What Makes a Great Tabletop Game?

Of course the game needs to be fun and fun is in the eye of the beholder. Or is it in the gut? Anyway, we won’t go too far down that rabbit hole today. Specificity is key, so let’s narrow the question. What makes a great competitive game versus what makes a great cooperative game? Great competitive games need multiple ways for the player to win, while great cooperative games need multiple ways for the players to lose.
Sure. You can find fun in a non-complicated game with only one way to win or lose, and there are many games of this ilk. In fact, I enjoy countless simple, fast, and fun games, but we’re getting real specific with this question. Let’s say you have thirty minutes or more to play a game. You’ll want something with some complexity. In that case, you’ll want your competitive games to have multiple ways—or at least multiple strategies—for you to win.

I’m a fan of the Civilization video game series, and this series boasts the multiple ways to win banner. While Civilization: The Board Game (produced by Fantasy Flight Games) did a great job of converting the video game to the tabletop (perhaps too well as it takes at least three hours to play), I prefer Antoine Bauza’s 7 Wonders. 7 Wonders is a great example of a competitive game with multiple ways to win. You can dominate by means of culture, technology, economy, and military as well as eke out a victory with a combination of some or all four. Since you have so many ways to win the game, each time you play 7 Wonders changes, depending on how you intend to win and how your opponents choose to play.

The first time I played 7 Wonders I tried for a cultural victory. Quickly, I found that I needed a military as my peace-loving city-state was surrounded by Carthage and Sparta. If you’re thinking of the 300 movie just now, so was my son who was playing Sparta. I hemorrhaged victory points as Ty screamed, “This…Is…Sparta!”

It didn’t end well. I was too focused on how I intended to win going into the game than see that Ty was sitting next to me rocking Sparta and Alexander the Great. It really didn’t end well. Almost everyone at the table tripled my score. But that didn’t stop me from enjoying the game. 7 Wonders beats the pants off a game with only one way to win. But what about the competitive games that have one way to win but multiple strategies? These are the games that I tend to describe as deceptively complex.

Another Bauza game, Takenoko, does a great job of giving only one way to win a competitive game but countless strategies to accomplish the one goal. You still get variety in gameplay. I’ve played games of Takenoko where plot tiles went fast but not much of anything else, and other games where the community runs out of irrigation sticks but still has plenty of plot tiles. It works because of its variety. And this need for variety of gameplay extends to cooperative games.

Great cooperative games need multiple ways for the players to lose. How much of an accomplishment is a game where the stakes aren’t high? Not very. If you have more ways for players to lose in a cooperative game, victory tastes a lot sweeter, and you gain more variety in gameplay as you try to avoid the various ways of losing. Bauza has designed plenty of great cooperative games, but let’s concentrate on another great co-op game: Forbidden Desert.

Forbidden Desert buys into its theme of a relentless desert, and the players can die in many ways: thirst, massive sand storm, or getting buried by sand. Each player has a variable ability to help mitigate these ways of losing, but almost every game devolves into players adapting to what poses the biggest threat. If the sand dumps on you, start digging. If you don’t have a lot of time before the big sand storm hits, excavate fast. If you start to run out of water, dash to the nearest well. Since there are so many variables, no game plays the same twice, and the many ways to lose the game feed into those variables.
If variety is the spice of life, then multiple win or loss conditions are the spice of tabletop games.

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