There’s a current trend in writing that I call “grabbiness.” That’s the ability of a piece to grab you right from the beginning: to suck you in and make you want to read more.
This concept exists in other forms too. There’s a reason they put artwork on the cover of a book or the box of a game. They want you to see the image and be intrigued so you open up the book or box. Not only that, it tries to evoke emotion in the viewer. It might bring to mind an epic battle, a child-like scene, or a struggle against a waterfall.
This concept can be applied to game design as well. A good game is going to answer the question right from the beginning: “why should I play this?”
At my recent trip to The Gathering, I was struck by how many games I played that felt the same to me. There wasn’t much to distinguish what I was playing from the 200+ games I already have on my shelf. Even the hits of the Gathering didn’t seem all that “grabby” to me. I didn’t add them to my must buy list because I couldn’t envision a scenario where any of the groups I game regularly with would request them. I’d begin to explain about placing cubes in various districts and vying for the center cathedral, and probably lose my audience. I’d probably get in response “Why can’t we just play Power Grid or Settlers then?” Even if I explained a bit about the unique drafting mechanics, they might say “If we want to draft, we can just play Fairy Tale or Ticket to Ride!”
(This is an area where theme can help a lot for certain audiences. In the aforementioned example, I might go on to talk about constantly fighting back rats and the plague, and that might help.)
Overall, however, the more innovative and unique elements your game has on all levels, the better. Interesting mechanics are the top of the list for me in ways to grab me. Other people put theme on the top of their list, but it’s far easier to invent a new theme then it is to invent new interesting mechanics. And once you sit down to play the game… theme will only go so far.
Another way is to use unique components. These can sometimes feel “gimmicky”, so be careful. Make sure the components you’re using are used interestingly, and are not just there for the sake of making your game look different.
(I have been a part of several game design competitions, and they can give the setup from any of these. My first Protospiel had the teams making games from the theme of “Genies.” The Iron Game Designer competition at Origins had the teams using small plastic trucks as a game component. The prestigious Spiel Des Afternoon, which I have not yet been invited to participate in, features three strange components bought from a Hobby Lobby. When About.com used to run their game design contests, they specified mechanics such as “Simultaneous Movement.”)
I also think simple rules and fast playing time can help. People are less inclined to devote several hours of their life to an unknown quantity than 15 minutes. If they like it, they’ll play again, and perhaps, even ask for something similar but a little longer. And if they only have to sit through a few minutes of rules before diving in, they’ll probably be a bit friendlier then a game where they sat through a lot of rules, played for a long time, then kept having to look rules up or forget rules or claim that a rule was never explained.
When playing your game, ask yourself: “when would a group pull this out?” If you can answer (honestly) that it fills a niche in game playing, then that’s an excellent step. So whether the answer is “I’m in the mood for a pseudo-real time game that uses sand timers” or “I want to play a war game that doesn’t rely on dice but has a randomization system that is fair” or even as simple as “I want to play the game where boats fall off the board” you know you’ve got something.