How we react to games on an emotional level is an important aspect, and not just be a gracious winner and loser. You can get my thoughts on that here. Instead what I”m talking about this week is how fair we perceive the game to be, to what extent are we, as players, at the mercy of variance and similar matters. A game can still have solid mechanics but if the way in which it conveys those mechanics is negative then it can’t really be called that good a game. This is also important as it explains the thought process in part to my review process.
To start with, there are a few assumptions underlying this that should be stated for the purpose of being thorough. First and most importantly I’m taking about games that are actually meant to be games, so Zombie Dice doesn’t count. Second, winning is good and having a positive play experience is important, otherwise you all could fiddle with decks of cards while hanging out.
A game should be about managing luck, not being at the mercy of luck. Variance is an important part of the hobby, otherwise we’d all be playing chess. An example of game about managing luck would be Ticket to Ride; most scenarios in the game boil down to how lucky were your draws, how lucky did your opponents draw and what are you going to do about it. An example of the latter would be Race to the Galaxy, while it is a game I like; it also has the tendency of locking a player out who doesn’t draw anything to create a cohesive plan. The worst case of the latter is where you have no basically no input, like Munchkin or Fluxx. When I’m complaining about luck, this is what I’m going to mean. This is also the reason that I can never be a serious tournament player in MTG, the times when you just don’t play get to play Magic are rather common.
A game should not be fair in the abstract but feel unfair. What this basically means is that a game can mathematically fair but if it isn’t grokkable then it will just create a miserable play experience. I’m told that this is my problem with Small World, but considering how much I hate that game I’m honestly not that inclined to look into it. In general this is something that an asymmetrical game needs to avoid with players at equal skill levels but is probable with new players.
Victory should be quick. I touched upon this a long while ago here, but I feel it’s worth repeating. As much as I like winning, I don’t want my win once evident to take a long time, nor do I want to suffer through someone else taking a long time to win.*
These are the three main pillars of how games can elicit emotion in players and affect how we perceive them. There’s little that we can do about it as players except understand it and consciously think about these issues when evaluating games.
*This is actually a problem with MTGO, specifically with combos as you have to do each step manually instead of automating it once you demonstrate the combo.