The Sin of "Adding Replayability"
5 minutes read

Put down your pitchforks! I agree that replayability is generally a good thing. Games like Chess or Go, where the number of possible state spaces is massive and interesting to explore, are great because they have replayability. Similarly, games like Hearts, where every distribution of hands will be and play a bit different, are great because of their replayability. I like replayability. What I don’t like is “Adding Replayability”

This is a trend I’ve seen grow over the last ten years. Of course, everything that is wrong with modern gaming is either the fault of Kickstarter or Asmodee. In this case, I blame Kickstarter.

“Adding Replayability” is a process that happens after the nugget of the game is formed. At some point, somebody says, “This game is great, but it always plays out the same way. It would be great to add some more ‘replayability.’” This desire can manifest itself in many ways: the map is cut up into tiles that are randomly placed at the start, unique player powers are added, random rules or win conditions are added to the game, the distribution of starting resources are varied… None of these things are bad, per se, but are they always necessary?

“Of course they’re necessary!” I hear you exclaim, “Otherwise a game would get stale after its 20th play!”

It’s a fair point, but let’s be honest, how many of your games have you played 20 times? If you’re anything like most of the users on BoardGameGeek, a new game is unlikely to see even 10 plays, let alone 20.

“Fine,” you say, as I put more words I put in your mouth, “but we’re the ultra-obsessed. What about the family that has only 2 or 3 games, shouldn’t they get the most play from those few meager boxes?”

Again, I believe the play count on average stays low. Think about your non gamer friends and their game collections. How many total times have they played each game? Once a year, maybe? I doubt they need or want 60 player powers to choose from.

Sure, there are some games and some players that will reach many tens or hundreds of plays on a single game. These are a minority, and there exists already a technology to address this problem: expansions! Expansions are a perfect place to add replayability to spice up a game after you’ve played it fifty times.

It can be hard to identify whether a new wrinkle is just “adding replayability” or truly improving the game. I think you have to measure the “complexity cost” against how much it alters the game (for the better).

Take Chess for example – the pieces always start the same way, that will surely get boring after a few plays. Let’s make the starting positions of the pieces random, or better yet the starting positions and the number of each type of piece (excepting the king) random. But now the game is unbalanced. Okay, well let’s assign a points system to the pieces and positions, and players have to compose balanced “armies”. Relative values of pieces and starting configurations is hard to empirically determine, so let’s include an auction system so that players can bid to establish fair armies… In no time, we’ve created a very complex additional system that doesn’t really improve the core experience in any way. It is very easy to fall into this trap.

“Okay,” I again imagine you speaking, “but who cares? Extra replayability is a win-win. Starting with 100 races in a Cosmic Encounter box is no worse than starting with 20, and it’s no skin off your back.”

Setting aside the “more stuff in the box = bigger box” problem entirely, more systems means more unnecessary cognitive load up front. If you have to shuffle these tokens and place them, and then bid on this, and then randomize that, it is harder to learn the game and harder to play it. Some games work just fine if you omit these components, but you have to be familiar with the game first to know whether or not something can safely be removed, which is a catch-22 – by the time you know the game well, you’ll want to play with the bells and whistles.

Even optional “mini expansions” that are included in-box add to this problem. Most people will never play with them, so at best they are wasteful. At worse, they take up space in the rulebook and box, confusing new players and adding unwanted inertia to overcome for returning players.

…Which brings us back to Kickstarter. I think a big part of the rise in this kind of content is the inclusion of stretch goals that do exactly this sort of thing. It makes sense to include a stretch goal that “adds replayability” without fundamentally altering the atoms of play, and most backers (myself included) would be excited to see the goal reached – even in full knowledge that I’ll never explore the game fully without that addition, let alone explore the combinatorics of the space created by eg. player powers.

I don’t know how to solve this problem, I only suggest that it is a problem. It makes games harder to explain, harder to set up, and more confusing to start playing. It also makes games more expensive and take up more space on the shelf.

tags:  boardgames  replayability  rant  ludology