How much of the board game experience is basic arithmetic? I know that there are some people who actively reject any game that resembles a static puzzle too much. They argue that the best gaming experience is gained through the messy, endlessly fascinating machinations of the other players. I have no argument against this. Some of the best games ever made turn their participants into mutual villains, conniving and backstabbing with cold psychopathic cruelty. A game that’s truly player-driven becomes both an intellectual and psychological exercise.
Still, I also love mechanical games. I don’t think “multiplayer solitaire” is a pejorative, but a description. I love burying myself in a Feld/Lacerda/Pfister creation, trying to find the optimal, most efficient path of resource collection, conversion, and expenditure. But am I merely doing some math homework? If so, is there anything wrong with that?
Where can a mechanical (for lack of a better descriptor) game go wrong? Obviously, it can be too simple. What counts as too simple is, of course, relative to the individual playing. A young child might find tic tac toe fascinating. I once saw a convention goer comment that a solidly heavy game was “too easy to figure out”, though that might say more about their ego than their skill. If we perceive that we’ve found the optimal path forward, turn after turn, without much effort, we’re probably going to tire of the game. I think people show so much concern for a game being “solved” or “broken” because they fear this experience, even if it might be implausible that they discover it.
A game could also err by being too evenly balanced, such that most options at any time calculate to effectively the same result. People talk about “balance” as an unequivocal good, but flipping a fair coin is balanced and isn’t a fun game. Balance is also more complex due to variability caused by random elements in the game. If option A has a 10% chance of giving you 10 points and option B has a 100% chance of giving you 1 point, both are balanced (without further context), but they might not be a good inclusion in the game. Regardless, if every option starts to look like a choice between six and a half-dozen, you’ll write the game off as dull.
Games can also be too obtuse, making calculation too annoying and/or long to perform. I’ve certainly had the experience where the veneer of fun slipped away because I realized I was jumping through so many awkward hoops just to understand the board state.
But the opposite has also been true when I play a board game online, where the computer automatically does some of the calculations. A game I might have once enjoyed starts to feel a bit thin, stripped of part of its flesh. Does that mean it wasn’t a good game in the first place, or that calculation was part of the appeal? I think it’s the latter.
Calculation works, for me, when it’s in that goldilocks zone of being challenging but not a chore. After all, puzzles are fun, so why would a game that more resembles a series of puzzles not be? I have three ideas for why I, and many others, enjoy this kind of game.
1. I saw a tweet a while ago from game designer Jennifer Scheurle that talked about how a fundamental principle games should recognize is a desire to be witnessed. I believe that calculation can give us a sense of accomplishment as we overcome an obstacle, and are witnessed doing so. We share, with others, in the delight of facing a challenge head on. There’s satisfaction in doing this by yourself, certainly, but I find that the satisfaction is magnified when I’m playing with others.
2. There’s a sense of tidying up in a turn full of calculation. You’re presented with a disordered mess of choices and consequences, and as you work through those options they start to come together into something simpler and more concrete. In that process you discover the most desirable option(s), which might be unexpected, and receive a positive feeling. Disorder to order; an incomplete vision to a path forward.
3. There’s something aesthetically pleasurable about a good puzzle, a cleverness and symmetry that hits in a similar way to a clever turn of phrase or unexpected plot twist. If a game manages to present to us a series of computational puzzles that exhibit those sorts of features, we start to appreciate the game design itself as an aesthetic object (system?) Mechanical games use the language of incentives to create ambiguity that the players must struggle with and attempt to solve. Why couldn’t that sort of language be beautiful?
I think back to one of my favorite college classes: general logic. The tests were designed for LSAT prep, so they were quite challenging logic puzzles with a truly brutal time limit. I’d exit those tests with almost a high, exhilarated by the 90 minutes of intense focus I just put my brain through. A board game can certainly stumble and feel like “merely” calculation. But a game can also capture a bit of that magic, spinning calculation into something satisfying and beautiful.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this subject. Do you like these sorts of mechanical games? What do you believe is the cause of our enjoyment of calculation in board games?