So here’s a definition: The richness of a game is a measure of its emergent properties, where games that produce more frequent, significant, chaotic, and patterned emergence (during gameplay) are more rich.

And an opinion: Richer games are more beautiful, interesting, and exciting.

And a thesis: Games that demonstrate greater interdependence of parts (systems, objects, players) tend to be richer.

I’ve been playing a good amount of tabletop games recently, and some the people I play with have been getting more interested in game design. I was asked to defend my low opinion of Red Dragon Inn and my high opinion of Settlers of Catan, and it helped me to think through some of my personal aesthetic preferences with games. And that’s all I’m comfortable calling it right now—an aesthetic preference—because even though I don’t care for Red Dragon Inn too much, I find that many people absolutely love to play it and even ask specifically for it when they come to our apartment. It seems inappropriate to call a game bad when people love playing it.

The thing about Red Dragon Inn is, most of the actions you take in the game essentially do a flat amount of damage to a single player. These actions do not change in meaning or significance too much until the final blow is dealt to a player—until then, each action means just about the same thing as the last. The changes that they make to the game state are ones that do not affect future decision making very much, and so the gameplay dynamics remain largely the same over the course of a game. The pattern of gameplay is stagnant and the (small) variance in dynamic between games results largely from the shuffling of cards instead of from player-triggered sequences of events.

In contrast, actions in Catan like building, trading, and moving the robber significantly alter the game’s possibility spaces for players. For instance, a new settlement for one player means changes in resource availability, routes for expansion, and robber movement that affect every player in the game. Even two players trading resource cards likely results in an eventual change to the future state of the shared map, thus affecting everyone’s game. As the map evolves, options and therefore strategies and therefore gameplay patterns shift in ways that I find highly interesting and maybe even beautiful.

The key to richness is the interdependence of parts. In Catan, players’ actions both rely on and alter a shared game space. Each action changes tremendously in meaning and effect depending on the current game state, and also changes the game state enough to affect following actions. This is also true in Red Dragon Inn, but it’s a matter of degrees. Catan has a significant factor more interdependence of parts than does Red Dragon Inn, and therefore is significantly richer of a game.

P.S. - Not only are rich games beautiful and interesting to watch and play, but they also require players to think on their feet more than their less rich counterparts. Because the strategies in rich games rely heavily on the unpredictable game state, players of rich games must be ready to evolve their strategies at a moment’s notice. This makes for more active, more exciting gameplay.

March 7th, 2013