Monday, January 7, 2013

Game Ratings: Measuring Quality in Gaming (Part I)

It finally happened: I've admitted I lost some love for Imperial. Up until now it had been one of of four titles I had given a perfect 10/10 out of the 140+ I have rated on BGG.

During my latest re-evaluation I realized I've gone 6 months without giving a thorough explanation of games I enjoy. How can I expect others to follow my thoughts if I keep my game evaluations to myself?

Now before I get into my rating scale (which may elicit plenty of fair criticism), let me explain my criteria in order to rate a game.

1. I play every game at least 3 times before rating it.

2. I decline the opportunity to rate a game if I still don't feel I have a grasp of the depth of the game, no matter how many times I've played it. A great example is Go, for which I have played maybe six full games and always feel I'm probably unqualified to play.

3. I do not rate games who are ambiguous to grade - I'd give the concept of Poker at least a 9.5/10 but there are so many variations I could never come to a consensus on a rating for the BGG page "Poker". I also play Warhammer 40k, but that is a game for which the experience is almost entirely determined based on opponent, terrain, painting/modelling, etc, certainly difficult to quantify with a single number.

4. I do rate games for which I have only played a virtual version implementation. I only do so if the implementation demonstrated great quality and encompassed the "spirit" of the game.

5. I do not rate card games played with an ordinary deck of cards. They are almost endless and I try to reserve my ratings for the evaluation of the hard work and creativity that went into the intellectual property  on the market. This may sound a bit sanctimonious but I promise I don't intend for it to be.

Now my rubric for rating for the past 6 years has been comprised of three main measures: Originality, Fun Factor , Replay Value & Game Composition. It is measured out of a maximum of 5 and each category is divisible by a 1/4th of a point.

Originality (Up to 1.0 pt)
Measuring originality has become more subjective for me over time, but in theory it is how unique is the blend of mechanics and how the game differentiates itself from other games on the market. I try to give credit to games who pioneered new ideas, but inevitably over time the original titles get dinged about a quarter point if something comes along that re-implements an idea significantly better.

Sample Ratings:
1.0 - Samurai, Dominion, Roborally
0.5 -  Modern Art
0.0 -  Cube Checkers

Theme (Up to 0.5 pt)
Theme is a bit easier to judge; a game usually either has a fitting theme or it doesn't. I do give partial credit for trying, and so even if a theme isn't ideal I will give a quarter point if it improves enjoyment beyond just an abstract.

Sample Ratings:
0.5 - Spy Alley, Mr. Jack, Streetsoccer
0.25 - Tally Ho, Cleopatra & the Society of Architects
0.0 - Mancala, Liar's Dice

Pure Fun (Up to 1.0 pt)
A simple number that takes into account how much I enjoy the game play and how frequently I want to play the game when opportunities. There is probably a correlation here with overall score as naturally I want to rate games higher based on how much I enjoy them. Some of this rating has to do with how much fun it is for the designed playing duration. Games do have a tendency to sag in this category over time, but the time-tested games seem to stay put.

Sample Ratings:
1.0 - Lost Cities, Carcassonne the Castle
0.75 - Hungry Hungry Hippos, Ticket to Ride
0.25 - Ra, En Garde

"Re-play-ability" (Up to 1.0 pt)
I don't believe this is a word but it does have expressive value until we find a suitable replacement. Its hard to imagine a game being fun but not "re-playable" in a sense that it isn't worth playing over and over. What I am identifying is are there multiple strategies that make a game worth playing specifically to try to achieve and is there enough player driven chaos to warrant a different game experience. Modular boards and card variety give points as do optional inclusions and alternate rule sets.

A perfect score is in sight if a game has a small learning curve and interesting strategies that the player must adapt to as the game goes on. The game should be unsolvable and dependent on the decisions of the players you are gaming with. Similar to the Pure Fun rating, a shorter deeper game has an advantage over a longer game with the same depth.

1.0 -  Can't Stop, Vegas Showdown, Ingenious
0.5 - Jambo, Blokus, Ponte del Diavolo
0.0 - Shut the box

Strategy to Luck Ratio (Up to 0.5 pt)
The purpose of this category is to help value how well a game measures up to its intended quantity of luck and impact of strategic decisions. I'm certainly not alone in my disdain for three hour games whose outcome is largely impacted by luck. My intention is to differentiate games whose style seems to indicate they are comprised of significant strategy when they are actually closer to a lottery drawing each time they are played.

Perhaps an example may help; in the game Simply Suspects, each player gains a secret identity and through the course of the game moves evidence in order to place the blame on other players. Frequently a grand jury is triggered in which identities are eliminated who have accumulated enough evidence. The game often turns into everyone throw down evidence onto identity #1 until they are eliminated, rinse and repeat with identity #2. If you are unfortunately stuck with drawing identity #1 you have the ability of moving evidence off of your identity onto another but it is often futile as you will often be outnumbered and appear suspicious.

Now this is hardly a deal-breaker for a game with a length of 15 to 20 minutes, but it does demonstrate how sometimes games can appear to be vastly more strategic than how they often play out. It's not a negative for a game like Yahtzee to be very luck driven as the initial impression is congruent with that idea. Games get this the full points in this category by default unless they prove otherwise by not giving adequate ability to mitigate luck.

0.5 - Diamant, Backgammon, Scrabble
0.25 - Simply Suspects, Uno
0.0 - Pokemon TCG, The Royal Game of Ur

I've broken this post into two parts as it has become lengthier than expected. In Part II I will discuss the final two criteria in my process for evaluating board games and delve into some criticisms of this particular grading scale. In the meantime, what do you think? Can games be graded based on preset guidelines or is the purpose lost when many judgments are subjectively swayed anyway?