A week ago I was playing with some of my non-gamer friends and we had pulled out a copy of the family trivia game, Smart Ass. It’s a pretty basic concept – answer questions right and roll a dice to move if you get them correct. There were 7 of us there, which the game easily caters for and it promised not to take too long.
This was a lie.
Over the course of the game, we were repeatedly being stung by penalty squares and kick back squares that we managed to land on with alarming regularity. Successfully answering a question became a nerve wracking experience of desperately trying not to roll that number that left you worse off than when you started. Eventually, we got sick of it and agreed that the person in the lead had won just in an attempt to bring the game to its conclusion.
And it got me thinking about the nature of punishing players in games and the concept of “difficulty”.
A game is about overcoming one or many challenges. These can be challenges of fortune, of conflict with another player or with the mechanics of the games itself. Dependent upon the game, there may be various ways or approaches to overcome these (or in the case of roll and move games, just the outcome of a single dice). The design of the challenges is what will end up engaging the player or frustrating them.
In many way these comes down to the concept of fairness and this fairness can be as much in the eye of the beholder as it is built into the game. When we played Smart Ass the arbitrary nature of the punishment squares was a source of frustration to us. However, if you think about how fair it was, all players have the equality opportunity of landing upon those spaces. Hence the player who did it four times in a row may deem the game unfair, whilst the player who only hits it once in the game has no problem.
On the flip side the person rolling the dice to move and repeatedly finding themselves being kicked backwards is also being punished for being successful. As the only occasion on which you roll the dice is on correctly answering a question. The counter argument can be made that everything is determined by a random number being generated, so the pendulum swings back and forth.
The further blurring of the lines occurs when fairness and difficulty become intermingled. A game that is difficult may appear unfair – but the two terms are not interchangeable. A game can be difficult and fair at the same time. If you fail in an event, you know the reason for doing so and understand how you could have avoided the event in the first place. The games Forbidden Island and Forbidden Desert do this, giving you choices to make, that may or may not play out for you as the game progresses. Whilst you may be unhappy with the outcomes, it often comes down to playing a card at the wrong time or not using character abilities correctly. Your frustrations are directed more towards yourself rather than the game in progress (this does not stop some choice language from myself at the time that is usually directed towards game designed Matt Leacock).
The question game balance is also brought into a question of fairness. Do sides have to be equal for something to be considered fair? The perfectly balanced game is usually considered to be chess, as both players have the same moves and the same resources available to them (although one player must always go first and tips the balance slightly in their favour). However, does a game need to be balanced? One of my favourite board games of all time, the Orcs playing American Football based Blood Bowl actually revels in its unbalanced nature, as there are teams within it that are clearly weaker than the rest and are offered as a joke side or challenge to experienced players. Those players that enjoy the delights of Goblin or Ogre teams do not complain about the challenge of using them, as they are fully aware the disparity of the side before they pick up the dice.
In discussions with some of my friends I asked them what they considered games to be unfair and there was a very varied serious of replies. An example given to me was XCOM where unfairness was attributed to not the nature of being punished for failure, but the incredibly harsh nature of the punishments that are inflicted upon the players when they fail. Another found unfairness in the “take that” style of games such as Munchkin, where players can be hit by half a dozen different penalties from out of nowhere and watch as their character is cursed, back stabbed and crushed to death by a vengeful Gazebo.
Furthermore there were also stories of player alliances in certain games that could mean that people felt “ganged up” on and their chances of winning or even survival were swiftly extinguished. These can be the nature of the game experience rather than the clear mechanics of the game itself.
It’s clear the concept of fairness in games is one that cannot easily be defined, as it reflects on people’s enjoyment and personal tastes when it comes to gaming. As with so much of the subjective nature of gaming, all we can really bring to the table is our own consideration as to what may be fair and balanced to us. The game Eldritch Horror has given me a fair share of kickings in the past, but I keep on coming back to it. Because when it inflicts all many of horrors upon my character, I know it is pushing the narrative and theme upon me. So I see it as difficult rather than cheating. When I play Munchkin with my friends, I know they type of game I am getting into and must expect the barrage of potions being hurled my way. What I do see as unfair is when my skill or knowledge is punished in an arbitrary and unnecessary manner.
Which may be a long way of saying, maybe we don’t play Smart Ass next time …