Throughout this month we have been exploring Dimensions of Games: Complexity, Player Count and Game Length. These are three criteria commonly listed on the side of a game box whose impact blends together to create game Utility.
Utility is defined as the usefulness of something, the ability of a product or service to satisfy needs or wants. For the purposes in this article, utility is simply a compound of game design elements which help to define how and when a game can best be played. Players acquire games for a purpose and maximizing the opportunity to play them can be a beneficial design goal.
Games can increase utility through a reduction of complexity. Gateway games increase utility effectively by providing a welcoming environment to newcomers in the hobby.
Games such as Settlers of Catan and Carcassonne introduce a whole new world of gaming to a wide audience with just a few rules that build on familiar game concepts. Games with low complexity have a high utility as they can be brought to a table full of gamers and non-gamers alike.
TransAmerica built on the idea of being the first player to connect their five cities. New players don’t have to worry about selecting which cities would give them the best opportunities or be concerned with not playing well and having an embarrassing score. The gameplay of TransAmerica depends on players using the infrastructure of opponents the most effectively, with many rounds ending with everyone interconnected and the winner only marginally more efficient than the remaining players.
TransAmerica has a high utility as it removes most of the reasons why a new player may be hesitant to play and it can be suitable for a wide audience.
Games can increase utility through a reduction of game length. Time is a constraint for everyone when it comes to games and a brief window of opportunity often forces a dichotomy between a short game or no game at all. Games labeled as “fillers” and microgames have capitalized on utility by narrowing the gameplay to a few simple mechanics, ideas or tasks.
A game of Coup can play so quickly that it can often take longer to explain how to play. It can be played at restaurants before the meal comes or while waiting for people to arrive at a game night. Games are easily reset and the time to play is fairly consistent. The utility of Coup comes from its small package and compact playing time.
Games can increase utility through an expansion of player count. A game which supports 2 to 6 players will have more utility than if it could only support 3 to 4 players assuming it can scale the additional to the player counts effectively. Social and party games are expected to handle a larger spectrum of potential player counts as a way to ensure a higher utility in the game.
The Resistance requires at least 5 players to conceal a number of spies but has the ability to seamlessly scale to handle up to 10 players.
If The Resistance could only handle 5 to 6 players it would lose a great deal of utility. The gameplay wouldn’t be any less enjoyable, but would lose the flexibility of accommodating a group larger than 6 players entirely. I keep a copy of The Resistance in my car because it scales so well but I probably wouldn’t think to do this if it only supported 5 to 6 players.
- Did an unexpected bonus guest show up to your 6 person gaming group? Wonderful, now we can play with 7 players.
- Do two people need to leave early but don’t want to prevent the group from continuing? We’ll play the next game with 5 and we look forward to seeing you next week.
The Resistance gains utility simply by being flexible in the social conditions in which it already thrives.
Utility is impacted by a wide range of ideas in game design and these are three that are under the greatest control of game designers. Utility isn’t defined by short playing times and low complexity levels but by the enjoyment players get from playing a game and the conditions in which it to get it to the table.
As you’re working through your game design, consider if you can increase the utility of your game by reviewing these three criteria and see if it can improve in that one area. Your game design will benefit and your abilities as a game designer will improve as you approach your design goals.
Matt and I have really enjoyed the thoughtful discussion from the many gamers and designers this month and we hope you’ve enjoyed reviewing these topics with us. We hope you’ll continue to join us in discussion in the months to come.