The Side Quests – Why We Play

This article will be the first of a bi-weekly column discussing industry trends, design philosophies, and controversies surrounding our favorite and upcoming tabletop games. In our very first article, we will discuss the what makes board games “fun” and what “fun” means for different people.

Two years ago I played Ticket to Ride for the first time. Everyone at the table enjoyed it and  I bought a copy of the game soon afterwards. A couple weeks later I eagerly put Ticket to Ride on the table with a different group of people hoping to impress them with my brand new game, the result was disappointing. We eventually finished the game but no one really had fun. 

Ticket To Ride aka “The boring train game where no one dies”


“Fun” is the universal answer to the question why we play tabletop games, but anyone who has had a similar experience as I had with Ticket to Ride can tell you that it is a little more complicated than that. Everyone has a different definition for “fun” and people’s definition might even change over time. So while Ticket to Ride might be the perfect game for some, it could be a terrible fit for others. 

Since fun is such a vague term, how can we define it better? How many different kinds of fun are there? These are important questions for both designers and players of tabletop games. Players should know so they can better select games more suited to their own taste, whereas designers need to know so they can make better games for their targeted audience.

Luckily for us, people in the video game industry has done some extensive work on this. Robin Hunicke, Marc LeBlanc, and Robert Zubek published a fascinating paper on game design way back in 2001 and a major portion of the paper was dedicated to define fun. The whole paper is a great read for all the aspiring designers out there, you can also watch an excellent summary of the paper on Penny Arcade‘s Extra Credit

The paper suggest that there are 8 aesthetics that define fun. A good tabletop game could be a combination of several of the aesthetics or just a single core aesthetic done really well. A game with asymmetric play might even allow players to experience different aesthetics in one game. In the list below, I will give a brief definition of each aesthetic, how they relate to board games and some games that best exemplify that aesthetic. 

1. Sensation (Games with Miniatures, Dixit) 

Photo Credit due to Dave Mathis from Flickr

Sensation is the look of your freshly painted miniature, the sound of new dice hitting the table, the touch of a large foldable game board and…the taste of your grass Carcassone tile? Games with a lot of eye candy and high production values would fall under this category. Dixit is an exceptional example of this, the art work is just mesmerizing and is definitely one of the main appeals of the game.

2. Fantasy (Role Playing Games, Battlestar Galatica)

Fantasy is to become something you are not, let it be an agile elf, a powerful wizard or the commander of a spaceship escaping from a Cylon war fleet. Games with fantasy as its core aesthetic are deeply thematic and allows its players to be lost within that theme. While a lot of games have some elements of fantasy in them, the best example of this genre is still role playing games because, well, that’s what role playing means.

3. Narrative (Mice and Mystics, City of Horror, Fiasco)

While fantasy allows players to become something they are not, games with narrative focus on telling a story.   These types of games either have really strong characters (Mice and Mystics) or focus on an idea larger than any single character (the human condition in a post-apocalyptic world in City of Horror).

4. Challenge (Agricola, Dominion, Go) 

Photo Credit due to Isa Barros on Flickr

Challenge is a little complicated to define as it involves both challenge with yourself and challenge with others, in other word, competition. In general though, challenge is about problem solving. Players are presented with a problem and are asked to find the best tools for that problem. I listed Go as a representative, but most abstract and themeless games use challenge as their core aesthetic.

5. Fellowship/Teamwork (Pandemic, Shadows Over Camelot, Resistance) 

Photo credit due to The National Guard on Flickr


That’s what a good co-op game should feel like.

6. Discovery/Exploration (The Cave, Lost Valley)

Exploration is a powerful human instinct, but it’s a difficult aesthetic to pull off in board games because unlike films and video games, players can see all the pieces to the game even before the game begins. Nevertheless, there are board games that try to simulate the experience of exploration with varying degrees of success. The Cave might be the best game of this genre.

7. Expression (Dixit, Cards Against Humanity, Role Playing Games) 

 A fun Saturday night.

Games that allow players to express themselves in various ways. The best board games usually have some elements of self expression because it allows players to make meaningful choices. 

8. Submission (Monopoly, Life)

Ever had a really tough day and want to just come home and do some relaxing activity and zone out? That’s the appeal of submission. This is your beer and pretzel games where the game occupies minimal amount of your attention through heavy use of luck and lack of decisions and choices.

These games have their place but sadly for a very long time Monopoly was all there was to board games. That era lasted so long and the impact was so strong that even today it is hard to convince someone that there are more to board games than just Monopoly.

I hate Monopoly.

My first article turned out way longer than I anticipated, so thank you for staying with me until the very end. I hope you enjoyed it.

Coming Up Next Time: “The Great Divide”, a related article about aesthetics and 2 words I tried very hard to avoid using.

One thought on “The Side Quests – Why We Play

Add yours

  1. Have you looked into Bartle’s gamer archetypes as well?

    There is a lot of crossover here with “Killer, Explorer, Achiever and Socializer” even though Bartle only wanted to apply these to MMOs.


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