Tobago and the P(Fun) All-Stars

There’s an article on BoardGameNews talking about the good and the bad of Tobago, a new board game that makes people brain burn on set theory in a nice little island theme with some beautiful pieces. I bought Tobago sight unseen last month and have had the chance to play it twice. But this post isn’t so much about Tobago as it is about the Game Design Rule at the bottom of the article:

For myself, I simply mark down another game design rule: if you create a thoughtful mechanism, make sure it’s strategic too.

And that’s such a limiting hardcore game-nerd rule.

It reminds me of my time at EA when I would suggest features that I believed would make our games more interesting to play, but were vetoed down for what I think is the same reasoning. In my case, the objection would always be: “How does this affect gameplay? Does this raise your stats?” or something similar with the underlying suggestion that if it didn’t offer strategic advantage, it wasn’t worth a designer’s time.

Gameplay isn’t just who wins and loses, it is all the choices the players make and the results of those choices. But to the author of the article, and many of the people I previously worked with, gameplay is ONLY the choices and results that affect who wins and loses. Everything else is window dressing.

When you play Rock Band, do you choose which song you play based on how well you will do – which song will give you the highest score? No, you choose based on a number of factors that are an attempt to maximize p(fun). Not p(win). But hardcore gamers of all brands (cardboard and digital) like to make that equation: p(win) = p(fun). Therefore, to them, anything that doesn’t increase p(win) cannot increase p(fun). They smile at the quaint sentiment that you can have fun losing a game. Some may even believe that but only insofar as it provides lessons that increase p(win) for all subsequent games.

So what the above author is REALLY saying is: “If you create a thoughtful mechanism, make sure it is strategic too because I like strategic thinking because it can make me win.”

Tobago‘s treasure elimination mechanic is fun to me not because it allows us to create solutions to puzzles that make us win, but because it allows us to formulate answers to puzzles that make the game space more interesting.

But to make a “game design rule” about what is fun to me would leave me with a narrow set of rules for a singular audience.

4 thoughts on “Tobago and the P(Fun) All-Stars

  1. Totally agree here. It really just goes back to the saying we’ve heard a thousand times: “It’s not about whether you win or lose, but whether you had fun.” Of course winning is generally more fun, but I can think of games I don’t like, but win at lot. And the opposite is true: there are plenty of games I love, but don’t win very often.

    Fun should trump strategy every time, because fun is the reason to play the game in the first place. For some people, the strategy – and only the strategy – is where the fun is. For others, though, there’s a lot more to it, and that’s easy to overlook. (And it sounds like that’s what happened at EA, unfortunately.)

  2. As an aside, Zack, p(fun) is the exact argument I would make about Red Dead Redemption in contrast to your recent post.

    There were countless times that I would catch myself just riding around on my horse, backlit against the sunset and the red rocks in Mexico. Not Shooting Stuff. Not Getting Achievements. Not Earning Money.

    Just me and my horse, riding into the sunset. That is the thing I will always remember about that game.

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