Editorial - The Idol of Variety
on Apr 18, 2017
It’s a curious fact that my spell-checker has never recognized the word “replayability.” I know that’s just a result of having some old version of Word, but I have always considered it indicative of how the general populace views variety in games. It’s not really a concept, either because most mainstream games don’t need much in the way of variable setup (think Risk) or the variety is baked into the game in such a way that the seams don’t show (like in Scrabble). But it’s definitely a big factor in hobby gaming. A lot of threads will be dedicated to a game’s replayability or lack thereof. All of this ignores that variety isn’t really as big a deal in a game as we pretend it is. More importantly, it has led to a lot of practices that are both uncreative and not much good for the consumer.
Designers have been baking in ways to change set-up from a very early stage. Catan has nineteen hexes arranged in different formations, while Merchant of Venus changes which planets produce which goods. Cosmic Encounter has them all beat, granting the players different player powers in every game. But the first current game where I remember “variety” being a major selling point was Dominion. One of its many game-changing elements was how it required ten piles of cards for every game, but came with twenty-five in the box. That allowed the players to create what were essentially scenarios, where different types of cards could interact with each other in different ways. It also provided an out for players who might not are for, say, the Throne Room. But one of the strange qualities of Dominion was that for all those cards, the game would grow stale after extended play. While the strategies might change considerably, the character of Dominion never really shifted. A steady stream of expansions has kept the game fresh for most of the last decade, though this has brought on other issues.
Dominion, and many games today, use a component-based form of variety. Essentially, you are given more components to add to an existing game, that do different things. This is by far the most common way to expand a game and give it legs. It offers a lot of advantages. For one thing it’s easy to integrate, just a matter of putting in new pieces, cards, what have you. There might be new rules to digest as well, but even then it’s a matter of adding something. Another advantage, at least from the point-of-view of game publishers, is that it creates a steady stream of product for players to buy. Much has been made about the board game industry moving away from single purchases toward a model that is more serialized. This is in part driven by a player base who wants to see more variety in their games, and wants to add it without a lot of overhead.
I don’t want to make it sound like component-based variety is a bad thing. Goodness knows I’ve embraced it for plenty of games. But it does present some substantial disadvantages, the most obvious of which is cost. It’s just expensive to keep on buying stuff for the same game over and over. Another that is increasingly apparent is storage. There comes a point when there is too much content for a game for it to be any use anymore. Not to pick on Dominion, but this reared its ugly head within a couple years of the base game. One of my never-ending quests was a way to take my many Dominion sets to game nights without lugging around multiple boxes. I did eventually succeed, by using a large white box that was meant for sports cards. But by then I had a game that was so bulky and heavy that it wasn’t very easy to take to game night anymore. This has become an issue with a lot of games I own, but it was particularly damaging to Dominion, which thrives in the corners of game nights while waiting for other games to finish. But it’s also a headache for bigger affairs likes Imperial Assault, which requires the purchase of so much organizing material you are basically buying the game all over again.
There are other corners in which to find variety however. One key way to make a game feel fresh over a long period of time is through interaction. While game mechanics can eventually be predicted, humans are far more wily. We give in to grudges, become attached to foolish ideas, and think in creative ways that games can’t touch. The games that have provided the most varied experiences have invariably been ones where the players are jostling with each other, either through backstabbing, cooperation, haggling, or taking advantage of mechanical nuance. A game like Cosmic Encounter doesn’t really need all of the content it has, because the game is so social in the first place. Just this week I saw someone scuttle a deal out of spite, when his best move was obviously to make it happen. There was no reason for him to act that way, but he was in the end a human being, and he does whatever he wants. Games that embrace this will always grant more variety than those that place parameters on the player.
Obviously, interaction-based variety is much harder to pull off. It usually shows up in the original game, rather than expansions. In fact, it’s easy to screw up a highly interactive game with mechanical cruft. One need only to look at Battlestar Galactica, which arrived in its best form and then struggled to find that balance again with each expansion. Interactive games can actually be expanded most effectively by extra content, like in Cosmic Encounter. Such expansions manage to let the game breathe while giving players new toys with which to tinker. Interactive games also tend to function fine without any expansion content at all, giving them a much longer shelf-life in their original form.
More than that, it’s worth asking if variety is really all that big a deal to begin with. Most gamers buy more than they can play, making variety more theoretical than anything else. More than that, a lot of games (including many non-interactive ones) have managed to exist in a basically unchanged form for many years, just through their sheer depth. Heavy euros have been especially good at this. Titles like Puerto Rico, Caylus, and Le Havre found such depth-based variety that players continue to play them in their original forms. Even games that benefit from extra content probably don’t need to be expanded as much as they are. If you love Catan so much that you play it weekly and want every expansion, that’s awesome. Most of us will probably just be better off buying a new game, while buying less from a specific product line.
A lot of people want to actually buy as much as they can from a specific game, and I sympathize with that. I’ve done that with a few titles myself. But that’s just a short step toward a very uncritical acceptance not only of piles of unnecessary content, but also toward game designs that accommodate limited play. We’re already seeing this, with games like Pandemic Legacy. It’s a very impressive achievement in game design, but I don’t want to see games moving toward a shorter shelf-life. The “permanent” feeling of physical games is one of their greatest strengths, and our game collections will be stronger if we embrace games that can really stretch our experience.