On Single-play games

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A friend of mine sent me a meme today featuring a picture of someone filling a cup using two spouts of a soda fountain at the same time. One spout was labelled “Legacy system” and the other “Literally every other game”. On the hand holding the cup was the name of a well-known game designer who is famous for producing legacy games.

“Sick burn,” I remarked.

However, this meme got me thinking more about Legacy and single-use games.

Legacy games are versions of existing games with new rules and mechanics that permanently change the components of the game. This means that these kinds of games usually can only be played once (or if campaign-based, only played a set number of times). The most popular version of this kind of game is Legacy Pandemic, which now ships in seasons. This is to say, each season is an isolated campaign that players are expected to finish before going on to the next one.

If you are a traditional or causal boardgammer, you may find the idea of destroying cards or marking up the playing board a startling idea. Let your mind be at ease; It is. However, legacy games are a subset of single-use games, many of which have been with us for some time.

“Real life” escape rooms have become extremely popular. The idea of solving puzzles in real-team with your friends and family is quite fun for a certain class of people. This kind of entertainment is inherently single-use. Sure, you can try to go through the puzzle again, but it probably won’t be as much fun.

It isn’t surprising that boardgames have tried to capture some of that fun at home using a variety of traditional boardgame elements (particularly cards). Games like the Exit series come to mind. My family has played a couple of these to great effect. Like their real-life counterparts, these boardgames are single-use.

Recently, Z-Man games introduced a Choose Your Own Adventure IP-branded game that plays like one of the classic CYOA books I grew up reading. The designers did a great job of translating the experience of those books to a cooperative gaming environment. Some have complained that it isn’t much of a game, to which I agree. However, it was a fantastic, single-use activity.

It only recently occurred to me that there is little new about the genre of single-use games. One of the most successful games of my youth was inherently single-use although it was careful never to point out this fact. Trivial Pursuit, with its admittedly large, but fixed collection of question-answer pairs, surely must be included in this group of games. Trivial Pursuit later sold new “editions” of thematically linked questions (e.g. the Silver Screen edition, the Baby Boomer edition, etc.) that pointed to the single-use nature of the core mechanic.

Others have pointed out that criticism the “disposable” nature of single-use games ignores that most boardgames are played but a handful of times, even the wildly popular ones. If you can get a couple of hours out of game that you can’t play again, you have a story that will last a lifetime.