If one can utilize objective criticism for critiquing and/or ranking films and video games (let alone novels), one should be able to do it for board games. The biggest difference between board games and the other stuff just mentioned, is that board games require other human players to play with. That is… if you don’t count solitaire board games, games with automa, and games that utilize an app (the latter of which basically means you’re basically playing a videogame at that point). For the purposes of this subject, I’m strictly referring to actual physical board games, with no apps or electronic devices of any kind incorporated into the game (I know this would leave out cult classics like Dark Tower, but tough shit); and games that require at least 2 human players in-person. And from this point on, whenever I mention “game,” I’m referring to board games (though it’s possible this can be extended to videogames as well, in some cases).
I know what some of you are thinking. The primary reason anyone plays a board game is to have fun. And fun cannot be used for rating games objectively, because “fun” by its very definition and nature is subjective. “I play to have fun.” It’s the most pretentious criticism anyone can make against the method of objective criticism for board games. Everyone plays board games to have fun (assholes who just want to bitch and moan about a specific game prior to even playing it excluded). But determining if a game is good or bad can determine the likelihood for how long a game can remain fun (ie determine the game’s longevity). The number of sessions, the number of hours. And determining if a game is good or bad has nothing to do with how fun the game is.
It’s necessary to get this point out of the way before continuing: you can enjoy a good game, and you can enjoy a bad game; just as you can enjoy a good movie, and a bad movie. This is why “fun” isn’t a factor for determining if a game is good or bad. Depending on the individual and the group he plays with, a bad game can be just as fun as a good game. Better yet, just because you find a specific game to be loads of fun doesn’t mean others will. Just about anyone who has seen the films Plan 9 From Outer Space, or Troll 2, or The Room, or Birdemic, will acknowledge that those are bad films, regardless of how much fun they have watching them. They know those films are bad due to a combination of poor directing, low budget that isn’t utilized well, bad acting, ridiculous plot, bad editing, poor music, etc. The situation is somewhat similar for board games, except with different factors.
Objective criticism can be used to determine if a game is good or bad. And the best way to determine how good or bad a game is is by determining how many significant choices a player has. For example, games like LCR and Candyland, have no decision-making to them whatsoever. In my opinion, that should disqualify them as games, as they don’t meet the definition of “game” as I understand it. So it’s at this point I should point out how “game” is defined in this context.
- a physical or mental competition conducted according to rules with the participants in direct opposition to each other
- the manner of playing in a contest
- any activity undertaken or regarded as a contest involving rivalry, strategy, or struggle (source for this and the prior 2 definitions)
- An organized athletic program or contest
- An active interest or pursuit, especially one involving competitive engagement or adherence to rules (source for this and the prior definition)
- a physical or mental activity or contest that has rules and that people do for pleasure (source)
Gaming is a contest between two or more people, a contest that follows a set of rules laid out by the rulebook (and possible errata and house rules that address situations the rulebook may not have a clear ruling on). And any good contest allows for all participating players to be competitive with one another, and to have a fair chance at winning before the first move is made. You know a contest is good if there is a tier listing of players. Those who have won more often then others on a consistent basis, indicating skill is involved. And some players are more skilled than others, thus are more likely to win compared to others.
In order for there to be skill in a game, there must be decisions to be made. At least two decisions per move (DPM). But what if the decisions are obvious? You know, like in Tic-Tac-Toe, after playing it a few times. Players can eventually get good enough to play that game to a draw, because they’ve memorized which move (or possible set of moves) to make in response to what the opponent did, guaranteeing that, at the very least, they won’t lose. That’s a game that only has two tier levels: those who know how to play to a draw, and those who don’t. Yet there’s at least 2 DPM for the length of the entire game (save for the last move, if it ever gets that far). Is it that the game needs more than 2 DPM in order to be good? How much more?
No. There’s decisions per move, and then there’s significant decisions per move (SDPM). The difference between DPM and SDPM is that the former lists every possible move a player can make on his turn, while the latter primarily states what every possible good move a player can make on his turn. A good move being one that can actually get him closer to winning in the short or long term. For example, with tic-tac-toe, there are 9 DPM at the start of the game. But factor in the symmetrical nature of the board, then it becomes apparent that there’s only 3 SDPM (at best) that a player can make at the start of the game (the center, a corner, and a side). Once the first move has been made, at best, there’s only 2 SDPM from that point on, and by the 3rd move it’s likely reduced to 1 SDPM, permanently. Even though the DPM decreases once each move. The skill comes in being capable of separating the SDPM from the DPM, thus knowing what the optimal moves to make are. And since it doesn’t take much skill to know what the SDPM is for tic-tac-toe, and knowing that it gets reduced to 1 very quickly, that ultimately makes it a bad game.
Objectively rating/critiquing a game is only feasible if taking the game into consideration for a serious competitive setting. A tournament setting. With players who take the game, the rules, and the strategy/tactics seriously. Players who want to have their skills tested and improved. This can only be done with a game that manages to have 2 SDPM for a significant portion of its length. Doesn’t have to be every turn, just the majority of turns. There has to be plenty of DPM to shift through before finding out what the SDPM are amidst them. The skill comes in recognizing the SDPM among the DPM. The more deep and complex the game, the more SDPM there will be each turn.
The other aspect of tic-tac-toe that makes it a bad game is that there isn’t enough DPM to even allow for play-styles, let alone enough SDPM. The 3 SDPM at the start of the game is mostly irrelevant, especially when one can still play to a draw even without making any of those moves (assuming it’s the first move of the game). With something like Chess, that’s a different story entirely. There is enough SDPM at the game’s start, particularly with the first 4 moves each player makes (ie the opening moves) that it allows for there to be play styles. Focusing more in the center with pawn advancement, or more to the left or right sides (king or queen sides). This allows for different methods of engaging the opponent. The distinction of styles is easy to spot if the board setup isn’t symmetrical (the king and queen pieces ensure that). But a game doesn’t need that kind of asymmetry to allow for play styles either. Go, for instance, starts with a symmetrical board, and it could remain symmetrical for the first few moves if players allow it to go that way. But playstyles can still emerge from the number of possible moves, such as favoring the center, the sides, or the corners.
That being said, a game doesn’t necessarily need a high SDPM in order to be considered good. Some would argue there could be too many SDPM. If that is the case, that’s a subject for another time. You have to remember that the point of a competition is for human players to test their skills against each other. The game itself is just something that lets the competition have components and rules of a certain nature the players (hopefully) find appealing. There has to be enough SDPM for there to be multiple ways to respond to a move that someone made. Some could be better or worse than others, but they are all generally good moves that offer a pathway to victory (one could be a bad move, but it appears good due to bluffing, which could in turn cause the opponent to make a bad move).
Granted, it’s possible for a game that is once considered good to become bad if humans evolve enough mentally to memorize enough of the moves to know how to properly counter everything, thus making something like Chess to become a bad game. I doubt that’s going to happen anytime soon, given that Chess is a game where the number of DPM and SDPM to memorize would cause the average human brain to reach max capacity (or so I’ve heard). And then there’s the issue of computers being smarter than people, but that’s also something I’d rather not get into, given that board games are primarily used to interact with other humans. At best, computers should be used for practice (whether they’re better than the player’s potential human opponent is irrelevant).
Determining how good a game is based on these factors (and how luck comes into play with various dice rolls and card plays) can’t be done in a generalized way that addresses a great portion of games. Each game must be analyzed and critiqued on its own merits, on a case-by-case basis. Each game is a case study for how in-depth the SDPM goes. And if the game allows for negotiation and deal-making between players (like Monopoly does, believe it or not), well that’s a can of worms best suited for a separate post.
So what’s the point of stating if a game is good or bad if having fun with it is irrelevant to it being good or bad? Because there are board gamers who do find it relevant. Those who don’t just want to have fun, but want to have a game that tests their skills against others. Or better yet, those who have fun by playing good games, games that do allow for plenty of skill. Games suited for tournament play that can have rankings, including consistent winners (because they’re that good). Because there are those types of players, who aren’t just casual board gamers, who should have that kind of benefit in this hobby. If gaming is for everyone, then that group should have rankings that reflect those types of analyses. Objective analyses that determine if a game is good or bad, and if it’s good, how good. So that newcomers, and veterans, can see how such determinations were reached, which will help them determine if this is the game for them. If this is a game they want to be involved in heavily enough to be competitors in it. All the other casual board gamers can pay it no mind and stick with the more subjective superficial descriptions.