The most formative experience so far in my career as a game designer came the first time I tabled at a convention. As it happened, I was seated next to the only other tabletop game company selling there (name withheld to protect the innocent (me)). The first day, someone came up to my booth and I told her about my games. Afterwards, I observed her as she went over to the other booth. As soon as she saw it, her eyes lit up and she grinned. “You just made my day!” she said, “I’ve been having a hard day and you just made it way better.”
I immediately thought, my games need to inspire that reaction.
The experience taught me something incredibly valuable that I feel a lot of designers don’t pay attention to. Games can’t be evaluated strictly on the basis of “quality.” There’s actually two ways to measure a game’s appeal, and while quality is one, the second, the one that made that person’s day, is something I call IMPACT!!! (Pretend I punched the air while I was saying that.)
Impact is a qualitative measurement, so it’s hard for me to put it in words, but roughly speaking, it’s how much a game sticks with you. After playing an impactful game, you’ll want to rush over to your friends who haven’t played it yet and talk their ear off about this cool thing that happened or that hilarious mistake that cost you the game. You’ll be so excited about what you just experienced, you’ll think about it as you’re driving home or drifting off to sleep.
It is my responsibility as a designer, someone who makes things that he wants people to buy, to make excellent, high-quality games. However, it is my goal as a designer to make games that are also extremely impactful.
How To Make An Impact
So what gives a game impact in the first place? There are a number of factors at play, some of which might not be obvious.
Theme: You can usually tell whether the theme of a game has impact by giving a sales pitch to someone who hasn’t heard of it before. “You’re a farmer in 12th-century France” isn’t going to be that exciting; “It’s an eating contest set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland” is.
Art Style: Merely having quality art isn’t enough to give a game more impact if the art is similar to a lot of other games out there. For example, if you showed someone a gorgeous piece of realistic-looking fantasy art, they probably couldn’t tell you where it came from; show them one of John Kovalic’s cartoons from Ca$h n’ Gun$, on the other hand, and they’ll know the answer immediately.
Gimmicks: These are aesthetic or mechanical ways of approaching the game that don’t actually change the strategy very much, but make it more fun. The aforementioned Ca$h n’ Gun$, with its goofy foam guns, is an obvious example, but even serious strategy games use them, like Alchemists’ app and Tzolk’in’s rotating gears.
Storytelling: Games that tell some kind of coherent narrative through their play are going to stick in the players’ mind much more than ones that are essentially multiplayer puzzles. RPG-lite games like Mansions of Madness are obvious, but theme-first mechanics-second games like Camp Grizzly and Sentinels of the Multiverse use storytelling techniques for impact as well.
Lateral Thinking: The other way mechanics can make an impact is when there’s a lot of room in the rules for a player to use lateral thinking to make hilariously unexpected plays. I can still, for example, name some of the famous/infamous plays from Codenames games I played a year ago. This is also why card-matching party games like Apples to Apples are popular, as they’re essentially “Lateral Thinking: The Game.”
Humor: The funnier a game is, the more likely it’ll impact you. I’ve already written about humor in the context of board games, so go read that!
Games can be impactful by doing reasonably well in a few categories or by smashing through the ceiling on a single one. There’s also probably ways of achieving impact that I haven’t thought of.
The Impact Scale
Ever since I came up with the concept, I’ve started scoring games on their impact with a scale of 1 to 10. I wanted to share some of my thoughts on it to illustrate how I think about impact.
At the very bottom of the scale sits the game I use as an example of nonimpactful games, Glass Road. I want to preface this by saying that I think Glass Road, like most of Uwe Rosenberg’s games, is an extremely good and challenging game that gives players a lot of options. In fact, this is also a good example of how “impact” and “quality” are on completely separate axes, as there are terrible games that are still quite impactful.
But returning to my main point, Glass Road is a game about glassblowing set in rural Germany, but you don’t even have to blow glass most of the time! I’ve won multiple games by ignoring glass entirely, making a lot of bricks, and using them to buy buildings. There’s a fun gimmick with some production wheels, but I just don’t remember anything about the gameplay except that it was good.
The other game that immediately springs to mind as a 1 for impact is Hansa Teutonica, which was very deep and well crafted but so dry I forgot what it was called a few days after playing it. It has cute little dinner plate tokens, though.
Games scoring 2, 3, and 4 are usually dry games that focus on mechanics. Just having a small gimmick or distinct art is enough to rescue a game from being a 1, like Splendor’s thick poker chips. (Splendor is a 2.) At the high end of this part of the scale is Castles of Mad King Ludwig, where the gameplay is pretty mathematical but at the end of the game you look down and find that, because you focused too much on getting points, the only bathroom in your castle is at the end of an elaborate system of catacombs.
To reach a 5, 6, or 7, there has to be something in the gameplay itself that’s memorable and exciting. Very exciting Euro strategy games belong here, as well as thematic games that didn’t quite hit the mark. This is the realm of games like Munchkin, Exploding Kittens, and Red Dragon Inn, which enrage some entrenched gamers with their weak gameplay but attract a lot of casual players through their impact. Libertalia, my favorite game about burly men punching each other off a boat, is a high 7.
8s, 9s, and 10s are the true champions of impact. Games at this level need to really generate great stories, whether intentionally or unintentionally. A few examples I haven’t mentioned yet: Betrayal At House On the Hill, Spyfall, Cosmic Encounter. Special mention goes to Cutthroat Kingdoms, an incredibly impactful game I’ve had the pleasure of observing at various cons over the past few years; I’ve actually discussed the topic of impact (without mentioning it by name, as this was before the concept solidified for me) with the designer a number of times.
This might be a controversial opinion, but I also think Magic: The Gathering, especially its Limited side, scores at least a 9 for impact because of how many memorable games its variance and capacity for lateral thinking generates. Almost every Magic player, including me, could tell you stories about games from a decade ago with almost play-for-play recollection.
“So if you’re so cool and good at judging other people’s games, then what about yours?” Tiny Trainwrecks is a 5, Happy Daggers is a 4, and Stand Back, Citizen! is a 7 or 8. Let me know if you think differently!
For a long time, I’ve searched for both the kind of games I want to make and the kind of games I think I’d be good at making. By thinking about games in terms of their impact, I feel like I finally have a metric to judge whether an idea is worth pursuing. Hopefully, by the time my next game comes out, it’ll score at least an 8 for me.
Have some opinions about impact? Want to ask where on the scale I think some game lies? Please let me know however you’d like!