Friday, August 10, 2007

What Makes A Long Game Good

Last weekend some of the Appalachian Gamers tried our first game of Twilight Imperium 3rd edition. We finally abandoned the game after five hours when it seemed that Travis was certain to win. But although the game flirts with being intolerably long, some of us were eager to try it again.

During the week, I rediscovered Civilization, the Sid Meier computer game that is now in its fourth edition. Civ is another game that can last many hours, and yet it is extremely addictive.

And so I started thinking about what makes a long game good. None of my observations here are particularly origina--I think Jonathan Degann may have made some of these observations in his Journal of Boardgame Design--but I write about what I’m pondering at the moment, and long games are this week’s concern.

So what makes a long game good?

1) A variety of activities. You can get away with doing the same thing over and over in a short game, but you need variety of things to do in a long game. In his recent review of Before the Wind, Larry Levy mentioned that the game seems a little too long considering that players do the same thing over and over. In games like Twilight Imperium and Civilization, players often do a variety of things within each turn. They may produce military units, fight battles, improve their nation’s capacities, grab new technologies, or engage in diplomatic activity. It is choosing from the wide variety of possibilities that makes these games fun.

2) Improvement of capacities. In many long games, players grow their abilities throughout the game. In Struggle of Empires and Age of Empires III, players buy tiles that give them special abilities. In Twilight Imperium, players can snag technologies that are the equivalent of special ability tiles. In the computer game Civilization, players can research ordinary technological developments that are available to all, or build World Wonders that can be created only once. In Arkham Horror, players can acquire spells that can give them a variety of special abilities. Things that improve player capacities are among my favorite game mechanisms.

3) An endgame. Many of these games have mechanisms that focus or increase competition at the end of the game. At the end of Twilight Imperium, players are likely to be fighting for control of Mercatol Rex, the most important planet. In Age of Empires III, the struggle to grab the final special tiles that give bonus victory points can make the endgame more intense. In Arkham Horror, players often end the game with a final battle with the Great Old One. And you know you’re in the endgame of Civilization when other nations start building a starship. Having some special mechanism for the end of the game creates story arcs that make games more fun.

Long games are not for everyone. But the traits mentioned above can make long games more palatable, and make the required investment of time seem worthwhile.


dgilligan said...

Our biggest mistake in this game revolved around the Advance Fighters. The FAQ cleared up our mistake (after the game) by pointing out stacking limits for Advanced Fighters. Unfortunately, we didn't have the FAQ available at the time.

Overall the rulebook was quite clear. How such an obvious game-breaker as the abuse of the AF could be left out of the core rules is inexcusable. I understand that FAQs are a necessary evil but there are some things too important to have to be put in an FAQ.

As for the game itself, it felt very long to me. I don't mind long games if they keep me engaged. Die Macher is a long game but it didn't feel long when I played it. Ours was a three player game. I can't imagine how long a six player game would be.

With that said, I find TI3 to be intriguing and wouldn't mind trying again with a full compliment of six players. Not that I expect that to happen anytime soon. I'll also be armed with the FAQs next time!

Pawnstar said...

The greatest problem with long games is getting them to the table in the first place.

Once you do get one to the table, if just one player dislikes it you're unlikely to see it again for some time.

And that's the big danger - a long, epic game that suffers at some point you won't find unless you play. And if it does suffer at some point, you'll think "Why did I spend so much time playing this game when I could have played something else?". Then it's unlikely it will be played again.

Things of No Interest said...

For me a long game is good if I don't notice how long we've been playing. Sometimes, player AP can take the enjoyment out, so you do have to have a combination of the right people and the right game. Assuming you have the right gamers, the game has to keep you engaged, even when its not your turn.