[NOTE: I use the term fun here loosely. There has been discussion elsewhere amid the intertubes about how the term “fun” isn’t meaningful in itself or that the word we should strive to use is “engagement”. I’m sympathetic to these views but find at present that “fun” is simply more accessible a phrase, if for no other reason, than it is the word most commonly used in everyday discussion to describe one’s relative sense of how engaging or enjoyable a particular gaming experience was for them.]
Games are about play, and play, I think, should be fun. If you’re having fun, you’re doing it right. If either the style of play or aspects of the game itself are creating barriers, however, then the approach needs to be reconsidered or remedied. That said, I tend to favor a constructive approach; one where I look at the mechanics, layout or other structures in games that have been a barrier for me, and use that as a springboard or inspiration for how I want to design my games. I can gripe about the weather or I can do something about it. With that in mind, here is my list of things I try to bear in mind when making a game; note that I may tweak or overhaul this list as my views on the matter change:
Start Simple, Work Towards Complex
I used to think I hated crunch; all the details, numbers and mechanics to keep up with. What I eventually figured out is that I hated front-loaded crunch; games that taught you to swim by tossing you into the deep end, then, after a few hours of not drowning, you got the hang of it. Kind of. Maybe.
Card and board games that pile deep concepts like phases, special abilities, and numerous mob types all at once, when the game is in its simplest form; Gaming sourcebooks that make you read the first 80 pages of text before you learn about how you can ignore the next 300; all of these work toward creating a barrier to some gamers that might find the initial exposure overwhelming, leading them to think that perhaps this hobby isn’t for them, or that it can be, but only after they’ve put in the requisite credit hours to receive a certificate in basic level mastery.
Alternately, what if you could work up to that level of complexity and crunch, but incrementally, starting with a few, accessible ideas up front, then as they grasp it, players then would be hungry and ready for more, at which time you could, bring in a couple of more mechanics at a time, until they have worked their way into the full game!
Yet another idea: what if you could start simple, as before, but then add a lot or just a little crunch to taste? What if you could play a card game or RPG that only got as crunchy and detail oriented as you wanted it to be?
Less Math is Good, No Math is Best
In some cases, a game can be flooded with calculations to make and remake depending on the weapon, class, active spells/artifacts, environmental conditions, topography, the specific enemy you’re fighting, and so on. It can get to the point that the player needs cheat sheets or special software to manage the numbers. Even in a simpler system, the modifiers and numerical outcomes of special abilities can add up.
What if there was a way to leave all that statistical cruft on the cutting room floor and still provide a compelling experience at the table? What if you just want to enjoy a beer and not worry if you have to metagame as a CPA once the buzz kicks in? What if you want more than a strict story system can give you but aren’t strong at math?
It’s apparent in many cases that it cannot be eliminated altogether, so here, it’s more a philosophy to be applied than it is a goal to be attained. Still, if it’s in the way, it can be mauled.
Get affordable, Stay Affordable
It’s exciting to know that in the case of many card games, this is already realized either because they are standalones with different flavored sequels or because they are “living” and one needn’t worry about the player who’s custom deck likely features a Visa Gold card. Can the price point be pushed here? I don’t know, but it would be interesting to find out.
In the meantime, many RPGs require either a large up front cost or provide an accessible initial cost, only to have supplements rise up to the all too familiar prices. The alternative, then, has been to do away with printing and simply to provide everything in an electronic format, but in solving one problem, have they created another? Do players want to have their entire IRL table gamming sessions relegated to tablets and laptops?
Keep it Tactile
A big part of video games is how you interact with them, how much bigger then, is the tactile experience a part of a table top game? You shuffle cards, roll dice, advance tokens , all while you the player are steering the course of events in your game. What you see, what you touch, engage you on the deepest levels and bring you front and center when playing your favorite titles. If any of this were lost, how much would you be disconnected? Conversely, if some is good, is more, better?
Don’t Leave a Player Bored
Sometimes fun is measured in sight and touch, in others, it’s measured in time. I have been stuck in a lot of games where I or other players will take our turn, then have nothing to really do or think about until it comes around to us turn again.
It’s usually at this point that players will start chatting with each other and/or devises come out to check updates in social media; they are still present and enjoying each other’s company, but the reason they are seated around the table is lost.
If, instead, you can develop mechanics that keep the pace up or give the player options for things they can do during the round, it can minimize that and possibly make the game more memorable.
When I develop a game, these gives me guiding principles to aim for so that at least I know I’m always making the sort of games I want to play and adding something good to the hobby.