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Cracked LCD: Fun-First Design


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.

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.

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.

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.