Spades and Good Game Mechanics

Those who know me know that I am not very much fun at parties.  One of the many reasons that I’m not very much fun at parties is that I am very particular about the types of board and card games that I like to play. There are a few games that I really love, and a whole lot that I can’t stand — instead of ranting at my friends at the party I figured it’d be more fun to try to lay out what I think makes for a good game in this blog post. I don’t know much about game design, so this is more of an exercise for me to think through these points than actually positing anything novel.

I believe that the perfect card game is Spades (or the slightly more party-amenable variant of Oh Hell).  The reason why Spades is so good is that:

  • The betting mechanism means that there is no “bad hand”. If you get a hand with very few trump cards, you have to bid appropriately and still play the hand out. You can even bid nil and try to not win any tricks
  • The game moves very quickly — with experienced players each hand takes just a minute or two to play through so there’s not much down time in the game
  • While one team can take a commanding lead in spades, you can always just declare a winner and restart the game with shuffled teams if one pair is too good.

Let’s contrast that with some of the features that I hate in games:

The winner is determined by the starting conditions (a bad hand, bad board conditions)

I hate games where the card is dealt and I look at my hand I say to myself “welp, there’s no reason to play out this hand since I can’t possibly win with this hand”. I’d rather just like read an article on my phone or talk with someone else at the party instead of playing through a hand that I know I can’t win with.

Settlers of Catan is a game that many people seem to love but I just can’t get into because I feel like within a few turns of that game I know whether I’m going to win or lose and playing out the rest of the game feels very boring to me. The game is just too dependent on initial conditions to be fun, and since it takes an hour to play through if you start with a bad position there’s no way to come back form it.

Mechanisms where the loser is punished

The game “asshole” has this mechanism and I hate this game so much I’ve taken to just refusing to play it. In that game, after a hand, the winner of the previous hand gets to take the best cards from the loser of the previous hand. This drives me absolutely bonkers — I like the rest of the game enough that I’ll play it if everyone agrees we won’t use that rule.

The game takes a long time to resolve to a winner

Poker is a really interesting game — any individual hand is almost fully determined by luck. Good poker players are much better than bad poker players but even bad poker players will “win” some hands against good poker players just because of the luck of the draw.

Amongst reasonably good poker players, they have to play lots and lots of hands in order to determine who the better player actually is. Good poker players fold lots of hands and the better player ends up building up a very slight advantage over lots of hands as they “fold correctly” better than the other players.

I respect the intellectualism that goes along with poker, but I personally don’t enjoy playing it because it just takes too long. After about 30 or 45 minutes I get bored playing poker, and that’s generally not enough time to really know whose the better player and who just go lucky.

there aren’t long end-games where both players know that hope is lost.


If the winner of the game is highly dependent on initial conditions, then it’s better to be able to play lots of quick hands rather than having to wait a long time for the game to resolve when people know in advance that they can’t win.

Backgammon, played correctly, has a mechanism that resolves this nicely. In traditional backgammon, each game is played for a certain number of points (and the two players might be playing to a total of some number of points, say 500). During play, player one can offer player two “backgammon” which means that player two has the option of either resigning at that moment or doubling the number of points that the game is being played for.

So backgammon players are actually incentivized not to play a game through to the end — in the case that  once one player has the lead due to luck, they can quickly end the game and reset and keep playing so that

Any game that buries players in a hole that they can’t climb out of (either due to a punish-the-loser mechanism or just because it takes a long time between “game resets”) is going to generate tedium for those in the hole who recognize their plight.

Game mechanisms like “bidding” allow for players to stay engaged even with “bad hands” and it forces all of the players to both stay engaged and feel like they have a shot at “winning” at any point in the game.

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By michael