(This is the first post on the League by designer Seth Jaffee. For those who are new to “sedjtroll,” Seth is a self-described “Structural Engineer, Board Game Designer, Ultimate Frisbee Player, and Strategy Gamer.” Seth has his hands in all aspects of the game industry – with designer credits on Eminent Domain and Terra Prime, as well as developer credits on many Tasty Minstrel Games titles such as Belfort, Ground Floor, Kings of Air and Steam, and the new Captains of Industry. He’s also very active on BoardGameGeek, Twitter, and runs The Board Game Designers Forum. He also has his own design blog: “Cumbersome,” where he discusses the successes and challenges of his current design work. You’ll find Seth at just about every game convention exploring new games and running demos for TMG.)

Bad Plays and Ruined Experiences

Sometimes, while playing a game, you find yourself in a very bad spot. Perhaps you find yourself bankrupt, dead, or otherwise out of the game altogether. Or worse, you’re NOT out of the game, but you cannot make any progress! You sit there helpless watching your friends having a great time. Often the only way to get stuck in that bind is by making a bad play – a mistake, an ill-advised move, or possibly a calculated risk that doesn’t pan out. Even if it’s rare, whenever this happens, it usually means a miserable experience for the player.

As a designer there’s a temptation to accept this dynamic in your own game, and to defend your design choice by saying “yeah, that would suck… don’t do that.” And to some extent maybe that’s ok… The question is, what’s that extent?

Is it the designer’s responsibility to ensure bad play doesn’t ruin a player’s enjoyment of a game?

Every designer will have their own answer to this question. There are very good games, which do not protect players from making game-ending mistakes. Perhaps the designers of such games do not notice the issue because it doesn’t come up in their playtests, or maybe they’re aware of the issue and rely on players to avoid the bad plays that can lead to that dire situation. No answer is really wrong, it can be acceptable to allow bad plays to lead to poor game experiences.

Taking Responsibility

I personally want every player to have the best chance of enjoying my games, so I take that responsibility upon myself. That wasn’t always the case – I used to respond to a “poor play” problem in my game with phrases like, “Well, play better and you won’t have that problem.” But over time I’ve realized that, with such a wide range of players, these poor play situations will come up more often than I might have expected at first. And frankly the thought of any player having a bad experience – even if it’s their own fault – is unacceptable to me. This is especially true when the player is put into that situation not because of a mistake or bad play, but because they made a reasonable play or calculated risk, and something unforeseen occurred which left the player in such a bad position.

A Personal Example: Terra Prime

I suppose I’ve been fairly vague about what I mean. What are these “poor play” problems, and what dire situations might players find themselves in? By way of example, here’s a story about my first published title, Terra Prime. In Terra Prime there are green, yellow, and red space hexes which you can explore looking for planets to colonize. The green hexes are safe – when you explore them you will never find any hostile aliens looking to blow you out of the sky. The yellow hexes are more risky, there are some hostile alien scouts, and even a few warships. The red hexes are very dangerous, with even more, and stronger, alien threats.

The intent is for players to begin exploring green space, and only venture into yellow space after preparing with shields, or scanning the tiles to find out if they’re safe. The game attempts to forecast this information, not just with the color coded hex tiles, but with the existence of shields, the rules regarding hostile alien attacks, and the fact that there’s a scanner one can use to peek at the tiles. Originally I thought that should suffice, and if a player bull-headedly ventured into yellow space unprepared, they run the risk of being blown to pieces. Since players shouldn’t do this, it shouldn’t be a problem – right?

During a play test session of an early version of Terra Prime, when warned about the dangers of yellow space during the rules explanation, one player I know intentionally ignored the warnings and ventured out sans shields. Of course he found the most dangerous aliens possible, and as you might expect, they did their worst.

In Terra Prime your ship has modules – cargo modules carry resources, engine modules give you actions, weapon modules let you attack aliens, and shield modules protect you from attacks. When you are hit by aliens, you lose modules until you have no more to lose, then you start losing points. In that version of the game, only 1 engine was “built in,” so when the player had the rest of his engines blown off of his ship, he had to limp back to base to repair, and had to do so with only 1 action per turn rather than the normal 3. This took several turns of that player doing basically nothing before he could rejoin the game, and even when he got to play at full capacity again, he was mathematically eliminated from winning.

This was a perfect example of a poor play that led to a miserable game experience. As much as I wanted to believe that players wouldn’t be so foolish, or that players who were that foolish deserve the miserable experience, the fact of the matter is that that those players would not want to play again. I’d much rather have players enjoy my games even if they get themselves stuck in a bad position, so I made an adjustment: in the final version of Terra Prime, your ship has 3 built in engines, which means no matter what you will always have at least 3 actions a turn. It’s still ill-advised to venture into yellow space, but if you do, you will at least still be able to play the game.

What are your thoughts?

I’d like to know what others think about this. What is the responsibility of a designer to prevent bad play from ruining a player’s game experience? What steps have you taken in your designs to safeguard against it? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below!

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Seth Jaffee

Seth is a designer, developer, and player of strategic board and card games. He is Head of Development for Tasty Minstrel Games. You can find Seth at many game conventions, from Protospiel in Ann Arbor, to BGGcon in Dallas, to Strategicon in L.A. to name a few. Find him and play a game!

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  1. Royce Banuelos on January 14, 2015

    It really depends on the game and game length. For a longer game experience you want players to have as engaging of an experience all the way through so even the last round does not feel like a waste. Medium and short games can be dynamic since even if you get blown away early you’re not sitting on your hands for very long.

    I’ve had a hard time finding a good long game simply for that reason of having so little to do towards the last half of the game. Firefly is one that I really enjoy and it seems to be fairly balanced and engaging all the way through.

    I’ve play tested a few games with one particular person who seems set on just not playing the game to win but rather just screw with other players. It’s a great thing because then I need to see what aspect of the rules is being exploited. Then I can start mitigating it so that no one has a real bad playing experience.

    Board games are just as much about the game as they are the players. Keeping in mind how the player feels is most important during game design.

  2. funeral0polis on January 14, 2015

    I think this is a very important mechanic for modern games and ones that I’m very happy to see written about. The game that stands out in my mind after reading this article is Settlers of Catan and how a player can pick awkward starting spots and run the risk of their numbers come up less frequently on the dice, leading to a less-than-fun experience. On the other hand, games like Viticulture and Alien Frontiers put extra spots on the board where any player can place leftover workers if there are no other desirable spots available, never making you feel like you’re completely out of options or completely unable to make a move.

    That all being said, I think if a game is going to feature mechanics where players are punished for “bad” plays, randomness shouldn’t be a major contributing factor. Games such as Agricola and Caylus will heavily punish players for their poor decisions, but the results of the punishment are up-front and knowable right from the first move of the game; begging tokens in Agricola are a core component, as is the Provost in Caylus.

  3. Tom Jolly on January 14, 2015

    It’s certainly the designer’s responsibility to make sure the players have a good playing experience. One of my pet peeves is when games allow players to gang up on one player. On occasion this is a useful tool to keep runaway leads from getting too far ahead, but there also has to be a control to keep a down player from being kicked while he’s down. Another situation is to make sure everyone appears to have a chance of winning all the way through the game; cases like Monopoly, where it’s often quite obvious who’s going to win the game an hour before you finish is just painful. Providing an enjoyable gaming experience ultimately means that everyone in the game thinks they have a chance until very late in the game – not an easy design task!

    • Royce Banuelos on January 14, 2015

      Great points! Depending on the game though I don’t see ganging up against the leader as a problem. If it will drag the game out then it’s an issue but other than that it’s all fair in game design. Many area control games lead to the winner being the player who was least confrontational. 2 player games are the most strategic simply because there is no gang up problem. I usually get annoyed if a player throws a hissy fit about being ganged up on.

  4. Seth Jaffee on January 14, 2015

    I think it’s clear where I stand on the question “is it the designer’s responsibility to prevent poor play from ruining a game experience altogether” … can you think of a game that either FAILS at this, or that does a GOOD JOB (and specifically how it accomplishes that)?

    • Royce Banuelos on January 14, 2015

      Power Grid comes to mind as a game that has no problem with a bad play messing up the whole game. Even the initial placement can be a huge factor in who wins or loses. I’ve sat at the table for 2 hours without a chance of winning because of bad play within the first 10 minutes of the game. The initial auction and placement are tough if you aren’t familiar with how tight money is in the game so it can be impossible to rebuild when others are ahead of you by 2 or 3 cities. Some of this can be mitigated by the person teaching the game giving strategy, but I’ve never liked that as I think a game should stand on it’s own rules without telling players how to play.

      No big deal, it’s a real popular game.

      Pillars of the Earth is great at mitigating bad play because there are positives to every action. You have a great balance of money being tight and yet your rebuilding turns are still valuable since there are so many positive spots on the board.

      Games are a series of positive and negative experiences. Too many negative experiences and the players have a bad outlook. Conversely too many positive experiences is in eventful. Finding a balance of positive and negative experiences makes a good game no matter if you win or lose.

  5. Peter Vaughan on January 14, 2015

    I think I’m starting to fall on the side of NOT the designer or game’s responsibility, yet in the designer’s best interest of course in the craft. My classic example of a solid game that has this problem, and yet is a game I thoroughly love is Puerto Rico. Can you kill your chances in an opening move that either sets up your opponent or worse, kills you for many turns? Yes, and I’ve seen it. A friend of mine with an Indigo plant spent all 5 coins once on a large market, despite my warnings. He didn’t even take roles with coins on them to fix either. So, he was a newbie. Does PR need to make sure you can’t buy building X?

    • Brad Brooks on January 14, 2015

      I lean towards the side that thinks it IS the designer’s responsibility to do everything within reason to make sure players don’t have a crappy experience playing your game.
      The first time my son played Machi Koro he spent his first turn spending all of his money to buy the Station monument. This was a seriously bad move as the mid-game benefit would never kick in for him since he didn’t have any money to build his early game engine, and his experience pretty much sucked.
      So one could argue that there should be some basic strategy tips in the rules saying don’t do this, or a band-aid rule saying you’re not allowed to buy monuments until turn x, but those are inelegant solutions. I think the issue for my son was:
      – he was told buying the four monuments was how you win the game
      – the cheapest monument cost $4
      – he was given $4 at the start of the game
      Therefore buying the Station got you 25% of the way to a win on the first move. So perhaps changing the cost of the Station or the amount of starting cash would eliminate the possibility of players going down this false path.
      Later, on a second play of Machi Koro my son tried the same thing again, but this was due to plain old pig-headedness as he wanted to prove he was good enough to pick a bad strategy and still win (he wasn’t).

      • T. C. Petty III on January 15, 2015

        Wow. That’s a great example of an easily avoidable pitfall. I don’t think I even considered the option, but what would $1 extra in cost to prevent it (first turn, at least) do? Not much.

        • funeral0polis on January 15, 2015

          I’m still very much new to game design, but rather than increasing the price, what if another artificial restriction was put into place such as “Players may only purchase Stations once they have at least 3 (or 2 or whatever is reasonable) other buildings in play”? I have not yet had the opportunity to play Machi Koro, so I don’t know if this would throw off the balance, but from my perspective, would still give players the ability to remain in the game even if they wanted to buy Stations early. Am I missing the mark?

          • Brad on January 15, 2015

            You can certainly add a rule to avoid situations like this, and sometimes that may be the best recourse, but in general that feels inelegant to me. Extra rules are more for the players to absorb, whereas changing the cost of a card would be frictionless for the players.

    • ErikPeter Walker on January 15, 2015

      I think economic games get a bit of a pass. The core of an economic game, at least in the beginning, is the risk vs reward of big investments. Sometimes they pay off, sometimes they don’t, but preventing players from taking chances would probably weaken the game.

      For example, you probably don’t want to play a 6-cost development too early in Race for the Galaxy. Abandoning an expensive card frees up a different strategy; saving it for later means it will be a dead card in hand until you can afford it. The crucial choice of which option to take (and seeing those choices unfold in your favor) is what makes that game so satisfying, even when you lose. But if the game had some rule about “can’t spend your hand down to 0 cards”, or a mechanism benefiting trailing players more than those in the lead, e.g. “everyone draws 3 cards at the end of each turn”, the game would be less about those choices, and more about drawing the right cards (i.e., luck.)

      • Seth Jaffee on January 15, 2015

        Race for the Galaxy may not be the best example. In Race for the Galaxy you’re not out of the game if you spend your entire hand. You can Explore, or Produce then Trade, and be right back in it. Building a 6-cost Development earl in RftG does not make for a bad game experience. So it would not need any failsafe rule like the ones you mentioned.

  6. Peter Vaughan on January 14, 2015

    A great qualification came today on twitter from Tasty Minstrel’s feed. Games that would fool a player into a bad choice would absolutely be an epic fail to me. But deliberately making player’s think and accept consequences of their actions is ok to me.

  7. Mohan Rajagopalan on January 14, 2015

    Great post. It’s always interesting to find that line. I very much agree that bad play should not punish a player to the point of no longer having a fun experience (although it should of course mean some degree of decreased likelihood of winning). But what drives me crazy is players that seem intent on not having fun, and then complain when they succeed. I don’t have a lot of sympathy for player intent of having a bad experience (or giving others a bad experience), and I’m unlikely to win them over to the game under any circumstances. The contract between the game designer and the player is “The designer will try to give the player a fun, and the player will try to have fun.”
    But the range of what a player might do in the pursuit of having legitimate (that is, non-griefing) fun is quite broad. As in your Terra Prime example, sometimes how a player wants to have fun is by pushing at the boundaries of the rules and reasonable strategy, often as an explorative exercise. Sometimes the explorer even knows that a strategy might not work, but wants to see how it plays out anyway. Exploration of rules and systems is awesome, and it’s great to try to support that in the design. But ensuring fun in every possible case of experimentation is, at best, a daunting task. Should Puerto Rico be a fun experience no matter what your first buildings, plantations, and roles are? Or is the natural cost of some experimentation necessarily a kind of unfun game (“I guess going straight for the large sugar mill doesn’t really work. When will this game be over?”)

    • Seth Jaffee on January 15, 2015

      You have a point that it’s likely not possible to ensure maximum fun for every player in every game. And I agree about the player who seems intent to be miserable. That drives me crazy as well.

      I also agree that players should not be entirely protected from bad play. I’m not suggesting that the only legal plays are always the best ones or anything like that. It’s definitely possible to do poorly, lose the game, and still have a positive game experience. I hope that was clear in my post!

      As for whether the natural cost of some experimentation necessarily a kind of un-fun game… Honestly? in my opinion, if a particular play will certainly not work out, and leave the player floundering and bored for the duration of the game, then it’s probably best not to allow it.

      Just making it look unattractive is a step in that direction — as Michael said on twitter, don’t fool players into making a bad play by making it look reasonable. But what I’ve found is that even warning players off of bad plays (but still allowing them to do it) won’t keep some players from “trying out a new strategy,” not heeding or just not noticing the warnings, and then having a terrible experience.

      I don’t buy that all cases of “exploring a new strategy” are valid and good. Yes, exploration of the rules and strategic space is good… but a path that’s 100% destined to not only lose, but destroy the fun (the previous example of Machi Koro sounds like it falls into this category), should simply not be available, period.

      At least not today, with a thousand new games every month competing for everybody’s limited gaming opportunities. I maintain that allowing a player to follow a false path and get themselves stuck is just wasting that player’s time.

      As I said in the post, I’d much rather have players enjoy my games even if they get themselves stuck in a bad position, and frankly the thought of any player having a bad experience – even if it’s their own fault – is unacceptable to me.

      A key to this is remembering that a “good game experience” does not have anything to do with winning or losing the game! I have a feeling some people may read that into my post (I’m not saying you did that, Mohan, but I could see people doing that) – and I want to be clear. Making bad plays should absolutely reduce your chance of winning the game. What I don’t like is bad plays disallowing a player to really even play anymore, while keeping them bound to the game by social contract. That’s worse than being eliminated (in which case you could go get a sandwich or turn on the TV)!

  8. Federico Latini on January 14, 2015

    My rule of thumb when designing a game (no I’m not a game designer, yes I enjoy gamedesign theory and designing games, mostly fillers) is that the game should always give you the opportunity to get back from behind at the price of higher risk taking. Not to mention that most modern designs include some kind of rubberband. Moreover when the game feat some kind of “above the table” mechanics this problem is fixed by the gamers itself by avoiding to bash the last player.

    • Seth Jaffee on January 15, 2015

      While catch-up mechanisms have their place, and keeping all players involved in the game is a noble pursuit, that’s not really the topic I was trying to get at with my post.

      I actually don’t feel as strongly that a designer is responsible for keeping a player that makes bad plays in contention to win the game.

      I do think a designer has the responsibility to keep a player from accidentally spending all of their money with no way to make more, so they’re out of every auction for the rest of the game… that sort of thing.

      T’zolkin has a mechanism in which, if you’re so broke you cannot act, you can ‘fill up’ to 3 Corn. This comes with a scoring penalty, but not an insurmountable one.

      Stone Age has a similar scoring penalty for failure to feed your workers, which is balanced such that starvation is actually a viable strategy. That’s a bit odd thematically, and as a side note, if it were up to me I’d probably have made the penalty high enough that it’s never in the player’ best interest to incur it. But imagine if a player failing to feed their workers had to DISCARD those workers or something. That could get to a point where you discard ALL of your workers, and then you can no longer even take turns. That would be horrible.

      Agricola has a similar scoring penalty if you fail to feed your workers, but in that game it’s pretty devastating, so you never WANT to beg for food. If you are forced to, you’re probably not going to win the game, but at least you can still play and go after your goals.

      I played Norenberc once, and I don’t recall the details offhand but I seem to remember a player spending all of his money without any sure way to get any back, and they just took him out of play for a time. Sure this may have been ill advised, but without having played before that player didn’t realize the implications of that action, and as a result he put himself into a terrible situation and had a bad game experience. I think that’s a fault of the player – sure, but it’s a fault of the game that such an egregious error was even possible.

      • ErikPeter Walker on January 15, 2015

        You make some good points here, Seth, that you should have touched on in the original article. Game play should usually be about making good choices, and getting stuck without choice for too long spoils a game. Whether it’s poor play (spending all of your cash in St. RunawayLeadersburg), or randomness (whenever a lot of 7s are rolled consecutively in Catan, the momentum of expansion screeches to a halt as players shuffle cards around pointlessly.) Correct me if I’m not quite right, but the core of what you’re saying is that it’s important for players to have agency, despite their position in the game.

        Inevitably there will be turns where you don’t have much choice, but there are ways to make even those moments give players something to think about. To use your game Eminent Domain as a good example, a card draw when dissenting is a great feature that means even “passing” gives you resources to consider for the next turn.

        • Seth Jaffee on January 15, 2015

          Yeah, that’s the idea.

          You’re right, I wish I’d said more of that in my original post!

  9. Brad Brooks on January 14, 2015

    If in your first play of a game you can make a choice that hoses you for a turn, that’s learning. If it hoses you for the rest of the game that’s learning not to play that game again. If you design a game that allows an unexperienced player to sideline themselves then you’ve got no one else to blame when they don’t play your game a second time.

  10. Alan Wong on January 14, 2015

    I kind of agree – to an extent.

    There are trade offs with reducing the chance a player gets knocked out. It can often mean reducing the benefit a player who plays the ‘right’ plays gets. If player 1 plays perfectly, and player 2 plays poorly, what chance should the poor player have in winning?

    I don’t think there is 1 answer – different players will have different answers, depending on thier preferences or desire at the time.

    Go is extremely punishing, but IMHO the ‘bad move’ aspect is important to make it a game of skill.

    I do think that modern board game sensibilities don’t want games that punishing or slanting between the win odds of players of different skill.

    I think modern gamers want a game were you can become an intermediate player in 1 full play ( or even 1/2 if you know games), and the difference between win % of total newbies and veterans is less than 0 : 100.

    • Seth Jaffee on January 15, 2015

      “If player 1 plays perfectly, and player 2 plays poorly, what chance should the poor player have in winning?”

      Absolutely none. Or at least very low chance.

      But that doesn’t mean thy should have a bad game experience.

  11. T. C. Petty III on January 14, 2015

    I think what I dislike is surely the “stunted growth” phenomenon that happens with early risks that do not pay off. Like Seth, I just recently created a game where there is exploration of hexes and the game allowed players to completely ignore the odds of success and just go for a ridiculously hard location on the first turn. Of course, the probability of success is extremely low, but in my game, even if it does work it’s not worth the effort, because by equipping yourself correctly, you could just go somewhere else safer and be better off anyway (unless you get ungodly lucky). And if it doesn’t work out, you set yourself back a few turns. So now you’ve severely stunted the curve of your initial game progression arc while other players do not. And it wasn’t even worth the effort. Still people did it!

    In most games, taking a big risk early can just cripple you without mercy, but if you succeed, the benefits are equally game-breaking. I generally like games that avoid those pitfalls by offering some sort of tiered structure so those challenges don’t arise on turn one. So, I’m doing that with my game.

    BUT even with fail-safes, people just want to do crazy stuff. And that’s the issue with a sandbox game environment versus a safe progression. It’s really difficult in a game the emphasizes exploration, any element of luck, or tension to not offer a crazy option. You can create different tiers of cards or tiles, or extremely hint in the rules about what would be a terrible play, but still people could play all their houses in Kingdom Builder on the first turn in such a way that they are touching every type of terrain and lose. Or they might bid $25 on an $5 power plant on the first turn of Power Grid. Or they might choose NOT to take a second Green card in St. Petersburg.

    To the other commenters, I once wanted to create a list of all the games you could “lose” after the first turn. The list is forever long though. There’s literally so many games that you could make a catastrophic move that you would never recover from. And it’s not bad game design to do so.

    There’s only so much funneling that you can do. And only so many rules and warnings. Make sure the goals are very clear and how to reach them is not misleading. Don’t offer unintended dangling carrots filled with riches for idiot players. Be vigilant. Because, you won’t see the faults in your own game but others will. And if they still do something stupid like place their die on a 10 & 11 and ocean spot in Settlers of Catan and “have a plan,” there’s really no saving them.

    • Royce Banuelos on January 15, 2015

      T.C. You’re exactly right about games you can lose in turn one. Also the idea of a “fun” game is a white whale to chase. There’s no need to focus on what makes a games fun because all games are fun for different people. I’ve have play test where people say it’s terrible and suggest 20 different changes to make and then some people say “it’s perfect don’t change anything.”

      As far as “fail safes” go, in most games it’s good to include them for 2 reasons. 1: So the individual who messed up can still have something worthwhile to do while playing and 2: so one player can’t exploit a rule and bring down a play through for everyone else. In Chess there are no fail safes and against a skilled player you can lose in the first turn. It’s an unforgiving game but for some this is a very rewarding experience. Much like a game like Power Grid. These are not “bad” games by any stretch of the imagination. As mentally rewarding these games are for some they are also dynamic in play throughs. You can have a very very bad experience and never want to play the game again. In this sense it is “bad” game design but nevertheless there is an audience for it.

      Design a game you like and see how you feel about it while play testing. My least favorite play test are when the players say stuff like “It’s good” or “It’s okay.” That’s a very forgettable experience. I love seeing emotion in a play through and even a “bad” player experience could mean I’m right on track with a great game.

      Building in a “fail safe” in Seth’s case was important so that the player still had something worthwhile to do. That player wouldn’t win by any stretch of the imagination but still had enough interaction with the game. This was personal taste to make the game experience Seth was looking for in his game. Remember there is no “right way” to make a successful game.

      • Seth Jaffee on January 15, 2015

        I agree with most of your post 100%…

        “Remember there is no “right way” to make a successful game.” <- This may be true, but the crux of my post is that there are certain things that must be avoided in order to make a "good" game (successful or otherwise) 🙂

  12. Peer Sylvester on January 14, 2015

    Im seeing this problem from a different angle:
    There should be a difference between a mediocre play and a good play. And there should be a differnce between a bad play and a mediocre one either. I dont like games where everybody ends up with about the same number of points, no matter what they did. In other words: Don´t build in too many safety devices or the game will not differentiate between good and bad players.
    The problem of poor play occurs when a) the player doesnt know why his move was poor and b) he cannot win and the game goes on for a long time. I think the trick is to either dont allow players to do very stupid things (attack aliens without weapons, buy more than he can afford) or end the game, when he is out via alternative ending conditions (or make the game so short, that it ends soon anyway)

  13. Shoe on January 15, 2015

    I feel very strongly that it IS a game designer’s job to ensure EVERYONE is having fun during plays of his or her game. The REASON people play games is to have fun. It’s 100% optional to play a game, and a bad experience that you wasted an hour of your life on is a bad game. One of my recent games suffered from this, it was a good game system, but players just weren’t enjoying it. I shelved it, maybe permanently. If I play a game and have not just a bad turn, but an entire play through where I don’t even have fun losing, I sell it off. Losing needs to be a fun experience while it happens too. In every game there are at least as many if not more losers than winners.

  14. James W D on January 15, 2015

    This is a very interesting perspective. As a new player to the Board Game Design industry, this is a very important concept to consider. I believe that you are correct in that it is up to the designer to give every player a good chance to play and win the game. Sure there are games that you will have to learn by making mistakes, but 1 mistake should not be the end all of end all.

    Thank you very much for sharing this concept and I will definitely be taking it into consideration as I move forward.

    • Seth Jaffee on January 15, 2015

      Welcome to the hobby!

      Remember, it’s perfectly acceptable to allow players to lose the game on account of bad play.

      It’s the designer’s responsibility to ensure players can have fun doing so.

      • Peter Vaughan on January 15, 2015

        Thanks again for writing this one Seth – lots of great food for thought I think for all levels of designing

  15. John Zaenglein on January 15, 2015

    I enjoyed your post. I wonder if it had anything to do with my Eminent domain review and the comments that followed…


    • Seth Jaffee Author on January 16, 2015

      Hi John! No, my post was not inspired by that conversation, but come to think of it maybe that is an example. Perhaps Eminent Domain should do a better job of telling player (or forcing players) to move on to mid-game rather than let them putter around in the early game until the stacks run out.

      That has caused some players to have a bad game experience, sometimes a whole group.

      The article was inspired by a game I played recently, which reminded me of at least one game I’d played before with the same dynamic — a player spent all of his money without any way to make more, and then had to pass his turn several rounds in a row.

  16. Lewis Pulsipher on January 17, 2015

    If you go back far enough in the history of games you find that hobby/serious games were designed to require players to earn their success, while party/family games were more like playgrounds, designed to give every player a chance even if they weren’t trying: reward-based pablum – er, games – rather than consequence-based games.

    Reward-based gaming is all over the video world thanks to free-to-play. Some players blame the game when they don’t succeed, that is, they take no responsibility for their own actions. Unfortunately, that’s a common attitude in 21st century life in general. And it seems to be turning up in tabletop hobby games.

    If you wish to design games that reward a player and hold his or her hand, that give him or her a chance to win even if they’re not trying, that do not ask him to earn success, be my guest, but I prefer the older way.

    Preventing a player from badly screwing up early in the game is fine, but where do you draw the line? I like to include strategy hints that the player can choose to read or not: it’s the player’s responsibility, not the designer’s.

    The form of the question that I’ve chewed on for years is, do you design a game for the expert players, or for the average player? (The average game player is not very good.) I think it depends on what kind of game you design. The old-fashioned answer, for a serious game, was to design for experts. And for a party/family game, to design for the average player.

    The new answer seems to be to design everything for the average player, to make it easy to know how to succeed (transparency, I call it), so that people can feel they’ve pretty much mastered the game after one to three plays. Because they’re usually going to move on to the next game in any case.

    • Seth Jaffee Author on January 17, 2015

      Hi Lewis, thanks for commenting.

      I know what you mean about hand holding and designing for the average player vs designing for the expert player. However, I don’t think this exactly lines up to what I was saying in my article above.

      I think there’s room for a designer to ensure a player doesn’t walk into a trap that will mean a player ceasing to be able to really even play the game anymore without “holding their hand” and making sure they have a chance to win.

      Note that I’m not talking about strategy tips, or ensuring players have a chance to WIN the game… I’m talking about disallowing players to cut themselves off at the legs altogether. Based on some of them of these comments, I’m not sure that difference is coming across.

  17. John Parker on January 24, 2015

    Hi Seth, Thanks for the insight and using your own game to exemplify. Messrs. Petty III and Pulsipher also make great points. Not every game is for every player and not every game play will keep the player in contention. Many a battle, real and virtual, was lost by extending forces beyond their support. If your target gamer is the typical war gamer, the player understands and appreciates the decision to take that gamble. If your target gamer learned Carcassonne last week and Catan the week before, you probably need to help him keep all his dudes on the map.

    I am not in the same designer class as you and the others above, but I have thought about this topic as well. I came from a different angle, but came to a similar conclusion to yours – the designer is responsible for providing the possibility of an entertaining game play to the end. My angle:
    Player elimination has become verboten except in short games and this is generally a good thing for gamers, but it raises the stakes on game designers beyond just keeping the players “in the game.” The designer must now keep those players “In The Game.” Keeping a player around, but not providing either a run at victory or at least an entertaining ride is what I call Silent Elimination or what I have heard others call Passive Elimination (which is probably the better term).

    Personally, I want all players (in my target game group) to have a great time to the end. Designers: If for no other reason than to protect your baby from cries of, “Ugly,” you have a vested interest in keeping players engaged to the end. A player who has been passively eliminated is likely to blame the game for their bad experience. You can blame them for having a bad eye for babies, but where does that get you? Worse, the collateral damage is greater than that one player’s dissatisfaction. What I call “Bored Losers” are likely to have a negative impact on the enjoyment of your game by the other players as well. They may start exhibiting bad player behaviors that make others wish the game to end soon, please!

    Since some players may exhibit these bad player behaviors regardless of what your game has done to them, it may be difficult to identify the flaw in your design. Like your example; isn’t obvious color coding enough to detract a player from going where no one has gone before and not being able to get back or obvious huge risk enough to keep T.C.’s player from risking it all to find they have nothing left to build on? Maybe not, but you wouldn’t know that without diligent playtesting. Thanks for the article and for your design approach.

    Shameless plug: I have written about the game design challenge I’ve described on my blog at opiegames.com: Eliminating Player Elimination.

    • Seth Jaffee Author on January 24, 2015

      Thanks fort eh reply, John. I agree with your assessment of bored losers and silent elimination. Both are things to avoid if at all possible, if you want players to enjoy your games.

      I do notice that you, and other commenters, have seemed to read a particular thing into my post… you said “not every game play will keep the player in contention,” which implies to me that you may have thought I meant players need to be protected from losing the game. I don’t think that’s true at all.

      I think your description of Silent/Passive Elimination is what I was talking about, to an extent. I don’t think people should be protected from losing a game, r being mathematically eliminated from contention to win. I just think designers should ensure that a player not get themselves into a position where they cannot even play anymore. Where their turns are null: “I pass… again. *yawn* When does this game end?”

      I’m not sure if you got that message from my post or not, but it seems enough commenters read into my message and focused on something I didn’t intend that maybe it’s worth a follow up post!

      • John Parker on January 24, 2015

        Actually, (I think) I agreed with you whole-heartedly. I didn’t assume you meant that every player, regardless of decisions, should be in contention to win. I was just affirming prior comments in that statement.
        The angle in my article and comment is that the designer has a responsibility to provide an entertaining experience to the end; not only to prevent one player’s bad experience, but to prevent them from ruining the game experience for others at the table. I have a list of ways that they will do that, but that is discussion for another day.
        I appreciate your angle of don’t let them get there in the first place. A player will lose for making bad decisions, but the game won’t suck as a result. I look at it this way, “I played poorly. I lost. I had fun. Let’s have another go!”
        …but, if you feel compelled to write another post, that’s cool. I enjoy the discussion.

        • Seth Jaffee Author on January 24, 2015

          The reason I was thinking about a follow up was not so much YOUR post, but the several responses that seemed to reply as if I’d said “It’s the designer’s responsibility to ensure all players are in contention to win at all times” – which is of course not true at all 🙂

          I’ll check out your post, it sounds interesting.

  18. Lewis Pulsipher on January 24, 2015

    @John Parker: I recognize that the 21st century zeitgeist is to blame anyone and anything for any untoward occurrence, rather than take responsibility for your own actions. Nonetheless, is it the designer’s task to save “Bored Losers” from themselves? After all, games involve winning and losing. A Bored Loser is a task for the player group to deal with. Players need to monitor one another, and the other players shouldn’t play with the kind of person who becomes your “Bored Loser”. It’s not the designer’s job to somehow save that person from himself, his boredom, or from his own irresponsibility.

    (Having looked at John’s blog post about player elimination and Bored Losers, I don’t play with people who exhibit much of the behavior he describes. Period.)

    Some people “fight to the end” as a matter of course and a matter of responsibility. And some other people should not play serious games, because they don’t have the attitude for it. (Serious as in people take them seriously, not serious as in the video game usage of “educational, more or less”.) In particular, people brought up to think they’re the center of the universe (the extreme of the “Me Generation”) are unlikely to be suitable serious players of games for more than two players (in two player games they can just resign). Let these kinds of people stick to party games, which inherently require no responsibility and where winning and losing isn’t a major point, indeed doesn’t really matter.

    Game designers cannot control “the experience” of play, which depends on the people, the situation, the timing of play. However, if you could fully control the experience of a game so that no one ever had a bad experience, no one would have a really good one, either; the game would be pablum (“bland or insipid intellectual fare” ; “trite, naive, or simplistic ideas”) – something we already see a lot in video games, and more and more in tabletop.

    We have an example from all the people who took out obviously risky home loans years ago and then found themselves in big debt when things didn’t go their way. There will always be players who take huge risks, then blame anyone but themselves for the result (and ask for someone else to bail them out). The difference is, in a game you’re supposed to be able to do things you cannot, or would not, do in real life, because you aren’t harmed. I wish we had had something in place in the USA to dissuade those foolish/stupid borrowers, but I don’t think we have to do the same in games because there’s no real harm done. That’s the nature of serious games. They can be educational BECAUSE what happens to you depends, in considerable part, on what you do.

    You can’t make games that everyone likes. There’s no such thing. Furthermore, the world is full of ignorant people who anonymously make nasty comments on the Internet as though they know more about a topic than anyone. Some of them might criticize your game. You can’t make something good without offending someone, without someone thinking it’s a pile of trash. There’s nothing you can do about that.

    Or you can design what amount to party games to minimize the flak. There’s more money in it, after all. No thanks.

    Screencast related to this topic: Avoiding player elimination https://youtu.be/Eu5C941Jjs8

    By the way, I keep seeing designers call their game “my baby”. Grow up, get a grip on reality. It’s a game, not a child, not a marriage, not a cure for cancer. It’s entertainment (or, at best, education). Yes, you put a lot of work into it, yes, it’s great when someone says “I LOVE this game” or asks for you to sign the game, but it’s still a game.

    Though you may not have intended it, your original post too easily came across to me as “let’s relieve players of the responsibilities of playing a serious game”. I still don’t understand where you draw the line, or why.

    I also suspect that the problem, that someone can make a move that dooms them yet isn’t part of ordinary process of choosing good or bad moves, shows up much more with closed games (those with “multiple paths to victory”) than with open games (those where there aren’t clearly-defined solutions – paths – that always work). It may be a feature of games with Generally Accepted Correct Move In This Situation (GACMITS) such that players get annoyed when someone chooses to make some other move than that GACMITS. (Thanks to “Sagrilarus” for this idea.) I regard the closed games as puzzles, and I strongly dislike puzzles, so perhaps I just don’t run into this problem.

    • John Parker on January 24, 2015

      First, thank you for reading my article and commenting. You are preaching to the choir on much of what you have said about game design and the role of games. Here and in my article I am not trying to apologize for “bad player behavior” nor as a designer prevent it or take responsibility for it, which is folly. I don’t want to play with them either. My point there was to say that it can be a tool during playtesting to know when your game has actually ended for some players (before the game is over).
      However, this is not the place for me to defend my article. So I will part with this quote from it: “One player who falls short of the pack, could have just played poorly, but a recurring theme of players losing before the game is over is a hazard.”

    • Nikolas Rex on May 31, 2018

      Late to the conversation here, but I agree with a lot of what you’ve said. I’m an older millennial and an aspiring game designer but I very much appreciate those older game types you mentioned, where bad plays mean you are likely not to win. I don’t see that as a downside, I see it as a challenge. The game is challenging me. The strategy I chose didn’t work, so I need to play more to learn not to make the same mistakes. The more I play the better I’ll get. I love those kinds of games.

  19. Rattrap1 on September 22, 2015

    First, I liked the article. I got the point you were trying to make but I can see how it got derailed with “keeping people from losing.” In most players minds, they keep playing because they have a chance to win. If you design a game where players can make bad decisions and you want to make sure they still have fun, they need the expectation they can potentially win.

    In your example, you don’t cripple the player for making a stupid move. But in doing this, can the player still win assuming all the other players don’t make egregious mistakes? Or are they simply fooled into thinking they can still win?

    If they can still win can they make additional foolish choices and still come out on top? And I’m not talking about big risk big reward scenarios but truly foolish choices?

    If I am remembering my game theory correctly, the bigger the reward the more risk a player will take on even if it’s not in their best interest.

    I think the goal I try to achieve is that the game is not preordained at a point before the final turn or that the winning player consistently wins by a large margin.

  20. apertotes on May 3, 2018

    I know I am very late, but I just read this article and many of its comments and wanted to say something.
    First, I agree 100% that the designer’s responsibility is trying to make a game fun for the players until the end.
    That is the end of my agreement, though.
    In order to have a meaningful discussion we should all agree on a definition for fun. That has not been done, and probably will never be done. Hell, some people have fun doing Iron Man races. How interesting would an Iron Man race be on an indoor track? No slopes, no wind, no rain, no obstacles.
    So, returning to games. Fun is in the eye of the beholder. I do not enjoy games that hold the hand of players so that they are unable to make crippling mistakes.
    Some of you have said that you do not want to sit at a table for 3 hours knowing that you can’t win the game because of a stupid mistake in the first turn. Well, how do you know that the rest of the players won’t make stupid mistakes during those 3 hours?
    In short, my point is that when designing a game, you should think about your players. Is your game intended for 7 Wonders players? Is your game intended for 18XX players? Is your game intended for Dominant Species players? Do not assume that all players are carebear in nature.

    • Nikolas Rex on May 31, 2018

      I’m late to the conversation as well, but I have thoroughly enjoyed this post and all of the comments (a long read but worth it as I am an aspiring game designer myself). I agree with you in defining “fun”. It is very subjective. I am actually one of those players who will have fun playing almost any game, even if I am losing. If I find myself in a position where I know I can’t “win” because of poor choices or risks that didn’t pay off, I always try and find a new goal for myself just for that game, to keep myself interested. For example, “Well, I know I’m not going to win, but let’s see if I can build and maintain the longest road for the duration of the game” and that becomes my new win condition for that play. Then, the next time I play that game I’ll try a different strategy than the one I played previously, having learned from my mistakes.

      I appreciate punishing games, ones that don’t “hold my hand” per say. But I know I’m not the average player.

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