Three quick quips which I’ve had cause to reference multiple times and thus seem useful to keep stashed. First a comment on how and why I live:
Meanwhile the universe is interesting, delightfully interesting even, and I apply and dedicate my awareness and interest to that end. I assume, generously and with scant evidence, that it is a Good Thing to Have Understood, or at least to have Striven to Understand. I don’t know if that is in fact true, it seems quite likely that it isn’t, but it also seems a fine and possibly even wonderful conceit to live under.
That the answer is complex.
Primarily I see it as a function of cognitive ability. Oh, not in any elitist or superiority sense, but simply in terms of capacity. Tic-tac-toe is a fine game for younger children as they simply don’t yet have the cognitive abilities necessary for recognising what’s necessary to remove the game. It is rather less interesting if you or I played it. Similarly, the game of Go is very interesting for people precisely because we don’t have the cognitive capacity to remove the game. In short: in order to be a game the system as presented must fundamentally exceed our ability to comprehend the system.
How it exceeds us, by complexity for instance, or by stressing analytical forms we humans are inherently weak at like conditional probability, or by requiring modes of thought that we’ve not yet fully developed (and thus a lot of games for pre-adolescents stress symbolic thought as they’ve only just developed that capacity (it comes in around age 11)) — how it exceeds us really doesn’t matter, just that it exceeds us and is hauntingly close to the apparent edge of our capacities so as to provide the taunting illusion of almost-graspability. And it will remain a game only to the point that no matter how hard we study and analyse and work it, that we will still not fully understand the system represented or implied by the game.
(Somewhere in here there’s a fine rant that I’ll skip for now on the necessity for ambiguity in games, and how far too many so-called “games” are not in fact games because they don’t contain ambiguity: they just have game-states that are hard or laborious to parse)
Now a kicker in this is that most games rely on the fact that as humans we cannot completely model another human (of comparable capacity to ourselves). Godel’s incompleteness theorem guarantees that, and provides the primary reason I rarely ever play 2-player games. The problem here is that the modelling problem is also a cheap out for lazy game designers (ahem — there’s no subjectivity in this declaration, no sirree!). In this I find that the more interesting games exceed their players in both their systemic demands and in their demands of modelling the other players (and thus in the intersection of multiplayer interactions and the system, an implicit third factor).
After that basic, well, it gets murky and subjective and ever so much more complex. A lot of the subjective preferences there are arm-wavingly discussed in my profile text here on BGG. And, not to short shrift you too badly, I need to get ready for a gamesday with one of the top 18xx players in the world (Todd vander Pluym) who is in the area for a few days…and fascinating as this question is (and it is truly interesting), that’s a time-bounded opportunity and this question isn’t. Sorry.
And finally on the activity of playing games:
I find that face-to-face games provide context and variety which is largely not available in solo study. That alone more than makes face-to-face play worthwhile. Just participating in a game with other actors, and observing those actors, actors not in my mind, suffices a lot of my requirements for playing a game as you say. Much of anything I may think during that time or later will be catalysed and informed by my observation of those actors during the game — which is the great thing about playing games rather than merely thinking about games.