Thursday, May 30, 2013

Game Ratings Redux: Matt's Five Axes

A few months ago, Alex posted his rating scale for games. (If you haven't seen it, be sure to check it out, because it's really well done.) I had never personally been inspired to create my own rating system, preferring instead to ramble on with qualitative reviews. But a few weeks ago, I saw an intriguing review on BoardGameGeek, which I'll paraphrase here:

Agricola's rating on BGG is something like an 8.2, though I'm not sure I'd ever rate it that. As a strategy game, it probably deserves a 10. But I'd rather watch paint dry for three and a half hours than actually play an entire game of Agricola.

That got me thinking: what other dimensions might a game be able to score well on, if not as a strategy game? Slowly, a new ratings framework came together for me, one that shares quite a few attributes with Alex's. Games on my scale won't necessarily describe how technically wonderful a game is--strategic excellence is necessary but not sufficient to make a truly outstanding game. Instead, this scale tends to favor games that look pretty, play quickly, feature novel mechanics, and accommodate a wide variety of players. Think of any discrepancies as features rather than bugs.

The following five scales or "axes" each receive a score from 0.0 to 2.0, generally in 0.5-point increments. A game's total score is simply the sum of all five category scores. I've given examples for each score, trying to rate mostly board games and Euro-style games (but a few "standard deck" card games made their way onto the list too).

Aesthetics: How compelling is the game's theme? Does the theme enhance the strategy or mechanics? How does the visual (or other sensory design) contribute to the game play?

0.0: Chess. Entirely abstract.
0.5: Kingdom Builder. Some attempt at a theme, but the game could be entirely re-skinned with basically no change to the game play. Art is generic and generally uninspired.
1.0: Puerto Rico. The "colonial-era settlement" theme is obvious, but the in-game justification for exactly what you're trying to do could be better fleshed out. Player boards do a decent job of conveying the game state, but the buildings could really use some pictures instead of all that text.
1.5: Hotel Samoa. Simple but effective: improving your hotel feels like you're making real progress, and the color scheming for tourists is a useful layer of abstraction.
2.0: La Citta. Big cities aren't just mechanically powerful, they look and feel powerful too. The Italian Renaissance-esque artwork is gorgeous.

Adaptability: How well does the game scale for multiple players, and does it avoid massive rule changes? Can the game support varying play styles or levels of intensity? Does each time through the game feel like a different and interesting experience?

0.0: Checkers. Supports exactly two people and each game feels almost exactly the same.
0.5: San Juan. Plays with only "the usual" 2-4, and the 2 player game requires a rather significant rule change. Each winning strategy is mostly a derivative of two proto-strategies.
1.0: Carcassonne. It's nice that it supports 2-5 players without harsh scaling, though the 2 player version is a bit flat. Everyone has a hilarious Carcassonne story, but most of them stem from creative interpretations of the game state rather than new mechanical experiences.
1.5: Betrayal at House on the Hill. A rarity in board games in that it's actually better toward the "more players" end of its 3-6 player range. So many possible scenarios that it would take more than 90 games of Betrayal to play them all, but the quality of experience among those scenarios varies wildly.
2.0: Poker. In principle, supports two to a dozen or more players. Each game is subtly different, with different skills required depending on not only the number of players and their strategies but your position relative to them also.

Fun per Time: Most importantly, is the game fun? Does the possibility of two consecutive games still sound fun? Is the game active, or is there a lot of down time? Do early-game decisions change the possibility of fun later in the game?

0.0: Monopoly. Unbounded length, which gets steadily more discouraging as fewer die rolls go your way.
0.5: Agricola. The "30 minutes per player" projection is optimistic (40-45 is more likely), many minutes of downtime can exist between turns, and a missed opportunity two hours ago can weaken your position even now.
1.0: Fluxx. There's not much to Fluxx, but there isn't trying to be. Plays so fast that two or three games can be played without getting tired of it.
1.5: Ascension. Usually fast enough that another game doesn't sound like a dreadful proposition. Downtime while waiting for other turns can get boring, but egging on other players to pick cards that help you is a fun metagame.
2.0: 7 Wonders. Constant decision-making, very little boredom, and lots of action packed into less than an hour.

Strategic Depth: Is variance used responsibly as a way to make the game more interesting and not simply more random? Can variance be mitigated? Do optimization decisions seem intriguing rather than like shores? Are there multiple paths to victory?

0.0: War. Completely random.
0.5: Risk. Between excessive die rolls and card draws, there's a surprising amount of chance in what's sometimes considered a strategy classic.
1.0: Settlers of Catan. Yes, most games do come down to "who can roll the most 5's?" But Catan incorporates negotiation and social engineering in an entertaining way.
1.5: Last Will. Most turns offer many compelling choices, and there's a great assortment of potential strategies to pursue, though not of them are created equal.
2.0: Power Grid. Auction mechanics, a dynamic resources market, and land-development intrigue mean there's a whole lot going on in Power Grid, and all of it is designed brilliantly.

Mechanics: Are the rules intuitive and easy to digest? Is there a particularly elegant or innovative system of rules? Does the game let you do everything you feel should be possible, or does something seem missing? Can new players be introduced to the game relatively quickly?

0.0: Mancala. There's exactly one mechanic; the only decision is where on the board to apply it, and most of the time, that's a trivially easy choice to make.
0.5: Hearts. Probably the best-known of the trick-taking games, but still just a trick-taking game, and it lacks the bidding framework of its cousins Spades and Bridge to give it some mechanical structure.
1.0: Tongiaki. Another game with exactly one mechanic, Tongiaki leverages it to do a lot, including choosing exactly competitive or cooperative you want the game to be.
1.5: Seasons. A veritable explosion of mechanics, Seasons has die-rolling, drafting, card tableaus, and dynamic point tracking on two different axes. It deserves a 2.0 for ambition and a 1.0 for execution, as the game's most innovative mechanics have an unfortunate habit of not taking the spotlight.
2.0: Race for the Galaxy. Along with San Juan, a pioneer of the brilliant "pay for cards by discarding other cards" mechanic. The iconography, once you get used to it, becomes intuitive to recognize by sight.


So how does Agricola, the game indirectly responsible for inspiring these ratings, stack up?

Aesthetics: 1.5. The "Harvest Moon: the Board Game" theme is consistent throughout. Pigs as brown wooden cubes is an abstraction that takes some getting used to, but it's fun to populate your pasture with plants and animals.
Adaptability: 1.5. Works equally well from 2-5 players. I haven't played the 1-player game, but conventional wisdom holds that it's one of the few popular Euro games with a 1-player variant that both works as a game and is substantially close to the multiplayer game. Drafts for improvements and occupations complicate the game but are a nice set of variant rules.
Fun per time: 0.5. From above, the "30 minutes per player" projection is optimistic (40-45 is more likely), many minutes of downtime can exist between turns, and a missed opportunity two hours ago can weaken your position even now.
Strategic depth: 2.0. Agricola is a decision-maker's dream, with as many as dozens of choices presenting themselves every turn, and most of them mattering a surprising amount to the outcome of the game.
Mechanics: 0.5. The fact that another player can steal my action and set me back for half the game is frustrating, and plenty of other games (see also Puerto Rico and Race for the Galaxy) pack in as much strategy without the frustration. Feeding your family adds to the game's verisimilitude but becomes a real chore toward the end of the game.

Total: 6 / 10. Per BoardGameGeek, "Fair. Some fun or challenge at least, will play occasionally if in the right mood." I'll confess: that's maybe a higher score than I would have given Agricola in a vacuum, absent any ratings guidelines, but I'll play by my own rules. I'm not sure if there's a circumstance when I'd proactively suggest playing Agricola; it's just too long and too frustrating to make it worth it.

But, contrary to what my pro-Agricola friends might assume, it's not that I'd never play Agricola. I'm lucky enough to have a group of friends that also enjoy playing Euro-style board games, so the least I can do is play one of their favorites every so often.

My feelings toward Agricola are similar to my thoughts on the IPA style of beer. I'm not saying it's inherently bad. I acknowledge that there's a large population of people, many highly educated about the subject, who like it, and in some way I'm in the minority for not liking it. In the abstract, I see why it's so highly regarded in some circles, and I'd be lying if I said I'd never had a pleasant experience with it.

But it's really just not my thing.