Welcome back to Tabletop Tastes: My favorite flavors in board games! This is a series where we spend each episode diving deep into an essential element of game design. For hobbyist gamers, this series will help you to explore your own tastes in the hobby and perhaps discover your next favorite game that fits those tastes. For game designers, this series will offer you more tools to add to your utility belt and metrics to measure your projects by.
If you missed the previous episode, then go on and check out Tabletop Tastes #13: Purposefully Potent Meanness.
If board games are like a tall glass of ice water, then replayability is the thirst that keeps me coming back for more gulps. Without that thirst, forcing yourself to drink more water (or replay a board game) can be tough to do. It’s important for a game to introduce unique wrinkles, dynamics, or challenges to keep the experience refreshing.
Lack of replayability is one of the most common causes of death in my collection. It’s like the heart disease of board gaming. It can go easily undetected through the marketing, reviews, and initial plays all the way until play two or five or ten comes around, and suddenly the game just keels over dies right on the table. Usually, the symptoms suddenly come on mid-game when you find yourself far less engaged than before, experiencing deja vu from previous plays. Let’s explore some of the ways that games have succeeded and failed at fighting this disease.
One of my first board game conventions was at Origins in Columbus, Ohio. During this convention, I had the chance to sit down and play a full game of Crusaders: Thy Will Be Done. I was quickly swept up in the fancy production and novel mechanism of using a Mancala-style rondel to build up and execute actions. This cyclical puzzle is combined with a more standard player-board engine builder that allows players to travel across the map and claim territories and bonuses with increasingly more powerful actions. The novel experience was further enhanced by simple rules, brisk pacing, and a surprisingly succinct playtime. From that one play, I was eager to enjoy Crusaders more, so I brought home my own copy.
We proceeded to play it only 3 more times over the course of a year, and despite the huge stretches of time between plays, I couldn’t quite find the refreshment I was looking for. The problem was that every game felt like it played out in basically the same way. Anything you do earns you points, and the map is too wide open for opponents to get in each other’s ways. By the time I logged my fourth play, I was already tired of retreading the same path.
Another engine builder that is still going strong after even more plays is Roll for the Galaxy (and Race for the Galaxy). This game is packed with a wide variety of paths and challenges thanks to the emerging planets and technologies that come from a huge draw pile. This game also provides several core strategies you can select to build up a point generator. Race & Roll for the Galaxy force their players to develop their strategies and adapt on the fly as cards come out or tiles emerge and dice are rolled. You’re constantly weighing the relative value of your options against each other, deciding where to commit your resources and actions, and developing a unique tableau of benefits. Thus, one play has never felt like another.
These refreshing sessions are what keep me coming back for more, while the lack of refreshment can quickly get a game booted from my collection. Pendulum and Calico are two such games that quickly lost their luster for me, despite having strong starts. Both games initially presented interesting and engaging challenges, the problem was that these challenges remained static from one play to the next.
Pendulum’s test is all about finding the most efficient route through the unchanging game board. While unique player mats may start at different strategic locations, their optimal paths seem to always merge very early in the game to make for a samey experience. Being a low interaction and low variance game, with enough practice the puzzle begins to feel solvable.
Calico likewise had us quickly finding our strategic niche. It doesn’t provide enough reasons for one to budge from an optimal strategy, and thus began to feel stale over time. Plays one and two were fresh, interesting, and thinky. Play three felt no different from the first two. The problem is that I felt I had maximized my skill potential in this solitaire game, and any future plays will simply be retreading the same ground.
You’ll notice that all three games that lacked replayability at my table share a common thread: they provide minimal player interaction. All three games see players living in their own little world, with heads down and brains steaming as they strive to calculate and execute the most efficient plays. Rarely do you have a reason to care what other players are up to. Opponents merely serve as occasional inconveniences to your own plans—bumps in in the unchanging road—rather than major factors that cause massive detours or major shifts in one’s strategy and tactics.
When the challenge boils down to player vs. game, the design carries all of the burden of keeping things interesting and fresh from one play to the next. Without plenty of variable tricks up its sleeve or dynamic effects within mechanisms, it’s all too easy for a solitaire game to quickly feel solvable.
Speaking of solitaire solvability, I’ve seen one saucy game solve this problem far better any other… That game is My City. Indeed, one of my Top Games of 2020, and my all-time favorite Polyomino Game. THIS is how you do multiplayer solitaire. Simultaneous play. Evolving, legacy-style sessions. Interesting new challenges layered on to each successive play. Providing catch-up mechanisms for those who fall behind in the overall objective while ramping up the difficulty for those who pull ahead. Not once during my TWENTY-FOUR plays did I think to myself, “Well, this is getting a little old.” Let us, once again, take notes from the legendary Dr. Knizia’s work!
Of course, I’ve found far more games solve the issue of replayability by simply baking the infinitely dynamic factor of player interaction into the core design. Cutthroat and meaningful player interaction are the reasons why Caylus 1303 and Azul remain on my shelf while, the lack thereof is why Pendulum and Calico quickly left them. I can introduce the former games to different people and instantly have a new challenge of adapting to their unique play style. And with experienced players, I have to constantly up my game as we surf the meta of play from one session to the next. As I mentioned in my tabletop tastes episode on salty player interaction: a game with high player interaction is a game with high replayability and balance built right into its core system.
One final interesting example to explore is between two games from the same designer, Andreas Steding. These games are Gugong and Hansa Teutonica.
The interesting gift mechanism is where Gugong really shines. In order to take an action at what is essentially a worker placement spot, one must exchange the card at that location with a higher value card in their hand. The numbers go from 1-9, and a 9 can only be replaced with a 1.
Players must decide the best order and location to play out these cards, and the limitations surrounding how and when you can play them are the beating heart of this clever worker placement game. Gugong entices you with a constant stream of good reasons to exchange one gift for another…. the action locations, the card actions, the destiny dice, the cards available to claim, the cheap action opportunities, barring other players from an action, etc. It’s an exquisite flow of sneaky cultural corruption across a well-balanced expanse of interesting options.
After hearing my enthusiasm for this concept, it may surprise you to also hear that I quickly got rid of Gugong from my collection. My main issue with Gugong is that after three plays, it already started to feel samey to me. By session three, I had dabbled in every strategy that the game offers and determined my personal optimal way to play the game. While my approach to the game is tactical and fluid, I had no reason to change my approach. This considerably dampened my interest in exploring the game further.
The second biggest issue is that several of the “worker placement” action spaces are considerably less interesting than others. These different spaces are essentially multiple mini games globbed together into one larger worker placement game, but some of these mini games don’t compare favorably to others. The travel action lacks tension and interaction (simply go forward or backward for your next bonus), the jade action lacks heart (pay cubes for some points), the intrigue action feels dull (move your marker up a tiebreaker track). Basically, the ship action and wall action are more dynamic and engaging… making the others look flat in comparison. Contrast this with something like A Feast for Odin, which has dozens more action spaces that are nearly all enticing and rewarding, and Gugong’s disguised issue becomes more apparent.
So if I want to have the most fun with Gugong, I’m stuck with my increasingly stale go-to strategy. And then mixing it up with other strategies results in a less engaging affair. When a game traps me between these two options, I’d much rather just pick a more replayable game like Mr. Steding’s Hansa Teutonica.
With Hansa Teutonica, strategic options are less like the mixed results buffet of Gugong and more like the opportunistic Hunger Games. If many of my opponents are tangled up in the chaotic Cornucopia of upgrades, that may be the perfect time for me to stealthily snake my trade network across the board or lie in wait to pounce on their plans when their backs are turned. Depending on the group dynamics, I can be a trading post point leech, a meddlesome route-infesting merchant, an all-powerful ability glutton, or a combination of those things. Yet these options are not equally weighted; their effectiveness depends on how long players allow the game to go. It’s much better to gun for the upgrades when you expect to have enough late-game turns for your meaty engine to pay off.
With each new play of Hansa Teutonica, I find myself better able to read the game state and adapt accordingly. Yet my regular gaming group improves their abilities as well, thus the punches and counter-punches are ever evolving. Far more than Gugong, Hansa is a game whose depth increases with its players’ experience.
The thrill of new challenges, the engagement of evolving narratives, the joy of unexpected discoveries…. These are the elements that keep a tabletop game refreshingly replayable. Yet there are still plenty of games worth trying even when they have a very obvious and limited lifespan, especially when they are the best in their genre.
Tune in next time for Tabletop Tastes #15: Savage Spoilers.
More refreshingly replayable games:
- Highly variable setups/game states: Sidereal Confluence, Root, Pax Pamir (Second Edition), The Crew: The Quest for Planet Nine, Sprawlopolis, Curious Cargo.
- Drastically different depending on your group: Chinatown, The Estates, Men at Work, Scape Goat, Wavelength, Cosmic Encounter.
What games are the most replayable in your collection?
Article written by Nick Murray. To follow his designs as they come to fruition, subscribe to our newsletter and follow Bitewing Games on social media!