This month, we’re writing a series of introductory articles about the many different ways to think about games and gaming. Last week, Alex wrote about what might motivate a gamer to play a game; today, I’ll focus on the games themselves, and I’ll discuss various means of classifying games and why those categories can be useful to a game designer.
Classically, the most common means of categorizing games has been by component. For some games, the parts that the game is played with, or the medium where the gaming occurs, is the single biggest factor in describing the game. Board games are played over a large, flat surface where pieces are moved around; Go, Sorry!, and Kingdom Builder are great examples of board games. Card games are typically played with a hand of cards and no board, and well-known examples of card games include Bridge, Uno, and San Juan.
But not every game is easily or completely described by its components. Settlers of Catan, for instance, appears at first to be a board game, and in fact most of the scoring occurs based on what happens on the board. But a significant amount of the decision-making and gameplay occurs in the resource and development cards that a player holds. Carcassonne uses neither a board nor cards but uses tiles to assemble the game space. Games like Jenga and Connect Four use three-dimensional structures that don’t resemble traditional “boards”. And even games like Monopoly and Poker, which most gamers would readily identify as a board game and a card game, hold significant information about the game state in non-board or card components.
Where traditional component-based classification doesn’t completely describe a game, a number of other categories can be helpful in thinking about games. A good alternative, and one used by a number of gaming sites and critics, is by mechanic. A multitude of mechanics exist, even more than components, but a few are common enough to form broadly useful categories. One of the most simple is the roll and move or track mechanic, used by games like Monopoly, where players move a randomly generated number of spaces around a track and deal with the consequences of whatever space is landed on. Territory control is a popular mechanic, particularly in board games, where the goal is to cover as much as of the board as possible; the classic example of a territory control game is Risk. Worker placement is more abstract than territory control; each player typically has a limited number of “worker” pieces that represent actions, and only one worker can occupy any given action each turn.
Other mechanics tend to be more associated with card games (but are by no means restricted to them). In set collection games like rummy, players try to assemble groups of pieces or cards before other players. Tableau building and deck building are similar in that players are attempting to acquire the best cards and either add them to their deck or play them into the field of play. Popular tableau building games include Race for the Galaxy, while Dominion is a recent successful deck-builder. Magic: the Gathering is a deck building game out of tournament setting and a tableau-oriented game during the actual gameplay.
Finally, certain mechanics describe actions taken during the game rather than the game’s goals. Auction games, like Power Grid, contain bidding scenarios among players to buy property or acquire resources. Drafting often involves cards, passing a “pack” of pieces around so that each player selects one; 7 Wonders is notable for its draft mechanic. Dice games feature rolling dice as part of movement, determining available actions, or resolving contests. Castles of Burgundy, among many other mechanics, is a dice game. But it’s also a set collection game and a tile placement game, illustrating that any given game can have several key mechanics.
Rather than classifying by components or mechanics, it can be helpful to look at a game’s weight. Weight is a somewhat abstract concept that refers to the intensity of the experience of playing a game. Low-weight, or “lighter,” games tend to be shorter, use less complex rules, and be more prone to variance; while high-weight, or “heavy,” games often are longer, demand more strategic decision-making, and have more serious or epic themes. Weight is not an absolute metric; it’s up to the opinion of the player, and two perfectly reasonable players could draw different conclusions about a game’s weight.
Probably the best way to get an accurate picture of weight is to crowdsource it, which BoardGameGeek has done a fantastic job of. (When we talk about weight, we’ll generally use BGG weight, in the same way that a baseball analysis site might use Fangraphs WAR.) Imperial, which takes a long time to play, has zero variance, and employs complicated and constantly shifting strategy, is a heavy game. In contrast, Fluxx, which takes only a few minutes and has only trivial strategy, is a light game.
Another important consideration for a game is its number of players. It’s only a useful classification to the extent that the number of players changes the nature of the game–a four-player game would be expected to play much the same as a five-player game. One-player or solitaire games pit the player against the game, needing to accomplish some goal subject to some constraint. Many solitaire games exist, for example, for a standard 52-card deck. In two-player, or head-to-head, games, players compete directly against each other. In a sense, two-player games are the purest strategic battles between two players, because each player only has to contend with the inherent variability of the game and the actions of his opponent, not the confounding strategies of other players. Most of the “classic” abstracts like Chess, Go, Checkers, and Backgammon, are designed as two-player games.
Contemporary board and card games are often designed as few-player games, which we’ll define as games for some finite number of players more than one–in practice, that’s often somewhere between two and seven. Few-player games, which span the entire range of games from Life to Puerto Rico to Scrabble, involve interactions among several different strategies, and a critical part of understanding their design is to consider how multiple different interactions fit within the scope of the rules. Conversely, many-player games are limited only by space or components, not by the rules. In principle, as many players who want to can play a many-player game, since the game’s mechanics are not directly tied to balance between or among players. “Party” games like Taboo or Pictionary are often many-player games, and although the rules assume a certain finite number of players, they’re easily extended to accommodate more.
One more system of classification is looking at a game’s goal. Strategy game players are used to games where the goal is winning, and the two are so closely related that we’ll also call winning-oriented games “strategy games.” In winning-oriented games, players are encouraged to develop strategies, make optimal decisions, and use the rules to form creative lines of play. Strategy games include most of the contemporary “Euro-style” games like Ticket to Ride, much of the modern board game canon including everything from Diplomacy to Blokus, and virtually all of the “trick-taking” card games including Hearts and Euchre.
But pursuing a strategy to victory is not the only motivation for playing a game. Some games are more oriented toward providing experiences. Experiential games are played more for the story, atmosphere, or interaction than necessarily for winning. The horror genre has produced some salient examples of experience games, including Arkham Horror and Betrayal at House on the Hill, and even Euro games are beginning to embrace more experiential designs, with games like Legends of Andor and Dixit receiving Spiel des Jahres honors in the past few years. Finally, some games are purely social, with some suggestion attached to the game for how to determine a winner but winning not at all the point of the game. Social games are among the popular contemporary games, especially to non-gamers; Apples to Apples is a great example.
Understanding different classifications of games is important to design because different players are motivated by different factors to want to play games. Alex already explored what psychological factors affect player motivation, and a game’s design parameters are another big factor in player motivation. Your friend who has always thought he preferred card games might simply be looking for a few-player game with set collection and deck-building mechanics. The girl who wants to play strategy board games to win might be happy with high-weight games using any component. And the guy who thinks he doesn’t like gaming at all might not have ever played the low-weight experiential game he never knew he wanted.
- What classifications would you add to this list? Are there any other categories you would remove?
- Does it still make sense to refer to games primarily by component in an increasingly multimedia era of game design?
- What categories are most important to you when playing a game? Would you rather choose a game by its mechanics and physical components or by its feel and its strategic weight?