With the 6 aesthetic factors defined, I will now apply them to the analysis of three games which I own and have played a great deal. All of these games fall into a variety of categories and each one is a well known in said category, so much so that they could be used as yardsticks against which you might hold other, similar games.
A final note before I get started here: one thing that I did not include in my system and the ratings of the following games is the presence and quality of art in game design. This is intentional. I will fully admit that some art evokes feelings in me that make a game more or less enjoyable. I love old school fantasy art, like that found in the classic D&D game and actually dislike the anime inspired, superhero style art featured in 4E. While both are competent artists, I love Erol Otus and can’t stand Wayne Reynolds, and that does, in fact, figure into my like or dislike of them.
The reason I leave it out, however, is because I feel the game should be considered on its merits as a game, not as a graphic art delivery system. Game Art is so subjective, so intermingled with the history and experience of the individual (I’m a child of the seventies with a strong appreciation for the weird fantasy vibe of the time, while my younger peers are much more enamored of anime); it really says nothing about good game design. I try to imagine a game as it would be without any art at all, just words and simple block playing pieces, and judge from there. That is how I feel game design aesthetics should be judged. A good game, that presses all the right buttons for me, should win out regardless of the art.
Let's start with an easy one...
This is a card game of the 'Beer & Pretzels' variety, in which the players are nuclear powers trying to propagandize and then annihilate enemy populations through a variety of nuclear, biological and weird science weapons. http://www.flyingbuffalo.com/nucwar.htm
THEME VS. MECHANICS
The theme of cold-war era warfare is deeply interwoven into the mechanics of the game. The basic conceit of nuclear warfare through the matching of delivery systems to warheads of various sizes is fully complemented by the use of propaganda, secret weapons, spies and saboteur to capture the true paranoid spirit of a world on the brink of destruction.
At the same time it is also an object lesson in the futility of such a mindset, as the rule of Final Retaliation allows a player who is taken out of the game to instantly deploy everything he has left to target and potentially exterminate any other player, who might also gain final retaliation and destroy another player, etc. in a chain reaction that often leaves no winner.
The mechanics are highly original and made for this sort of game and while they could be pressed into service as the base system for a similarly apocalyptic game, they are very focused on a style of nihilistic destruction that educates as it entertains. As such, I’d rate it Theme +3.
SIMPLICITY VS. COMPLEXITY
The main game mechanic, that of matching delivery systems to warheads and deploying those cards into a three round funnel, is simple and effective. Once a card is placed in the funnel, it slowly works its way up until, three rounds later, it is revealed. This places great weight and emphasis on planning ahead.
Different warheads, deployment vehicles and defensive systems add small sub-systems or rules exceptions to the game, making it a bit more complex than the simple turn sequence suggests, however, and this difficulty scales as cards from add-on sets (Nuclear Escalation, Nuclear Proliferation and WMD) are added to the main game.
Despite this, the game never becomes unmanageable as the rules are often written on the cards and the quick turnover of the game ensures that the nuances are quickly picked up. I’d rate it Simplicity +1.
RANDOM VS. DETERMINANT
Nuclear War has a strong random factor, but the randomization is mostly card based. As such, once the card frequencies are quickly sussed out, card management skills can mitigate that factor somewhat, as can negotiation and intimidation (see below).
This becomes more difficult as games are combined, and the Final Retaliation rule can throw a large, unpredictable wrench into a player’s end-game strategy, but the game never devolves into a simple game of ‘who can draw the best cards.’ It is predictable enough that a skilled player will win more often than not and there are even Nuclear War tournaments to see who is the best (as well as the luckiest) cold war general.
Still, I’d rate Nuclear War as Random +1.
PLAYER INTERACTION VS. PLAYER ISOLATION
The only way to win is to steal, incinerate or otherwise eliminate enemy population centers. On top of this, there is a strong component of negotiation, bluffing and intimidation that grows as the number of players grows and is even mechanically supported: a player may lay up to two of their cards face up on the table, like a 100 Megaton Warhead (the largest in the game) and a Stealth Bomber to carry it, as a ‘Deterrent Force’ to try and intimidate others into doing what they want.
Nuclear War is definitely Interaction +3.
SANDBOXING VS. RAILROADING
There is only one way to win Nuclear War: depopulate the other player’s countries. There are two basic strategies for doing this: propaganda and destruction.
There are however a lot of strategic wrinkles to achieving the endgame goal of being the only survivor. From card management to proper pre-planning in the funnel, to the personal ability to read other players and intimidate, bluff and negotiate with them, there are a number of interesting strategies to deploy.
I’d rate Nuclear War as Railroading +1.
PLAYER SKILL VS. CHARACTER SKILL
A player’s strategy is determined by the proper deployment of the available cards in their hand, there is little ability to ‘customize’ or ‘min-max’ your country’s efforts outside of choosing one particular country with a single particular special power and absolutely no ability to manipulate the card decks. Nuclear War is Player Skill +3.
So in the end we have determined that Nuclear War is:
PLAYER SKILL 3
I could see that information fitting easily on the side of a box, right next to the Age and Number of Players info and it seems fairly clear exactly what you're getting when you buy the game. Even if it is slightly off by a point here and there, for subjective reasons, it still gives you a close approximation of how the game might play. But then, I am biased, so tell me what you think...