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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
 
Lewis Pulsipher

Comments

Jhaelen

Villager
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.
 

TrippyHippy

Villager
As a point of reference, the RPG listed in Hobby Games: The 100 Best are:

Amber
Ars Magica
Call of Cthulhu
Champions
Dungeons & Dragons
The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen
Ghostbusters
Marvel Super Heroes
Metamorphosis Alpha
My Life with Master
Paranoia
Pendragon
RuneQuest
Shadowrun
Toon
Traveller
Unknown Armies
Vampire: The Masquerade


...while Prince Valiant is also listed in Family Games: The 100 Best.

Of all of those, I probably agree with most but disagree with Metamorphosis Alpha (sorry Gary!) and Unknown Armies (I think Over The Edge had more influence, in my view). Some of these games also, obviously, lasted out better than others and the list was compiled before some other modern games were formulated - would Fiasco or Dread make the list now? Maybe games like Deadlands or Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying were unlucky? Is the list too focussed on US/English games - ignoring some of the stylish European games, for example?
 
"Give me more soldiers, noble leader, that they may sheath their swords in the beating hearts of our enemies!"
"Build Marketplaces my lord so that the peasants can barter for needed goods."

Wish they never got rid of the cut scenes! LOL You can watch them all on YouTube, now, actually. The Wonder Movies were also rather enjoyable.
 

chaochou

Adventurer
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.
That was my group - when we weren't roleplaying we sometimes had a 7-player game of Empires in Arms going.

It offers detailed and interconnected political, economic, strategic and tactical play, while brilliantly evoking the era. That's still a very rare thing in boardgaming - there's very little to touch it.

While it is still legendary amongst wargamers, I doubt the print run ran to more than a few thousand copies. But then sales are chronically over-rated as a measure of merit. People like to pretend being a 'best seller' matters to validate their choices.
 
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lewpuls

Explorer
Monopoly:
People rarely actually remember *Monopoly* fondly, they remember doing something together with their family (often at holidays) when they were kids, where Monopoly happened to be what they were doing. It's the active togetherness, not the game, that counts. I have often discussed this with college students, and they usually agree with this point of view. (Many say they never actually *completed* a game of Monopoly, of course.)


Popularity does not equal greatness, both in games and in other entertainments and arts. Keep in mind, many if not most mass-market games are bought as presents. Monopoly is bought because it's well known, and because the buyer figures that "everyone knows how to play" so they won't have learn the game in order to help the kids learn the game.


As a game design, it's pretty bad for adults, though works for younger children. When I teach game design, I use Monopoly on the very first day as a student exercise in how a popular game is a poor design, and how they can improve it, at least from the point of view of thinkers.




Enevhar Aldarion: Replayability was, I thought, implied in people playing the game again and again and again.


"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."


You're saying, then, that Chess and Checkers are not great games - because there's no element of chance? I have to disagree.


Of course, different people will have different ideas of what makes a game great.




jrowland: " a game where players feel that mastery matters lends itself to greatness. " That's a good point, but so many games today are not about mastery at all, and many games in the past, can we say that these are unlikely to ever be regarded as a great game? Perhaps.


Chaochou: "People like to pretend being a 'best seller' matters to validate their choices." Yes, validation of one's preferences (which is meaningless to me, but seems to be very important to many gamers nowadays) is a strong motivation for linking popularity to "great". Thanks for reminding me of that.
 

TerraDave

5ever
I like the criteria.

Of course poker (and its popular variants) and backgammon fit. Millions of people have played these over many many decades. Everyone has heard of them. Go is another one.

Popular family games, Clue, Monopoly, Uno, card games like Go Fish probably don't fit. They are well known, but not really lifestyle games.

Hobby gaming is a little tricky. The reason is that in each major part of it, there is a flagship game, and many people only play that game. Then other people play a bunch of games in that category.

Ameritheme (and light war-gaming): Axis and Allies and its variants stand on its own, but some people play a wide range of retro games and light wargames.

Eurogames: Settlers is in a class by itself, played by millions and millions around the world. For Puerto Rico and the rest, if you have play one, you probably often play others.


RPGs: D&D is the only RPG that non-RPGers (including other hobby gamers) are likely to know about. Many people only play or have only played it. But of course there are lots of RPGs. And another group of gamers often play a range of games.

Of course there are some close ones. WoD is close. And if we included LARPing then it would already be there. In time games like Pandemic or Dominion may sit besides Settlers. But we have to wait.
 

MasterYogurt

Villager
If your criteria is that the game becomes a "lifestyle" game for many players, Monopoly certainly wouldn't count. There are exceedingly few dedicated Monopoly players (I've met one of them, and he's someone with exceedingly average intellect who likes the Star Wars prequels). Most RPGs wouldn't count either - they tend not to sustain a dedicated following but instead there is system hopping. WoD and perhaps Savage Worlds might qualify.
 
As far as a game being a lifestyle choice, both GURPS and Hero System players tend to be quite dedicated to their respective games, and quite able to argue why.

For D&D, there is a question of how many play D&D because they truly do prefer D&D to other games, and how many play D&D because it is popular. That being said, certainly D&D is a lifestyle for some gamers, given the existence of games in play which span one or more decades.
 

Tony Vargas

Adventurer
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.
'A great many people' is relative. No RPG is played by a significant fraction of the population, even the population in North America among whom the first RPG was released over 40 years ago. And a lot of people who play RPGs do just play them to pass time and socialize. But, RPGs do lend themselves to a lot of hours of play, they're more elaborate than most other hobby games, that way.

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.
There are myriad variants or table-rules of Monopoly, itself, and no small number of imitators (that, like the original, weren't so well-designed, and unlike it, never became that popular).

Which RPGs could be called great games? Comments?
By those standards, no RPG has become popular enough to even be in the running. The few potential candidates are necessarily the earliest, most primitive examples of the hobby. Will some RPG shake out to be the Chess or Go or even Monopoly of future generations? Probably not, but it's not impossible...
 
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There is another thing that may need to be considered - fads have an effect on how something is perceived, and games that are now popular are, most likely, popular in part because they are different than games we, in general, previously played.
 

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