Let’s face it, whilst I like playing board games, I’m not that good at them. It often takes me several plays to get even basic strategies, and a LOT of practice to get good. My gaming group are mostly a LOT better at them than I am. So I lose. Frequently.
Accordingly, I really value a game that it’s enjoyable for me to lose. So, what does that mean?
1: No player elimination. This one’s fairly obvious; I really don’t like a game where the person behind (or anyone for that matter), can just be knocked out of the game, without any means to recover. It sucks when it happens, in any game, but especially in a mid-length game during a long afternoon, where it’s not clear whether it’s worth sticking around until the end because something else might be played.
2: Limited kingmaking ability. I really dislike being behind, and having my only options be ones which will benefit one or other opponent more, and make them win. One of my group likes threatening in these games – if you screw me now, I will make it my business to take you with me, to the exclusion of all else including victory. I don’t like games that allow that. So, targeted attacks are difficult, as are games where it’s really obvious what each player’s best options are (i.e. ones which lack any hidden information), and where it’s easy to then screw with someone just by doing a single thing. I have to say, this is a very difficult thing to avoid with any player count other than two in competitive games, because in those games what you do ALWAYS impacts what other people can do, purely by playing a competitive game with four players. But it’s certainly possible to make it harder to mess with people.
3: No death spiralling. This one’s important, and can really ruin an otherwise very enjoyable game – when early in the game, a single player can be easily prevented from accessing a critical resource, particularly early on, and then has to either resign – see point 1 – or spend the next 2 hours watching the game screw them over due to the lack. Often, this is actions in games where extra actions can be bought, or workers in WP games. In some cases, it’s resources, particularly in bidding games. If you get behind in money and money is how you get ahead, it can result in you never getting ahead.
4: No doing less because you’re losing. AKA, no de facto player elimination, as opposed to point 1. This is probably the one with the highest ratio of importance to obviousness – I only really came to the realisation recently, and I’ve not really seen it mentioned anywhere else. It’s kind of covered under all the others but it bears pointing out specifically – it’s important that you don’t have less to do just because you’re losing. It’s important that to me even when you’re losing, you still feel like you have an engine to fiddle with, parts to reposition and optimise, about the same number of actions to take to improve your score as everyone else, *things to do*. I really dislike games where, because I’m losing, my turn is ‘I do three things for no points and I’m done’ and the leader’s takes twenty minutes and involves doing fifteen things and jumping ahead another 30 points. Which brings me on to…
5: Discreet rubber-banding mechanisms. This kind of falls under points 3 and 4, but it’s the inverse – the game should have some means for those behind to have a chance to catch up. This is perhaps most elegantly demonstrated in Dominion – you get the engine going, then you gunge it up with victory cards, and it slows down, so the people behind might have a chance to get back into competition and even out luck spikes, or for their slower but more reliable strategy to pay off. Runaway victors can be just as bad as death spirals, and good rubberbanding mechanics aren’t obvious, but make for nail-biting finishes where it’s really not clear who’s winning.
It’s worth pointing out, by the way, that a lot of these are flexible; a lot of games can manage when only one or two of them are violated (Through the Ages springs to mind and hits a lot of potential low points, as do a number of co-op games), and the number of them that are violated can increase the shorter and less serious a game is. I’m fine with player elimination in Bang!, Guillotine, Love Letter, or other quick party-style games because the next round will start in a couple of minutes, and they’re entertaining to watch played anyway. I don’t care if there’s a runaway leader in The Big Idea because it means that someone’s being funny and interesting, and the group’s enjoying it so who cares who it is. But if I’m half an hour into a 3 to 4 hour game of Nations and I’m the only one without any stability or food buildings, I know at that point I’m quite unlikely to pull back the early deficit, but I can’t leave easily because that messes with the game for everyone else. So I either suffer in misery, or I ask for the whole game to finish…
Overall, there’s a lot of repetition here, so congratulations if you’ve made it this far. Just one more, I promise… Make it fun for the losers, as well as for the winner. Fun is a dirty word in reviewing, I grant you, but it’s the one I’m using, so there – there are a tonne of ways to do it well, and a tonne of ways to do it badly, but do it. Make those who are behind able to enjoy the game if not quite as much as those in front, then still enough that they go home satisfied. If ½ to ⅚ of your audience goes home pissed off because your game sucks to lose – and make no mistake, that’s what happens when your game sucks to lose – your game is poorly designed.