Game design, mechanics, and game balance: What makes a good game?

With so many games out there to choose from, a prospective gamer might start thinking about what makes a game cross the line from just a way to pass the time to a truly great experience. What elements does a good game have? Or does that question have a different answer depending on who you ask? To find out, Scott Nazelrod of Denexa Games sat down with two gaming experts.

Jack Claxton and DC Bueller are two of the five founders of Loot & XP, a board game café established in 2015 here in Norman, Oklahoma. Loot & XP is home to a massive library of games, about 750 titles at last count, and always growing. Part of the staff’s responsibility at the café is to teach games to their customers and answer any questions that they may have, from what kind of game they might want to try, all the way to answering queries about some of the games’ more obscure and arcane rules. To arm themselves with that knowledge, they’ve played a lot of games. If there’s anyone to ask about games, it’s these guys.

Read on for some insight into the world of games—card games, board games, even video games—and all of the ingredients that go into an enjoyable gaming session.

SCOTT
So, I guess what we should start off with is, since you guys focus mostly on board games, and we focus more on card games at Denexa—what do you think they have in common? Does a good card game and a good board game have a lot of things in common? Or do you think there’s a little bit of a difference between those?
JACK
Obviously, I think there’s a difference in style. But I think, kind of as an answer to both of those questions, as to what makes a good game for either of them, and to what they have in common…is interesting decisions. If there are decisions that matter, and that can be taken in a number of different ways, and are entertaining—you know, it is fulfilling to have some sort of options in front of you, and have it really matter what you go with. So, if you like more strategic games, and I think most card games fall into that, that’s very much something they share in common. You’ll also find, that DC and I have very different tastes in games—
DC
[laughter]
JACK
—and I think that will be very helpful, since we’re coming from almost both sides of the spectrum here.
DC
I like randomness. And I think cards help that, because you always have to shuffle and make random things happen. I also feel like, as long as a game is enjoyable and can create a memorable experience—I think that’s the most important part. Just like, thinking back to when we played XYZ game, like—for example, today on Facebook, [fellow Loot & XP founder] Rachelle shared a memory from two years ago of a Codenames game we played. I was absolutely awful. We totally lost. And everything was just horrible. She did not like me giving the clues. But, the thing is, everyone remembers that game. Everyone remembers that session of Codenames, because it was just so…entertainingly horrible.
SCOTT
[laughter]
DC
So I think that’s the main thing. Yeah, you can have options, but I think, the mix of people, and the mix of ideas and personalities, can also help make a game that would normally be kind of like “ehh, you know, I could do this or this” into “oh my gosh, what are you doing?”
SCOTT
So what you’re saying is, you can have fun with an absolutely horrible game, if you have the right people involved!
DC
You can! I still think it would be more of a one-off experience, instead of, like, coming back to the game again and again.
SCOTT
“We don’t want to play that horrible thing again! Although it was fun the one time.”
DC
For example, CrossTalk. Some people have more fun with it than others—
JACK
I still think it’s good…
DC
I liked it! Some people think it’s the worst thing ever.
SCOTT
And I know you guys have opinions on Monopoly that aren’t necessarily shared by a lot of the populace…
JACK
I would hope they’re shared by a lot of the populace! But apparently not. I don’t know, I think a lot of people dislike Monopoly, but I would almost say for the wrong reasons. But I want to touch real fast on game versus people you’re playing with. I would agree, if I had to choose between a good game, and a good group of people, I would choose a good group of people. You really can have a lot of fun with bad games. Now, it works together if you have a good game and good people. But it’s very much true, at least in most of the games we’re used to playing, but I think in a lot of card games too. If you’re very serious about playing poker or playing for money and everything, it’s a very individual experience, and it’s very strategy-based. But I think for most people playing almost any type of game, it’s to enjoy it and have fun, and people are pretty integral to that.
SCOTT
And definitely, with poker in particular, it’s a very different game when you’re playing with people who are very good at it, versus people who are just there to enjoy the experience, and maybe not care so much about how well they do.
JACK
Yeah. That’s a funny point, too, because a lot of poker players get their reads on people, and they assume that the other players also have certain assumptions. And they’re strategizing in certain ways. But if someone doesn’t care they can really mess up a skilled poker player, because they expect them to act in certain ways!
SCOTT
Right, you can’t expect them to act rationally! And if you’re assuming your opponent is going to be acting rationally and they’re not, that can really throw a wrench in your strategies.
JACK
Definitely.
SCOTT
So, do you think—keeping in mind, everyone has different preferences on games—is there anything you can universally point to and say, “That makes a good game”? Or is it just kind of hopelessly attached to your personal preferences?
JACK
I think there’s a few things I could say, but I do think it’s attached to personal preference. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have such a variety of games that are enjoyed by people. Like I said before, I do enjoy things that have interesting decisions. But that’s not all I like. I like games with good social dynamics, or interesting and novel mechanics you don’t find in other games. I’m sure there are things that more people like than don’t, but I don’t think you can just pin it down.
DC
I think 100% personal preference, because the #1 game on BoardGameGeek, Pandemic Legacy—I hate that kind of game.
SCOTT
[laughter]
DC
I hate it with a passion, and I was actually talking with our distributor, and they’re saying, “Yeah, we want to make this game—we want to make the new Season 2 topple Season 1!” And I’m like, “That’s great! That’s wonderful!… That’s…cool…” And he was like, “What did you think when you played it?” And I was like, “Yeah! Good!”
JACK
“It caused me physical pain!”
SCOTT
Why do you hate it so much?
DC
Because I believe, in essence, that a game should be able to be played over and over and over. Just as many times as you want.
SCOTT
Replay value.
DC
Yeah. And whenever you play a Legacy game, the replay value is going to end at the end of your campaign. Whereas, with say, roleplaying games and things like that, I mean, yeah, there’s going to be an end; there’s going to be a physical and permanent end—
SCOTT
But once you buy a Dungeons & Dragons book, you can just reuse it for however many campaigns.
DC
Yeah. Exactly. With a Legacy game, you’re manipulating it and shaping it into a specific way where—and I think maybe the appeal is making those permanent changes, and then it becomes your own personal copy, that no one else is going to have. It’s a game that you and your group made together. And that’s kind of a bonding experience that those kind of people like, and I am not those kind of people.
JACK
I do like Legacy games. But that said, I wouldn’t like every game to be like that. Mostly, I’m on the same page as DC. I think it should be replayable, and that’s one of the strengths of tabletop games, no matter what the type, is each playthrough is going to be different, because of all of the variables. Having a game you can only go through once is bizarre and strange.
SCOTT
[laughter]
JACK
So I like it for the novelty, but I’m glad that it’s a minority kind of niche in the hobby.
SCOTT
And, of course, for replay value, nothing really beats a deck of cards, because you can play any number of games with the same deck.
JACK
Absolutely.
SCOTT
Of course, the downside to that is that a deck of cards doesn’t really have a theme to it, whereas a lot of board games do. Do you think that, for most people, a good theme on a game can save what would be an otherwise bad game? Or, turning it around, do you think that a really good game can save a horribly ugly theme?
JACK
I think a lot of people play games for themes. Myself included. And yeah, they can very much help an otherwise-weaker game. There’s a number of games that I like because of the presentation, and the general narrative, even if it doesn’t factor in a whole lot. But I think if the game is strong enough, and you can get people to sit down and play it, and it’s really fun, the theme does not matter. If playing the game itself is very fun, then that can stand up by itself.
DC
I think a lot of Euro games are like that, where they have some mechanics, and the game play is very solid, but the theme is, like, “Oh, we should make a theme for this mechanic we just did.” I do feel like I have played many games where the game play was like, uggggh, but the theme made me want to play it again and again and again.
JACK
Like, Terrene Odyssey was a game that we both were a little excited about, because it touched on things we liked. And some of it was theme-wise, and some of it was mechanics-wise. But it kind of looks to things that we’re a fan of. And I think DC tried it a bit more than I did, and it just didn’t stand up as much. Now, that’s an example where we gave it more of an opportunity, but we still kind of gave up on it a little bit. You know, it’s like any other media. You’ll watch trash TV shows or movies that you enjoy, for whatever reason, even if you kind of know deep down it’s not very good.
DC
Yeah, like Star Trek.
SCOTT
[laughter]
DC
I JK! But I’ll say this. Scott Pilgrim. That is a really awesome theme. And I will still play it, but I think the mechanics are wonky.
JACK
They are a little. That’s the thing, that particular game—it’s not a bad game, I think. It’s a little strange, but it’s not a great game either. So, at the very least, the theme helps, a lot, an otherwise weak game. And you’re right, with standard card games, unless you are very much trying to put a theme in there, it’s a little difficult to do that with a standard deck.
SCOTT
So a standard-deck card game tends to rely a lot more heavily on the mechanics than, like, a proprietary card game or a board game would. Going into mechanics a little bit more—you hear the term “game balance” a lot. What exactly do you feel like game balance is?
JACK
At its core, it’s when everyone has the same opportunities in a given game. Now, if everyone has the same opportunity to get, you know, the best hand, and that’s a one in one thousand shot, and there’s not that much else but just the luck of the draw, then that’s probably not an appealing game for most people, because, while it’s fair, it’s also extremely random. Now, you heard DC say earlier he really likes random games, but I think part of game balance too is giving people the same agency. So, they have access to the same resources and powers, and they also have the same abilities and decisions that they can make. So if something doesn’t go your way, a lot of times it is your fault. You might have not foreseen something, or you took a risk and it didn’t pan out the way you thought. But I feel like most people like a balance between purely strategy games—something along the lines of chess—and purely random games—something like roulette.
DC
[laughter]
SCOTT
And obviously roulette makes a ton of money every year.
JACK
Indeed. So obviously people do enjoy that. But I think it may be different types. Or at least, scratching a different itch. But so long as there’s a little bit of luck, and a little bit of strategy, that seems to be a happy medium for most. And I think game balance is intrinsically tied into that concept.
DC
I would say two games I feel deal with that fairly well: Valeria: Card Kingdoms and Lords of Waterdeep. Because, with Valeria: Card Kingdoms, you have the dice that get rolled so people are going to get different resources. You don’t get as resource-screwed as you would be in Catan because you take the numbers on each of the dice and the sum. And in Lords of Waterdeep, it’s much more strategic based, but it’s also a little bit of luck with what quests might get drawn, or what lord you get in the beginning, or the Intrigue cards you might get, or things like that. To me, though, I will play a game that’s unbalanced—more heavily toward luck than strategy, because with luck, anyone can win. With strategy, only Jack wins.
JACK
[laughter] Dirty lies! Well, here’s an important part of that too—I do like being competitive, or forming strategies. But if I play almost a completely luck-based game, and that’s just kind of obvious right there—it takes that load off. And sometimes I want something different, and I want to just, like, “Let’s just see what happens”. And I can lose, and it’s no fault of my own, and that’s a lot nicer—
SCOTT
It’s very freeing!
JACK
Yeah, instead of like, “three turns ago, if I would have done that, I would have absolutely won, but now I’m in last place”—that hurts a little bit more! So I think there’s absolutely room for both, both random and not, as well as balanced and not. Though I definitely, for the most part, when I do play traditional card games, I think I do prefer a little more balance and strategy in that style. Because it is, once again, more mechanics-heavy.
SCOTT
One last thing: what sort of advice would you have to offer for someone who is trying to make a new game, whether it be a board game or a card game?
JACK
That is a difficult question. Because ten or fifteen years ago, the market was incredibly smaller than it is now. Don’t go in expecting to get rich, because you could make an absolutely wonderful game, but sadly, a huge part of it is making yourself visible, and marketing yourself, and that’s just honestly what it is. There’s too many games in the market. Now, that said, make a game that you enjoy. You know, everyone has their own personal tastes. And if you do that, and it’s honestly good, and everyone around you likes it, you’d have a much higher chance, I’d argue, of breaking through and maybe making a livelihood out of it, or at least distributing it.
DC
Basically, there’s not that many games that have that long-term shelf visibility. Like, basically, it’s out for a season, it’s the hotness of the month or two, and unless you’re like a Catan or a Lords of Waterdeep, or at the very, very least a Lanterns, you’re just forgotten. And Lanterns is kind of a “ehhh” sort of thing. You just forget it, because there is just a huge flood of games. But there is something to be said about making a game that you like. But if you want to make a game that you want to have sell, that you want to have make you money, then look at things like Scythe or look at things like Exploding Kittens. Part of it is, yeah, the mechanics—say, for Scythe, the mechanics are very solid, and it had a lot of replayability, because of the different mats and strategies that each faction would have based on the play method they got. But also, say, for Exploding Kittens, that’s all about marketing. So you can either market your game to heck, and just make it off the marketing strategy, or come up with something that is really, really solid. But, of course, [Scythe author Jamey] Stegmaier, he’s had a long list of games before that that were very successful, but I think that Scythe was the break out, a little bit.
SCOTT
And I think that kind of underscores, maybe, one of the differences between a traditional card game and a board game, because with board games you obviously have to get a lot more into the business side of things, and worry about things like marketing and that sort of thing, whereas with a traditional card game, it’s all memetic. You just have to make something that’s good enough that other people want to start playing it.
JACK
Yeah. And if you were to make a new card game—and this is run into a whole lot with non-traditional card games and board games as well—it’s a lot easier to sell something that’s a lot lighter. Like a party game, and something that’s very social. And so, if it’s the sort of game that everyone can approach, and you can bring it out at a party, just, by that nature, it will spread a lot easier. Now, that doesn’t make it a better game, but it’s a harder sell, regardless of the game type, if it’s a little bit heavier. If you’ve got to explain the rules for 20 or 30 minutes, then it could be the best game, but it’s hard to put legs on it.
SCOTT
Which, with traditional card games, you do run into that. There’s games like Skat, which are considered to the best games ever created, but the rules for them fill up six pages. And you can spend your whole lifetime mastering that one game.
JACK
Yeah, it’s kind of a shame, but that’s something you have to be aware of if you’re making any type of game, I feel.
SCOTT
Well, thank you guys for sharing your opinions!
DC
You’re very welcome!
JACK
Thank you!
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