Monday, January 10, 2011

Elements of Greatness: Customizability

Customizability, for the sake of this reading, means anything that makes one player's gameplay different from another.  Some games allow you to choose a character role before the game, while others let you change something as you play the game. Oftentimes, the latter is usually an item or power of some sort.

Customizable Games
There are many games out there that are very customizable.  People who tend towards customizable games often say the same sort of things as to why it is better than not having it.  The main argument is, obviously, that is allows players the chance to play how they would like.  Not every player is restricted to one style of play and they can approach victory by whatever means they choose.  This makes the game appeal to a wider audience while also allowing veteran players the chance to play a little differently each time.  This sort of customizability often comes as a character class or role.  In Arkham Horror, you choose your character from a wide selection, each with different abilities and player styles.  You can be a beat-'em-up fighter, spellcaster, gate-closer, or some balance of those or more options.  While the abilities themselves often affect the game only moderately (expect maybe in the case of Patrice Hathaway), it makes the player feel more in control of their gameplay, and they will have more fun because of it.  Even something as simple as getting to pick the character's name or back story can help players feel more connected to their choice and they will have more fun because of it.

The other main argument for customizability is that no two games will ever be the same, for the most part.  When players are allowed to change themselves, it's bound to affect the game itself, at least in some manner.  This prevents games from becoming stagnant and repetitive.  With the prices of board games, it's important to have some replay value, at least until they come up with a GameFly for board games (that idea is currently patent pending... pending).  In Dominion, each player buys cards during the game to build their own deck to draw from.  The variety of cards the players have to choose from is chosen (or randomly determined) before the game.  When several of the cards allow players to take extra actions, you can be sure each turn will take a lot longer.  When most of the cards grant player extra money and chances to buy extra cards, you can assume the game will go by faster than it would otherwise.  Even if all the cards players have to choose from are the same as a previous game, because the players choose which cards they buy, the game still has the chance to play out very differently.

All silver clouds have a dark lining (or something like that) and customizable games do have some downsides.  When a game is customizable, often times the setup and playtime can take much longer than a non-customizable game.  When players have to sit and choose how they want to start the game or how they want to take their turn, things can slow down.  In those times when you're just looking to play something for a little while, knowing you'll have to spend time choosing a character or figuring out a strategy or building a deck can be disheartening.  There's also the possibility to cause some fighting.  If a game has limited choice of options, players with the same favorite might have a hard time determining who gets to play it.  In Humans!!! , players have a choice of roles, and they are limited.  If multiple players want to be the Wrestler zombies, they have to decide between them who gets to be that role.  When a player is stuck with his Plan B, he likely won't have as much fun.  Lastly, if a game is randomly customizable, players might get stuck with a choice they didn't want.  In Munchkin, players randomly draw cards to determine their race, class and what items they have.  When players draw cards and get nothing they want (or worse, something they didn't want) the game starts bad and often only gets worse. 

Non-Customizable Games
While the label might sound negative, non-customizable games have many advantages.  When every player starts the same, each player has the same opportunity to win.  When there are no choices to make and no chance for early opportunity, everyone has an even playing field.  Basically, when there's less chances to have the some players become more powerful than other, things usually go much more smoothly.  In Settlers of Catan, all the players have the same ability to build, trade and prosper.  There's no worrying about which class to take or which items to buy.  Every player is exactly the same, giving everyone the same opportunity to win.  The idea flows into the next main argument for non-customizable games.  When there are less choices to make, the game is easier to learn.  No one buys a game with the intent to play it alone (and if you do, you might want to check out this page).  If you're trying to introduce someone to a new game, pulling out a huge instruction manual and giving them a dozen things to choose right off the bat is very nerve-wracking.  When a game is easier to learn, more people are going to be willing to give it a try.  For new players to any customizable game, it is a common occurrence they forget some ability they might have that other players do not.  Having to remember your unique abilities (even if you have some reminder) can be an added complication some people simply do not like. 

Not everyone likes a long, detailed game.  Sometimes it's nice to turn your brain off and just kill some zombies.  That being said, Zombies!!! has no real customization to speak of and that makes it fast to setup, easy to play and fun to finish.  With no choices to worry about, players are never more than a few minutes away from zombie killing fun.  Non-customizable games often are much easier to turn into travel games.  Whether you have the actual "travel version" or just carry the box around with you, less choices means less stuff.  Less stuff means more portability.  More portability means more chances to play.  Non-customizable games are simply simpler to play overall.

Variety, however, is the spice of life and lacking it can make things repetitive.  When each player starts the same and stays the same throughout the game, there is a good chance the game will play out just as another has before.  If the players don't have some opportunity to give themselves an edge over more veteran players, the better players will often times continue winning.  If the veteran players have found a strategy that works, without some chance to change how the game plays, the newer players are often stuck in second place until they can find a good counter-strategy.  New players to any game tend to not like losing over and over, and if that is the case, they are likely to not want to play anymore.  Then you and your winning strategy have no one to play with.

I feel safe saying while most games are still good without too much customization (and they certainly should be discounted for not having), great games have some elements of it.  While a non-customizable game has many advantages over customizable ones, the replay value and play style options that come with customizability are too much to overlook completely.  If you want to get your money's worth, you're best going after a game with customizable aspects.  Those games are usually the ones you're likely to play over and over.  There are, of course, exceptions.

I tend to prefer the customization over not.  Granted, while it may be harder to bring new people into the game and may take longer to setup, the end result tends to be better.  I have a good number of games I don't play very often.  Key to the Kingdom is a lot of fun to play, but with no ability to customize it, it becomes boring playing over and over.  Each player is exactly the same, and so after playing once or twice, the game doesn't really bring anything new to the table.

Previously on Elements of Greatness: Skill versus Luck
Next time on Elements of Greatness: Backstabbing