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.