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  • Excerpt: What Makes A Game 'Epic' Or Even 'Great'?

    - Lewis Pulsipher

  • 3) Tension and memorability

    In the following list of characteristics related to tension and memorability, we might keep in mind a trait of many popular video games, "immersiveness." Yet a game can be immersive without being epic... Immersion: "state of being deeply engaged or involved; absorption."

    The gameplay reflects major changes over time, end of game gameplay feels very different from the beginning:

    Another way to put this, is by the time you get to the end of the game, it seems very different from the game you were playing in the beginning. In computer Civilization or a typical RTS, you usually begin with a very small force, work through exploration and expansion, optimize your exploitation of resources, and finally engage in a huge war. "Sweep" board games tend to feel this way. In Britannia, for example, in the beginning most players are trying to survive the Roman conquest with a healthy nation, yet give the Roman some trouble. At the end, all are concentrating on who will be king of England, and often trying to kill opposing candidates. These require different kinds of strategies. In History of the World, players begin in a relatively small area, but by the end are acting all over the world.

    Further, what was an important and useful move early in the game might be a weak, poor move by the end. That is, there may be an increase in "power" and scope of the things the player can do.

    Civilization V

    Uncertainty about who's winning:

    If you certainly know who's winning at a particular time, a multi-sided game becomes subject to all kinds of defects such as king making and sandbagging. This tends to annoy players and reduce tension, and may be another downfall of Risk and Vinci.

    If it's a two-player game and one player is obviously winning, the other will probably resign/surrender from the game, no epic provided. A long, drawn-out struggle in chess might be called "epic," but the game itself is not.

    Point games can be a problem. The plastic Hasbro version of History of the World added secret scoring bonuses in an attempt to obscure who is in the lead. In Britannia the nations and colors score at different rates, at different times, so it's never quite clear even to experts who is in the lead, by how much, until the game ends.


    In asymmetric games, each player has a different starting position/situation. The opposite is symmetric, a common characteristic of "Euro" style games and multi-sided video games, where each player starts with an identical position. Abstract games tend to be symmetric, and tend not to feel epic.

    Most epic games are historical or pseudo-historical, and history is rarely symmetric. So we may only be seeing a symptom, not a cause, in this characteristic.

    The game engenders "gaming stories" that you remember fondly and retell with pleasure (or chagrin!)

    Some games result in memorable sessions, some do not. They are more than games, they are "experiences." This goes back to the idea of "immersion," of buying into the game. It leaves out most "Euro" board games, which tend to be somehow inconsequential: games, not memorable experiences.

    This is certainly a characteristic of "great" games, and is sometimes a characteristic of "epic" games.

    "Great" Games

    Now what makes a game "great"? Not good, not a flash-in-the-pan, rather an all-time great game. A game is great if you can (and want to) play it again and again with great enjoyment over many years, if you can almost endlessly discuss the intricacies of good play, if you can create many variants that are also fine games.

    Obviously, a game is not "great" to everyone. Chess is a great game, but many gamers can't stand to play it (though a great many have tried).

    Longevity is important. A new game may be "great", but we simply cannot tell until years have passed, no matter how much we like it when it comes out. Perhaps not every great game is great by current "design standards", but it may still be a great game in terms of how it has affected people and the enjoyment it has given to people. "New" certainly doesn't mean "good" and "old" certainly doesn't mean "bad". In other words, ignore the "cult of the new" so prevalent in today's gaming tastes.

    Popularity is not a criterion. There are many popular tunes, movies, games, books, that disappear from our notice in a year or two or three. Great games should continue to be loved year after year after year, just as great novels, movies, music are enjoyed perennially.

    If a game is one of hundreds that people might want to play, can it be a great game? No, it should stand out from the crowd. If you play a game just to kill time, then the fact that you=re playing it certainly doesn't make it a great game, no matter how many times you play. It's not "oh, yeah, we can play that" it's "I'd love to play that"--again, and again, and again. If you can spend your valuable time playing this game or thinking about this game, when you have other valuable things to do, then it may be a great game. If lots of people don't play it hundreds of hours each, over many years, can it be a great game?

    Yes, video games become "outdated" in a way that tabletop games rarely do, but that doesn't prevent many people in the 21st century from playing 20th century classics like Pac-Man, Missile Command, Mega Man, and so on.

    One person, speaking of the video game Left 4 Dead, highlighted the memorability of great games: "the hours we spent were well-invested because we came away with incredible water-cooler moments: the perfect Smoker pull off a precarious ledge, pouncing on the last survivor inches from the safe room, heroic sacrifices to save incapacitated teammates and last-second 'Get to the chopper' leaps into rescue helicopters."

    Left 4 Dead

    If it's a game that can reasonably be played solitaire even though it is designed for more than one player, then a great game will be played very often solo, by a great many people.

    Can we summarize the above? Perhaps you could say, if a game is played by a great many people, who love to play it, who play it for hundreds of hours (by each person) altogether over the years, who can still enjoy it many years after it was first published, then perhaps it is a great game.

    Is Monopoly a well-designed game? Definitely not. Is it a great game? Here you can argue that it is played by default, because it's traditional, rather than because people truly want to play it. Nonetheless a case can be made that it is a great game even though it's a weak design.

    Further reading: Hobby Games: The 100 Best and Family Games: The 100 Best, both edited by James Lowder.


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