Friday, November 21, 2008

In praise of short games

I like short games. I often find myself defending short games, and the preference for short games to other gamers, so I thought I'd write my thoughts down in a little detail.

First, definitions: A very short game is one that plays in 15 minutes or less. A short game is one that plays in 15-45 minutes. A medium game plays in 45-100 minutes. A long game plays in 100-180 minutes. A very long game plays in over 3 hours. That's how I use those words.

Part of my preference for short games comes from my opportunities to play. I don't get to game as much as I used to, and some of that limited time includes lunchtime gaming at work. But, my inclination toward short games extends back to before I had any such time constraints. The constraints have simply amplified the preference.

The standard argument is that longer games have more strategic opportunities, the ability to more thoroughly explore a game system, and overall to be "deeper". For the most part, I agree. The argument goes further something like, "If you're enjoying it, what's the difference between one two hour game and 4 half-hour games?". To me, a lot. This is the key, and why I prefer short games.

To get to the root of the issue requires deconstructing how I get enjoyment out of games. I enjoy the social aspect, it's part of why I don't do "online boardgaming" much if at all. I enjoy the decision making, but that's actually a small part. I enjoy the process: Going from a start condition where everyone is equal; adapting to random factors and other people's play; developing a strategy or strategies; picking tactics to execute that strategy; executing those tactics; resolving the endgame. The whole is far greater than the sum of the parts. The positive experience of a complete game, the beginning, middle and end, is greater than the micro-activity of "what do I do next". Each of those parts of the process has value in and of itself, not just "enjoyment per unit time". It's similar to why people presumably enjoy whole movies or TV shows rather than a simple collection of entertaining scenes. So, if the enjoyment of playing a good game yields 1 EP ("enjoyment point") per minute, I'd say the process of developing a strategy is worth 5-20 EP, on top of the time it takes. For each of the 5 or so "aspects" of gameplay, that often ends up being the dominant part of the fun. Plus, as mentioned, I like novelty/variety so I'd say most of the time I'd give a game a 1-10 EP bonus depending how long it's been since I'd played it.

Now, most very short games, and many short games have the problem that they don't have all that process in one game. They tend to be just tactical games (no strategy), or dominated by random factors, or insufficient variety to make the adaptation part meaningful, or trivial enough to make the execution automatic. But, say a good 30 minute game has obvious tactics given a strategy and a mundane endgame. This leaves it with 30 minutes of gametime, the adaptation aspect, the strategy development, and the execution. If each of these parts yields only 5 EP because, say they're more shallow than they might be in a longer game, then the game yields 45 EP, or 1.5EP/minute. Then, say I have a two hour game that has all 5 of the above aspects, but at a higher level of depth, so they're worth 10 EP each. This means that game is 170 EP, or 1.4EP/minute. So, I'd have gotten more EP playing 4 half hour games, even if I play the same one over 4 times. If I play different ones to get the "variety bonus", the gap widens. The specifics of this deconstruction aren't actually that important. It may be there's 10 aspects, not 5, etc. etc. The core is that there's something to "playing a complete game" which is more than just an activity.

Fortunately, there are some short and medium games that not only have all 5 (or whatever) of the above "aspects", but provide them with comparable quality to longer games. Race for the Galaxy is certainly one such game for me. It looks like Dominion may be too. But, on the flip side, longer games often suffer from a reverse problem; I used 1EP/minute as a baseline up there, but if the core activity of the game is more or less fun, that could be different. In a lot of longer games, I actually find the core activity is substantially less enjoyable. In some cases, this is why they're longer; they have 60 minutes of interesting stuff to do and 40 minutes of mundane manipulation or bookkeepping. This lowers their baseline rate and makes them less fun, for me. But, most shorter games don't quite hit enough of the aspects, while a 45-60 minute game usually does. So, in the end your 60 minute game which hits all 5 aspects at 5-10 points each, is just as good, or better, than the above-described hypothetical 30 minute game. This means I end up playing a lot of "medium" length games.

Finally, there's the issue of winning and losing. For the most part, my winning or losing doesn't have a huge effect on my enjoyment, but usually it is more fun to win than to lose, even if it's just a marginal effect. Other people's enjoyment also matters. In any game, one turn of bad luck, one error, or the confluence of small errors or luck can turn a game against someone. In a short game, it's over soon and the feeling of being stuck in a bad place resets. In a long game, you can get stuck there for a while. So, both because I would rather not be stuck with my errors or bad luck and because I don't want others' to feel stuck with errors or bad luck, it further pushes me away from long games.

But, there's an exception. There's a small number of very long games I like a lot. For example, Descent and Battlestations. These jump out of the above logic by being a lot of fun in the steady state, as an activity, unlike many long games, as well as usually having all the "aspects" in spades.

So, that's why I have a preference for short games, and obviously other poeple's structure/model for enjoying games may be radically different, but it's why I'll keep seeking out the Races of the world; short but complete and well-rounded games.

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