A month ago I made a list of ways games are “fun”, which led me to the question of whether there is any way to objectively say that one game is “more fun” than another. The TL; DR is: “no”. Games are fun for different reasons, and we all subjectively weigh those kinds of enjoyment differently. Co-operating with others to eradicate deadly diseases from the world is tons’o’fun to some, red-hot-nails-in-the-eyes to others.
Yet I couldn’t stop thinking about some kind of broader way to think about game quality. It wouldn’t be a rating system; instead, it would be a way to talk about the continuum between games as entertainment and games as Art.
Why bother? Two reasons:
First, one of the common objections to criticism in tabletop gaming is, “Come on, it’s just a game, it’s entertainment. Why do you have to drag that other stuff in?” (Similar objections are raised in discussions about the other Arts.) It would be nice to have something to point to in response that says, “Yes, AND…”
Second, and related, is aspirational: I’d love more game designers to be thinking beyond fun, because I think the result would be better, richer game experiences.
So without further ado, let me introduce FOME. Think of it like one of those strength-testing things at county fairs, where you whack something with a big mallet to see how high the marker will go.
Well duh. Games must be fun. They should be fun. That’s the bare minimum we expect from a game: “I had fun.” A game that can’t even manage to be fun is a failure as a game, no matter how worthy its intentions.
Just remember: there are different kinds of fun–thirteen, to be exact. Just so you don’t have to tab back and forth to that other article, I’ll list them briefly here:
(If you can think of others, by all means let me know.)
Judging a game by its “fun quotient” considers it purely as entertainment–it provides nothing more, and we ask nothing more from it.
But can we ask more from a game? Yes. Note I’m not saying that we should always ask for more, from every game. Merely that it is possible. And to me the next logical step–the next level on the Strength-Tester, is:
How many times have you sat around a table learning a new game when someone (maybe you) says, “This game is just another version of <insert name of other game>.” It’s not said in a complimentary way. Sometimes it’s in the context of a designer well-known for spinning off one variation after another of a central idea (<cough> Rosenberg <cough>). Sometimes it’s in response to a re-purposing of a designer’s idea as something shiny and new (Bamboo Bash, anyone?). And sometimes it’s said with a sigh: “Oh. Another game about medieval traders. Yay.” I’m sure you can think of other variations.
On the other hand there is a special feeling when you’re playing a game and get that feeling of, “Wow. I’ve never seen this in a game before.” The feeling of new territory opening up to explore.
By this criterion, a game might be fun but if it does not put an original spin on things then I’m much less likely to want to play it a second time, let alone own it.
Probably the most demanding from a design standpoint is creating a totally new mechanic–ie, Magic: the Gathering, Dominion, Werewolf. It’s hard to establish an entire genre. But a game doesn’t have to invent the wheel to be original. Choice and implementation of theme, innovative tweaks and mashups of mechanics, elegance and streamline of well-worn design tropes are all hallmarks of originality. Millennium Blades is one of the most innovative (and fun!) games I own that as of today has no competitors in the “game-about-collectible-card-game” genre. (Read my review here.)
So a game has to be fun and should be original. Can we go further? Over the past decade or so, the answer certainly seems to be yes.
Mindfulness here refers not to meditative practice (though that is a worthy pursuit) but to intentionality in areas such as:
An example of an unmindful mismatch of game and mechanics would be Stefan Feld’s 2013 game Bora Bora. Here’s a game that’s supposed to be about living in a tropical paradise but to me always felt more like The Devil Wears Prada. So much rushing around trying to get stuff done! Now I like some Feld games quite a lot, but he is known for not even thinking about theme while designing, preferring to leave it to the developers and publisher to pick something they think would sell. Which explains among other things why he’s got two games with very similar themes and names (Trajan and Forum Trajanum) because who cares if that’s confusing.
As someone who has been playing games and reading game reviews for forty years, I can testify that if most of the above topics were mentioned “back in the day” it was rare, indeed if at all. Take a look at this 1981 review of the TTRPG Bushido from Phoenix Games published in Ares Magazine (sorry, might be hard to read depending on your screen size):
It’s a mixed review–but the discussion stays entirely on the surface level of critiquing the game system. The reviewers (and by implication the audience) tacitly accept and assume the right of the game designers to haphazardly borrow scraps from another culture and weld it into an RPG framework without any need to: (a) cite their research or sources; (b) establish their bona fides as legit interpreters of said culture; (c) discuss issues around appropriation or stereotyping; (d) – (z)…
The Mindfulness criterion definitely moves away from looking at games as entertainment toward what they represent as “cultural artifacts”. This is precisely the problem some folk have; they’ve long had the privilege of being able to look at and talk about games from a position of relative (or absolute) safety/dominance. Widening the scope of discussion from “games as entertainment” to “games as culture” is a change, one that threatens that safety/dominance, hence the lashing out and emotionally-charged rhetoric we see from self-appointed gatekeepers.
But facts, as Stephen Colbert once said in his former life, have a well-known liberal bias. Games are cultural products, they are products of our culture. Stand on the beach and yell at the tide all you like, but Fun and Originality are only half the story. Mindfulness does not mean all games, or all good games, have to be serious or didactic. It means having consideration for the player experience. As has been pointed out by more articulate people than me, it’s about making the game accessible to as wide an audience as possible. And as a game designer or publisher, wouldn’t you want that?
Now we’re ¾ of the way up the Strength-Tester. Games are first and foremost about fun. The best of those have something new and interesting to say. The best of those show intentionality and mindfulness. Is there anywhere to go from there? I would argue yes–and not just because I needed an “E” to complete the acronym.
OK, OK, just hold on a sec. I’m not using the word here in the spiritual sense of liberation from the wheel of nirvana and samsara. Or even the politico-historical sense of the enshrinement of reason and separation of church and state.
I’m saying the best games, the very best games, plug us into something deeper and reveal to us something about ourselves, the world, and the connections between. As all great art does. Aristotle wrote about the effect that watching tragic drama has on the mind and body, coining the term catharsis. Games can have that effect–particularly ones with strong narratives like RPG’s.
Games also can bring people together and make them feel more connected to each other–like when you click with your partner when you play Time’s Up or Codenames Duet, or snatch victory together from the jaws of defeat in Hanabi.
More and more designers have been trying to reverse-engineer these effects by beginning the design process asking themselves what kind of experience they want their players to have first and then deciding on a theme and mechanics that best suit it. This could be a learning experience–Lord knows I’ve learned a ton of world history through conflict simulation games. It could be emotional intimacy (Fog of Love, Star Crossed). It could be horror (Nyctophobia) or rampant paranoia (The Resistance).
Whatever the experience, we are richer for having had it (assuming we’ve knowingly consented to it) and the games that keep us coming back and coming back are those that make us want to have those experiences again and again.
FOME splits neatly into two halves: the FO part which is more about entertainment value and the ME part which is more about artistic value. From a consumer POV, I’ve been using something like FOME unofficially for years when trying to decide whether to add a new game to it. Probably most of us do. Until recently the FO part was quite conscious to me, but lately the ME part has crept into mind more and more often as I try to be more mindful about where I spend my money.
From a design POV, FOME seems as good a place as any to think about where to start. (I have designed games myself–nothing published, but enough to know about the process.) Game design is an art, not a science. There’s a lot of craft in it, but practised at its highest levels it is definitely more than just making ‘fun games’, and it is more than putting together ever-more elegant and innovative arrangements and meshings of game mechanics. In the same way, songwriting is more than about putting hooks and choruses together.
As a game reviewer, FOME looks like a good organizational format, as well as a way to think about the evolution of game design in the modern era. At the dawn of the modern age, game design was mainly about FO, and the pioneering classics of the time such as Catan, Carcassonne, and yes even Magic: the Gathering had themes which were lightly slathered on–although they certainly inspired the design process. Many Eurogames of the first Golden Age (Puerto Rico, El Grande, Tigris & Euphrates, Bohnanza) could easily have been set anywhere and be “about” anything. Themes were basically the excuse to get the mechanics on the table, and few if any questions were asked (or tolerated) about appropriateness or appropriation–because only FO mattered. Was it fun? Was it original?
Friedemann Friese’s 2015 tour de force 504 is another great example. Friese himself had already pioneered a “meta” take with 2012’s Copycat, which set out to combine all currently-popular Euro mechanics (deckbuilding; worker placement; drafting, etc.) into one game. In 504, he provided players with the ultimate sandbox of Euro-type game creation. It consisted of nine modules, each of which was a classic mechanic: pick-up & deliver; exploration; stocks; and so on. Players picked one to be the main mechanic, one to be the secondary one, and one to drive their VP engine, and off they went!
Friese’s point, I think, was to let players explore and experiment, to find out which combo worked best for them. The point of 504 as far as I’m concerned, though, is that no matter how good a combo you come up with the resulting game will ultimately only ever feel “half finished” because although it may have the “FO” it lacks the “ME”.
Many gamers continue to enjoy and value the FO-heavy emphasis of traditional Euros. But more and more other gamers expect more from their games–as well as from designers and publishers. Deciding to give your game a South Asian theme and Googling the artwork just because it “looks cool” doesn’t cut it any more. They want to see more “ME” investment. Ultimately, the market will decide. But I think things are bending towards a fuller, FOME future for more games.
Do I expect everyone to drop everything and start using FOME as a framework for criticism and design? I do not. But for the moment anyway I’m going to try it out and see how useful it is. Maybe some of you will, too. If you do, let me know what happens.