Antoine de Saint-Exupery (1900 - 1944)
Like the Perfect Storm, the Perfect Woman/Man or the Perfect Hamburger, the Perfect Game is likely to exist only in the realm of theory and sweet, sweet dreams (well, not the storm, but you get the idea).
But that doesn’t stop us from theorizing about them.
Strangely, though I have found video games and movies which I find to be as close to perfect as is possible, I’ve not yet found a board game which seemed to succeed quite as well as those other media. Some come close, but at least for me, none seem quite ‘perfect enough’.
Obviously, the ideal will vary from person to person, and, perhaps more significantly, from gaming group to gaming group. The concept of “meta-gaming” – that esoteric atmosphere of groupthink which affects how any player games in a well known circle – has a marked effect on what games might “fly” and what games might not in any given group.
So, keeping in mind my own preferences, but also that of our own illustrious Weekly Amateur Gaming Society, here is my rough outline for the perfect game:
- PLAYING TIME: Playable in 60-90 minutes – 120 minutes at absolute outside.
- PLAYER LIMIT: Playable by 2-6 players, and scales well at all player numbers
- DOWNTIME: Has low levels of downtime and low amounts of “move paralysis” – that is, the number of action options available to a player during any given turn or turn phase should be neither so numerous nor so complex as to be daunting.
- BUILDING: Involves “building” in some way – creating and improving on something, so that you end the game with something “better” than you started. For example – more money, better city, more powerful character.
- CONFLICT: Involves “conflict” in some way – either actual fighting or economic/qualitative/quantitative competition.
- NOT TOO RANDOM: Minimizes randomness – players should never feel as though the luck of the die/draw is the only factor in success
- SOCIAL INTERACTION: Involves enough player interaction that a social atmosphere is created, while avoiding interaction which otherwise slows down the game.
- EASY TO TRACK: Minimizes calculation or the need for extensive record/bookkeeping – i.e. everything is at your fingertips or in front of you and does not have to be closely tracked by a complex process.
- SCREW YOUR NEIGHBOUR: Gives the opportunity for “screw your neighbour” tactics – a way to play to thwart the plans of others, but in a manner that is otherwise avoidable by careful play and not overly frustrating.
- DOWN BUT NOT OUT: A mechanic for dealing with the possibility of being knocked out of the game – that is, if someone is in a losing position, there is a way to fight back if carefully played.
- LEADER REWARDS: A mechanic to address the standard “kill the leader” situation that rewards being in the lead without making being the leader unstoppable.
- VICTORY CONDITIONS: A victory condition track (victory points or score) which permits the fun of being able to see how roughly how close other players are to each other (fostering competition) while maintaining some element of surprise.
- THEME/FEEL: Game has a strong and interesting theme that is colourful but also relates to the game mechanic without bogging down the game. Execution of the mechanics of the game and the theme should mesh well at all levels. It should “feel” right.
- REPLAYABILITY: Game should have enough “depth” that it can be played more than once – conversely, it could be simple enough that complex strategies are possible (like chess or bridge) even given relatively simple rules.
That’s all I can think of right now in terms of criteria. I’ll now analyze the top-rated/most-liked games in our group based on these points.
Puerto Rico – generally considered by popular opinion to be the best game out there. Going through the list, it’s successful on points 1-4, 6, 8, 9,12-14. Items 5, 7, 10 and 11 are less successful.
Pirate’s Cove – Does well in points 1-5, 7-9, 12-14. Only item 6 and 10 are not as well addressed. No one is ever knocked out completely, but if you fall behind, you’re probably screwed.
Tigris and Euphrates – This one is debateable, just because my mind doesn’t deal well with the more abstract strategy involved in some areas of this game. Points 1, 2, 4-6, 8, 9, 12-14 are done well. Point 3 (for me), 7, 10-11 are not as good.
Settlers of Cataan – Very popular world-wide, but very flawed. Points 1, 2 (sorta), 3-5, 7-9, 12-14 are good. Major drawback is point 6; 10 and 11 are less successful.
Bang! Done well are 1-3, 5-9, 11-13. A major, major drawback in this game is point 10. The other weakpoint in this game is almost complete lack of building/improvement – point 4 – and point 14, due to the non-fun of being forced to sit out.
Deadwood. Good: 1-4, 6-11, 13,14. Not so good: not so much conflict (5) and its generally hard to tell who’s winning (point 12) if the money is hidden, which it generally is.
Princes of Florence: Well done: 1-4, 8-14. Less well done: 5 (virtually no direct competition except in bidding, which might be enough), 6 (card draw at the beginning can make or break strategy) and 7 (no real need to talk to anyone except during bidding process)
El Grande: 1-2, 5-9, 11-14 are all good. Downtime/Move Paralysis (3) is a bit of problem for me in this game because of the depth of strategy involved. You never actually feel as though you’ve “built” anything (4), even though your kingdoms generally become larger. If you fall behind in this game (10), you generally stay behind, but the mechanic of the bid cards does permit a certain degree of comeback possibility if played correctly, so it’s half and half.
Civilization: (only included because I like it so much, but admit its flaws) 2, 4, 5, 7, 9, 12-14 are done well. 1 is way out (6-8 hour play time), 3 can be a problem if you don’t pay attention, 6 is a problem with combat, 8 for resource difficulties (though they probably did as well as they could), 10 because if you’re out in this game, you’re OUT. 11 – big time kill the leader issues with this game, with no real tangible benefit for being the leader to offset.
Now – if I’ve forgotten a popular game in our group, let me know.
During the comments, I’ll look for suggestions and possible themes for a possible future “perfect” game. Feel free to throw out suggestions or additions/modifications to the list of “perfect” criteria.