Play It Again

I have said it before and I will say it again. Most game designers are avid gamers themselves. Many have game libraries that would keep you busy for weeks. Much to my wife’s dismay, my game collection now spans the entry room outside of my office, three large shelves in the garage, the armoire in the guestroom, and 8 shelves in the closets downstairs. Added together there are a lot of games.

While this may be a big collection, most of them never leave the shelves. There are a number of the games that I have not played in years, and there are probably 20 or so I have never played. One of the many perks of being in the field is that you often get free stuff from game companies. I also make it a point to pick up copies of popular board games to analyze them to see if there are any interesting mechanics that I can potentially use in future projects. It is hard to invent the wheel these days, and most games are merely new combinations of existing mechanics with various flavors thrown on. They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and game designers, while arrogant, are more than happy to flatter in this way. Almost every designer if asked about a particular game will cite prior references that influenced their work on that particular project.

I rate games on a 10 point replay scale. If your game is not at least a 6 to 7 on the scale, it will probably end up on the shelf after one play. It is important to note that I will usually rate the scale based on who I believe the target audience for the game will be. While I personally consider Tic-Tac-Toe to be a classic example of a 1 replay value game, for beginning gamers in the 3-6 age range, it is probably a 3-4.

Market research on games is a very mixed bag. You really need to be clear on your objectives and methods to get anything useful out of market research for games. This is especially true if you are going for a younger demographic. Getting information out of 8-12 year olds is hard. Getting information out of 5-7 year olds is rocket science. You really have to watch the kids closely and figure out whether they are actually having fun, and suspend whatever investment you have in the project when you do that or you will start to see positive signs that may not be there.

If you design spec core hobby games, the market research test is quite easy. Inflict your game on, err, I mean play your game with one of your gaming groups or on a group that resembles who you think will be buying and playing your game. Note any comments and suggestions, but they are not critical at this stage. The real test is after the first game is over. If the group wants to play again, you may have a successful game on your hands. If the group does not seem particularly excited to play the game again, your game probably needs a lot more work, even if they gush about how much they loved the game. An even better predictor is if you play a few games the first night and they ask you to play it again another night. Then you not only have a reasonable game, you have a potential hit. Another good metric is whether the criticism is focused or all over the board. When games are weaker, the criticisms tend to be vaguer, such as “It was too long.” Or “I didn’t feel I could catch up.” When the game is stronger, you get more specific criticisms like “The Mutated Zombie Jelly should be able to attack two targets.” When your playtesters feel engaged with the game, they tend to start analyzing specific elements and go beyond the basic “It was fun.” type of comments.

Trading card games tend to rate highly on the replay scale. I rate Magic a high 9 and many players rate it a 10 on replay value. This is mostly due to the fact that almost every game is different, even when playing with the same decks, and because there are so many game pieces with all the cards in dozens of sets, there are an amazingly high number of permutations in decks and play. The only games I have rated as a 10 are online MMORPG’s, which have the ability to suck endless hours away from the poor slobs that get addicted to them (AKA readers of these columns) . When your played time on a game is measured in days played, it probably has a high replay value.

For board games I have an easy way to approximate the scale. If the game is still in the shrink wrap, it is probably a game that I liked when I played it at a con or with a gaming group, but probably has a replay value of 5 or less. This is not a completely accurate metric, since many players buy games to “have” them in case they ever get separated from their gaming groups, where they often play with the copy of the person at the house they go to.

For board games, if I have played the game 3 or 4 times, I give it a 6. Over 5 times it is probably a 7 or higher on the replay index. I prefer shorter board games that play in less than 2 hours and while there are some gamers that like longer board games, I feel I am in the majority on this preference. If a game takes 2 hours or more, it almost automatically gets knocked down in replay value since it now requires a significant time commitment for a group of players to play. I recently played Dungeon Lords, which I enjoyed, but it will probably be a while before I play it again because of the game length, which is well over 2 hours for a 4 player game. If it was a shorter game like Space Alert, I might rate it a 7 or an 8 on the replay index, but with the long game length I drop the replay rating. For a game rating, my rating would be higher since it has several clever mechanics and is quite fun to play, but game length often knocks games out from being played, as anyone that has tried to get an impromptu Titan game together can attest to. A lot of longer games will often have higher ratings for this reason, since it takes you much longer to play the 6 to 10 games that will tell you whether the game diversity is really there or whether you are just still at the learning curve stage because the game has high complexity. Games with a large amount of complexity can often seem to have a higher replay value when really they just have a higher learning curve to master the game basics.

I am satisfied if I get 5 plays out of a game. I feel it was well worth the purchase at that point. Above that is just gravy.

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