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What kind of fun are you having?
Developing a better vocabulary for describing types of fun
Last week we looked at the debt system in Dead Belt. This week we are diving into game design theory!
What is “fun”? What vocabulary can we use to describe the types of fun we have while playing tabletop games?
Mechanics, Dynamics, and Aesthetics
In their paper MDA: A Formal Approach to Game Design and Game Research, Robin Hunicke, Marc LeBlanc, and Robert Zubek describe a game design framework:
In this paper we present the MDA framework (standing for Mechanics, Dynamics, and Aesthetics), developed and taught as part of the Game Design and Tuning Workshop at the Game Developers Conference, San Jose 2001-2004.
MDA is a formal approach to understanding games — one which attempts to bridge the gap between game design and development, game criticism, and technical game research.
It’s a really interesting (and readable) paper that considers games to be a mixture of Rules, System, and Fun. These can be modeled by establishing their counterparts which the authors call Mechanics, Dynamics, and Aesthetics.
The part I found fascinating is in the Aesthetics section:
What makes a game “fun”? How do we know a specific type of fun when we see it? Talking about games and play is hard because the vocabulary we use is relatively limited. In describing the aesthetics of a game, we want to move away from words like “fun” and “gameplay” towards a more directed vocabulary.
They then define eight types of fun which have become particularly associated with game designer Marc LeBlanc.
Let’s take a look!
The 8 Kinds of Fun
Game as sense-pleasure
The first type of fun is pleasure and joy derived from sensory experiences. This could be sounds, visuals, or some sort of physical interaction and effort. Think of beautiful miniatures and throwing fistfuls of dice.
Examples: Handling the eggs in Wingspan (Hargrave, 2019) or the blocks in Pax Pamir 2nd Edition (Wehrle, 2019). Digging into your bag to pull chips in Wonderland’s War (2022). Pushing wooden bugs in Kabuto Sumo (Miller, 2021).
Game as make-believe
Fantasy is escaping into another world and deriving enjoyment from imagination and make-believe. The game can transport the player to another world or allow them to pretend to be someone (or something) else.
Examples: Almost any TTRPG fits this category of fun by definition, be it Blades in the Dark or MÖRK BORG. While this might be harder to achieve in board games, Massive Darkness 2: Hellscape (Olteanu & Portugal, 2022), Hellboy: The Board Game (Hewitt & Williams, 2019), and Cthulhu: Death May Die (Daviau & Lang, 2019) are good examples.
Game as drama
A well-told story is a type of fun that is as old as time. Narrative fun comes from the player’s engagement with the plot of the game and experience with drama. In video games, these are the ones that make you cry when a character dies.
Examples: Again, narrative-based TTRPGs exemplify this type of fun. Some board games with compelling narratives might include My Father’s Work (Petty, 2022), Chronicles of Crime (Cicurel, 2018), and Sleeping Gods (Laukat, 2021).
Game as obstacle course
Some people just love a good challenge. These are the games that are hard, have increasing difficulty, and might have a competitive element. In the video game world, it would be Dark Souls or Tetris.
Examples: Chess is a classic example where the challenge is derived from the strategic depth. The challenge can also be “hard to win” like Arkham Horror (Launius & Wilson, 2005), or exceedingly complex rules like Advanced Squad Leader (Greenwood, 1985). The challenge of Spirit Island (Reuss, 2017) might be a good example too.
Game as social framework
These are the games we play for the social interaction. It could be co-op, teams, or even competitive but it’s about playing together with the people at the table. It’s also, as the authors mention, working as a team to achieve a goal:
Fellowship can be encouraged by sharing information across certain members of a session (a team) or supplying winning conditions that are more difficult to achieve alone (such as capturing an enemy base).
Examples: Once again TTRPGs are perfect for facilitating this type of fellowship and social interaction. Board games like Codenames (Chvátil, 2015), The Resistance (Eskridge, 2009), Modern Art (Knizia, 1992) can all lead to great social interactions at the table. I’ve also seen a table cheer when narrowly winning at Flash Point: Fire Rescue (Lanzig, 2011) by working as a team.
Game as uncharted territory
The joy of exploration, discovering new worlds, and uncovering hidden aspects of games. This could be discovery of in-game thematic elements or of new mechanical aspects.
Examples: Both TTRPGs and tabletop dungeon crawlers can be examples of this type of fun. Gloomhaven (Childres, 2017) showed that a giant box of content, sealed envelops to open, and new characters to reveal can be extremely compelling. Although fairly random, the exploration in Nemesis (Kwapiński, 2018) is another example.
Game as self-discovery
The pleasure of self-expression, creativity, and the ability to make things. In the video game world, Minecraft is the ultimate example of this type of fun. These are the sandbox style games that allow the players to show their individuality.
Examples: Solo and journaling TTRPGs like Artefact and Thousand Year Old Vampire allow the player to write their own story and use their creativity to the fullest. Board games that might be examples include Western Legends (Lemaître, 2018) and Xia: Legends of a Drift System (Miller, 2014).
Game as pastime
Growing crops, chopping trees, fishing, and grinding away in games as a way to derive fun and pleasure. These are games that might have repetitive tasks that require the players to surrender to the rules. As someone who loves Valheim, I get the appeal of harvesting resources, but this type of fun might also include games like Tetris.
Examples: Some small, grindy games might include Mini Rogue (Gendron, 2021) and One Deck Dungeon (Cieslik, 2016). You might be able to consider a very long running TTRPG campaign to be an example of this type of fun as well.
No system is perfect
I think the types of fun outlined in the MDA paper are a good start, and achieve the goal of providing a vocabulary to describe the fun players are having. Still, it’s worth noting a few caveats:
Video game focus: Although they also apply to tabletop games, these types of fun are particularly suited to video games. The submission type of fun (i.e. turn off your brain and grind) is easier to achieve in video games than board games.
Overlap between types: These are not fixed categories with clear boundaries. Strong narrative can blend into fantasy. Self-expression in sandbox games might overlap with discovery.
Limited types: The ways you can have fun with tabletop games is almost limitless, and this system compresses that into just eight types. I’m sure you could think of new categories and/or subdivide these into more specific types.
Being imperfect doesn’t mean it’s not useful. The eight types of fun provide a way to be more specific when talking about tabletop games. They can provide playtesters with categories for feedback. They can also provide designers with considerations when deciding what type of game they are making.
Some things to think about:
Game design taxonomy can be helpful: While debates over what exactly constitutes worker placement vs. action selection can be tedious, breaking things into types and categories can help. Whether it’s the 8 Kinds of Fun or the Bartle Taxonomy of Player Types, they may be imperfect but also useful.
Fun as a game player: Do you prefer fantasy and fellowship? How much does sensation factor into your game ratings? Do you need a challenge, or are you happy with fellowship? Thinking about what you like (and dislike) can be a productive exercise.
Fun as a game designer: If you are a designer, it’s worth thinking about what kind of fun your game might spark. Knowing your goals from the beginning (e.g. a fantasy game with strong narrative) can help guide the design.
What are your top examples for each type of fun? How would you describe yourself as a designer or player in terms of types of fun?
See you next week!
— E.P. 💀
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