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Thinking Out Loud

Friday, August 05, 2005

The Unbearable Lightness of Being >> What Makes a 'Light' Game Light?

This is based on a recent GeekList I posted on BoardGameGeek.com. It's gotten quite a bit of response in a short time, and I think it's an interesting topic. The condensed version of the GeekList's scope follows:

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Often when describing games, we use catch phrases and jargon to put games into categories for easier comparisons and explanation. However, there really isn't a consistent definition of many of the terms we bandy about regularly (such as the many lists arguing about the definition of a "wargame").

One term that gets used frequently is a "light" game, as a supposed opposite to games we define as "heavy." And at times it seems that "light" and "filler" are used synonymously -- but is that really the case? What does "light" really mean, in a gaming context?

Please note that I'm not stating these attributes are the most accurate definition -- just providing some food for thought.

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Simplicity of Rules? I think many folks would argue that a light game is one that can be taught quickly. Many Out of the Box titles fall into this category, as part of the publisher's mission statement as being playable within 5 minutes of opening the box. Simple, clear, accurate rules which can be taught quickly to get new players familiar with the game concepts, or allow experienced players to "brush up" on the game in a matter of moments.

Short Time Frame? Often I think of a quick-playing game when I think of light games. Many games that can be played in 30 minutes or less may often be considered light games, despite any other attributes. I personally think that this isn't entirely accurate, as there are some quick games that feel deep and layered with strategy. But I can see the argument that quicker games may tend to come across as "lighter" than longer games.

Higher Than Average Luck Factor? A long game with a lot of luck may prove incredibly frustrating, but the "lighter" the game, the more tolerance and acceptance of luck. Being screwed by luck in a light game doesn't have the same sting as having an awful run of luck in a heavy game. Whether this luck is based on die rolls, card draws, chart/table results or manifests in other ways, I think that light games can "get away" with more luck and still provide engaging, enjoyable gameplay than heavier titles.

Limited Short-Term Decision Making? With this attribute, I'm looking at the number of options or decisions a player has to make on any given turn. Do light games tend to offer fewer decisions, or decisions among options where one option is clearly better than the others? Limited decision making should not be miscontrued as limited strategy -- just a tighter focus on turn options which help shape a player's actions. This may be represented in having only a few action points to spend on a turn, or only having a handful of turn options available, depending on the type of game.

Limited Long-Term Decision Making? While you may need to have a long-term strategy mind, I think lighter games tend to limit the impact of failing to plan ahead to the Nth degree... whereas heavier games can be brutally unforgiving if your decisions don't take into account your next 2 or 3 turns (a la Age of Steam). Note that I'm mentioning "limited" long-term decisions, and not "lack of" long-term decisions. A general long-term plan can be helpful, such as keeping a color hovering near 15-16 in Ingenious, so you can easily take an extra turn later in the game as needed, but the decision tree for long-term strategies is fairly limited.

Accessibility? I'm not talking about product availability here, but about how accessible the game is to the average player. This is a gestalt of the game's rules, theme, mechanics, complexity and overall appeal to Joe Gamer. As opposed to heavy games, which can get by being very very niche and targeted (such as a wargame about a specific day in a battle with a great deal of minutae), light games may tend to be "safer" in terms of theme and focus. Perhaps this means bearing a theme that's easily identifiable (pirates, finance, or in the case of Royal Turf, betting & horse racing) or a more conventional mechanic that's present in numerous other games (such as bidding or trick-taking).

Ability to Socialize? Is there a noticeably friendlier and more social atmosphere around light games? Compared to their heavier counterparts, with players seated around a table, staring at the board with furrowed brows, lighter games tend to encourage more social interaction. With lighter games, non-game conversation -- movies, kids, you name it -- seems more likely than with heavier games. In fact, some light games may simply be something to do to "keep you busy" while you're talking.

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So what do you think? What are the attributes you generally associate with a "light" game? What are some of the best examples of "light" games? Does being considered a "light" game detract from general perceptions about its quality?

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