Emma Larkins designed Abandon All Artichokes, ….And then we died, and Heartcatchers; she runs the Seattle Playtesting Meetup; and she is co-host of Ludology.
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When you’re talking about games, you can talk about them in a lot of different ways. We usually fall back to aspects like theme, mechanics, game weight and player count. But that doesn’t tell the entire story of a game, does it? You’re missing out on the player interactions and what players feel during the game if you just rely on these ways to discuss games.
For example, Magic: The Gathering has a lot of feelings to the game: opening the card packs, the tension of facing your opponent, the escalation as the game goes on, and the feeling of adrenaline when you get down to the last moves of the game to name a few.
However, in Tokaido, there’s no real escalation. You’re simply moving down the track without any truly intense moments in the game. It’s much like a chill vacation or an evening stroll.
Why is game feel important?
A lot of heavy hobbyist gamers focus on the mechanics when talking about games, but this can be off-putting to people new to the hobby. Even within the hobby, there’s some disagreement with terms like Set Collection. I know that I’ve been very disappointed a number of times when I thought I was going to be playing a game about set collection that actually wasn’t the set collection I thought it’d be.
There’s a period of time before gamers can easily tell what games they’ll probably like and won’t like, and being able to talk more in terms of feel can really help to match the right game to the right set of gamers.
You also want to be able to choose the right game for a particular mood. If you can match that up perfectly, the gaming experience will be so much better.
This can all be hard to communicate as language tends not to be super granular. Talking about mechanics and theme can start informing what the feel of the game is, but there’s more to it than just those aspects.
Art can also play a part in the feel of the game, but it can also be misleading. For example, Arboretum is a brutal and beautiful game about trees, which is unexpected as it looks so nice and peaceful.
The experience curve is how the game feel changes as you play it. For example, in Tiny Towns, you start the game with the ability to build anywhere in your town. As the game goes on, you have less and less space to work, and it escalates into a very high-stakes end game.
Most games have a different feel in the beginning, middle, and end of the game.
You can think about this in terms of how many choices you currently have and if there are any rails on the game that prevent you from doing anything.
You can also think about what parts of the game are exciting and/or if there are any big reveals. Having contrasts can make the exciting parts even more exciting. Downtime can be a very good thing if you use it in the right way.
One way we currently talk about games is weight: light, medium, and heavy. A light game doesn’t require a lot of brainpower, whereas a heavy one requires you to use your brain a lot.
Weight can mean a lot of things, though. As for time, usually light games are short and (typically 15-30 minutes), while heavy games can take hours. Light games are usually not that punishing, while heavy games can definitely be very punishing if you made a bad choice in the first 10 minutes of the game.
There are also other aspects that aren’t really part of the game that can make a game more or less heavy. Thematic games are less heavy as you don’t have to think as much if the actions are all intuitive. Bad graphic design or bad rules can make a game way harder than it needs to be. Even things like color choice can make a huge difference; if it’s hard to see the difference between blue and black, you’ll be forced to dedicate brainpower to differentiating them. If the colors were more distinct, this wouldn’t be an issue.
Breaking Game Weight Down
There are a lot of aspects to game weight that we could talk about individually to give an indication to players about why a game is heavy:
Game Time: the longer a game is, the more mental load it takes.
Thematic: the more thematic a game is, the more intuitive it’ll be and the less rules reading you’ll need to do.
Readability: if the graphic design and color choices are great, you’ll never care about them. If icons look very similar to one another, it’ll take more effort to play the game.
Complexity: how long does it take to explain the rules? The more rules you need to remember, the more you’ll need to keep in your brain every time you take an action.
Helper Materials: having quick-start guides, reference cards, lots of pictures in the rulebook, etc. can make all the difference in knowing how a game works. Anything a player doesn’t have to remember on their own lowers the game complexity.
We each have our own ideas of what words mean, but that doesn’t mean we all agree on the meaning of them. For example, set collection is a common phrase when talking about board game mechanisms, but it’s one that can be used in very different ways. We don’t have a shared dictionary of board game terms, but it’d be great if we did!
However, the fact that there are so many words and phrases in the board game community can be very off-putting to new gamers. No one has infinite time, so if someone has a bad initial experience, they might be turned off from all board games.
When to Care About Game Feel
Game feel should be something you care about from the very beginning of the design process. You want to think about what the experience curve will be, where the tension is, and how the drama unfolds. Does the game feel like drinking hot cocoa on a cool autumn day? If you have a good idea about what feel you’re going for, it can help direct where to go with the game as you develop it.
Game feel is something you should already care about, even if you don’t specifically try to. When you’re watching players play and you’re getting feedback, you’re doing this, but you might not be thinking critically about it all the time.
We don’t talk about our feelings enough as humans and it can be great to talk them about during playtesting feedback. Focus more on getting the feeling of the game from the players and don’t talk so much about the possible solutions.
If you’re playtesting and people aren’t being open with their feelings, you can try to do the following:
Make sure to listen very closely to what people are saying.
Focus on honing in on what players aren’t saying, hear where they’re pausing, and watch their body language.
Ask questions like: What was your experience here? What was going through your mind when this happened? This seems hard, what are you thinking?
Go to each playtester and make sure that they’ve said all that they’ve wanted to say to each question.
Mechanics and theme will never perfectly match the game feel because of the abstraction of the board game. However, you can try to get as close as possible and make a game that makes players truly feel something.
You can find Emma at the following:
Seattle Tabletop Game Designers Discord: https://discord.gg/Hxzdvp
Ludology Podcast: https://ludology.libsyn.com/