The Variability of Replayability
One of the pieces of advice I’ve given when someone asks me about getting into criticism is to read other critics. Find the voices you admire and that will inspire you to push further, to try harder. For me there are a few names I respect and one of those is Charlie Theel. A recent post by Charlie on the origins of replayability as a critical consideration and how Dominion changed our relationship with it, got me thinking about my own relationship with replayability.
Replayability is something of an umbrella term for many factors that can affect our desire to get a game off the shelf. All we are talking about is how often game x gets to our table. Why do we choose game x over y?
I like to keep my collection small, focused, and full of games that I can teach with relative ease and get to the table on a regular basis (though what that means from title to title can vary greatly). Replayability comes to me then in a quick teach, shortish play time, but with interesting mechanisms and narrative to keep me introduced.
You can already see that my own requirements for replayability can be broken down. What factors should we consider when thinking about replayabilty? To my mind there are five:
Keeping in mind that none of these are more important than any of the others, we should break them down further. All I aim to do is make you think about what is important to you when it comes to considering replayability in its many forms. In that way we can have a more nuanced conversation about such a loaded term.
The amount of time a game takes up can have a huge impact on how often it gets to the table. Setup, play, and teardown time are all issues when it comes to considering this particular factor.
Setup can be alleviated by a good insert/organisation. It seems to be one of those elements that is considered by few companies and left to the accessories community to pick up the slack. I personally recommend the Folded Space inserts which are cheap in comparison to many inserts, well put together, and don’t added a lot of weight to the box.
Teardown may not be a factor depending if you are a group who only plays one game a night, much like my own. However if you are into longer game sessions, with multiple games then it definitely factors in. Again good inserts can alleviate this, or a laissez faire attitude to organisation that allows you to just sweep everything into the box.
Play time is always going to vary from group to group but rough ideas can be gleaned from the box, previous experience, and boardgamegeek. Familiarity with a game will of course make a game quicker to play, and therefore time can become less of a consideration the more times we play it. A Catch-22 of sorts. A game will get quicker to play the more we play it. The less we play it the more we have to dredge up how to play from our memories and teach ourselves, and others, all over again.
If, like me, you are the primary teacher of games in your group, then how long a game takes to convey to your audience becomes a real factor in how often you are getting that game to the table.
If you are lucky enough to have a regular group and a tight selection of games, then how long the game takes to teach dissipates as a factor. For those of us who move between groups a lot, teaching time is a huge factor.
Rulebooks can be good or bad, but how we teach a game is a much harder question to answer. There is of course an entire industry around “How to Play” videos, but “How to teach” is a different thing altogether. Doing it well is a gift, doing it badly can ruin a game.
I’ve written my own thoughts on the subject in the following two articles and will be working on more teaching guides over the course of the year.
Complexity is how intricate and hard to understand a games mechanisms are. This is not depth, at least not necessarily.
The more complex the mechanisms of a game are, the more you have to remember when coming back to a game that you don’t play week in, week out. Teaching the game is harder the more complex it is, throwing up a barrier to getting a given game to the table with a variety of groups.
If you are lucky enough to have a consistent group to play complicated games with, this factor can be ameliorated a little. Of course even when familiar with a game, the complexity can still lead to an extended playtime. The intricacy of mechanisms can lead to more downtime, more analysis of the situation, and the dreaded analysis paralysis.
For those who savour the challenges that come from mastering a complex system, this can be a blessing not a curse. Even with a complex game I find that good player guides can really help. I have waxed lyrical about the excellent work that Leder games does in this regard, making a complex game like Root a lot easier to get to the table and teach. Complex game makers, please don’t underestimate the value of a good player reference sheet to how often your game gets to the table.
Now this is a tricky one and means a lot of different things to different people. In a previous article I wrote a definition of depth. If you’ll allow me to quote myself a moment:
“Depth is an expression of the choices and space to improvise a game gives you to achieve victory”
Depth is not the same as complexity, though it can be found down that route. It can also come from the emergent properties of a game, but more on that in this article. A game with depth draws us back time after time to investigate it. Designing depth into games though can be very difficult and designers can go their whole careers chasing that elusive factor in their games.
For me, true lasting depth comes from the emergent strategies and decisions a great design can produce. That sort of design brings me back to a game again and again, looking for new ways to play and new opportunities to be surprised and delighted. A lot of the games in my collection have that property for me alongside the next one on our list.
I’d originally had this down as ‘content’ but that feels a little derivative and not a tad insulting. It makes it just sound like ‘stuff’ without meaning. While that accusation could be levelled at certain Kickstarters, I do wonder if the motivation behind those designs is more to do with narrative replayability.
One of the factors that brings me back to a game again and again is the narrative of a game. The little stories that a sharp design can give you, delight me and make me want to revisit a game to see what story it tells me next. I especially enjoy emergent narrative, those stories implied by the combination of mechanics, theme, and setting that I feel is almost unique to tabletop games.
In the modern boardgmae era, narrative considerations seem like the biggest concern. The huge Kickstarter projects with lots of expansion want you to experience a different story each time. It has become the Kickstarter model for big projects to give you endless chapters to your story. The question is, will you play them?
Back to the beginning
So what do I want you to take away from this? That replayability is not just one thing. You can’t just say ‘this game has great replayability’ without quantifying what you mean by that. Does it have depth? Is it the story that draws you back in? Is it easy to get to the table over and over as it is easy to teach and has a quick play time?
There are lots of factors to replayability and it is good to be cognizant of which are important to you. Replayability has become the be all and end all word of our times when it comes to boardgame marketing. We can’t let advertising take it from us though. It is a useful word, but only if we understand what it means to us, and that it doesn’t mean the same to everyone.
What is your own relationship with replayability? What factors are most important to you? Post in the comments or come and chat in our Discord.