We like to start off each year tackling the big questions in game design. This year we’re going to look at fun and specifically the ideas that generate enjoyment in games. Our challenge is that no matter how much discussion we have, we’ll never come to a consensus on a definition of “fun”; we all enjoy different things and that is part of what makes this hobby so great. Fun is in the eye of the beholder and we won’t try to disturb this reality.
We still think there is an opportunity to look at lesser explored areas of gratification in games so this month we’re going to look at Satisfaction. These are tasks, ideas and emotions that can provide a sense of fulfillment in gaming even if it may not lead players on the gigantic roller-coasters and thrill-rides we might ordinarily identify as “fun”.
So what is the value in satisfaction? These are some basic building blocks that can lead to fun in games. Some of the examples we’ll talk about might even be exactly what you find fun in game and this is where personal preferences chime in. More than likely, I’ll be describing some of the things that break up the monotony of games you don’t like or bring a smile to your face even if you don’t ever want to play that game again.
When it comes down to it we think this categorization has merit because whether you love or hate games, there is a middle-ground to find appreciation for a well-designed or aesthetically pleasing game even if you and I don’t find it to be fun in any traditional sense.
What is Satisfaction?
When I think of satisfying tasks both inside and outside of gaming I think of completing a big project like a large area in Castles of Burgundy. I think of checking items off a list like developments in Roll Through the Ages. I think of barely pulling off a risky proposition like completing an entire column in a single turn of Can’t Stop.
These things don’t necessarily fill-up my metaphoric Fun-O-Meter on their own, but they are some of the little things that add to my appreciation for these games and contribute to my willingness to play again next time. Whatever the end result is, I can point at something and say “I built that“. Sometimes “that” ends up being my eleven tile unfinished city in Carcassonne, but still, it’s about the little things.
The Player Motivation Approach
One of our earliest articles applied David McClelland’s Need Theory as a way to describe what can motivate us as players and these motivations correspond quite closely to how much fulfillment we can receive from playing games. Three of the most common motivations we’ll find among gamers are the need for Power, the need for Affiliation and the need for Achievement.
Appeal to Power
There isn’t much quite like having a super power. At least that is what it can feel like when you get to have special authority in games. Maybe you get set limits on other players or maybe you get to choose the final outcome of a big decision. Players who are motivated by power enjoy observing their actions change the environment around them. For everyone else, simply getting an exclusive license to influence will always be satisfying.
Idea #1: Empowerment
One of the simplest approaches that allows a player to feel powerful is to literally give them legitimate power or authority over their opponents.
Santiago and (Traders of) Genoa are both offer legitimate power by deviating from a traditional turn structure. Rather than you and I taking turns executing our own preferences, these games rotate an active player who gets the final say in what happens each turn. As a result, all the other players will bribe, promise, beg and negotiate in order to get what they want done on a turn.
This is a wonderful way to provide legitimate power to a player to make them feel important or privelages. Perhaps I really need a certain area to be irrigated in Santiago or go to a specific location in Genoa. If it is currently your turn to be the active player, you hold all the leverage so you can listen to my offers, listen to other players, or perhaps ignore all of us and do exactly what you want to accomplish. Of course there is power in negotiating, since at some point I’ll become the active player and you’ll need to do something on my turn too. This method places a spot light on one player each turn and allows that person to be the center of attention. Nothing happens on your turn unless you say it can happen, but just try not to let all that power go to your head.
This is part of the enjoyment in playing Sheriff of Nottingham, a game where the player who is the Sheriff has the chance to audit their opponents. Most of the players each turn will act as merchants, who are placing legal and sometimes illegal goods into their bag before declaring the hidden contents of the bag to the Sheriff. The role of Sheriff has the potential to make mistakes in this game as opening bags of only declared legal items causes a penalty. Still, it is a satisfying position to be in because you can receive bribes and intimidate merchants. At the very least they have to visit your office at the Nottingham Dept. of Customs where you can provide a strong sense of the term “bureaucracy”.
Even providing legitimate power on a smaller scale can be an effective tool. In Cash & Guns players use foam guns in a Mafia standoff where players will (on the count of three) point their foam gun at an opponent with the threat of playing a “bang” card which knocks the target out of that round. The goal is to (wisely) not get shot in this game so you can stick around and split up the loot sitting in the center of the table with any other survivors. The source of empowerment I thought was most interesting in this game was the Godfather role, which allows that person to tell someone who is targeting the Godfather to point their weapon elsewhere. It’s incredibly fulfilling when you know your friend is out for revenge and you can wag your finger at them and say “not today”.
One more possibility is the communal ownership approach we see in games where players collectively have “shares” of the same entities or pieces. Players in Imperial purchase investment interests in various European countries, but only the player with the greatest level of ownership influence gets to control the actions of that country on their turn. This is probably the one of the more common approaches to provide players legitimate power over others (and their interests) in games.
Idea #2: Break the Rules
Another approach is to provide players the rulebook, but then give players various opportunities to acquire special allowances to break the rules.
The variable player powers assigned in Pandemic and Cosmic Encounter generally allow each player to ignore some part of the rules explanation they heard only a few minutes ago. This approach is interesting because you get to do something your opponents cannot and exclusivity is a powerful concept in game design. Additionally, its rare (at least for me) to get through these games without someone at the table commenting about how they wish they had someone else’s power this turn. Even when players don’t say it, they’re almost certainly thinking it. Maybe it is just a matter of the grass is always greener, but it feels pretty good to hear the envy of the special power you’re holding.
The most common method to allow players to break the rules is probably to all them to acquire an object in the game that carries this special exception or immunity. Firenze, King of Tokyo and Spyrium are just a few games that offer cards that provide a nice benefit that has predominance over the standard rule set. Small World and Mykerinos include special powers that allow players onto restricted areas, perform enhanced tasks or otherwise do something the player isn’t ordinarily able to do.
Appeal to Affiliation
Much of the draw of tabletop games is the ability to connect and share an experience with other players. Players who are motivated by affiliation enjoy collaborating with others and finding solutions. For everyone else, the social aspects of games can create immense feelings of satisfaction in both cooperation and competition.
Idea #3 Teamwork
It probably isn’t surprising that cooperative games show up on this list; it can be a powerful experience to win and lose together. Being asked to carry out your role in a team environment is a great way to make players feel important, wanted and needed. Pandemic is one of the best examples as every player has a unique role that can benefit the team. This allows players like the Medic to specialize in targeting the biggest threats while the Scientist focuses on collecting sets of cards.
Role playing games frequently utilize this specialization idea as players are asked to play a crucial role in the party. It can be immensely satisfying when a player can deliver on the expectations of their character role. One of the underrated aspects of this approach is that players can find it engaging to communicate and strategize to improve the position of their teammates. It’s nice when teammates are looking out for you.
Team allegiance is a really great tool to allow for players to bond with others even in a brief period of time. La Boca is a puzzle game where two players each round take center stage with the goal of working as a team to arrange a puzzle solution while looking at it from opposite perspectives. I think La Boca approaches the ideal setting for an “icebreaker” role in tabletop games because you end up paired with all the other players and in less than thirty seconds you can bond with someone over a simple puzzle. There is something special about joining forces with a new friend to complete an objective.
Idea #4: Freedom and Creativity
Party games have frequently tried to create this same social bonding experience. The problem is there are only so many ways you can draw “Valentine’s Day” in Pictionary or act out “ice fishing” in Charades.
One of the things I find most satisfying about Dixit is the inherent freedom to give clues since there is incentive to provide a cryptic description. This (relatively) blank canvas gives the active player creative license to say whatever they would like. There isn’t much more satisfying than calling out a very specific reference and having someone realize it on the other end. Even if it doesn’t always work, the memorable connections stick with you long after the game is over.
On the receiving end of these types of clues, it can be just as satisfying to experience the “Aha!” moment associated with figuring out the relevant clue. I find this experience to be satisfying as in A similar approach is also present in some of the more nuanced techniques when playing Hanabi.
In Hanabi, a blend of desperation and opportunity encourage risky clues for a group trying to achieve the perfect score before the deck runs out. When playing with an experienced group for the first time, you’ll inevitably get a clue at some point that doesn’t immediately make sense. Working through the information and logic to figure out what other players are thinking and then playing accordingly is incredibly satisfying. When everyone is on the same page this game really shines.
Idea #5: Positive Reciprocity
If you’ve ever had experience in sales, there is something special about closing a deal that is immensely satisfying. You’ll often have to navigate hurdles and restrictions to find reasonable terms for everyone involved, so making a deal that leaves everyone happy can lead to a very gratifying sense of accomplishment. Finding common ground in negotiations with your opponents is one of my favorite moments of satisfaction in games.
The mechanics of Bohnanza include every opportunity for these types of negotiations. Sometimes I’ll be holding cards that can give me leverage in trading, but I need to get rid of it. Other times I’ll be stuck in a rut trying to give away two bean types no one has interest in. Undoubtedly there are some malicious tactics to bury an opponent in this game but generally players will succeed long-term by harvesting goodwill and cultivating acceptable conditions for everyone involved. It feels good to develop win-win deals when you know that person is a likely trading partner in the future.
Appeal to Achievement
Our final motivation appeals to the desire to set and accomplish goals. Players with a primary motivation of achievement prefer tasks of moderate difficulty and prefer to take risks in order to meet their expectations. Ideas relating to achievement are probably the ones that most of us can relate to in terms of satisfaction rather than fun.
Idea #6: A Sense of Accomplishment
Whether or not a game is especially fun, it can be incredibly rewarding to look at the final product of your creation and feel like it was effort well spent. Games that allow us to create something that didn’t exist before can provide nearly all the enjoyment we look for in games.
Whether we’re building a city, a trade empire or a tableau, the visual appeal of observing our actions come to life enriches the experience. There are countless examples but building up a town in Le Havre, an energy network in Power Grid, a casino in Vegas Showdown or a galactic empire in Race for the Galaxy are just a few intrinsically rewarding projects that we can complete in games.
A similar affection can come in the form of set collection as in games like Ra!, Coloretto or Medici. Being assigned a goal to collect and successfully acquiring more of that item for your collection can provide satisfaction even when we probably had little attachment to any of the items at the beginning of the game. Placing the final piece that completes your collection on the last turn of the game is a special moment.
Idea #7: Challenge
Game design has always pushed increasing levels of difficulty as a way to motivate players and keep them interested in games. This is probably more directly observable in video games but board games have their own opportunities to challenge players.
Pandemic‘s intensification mechanic of reshuffling the most recent infection locations causes the game to incrementally become more and more difficult. This difficulty causes concern and uncertainty which allows for relief when a small problem can be resolved. One of the best parts of Pandemic is when the group cures a disease and the Medic becomes Super-Medic and can remove all those pesky cubes in a single bound. The cubes represent an embodiment of our greatest fears and watching them evaporate when medicine woman visits town provides an impressive sense of relief.
Challenge can also be generated by restricting player resources, most notably the available time. Enigma, Turbo Taxi and Ricochet Robots all present tasks of moderate difficulty where the tension is in racing to the solution faster than your opponents. You may not win very often, but it is a satisfying feeling when you manage to figure out a puzzle before anyone else.
In many ways a renewed challenge is precisely what we seek from the replay value in a game. Variable set-ups and unpredictable starting conditions can make plenty of games feel like a new puzzle to solve each time.
Idea #8: Goal Completion
I enjoy games that let ask me to carry out some sort of specific plan. I don’t necessarily find the task tiles in Bora Bora or the cards in Planes to be remarkably exciting or fun to complete, but it is pleasant to finish each turn by ticking something off my list, frequently because of things I’ve been working toward anyway.
A neat approach to this idea is the ability to select your own starting goals. An older game called Careers is probably the most interesting in this arena since players have almost complete freedom over deciding personal victory conditions before the game. In modern games, having the ability to hand pick your initial objectives and scoring bonuses provides a sense of attachment that make it even more satisfying to complete what you set out to do at the beginning of the game. Castles of Mad King Ludwig, Strasbourg and (of course) Ticket to Ride do a great job with this approach.
Idea #9: Rewards and Benefits
The psychological benefits of receiving rewards can never really be overstated. Getting extra stuff for completing small goals in some of the games we just listed is a great way to pack a one-two punch of satisfaction for players. Many games that use a “point salad” technique such as the previously mentioned Castles of Burgundy capitalize on the immediate gratification players can experience from scoring early and often.
Terra Mystica manages to maximize the opportunities to reward players during the game. When Matt initially taught me the game I felt like I was getting awesome new stuff all the time whether it was a bonus tile for upgrading to a temple or a city tile for building a large city or even additional power just for living in the right neighborhood as someone doing awesome things themselves. It’s a really great feeling because even though I was probably getting destroyed in scoring, I felt like I was doing something right.
The ability to see the fruits of our labor in games is both a powerful motivator and a satisfying result in games. This is a strength of games that provide bonus turns or actions during game play. It can be truly satisfying to unlock extra turns or actions by earning an Ingenious or fulfilling a Trajan tile. Both of these go back to our earlier idea of power and making players feel special in games. Getting to do something more than usual or chaining multiple actions together can provide a gratifying sense of “That was a really great turn, I just blocked Alex’s last hope of victory in this game.” At least I think that is what it probably feels like, I…I’ve never gotten to experience that joy but I’ve heard it is wonderful.
Idea #10: The Perfect Move
This is one we probably don’t often think about but I enjoy when every so often the stars align and I can make that perfect move I’ve been waiting all game to perform. We’re usually looking for games that provide interesting choices and agonizing decisions but sometimes it just feels good to have everything fall into place. Some games seem to have this in their DNA; maybe I’m not sure what I need to do on most turns in Castles of Burgundy because there are so many tiles available. As turns go by, my player board develops and there becomes a clear priority of “Let’s take this tile and fill in this area to maximize score.” We’ll probably never admit it but it helps when we can periodically make a move and never have to second guess ourselves.
In many ways I think this is the greatest strength of Carcassonne since every so often a player draws exactly the tile they need to complete their city or close off their road. While drawing the right tile at the right time isn’t a skill, it does provide the sense of validation for a new player that what they have been working toward is worth it.
There are a number of other games that seem to provide this sense of fulfillment. Backgammon has enough opportunities to roll dice that a player might get that perfect roll they need swing the game in their favor several times in a game. Drawing the right hand at the right time in Dominion or drawing the perfect card we’ve planned for in Lost Cities are very fulfilling even if it is simply a mixture of long-term decision making and well-timed chance. These are the little moments we cherish in games; the ten second turns that feel like tiny victories.
My favorite example is probably Automobile, in which players produce inventory each turn and then try to sell all of that inventory each turn. It can be a horribly unforgiving game under the wrong conditions; if you under-produce inventory on a turn you’ve left significant profit on the table when cash is your final score. Even worse is when you over-produce because you not only lose the excess inventory but you get penalized on top of it. Periodically in the game someone manages to produce the perfect quantity and for that player at that moment, all is well. I think we all like to be Goldilocks when the porridge is just right.
I hope I managed to convey how I like to think about satisfaction in games. For some players “fun” might come from winning, but I like to think satisfaction comes from playing; we like to achieve, we like to have power and most of all we like to do this in the company of others. It is human nature.
A few takeaways from compiling these ideas:
Takeaway #1: We should be looking to achieve net-positive satisfaction.
It’s pretty awesome to unlock that special ability that lets you walk all over your opponents for the next three turns. It isn’t not very enjoyable to be on the receiving end as that city you’ve spent the last two hours building gets trampled when “Player Godzilla has entered the game”.
If you’re going to appeal to a player’s sense of power, the recipient’s improved satisfaction should outweigh the collective setbacks the opponents will experience. This seems obvious but a lot of games still get this wrong. This is partially why games that take a positive route tend to have an easier route to success; getting to take a bonus turn is great for you and not terribly excruciating for your opponents.
Takeaway #2: Satisfaction is usually derived from smart restrictions in games.
Freedom is a fascinating subject in game design. Open-world video games like Grand Theft Auto have had success by deviating from the linear approach of video games. But the nearly unrestricted freedom in these games causes me to feel a sense of information overload. If I’m seeking a sense of accomplishment, there is almost too much to do it can feel almost like a chore to play just to reach the various milestones in the games.
The parallel to tabletop games is a smart ruleset. Set the rules, then give opportunistic chances for players to break them like in Small World. Provide players a few useful tools and let them find a creative solution like in Dixit. Lock all the doors and let players figure out if there is an open window. Smart restrictions in games can lead to emergent game play and cut down on the paradox of choice.
Takeaway #3: The summit of Satisfaction is when a game finishes at the perfect time.
One of the commonly cited catalysts of fun is the when we want to do everything but are unable to do so. This thought effectively summarizes three bigger ideas related to satisfaction:
First, the restriction of time is intriguing because you don’t get to explore every option. If you get to experience everything you can do in a game, you’ll probably have little incentive to play again since there may not be anything new to explore.
Second, it is incredibly satisfying to succeed under pressure; there is an underrated sense of relief of putting the final brick into place with no time to spare. Takes me back to the days of writing papers the night before they’re due; I (probably) didn’t make the ideal decisions to reach that point but I got to use words like “clutch” the next day until I passed out from sleep deprivation.
Third, games that finish at the right moment don’t rob us of the satisfaction we’ve already gained. A game like Terra Mystica usually ends right around its highest point. Sure, the game could probably go one or two more rounds but by then some players would be boxed in with little remaining that they can do. A game that overstays its welcome will start to detract from the positive experiences we’ve already had.
Next time we’ll look at dissatisfaction in games; both big and little ideas that can detract from our enjoyment. Now if you don’t mind I’ll get back to punching out all the cardboard pieces of my latest order and crunching the bubble wrap it came in.