones that matter, and only the first of those can be considered an active design choice. Our group overcame the glitches in mechanics to find what we felt was the core of the game. If a reviewer can find and describe those qualities in a game, IMO that’s information worth hearing. Can a smart person play this game while drunk and not ruin it for everyone else? Will playing this game early in the night drive people to sleep? Does this game engender the sort of crass outbursts that will make it impossible to get the group to play something with more fiddly bits afterwards?

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