Game design: Variety does not equal replayability

As a semi-active game designer, I’ve play-tested my fair share of games. I’ve also spent a lot of time pitching them to publishers, speaking to other designers and industry decision makers, and had lengthy debates on processes to do with developing games.

A recurring myth/mantra is that replayability, especially in family and euro games, requires a mass of different setup options or unique characteristics; that a game is only worth its salt if you can make the board modular, give the players individual traits and make the game artificially different every time. But conversely ‘the cult of the new’ dictates most gamers play a game a few times then move on.

I’d suggest this extra design time and effort is often a waste of time. While the percentage of published games is increasing exponentially, the amount staying in print is rising at a much slower rate. Designers and developers are flogging themselves to death creating variants which can be set up ‘X’ different ways for games which will likely sell a maximum of 5,000 copies and be played once or twice by each purchaser.

History: We’ve never needed variety

If you look at the games that have stood the test of time, they haven’t needed this kind of variety to make their reputation. Poker, Chess and Go – or modern classics Pandemic, Ticket to Ride and Carcassonne – couldn’t be simpler on setup and components. They rely on simplicity, randomness and interaction rather than powers, variable setups or asymmetry. Even Catan, with variable setup, uses everything in the box. Classic modern war and board games that have been in print for decades are usually similarly unburdened. Most games don’t need it to be successful.

Modern gamers: The cult of the new

When I got into the hobby, the focus for many was on getting good at a game; increasing your skill, trying new strategies and taking pleasure in beating regular opponents. Now many players seem to spend more time reading a rulebook than they subsequently spend playing the game. This makes sense for reviewers (for comparisons – and who often get games free, or cheaply), maybe for designers (for breadth of knowledge) and of course collectors (who have a different hobby), but for your average punter? It’s a strange phenomenon and change of focus.

Expansions: We can already bolster big games

We have a perfectly good system in place to add content to games that need them. People tiring of vanilla Catan, Ticket to Ride or Carcassonne can buy any number of expansions to keep the games fresh – but they waited for them to be popular before spending the extra design and development time. And look at recent SdJ winners that are still selling well: Azul, Kingdomino, Codenames, Hanabi, Qwirkle. None rely on complex setups, asymmetry, player powers etc, but many have seen expansions designed later to extend replayability. This seems perfectly sensible, surely?

Too many games, not enough gaming?

Many modern gamers look ravenously for a regular fix of new: we’ve created a monster. There are so many games, and so many ‘cult of the new’ players, that fresh titles get a tiny release window after which games are traded for an endless supply of other ‘new’ experiences. ‘Legacy’ games were the natural conclusion, but we’re already seeing this is a desperately creaking design idea. Beyond Pandemic and Risk Legacy, others have been tepidly received. And those first two games were, ironically, built on sound ideas with few moving parts; those classic design ideals we discussed earlier.

What’s to blame: Kickstarter, journalists, publishers or gamers?

For me Kickstarter has been, overall, detrimental to the industry. It has created a pre-sale culture rewarding perceived value over actual game play; and a consumer that accepts weight of box while hoping for a good game. Journalists fall over themselves to do paid previews, as its one of very few ways to earn money, while being ‘first’ gets viewers: the quality of coverage is by-the-by. Backers inflate BGG ratings and non-KS releases receive less coverage, giving mediocre games high rankings. Meanwhile traditional publishers, with built-in fail-safes and experience to help make better games, are being gazumped by small companies often flying on the seat of their pants – largely because traditional publishers aren’t being savvy to the new ways of operating.

Conclusions

Designing a game is already a huge challenge – and getting one published even more so. Do we need to artificially extend this process by adding so much variety to every euro and family game when most of them won’t make the cut when they hit retail?

While you may think it adds to its chances, the examples of the many simpler games that make it suggests otherwise: perceived ‘replayability’ options often simply muddy the water and increase production time and costs, while moving the focus of the reviewer/punter away from the game’s core elements. That’s what expansions are for.

I’m of course not saying asymmetry, player powers and variable setup aren’t fantastic tools for any designer and many games rely on them to work at all – from Cosmic Encounter through Marco Polo to Terra Mystica: they’re valuable tools of the trade. What I’m saying is there seems to be an obsession from journalists and publishers – and, following that now, many players – to call for something they really don’t need, or even really use, in the majority of (especially euro) games.

I also want to note Ameritrash and RPG crossovers need this kind of content: the likes of Gloomhaven, Zombicide and Imperial Assault rely on it to exist. But it seems the bleed from these into more traditional titles has reached epidemic proportions. What I’m really asking is, are the many hours of extra development seeing real value? Should we be adding masses of extra content, and price, to games which may only sell a few thousand copies and be played a couple of times per player – when we could instead support these games later, as we’ll do anyway, if they take a hold in the market?

Please consider this a jumble of thoughts, not as me looking for a row or crying for help: if you read anything like that into the language, I promise you’re mistaken. I design as a hobby and love the process, but as a reviewer I now open many games seemingly focused on the wrong elements; confusing the core game experience. I realise I probably haven’t put these thoughts together in the best possible way, but I’d love to hear your opinions on what I think is an interesting topic that merits discussion.

7 thoughts on “Game design: Variety does not equal replayability

  1. Pingback: Links: Variability, Rulebook Quality, and Game Classification | BoardGameGeek News | BoardGameGeek

  2. While I would like to agree with you, I just can’t regarding variable content in games. All of my favorite games have variable content because it allows the discovery of something new with each play, exactly as you mention. The games you reference from the Spiel des Jahres specifically avoid variability often because they’re designed to get newer people into gaming. Many of Queen Games offerings have limited setups because the age of their consumer (younger gamers, families) skews downward and prefers shorter setup times.

    In my mind, the perfect game for demonstrating my point is Libertalia. Everyone starts out with the same cards but as the game continues, players develop different strengths and abilities. The rules stay the same from play to play yet the game environment changes with each session.

    Thanks for the article!

    • I would agree with you on Libertalia, and I don’t think it goes against my point. As with Catan, Libertalia is a game where the variability is a core game mechanism – it isn’t tacked on. And you use practically everything in the box each play. All that changes is the order the cards come out in, and the fact you won’t see a few of them each game.

  3. Great read, but I couldn’t disagree more. I don’t know who these people are who only play their best games 2 or 3 times, but that sounds like madness to me. I’ve played my best Euros at least a dozen times, and will be playing them more. Granted, I often play using solo variants, which allows for quicker games.

    But this is precisely why I won’t buy “What’s your Game” games — because no matter how good they are, they don’t have any external variability. But I’ll by anything by the Italian designers — Luciani, Tascini, Gigli — because they know you’ve got to have external variability to make people feel they’re approaching things differently from game to game. (Granted again, a few of those Italians’ games require the expansion to get the variability, e.g., Tzolk’in)

    Thanks for the post!

  4. Hi Chris, I agree with you. Variety does not make a game better, and because of that, more played. Maybe variety has became a required element for the initial reception of a game, as a guaranteed added value. Consumerism has arrived to board games. This is something new, if you have more than 30/35 years old. Maybe variety is seen as a way to promote a game. Part of a reaction to a new industry.

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