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The Worst Board Game Ever? May 18, 2012

Posted by Tim in General.

Part of the reason for this blog is an attempt to order my thoughts on Board Games in general. Behind all the coloured counters, exotic cards and unusual dice are abstract rules and relationships which fascinate me in themselves, and many of these are intricately bound up with notions of what makes a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ board game. Like any good Morat, I want to understand what makes a good board game, which is a tricky thing. One way to approach this is by elimination – by understanding what makes a board game bad.

For this exercise, I’m using the excellent BoardGameGeek website as a helpful resource. It’s the Internet! I need a list made by anonymous peers to validate my opinions, damnnit! It’s a large online resource and community for this sort of thing, central to their remit is a massive list of board games, all rated by players. Sorting this list in reverse ranking order produces this page:

Boardgame Geek: Browse Board Games, sorted by descending Rank

The page is a bit of an eye opener, and scrolling down reveals most of the ‘Classics’ I remember from childhood, and indeed, these titles will be the first thing many people think of when they think ‘Board Game’. Operation, Monopoly, The Game of Life, Hungry Hungry Hippos, Battleship, Guess Who, Yahtzee, all names that most of us will be familiar with, the stuff of rainy caravan holiday weekends. Most of these have remained fundamentally unchanged for decades and can all be found in toyshops today without too much searching.

And yet an online community of board game aficionados have downrated these titles by the hundreds, marking them as subjectively bad game experiences. Sorting the list the other way, by Highest rating, shows a page of names that most people won’t have heard of. I think I’ve only ever played six of those to date and hadn’t heard of any of them two years ago. Clearly my own credentials are suspect and I have much to learn!

The three ‘worst’ games in the list are interesting though. I didn’t know there were 7958 board games, but apparently 7955 of them are better than Bingo, and I think I’d agree. The basic gig with Bingo is a kind of extended lottery system; each player has a grid of numbers, a caller reads out random numbers and players tick any that match their grid off. First player to tick all their numbers off wins. There are variations based on getting all the corners or lines of numbers, but the basics are simple enough, and are the cornerstone of a huge industry of entertainment venues throughout the UK.

I actually went along with a family member to one of these Bingo Halls once, as a kind of UN Observer, and it was a surreal experience with an almost quasi-religious feel to it; altar, ritual, high priest, litany, hushed veneration… The game itself is highly computerised in this modern age and it soon became apparent to me that the game could effectively play itself. The computer knows what is on everyone’s play sheet – the playsheets are made by the computer in the first place. The computer also knows what numbers it is calling out (It may know what numbers it is going to call out, but I have no proof and it doesn’t matter anyway). In the time it takes our disinterested compere/caller to go “Clickety Click, Sixty Six!”, the computer has already cross-referenced the called number with its own records of every playsheet in play and determined if there is a winner, who that is, and where they are sitting. The painfully awkward, meaningful and laden silences from the caller as they wait for the winning player to notice that they’ve won were magical, and spoke volumes.

The game is an entirely random construct; a player’s involvement is limited to being alert enough to correctly tick called numbers off, and confident enough to shout ‘House!’ when appropriate. They can do nothing during play to influence their own chance of winning at all. Is this why it is a Bad Game? It seems to me that even in games based highly on chance, a Good Game offers opportunities for a player to make informed choices and to apply rudimentary strategies. When the game can play itself, as in modern Bingo Hall bingo, players no longer need to exist. That isn’t to say that for some, playing Bingo might not be an enjoyable experience; a nice night out, socialisation, the chance to win some cash, etc , but I do think that the game of Bingo itself is a poor game.

The second worst game on that list is Snakes and Ladders, and again, I agree. Another simple ‘classic’, players roll dice to move their counter up a zig-zag of squares. If they land on the foot of a ladder, they shortcut toward the winning square. If they land on the head of a snake, they are put back, moving away from the winning square. First player to reach the winning square wins!

The weakness of this game is immediately apparent, and similar to Bingo – it is an entirely random construct. Assuming truly fair dice, the winner of the game is chosen entirely at random – the aggregate result of a couple of dozen dice rolls. Players cannot directly intervene with this outcome, they cannot plan, make strategies or apply knowledge or intelligence to the game in play. A lot of time could be saved if each player just rolls one dice each, ignores the result and then all go down the pub!

Time isn’t necessarily a factor though in a good or bad game though. Good games can take minutes or hours, depending on the mood of the participants, and ultimately, all games are pointless wastes of time. The key is the transparency of it all, and intricacy and enjoyment of the wasted time. Some games even teach us things, train our minds to be better at particular tasks. Snakes and Ladders suffers the same problem as Bingo in that it is a transparent waste of time. A player’s involvement here is limited to rolling the dice and moving the pieces – both administrative tasks which could easily be done by a robot or computer. There are no executive or managerial tasks here. Snakes and Ladders has many variants; Ludo, Sorry, Game of Life, even Monopoly – all use the same dice based movement along a single track, just with increasingly complex levels of fluff added as the result of landing on any given square.

A Bad Game then is one in which a player cannot act upon the system? The objective is limited or singular, the feedback is minimal, little or no decisions can be made based on that feedback and few or no actions can be applied to the game based on those decisions. A Bad Game has players who are entirely interchangeable. Anyone who happened to have hands can roll a dice and move a counter, but can anyone devise and execute innovative strategy? A really Bad Game has players who are inconsequential, or even unnecessary.

So entirely random is bad. But what about no randomness at all? The very worst game on the list suffers none of the problems of the previous two. Tic Tac Toe is something close to the Ur-Game, with a published date of 1300BC. Quite the Classic then! Players take turns to make their mark in an empty square of a 3×3 grid. Whoever forms a straight line of three marks, wins. Pretty straightforward.

In fact, it’s too straight forward. Despite there being 255,168 possible games, any game played by a reasonably cognisant adult against similar will almost certainly end in a draw. The overall system here is very small, and easily held in the mind of a player, to the point where it is difficult to lose at all. The trouble is, both opponents are usually capable of playing to a high enough standard to prevent loss, resulting in perpetual stalemates, a fact used as an allegory for the futility of nuclear war in 1983 hacker romp WarGames. “Strange game. The only winning move is not to play.”

So a game picked on as a fundamental expression of pointlessness can’t have much to recommend it, and that might be why it’s at the bottom of the list. But the problems here are reversed. A game of Tic Tac Toe is essentially nothing but player feedback-decision-action phases. There are no unexpected occurrences – each move dictates a counter move chosen from a very small list, and it isn’t too difficult to plot the entire future of the game from any given state of play, in one’s head. Absolute predeterminism. This can still make for intricate and absorbing play, but the scope of possible ‘futures’ must be expanded to become challenging to think about.

Chess is just such an extension of Tic Tac Toe; let’s make the board much bigger, have a limited number of marks that move about and make each mark have slightly different characteristics. These elaborations result in a game which is treated far more appreciatively; ranked at 251/7958 on the list. Like Tic Tac Toe, a game of Chess can be theoretically modelled with precision; it too has nothing random about it at all. So if Tic Tac Toe is a Bad Game, but Chess is a Quite Respectable Game, it suggests that being a Good Game is not directly about Randomness vs Skill, but about possibility spaces.

Perhaps a Good Game is one which allows its players the most opportunities for action, for choices. An entirely random game is off-putting because it marginalises us as players and participants. Our analytical minds offer us no help in such games; prediction and planning mean nothing and degenerate to pure guesswork, as random as the events we’re trying to analyse. On the other hand, an entirely prescribed game, with no randomness at all smacks of predestination; our prediction and planning are used only to tell us that the future of the game is set and there is nothing we can do about any of it.

I suspect the best games of all involve chance and certainly in equal measure, but offer options and possibilities over everything else. Once possibilites and options are made available, strategy becomes possible.

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1. Melmoth - May 24, 2012

“Some games even teach us things, train our minds to be better at particular tasks. Snakes and Ladders suffers the same problem as Bingo in that it is a transparent waste of time”

An interesting statement for me, because I’ve used Snakes and Ladders to help my youngling with counting. The advantage of it is that the rules are so basic a two year old could (and indeed can) play it, but adding two dice and counting out the numbers is excellent training for a young mind. What’s more, despite being a transparent waste of time to an adult, to an infant it merely appears to be a game; in my limited experience as a parent, I’ve found that the best way to fool a child into doing something good for themselves, is to make them think they’re playing a game.

Splendid article! Just thought I’d offer an alternative perspective.

P.S. Now that the youngling is almost four, I’ve taught her how to play Talisman. The advantage of which is that I can keep her occupied for solid days at a time, and get the housework done in the meantime!

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