What Makes a Game Great?
  • What Makes a Game Great?


    "Lifestyle games," games that are hobbies in themselves for players who rarely play anything else, are almost always great games: Diplomacy, Bridge, Chess, Magic: the Gathering, Dungeons & Dragons. But not all great games become lifestyle games. What makes a game "great"? Not good, not a flash-in-the-pan, rather an all-time great game?


    A game is never "great" to everyone. Chess is a great game, but many gamers can't stand to play it (though a great many have tried). We can say the same for D&D or any other RPG.

    Longevity is important. Some will say a new game is "great", but we cannot tell until years have passed, no matter how much we like it when it comes out. Furthermore, not every great game is great by current "design standards", but it may still be a great game in terms of how it has affected people and the enjoyment it has given to people. "New" doesn't necessarily mean "good" and "old" doesn't mean "bad".

    Popularity is not a criterion. There are many popular tunes, movies, games, books, that disappear from our notice in a year or three. Great games continue to be loved year after year, just as great novels, movies, music are enjoyed perennially.

    If a game is one of hundreds that people might want to play, can it be a great game? No, it should stand out from the crowd. If you play a game just to kill time or socialize, then the fact that you’re playing it certainly doesn't make it a great game, no matter how many times you play. Not "oh, yeah, I guess we can play that," it must be "I'd love to play that" - again and again. If you can spend your valuable time just to play this game or think about this game, not merely to socialize, when you have other things to do, then it may be a great game. If lots of people don't play it hundreds of hours each, over many years, can it be a great game?

    Great games often engender much discussion, and often a literature, about the fine points of good play. Chess, Bridge, Diplomacy are obvious examples.

    I'd say:
    · if a game is played by a great many people
    · who love to play it (they're not just passing time/killing time/playing to socialize)
    · who play it for hundreds of hours (per person) over the years
    · who can still enjoy it many years after it was first published
    · who make variants that are fine games,
    then it's probably a great game.

    Monopoly is poorly-designed. It's certainly the most-sold commercial game. You can argue that it's usually played by default, because it's traditional, rather than because people truly want to play it. I'd say it's not a great game because it fails the "love to play it" test as well as the variants test.

    Which RPGs could be called great games? Comments?

    Reference Books: Hobby Games: the 100 Best and Family Games: the 100 Best, both edited by James Lowder.

    photo by Alex Vye
    contributed by Lewis Pulsipher
    Comments 32 Comments
    1. uriel222's Avatar
      uriel222 -
      The problem is, RPG's are still fairly new, so they mostly fail the "still enjoy it many years after it was first published" test.
    1. FitzTheRuke's Avatar
      FitzTheRuke -
      While I think you could argue that Monopoly is not a great game, I think it would be folly. That many people absolutely can be wrong, but I'd say that when they've been purchasing that game at that rate for so long, there's got to be something to it.

      Just because *I* would rather stick forks in my eyes than play monopoly, doesn't mean it's not a great game.

      On the other hand, you asked which RPGs are great and I would say "Dungeons and Dragons". In fact, I would argue that D&D is the greatest game of all and nothing will ever come close.

      So clearly while I'm trying to be unbiased in my opinion of Monopoly, I am happy to be biased about D&D.
    1. chaochou's Avatar
      chaochou -
      Empires in Arms is definitely a great game.
    1. obidavekenobi's Avatar
      obidavekenobi -
      Axis & Allies, in all its various iterations, fits the bill, I think. I'm still playing my original Big Box edition, but now with my teenage son. The rest of the Big Box games ("Fortress America," "Broadsides and Boarding Parties," "Conquest of the Empire," and "Shogun") were also fun to play, but did not have the longevity or reprint/remake life of A&A. A&A was also made into a (albeit poor AI) computer game, as well.
    1. TrippyHippy's Avatar
      TrippyHippy -
      Longevity and commercial success is one thing, but so is social impact. I know it may seem a little clichéd but I think it's a fact that the release of D&D literally changed the way in which people thought about gaming and it's possibilities.
    1. R_Chance's Avatar
      R_Chance -
      Quote Originally Posted by uriel222 View Post
      The problem is, RPG's are still fairly new, so they mostly fail the "still enjoy it many years after it was first published" test.
      I've played D&D for 43 years in various incarnations... but would still happily sit down to the original (with Greyhawk please) no problem. I still play classic Traveller (again, with supplements), so that's 40 years. I didn't get started with Runequest until 1980 or 81... I homebrewed them all, enjoyed them still (and would still) enjoy them. I'd certainly say they all qualify, imho, as great games. Oh, add Empire of the Petal Throne to that mix, I just bought the new hardcover reprint of the original RPG set on Tekumel and I am planning on tortu... er inviting some friends to play it. Honestly, my only problem is not having enough time to play them all. I'm 58 (59 in a few days) and when I retire in a couple of years, the dice are going to fly
    1. Kiraya_TiDrekan -
      I would say that a RPG that created a hobby or lifestyle would qualify. By that definition, D&D and Vampire: The Masquerade qualify (as Vampire turned LARPing into something of a phenomenon).

      Though, perhaps another definition could be games that have a large, dedicated following and are known entities to non-gamers. In that case we would have to include Pathfinder.
    1. Hussar's Avatar
      Hussar -
      Pathfinder is known to non-gamers? I'm not sure I'd agree with that.

      The problem with this definition is that so many board games do fit the bill. Game of Life is still played after decades, by many families, all over the world. Commercially an unbelievable success. But, a "great" game?

      And, the next question is, how long of a time frame are we looking at. Sure, D&D is 50 years old (or thereabouts), but, compared to many games, that's a flash in the pan. Euchre or Bridge is far, far more enduring. Does that make them "greater" games?

      And then we have the "great many people" line. What does that actually mean. The number of Magic players absolutely dwarfs D&D by an order of magnitude. Quite likely more people will play Monopoly this weekend than have ever played D&D. And, then, we get into video games as well. Something like Halo has more players on any given day than D&D will ever have. Counter Strike is enjoyed all over the world and it's 17 years old. According to Steam, 300000+ people are playing it every day. Is it a great game?

      Words like "great" are very nebulous and you can massage pretty much anything to being great.
    1. Szatany's Avatar
      Szatany -
      Is Talisman a great game? I know it has avid haters as much as fans, but it meets all of those criteria:

      I'd say:
      · if a game is played by a great many people
      · who love to play it (they're not just passing time/killing time/playing to socialize)
      · who play it for hundreds of hours (per person) over the years
      · who can still enjoy it many years after it was first published
      · who make variants that are fine games,
      then it's probably a great game.
    1. Enevhar Aldarion's Avatar
      Enevhar Aldarion -
      Quote Originally Posted by Kiraya_TiDrekan View Post

      Though, perhaps another definition could be games that have a large, dedicated following and are known entities to non-gamers. In that case we would have to include Pathfinder.
      Wow! They made a game about driving a Nissan truck?


      But seriously, one thing I do not think I saw mentioned that makes a game into a great game is replayability. Is it fun to play again and again? Even with the same people? Does the replayability give the less skilled players a chance to win once in a while? This last one I apply to a lot of games. Some may call it luck, for some it is just getting the right combo at the right time, like with Magic. And there has to be an element of chance, like with dice rolling or with random number generators in PC/console games. If a highly skilled player can beat everyone else every time, then a great game quickly becomes boring and not fun to any but the elite few grand master experts.

      And since people are throwing out names of actual games they think this fits, I will add the Civilization PC game series to the list. I have played it since the original version was first released.
    1. jrowland -
      Klondike (et. al.) Solitaire, Texas Hold'em Poker, etc all "Great Games".

      One aspect of a "Great Game" is that if competitive, a game where players feel that mastery matters lends itself to greatness. Monopoly hardly requires any mastery, eg., which makes it popular, but maybe not-so-great. Cooperative games likewise need to make players feel the deck is level (balance) between them (but necessarily against them: Player on Player balance, but refereed v player all bets are off!). Too skewed and cooperative games fail to achieve greatness.

      My 2cp
    1. Maxperson's Avatar
      Maxperson -
      Quote Originally Posted by FitzTheRuke View Post
      While I think you could argue that Monopoly is not a great game, I think it would be folly. That many people absolutely can be wrong, but I'd say that when they've been purchasing that game at that rate for so long, there's got to be something to it.

      Just because *I* would rather stick forks in my eyes than play monopoly, doesn't mean it's not a great game.
      The other thing that the OP fails to take into account, at least with regard to Monopoly, is target demographic. As a kid I loved Monopoly and played it often with other kids. As an adult I really don't like it. I've seen other adults who really like it, but they tended to be people who were not above average in intelligence like the target demographic of RPGs is. Just because we don't enjoy it any longer doesn't mean that it isn't a great game. We've just moved out of the demographic the game was intended for.
    1. Jeff Dusterhoft's Avatar
      Jeff Dusterhoft -
      Settlers of Catan should be considered a great game. While it’s not perfect it has introduced millions of people to European style of board games and the notion that there are other table games out there then risk and monopoly. I believe it’s a large reason we are seeing a board game resurgence. It passes the everyone from my grandma to my 10 year old cousin play it. It also checks the mark on the competitive scene as there are monthly tournaments in cities all over the world.

      Out of newer board games Dominion, Pandemic and Ticket To Ride could be condsidererd close to great games but I’m not certain they pass the longeitvity test and haven’t been replaced by whatever the new “hot” game is.
    1. Random Bystander's Avatar
      Random Bystander -
      "Give me more soldiers, noble leader, that they may sheath their swords in the beating hearts of our enemies!"

      *cough*

      I still play Civilization II, and have played it almost since release. I mark a point off every new version for failing to include advisor videos.
    1. Bedrockgames's Avatar
      Bedrockgames -
      I remember liking Monopoly. I think it is odd to assume all those people who buy it every year are not enjoying it. It is a game intended for a broad audience, so if you are someone who plays niche boardgames, it might not appeal to you. But that isn't the target audience. Even so, after playing all kinds of games, I still enjoy playing Monopoly when it gets taken out.
    1. FitzTheRuke's Avatar
      FitzTheRuke -
      Quote Originally Posted by Maxperson View Post
      The other thing that the OP fails to take into account, at least with regard to Monopoly, is target demographic. As a kid I loved Monopoly and played it often with other kids. As an adult I really don't like it. I've seen other adults who really like it, but they tended to be people who were not above average in intelligence like the target demographic of RPGs is. Just because we don't enjoy it any longer doesn't mean that it isn't a great game. We've just moved out of the demographic the game was intended for.
      Interestingly, it appears that something can qualify as both a "great game" and a "terrible game" at the same time. I would include classics like Monopoly, Risk, and Life as well as relative newcomers like Talisman as both "great" (in their impact and success) and "terrible" (as far as their actual game-play design goes).
    1. pemerton's Avatar
      pemerton -
      Quote Originally Posted by chaochou View Post
      Empires in Arms is definitely a great game.
      I've never played it, but back in my university days many of the players in my RPG group were also players of Empires in Arms. At the time a local wargamer/RPGer had rented a cheap commercial space in the Melbourne CBD (there was a major commerical property slump, and I think the guy was living there in violation of his lease and the local building code) and they had their game set up there.

      I can't say whether or not it is/was a great game, but it seemed pretty intricate and engaging.
    1. pemerton's Avatar
      pemerton -
      Backgammon is a great game: longevity, replayability, fun.

      As a bit of a slack gamer I prefer backgammon to chess, and five hundred to bridge. I'll concede that the second game in each of these pairs is more sophisticated and challenging; but the first is more relaxed and relaxing, and has a nice balance of luck (dice in backgammon, the kitty in five hundred) and skill (calculating odds in backgammon; bidding and counting cards in five hundred).

      That mix of luck and skill is also a feature of many RPGs.
    1. billd91's Avatar
      billd91 -
      Monopoly is actually a fairly fun game under the right circumstances. There was an excellent implementation on the Mac a number of years back that actually made it a fairly quick play, particularly 1 player vs 2-3 computer players. Under those circumstances, it's actually reasonably engaging.
    1. Jhaelen -
      Monopoly suffers from several game design flaws that may or may not bother you, depending on the kind of other games you have already played. The more well-designed games you know, the more egregious these flaws become in your mind until you can no longer tolerate to waste your time playing it.

      Popularity and commercial success are unfortunately not always a good measurement of great design.

      I've grown to dislike almost all of the well-known classic board games over time. Diplomacy may well be the only exception.

      Regarding RPGs, I don't consider most editions of D&D well designed (my favorite is 4e), but I'd still play them, because unlike board games, any RPG can be used to create great gaming sessions if the GM is great and the players are on a roll.
      Runequest is one of the few RPGs I consider really well-designed, especially considering its age. Ars Magica is another.
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