What Makes a Good Game?


It is much easier to say what is a bad game than what is a good game. Why is that? Why is it much easier to turn people off to a game than to turn them on? Is it really like winning the lottery or catching lightning in a bottle?

What makes a good game?

This question might be as hard to answer as "Define Fun?". Yes, it's very easy to give examples of good games -- consider Halo and Magic: The Gathering, to name two easy examples. But without working up much of a sweat I'm sure I could find people who hate either or both of these examples.

...clearly we're not talking about an exact science.

Examples of good or fun games are out there but they don't really answer the question. Two video game titles I produced were turned down by other equally qualified Producers as being junk, or unsolvable. They didn't see the "fun" or how either game would be a big seller. They were dead wrong: one sold 750,000 copies and the other won Game of the Year from two magazines. So clearly we're not talking about an exact science.

Often I have been part of "submission evaluation". This means I get to look at all the crazy stuff sent in to publishers. Most of the stuff is silly, non-publishable ramblings that always end with "my friends think this is great".

My two best examples of this are "SludgeMaster" and "Chase". In SludgeMaster, presented to Broderbund, you are the controller of a sewage treatment plant. Your job is to channel the "sludge" through the correct pipes so that it would be treated and turned into drinkable water. This was a product that cried out for "scratch & sniff", but it was not to be.

The second example is more typical. This was a two page submission to SEGA from a father and son. It read in part: "The player gets in a car, the Genesis controlled car takes off and the player car chases it". I can't exactly remember how they stretched that to two pages, but they did.

From every bad idea, there can come a great idea.

Both companies' policy at the time was to not respond to submissions that were not going to be produced. I think that's always the wrong policy. From every bad idea, there can come a great idea.

Recently I had a contract with a board game company to produce a game using their established format. I created a game based on fears or nightmares. Basically, I interviewed about 50 people and took notes on what scares them. Although they don't bother me some people are very scared of clowns, and spiders give me the willies, so both of these concepts were incorporated into the game.

I went on vacation for a week and when I came back another designer had added a card: "The Police officer grabs the young black man in a headlock and holds his Glock to the young man's head". I'm not sure how this designer felt this was a "common fear". Although the idea of some other designer adding needless violence to one of my games IS one of my nightmares, I really don't think the general public has this fear.

The designer said to me, as a way of defending his card: "There's violence everywhere". Which implies that violence equals fun, and adding this card would make the game more fun. Which leads to the sub question of our topic: "Why do people play games?"

I believe people play games to get away from the humdrum, and violence, of real life. That doesn't mean my games aren't violent -- they just don't depict violence the way you see it in the news. We can't get away from violence, but we can defocus it so that violence isn't the main goal. Let's remember that in Magic: The Gathering the goal is to kill the other wizard by lowering his life points from 20 to 0. In most D&D combat situations, the NPCs die, sometimes horribly.

So an acceptable amount of violence, depicted in a correct manner, does not take away from a game, but it doesn't automatically make it good, fun game to play. There are plenty of examples of good games where there is no violence at all. Settlers of Catan is great example; there are armies, but no war is required to win.

...part of what makes a game "good" is personal preference.

I think we can say that part of what makes a game "good" is personal preference. But really, only part. Most people have a genre that they just don't like, for whatever reason. I think we could go so far as to say that a larger percentage of people who play games can determine that a game is "bad," than will agree a game is "good".

After 25 years of making games I can play a game, video or paper, and know if it's a fun game within a few minutes. Some people must play the entire game to know for sure. I think it's like people who read movie script submissions at the major studios -- the script has to hook them in the first 3 minutes. Games are the same way for me: I'll give you 3 minutes, but if I'm not motivated to keep playing, I move on.

Games don't have to have a lot of "fiddly bits", as one designer puts it, to be good. They do need to have qualities that make sense. If in D&D I am in a sword battle and the NPC pulls out a BFG Rocket Launcher, I think there's a leap in "sense" that I'm not willing to make. Every time you ask your audience to suspend their belief system, you risk losing the game players who forked over their hard earned cash. The more their belief system is stretched, the more likely it is to snap, and then you have a game few will play.

As a game designer, we can't look at all the negatives as a method towards deciding if our game is "good". If we were to take that path, we'd end up with the melba toast of games, a game that doesn't offend us, but won't excite us much either. As a matter of fact, we can accept a few negatives, if the positive side outweighs it.

To answer the question, then, is to really not answer it. Given time we can more easily define what makes a bad game, but what is left over isn't necessarily a good game. Game design is not like cutting fat from a steak, it's about redefining what a steak is.

I'd like to challenge you to play your favorite games, try a couple of new ones, and then write me and tell me what you found to be fat, and what you found to be steak in each game.

Mac Senour is a 25 year veteran of both paper and video game development. He can be reached through his podcast site, "about (making) games", at host at aboutmakinggames dot com

Hey, I'm totally willing to give your idea a shot...It's just that I don't want to spend my hard-earned cash on games which I might not call "good" after playing them.
So, any suggestions about really, really good games I should try? (especially board games and such)

Another note: I think a common denominator of good games is so obvious, it doesn't get mentioned often. It's the ability to engage the player(s), drawing them in and keeping them interested; This might be facilitated using different things for different players, but it's still fundamental to all games.

I think that game aspects I consider in being a good or poor game is
1) Mechanics or interface: How easy are the rules for tabletop or traditional RPGs, and how intuitive is the play for electronic games. A great story with dynamic characters and development will lose me if I cna't figure out EASILY how to communicate or attack or figure out my goal. If every turn requires looking up a rule, then cross-referencing a chart and figuring out which die to use, it is rapidly sliding off the interest scale. Linear or even binary path board games with everything relying on die rolls is also out.
2) Variability and replayability: Many fo the CRPGs actually do this to some extent, making different missions for different character types (even is the type is by alignment) OTOH first-person shooters frex are the same (more or less) each time. Most CCGs also fail here, into the my opponent is playing X, I will play Y.
3) Set up time and learning curve: How long does it take from opening the box to a beginner making his own choices without a veteran giving choices. A lot of the miniatures games lose me here as do anything where I MUST design a ship or battlebot or whatever. If a player cannot be ready to go in 10 minutes, forget it. If it takes archtypes or premade decks to do this, fine, but make a fast-start option.

I realize a lot of this os the DON'T list, not a DO list, but these are the things I look at. And these will not suck me into a game, but will get me to consider purchasing it or playing again.

Things that I don't consider:
1) Art: I'm buting for content. If a 256 page game book is 80 pages of art, Im not buying. Cover art might get me to look, but don't blow the budget there.
2) Poor past performance. Companies make stinkers sometimes. I am very forgiving. However, if a game says using "suckmaster rules" its not happening. Contrarily, Great past performance will encourage my interest.
3) Genre: I know a lot of people look here first. My wife doesn't like space games, etc. I thought nothing could be as boring as steam boat racing, but I positively love Mississippi Queen.

As a note to Zipdrive; Hit the local game conventions. Demos are often free in the dealers rooms or low cost events. Additionally, the games may be available for reduced cost at the con. Personally, I give away copies of games to the winner of my demos. Also Con auctions may allow purchase of games at cut rate costs. If the game isn't to your liking, sell it at the next con.


Both comments are great! Zipdrive is correct that engaging a player is often overlooked. I think that might be because, like "fun", it is hard to know what will engage the player.

Whutguy is right that his list is more of a NO list than a YES list. This supports my comment that we can much easier decide we don't like a game than deciding that we DO like a game. There are always exceptions, like Mississippi Queen.

With video games I always tell my friends to look at the screen shots on the back of the box and ask yourself: "Can I play this game from that angle?". If the answer is no, then you're looking at a movie or cut scene rather than game play. If there are no gameplay screen shots, that means the publisher thinks you won't be impressed by them. And if they can't impress you with a screen shot, you might not like the game visually.

Zipdrive, Whutaguy is correct that you don't have to BUY games to try them. Once the weather is nicer you'll find that small game conventions are held almost every weekend. If you're not local to one, try a game store. I'll bet they have game demos running 2 or 3 times a week.

Keep the comments coming!

Does anyone remember Year of the Phoenix? It was a roleplaying game that came out back in the day so to speak. '85 or '86 I think. It kind of exemplified what made a bad game in my mind. All rules and other issues aside, it made one critical error...it dated itself. How relevant is a game that deals with a future where the Commies have taken over America? Surely the game had a few people interested back when it came out, but in 2006 it must look pretty silly on those peoples shelves.

Paranoia, however, manages to make this work. Through using humour the game doesn't seem dated, even now. I guess if you want to be taken seriously, you can't be too serious when it comes to dealing with issues such as this.

As for what makes a *good* game...when it comes to RPGs I'd have to say flexibility is the main thing that I look at. To use the d20 rules system (the rules themselves, not D&D specifically) as an example, I can run pretty much whatever I want using it. That's likely the reason that GURPS has so many supporters as well. Those seem to be the two that come up the most often, and despite the problems that we could list for each of those systems they offer one critical thing that many other "game engines" do not...flexibility and choice for those using them to run the adventures they want, rather than the ones that the writers had in mind when they designed the system. I hate implied settings...

I wanted to point out a few things:

First, Scott, what's wrong with a communist US? True, it's not a threat or a probable future, but it's a playable "alternate earth" setting just like Paranoia, IMO.

Second, over here there are only 1-2 cons per year, and they usually take place during holidays and school vacations (i.e. when normal, working people are, well, working).
The few hobby shops I've seen don't have demos going on or open boxes to browse through. :(

Third, I have noticed that games that are designed as "funny" like Munchkin or Grave Robbers from Outer Space lose their built-in laughs over time like a joke told too many times; You're then left with just the game mechanics themselves, which aren't always up to scratch.

what are your personal favourites? and let's try and stay out of RPGs for this discussion.

In Year of the Phoenix it's more than just a Communist US...it really plays up the evils of Russia and Communism. True, it's a playable alternate reality...but one that lost it's signifigance to north american culture long ago. I guess my real issue with that particular game was the context...the Commies were the "evil mass enemy" that orcs usually are in a fantasy setting, and the more time passes the sillier that seems to me. In Paranoia, it's *supposed* to be silly...and so it's relevance hangs on in a tongue in cheek sort of way. I see your point though...

For Zipdrive (who is overwhere?)
My top games: which mostly fit my criteria above
Fluxx - Looney Labs
Mississipi Queen - Gold Sieber Spiele/RioGrande
Rails Games - Mayfair (EuroRails, Empire Builder. etc.)
RoboRally - WotC (recently reprinted)
Catan Series - Mayfair
Strange Synergy - Steve Jackson Games

For all
I don't think there is a formula or standard by which a game can be made "fun". If there were, that's all that would be published. The people playing the game are fun (mostly). They are fun because they are playing a game. If they weren't fun, they wouldn't be playing. (Side note: If you nagged them into playing, they aren't fun and you probably aren't fun to them). I do think that a game has the potential to be unfun (dis-fin? anti-fun? de-fun-ifying?) and these are the properties I discussed (and others I'm certain. Individual results may vary).

ThatMcGuy had a great point regarding screenshots and game quality. Fortunately for me, my electronic game time is minimal, so I can fill it with only the best and don't need to use crap.


Gosh. This is a tough one to answer in general terms. You said yourself that for any given game, more gamers will be inclined to think it is 'bad' than 'good'. Hence gamers, although they have a common language and culture, have disparate preferences in gaming style. Which is why we argue so much!

Issues of whether a game is good or not can go further than simply how many people will go out and buy it. From a commercial perspective a games' saleability is naturally the most important criteria. However, commercially, a gaming group who finds one game they really enjoy and then they stick with it for years and years and years is a disaster! However, they themselves would all agree that the game is good. The only way to farm them for their cash then is to keep producing supplements. And hope they keep buying. If they are 'home-brewers' who don't like supplements (see Sifolis' thread on this) then the game manufacturer is stuffed.

I guess the only answer I can give is from a purely personal perspective. Mostly, I like RPGs. I play the occasional board game. I simply don't play CCGs.

From the RPG angle, what do I enjoy in a game? Well, this is tricky, because about 4/5ths of my enjoyment comes from the referee's efforts to make the game enjoyable, and 1/5th comes from the rules. And different referees find it easier to run games with one ruleset than with another. I honestly wouldn't say that one set of rules is absolutely better than another; it really does boil down to an interaction between the rules and the referee and whether these two elements 'gel' to create a believable and absorbing alternate reality.

Anyhow, here's my list of what makes a game for me. You might say that, the more of this stuff you can cram into a game system without making it unweildy, the better:

- Ability to personalise your character in a unique fashion with traits that are exclusive to them, and unlikely to be acquired by the other player characters, so that they have a niche that only they can fill.

- Being able to 'zoom in' on detail when I want to, or alternatively just brush over the details if this is not desired. An example would be combat mechanics. Sometimes I want to know the grisly blow-by-blow details; other times I just don't care and am happy for the details to remain abstract.

- A balance of high and low adventure (saving the world vs bar room brawl - I want both)

- Grounded in realism. I am not keen on absurdity. Call me old-fashioned, but there's nothing I hate more than all the 'chaos spikiness' of the post-Warhammer game culture. Don't wear a helmet with great big bastard horns on it, if *they* don't break then your *neck* will the first time someone lands one on your noggin.

- Tension and atmosphere. An element of risk. Again, these things are mostly up to the referee to provide, but they need to be facilitated by the rules as a focal point for the game. In most RPGs the risk element is often provided by combat, but it ain't necessarily so. I'm currently playing a GURPS character who is a non-combatant (technically he can fire a pistol but not very well and he only does so if pressed) and the risk element is provided by potentially disatrous consequences (to the party) of failing his skill rolls.

- Prizes to be gained. These could be material in nature, or they could be medals, or social status, or romantic conquests.

So there you have it. Oh, and I like nice pictures, too.

First, I'm from a galaxy far far away (errr...or at least a continent far far away)

Second, I do own fluxx, and while it can be fun to play, the lack of theme and the arbitrariness of the rules (which is accentuated by their quick changing) detracts from the experience in my eyes.

I was thinking of buying Roborally (which I think is from Avalon Hill rather than WotC) and I was wondering if it's really playable with just 2 players (which is something most games made for multiple players suck at).

P.S: how about non-fun?

Roborally (which I think is from Avalon Hill rather than WotC)
My copy is WotC (It may be AH now but its all under the giant hasbro umbrella). With 2 players, the game is primarily player vs. board. As the number of players increases, so the the game "messiness". One begins to have less control over the environment, timing stategy (the order bots move) becomes more important.

As for non-fun, I don't think that quite appropriate for my thought. Non-fun implies 0 fun. Many games have negative fun value. In general these are games that subscribe to 2 or more of my bad game criteria. Just one fault, I can deal with.

As for Fluxx, it is a quickly learned, quickly set-up game, with simple rules, and (sometimes) complex, yet (generally) short term strategy. I would not invite poeple over for an evening of Fluxx, but think it fills in nicely while waiting for our last guest to arrive.

Most game definitely have an optimal number of players and many suck outside that range. We generally try to play games where our number of players falls in the upper 1/3 of the "# of players" range.


My favorite board game right now is Xanth the Game. Me and the fiance turned it into a drinking game, and man does it get messy! It's fun, lighthearted, and can be played for as short or long a duration as you please. I don't even know if we have ever finished a game, to tell the truth. Other than the portion we added on our own, what makes it so good? It's fun. What makes it fun? The people you play it with. Plain and simple. I don't think it would be half the game I seem to think it is if I had to play with my high school principal, my ex-girlfriend, and my deadbeat dad.

question is, would it still be fun when sober? :)

Have any of you tried Kill Doctor Lucky? it's a Cheapass game which is quite fun & funny with more than 2 people. It's like The Clue in reverse

- reading a signature is silly -

we'd end up with the melba toast of games

I think perhaps you mean "milquetoast"... or not. Melba toast is pretty plain too. : )

Anyway, I have to throw my vote to Settlers of Catan. It's one of the best strategy board games around and *always* plays different every game (but it does require 3 players). I haven't player the two-player Catan card game, but my friends like it.

Roborally -- Avalon Hill was acqired by Hasbro so it is now published under the WotC banner.

AAARRRGHH!! Don't you people read.

1994 WotC releases RoboRally
2005 Avalon Hill (a property of Hasbro which also owns WotC) revamps and releases RoboRally.

FWIW AH is Hasbros boardgame line, where WotC is RPG and CCGs.

LOL...we haven't played it in it's standard form in so long, that it's now hard to say. Probably not, to tell you the truth...but it must have been at some point, or we wouldn't have got into it in the first place.

Interesting though...our true nature as roleplayers first and foremost shines thorugh when it comes to board games. Me and the fiance's first instinct when we get a new game is to find ways to start tweaking it to "make it more our own". So I suppose I should add that to my list of things that make a good game...customization. I have a hard time playing any game that can't be changed in some way down the road. That's my problem with video games in general...I can't make it do what I want it to, and I have to learn the rules ;)

I spent alot of time palying Talisman back in the day. I mean waaaay back in the day when it wasn't the Talisman that it is now.