What Makes 10 Great Games Great

I’ve been keeping track of my games played for almost fourteen full years. That means that I have a pretty robust listing of games that have worked well enough to get numerous replays from me over the years. They represent a set of great games, with features that any would-be great game could endeavor to repeat. So this week I’m going to go through my listing of those top games and offer my opinions on either of their best features — the ones that make them so worth playing and replaying.

Dominion (101 plays) — All sets

Variability of Play. Dominion kicked off a whole new category of eurogames with its deckbuilding play, something that I’ve obviously covered a lot in this blog. However I don’t think the deckbuilding itself is the greatest element in Dominion. Instead, I think it’s something that the deckbuilding allows: variability of play. In other words, it’s the fact that the deckbuilding allows you to play with only a small subset of all of the cards: only 10 out of 25 in the original set of cards. That means there are two-and-a-half totally different games in the original Dominion. And that just multiplied in expansion after expansion.

Variability of Strategy. Yeah, the deckbuilding itself is important too. That’s because it allows for strong variability of strategy. There are a lot of eurogames where there are only a couple of different paths to victory, with the gameplay largely depending on choosing one or two and doing them better than anyone else. But Dominion instead has ten paths to victory in every game, allowing a lot of strategic creativity, so that players really feel like they’re each playing their own game, not being played by the game.

Ticket to Ride (100 plays) — All sets, but mostly the original (72)

Variability of Strategy. Unshockingly, there’s a lot of repetition in this list, both because many of the same factors make games great, and because many of the same factors make games great to meTicket to Ride is mostly about connecting cities. There are 36 cities in the original game which means that there are (36 x 35) / 2 = 630 different connections you can build. That’s a lot of strategic variety. It’s not as vast as the very different strategies that can arise from different sets of cards in Dominion, but it’s a lot more variable than the minor efficiencies that rule in many eurogames.

Tension. Ticket to Ride is one of the best games in the industry for creating tension. You’re constantly worried that players will draw the cards you want, or even worse, take the routes you want. This keeps you involved during other players’ turns and also creates strong emotional responses: the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat and all of that.

Pathfinder Adventure Card Game (83 plays) — All sets

PathfinderVariability of Play. PACG offers even more variability of play than Dominion through a three-level structure. First, you have a different way to play every game through scenarios; second, you randomly get new cards every game; and third, you get entirely new decks of cards every time you successfully complete five scenarios. The result is a game that’s not just changing over time, but also evolving.

Personal Growth. Legacy games are a hot new trend, and they tend to focus on what I describe above, which I’d call “game growth”. Though game growth keeps a game interesting, over time, it’s mere presence isn’t exciting for players. For that you need personal growth, and PACG nails this. Throughout the game, you’re hoping to discover and acquire new cards that will improve your character. (This is done via a classic “variable-ratio schedule”, which creates strong responsiveness in operant conditioning.) Then at the end of game you get to actually do that upgrade. Like tension, this sort of constant hope is another powerful emotional state.

Catch Them All. To run through a full game of PACG you have to play 30+ scenarios. Having these scenarios laid out before you encourages you to move through them all, trying one after another.

Carcassonne (74 plays) — just original, H&G, and Ark

CarcassonneCreativity. One of the joys of Carcassonne is its creativity. I suppose you could call this another instance of “Variability of Strategy”, but there’s more to it. It’s not just that you can place tiles anywhere to improve your points. But, you’re also creating cities and roads that have never been seen before, forming a new map of the land of Carcassonne in every game. There’s joy in just looking at the result.

Tension. Though it’s not quite as strong as the tension in Ticket to Ride, there are situations in Carcassonne that are very tense, usually when someone has almost linked into one of your territories, and they’re waiting for the tile needed to jump into that territory, while you’re simultaneously waiting for the tile needed to keep them out.

I only included the original Carcassonne, Hunters & Gatherers, and Ark of the Covenant in this count because they’re the closest to the same gameplay. The Castle, The City, The Discovery, and New World are all on my played list, but they’re increasingly different from the original, and at some point they become different games. If I added them all together, they’d total 120 plays, which would be the top of this list. 

Lost Cities (69 plays)

Agonizing Decisions. Lost Cities is the oddball out here. It’s the first really light game and it’s the first two-player game. So what makes it work? I think there’s an oddball answer.

Lost Cities has absolutely agonizing decisions. You’re always being forced to play cards even though they’re not optimal, even though they’re sometimes very far from optimal. And if you don’t play the cards, you make them available to your opponent instead, which can be just as awful. The result is very tense, yes, but it feels like a different sort of tension, implicit in your own decisions, rather than the decisions of others. That somehow gives it even more weight.

Memoir ’44 (50 plays)

Variability of Play. Memoir ’44’s gameplay is laid out in scenarios that tell you how to set up your pieces, what your objectives are, and whether there are any special rules. There are quite a few in the original game, then every expansion had more; there was even at least one book that was just scenarios. This makes it feel like every game of Memoir ’44 is different — that you’re trying to puzzle through new problems and how to solve them.

Catch Them All! Much as in PACG, Memoir ’44 encourages players to play through everything so that they can have “played the whole game”. Days of Wonder even encouraged this by setting up a “military archives” feature on their web site, where players can record what they’ve played (and see what they still need to play).

Race for the Galaxy (40 plays)

Race for the GalaxyShort but Deep. Race for the Galaxy was one of the most exciting and repayable games of 2006. But it’s always been one of those games where it’s sort of hard to say why. I think that one of the main reasons for its success is that it was one of the first super-fillers. These are games that run as long as 30-45 minutes, but which nonetheless manage to pack in all of the depth of a game that you’d normally expect to run 60-90 minutes. So after Race for the Galaxy came out, it suddenly became the filler of choice, replacing Coloretto or King’s Breakfast or whatever other filler had consumed short play during the last year. Race for the Galaxy took up a similar amount of time, but you weren’t left feeling hungry at the end. (How did it achieve this trick? In large part through it’s simultaneous play of phases, a trick later repeated by 7 Wonders.)

High Strategy. But Race for the Galaxy took a step beyond just being short but deep. It also supported a high level of strategy — more than the vast majority of games anywhere in the short to medium range. I discovered this from playing against a group who had started in on Race for the Galaxy a few months before me; I lost game after game. I think I played a dozen times before I managed a respectable score. I’ve seen other players put off by this, but it just made me respect Race for the Galaxy that much more (and want to play it that much more, to hone my own play).

Evocative. Finally, Race for the Galaxy is extremely evocative. Its cards are vibrant and colorful. Even if the specific card names might fade, the ideas of aliens, military, and genetics all linger on.

I opted to leave San Juan (37 plays) off this list because it was pretty much Race for the Galaxy’s precursor, and it was pretty much overshadowed by it. 

Rumis (38 plays)

Short but Simple. This is, I think, the lightest game on this list. So, you have to admit that’s probably part of its success. Short and simple games usually are replayable by the very fact that they’re easy to teach and easy to learn. Rumis is even easier than most because it has so few player-facing rules. You place a block legally, and you continue on.

Variability of Play. However unlike most short and simple games, Rumis has a lots of variability of play. The game comes with a few different scenarios: different boards that you place the pieces on. The game also dramatically changes as you play, but dint of the fact that you’re literally stacking the pieces atop each other. Not just each game, but each turn offers up a different puzzle.

Tactile. Rumis also has something that no other game on this list does: a joyful tactility. The pieces are smooth and weighty. They feel nice when you play with them. And the game is attractive as you play it and it accrues different colored blocks.

Ascension (33 plays)

Variability of Play, Variability of Strategy. As another deckbuilder, Ascension has many of the same strengths as Dominion. Every game is different and you can pursue different strategies every time. However, each of these strengths appears somewhat differently here. Because cards come out randomly, there’s even more variance within an individual game. However the strategy might be somewhat more constrained (albeit, more controllable too), because you’re more likely to focus on one of just a few suits of cards rather than one of several different card piles.

Evocative. However, Ascension’s biggest actual advantage over Dominion may be how evocative it is. The designers created a whole secondary world of evocative-feeling suits and realistic-feeling cards. They’re much more memorable than the somewhat abstract decks of cards in Dominion. 

Galaxy Trucker (31 plays)

Galaxy TruckerCreativity. This list has several games that I still enjoy playing a lot; Pathfinder ACG and Ascension in particular will probably continue to rise of the years. But Galaxy Trucker may be my favorite on the list. That’s in large part because it’s so creative. This perhaps starts off as the “Variability of Strategy” that you find in a Dominion, but as with Carcassonne, it reaches the next level. You have full creativity when you build your ship. Each space can contain different systems, and each ship can have different strengths (and weaknesses). I love the freeform nature of it and the feel that I’m really making something.

Adrenaline-Pumping. There’s something else about Galaxy Trucker. It’s exciting in a way that goes far beyond the tension of a Ticket to Ride or Carcassonne. Because of its rapid, real-time play, it jazzes me up in a way that a staid turn-by-turn game doesn’t. In other words, it revs my emotions high (and sometimes leaves me exhausted by the end).

So what do these games generally tell us about the strengths of replayable games? Variability. Emotion. Color. It’s a powerful 1-2-3 punch that can result in great games.

And that’s ten. If I were going to continue this list, it would include: 7 Wonders (also 31 plays); Uptown (24 plays); Coloretto (24 plays); No Thanks! (24 plays); Alhambra (23 plays); Through the Desert (22 plays); Ubongo (22 plays); and For Sale (20 plays). But down at that level I’m getting to games that made the list due to flukes: because they were the filler du jour for a while or because of reasons that made them common plays for my household.

Got any reasons that you think specific games worked, from this list or elsewhere? Let me know in the comments.

Galaxy Trucker picture courtesy Gary James (garyjames at BGG), released under CC license. I should really take some pics of my own for how often I still play the game!

2 thoughts on “What Makes 10 Great Games Great

  1. When you say, “. . . Dominion instead has ten paths to victory in every game . . . ” do you mean that literally due to the ten action cards? It’s one of my favourite games, but I haven’t played it as much as you. I don’t see each card as a path. I see card combos that create a path, but usually there are only three or four different paths I see in a game that utilize combos of cards working together.

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