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Is this Game Broken? (by Christian van Someren)

Our grumpy guest of honour from the One Player Guild today is Christian.

While perusing BGG the other day, I came across a familiar thread titled: ‘Is this game broken?’

I don’t know why, maybe it’s just the types of games I enjoy, but I seem to see this question popping up all over the place lately. My gut reaction is to say no, of course not, there is no such thing as a ‘broken’ board game. I mean honestly, what does it even mean for a game to be ‘broken’?

I propose that a game is considered to be ‘broken’ if there is an exploitable strategy or special ability that is guaranteed to win you the game every time. However, calling a game ‘broken’ implies a whole lot more, namely that the game is a waste of money and that you are better off not playing it.

I’m sure many of you are aware of the Halifax Hammer strategy in A Few Acres of Snow, the game most strongly associated with the claim that it is ‘broken’. For the uninitiated, basically the British player could pour all their efforts into attacking Halifax for a guaranteed win. Or at least, that’s how the story goes. A quick look at reveals that the top French and British players are fairly closely ranked. How can this be if the game is fundamentally broken?

There are countless other examples of games being labelled as ‘broken’. From Cruel Necessity, where some have claimed that it’s impossible to get a winning score, to the second edition of Dawn of the Zeds, which is claimed to be unloseable if you simply turtle inside the town.

Likewise, many claim that certain factions in Gaia Project are over- or underpowered (although a recent post explaining why this is not the case has really warmed my heart). And even the venerable Mage Knight has seen claims of one or another character being ‘overpowered’ and thus ‘broken’. There is often little evidence given to back up these claims, but they still have a tendency to stick and spoil a game’s reputation.

Image source: BGG

Of course, it's nice to have a game which is more or less balanced, but even in a game like Chess the player who moves first has a better chance of winning. Perhaps we are all too concerned with games being ‘perfect’ right out of the box. While typos are unforgivable, do we really expect a game like Mage Knight or Gaia Project, with its huge potential for variation and possibilities, to be perfectly balanced?

What I find particularly disheartening is that when a game is labelled as ‘broken’, people tend to dismiss it out of hand. Nemo’s War has been criticised for its random action point determination, where the number of action points you receive each turn is determined by die roll. The inexperienced player will claim that this mechanism makes the game into an arbitrary luck fest with no meaningful decisions, hence making the game 'broken'. However, reading further into it, it is clear that experienced players are able to achieve high scores consistently despite this randomness. Unfortunately, it appears that many players have abandoned the game without fully realizing its true potential.

I have personally played all of the above-mentioned games many times and have never attempted to exploit their so-called ‘broken-ness’. Why? Because I want to explore the game system, to try alternate approaches, but most importantly I am not dead-set on winning every time. I would rather play an eventful game with great swings of fortune, unexpected moves and interesting puzzles to solve.

Maybe it all comes down to why we play games. Do you play to crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of their women! Or are you looking for a fun, introspective exercise where you can flex your brain muscle for a couple of hours, relax and enjoy the unfolding of events and maybe try to do a bit better than you did the last time?

If the former, I doubt I would enjoy playing games with you. If the latter, take my advice and keep your games FUN. Don’t worry too much about who is winning, but take the time to experiment and try something different and interesting.

And when someone asks you if a game is broken, be sure to tell them that the rules are unfinished, the combos are overpowered and the factions are unbalanced. But broken? Hardly.

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