Monday, November 30, 2015

What makes a game frustrating instead of fun?

It being the holidays with my family, board games came out. Of course, Friday we rearranged the six-person table and the card table to be more appropriate to an Arkham Horror marathon:

Card table is for food, real table for games of unusual size.
We tried the expansions, and found ourselves dead twice to the claws/tentacles/unmentionable horrors of Quachiluttus thanks to the additions of some expansions. Our guest told us that the expansions were created with the idea of making the game more challenging... but between the new, difficult-to-reach gates for portals, a short doom track, instant death, and an Ancient One that auto-killed one player each round and had both magical and physical immunity, I'm not sure it stayed in the realm of possible.

That's not to say it wasn't fun, because Arkham Horror is almost always fun if you've set aside the time to play it and enjoy the tactical challenge of trying to stop Cthulu-esque creatures from consuming the board game world. But it was demoralizing, and after two runs we came to the conclusion that we weren't interested in trying again with that boss.

We also played a few games of Airlines and Settlers of Catan. In both games, it's possible to get so far behind that you just can't possibly keep up. (They're also much shorter than Arkham Horror, if you don't have 4 hours to devote to a single game...)

It seems like most people who reach the point of impossible-to-win (who are reasonably good sports) fall into one of two camps once they reach this point: they cease having fun because there's no chance of winning, or they stop taking the game seriously and focus on enjoying the gameplay and time spent with the family. Both are frustrating, because no one in a game wants someone to not be having fun, and yet having a player who's no longer truly engaged in the game means they no longer make the smart moves, which can mess up the strategy and gameplay for everyone else. Or, they may the game "interesting" in the form of sabotaging certain other players (usually the best player/ leader), which can be amusing, but makes the game less fair.

Some games have ways to keep all the players engaged. They may offer secondary prizes, or have a "rubber-band" effect that prevents anyone from getting too far behind (which can be its own kind of frustrating). Or they may be designed so that you don't know who is winning until the very end. Cooperative board games are good in that by default no one can get shut out unless everyone does, so no one is hanging around hoping the game will end soon. But then, when everyone gets shut out, finishing the game becomes an exercise in futility, so it's frustrating for everyone instead of just some of the players.

But I find myself wondering, which do you think most makes a game cross the line from "fun" into "frustrating": knowing you can't win, not being able to know who will win, knowing that skill has less effect than luck, not being challenging enough, or something else?


  1. It's bothersome when one player is far superior at implementing strategies for a game where that matters. No fun for the strategist because there's no challenge and no fun for the others because there's no chance. There are several games in our household that we just don't play anymore unless others are visiting. And some where the husband swears he always has "bad luck". I have my doubts that bad luck can be such a constant state of being.

    1. Yeah, that's definitely one that bothers me. It's not fun when you're completely shut out of the game, and it's frustrating to watch someone else play badly. At least with groups, there's conversation and you can take it less seriously without anyone getting offended; one-on-one nobody wants to be the player who has to be "taking it easy"-ed on.