Modern game design operates on a set of assumptions that don’t work for every game. For example, asymmetric games are supposed to be balanced as closely as possible, but some Cosmic Encounter aliens shut down other aliens’ powers completely. Good games should have little to no luck involved, but Betrayal at House on the Hill is reliant almost entirely on dice rolls and good draws. And yet, Cosmic and Betrayal are generally considered good, fun games. How can this be true?
The secret is there are actually two kinds of game, each with their own standards of design: Strategic games and Experiential games. When creating a game, it’s important to think about which one you want, as designing using the wrong method could be fatal.
Are You Experienced?
There’s different ways to define strategic vs. experiential, but the simplest way is as follows: Strategic games are a challenge, while experiential games are an experience.
In strategic games, the players are challenged to do their best under the infrastructure of the game rules. This will almost certainly create difficult situations which have to be resolved through the players’ wits and, rarely, dexterity. The winner in a strategic game should be someone who deserves it: Someone who was best able to solve the puzzles presented to them.
Examples of strategic games include Euros, wargames, most co-op games, abstract games, and anything with an organized play system.
In experiential games, the players use the framework of the game to create an engaging experience for themselves. Difficult choices are present, but simple choices that are fun or flavorful are also present en masse. Luck is much more acceptable. A player or players can technically win, and the threat of losing the game adds important stakes, but winning is less important than having played the game period.
Examples of experiential games include party games, social deduction games, RPGs, dungeon crawlers, and anything with “legacy” in the title.
Like every binary in the real world, the line between strategic and experiential is fluid, and some games, like Magic, hover in the middle ground. Players may also treat a game like it’s the opposite: Take, for example, someone who is very serious about Apples to Apples, or someone who decides to spend a game of Catan building a very long road and doing nothing else.
It’s fairly easy to figure out whether you’re trying to design a strategic or experiential game by thinking about it. But if you’ve decided you’re creating an experiential game, how do you analyze and improve it?
(I’m not getting into the realm of strategic game design because many people who are smarter than me have covered it on many, many websites.)
Good experiential games should rile up your players’ emotions. Laughter is the best, as it means that the players are having fun even when they’re getting their butts kicked, but depending on the game, rage or shock can also be a good sign. Note that frustration is unacceptable, as it has a component of helplessness: Nobody enjoys being bound by the social contract of a game to twiddle their thumbs and do nothing.
When observing a playtest, make sure to write down when your players are reacting and how. Post-playtest discussion is also helpful, but sometimes people don’t remember what they felt, especially if the end of the game is weaker than the events preceding it.
This next part is more painful: You don’t need to care about strategy that much. As long as your game is engaging, it’s okay if a player wins mostly through luck or if certain abilities are moderately under/overpowered. Your responsibility as an experiential game designer is first to create something that lets your players have fun, and second to create something balanced.
Codenames is a great example of this principle. The shifting word grids make it so every game results in different prompts, but occasionally a team will luck out and get four words that are all animals or countries. In a more strategy-focused game, this would be unacceptable, but because Codenames is more about the experience of the spymaster and their field agents than one team winning, exacting balance is sacrificed in favor of a simpler game.
Though you don’t need to care about strategy as much, you don’t get off scott-free, as you now have to focus much harder on your game’s impact. This not only means thinking about more unique and memorable gameplay, but the illustrations, graphic design, and even writing of your tabletop game have to be clear, interesting, and cohesive. When creating an experiential game, you should be daydreaming about things you won’t even get to for months so you can design your skeleton in preparation for its flesh.
Ideally, all games should be challenging and impactful, but if you have to make a decision between one and the other, strategic games should make challenge more important and experiential games should make impact more important. Unimpactful strategy games like Hansa Teutonica are successful in their lane, as are strangely balanced experiential games like Arkham Horror.
Conclusion: The Word “Experience” Has Lost All Meaning To Me Now
Experiential game design is a topic I’ll most likely revisit in the future. These games are a very important component of modern tabletop gaming, but they frequently get swept under the table or, even worse, scoffed at by the kind of enfranchised gamer who most often writes about design. Hopefully, my writing will form the core of a new, more psychology-focused method of approaching tabletop design.