Broken Games

A few days ago, my wife and I played a game of Aquadukt, which is a game that I had picked up a while ago, but had never played. I had been hesitant to play it, because I was pretty sure the game was broken.

When I say I thought the game was broken, I don’t mean that I thought that some of the pieces were damaged, but rather that I felt that there was something fundamentally wrong with the game mechanics.

In Aquadukt, players build up communities across the board. A player’s final score is determined by the number of houses that he or she has built that are supplied with water. Now on a particular turn, a player may do one of three things:

  1. Build up to three houses
  2. Dig a well
  3. Build one or two canals

In order to build a house, a player must roll a die that generates a number from one to 20 (d20 for you RPG types) and then must choose to build a house in an open section of the board that matches the number rolled, or choose not to build. If you roll a number for a section that is completely filled, then you just reroll, and this was what I thought was broken. I thought that you could end up rolling and rolling until you finally were able to build inside a free section. Well, this was never an issue in our two-player game. Maybe it would have been a problem with four players, but it never happened in our game.

So I guess it’s not broken, but that got me thinking about what it means when we say a game is broken. BoardGameGeek has this definition for broken:

adj. (usually applied to a game) Having problems that result in a disappointing play experience. A game might be considered broken if even poor play can lead to a victory, if it frequently ends in a stalemate, or if one strategy invariably wins. (See also solvable)

If this is the how we define a game that is broken, then if a game sucks, does that mean it’s broken? If that’s the case, then some games will be broken for some players and not for others. A friend of mine played Archaeology: The Card Game and said that it was broken. Now he is an uber-gamer, but I like that game. Is he wrong? Am I wrong? Is Aquadukt broken or does it just suck?

I would really like to hear what you think broken means, and give me an example of a game that you think is broken.

3 Comments

  1. middleclassjoe

    I’d say that BGG’s definition casts a pretty wide net (and not that it matters) but I like to see it as more of an objective label.

    I wasn’t a big Magic player in the early days, but I seem to remember people talking about the infinite loops and one-turn wins. Mechanics that allow for an unintended (usually ridiculous in game terms) advantage and/or unpreventable victory are obviously broken and on the extreme end of the spectrum.

    On the other hand, “Having problems that result in a disappointing play experience.” Jeez, that could just be that the game runs too long, or has bad art, no? Including this as criteria almost renders the label so subjective that it’s meaningless. Well maybe not meaningless, but on par with “sucky” or “lame”.

    With some of the other elements of the BGG definition (rewarding suboptimal strategies, too many stalemates), as long as a particular strategy isn’t unpreventable, I’d say it might be more useful to look at it in terms of game balance issues.

  2. John Snyder

    To me, broken means “does not work”. It’s not a label I apply lightly, it’s the serious business. I’d define it like this: A broken game does not function as a contest of skill or luck between two players.

    Tic Tac Toe is broken, because when played correctly, the players will tie. There’s no contest to be had, just a memorization exercise.
    Joe had another one; CCGs are easily broken when a card combo leads to an automatic victory. If one player doesn’t get to play, there has been no game.
    Medici Vs Strozzi has been ‘solved’. When one player performs a certain set of moves, he cannot lose. Solved games are broken.

    Anything less than this I have to call “unbalanced”… or maybe just “crappy”. At any rate “a dissapointing play experience” is way too broad.

    Side note (cause I’m curious), what was considered broken by your friend about Archaeology?

  3. @Joe: MtG is a great example.

    @John: It was quite some time ago, but I think he felt that the outcome of Archaeology was determined once the initial cards were dealt since the trading feature is on a one to one cost basis. What you draw from the “dig” pile determines your points for exchange and there is no way to increase that amount. All of that is true, but I guess I just don’t care. It doesn’t result in a “disappointing play experience” for me.

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