I decided to try something inspired by a Movies with Mikey video. I made a set of criterion, and I applied it to games in my collection to see what came out of it.
The Movies with Mikey Method:
What makes a perfect board game for Gwathdring? What makes a good game for Gwathdring is complex and depends a bit on genre. We’d be here all day. But perfect is, in some ways, a bit easier. Most of the time I can say comfortably that a perfect Gwathdring game is:
Exciting. It’s a game that I want to play, that I think about when asked what games I want to play or when planning to play games somewhere.
Marketable. It needs to be something I can get people to play. Maybe the premise is enough to drag people through a complex rules explanation, maybe the rules explanation can be delivered as we play, maybe it just doesn’t have many rules. However it gets there, I need to be able to go from suggesting we play it to actually playing it with people who aren’t already looking for that opportunity.
Engaging. For the whole game, you’re ready for the next turn. You’re not checking your watch, losing track of whose turn it is, and regretting your decision. You’re either in the game and playing, your you’ve been eliminated—and bonus points if it engages spectators and eliminated players, too.
Interesting. The game surprises, challenges or delights. Something about the game always draws you into its story or its systems. You’re not just engaged in the experience of play, but engaged in something specific about this thing that keeps you thinking about it afterwards. Something the others players do or the systems do or you do that has you wanting to tell friends this story that you then maybe realize doesn’t work as a sharable story. Maybe you had to be there, but either way—it sticks with you. It pulls you in deep.
Clean. The game doesn’t have a bunch of moving parts or rules that don’t go anywhere. Everything you learn, use, pick up or look at does something meaningful.
To start with I just gave everything a thumbs up or down in the category. In principle this would probably work a bit better if things got 0, 1 or 2 points in each category just to create at least a little bit of texture to the system. I gave each game a careful think as to whether or not it got a thumbs up in each category, not whether or not it was better than other games in that category or whether or not I’d give it x/5 in a normal rating.
24 games hit all five points:
A Fake Artist Goes to New York
Deep Sea Adventure
Flick 'em Up
Mechs vs Minions
Sherif of Nottingham
Vast: The Crystal Caverns
Welcome to Dungeon
Some of these were in my old list of Games I’m Most Excited To Play Right Now. Some have made other kinds of Top Ten I’ve made in the past. Some of them are surprising–that is, while all of them are games I think about playing routinely thanks to the Exciting category, not all of them are games I think of as the best or most worthy things in my collection. Pictomania, Mechs vs. Minions, Witness, and Flick 'em up are all good games, but they’re not games I would think of as “perfect” unprompted.
What surprised me more is what wasn’t there. Space Alert isn’t, on the surface, a tough game to sell. It has one of the best elevator pitches in my entire collection. It’s no a 3 hour slog of a wargame. But it is a long game to teach even if you get to play a bunch in there, and despite the premise, I’ve tried to get it to the table and failed more often than I’d like which has a certain sort of inevitability that doesn’t come with just assuming a game is a difficult sell on principle. I’ve sold this game with everything I have and come up short–sometimes even after getting people interested due to issues with getting audio set up or finding table space or people burning out after one or two tutorial missions. Space Alert is one of the few games in my collection I would normally even dream of calling something ostentatious like “perfect” but here we are.
Similarly, Consulting Detective misses a mark on Engaging. As weird as this sound to me on the surface, thinking about it I remembered both observing other people check out and myself checking out–getting caught up in your own world of clues while other people engage with each other, or just getting exhausted and tuning out of purpose. Everyone typically seems to come back into things within a few minutes, but despite not having turns it does manage to sometimes have something similar to that waiting-for-turn feeling. Sometimes you get stuck and don’t have anything to contribute and it has nothing to do with Quarterbacking; this isn’t a game where you can lean on procedure in those moments to keep things moving. Less surprising is Galaxy Trucker falling flat on the same metric–it’s too easy for players to lose interest in the race at the end which wouldn’t quite be enough if it weren’t also for the problem of well built ships being more boring to fly. The better I get at the game or the luckier I get on the draw, the more levers I have to have tweaked to keep things interesting especially when not playing with a group ready for things like aliens. And while Galaxy Trucker absolutely has those levers (it gets Interesting, for sure) it’s easy to just not tweak them right or get “lucky” and end up having a dud round or two where things go too smoothly and there’s no drama in the card draw.
And then there’s the bottom of the list. My least perfect games. Four games with one credit to their names here.
Archipelago – Interesting
Flash Point: Fire Rescue – Clean
Lord of the Rings: The Board Game – Interesting
Robinson Cursoe – Interesting
And these are least perfect. They’re not never engaging, I’m not completely uninterested in playing them, they’re not impossible to interest others in, they’re not terribly messy designs and Flash Point isn’t utterly devoid of exciting, delighting and challenging moments. They’re just, on the whole, characterized too strongly by gaps in these concepts and experiences to be perfectly exciting. Perfectly engaging. Etc.
Archipelago is not a game I would have expected to see down here. I like Archipelago. It’s an excellent game, in some ways I think it’s “better” than games elsewhere on this list, and it’s interesting to think of it this way. Lord of the Rings and Flash Point are perfectly serviceable cooperative games that I think have a lot going for them. Robinson Cursoe is … well, that one isn’t such a surprise. It’s a bit of a mess.
I did expect to see a few other games down here, though. Coup, Dead of Winter, Risk, Mage Knight, Arkham Horror, 7 Wonders and others are all games I think of as the problem children of this collection–good games I enjoy playing, but that do not bear mentioning without a mountain of caveats. But none of them are here.