Exploring the Idea of Replayability

When it comes to evaluating boardgames these days, one of the main aspects that tends to be discussed is replayability.  Now, I would argue that unlike movies and books and many other forms of media, games are inherently meant to be played and experienced more than once.  Replayability is, therefore, a concept that encapsulates how well a game supports and encourages this repeated play. 

Another, perhaps slightly more dire, way to put it might be that this is a measure of the “life expectancy” of a game.  Sort of how many plays can you get from a game before you’ve more or less seen it all and get bored with it.

And a big trend that I’m noticing lately in boardgame criticism is that replayability seems to be almost synonymous with variability.  By variability, I’m talking about something that literally changes either the components, the rules, or at least the configuration of the game from play to play.  Big examples of this would be:

  • random setup of the board (Settlers of Catan, Kingdom Builder)

  • new maps/boards to play on (Age of Steam, Power Grid) 

  • having only a small subset of the available card types available in each play (Dominion, Trains) 

  • including game variants (or “mini” expansions) in with the game (Fresco) 

  • actual separately-sold expansions (pretty much every even somewhat-successful game these days)

  • scenario-based play (Robinson Crusoe, Descent)

  • unique player powers (Eclipse, Terra Mystica) and/or components (the different hero decks in Sentinels of the Multiverse)

  • the randomness of a card or tile draw order (every card and tile game) 
So with variability, players are forced to reevaluate the way they will play the game based on the random or changing conditions of these elements.  It’s akin to a puzzle that must be worked out in order to decide either how to approach or manage play.  And since the details of this puzzle change from game to game, the game can deliver a “fresh” experience each time it’s played. 

But the way I see it, only considering variability is a very limited and incomplete view.  I mean, should a game really ever “need” an expansion or the choice between 12 different player powers or 1.2 million possible combinations of components in order to have decent replayability?  What the heck is wrong with the game having actual depth worthy of repeated play?

Depth is a much more ambiguous idea than variability, however.  Rather than being able to point at specific components of mechanics like you can with variability, identifying or measuring depth is more about the subjective elements of the player experience.  Concepts that I relate to depth would include:

  • player interaction (having to account for and react to the choices of other humans)

  • having strategic options (which would include but is not limited to multiple paths to victory)

  • the learning curve of the game

  • room for development of player skill

  • complexity of the game system

Of course, in real life, the replayability of most games probably involves a mix of both variability and depth.  And while I don’t necessarily want to judge which kind of replayability is “better” (because that’s mostly a matter of taste and also very situational), I will go out on a limb and say that fostering true depth in a game seems to be a lot “harder” for a designer than just adding in more variable options.

Now, there’s probably a lot more that I could get into about replayability (especially concerning the “shelf life” of games and how much replayability is “enough”), but since I think I’ve made my main point that replayablity includes both variability and depth, I think I’ll stop here. 

So what do you think about replayability?  Is there something I’ve missed?  Other examples of either type?  What else needs to be said here?


  1. Greg Pettit

    Nice post. I think you make a very good point when you say that most people equate variability with replayability. I, too, prefer depth.

    I think one of the factors that has led to this comes from the evolution of Euro games into puzzles that can be solved. People search for a “best play,” and often lose interest once it is discovered. By making the situation different every time, the game presents a new puzzle every time. Unfortunately, this doesn’t necessarily make finding the best play harder, it just makes the puzzle different.

  2. My favorite kind of replayability involves a mixture of depth and variability. Innovation has 105 different cards, and each game you won’t see all of them. That’s a neat trick, and it doesn’t hurt replayability, but what really makes the game great is that players genuinely improve from game to game. It’s fun to play with the same players again and again because each game they’re exploiting a new strategy, and so are you, and each player is competent to make decisions that are pushing them toward winning.

    This is only one example, but those are my favorite kinds of games. There’s some variability, yes, but the most interesting thing is the other players. Playing one more game has changed them and changed you such that even if the game state hasn’t changed much (or even at all), the game is different because the players are different.

  3. Great post, Chris. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about replayability, particularly when it comes to Terra Mystica, a game I really love. And I think I’ve realized that the key reason for TM’s depth (I think you were correct in identifying that) is order of operations. Even if I play with the same faction 4 times in a row, the order of operations of what I do on my player mat will be different every time, partially due to the choices I make, and partially due to the choices my opponents make. Not only does the differing order of operations lead to a very different games, but also leaves you wanting more, because you’re always wondering, “What if I had chosen a different path at a different time?”

  4. Chris Norwood

    I’ve been thinking about your comment, and I just don’t know that the evolution of the eurogame (which I’ve been wanting to do a show/article about for a long time) necessarily involves moving towards being more puzzle-like.

    I mean, yeah, the poster child for the whole variability/puzzly thing is probably Dominion, which is relatively new, but right up there is also The Settlers of Catan, with its modular board and countless small and large expansions, and obviously it’s old as dirt when it comes to euros. 

    One of the core precepts upon which the whole idea of eurogames was built, right from the very beginning, is a lack of direct interaction.  And when you lessen the interaction from other players, the natural result is a trend towards being more puzzly.

  5. Chris Norwood

    Terra Mystica seems to have a really good mix of both kinds of replayability to me.  You definitely have a lot of variability in the unique races and random order of the scoring tiles, but then there’s also a lot of depth with a significant learning curve and encouraged player interaction.  And while you may often do the same sorts of things from one game to the next (since most races really should get their Stronghold built pretty early, for instance), when and how and where exactly you do something depends a lot on the individual factors and course of that specific play.

  6. Great post, Chris. I would go as far as saying that equaling variability with replayability is the reviewer’s lazy way of ticking off the “replayability box” and making their analysis sound more sound than it is.
    Take the classic El Grande, so much depth, hardly any variability. Often I even feel that unique player powers (and a drafting stage)and scenario-based play take away from a game and add to confusion when playing a game for the first two or three times. Let’s face it: nowadays, if you play a game twice and don’t have a great experience, chances are the game won’t hit the table again.
    However, excellent point you make!

  7. Chris Norwood

    You bring up a good point, but I don’t know that it’s so much “lazy” as it is a reflection of their (okay, “our”) mindset these days.  The war of variety/variability vs. depth is sort of a reflection of the struggle between “cult of the new” and going deeper with games you already know.  And we all know where most reviewers fall on this spectrum.

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