It’s hard to make a good game

It’s easy to come up with a new game; my kids do it all the time. But coming up with a good game, one that people will enjoy playing over and over, is really difficult. It needs just the right combination of luck and skill (or if not skill, at least the opportunity to make choices that influence the outcome). Grownups have fun playing Candy Land and Chutes and Ladders with their kids at first, because, hey, it’s their first game! But it’s not long before a game that is entirely based on luck becomes too much for the adults to bear.

Trivial Pursuit is a good game. It’s got a die for luck, but you get to choose which way to move around the board, and which categories to choose, and you have to know some things. The main drawbacks are that either you eventually have the whole deck of cards memorized, or you wind up pulling out your original deck of cards with questions from 30 years ago, and nobody can answer any of them. So occasionally you get a new deck of cards. (We recently bought a family version with different questions for parents and kids, and a shorter playing time, and it’s pretty good.)

But the Harry Potter Sorcerer’s Stone Trivia Game, which is Trivial Pursuit with Harry Potter questions, is a pretty bad game. For one thing, the entire deck of questions is drawn from the very first book of the series, so unless you have read that book recently and familiarized yourself with incredibly minute details, you’re going to get a lot of questions wrong and the game will go on forever. (Even my kids, who had just recently re-read the book, only answered about 1/3 of the questions correctly.) For another thing, the game adds on two or three levels of rules that feel like they were brought in from other games: ways to go to detention, or get out of detention, or curse another player, or defend with a counter-curse, or get extra points with a charm, etc. And like many games with complex rules, the printed rules don’t cover all the permutations of the different situations, so at some point you wind up making an arbitrary ruling that sends at least one of the kids into a tantrum.

Similarly, Knowledgewhich is kind of like family Trivial Pursuit, is not a good game either. It tries to differentiate itself from Trivial Pursuit by changing up the rules a little, but it winds being a little too complicated and a little less satisfying. Also, some of the questions are a little vague (and some of the answers are flat-out wrong), and some of the questions are not really appropriate for the age range to which they are assigned.

One of my favorite games is Set (you can play it online here). The concept is a little difficult to grasp at first (find three cards which, for each of four characteristics, are either all the same or all different), but once you get it the rules are very simple, and there’s a laugh of recognition when you tease out a “less obvious” set from what looks like a blocked board. And interestingly, though it seems like a grownup game because of the higher-order thinking involved, I find that kids do quite well at it. I taught both of my kids when they were about 4 years old, and soon they were beating the pants off of me; it seems that that kind of quick pattern recognition is something that young and malleable minds are very good at.

I have played a few other Set-like games, some from the same company that makes Set, and most of them haven’t been nearly as enjoyable. But one game in the same genus which has been an absolute favorite for the last six years is QwirkleIt’s like Set in that it requires you to look at the ways that objects are all the same or all different, but it changes the parameters up (six values on two axes, instead of three values on four axes) and also extends the game into a bigger playing space; instead of just identifying sets in a 3×4 grid of cards, you add wooden game tiles to the playing area as you go, so that each game differs from the others. It’s also like Set in that kids and grownups can play together without either side feeling either overwhelmed or bored. It has been one of our go-to family games since the day we got it.

Last night in our local toy store I saw a new game called Iota. It’s a further spin on the Set/Qwirkle idea: you add cards to a playing area, like Qwirkle, but the cards have four values on three axes, more like Set. I picked it up right away, and Rebecca and I sat down to play this afternoon. I was intrigued at first, and then slightly overwhelmed by the effort needed to keep track of everything in the playing grid and to find new places to put my cards. And then I made an unfortunate discovery: Because Iota, like Set but unlike Qwirkle, allows you to make a line in which all four cards are different along all three axes, it’s possible for any two cards to sit next to each other, regardless of whether they have anything in common. This makes it far too easy to keep chaining lines together out at the edges of the grid which are connected in only one spot, rather than thinking about how your cards might fit into the inside of the grid for more points (as the game flow in Qwirkle encourages you to do). And once I realized that, that I could just keep putting down cards with very little thought, I lost all interest in the game.

So for me, Iota — cross bred out of two of my favorite games — is a near miss, a great example of how finicky the alchemy of a good game can be. There’s a reason that the roster of games which you can find in stores year after year is pretty small.

Postscript: It occurred to me as I was writing this that Iota might be improved by disallowing sets in which the four cards are different on all three axes, so that any two cards next to each other have to have at least one thing in common. I’ll have to try playing that way.