If you’ve read any of my reviews, you know that one of the categories I consider when ranking a game is “depth”. What the crap does that mean? We often talk about “depth” and “skill” in gaming using horribly vague language where everyone only pretends like they understand the words coming out of their own mouth. We know the ideas are there – we all intrinsically understand that Chess and Go are more skill-intensive than LCR – but we’re terrible at quantifying it, and that’s something unacceptable to a mathematician like myself. I’m not about to say that I know exactly how to do it, but I think that if you’re going to put a number on the skill level of a game, the first step is to clarify what constitutes “skill”… and perhaps I should be using the plural of that word, because “mathing things out” isn’t the only key to victory. Here’s a few skills that I think a game can test you on:
1. Memory. Everyone knows that the more you play a game, the better you become at it. Memory is one reason for that. Not only do you begin to further understand the mechanics of the game, but you’ll also begin to memorize the contents of the game, whether you wanted to or not. I’ve had my share of gamers call that kind of knowledge unfair, but their arguments are irrelevant – memorization is definitely a skill, and using it will make you win the game more often. You’ll be able to plan more carefully not only around your future turns, but about what you can expect from your opponents. I won a game of Cyclades against a friend who was not aware of the Pegasus card (it lets you attack anywhere on the board) and had placed all his wealth on one island far from my troops – you can bet that he has memorized the existence of that card now, and will play around it more carefully. And it’s not just long-term memorization of the contents of hidden cards and effects in a game – simply remembering the current contents of your deck (or your opponent’s) in Dominion or any other deck-building game can be a great advantage in planning for your subsequent turns.
2. Psychology. Not every game will have this skill in noticeable amounts, but even those with very indirect interaction can still benefit. However, what you expect here really depends on the setting of the gaming you’re doing. In a casual setting, there is still much to be gained without any douchebaggery, and possibly more to gain if you know your friends well. Being able to predict your opponents’ likely moves can be a great advantage. If I sit next to my wife in a game of 7 Wonders, I know she’ll probably go for military, and nothing in that game is worse than getting in an arms race. Any game of blind bidding is almost all psychology, and even normal auctions have a fair amount of psychology to them – some players give up early simply because they get sick of the bidding war. On the flip side, being able to bluff your opponents and keep them on their toes is a great advantage when you have plans that are best kept secret. Sometimes it’s done by an early move that paints a characterization of your intentions for the game – if I’m the traitor in Shadows over Camelot, I tend to start out by acting like a hero. Sometimes it means staying out of the spotlight until your moment of glory arrives, which is how I was crushed in my most recent game of Power Grid. Table talk is a great way to work in some bluff, or to find a tell in your opponents’ comments, but the appropriateness depends on both the game and the group.
Psychology is even more of a boon in a tournament setting though, so you have to be prepared not only to utilize it but to defend against it. There are plenty of perfectly “legal” ways to get an edge in a face-to-face tournament game that you wouldn’t want to do to your friends, some more questionable than others, but something as simple as playing extremely fast can put other players on tilt. Bluffing becomes more important as well; just asking anyone who’s played competitive Magic, or, you know, Poker. When the competition is serious, gaming transforms into something entirely different, a contest of wills where psychology is a huge factor… but that’s an article for another time.
The hard part about psychology is judging the game design’s involvement with the psychological aspects of the game and working that in to your understanding of just how skill-intensive a game is. A game like Citadels with its hidden roles is obviously meant to test your bluffing skills more than anything else, but I doubt Alan Moon was taking into account the possible mind games of a tournament setting when he designed Ticket to Ride.
3. Diplomacy. Again, this is not a skill present in all games, but since so many games are 3-or-more-player games where all players are opponents, this is certainly an important aspect of gaming, so much so that obvious diplomatic tools are frequently worked into game design. I wonder if Klaus Teuber included the robber in Settlers of Catan simply to see if you would be nice enough to move it away from everyone, rather than risk a trade embargo to snatch a resource and cripple the current leader. Players associate diplomacy with American-style conquest games, and although it’s more transparent there, the skill is found everywhere, though its use largely depends on the crowd. When my friends come over for game nights, because I’ve played the most and know the games best, they make sure to make a little tough on me, forming alliances against me in Small World and hiding my precious science cards under their wonder boards in 7 Wonders. Table talk is at its finest here, or maybe I should say at its worst – I know one player who will attack me if I even open my mouth during a game, because he assumes I’ll be pulling the puppet strings.
However, not all of diplomacy is about the game outside the game. Sometimes you can generate goodwill for yourself within the game, by coming to the defense of another player or making an actually-small sacrifice with an overly grand gesture. Sometimes games hinge almost entirely on diplomacy (Cosmic Encounter, Diplomacy – duh), and those games won’t work with the wrong audience. Some will say the games are entirely lacking in “skill” – when in fact they have simply given “skill” too narrow a definition. In any game where players have the authority to make life harder on anyone they want, diplomacy is a hugely important skill, even when you don’t find mention of it in the rules.
4. Risk Assessment / Luck Mitigation. The simple concept of “pushing your luck” found in Blackjack or many dice games has created entire genres of gaming, but it’s part of any game that isn’t completely open information. When you are deciding your move for the turn, you are gambling on many things going the way you anticipate, because you aren’t yet aware of the results of the randomized parts of the game (dice rolls, shuffled cards) or of the future decisions of your opponents. While this is more obvious in dice games like Yahtzee (do I reroll or not?) or “stay or go” exercises like Incan Gold, it’s not just found there. When you stay in a bidding war in Power Grid, you’re gambling that the next plant revealed won’t be a better plant for a cheaper price. Every time you draw off the top in Ticket to Ride, you’re betting that you want that card more than any currently in the tableau.
Many players will complain about games that leave too many things to chance, and it’s often a valid complaint – if everything is random, then there are no interesting decisions to make. However, most games have a random element not only to keep things fresh and give new players a chance, but also to test your ability to mitigate that randomness. Sometimes the odds will still beat you; you’ll throw your weight at the 90% likely scenario and the other 10% will slap you in the face. Or sometimes you’ll go for that 10% because it’s your Hail Mary pass – if I know I’m losing a game of Ticket to Ride you can be sure I’ll end with some desperate ticket diving. Being skilled at a game is hardly about winning every game, though – no one is really capable of that, especially in games with the kind of randomization featured in most board games. But being aware of the odds and making the better bets will still go a long way.
5. Evaluation. This is probably the most common example of what people think of when they think of “skill” in a board game. You’re looking at a hand in 7 Wonders or all of the Supply piles in Dominion, and you’re deciding what to pick. It’s a straightforward idea – how do you understand which option is the best for you at that point in the game? You think about what the card can do for you, both in terms of its immediate in-game value as well as the value it can have for the rest of the game, in the context of what you’ve already built/purchased. This is the basic thing you do at the start of your turn in any game – you have all these choices available for the turn, but which is the best? When you think of this skill, you initially think of it in a vacuum, where it’s simply your judgment of the current in-game options and your understanding of the benefits – you don’t have any settlements on wheat in Settlers of Catan so you build there even though you’re building on an unlikely number, or you just understand that Chapel is a flat-out good card in Dominion. But none of these skills are isolated, and memory, for example, plays a large role in evaluation. Ever since I (inadvertently) memorized the resource costs to every single card in 7 Wonders, I’ve had a much easier time estimating what resources I need to actually build and what I can ignore. In the case of Settlers, diplomacy also affects your evaluation – if you think you can trade for wheat when you need it, then there’s no need to build a settlement in a poor spot just to get some. In a way, evaluation really isn’t a separate skill, but the culmination of all the skills I’ve listed, together with others that haven’t occurred to me yet.
So what do I mean when I give a “depth” rating for a game? Well, the diplomatic and psychological skills of a game depend largely on the group and each individual play. On the other hand, the skills of long-term memory and risk management come only after a long time with the game, but no one waits for 300 plays to do a game review. Long before that, though, it should (hopefully) become clear when a game is able to present with you several options that all seem highly logical and valid. That’s when it gets tough, when these skills become important to win, when you dig in your feet and get a kind of satisfaction you can only get from competition. That’s depth.