Board game design, Fun, Learning from Existing Board Games, Los Buenos

Learning about interesting choices, from board games that aren’t fun

This is the amount of not-fun I’m talking about!
In my previous post I mentioned I had “balanced my game to death”: In solving some technical issues, I drained all the fun out of it. I got some very interesting and useful reactions to that post and I’m happy to say that Los Buenos is back on track!

All of this did get me thinking: How is it possible to make a few (minor!) changes to a game and suddenly have it not be fun anymore?!

In this post I want to look at some games that I don’t think are fun (feel free to disagree, but please don’t try to convince me, I’ve got my mind made up!). From that I want to distill elements that make a game be not fun and then flip those around to be able to actively design for fun.

Not fun: (The previous version of) Los Buenos

When working on Los Buenos I wanted it “balanced”, without really giving much thought to what exactly that entailed. I had some vague feelings; something about different strategies all affording a similar win chance.

What I did (in hindsight of course!) was make every choice similar-ish. No matter what you did, the results would always be more-or-less the same (in karma (=victory) points). And players were left with an unsatisfied feeling of having done a lot, but not having played.

Not fun: Haunted house on the hill

Haunted house on the hill consists of two phases. In the first you’re exploring a house, in the second something or someone turns against (part of) the group and needs to be defeated.

I absolutely love the idea of this game! But I never enjoy actually playing it…

In the beginning you’re “exploring”, but there is no goal to it (except to trigger the second part). Any actions you take could work in your favor, but there is an (almost?) equal chance of them working against you.

Then when the second phase is triggered there is generally a huge discrepancy in power between the group and the “bad thing” (with either of these two ending up with much more power).

The result is that in the first part choices are random: You cannot predict what their consequences are and thus it doesn’t matter which choice you take.

In the second part the huge discrepancy in power means that you’re either going through the motions of winning, or going through the motions of losing, without much influence on the end result.

Not fun: Tic-tac-toe

“Draw in 6 moves!”
If you’re older than 7 years old a game of tic-tac-toe is finished before it starts. No matter what move you make, it’s perfectly clear what the opponent should do to ensure that you don’t get your 3-in-a-line. And likewise, you’ll be doing the same with them, meaning that any game of tic-tac-toe will end in a draw.

It matters which choice you make, but only in that it prevents you from losing.

And, it’s immediately clear what that choice should be.

Not fun: Risk & Munchkin

Risk and Munchkin suffer from the same problem: They can be interminable. This is because as soon as someone starts winning, the other players will gang-up to prevent exactly that. And thus the game will go back and forth, coming through a conclusion only because of luck, stupidity or people getting so bored they want to lose.

During a game your choices matter, but at some point the majority of those choices are geared towards not losing, through bringing down the player that is in the lead.

Not fun: Monopoly

Did I lose yet?!
Monopoly has the same ailment as Risk and Munchkin, in that it can take a very long time, but it has another big issue: It is extremely luck-driven. How you roll in the early game determines whether you can buy a lot of good locations. Then how you roll in the later game determines whether you end up on a lot of bad locations.

There are some low-level choices to be made: Buy something or not (but if you have the money, buy!). Mostly however the interesting “choice” is made by the dice: Where do you land and is this good or bad?

Drawing conclusions

Playing a board game consists of taking a series of choices. An essential part of the fun in a game then lies in making these choices interesting. In the previous paragraphs I’ve sketched some ways in which choices can be uninteresting. Let’s draw out some common themes.

No choice

If there is no choice, there is nothing to agonize over. In Monopoly it’s the dice that play the game, with the humans around the table only there to throw them and move pawns accordingly. Choices really are very limited: Buy or don’t, what to sell when you run out of cash. Who wants to be a robot that does what a bunch of dice tell them?

No consequences

A choice can be uninteresting is if there are no (real) consequences. This is what Los Buenos suffered from: No matter which action or string of actions you took, the results would be just about the same. And while at the surface players were doing lots of things, intuitively they felt very well that it was just “going through the motions”.

In a similar way the choices in the second half of Haunted house on the hill are uninteresting. There are “real” consequences if any player completely screws up, but if everybody plays halfway decent then it is very clear who is going to win. And thus any single choice of action really doesn’t matter to the outcome of the game.

Consequences can’t be foreseen

If you play like this, it’s probably your own fault…
In the first half of Haunted house on the hill there are consequences to what players do: They might get bonuses or suffer penalties. But which of the two it’s going to be is completely random. From a strategy point of view it makes just as much sense to stand still as it is to go exploring. And doing nothing is about as boring as it gets.

Consequences are too clear

In Tic-tac-toe the consequences of your choices are extremely clear. Make the wrong choice and you lose (almost immediately).

In a more complex way this is what ails Munchkin and Risk as well. At some point the “rational” way to play is to attack the strongest player; either you do that, or you lose the game.

The result of too-clear consequences is that agency is taken away from the player. If you can (perfectly) foresee what is going to happen then it is also (perfectly) clear what the right choice is. Meaning that basically there is no choice.

Flipping the negatives around

As a board game designer, the right tools are essential!
So now we have some idea of what not to do. How to translate this in something we should do, something actionable?

First: give players choices. A game is about agency, making changes. For that players have to have a way of influencing the game, which means they have to have different options of doing so.

Second: Make choices have consequences. When players take an option, something has to happen! The state of the game has to change, be it for better or worse. The more different those consequences are, the more interesting the choice is. “Take 1 wood or take 1 stone” is a choice with consequences (you then have either a wood or a stone), but “Build a factory or attack Sue” is a far more interesting choice, as the consequences affect the game in completely different ways.

Third: Make it clear what the consequences are. Players need to be able to look into the future, to see whether any given option will make things better or worse for them. Only then can they make meaningful choices and only then will they care about them. Thus: Be careful when you have randomness involved in the consequences of choices.

Fourth: Don’t make the consequences too clear. If it’s completely obvious what the long-term results of a choice are then there isn’t really a choice to be made. The important word here is “long term”. It’s perfectly ok to see what will happen immediately (“If I place my worker here, I’ll get 1 wood”), but it should be obscured what that means over multiple rounds. This can be done through other players’ actions (“Will Achmed take the second wood I need?”) or randomness (“I hope the ‘woodworker’ will come out next turn so I have a good use for my 1 wood”).

Bringing this all together, what you want your players to think when they’ve made their choice is: “I’m reasonably sure that this option will bring me closer to victory.”

Some ideas for creating interesting choices

As mentioned, having fundamentally different consequences to choices makes for interesting options. One way of doing this is by allowing very different strategies to emerge. The “choice of strategy” then becomes a very interesting (and important) choice in the game.

I also suggested that direct consequences can be clear immediately, but that the long term effects should be obscured. This will happen quite naturally for a lot of games (there will be choices by other players and most likely randomness as well), but it is also possible to design it in. One way of doing this is by having “end game bonuses”; for example the player with the most houses gets an additional 5 points. This way a choice early in the game (e.g. “build a house or build a factory”) will have a consequence that is guaranteed to only be shown at the end of the game.

The two options above can even be meshed together: “This game my strategy is to build as many houses as possible!”

Closing thoughts

Decisions, decisions!
This blog post ended up being mostly about “interesting choices”. That most certainly isn’t the only source of fun for board games, but it’s a very fundamental one!

Perhaps it would be interesting to look at games that are “not fun” in different ways as well? I think I covered most of the games I’ve tried that I didn’t enjoy, but perhaps with some digging I’ll come to other ones (we tend to push our traumas away? 🙂 )

What are games you think aren’t fun?
Why aren’t they?
Or perhaps you have a game that is the perfect example of fun?

Further reading

This post mostly went into “interesting choices”. I’ve written about this before, in the context of a previous version of Los Buenos (then still called “Voluntarios”). There I was also able to lose the fun, but that time by removing choice from the game. At least I’m not making the same mistake twice…?

Once a choice is made, you get to a phase of “waiting to see whether your choice actually worked out”. This is where tension in board games comes in.

I made mention of strategy as allowing for interesting choices. In this article I wrote down a number of general board game strategies.

About the author

Bastiaan_smallHi, I’m Bastiaan. The goal of this blog is to learn about game design. That’s hopefully for you as the reader, but just as much for me as the writer.

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4 Comments

  1. Great article! Unlike many other designers, I use the term “balance” to directly express the comparative weight of choices: How meaningful is choice A versus choice B? The outcomes of the two choices, A and B, must have equal weight (i.e. impact, *not* outcome) in order to be balanced. Personally, I feel it is most valuable to equate the term “balance” with comparative choice weights, rather than with “fairness” — which seems to be how the term most often used.

    Another huge factor that can be quantified in the same manner that meaningful choices are is *learning*. Learning is a human being’s innate “fun driver”. Our brains are wired to recognize patterns and relationships, and our brains reward us (with dopamine) when we do this, thereby eliciting “fun”. Most of the games that I don’t find fun have very little room for learning as a player. Without giving me room to explore, discover, and interact with patterns and relationships, there isn’t much meaningful interaction or brain work going on–and, therefore, I tend to zone out and let the game play me.

    Keep giving us such thought-provoking posts!

    Reply
    1. BastiaanReinink Author

      Hi Justin,

      Thanks for the compliments! 🙂

      I’m still struggling with what “balance” actually means. I think I understand what you’re saying with giving choices equal “weight”. If I understand you correctly you’d want any 2 (or more) options to change the state of the game in a similarly radical fashion (e.g. both options don’t do too much or they both make significant changes? That would make choices more interesting (and therefore fun)… Worth a ponder!

      And I completely agree that “learning” is an important element of a game. I think I actually wrote a post on that as well… 🙂

      Reply
  2. Cody

    That was really good! I liked how you analyzed games by breaking down what was NOT fun, then turning those concepts on their heads in order to use them to make games more fun.

    I can only really think of one thing to add, and it’s not even necessarily tied to interesting choices: Turns that take too long. If I have to wait 45 minutes before it’s my turn again, I will have lost interest in the game long before my next turn comes around.

    Most of the time this isn’t a problem, but for larger war games like Axis & Allies or Twilight Imperium the length of time in between turns can be an interest killer.

    Reply
    1. BastiaanReinink Author

      Hi Cody,

      Absolutely! Paralysis Analysis is horrible. Some games lend themselves to that much more than others, but I’ve also found it depends on whom you play with. Still, a game of Citadels plays much faster than a game of Terra Mystica…

      Thanks for the addition!

      Reply

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