What makes games great

Image by James Naylor based on
In my day job, I run the product department of a technology company. But I’ve always loved boardgames: playing them, analysing them and most of all, designing them. Over the last few years, I've realised that the business of making great games and my day job were much closer than I previously thought.

Great software and great boardgames are great for the same reason

On its own, slick software engineering can make something easier to maintain, a pleasure to work with or an impressive technical marvel of itself. But it's only when all of that engineering is completely orientated to a user's need that it becomes a great software product. On one hand that sounds obvious - who else but users are products for? But if you really think about it, it means every single one of the literally thousands of tiny decisions that go into a product need to made purely, totally and wholly to help someone do something as fluidly as possible. From the tiniest decision about the instant intuitive value of a button colour to big architectural decisions about data structure that will shape basic capabilities for years to come; from the intrusiveness of a single animation to an infrastructure that can scale across continents with barely a moment of lag. That's a true user obsession.

But boardgames are even more interesting

But great boardgames are, for me, even more interesting because of what they to do for the people that play them. They are there to make people feel something. It's not them being clever or ingenious pieces of engineering that makes them wonderful. It's the total alignment of every tiny decision that was made by their creators to make the play experience the best it can possibly be: The quiet pleasure of seeing a brilliant strategy perfectly executed, the moment of tension when a whole game will hinge on the draw of a card, the physical sensation of handling a carefully crafted miniature, a shared outbreak of laughter between good friends. Every decision that is not about making those things happen is a missed opportunity. For the product obsessive these games are wonderfully pure exercise in beautiful product design: There’s no code to write and maintain and every component is something a person touches, sees or uses. In a humble and usually unremarked way, the application of many different arts and sciences are needed to bring these games to life: writing, illustration, game theory, graphic design, sculpture, statistics, sociology, psychology - and even drama - if you’ve done a really good job. All of these are then woven together in something that is nothing but interactive. And of course unlike most software products... they're fun!

I'm more interested in why games are great than which games are great

There are so many great board game reviewers out there already. The question that really interests me is what lies behind their greatness. Partly this is just because I love games and I enjoy analytical writing. But I have an ulterior motive. My personal dream is to make great games. And what better way to improve the odds of doing so than doing my best to understand the success (and the failures) of those that have come before me? In the end, everything I do will be built on the shoulders of game design giants. It's a dangerous thing to set out your blog intentions in your first post - dare I say the original blogger mistake? It's even more dangerous to set yourself up for an almighty fall by exposing your designs to the world after you've spent time analysing everyone else's games. But I see it as something to live up to: a challenge to be beaten or even a game to be won. And what greater satisfaction is there than winning a game? Featured image based on "Meeples Keyboard 2" by jitterbug, used under a creative commons license.

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