What makes us keep playing a game?

What Makes us Keep Playing a Game - The Mummy's Curse

So far in this short series, I’ve covered what gives us a good first impression of a game and what makes a good first play. In this third post out of four, I’m turning my attention to what makes us keep playing a game.

What turns a good first experience into a favourite? Why do some games hold our attention for months or years, whereas others fade away after one or two plays? These are the sorts of questions I’ll look at across four different gameplay aspects: strategic depth, the amount of content, expansions and lasting brilliance.

Each one will be explained in more detail below. I don’t expect this to be an exhaustive list, so if I’ve missed something that you think is important, let us know on Twitter or in the comments!

Strategic Depth

This first point is the feature that I believe to be the most important alongside lasting brilliance, which we’ll come to at the end. Long-standing games like Chess and Go demonstrate this feature perfectly. Volumes and volumes of books have been written to dive into the tactics of these games.

A modern game doesn’t have to be on the level of those giants to turn itself into someone’s favourite. But I would argue that a game needs to have enough depth to offer new tactics and strategies over multiple plays if they want to have any kind of staying power.

If you feel like you’ve cracked a game in your first one or two plays, you’re unlikely to want to come back. The games that last tend to be those that always feel like they have more to offer. Strategic depth is not necessarily linked to complexity, either. Chess is not a complex game, yet it has a lot of strategy. Many other abstract games share this feature.

Chess also benefits from being a thinky, head-to-head game. Any game with high player interaction immediately gains strategic depth, as out-thinking the other player is always a new challenge.

That said, strategic depth can arise from more content. Any game with multiple faction combinations, like one of my favourites, Scythe, is likely to have strategic depth as you have to adapt the way you play any given faction based on how many other players there are and who they’re playing as.

Chess benefits from being a thinky, head-to-head game. (Credit: Ridley's Games)

The Amount of Content

Some games stick around because they keep giving you content to discover and play with. Legacy and campaign games work on this premise, while the current top game on BoardGameGeek, Gloomhaven, dials it up to 11.

My favourite explanation for why content can have such a powerful impact on a game’s longevity comes from Mark Rosewater, the head of R&D for Magic: the Gathering. Rosewater describes it as the “crispy hash brown” effect. Just like people love the crispy top of a hash brown you get with the first bite or two and aren’t bothered about the mushy bit in the middle, gamers love the newness of fresh content and aren’t as engaged once they get past it.

I don’t think this holds true for every game, but it certainly helps to explain why Magic, with all its expansions, has stuck around. We’ll look at expansions more shortly, but I think the fresh content effect can apply even in base games.

Take Scythe. The simple fact that it will take me dozens of games to try out every faction and every combination of factions gives me a huge incentive to keep playing it. Other game’s provide different set-ups in the box to make a similar effect - Rivals for Catan does a great job of this, with five completely different set-ups just in the base box. I still feel like each one is pretty new to me.

Fresh content will matter to some players more than others. There are some who enjoy getting past the discovery and diving into deep strategy. My first point is more relevant for these. For others, like me, freshness is a big pull towards games. And, as I’ve alluded to already, expansions can have a big hand here.

The Power of a Good Expansion

A good expansion will give something for every fan of a game to enjoy, whether they’re interested in strategic depth or simply new stuff. The best expansions take the game you love and add something new, whether that’s a new faction, a new twist on the rules or a new campaign that breathes fresh air into a system you already enjoy.

I have many expansions in my collection that I adore. Clank! The Mummy’s Curse came at the perfect time to give me something new to explore in a game that I was getting close to overplaying. Scythe’s additional factions in Invaders from Afar give me more ways to play a game I already love. 7 Wonders Duel: Pantheon takes a great two-player system into a new direction, providing an alternative way to play if you want a break from the base game.

Those are a few of my favourites, but there are many other shining examples of expansions out there that keep us hooked on the titles we love.

Another kind of expansion is the sequel game. This type of expansion tends to be standalone, taking the system from the base game and putting it into a new experience that anyone can buy. Specter Ops recently did this with Broken Covenant, which was my starting point in the series. While sequels tend to be as expensive as the base game, they provide a completely new experience that can draw in long time fans and new players alike.

It’s in expansions that Mark Rosewater’s “crispy hash brown” theory can be most clearly seen. Just look at the hype that an old game can receive when a new expansion is released (case in point, the new expansion for Caverna has ).

However, designers have to be careful. A bad expansion leaves a sour taste in the mouth and can put people off a game completely. They should never be pumped out for the sake of it, but should provide a fresh experience that builds on what was good in the original game.

7 Wonders Duel Pantheon takes a great two-player system into a new direction (Credit: Repos Productions)

Lasting Brilliance

My final quality of long-lasting games encapsulates two features that go hand in hand to turn a good first experience into a long-term favourite: lasting fun and lasting quality. Let’s break them both down.

Lasting fun is easy to define. The games we love the longest are those that we continue to enjoy. As soon as a game becomes boring or ‘meh,’ it loses its lustre. A good expansion might bring us back to it, but it’s unlikely to change our opinion for long if we just don’t enjoy that core experience anymore.

The fun factor could come from anywhere and will differ based on the player. For some people, they may never get tired of the interaction of Werewolf, whereas another person might find endless fun in exploring the unfolding scenarios of Gloomhaven.

The other part of ‘lasting brilliance’ is the ability of a game to remain at the top of its class in terms of quality. Games borrow a lot from each other, which means that older games are often ‘replaced’ by newer games that do similar things, but better. For me, Star Realms has all but been replaced by Shards of Infinity, which, in my opinion, offers a much slicker and more satisfying version of very similar gameplay.

To use another familiar example, an old classic like Risk has paved the way for other area control, dice chucking style games which many people now prefer. The longer a game can be the best at what it does, the more likely it is to stick around as a favourite.

Games with truly innovative systems that are hard to replicate well will often last better, though simply being the first to do something can be enough to ensure lasting success. While Dominion has, in my opinion, been replaced by more exciting deck-builders, there are many fans who fell in love with the game and aren’t interested in the games that came after and built on its system.

By necessity, this has been a shallow dive into the qualities that make a game stick around. I’ve covered a lot of the things that I see in my collection of favoured games. What have I missed? What makes a game turn into one of your long-term favourites? Let us know on Twitter!