A Hole in Pool

Game Design

When it comes to unusual sport-like games, pool is one of the first to come to mind. I didn’t know much about pool until my family moved a few years ago. The new house had a pool table in the basement and I wanted to learn how to play. Other than being pretty horrendous, one rule in particular struck me as a strange. I was playing the 8 ball version of pool to be specific.  I was playing a game and losing. Then, my opponent scratched on the 8 ball knocking it in too and suddenly I had won. My game designer senses immediately told me this was of significance, so I examined it.

The only time when this instant death rule comes into play is near the end of the game. For whoever’s winning it adds suspense as it adds something else to look out for. Also, it gives the loser a chance to make a comeback. While it works in the suspense aspect, when someone does scratch on the 8 ball, it makes the game worse. The winner doesn’t feel like he deserved it, especially if he was far behind. The loser feels cheated because they played better up until that last shot. Now if a rule leaves both players feeling bad after a game, then something is definitely broken.

Now, what would be a better rule? Well, the penalty for scratching in general should be a good baseline. When you scratch you pass to the next person and they get to place the ball. The penalty should be higher than normal for scratching with the 8 ball. The severity is to keep the suspense and the catch up aspects of the rule, but without cheap win. What if scratching and sinking the 8 ball allowed the opponent to place the cue ball anywhere? That would give a serious edge to the person behind, but it wouldn’t just end the game. For most players it would guarantee a ball which could end the game, but only if it was close. Also, if the losing player was a bad as me, getting to place the cue ball anywhere still may not guarantee a ball, getting rid of the possibility that someone could not sink a single ball and still win with the 8 ball scratch.

Pool is still a good game and players scratching and sinking the 8 ball at the same time is unlikely, especially with skilled players. But, it doesn’t change the fact that, as a rule, it can suck some of the fun out of the game, whether you win or lose. A game’s rules should make for an enjoyable experience whether you ultimately win or lose. Obviously, the winner is going to feel better about the game than the loser, but that is the ideal. A game’s rules need to be carefully checked to insure that they don’t cause a player to have a worse experience.

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