This past week The Farrier’s Bellows dropped an episode about my game Out of Dodge, and they spent a lot of time wondering if the game had any replay value. They concluded that it did, but it got me thinking about replayability as a benchmark, a point of evaluation, a mark of quality.
The first tabletop roleplaying game I can recall that explicitly tossed replay out the window was Sandman: Map of Halaal, published by Pacesetter in 1985. They planned an ambitious series of supplements that collectively built out a gigantic mystery that was intended to be episodic and unique - you’d play through it once, because the secrets you’d learn would prevent replay (I question this assumption now, but at the time it made sense). Kevin Allen Jr’s Sweet Agatha is certainly replayable, but you’d need to buy the game again - because you destroy the actual book as you play it. I love this game as much for its bold stance on ephemera and replay as I do for its great design. Tim Hutchings’ wonderful and creepy game A Guide To American Soap Carving also asks you to destroy it as you play it.
So - are these inferior games because they cannot be replayed? A rhetorical question, because of course they aren’t. A film you see in the theater isn’t inferior because it doesn’t come with a DVD or a free pass to see it over and over. And these games I’m name-checking are really on the fringe - almost all games can be replayed, and enjoyed over and over, even if that enjoyment is different once you have experienced it the first time.
I think looking to replayability as a value proposition is misguided and a little toxic, akin to assessing a game’s value based on page count. As a designer I want to be able to make all kinds of experiences possible, including experiences that only happen once. Including games that are also magnificent and hard-to-arrange spectacles, like Juhana Pettersson’s Muovikuppi, or harrowing games you are unlikely to replay even if you can (like The Beast).
I actually want to see more games that are very explicit about being a very focused and unique experience you probably won’t repeat. I want that to be as valued as a game that is open-ended and infinitely replayable.
How important is the ability to replay a game to you? Does it influence your decision-making about what to purchase or what to play? Do you approach games with an eye toward replaying them in the future? Let’s talk about it.