Frivolous Friday: What Makes a Game Fun?


What makes a game fun for you?

I was in Austin last weekend (thanks again for the invite, Atheist Community of Austin!), staying with Russell and Lynnea Glasser. We spent a lot of time talking about games, what games we do and don’t like, what makes a game fun or not-fun for us. (We also played an awesome game of Slash.*) And I’ve been thinking about what qualities I look for in a game.

For games I play in person with people, I like games that can be dropped in and out of fairly easily. If someone walks by and thinks the game looks fun, I like to be able to deal them in; if someone needs to take a bathroom break or has to leave early, I don’t want them to feel like they’re disrupting the game. (Some of this bias comes from the fact that much of my game-playing happens at the Godless Perverts Social Club, where people often arrive late, leave early, circulate to socialize, or even switch games.)

A winning hand in Slash, the fanfic/ 'shipping game, in which Count Chocula is romantically paired with She-Hulk.
A winning hand in Slash, the fanfic/ ‘shipping game, in which Count Chocula is romantically paired with She-Hulk.
I like games that aren’t particularly competitive. I like games like Slash, Fluxx, Apples to Apples, or Snake Oil, where you can theoretically keep track of who’s winning but nobody really does and it’s not the point. There are exceptions — I’m very fond of Ingenious, which is quite competitive and even a bit cutthroat — but they’re rare.

(EDIT: Michael Dodd on Facebook said something that perfectly encapsulates what I mean when I say I want a not-so-competitive game: “I have a regular game night with good friends. One of my main criteria for a game is that it’s fun to play even when you’re not winning. I know this depends heavily on the attitude you bring into the game, but there it is.” Yes. That.)

I don’t like games where you have to count cards or remember what’s been played. I want to be able to figure out what to do based on what’s on the table, now. And I like games that don’t take too long to learn, and don’t take too long to play. Again, there are exceptions — I’m very fond of Chrononauts, a time-travel game that took me ages to figure out what I was even doing — but they’re rare.

For games I play on my phone or other devices, my criteria are very different. I have one large, deal-breaker qualification: I want my device games to be solo. I DO NOT want them to be multi-player or social. There’s a joke I often make about this: The whole reason I play phone games is that hell is other people. I obviously don’t think that (mostly), but I am very introverted, and I’m getting more so as I get older. I find human interaction with anyone other than my closest friends to be valuable but ultimately tiring. One of the main reasons I play games on my phone is to create a mental space I can withdraw in for a while.

Wordament high score 96th percentile
My go-to phone games are Threes, Wordament, and Klondike solitaire (the classic solitaire card game, with seven columns and building on aces and putting black tens on red Jacks). Wordament is pushing it, since you’re playing the same word-search grid with hundreds of people at the same time, and you’re scored against them as well as getting an absolute score. But the basic game mechanic is solo, and you can ignore your rankings if you want. And while you are scored against other people, you don’t actually, you know, interact with them.

I also want my device games to not take very long. I often play them when I’m killing time waiting for things (like waiting in line for coffee), when I’m taking a break from work, or when I’m getting ready to go to sleep. I don’t want to have to stop a game and re-start it and remember where I left off, just because my coffee order is up.

High score in Threes game of 87,444
I don’t, however, much care about having a clear “win.” In fact, until I was talking with Russell, it hadn’t occurred to me that this might be a preference for game players. I was showing Russell Threes, a game I’m completely obsessed with, and we had a brief but interesting communication breakdown when he was asking what the goal of the game was. I kept explaining that the goal was to get lots of high numbers, and he kept asking “But what’s the goal?” — and we finally realized that he was asking how you win the game, and I couldn’t answer, because there is no winning. You try to get the highest score you can before you lose. If you care about winning, you have to define what a “win” means for yourself. (For me, an acceptable outcome is when I get a 384 tile, a good one is when I get a 768, an awesome one is when I get a 1536 — and of course, an extraordinary one is when I beat my previous high score.) It hadn’t occurred to me until this conversation that having a clear win condition might be something game players might want, and might even be a dealbreaker.

And I realize this may be an unpopular opinion, but I’m going to say it anyway: For reasons I can’t fully articulate, I hate, hate, HATE Tetris. I can see the appeal, but playing it makes me anxious, frustrated, and actually angry.

So what makes a game fun for you? And what makes it not fun? What are your preferences — and your deal=breakers?

*I still think Rosebud the Sled would have made a better pairing for Bella Swan. Stiff, wooden, not very original, but somehow the object of obsession of someone far more interesting — these two are made for each other.

Frivolous Fridays are the Orbit bloggers’ excuse to post about fun things we care about that may not have serious implications for atheism or social justice. Any day is a good day to write about whatever the heck we’re interested in (hey, we put “culture” in our tagline for a reason), but we sometimes have a hard time giving ourselves permission to do that. This is our way of encouraging each other to take a break from serious topics and have some fun. Check out what some of the other Orbiters are doing!

Frivolous Friday: What Makes a Game Fun?

Frivolous Friday: Solving Candy Land

Candy Land box cover

One of my most vivid childhood memories is the day I solved Candy Land.

In game theory, a game is considered to be solved when the outcome can be correctly predicted from any position. To put it another way: Chess will be solved (if it ever is) when an optimal strategy has been found by which one player can always win (or both/all players can force a draw. In the computer world, solving games has long been an important benchmark, although “solving” a game is different from “being able to beat the best human players”: a computer first beat the world chess champion in 1997, but chess is not a solved game. (See the XKCD comic for a good, funny summary of which games have been solved, and which games are easy or hard for computers. Note: beer pong is on the list.)

I know what you’re thinking. “There’s no optimal strategy in Candy Land! The game is 100% luck! The outcome is entirely determined by the position of the shuffled cards, and there is literally no skill!” I know. I agree. Stay with me for a minute. Continue reading “Frivolous Friday: Solving Candy Land”

Frivolous Friday: Solving Candy Land

Frivolous Friday: Slash

I am in love with this game. Anywhere games are being played, I want to play it. And whenever I introduce it to a new batch of people, some of them are almost guaranteed to say, “This is awesome! Where can I get my own set?”

slash game box with cards

Slash is a slash-fiction/’shipping game, in which you pair up characters from different fictional universes and explain why they’re destined for romantic or sexual bliss. The basic game mechanic is very similar to Cards Against Humanity or Apples to Apples; the vibe is somewhat reminiscent of Cards Against Humanity, but it’s not at all mean-spirited. (I’ve actually gotten to the point where I don’t want to play CAH unless it’s with people I know really well.) Slash has a wild, rollicking, “I can’t believe you went there!” quality, but the basic tone is actually sort of sweet. (You can buy it or download and print their free version.)

There’s one set of cards, with names and brief descriptions: mostly fictional pop-culture characters (James T. Kirk, Morticia Addams, Josie & the Pussycats, Count Chocula, Godzilla); some literary characters (Lady Macbeth, Mr. Darcy, Dracula); some mythological and fairy-tale figures (Snow White, Zeus); a handful of real people, alive or dead (Madonna, Thomas Edison, the Marquis de Sade). Each player takes turn being the judge: the judge picks a card from their hand (“Match up She-Hulk”!), and the other players pick a card from their hands to pair up with that character. When all the cards are in, the judge reads the pairings out loud, and everyone takes a turn explaining why their match-up is the best, or making up a story about it. You can pair people up for a wild one-night stand, a tempestuous and doomed romance, the great love of their lives — whatever you like. (If a lot of people are playing, the judge picks their favorite three or four match-ups, and just those players explain or storytell.)

Slash pairing Count Chocula with She Hulk
Slash game: winning hand pairing Count Chocula with She-Hulk

What story would you tell about Count Chocula and She-Hulk? Continue reading “Frivolous Friday: Slash”

Frivolous Friday: Slash