An Essay On Replay Value I Wrote At Three In The Morning

Board game design teaches that a game should be fun for a number of repeated plays. A realistic high number for the average game and the average group is 3-5, but every designer dreams of creating a game so addictive that the audience keeps playing for years.

This article isn’t meant to contradict the concept of replay value as a whole, but rather a particular idea attached to it: That randomizing mechanical elements of your game will automatically give it increased replay value. This is true on paper, but, very frequently, these changes aren’t enough to make repeated plays feel different from each other. So what’s the problem here, and how can a designer use randomization to make a game with true replay value? My thoughts are below.

This Jeremy guy’s a (net)hack!

To better understand the issue, let’s look at the roguelike, a popular genre of video game. Generally falling within the role-playing or action role-playing genres, roguelikes are defined by randomly creating a dungeon for you every time you play. The first time you play, you might run into a the boss room immediately; the second, you might encounter a special shop. Obviously, this means that you can play a roguelike forever and never get tired of it, right?

Wrong, strawman. The more you play, the less the randomization will mean anything to you. You’ll begin to notice certain rooms appearing over and over, and it’ll feel more and more like you’re simply playing the same game. And in the end, you’re doing essentially the same things: You’re just doing them in different orders.

In essence, a lot of games that claim to have endless replay value because the setups are randomized are like a roguelike. I’m going to use Kingdom Builder as an example because some of its printed appeal was that it was different every game: Every game has a new map, set of special powers, and series of victory conditions. However, by your third game of Kingdom Builder, everything’s sort of running together.

This is because, despite the randomized components, the core strategy of the game is still fairly similar for every playthrough. Whether you want to create one big clump of houses or build close to water, what’s most important is that you have the freedom to build in as many locations as possible. Thus, the universal strategy is to try to fill out areas and try to remain off as many terrain types for as long as possible.

The Obligatory Sandwich Analogy

To create real replay value, a game needs to offer truly different routes for winning the game. In the deckbuilding game Trains, players randomly select eight stacks of cards that can be purchased and added to decks over the course of the game. However, depending on the distribution of these cards, the optimal strategy for each playthrough differs wildly. Some setups might encourage wild expansion across the map; some support making huge purchases of costly but powerful buildings. One card in particular, the Mining Train from Trains: Rising Sun, encourages you to build on otherwise useless mountain spaces, flipping the game’s strategy on its head entirely.

Ideally, when someone plays your game for the second time, they should feel like they’re having an experience distinct from, but similar to, the game they played last time. The core of the game should be steady in order to reward skill development, but in order to generate replay value, the overall experience needs to feel less like taking a second bite of the same sandwich and more like you’re ordering a different sandwich at the same café.

In order to detect this in your prototypes, watch the people who think they know what they’re doing as they struggle with your random setup. Are they doing significantly different things each time, or are they following similar paths? If it’s the former, it’s likely that your audience is going to want to play your game multiple times.


Randomizing game elements is not the silver bullet answer to a game feeling stale: It is a tool that, with the use of some other tools, may provide you the solution if you do it correctly. Much like everything else in life, answers are not so cut and dry, but answering these challenges is what’s so satisfying about creation.


Keeping Your Game Focused (also, horrible puns)

I’m a big fan of ketchup.

I was raised by a Midwesterner and, for much of my childhood, ketchup was the only condiment I’d accept anywhere. Even to this day, when I go to gourmet burger establishments, I’ll dump a bunch of ketchup on everything after my carefully constructed order arrives.

This is a shocking opinion, but I’m also a big fan of ice cream. It’s delicious! Cookies and cream is my favorite flavor.

So given that I love ketchup, and that I love ice cream, obviously putting ketchup on my ice cream is a great idea, right?

Today’s article is about avoiding the design equivalent of putting ketchup on your ice cream.

One Game, 31 Flavors

It’s pretty easy to tell, during playtesting, that your game is bad. People get bored or frustrated, individual mechanisms are overpowered or useless, the game lasts for longer than it should. That’s because these are things that give you immediate feedback, the equivalent of a big siren going off.

When your game isn’t necessarily bad, but unfocused, it becomes a lot trickier to detect. The individual mechanics of your game might be excellent by themselves, but combined they create a confusing mess. This isn’t something that you can detect by examining final scores, and some players may even give you confusing feedback – depending on the person, they might not mind something unfocused if they had a fun time playing it.

The best example I can think of is TIME Stories, which combines an intriguing premise – co-op mystery solving as you play through the same story repeatedly in an attempt to unravel more of it – with dice-rolling mechanics. The thrill of advancing your group game by game conflicts with the issue that you can easily lose the game, even though you did everything right, through a series of poor dice rolls. In a different game, the dice-rolling would be acceptable, or even fun, but here the unfocused mechanics make the game less satisfying.

Games can also be thematically incoherent. The game El Grande was originally Troy-themed, with a big Trojan Horse that players could drop their cubes into to hide how many they’re going to puke onto the board at the end of the round. But during production, the publishers changed the name to the political conquest of Spain, with the incredibly thematic Horse changed to a generic “castillo”. El Grande is still one of the best territory control games ever made, but if it had stuck to its original theme the impact would have been dramatically improved.

Ketchup Mechanics

The best solution to focusing your game is to have a clear statement in your head of what you want the game to be. However, the problem is that humans aren’t computers, and we design as much on instinct as we do by writing down several paragraphs in a design document. Your “statement”, might be fuzzy daydreams about some players laughing and having a great time, or a looping gif (pronounced gife) of a character in your game doing something dramatic. In this way, it’s hard to keep a game focused when you don’t even know what to focus on.

There’s two ways to approach this, depending on how you’re constructing your game: “top-down” or “bottom-up”, to borrow terms from Magic design.

“Bottom-up” designs are created when the designer thinks of one or two interesting mechanics they’d like to explore. In this way, you develop these games by weaving supplementary mechanics and theme around your core concepts in a way that creates a complex, challenging design. The issue arrives when the supplementary mechanics are lifted from more popular genres – for instance, creating an interesting way of placing tiles on a board but deciding that the way to acquire them is through simple drafting because you can’t think of anything better.

The best way to keep your bottom-up game focused is to think about what the core mechanic wants. For instance, in our theoretical tile-laying game above, how would it be a challenge for you to get the arrangement that you want? What would generate a feeling of satisfaction when you arrange your tiles in just the right way to shoot past your opponents? What mirrors the core mechanic in a satisfying way? Once you’ve answered these questions, the focus of your game becomes clearer.

Ice Theme

“Top-down” designs are based primarily on theme. My Happy Daggers, for instance, was made as a way to capture the feel of melodramatic swordfights as you might see in The Three Musketeers or Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Hamlet. This makes focusing with your mechanics simultaneously easier and harder: You have a clearer statement of what you’d like to design, but because you’re starting from scratch mechanically it’s a lot easier to drift away from where you started.

The most important part of designing a top-down game is its “feel”: That is, making players feel the same when playing your game as they do while watching a movie or reading a book of the same genre. Mark Rosewater, Magic head designer, talked about this approach when designing for Innistrad, the game’s gothic horror/movie monster expansion. The primary feeling you get from a good horror movie isn’t necessarily shock, but dread – the creeping feeling that something’s wrong right before the skeleton pops out or whatever. So the mechanics of Innistrad were aimed at generating the same feelings: Humans which could turn into werewolves on the next turn, any creature’s death triggering a powerful “morbid” effect, spells which could return from the graveyard when you least want it. Innistrad is considered by many to be one of the best Magic sets ever made, which speaks to the power of this approach.

Heinzight is 20/20

Your game will be much better when everything – every tiny mechanic and every scrap of design – is all precisely focused on a core experience. By keeping this in mind while playtesting, the process will probably be more painful – you’ll have to throw out otherwise good concepts because they don’t jazz with the other things you’re doing – but will result in a clearer, more fun, and more impactful game for your players.

This article went on forever, so as a reward for sticking with the whole thing here’s a picture of Pikachu with a bottle of ketchup. See you in two weeks!