Bad Games

Tags: random, video games, design

“Bad Game”

When I’m playing any game - cardboard, electronic, or even some sort of physical game - whenever I am moderately inconvenienced, I’ll say, “Bad Game.”

This is my way of avoiding what some call, “skill issues,” and I don’t really say this about games which are actually bad. What I usually do is not play them, or write a series about what’s bad about them.

“Bad Game” is really a term of endearment for me; I’ve hit a wall or I ran into some frustration that’s just pulled me out of a good time. A bit of a vibe check I guess.

But the thing is, games need to be a “bad game” to be good!

Arkham Horror LCG

Fantasy Flight Game’s Arkham Horror, the CardGame, is probably the best game Fantasy Flight has created (and they’ve made a bunch of really good games). Its core premise is that you and a group of investigators are investigating the plot of some Lovecraftian Monster; you fight eldritch monsters using cards!

The core game loop is tight, and your character’s abilities are well tuned to the game. All-in-all it’s usually a fun experience!

But sometimes, “bad game” happens.

Every time you draw a token (RNG in this game is decided by a pull of a token from a bag, usually including a majority of negative modifiers) there’s an automatic failure mechanic inherent in the RNG of the game. The dreaded tentacle token means you fail, and there’s (usually) nothing that you can do.

I set up perfectly and built the best deck, now I fail. I’ve added +1’s, manipulated the shroud, pushed an enemy that causes more negatives. I’ve sealed the -3 from the cultist token that only triggers on this turn. The lead investigator picked the outcome that reduces all skull tokens to a -2 from a -5.

None of that mattered; “Bad Game” you hear me say.

So, why do I actually think that Arkham Horror LCG is actually a great game despite the failure mechanics?

Player Agency, in the Face of Unavoidable Failure

The main draw of Arkham Horror LCG is the deck building. There are (currently) 48 different characters who interact with the game’s massive amount of cards. The possibilities are endless: different decks tuned to different investigators, investigators exploiting key mechanics of other investigators, and even meta-knowledge of the scenarios given enough time and experience with the game.

There’s even scenarios where (unexpectedly) you can use cards from other players - which can lead to wildly broken combos (Norman Whithers getting the Cyclopean Hammer means the professor becomes the best pugilist on the team). Some scenarios also provide special cards unique to the story, sometimes an ally you’ve saved, sometimes an ancient artifact, sometimes something has happened to your investigators.

All this to say, even though you’re doomed to fail, and most of the time there’s going to be downsides and roadblocks to your team, you’re still massively empowered to take on the game’s challenges in a variety of different ways.

Avoiding Failure

Usually when playing Arkham Horror, you’ll want to boost your skills to be a “safe” bet. Skills, talents, events, allies; most cards focus on empowering your investigator (see the Red Gloved Man for a very strong bonus). This is what I’d call the primary mechanic of skill tests, but unless you’re above the largest modifier you’re still risking failure. And the dreaded auto failure.

If you’re so inclinced, you can often seal the auto failure token to remove it, avoiding it from being a problem for a pull. Some investigators revel in the ability to manipulate fate, and their core strategy is manipulating the “chaos bag.” Later expansions also added the “bless” token which gives a rolling +2 (and the curse, rolling -2).

Furthermore, failures can be entirely avoided by reducing the difficulties of the tests: if a test’s difficulty is 0 you just have to not fail.

I’m sure in future expansions they’ll add even more mechanics for avoiding failure.

It’s fun to push your luck

In the exact opposite vein of avoiding failure, rogue and survivor characters actually work better if they fail or the odds are stacked against them.

It’s best if you pull off a check against all odds, or if you get punished but still manage to get away. In Arkham Horror, the game’s still (usually) fun if you fail, and usually pushing your luck feels like you’re getting away with something you really shouldn’t.

Double or Nothing is the poster child for this kind of mechanic, but these kinds of gambles are peppered throughout the game in the form of Treacheries where you’re prompted to make a decision without the help of your fellow investigators. Do you push your luck and pick an outcome that gives you more benefits in the long run while risking the run, or do you take a hit risking your own investigator’s health and maybe your team’s future chances?

Fate swings both ways

Sometimes you’re stuck between a rock and a hard place and you’re going to lose on the next turn unless you pull a miracle.

The game isn’t centered around causing this unneccesary tension: there’s always ways you could have played or taken actions to mitigate the ever-growing threat of doom.


Sometimes things don’t go your way, or you didn’t know about a mechanic, or the scenario throws a hammer into your plans. Things go wrong constantly.

When that happens, and you pull the +1 or the Elder Sign when you most need it, it’s the most fun you’ll have in the game.

Dark Souls & Miyazaki’s Wild rides

I am bad at Souls-likes.

Does this mean the game is “Bad Game?” Maybe, but when I think honestly I don’t think that these games are terrible. I just don’t like them.

Apart from my personal frustration playing the games, there is a lot to the games: deep and subtle storytelling, (normally) fine-tuned level design and game play, great atmosphere. True souls fans wax poetic about From Soft and they have a lot of detailed and valid things to say.

Quick Restarts

One of the refreshing things in the dark and sad world of the Souls series is the quick restart.

When you die, you have no choice but to get back into the game. Usually you’ve lost a good chunk of resources (souls, blood echoes, or whatever else is the main currency), and either you’ll need to gather more or more often than not you’ll try the same run again.

With Bloodborne the cycle did lengthen, but the upside was that you could go to different areas.

Alternate Avenues & Rewarding Discovery

From Soft’s adventure games are famous for their alternate paths and hidden passage ways. Illusory walls, hidden keys, and trick jumps are a mainstay even back as far as King’s Field (a PS1 game).

One of the reasons this is a good release is that the discoveries, new areas, and new challenges are a welcome relief

Deep as the ocean

The Souls-like games tend to have combat which is rich and deep. Each iteration and new entry in the formula adds and borrows in a large amalgamation of prior experience.

To start, Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls created the base of the combat system.

The PC can dodge, block, parry and move for defense. The PC can strong or weak attack for offense.

even this is a gross oversimplification: each weapon modifies the move set, each option has offensive and defensive capabilities, some weapons have special “weapon arts,” unique to some individual weapons.

On top of the Player Character, the Enemies play the largest role. The array of humanoids who variously parry, bash, block, dodge, jump, and stab to varying and interesting degrees (on top of adding them as groups), to the more interesting abominations whose unique anatomies, equipment, and behaviors add the extra dimension that two hands and two legs often limits the enemies to.

On top of all that, Bloodborne, Sekiro, and Elden Ring, respectively have iterated and compounded the interesting and unique qualities of the combat to their own liking. Bloodborne added more aggressive features, Sekiro added additional parry and stealth mechanics, and Elden Ring added more content.

This is a long-winded way of saying that you can explore these games in more than one way and to impressive depths.

Even when one avenue gets boring or too difficult, there’s more to explore and that seems to be fundamental to the From Soft design playbook.

What is it to be “Bad”?

I talked a lot about games that I say are “bad” but in the end these are games that even if I don’t find them fun, there’s so much good to them that when I’m challenged or facing a “bad game” scenario, I remember that I was having a good time, and now I need to engage in a different way. This is a great thing; it keeps the games I love fresh.

I think every game should be “bad,” or at least have “bad” corners. It’s important to keep those corners and “bad” experiences as a form of expression, challenge, and interest. Cultivating bad experiences is something I’d like to explore more, but this will do until next time.