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What Makes A Good Game

by Ed Miller |  Published: Apr 25, 2018


Last issue I talked about why we play poker—what it is about the game from a design perspective that’s made it so popular and enduring. I want to dive a little deeper into that topic today to talk about the differences between types of poker and what they do well or not-so-well.

Strategic Depth

I think the top reason most of us play poker has to do with the strategic depth of the game. I don’t know anyone who plays poker who doesn’t fancy the idea of outsmarting their opponents. Whether they actually outsmart anyone is another matter, but clearly the promise of being able to outthink and outplay is at the core of the game’s appeal.

Five-card stud was a popular game for a while, but its popularity eventually died out. I think one reason for that is the relative lack of strategic depth. If you haven’t played the game, everyone gets a hole card and an up card and then there’s betting. Then it goes another up card dealt, another betting round until everyone remaining has one hole card and four up cards and there’s a final betting round and the showdown.

The fact that there’s only one hole card and that you’re dealt exactly five cards severely limits the game strategically. There’s no such thing as a pair plus draw hand. You are either drawing to a (usually obvious) straight or flush or you have a pair. Not both. It’s easy to have someone board-locked (i.e., you beat any hand your opponent could hold no matter their hold card).

It’s just not a very complex game. Neither is the traditional five card draw.
Games like seven card stud and Texas hold’em and Omaha evolved that have much more depth to them. And on the draw side, games like deuce-to-seven triple draw evolved that are meatier than the simple single draw high or lowball games.

For a future poker game to catch on, I think it needs at least roughly the level of strategic depth of Texas hold’em for it to really take hold.

Surface Simplicity

What games like five card draw have going for them are their surface simplicity. You can easily explain the game to almost anyone, and they will understand how it works after playing a few hands. There’s no difficulty reading hands, no folded up cards to memorize, no pot size (for pot-limit games) or stack sizes (for no-limit games) to keep track of.

Texas hold’em, especially limit hold’em, is also very easy to pick up quickly. It’s a little more complex than draw, but not too much so. Reading the board can be a little tricky sometimes—we all have played with newer players who sometimes struggled to figure out what their best five-card hand was. But otherwise the game is pretty simple.

Seven card stud has much in common with Texas hold’em, except that to compete with seasoned players you must pay attention to and remember the folded up cards of your opponents. From my perspective this is actually a pretty large burden. After all many people who play poker want to have a beer and relax while they play. Watching every dealt card, following the quick action as they are folded, and remembering them all throughout the hand is pretty rough. I think this burden is one reason stud lost popularity in favor of Texas hold’em.

And then we come to Omaha and its many variants. Omaha eight-or-better. Pot-limit Omaha. Five-card Omaha. Big-O (five-card Omaha hi-lo). I like Omaha, and strategically it’s a very interesting game. But I have to say all those hole cards and the fact that you can use only two of them at showdown (but a different two cards for high and low in the split pot variants) can be very confusing. I think for many potential Omaha players this is just too great a hurdle to get into the game.

And don’t get me started about games with multiple boards, criss-cross boards, discard and replace, and so on. These games are complicated and I don’t think will every fill more than a niche in the poker ecosystem.

Moderate Skill Gap

Any game with strategic depth will also have skill gap—that being the difference in skill level between the players. Skill gap is a good feature of a game. It’s the draw that brings people into the game and encourages them to spend time on it to improve.
But too much skill gap can be a bad thing. No one wants to get beaten over and over again by better players. If there’s too much skill gap, particularly for newer players but really for anyone, then the game will struggle as weaker players will lose interest.

In general poker does a good job of managing skill gap by offering games of many different stakes so that players naturally filter into games with players of roughly their skill level by choosing what stakes to play for.

But some poker games have larger gaps than others—some so much that I think they will struggle to survive as games. In particular, a few features of poker games tend to increase the skill gap.

Split pot games tend to have higher skill gaps. The players who don’t understand the strategic demands of the split pot will get beaten quickly by those who do.

Big bet games tend to have higher skill gaps. The more you can bet, the bigger mistakes you can make, and the bigger an advantage players who avoid those mistakes will have.

Games with unusual hand rankings I think also probably tend to have higher skill gaps—but probably only while the ranking systems remain unfamiliar.

Games like baduci (split pot deuce-to-seven triple draw, with half the pot going to the best badugi hand) combine several of these factors to generate larger skill gaps. If you’re not that familiar with badugi hand rankings and how draws to those hands work, and you don’t have a firm grasp of split pot strategic principles, you really don’t have much chance against seasoned baduci players.

If the game were played pot-limit or no-limit it would be a real skill gap doozy.
Naturally, skilled players tend to like the games with bigger skill gaps, since they allow them to win more and more quickly. But a game with too big a skill gap will tend to burn out newer players quickly. They may not know quite why they are losing so badly, but they may not maintain enough interest in the game to find out.

Final Thoughts

While poker will likely be a popular game into the future even if very little changes, some smart innovation can help take it to the next level again. It’s worth keeping these design principles in mind when we think about what the poker games of the future might look like. ♠

Ed MillerEd’s newest book, The Course: Serious Hold ‘Em Strategy For Smart Players is available now at his website You can also find original articles and instructional videos by Ed at the training site