About a decade ago, prof. Hiroyuki Iida of the Japan Advanced Institute for Science and Technology (JAIST) proposed a Theory of Game Refinement. This theory describes the elements that a game must have to be “refined,” which translates roughly to “entertaining to play for experts.” The theory states that the three main pillars of game refinement are:
(1) Complexity (noble uncertainty): discovery of new tactics should be possible;
(2) Fairness (draw ratio): opponents should match in playing strength; and
(3) Refinement (see-saw game): the outcome of the game should remain uncertain for an ‘optimal’ length of time.
The last pillar evidently is considered the most important one, as the whole theory is named after it. Indeed it is, as the other two pillars more or less follow automatically from it. To see why, you have to understand what the third pillar actually says. The refinement pillar states that a game has an optimal playtime length, and that the outcome of the game remains undetermined for most of that time. The optimal playtime length depends on the game itself. For instance, we may assume (since professional matches gravitated to these numbers) that the optimal length of a game of Chess is 3 to 4 hours, while the optimal length of a game of Soccer is 1.5 hours. A game is refined if victory remains within reach of each of the opponents until close to the end of the playtime.
The complexity pillar follows from the refinement pillar, as a game that is not sufficiently complex that players may devise new tactics is simply boring, and the optimal playtime length approaches zero. I call this ‘meaningful play’: the game must constantly offer the possibility to make interesting decisions. So-called ‘roll-and-move’ games, wherein you roll a die and move a pawn the number of spaces shown on the die, then do what is printed on the final space, do not have interesting decisions at all. In contrast, in Chess, in particular in the mid-game, all moves progress the plans of a player and fundamentally change the state of the game in a way that players must respond to intelligently.
The fairness pillar follows from both the refinement pillar and the complexity pillar: if one of the opponents is inherently much stronger than the others, a game which is built on meaningful decisions will be decided long before the optimal playtime length is reached. As adults usually have tactical insights while small children do not, a game between parents and their children can only be fair if tactics play no role. The reason that ‘roll-and-move’ games are common pass-times for adults with kids, is that the ‘roll-and-move’ mechanism completely levels the playing field as far as tactical insights are concerned. Naturally, such games are inherently boring to anyone with an ounce of tactical sense, which unfortunately has led to the misconception held by many adults that board games are boring and only meant for very young children.
While I have not seen the Theory of Refinement applied explicitly to modern board games, it seems to me that most designers of modern board games take the theory to heart implicitly. Modern board games are supposed to have an optimal playtime length, which is usually printed on the side of the game box. Typical playtime lengths are between 1 hour and 2.5 hours. While I have found that often these claimed lengths are a bit on the optimistic side, you know that you can finish one or two of these games in an evening and are supposed to be entertained most of that time. There are some older games (I am talking decades, not centuries, here) which have playtime lengths which are rather unpredictable, or which have long, drawn-out endgames in which everybody already knows who is walking away with the victory. However, in the games published in the last decade you seldom see that anymore.
Modern game developers usually keep grips on the length of the game by introducing a mechanism that progresses the game towards the end with a steady pace. Examples of such mechanisms are: having a limited number of turns, having a board that fills up, having a draw pile of cards that gets depleted, or having a limited amount of available resources that get used up. These mechanisms tend to work well.
After setting both a lower and an upper limit to playtime length, the problem that game developers then have to solve is how to keep the outcome of the game uncertain for almost all of that time. A recent solution to this problem, which many popular game developers apply, is a rather ugly one: victory is determined by points, and you get a LOT of points during the game, for a high variety of activities. This is usually coupled with a complete lack of insight in how many points each player scored and/or the awarding of a large number of end-game bonus points. Recently the term ‘point salad’ was coined for such games.
The consequence of a ‘point salad’ design is that every move that a player makes seems to be a tactical one as it scores points, but that no players (except perhaps those who have played the game a lot) will know who is ahead until the end of the game. This might seem to satisfy the refinement requirement that the game’s outcome is undetermined for most of the playtime, but I would argue that it does not. The reason is as follows. In every game, either tactics have no influence on the game’s outcome, or the tactically best player will win the most. If tactics have no influence, decisions are not meaningful, and the game is not refined. If the tactically best player usually wins, it means that it is known which of the myriad of point-scoring actions in a point salad game is the most beneficial, and only for the tactically weak players the outcome of the game is unknown until the final tally.
Naturally, there are nuances in this argumentation. If a point salad game is so well-balanced that no dominant strategies exist naturally, a tactical fight between strong players of such a game might be interesting and entertaining. Strategies are very hard to balance, though, and it is common that, within a relatively short time after publication of a point salad game, players have identified the one or two dominant strategies of the game, i.e., the strategies which allow the collection of just enough extra points to lead to victory. It still means that every player at the end of the game has so many points that the ending scores are pretty close, but the knowledgeable player knows that the final ranking was inevitable.
Still, despite the rampant criticism on the point salad mechanism, point salad games tend to be quite popular and sell well. I can explain the popularity as the result of the many colorful components of such games, the fact that they usually are not overly competitive or punishing (if you cannot do action A for 7 points, you do action B for 3 points now and 4 points later), and the fact that players can easily socialize with each other around the game table rather than sit in silence burning their brains.
From that perspective, as an activity, point salad games can be entertaining. But as games they seldom are refined.