Saturday, July 31, 2021

What Makes a Great Game Great?

Everyone has their own opinion on what makes a game great or even what they would uphold as the epitome of a 'great game'. However, it's a lot harder to actually describe -why- they think a game's great. Even for me, it can extremely difficult to explain why I do or do not enjoy a game (hence why I scrapped my Fallout: Wasteland Warfare review), but today's article won't be about any game, for a change, in particular. It'll be about all games. 

You already know I feel about Legion....

As someone who's spent a lot of time critiquing games, I figured it was about time I finally wrote out what I enjoy and don't enjoy about games. This will obviously be more of a meta piece, analyzing tabletop gaming as a whole, rather than any specific game or even genre. I feel as someone who's been reviewing and critiquing games, it's important to be upfront about what I'm looking for in a game to consider it 'good' and enjoyable for me. This way you can continue reading my reviews/critiques and understand the bias that I'm writing from and say to yourself "pffff, Pride of Rodina! Of course you'd say that, because you love your illusions of choice, you rascal," rather than "What the heck, PoR? Why would you think it's a good thing that Legion has a bunch of upgrades that you'll almost never take except in niche circumstances?" I've always thought it was important to understand the bias of a reviewer to help frame their work and I wish more folks would do that (I understand the irony of me typing that sentence since it's been about a year since I wrote a review and know this piece, but I definitely planned on writing this a LOT sooner). Maybe it's because I come from a social science background, that I think understanding bias is important? Who knows, but let's get to real prime rib of today's meal!

For ease of convenience, here's a breakdown of what we'll be discussing:

  • 'Great Game' Clichés
  • Customization
  • Individuality
  • Strong Theme
  • Meaningful Choices
  • Depth Within Limits

'Great Game' Clichés


Whenever you ask someone what makes a great game, you always hear the same few things: perfect balance, affordability, and a good community. I'll refer to these as the 'great game' clichés. Of course a 'great' game would have all three of those, but they're not always obtainable because, sadly, we don't live in a perfect utopia and idealism only gets us so far. Idealism doesn't breed greatness, it only breeds disappointment. I don't, honestly, see these as negative points against a game, so let's talk about why I think these are clichés and how I think we should move away from these being our default answers.

Perfect Balance


Ideally, having perfect balance for a game is -great-, right? I want to know that when I'm bringing a list with the same amount of points as my opponent, that it should boil down to our skill and tactics. I don't want the game to come down to who played the superior faction or spammed the better options. However, there's a definite diminishing return that you get with balance and then it starts to impede on the enjoyability of the game. The old pinnacle of rebuttals to 'perfect balance' is 'why don't you just go play Chess then', but I do think this is an interesting point. Chess is a perfectly balanced game, but it's not exactly my idea of a great game. I think a great game strives to achieve as much balance as possible, but it won't be -perfectly- balanced. This allows room for customization, meaningful choices, and individuality, which we'll discuss later on. Star Wars: Legion, Bushido: Risen Sun and Infinity are prime examples of well-balanced games, but not perfectly balanced games. While during the game players have the same options, while building an army you're presented with difference choices that tip the scales of balance one way or another and I love that! It's really hard for game designers to achieve perfect balance in a game without limiting players' options and I'd much rather have options than perfect balance in my games. The true key to obtaining good balance is to have a game that evaluates its metas and adjusts things as needed.

Affordability


Ah yes, not having to sell your own organs on the black market to afford a luxury hobby. We can all respect that and I doubt anyone will argue against it. That's why it's in this section. Of course we all want to be able to afford the game we want to play, but I don't think we should use that as a measure of whether or not a game's great. I think it should help encourage people if it is and deter them if it isn't, but we shouldn't evaluate the game itself on the price of its plastic (or whole package for games without minis). I'd also like to take this opportunity to point out that some games can trap you with the idea of it being affordability and it's really not. I've built entire Warhammer 40,000 armies for cheaper than some of my well optimized Infinity lists and it comes down to various factors. Just because a game looks unaffordable or affordable doesn't mean it really is, so judging the quality of the game on that is a disservice. Try to be smart about your purchasing, research options, and ask the respective communities for purchasing help. Buying used can be a great idea (especially if the minis are metal as they're super easy to clean) or even splitting purchases with friends or locals to help bring costs down. There are ways to make the more expensive games more affordable, if you play your cards correctly. However, let's be honest here for a minute, Games-Workshop should definitely reduce their prices....

Good Community


Now this is a tough one. Having a decent community is extremely important for your own enjoyment of a game, that's for sure. This is especially true when it comes to your local community, but I don't think you should judge a game by its community. It's easy enough to detach from global communities and focus just on your local ones, but if that's not an option? Then that's when this gets tricky. Building a community or trying to build a better community isn't exactly a task that everyone's up for. However, I hear this complaint leveraged against Warhammer frequently, "I don't play the game because the community is so toxic", etc. That's not the game's fault and I personally feel like it's a bad excuse. To use Warhammer again, the game is so popular that there are SEVERAL different communities you could join. To use a personal example, I grew very tired and drained of Infinity's global community, so I hunkered down and focused more on local groups and groups revolving around the factions I played. It's incredibly easy to find a group where you feel at home. Social media has made this incredibly easy to join and create communities, and I highly recommend you do! The real problem is if you don't have a great local community. I can't fault anyone for not playing a game if you don't have anyone fun to play it against. As I've mentioned before, this can be a self-fulfilling prophecy and I highly recommend you either encourage the better individuals of a toxic community to join a new one with you or to try your hand at running demos. I had a lot of fun running demos for Infinity before, but it is a lot of hard work.

A fantastic community on Facebook, a surprisingly great place to find gaming communities



Customization


Alright, now we're talking! Finally hitting one of our main tenants of a 'great game': customization. What I mean by 'customization' is the ability for the player to customize their play experience to their own wants. For example, this could simply be the ability to allow players to build their own forces or decks. It could also be for more complex things, like Battletech, where a player can customize their experience by including various rules or even growing your force using the official campaign system. Of course, this is kind of the baseline for a lot of games, but it's why I particularly enjoy tabletops. There are a lot of games (specifically boardgames) where you don't really get to customize your experience. It's already pre-packaged for your enjoyment and that's great. However, for me, the ability to customize the game experience is the main reason why I -enjoy- tabletop gaming and it's the degree of customization is definitely a factor in how positively I view a game. 

You can fit a whole lot of customization rules in this bad boy!



Take Star Wars: Legion. In that game you can customize your troops quite a bit from a modeling perspective and to a list perspective with all of the various upgrades that you can use to build out a list. Then you have the narrative or more competitive modes of play with the ability to easily tack on your own custom rules for campaigns or even linked games using X-Wing, Armada, etc. When you compare this to Infinity, where you can't customize what a model takes, but you can still pick and choose what you take in a list, you can see why Legion rates higher than Infinity for me and that's my bias showing. Being able to customize your lists down to upgrades is the main reason why I still play Games-Workshop games, even though I know they're the miniature gaming equivalent of junk food. With all of this customization, you're able to create a truly individualized experience, which leads us to the next point....


Individuality


Another huge part of what makes me truly enjoy a game is the ability for the player to truly create something unique. Being able to customize my gaming experience means nothing if I can't also make it genuinely mine. Again, I'm going to use Battletech for this example. There are so many options in Battletech that you can easily create a signature force for yourself using your favorite mechs. On top of that, you can create your own lore for your little force of mechs or, better yet, create your own mechs and mech loadouts. Hardly any Battletech player will use the exact same force as another, even if they are playing the same faction. It's another reason why I love cardgames a lot. It's so easy to make a deck feel like it's yours, no matter what game you're playing. Even if you're playing the same class or even investigator as another player in Akrham Horror the LCG, you both could easily play entirely different decks depending on your personal playstyles.

Just because a game allows you to customize your playing experience doesn't necessary make it your own. Wild West Exodus can have its problems with allowing players to make individualized forces using its posse system. Sometimes a posse can be diverse enough to allow players to really spice things up or it can be so rigid to the point where there's only one slot for customization and the rest will be the same mandatory 5 characters. In fact, a lot of miniature games are really bad about this because of poor balance or because of the way they require you to build lists or to build towards mission play. Warhammer 40,000 is a great example of a game that can lack in individuality when you want to build a solid army because of poor balance and Infinity is an example of a game that can lack it due to how you should try to maximize orders and fill up on specialists for most missions. 

Sorry, I don't have a clever segue for this next one, so let's just get straight to it!


Strong Theme


Now this one might seem a little out there, but I promise, it's -super- important. I honestly find it hard to get into a game if that game doesn't have a strong and unique aesthetic or feeling to it. Luckily a lot of games are pretty good at making their own IPs or borrowing other unique IPs for their games, but there are some games I just can't get into because I find the theme or aesthetic too weak. Deep Wars by Antimatter Games (link for those who've never heard of it) is a game that has always appealed to me since I first found out about it. The theme, background, and aesthetic alone entice me every single time I think about picking up a new game. When I was a teenager, the dark and gritty theme of 40k beckoned to me like a siren call. The fact that Wild West Exodus is a crazy and wild adventure through an alternate history is what really appealed to me. Arkham Horror the LCG being based off of Lovecraft's works drew me in and keeps me coming back. Plus, I'm a huge nerd for Star Wars, so of course Star War Legion got my attention (once they finally upped the quality of their sculpts). Lastly, Bot Wars (another link), a game I recently preordered the new starter set for, REALLY drew me in with that 80's cartoon theme. Having a strong theme is by far one of the best ways to get my attention and it's how I'm lured to games most of the time and how I keep feeling engrossed by them.

I mean, look, this game is literally dripping with theme


Every once and a while you see a game that crops up with that generic fantasy or sci-fi setting and it's really hard for me to feel engrossed enough to dive in. Or sometimes the game's theme is just interesting enough that it piques my curiosity, but never enough to really draw me in because its theme is a little lackluster. A lot of the time its because the aesthetic of the game pieces isn't strong enough or the backstory for the game is riddle with tropes. I think Summoner Wars is a great example of a game with just an interesting enough theme to draw me in, but it wasn't the main reason. If you look surface level at the game, you'll see a lot of your typical fantasy-tropes, but they do a good bit to play with those tropes. For example, in the new second edition set, they have Savannah Elves and Polar Dwarves. I don't think I've ever seen the idea of elves running around with lions and rhinos while dwarves force forts out of ice and use ice golems as walking forts before and it felt refreshing. Then you get your stereotypical holy knights and undead legions decks to bring it back to those fantasy trope roots. While the theme of Summoner Wars can be a little weak at times, I really fell in love with the game for all of the choices you have to make as a player and this brings us to the next section!


Meaningful Choices


This might actually be one of the most important things I look for in a game and it's probably one of the hardest things to parse out until you're already invested in it. Games offer players a ludicrous amount of choices, but a great game is one that can offer players choices that actually matter. What I mean by this is that you're provided with a set amount of things you can do or options that you can toss into your list or deck and most of those things/options are actually worth choosing. Games can be quite notorious for offering players with choices, but few of them are truly worth considering. If you've ever played a Games-Workshop game, then you know exactly what I'm talking about. If you've ever played Magic: the Gathering, then you also know what I'm talking about. The sign of a genuinely great game is when they can provide that list and make them all feel worth it or at least worth it in specific scenarios (note, I didn't say niche scenarios).

Probably one of the best examples I can think of for this are Star Wars: Legion and the boardgame Nemesis. Both of these games give players a stupid amount of choices to make with several options, but each of these options feel important or you'd understand why they'd be important in uncommon scenarios (again, not niche or rare). It's also why I have no problem calling either of them great games because they can provide you with meaningful choices. Of course, this can be a bit of a subjective matter, but it's no doubt a main factor into what makes me consider a game great or not. It's why 40k and Age of Sigmar will probably never be great in my eyes and it's why Infinity teeters on the fence for me. Sure, you're provided a fair amount of meaningful choices while playing the game (sometimes too many), but the game really struggles to provide meaningful choices during list building. You can have so many profiles and units, but so few of them are actually ever taken. In fact, Infinity almost has too much depth for its own good and that can hurt its ability to provide meaningful choices because a lot of the options overlap and this is why we have our last section.


Depth Within Limits


Alright, now this might be the most subjective and hardest to convey, but here it goes. This criteria means that a game needs to know when is too much and to understand that it can't be everything, but it still needs to be able to have some depth. Marvel: Crisis Protocol is an excellent example of a game that isn't too deep, but still has depth within limits. The game sells itself on a simple game system and layers complexity on top of it with unique character abilities. However, it doesn't get too crazy with this by staying within its simple framework and slightly tweaking the same abilities to make them somewhat unique for each character. A lot of characters will have a throw terrain and/or enemy models ability. All characters have a basic attack to help generate power and almost all of them can generate power equivalent to the damage dealt. Dropzone Commander is a game that's actually really deep, but stays within its limits by not going too crazy. There's so much to manage and understand in Dropzone as list building can be a little hectic trying to make sure you have units to take on each role as well as ways to get them on the table. Then each faction maintains individuality by adding their own ways to play and rules for added depth. The last prime example I have of depth with limits is Star Wars: Legion again. There are so many layers to the game, it can be really daunting when you get into it. From the bid for first player, list building, upgrades, how to issue orders, and even building your mission decks, but it doesn't go crazy with it. Sure, it can sometimes really push those limits with the dizzying amount of upgrades and keywords, but it does so with purpose. All of these parts add up to make an interesting metagame that adds layers of depth and complexity that feel like they add to the game rather than hamper it.

Example of a Dropzone Commander list


However, you can easily go over the edge with this. Infinity N3 was a prime example of this. You can just look at the hacking alone to see how ridiculous they got with the depth. Several of the hacking abilities severely overlapped with each other and provided very little in distinct options, primarily being offered for super niche cases. Then you could look at all of the different weapon types as another example. I would still argue that Infinity struggles with knowing its limits and pushing these too far, but not nearly as bad as N3. 40k is another game that struggles with this. I've been playing Adepta Sororitas lately and wow. They are a pretty deep army, but it doesn't always feel like it's adding to my experience. You have all of the faction rules, subfaction rules, warlord trais (with specific subfaction ones), relics (again, specific subfaction ones), divine blessing upgrades, all of the strategems to remember during the game, secondary objectives to pick before you start playing (with options that your own faction offers) and, of course, just building the list and understanding what all of your models do as well as the base rules. Sometimes I feel like I'm back in grad school having to study all of the rules, combos, and synergies to make the most out of my army. I don't always feel like all of these additional rules really add to my enjoyment of the game and, in fact, I feel they hinder it most of the time. Age of Sigmar 3.0 is a prime example of this too. Adding in all of these additional rules to the Core Rules when compared to 2.0 makes me wonder how much of this depth was necessary and how much will push those limits.


Conclusion


 I hope this helps explain how I like to evaluate a game and how my biases can impact how I feel towards certain games. Now we all know if a game has a killer theme, I'll probably rate it higher than a game that's perfectly balanced...I kid! But seriously, these five things are really important to me when I decide on what games to get or what makes one game better than another in my eyes. These are the reasons why I confidently say that Star Wars: Legion is my favorite game of all time and why games like Dropzone Commander, Battletech, Nemesis, Bushido, Arkham Horror the LCG, and Wild West Exodus are also great games. By extension, it's why I don't consider Age of Sigmar, 40k, Fallout: Wasteland Warfare, and Infinity great games in my eyes. Sure, I enjoy them, but they aren't great by my standards for several reasons. This is also why I don't really talk about communities, balance, or affordability when I'm reviewing a game unless I think it's utterly important to mention.

Just like any other person, I have my own biases and guidelines I use when I evaluated a game. Now these have been clearly laid out, so hopefully you can have a better understand of my 'critic framework' when I write future reviews. As stated in the intro, I think it's always important to understand where someone's coming from to truly understand their opinions. Now you have a rough idea of how I form my opinions when I critique a game (although I didn't provide any of the weight to the measures or order of importance, but you get the point) and this will help you understand why I love the games I do and have a love-hate relationship with other ones. 

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