Web-Based Gaming: What Kinds of Games Work Best?

As a follow-up to the past week’s looks at web-based gaming, here are some notes on what can make a game work or not. The turn-based systems I have been enjoying are great for certain games, but not right for others. (There are sites for playing games live, but I haven’t tried those yet. A big part of what I like about online play is being able to fit it into my unpredictable schedule.) Here are the main considerations:

The Obvious Limitations

Since we’re discussing turn-based games, which need to work even if the players are online at different times, real-time games obviously won’t work. Just as importantly, players can’t jump in to make a surprise move on someone else’s turn. So, no games with cards that let you interrupt another player with cards that cancel their move, and also nothing like the out-of-turn Bombs on Tichu.

More subtly, but just as important, are games where people frequently have to make quick, simple reactions on each other’s turns. As much as I love Dominion, for example, I wouldn’t want to play a turn-based version. Any game with an Attack and a Response card like Moat would, technically, need to give players a choice about revealing their Response every time an Attack is played. In rare cases, there are strategic reasons not to reveal your Moat. That means that everyone should be asked every time (in player order, technically), and also that players should be asked even if they don’t have the Response card in hand, because skipping over their choice would signal to everyone else that they don’t hold the card. Even though these actions occur at predictable times, they would make some set-ups unplayable.

Big, Standalone Turns

To generalize that Dominion example, tabletop games are often fun when players get to make small, frequent decisions, instead of waiting for five minutes between turns. Turn-based games are the opposite, though. The time it takes another player to actually make their move is trivial, but the  delay while they’re offline is important. You’ll have to wait just as long to make three unimportant moves as you would to make three significant moves, and everyone wants to feel like they get to make significant decisions fairly often. It’s best to play a game where every move is big.

Games like Trajan or Castles of Burgundy work perfectly. Almost every turn in those games is meaningful, and there’s no need to watch other players take their turns, as long as everyone can see the results afterwards.

“Twitch” Games

There is one big exception to the above rule, though. Games like Burgundy are fun to play because each action is meaningful and complicated, but I can’t play too many games like that at one time. There are also plenty of simple games where there isn’t much need to remember lots of details from turn to turn. The most popular game on Yucata is Can’t Stop, a fast-playing push-your-luck dice game. I didn’t expect it to be fun online at first, because in person, watching other people take bigger and bigger risks is almost as fun as your own turn. On Yucata, other turns usually happen while you’re offline, and you skip right to the results. But even though the online implementation loses a lot of that tension, your own moves are still pretty fun. And you can play many games at once, since there are no specific strategy details that you can’t figure out from looking at the board for five seconds.

(The closest equivalent on Boîte à Jeux is probably Dixit, which also gets a lot of play. This one makes less sense to me, since the game is usually a social experience with friends. Stripped of that, the choice you make on your own seems less interesting to me than a Can’t Stop action is. Still, it definitely fills a niche for a lot of people.)

If you mix some games like Can’t Stop into the heavier ones, it can make a nice balance. After all, these sites are most interesting if you have some moves waiting for you when you check. Having at least something to play in helps the experience out a lot. I think it’s important to find a balance, though: On their own, a dozen games of Can’t Stop won’t feel very different from a solo iPhone time-waster. I want board games with real opponents to be more than that.

Hidden Information

Most board games have some memory aspect, if only by accident. If players take visible cards or tokens that they then hide, for example, it helps to be able to track them. Online, though, if you’re told every move at the time it was made, a player could theoretically track it all. So the fair thing to do is usually just to reveal it to everyone.

This changes games, sometimes for the better and sometimes not. Some games are based around memory, such as Mascarade, and I couldn’t imagine playing them with a computer’s help. Other games work perfectly fine when this is all known.

Similar to this is endgame scoring. If it can all be calculated based on information that a player could stop to add up (or remember), it makes sense to display it. Boîte à Jeux does this in most games, with a “Scoring” button that shows what the results would be if the game ended at that moment. Yucata usually doesn’t. This is largely a matter of opinion, and its impact definitely varies from game to game, but I usually think it streamlines things in a good way. I usually don’t like memory games, and if stopping to count everything is a “good” strategy, then the computer may as well do it for you to keep it from wasting time.

Number of Players

The number of people playing a game makes a huge difference. Reasonably quick people in a four-player game may take a week to play, but any two of them could play a two-player game in under a day. Additional players make it a lot more likely that it won’t be your turn when you log in to check, so each added person tends to slow things down exponentially. Also, if each player has certain stretches where they are sleeping, working, or otherwise not available, then any two players will probably find a time during the day when they’re both checking frequently. With four or five players, it’s likely that no time of day will have everyone available.

This means that games with fewer players often feel better online, whether or not the game is actually better. I find it frustrating, because there are some games that I’ve loved as two-player games online, and I know I’m not getting the full experience that way. But if I try to play with more, that reduces the experience as well. Again, this will matter more for some games than others.

It makes a huge difference if a game allows simultaneous turns. Ginkgopolis, the newest game on Boîte à Jeux, is a drafting game in which everyone plays at once. Four- or five-player rounds tend to go by as quickly as they do in most two-player games.

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