People are Weird, Markets are Weirder…Especially with Board Games

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For the last several years, wildly successful Kickstarter campaigns have redefined the rules of success in the board game industry. You no longer had to submit your game to publishers or raise a bunch of money to bankroll your own print run. People like Jamey Stegmaier, creator of Scythe and the Kickstarter Lessons blog, were able to create multi-million dollar businesses with less investment than those who came before. It’s not that easy, though, because now you have to answer to people – and people are weird.

people are weird - a puzzle, really

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The board game industry is growing up.

The board game industry is beginning to mature. The massive influx of new games created by eager hopefuls with Kickstarter ambitions continues to grow. What was once a steady drip of good games has turned into nothing short of a deluge. Board gamers have repeatedly expressed to me personally on Facebook, Twitter, and Discord that they feel they can no longer keep up with all the great games that are coming out.

The barriers to entry were completely smashed once Kickstarter became a reputable way to raise money. The earliest movers, the ones who took advantage of that glorious window of time from about 2010 to about 2015 saw the biggest benefits. With more and more and more and more games launching every day, gamers started to look for different things. The game had to be completely finished instead of merely 80 or 90% done. Then it had to have gorgeous art instead of what your friend could draw. While we’re at it, make sure the game is a specific genre. And a specific theme. Slowly, piece by piece, new barriers to entry were established. The board game industry is slowly turning back to its default state – a sort of homeostasis. Go / No Go decisions used to be made by publishers. Now they’re made by people – and people are weird.

People are weird because they’re tired of making decisions.

You need more money to Kickstart a game these days, but that’s not the big difference. Truth is, you always had to spend a good amount of money to Kickstart a game, even back in 2011 or 2012. The difference is that now gamers are becoming ever more sophisticated in ways to narrow down what they’d like to buy. No human being, let alone a busy one with a family or work or friends, could analyze every game to see what looks like “the best idea.” Gamers do what any rational person would do in this situation – take mental shortcuts to make snap decisions.

Taking mental shortcuts to make snap decisions can have some weird effects, but it’s a necessary part of life. If you don’t believe me, consider reading Thinking Fast and Slow by Noble prize winner, Daniel Kahneman. Overwhelmed by the sheer amount of decisions they have to make when deciding which board games to back, gamers pick the familiar. This is the same effect that keeps you going to the same sorta-okay restaurant repeatedly. It’s why Top 40 songs follow the same chord progressions and have for the last fifty-something years. Turns out it affects board gamers, too, and it scales all the way up to a market level.

“Brandon, this makes me sad.”

I know. This probably seems awfully nihilistic to the casual reader like yourself. Should I even bother to make a game? Yes, and I’ll explain why.

While you can’t make any old game you want and make a phenomenal amount of money doing so, you can observe what’s successful already and put your own spin on it. People are weird, but they follow discernable patterns. If sci-fi and fantasy games have been successful for the last 18 months on Kickstarter, you can make your own sci-fi or fantasy game. You can copy what works from other games while still putting your own inimitable mark on your work. Stravinsky took from Schubert who took from Beethoven who took from Mozart who took from Bach…

Commercially successful products follow patterns. When you follow the patterns, you are more likely to succeed economically. This is because your product fits the existing market – product-market fit. Markets are, after all, made up of people making snap decisions based on their overwhelmed response to an overabundance of information. Look at popular media for some examples:

Blockbuster movie: Joseph Campbell’s “monomyth” story structure with some explosions and some famous actors. It doesn’t hurt if one of the characters is merchandisable (like BB-8 or Groot).

Top 40 pop song: Careful song structure delivered by someone either controversial (Lady Gaga) or likable (Taylor Swift).

“So…I have to sell out?”

What does this mean for board games? It’s a little more difficult to sum it up for board games since movies and music are both older industries with a lot more content to analyze. Yet if you were to look at Kickstarter, take some polls, and watch how people spend their money (and not what they say), you start to get a clearer picture. Some themes overperform, others underperform. Some character design techniques work, and some really, really doesn’t. Patterns begin to emerge, and from successful products, you can understand the market and see how the products fit the market.

Just because a game doesn’t succeed, it doesn’t mean the game isn’t good. Sometimes games fail commercially because they don’t meet an established market pattern. That doesn’t make them qualitatively bad games, it just means they don’t fit in with larger trends. You, me, and everyone we know are all involved in big, complex trends that we cannot possibly hope to fully understand 100% of the time. There’s nothing wrong with that. It keeps life spicy. That’s why it’s not so bad that people are weird.

“What’s the coronavirus going to do to the business?”

When I initially wrote this post around the end of 2018, nobody had any clue just how weird the world in general was about to get. The coronavirus pandemic, in particular, has not just been an awful tragedy. It’s also a hugely important cultural event because it completely upturned our ideas of what day-to-day life, business, culture, and even interpersonal relationships looks like.

The 2020s are shaping up to be even stranger than the 2010s, and nobody is sure what we’re getting into. I even say as much in this long-form post on the subject. But you have to at least try to guess because understanding consumer behavior is key to giving people what they want. This is extra hard to do when the trends are in flux.

If I had to make a few guesses, though, I’d say:

  • Solo and 2-player games are going to be massive.
  • Board games will overall surge in popularity, but not necessarily the ones that would sell out at cons.
  • Virtual cons will fizzle, but Tabletop Simulator and Tabletopia will flourish.

Only time will tell how people – and the markets made up of them – will react. The point is: key your eyes open. The rules always change.

Final Thoughts

Want to make a successful game? Your odds of success are best if you follow existing trends and put your own spin on them. This is a huge part of how modern-day board game publishers add value to the board game creation process. Publishers are much more able to discern the direction the board game industry is going in because of a mix of personal experience and careful data analysis. In my personal experience, most game designers aren’t interested in trying to figure out the larger trends. Though I am interested, I don’t blame those who aren’t!

People are weird. Markets are weirder. By acknowledging that simple fact, you’re a lot better equipped to discern commercially viable ideas from duds. 🙂

4 Lessons from Paladins of the West Kingdom for Aspiring Board Game Designers

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In March of 2019, Paladins of the West Kingdom by Garphill Games raised nearly a million New Zealand dollars (around $600,000 USD) on Kickstarter. Ever since then, Paladins of the West Kingdom has been on the Board Game Geek Hotness list nearly every time I’ve checked. For this reason, we are going to dig into what makes this game so successful.

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But first, here’s a brief explanation of how the game works, taken from the Board Game Geek page:

The aim of Paladins of the West Kingdom is to be the player with the most victory points (VP) at game’s end. Points are gained by building outposts and fortifications, commissioning monks and confronting outsiders. Each round, players will enlist the help of a specific Paladin and gather workers to carry out tasks. As the game progresses, players will slowly increase their faith, strength and influence. Not only will these affect their final score, but they will also determine the significance of their actions. The game is concluded at the end of the seventh round.

1. Board gamers really like themes set in certain time periods.

When you’re making a fantasy board game (or novel), some time periods draw more attention than others. Think of all the fantasy books set in the Middle Ages. That time period is used as the setting for many stories at least partly because readers like and expect it. This is just as true with board games.

This may seem like a pretty superficial point to analyze regarding Paladins of the West Kingdom, but it’s really not. When board game publishers set out to either create a game from scratch, publish an existing game, or retheme an existing design, they do not do so arbitrarily. They look at many possibilities and make a determination based on market demands. Then they create a game that meets those demands, in short, assuring product-market fit.

If you’re a board game designer looking to make a financially successful game, one good place to start is by researching the market. Pay attention to what board gamers like. Look for repeating patterns of consumption. From there, you can make a game that fits within a defined, tested niche of the market while still applying your own personal touches to it.

2. Custom wooden pieces add component variability to the game without inflating cost.

This is a simple lesson, but an important one. A quick look at the Paladins of the West Kingdom rulebook reveals that there are nearly FOUR HUNDRED wooden parts included in every game.

Having so many wooden components gives players the sense that they are getting a great deal. And, indeed, wooden components add a lot to the tactile experience of the game.

However, in my experience with the creation of Tasty Humans, I’ve found that individual wooden pieces are often very cheap. Sometimes as little as $0.03 each even for custom wooden components. That means you can add a lot of them to a board game without driving the cost up too much!

3. Establishing intellectual property takes a long time, but makes selling new games easier in the long run.

Anyone who’s been watching board games for a while has likely noticed the rise of “intellectual property.” That is to say, games that fall within a larger series. The principle is the same as Marvel movies – create individual movies that cohere together into a massive whole.

From a quality perspective, there are pros and cons to focusing on series of games instead of individual games. Some people find the steady delivery of new games with a similar theme to be comforting. Others find it to be stultifyingly repetitive.

From a business perspective, though, it makes perfect sense to create series of games instead of individual games. You can reuse the same brand, the same mailing list, the same audience, and many of the same art assets when creating new games within a series. You can’t do that when your business model depends upon the steady creation of brand new one-offs.

So how does this tie into Paladins of the West Kingdom? It’s simple. Paladins of the West Kingdom is part of a series of games that includes Architects of the West Kingdom and stylistically similar games Raiders of the North SeaExplorers of the North Sea, and Shipwrights of the North Sea.

This is a rising trend in the board gaming world. Other examples include Scythe: Rise of Fenris and Founders of Gloomhaven. What’s more, board games draw heavily from fantasy and science fiction, which have been series-based since Lord of the Rings and Dune respectively.

4. Some gamers love making lots of decisions, but your theme has to set expectations to attract the right audience.

Many game designers see theme as having two primary objectives.

  1. Draw players in.
  2. Keep players engaged with the experience.

These two objectives are very important, and indeed, make board games worth playing. There is an underrated objective with game theming that many people often miss. That is: setting expectations.

For all the talk of accessibility in board games, sometimes you want to make an experience that isn’t for everyone. Gamers have described Paladins of the West Kingdom as being a game full of decision-making. For some people, this is amazing. Many of the best board games of all time are full of complex decision-making. But for some people, it’s a special circle of hell.

So what is a game creator to do? You use a theme that only attracts the type of gamers you want to attract. By using terms like “paladin” and showing medieval armor on the box, Paladins of the West Kingdom – and I say this with love – brands itself as a nerd game. That’s good – because with a weight of 3.63/5.0 on Board Game Geek, this is not a game for casual players.

Final Thoughts

Paladins of the West Kingdom is a good game for teaching board game creators how the board game market works. By looking closely at its financial success, we see the importance of theme both for attracting some gamers and repelling others. We also see the value of going all-in on wooden components and multi-game world-building.

And it does this all by being an enjoyable game on its own merits 🙂

The 10 Best Board Games of All Time and What We Can Learn from Them

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There are over 100,000 board games in existence. The vast majority have been forgotten and buried in the sands of time. A handful have stood out head and shoulders among the rest, working their way up to the top 10 games on Board Game Geek. This is a truly staggering achievement because pleasing Board Game Geek users is no easy task!

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Today, we’ll focus on the best of the best board games and reflect on why they’re so great. Or, at the very least, why the dedicated gamers of Board Game Geek consider them to be the best board games. By studying the greats, we – as designers and publishers – can create better board games for future generations.

Honorable Mention #1: Terra Mystica
best board game - terra mystica
Photo by kilroy_locke on Board Game Geek under the CC-BY 3.0 license. (Source)

The hardcore gamers who rate games on Board Game Geek are, in their heart of hearts, intellectuals looking for a challenge. Games allow us to transport to distant times and places, forgetting our day-to-day problems by letting us focus on innumerable in-game decisions.

Terra Mystica does this beautifully. It’s one of the heaviest, brainiest, most complex games to achieve notoriety. It’s a perfect information euro with a lot of rules and a lot of ways to play. It does this with a theme of perennial interest to gamers – building civilizations. In these ways, Terra Mystica was early to rise in the current board game boom – bringing heavy games back into vogue.

Honorable Mention #2: Great Western Trail
best board game - great western trail
Photo by W Eric Martin on Board Game Geek under the CC-BY 3.0 license. (Source)

Great Western Trail isn’t a trailblazer if you read the reviews. It didn’t invent new ideas. It didn’t bring anything completely novel to the table. Yet it succeeds by the merit of being generally well put together. That’s no backhanded compliment – “second but better” is genuinely important in this world. It gave us Google and iPhones.

By generally well put together I mean it feels satisfying, doesn’t introduce new elements but marries them exceptionally well. You can see this reflected in the 9 and 10 scores of Board Game Geek, where people repeat some variation of “I really can’t explain it” and rattle off mechanics while trying to explain it. That’s the way empirical, logical, or intellectual people speak when they’re in love. That tells you all you need to know.

10. Scythe
best board game - scythe
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In its own right, Scythe is a fantastic engine-builder with an engaging theme. It really nailed the 1920s alt-future aesthetic while giving gamers a complex game to analyze and replay.

Yet Scythe cannot be decoupled from Jamey Stegmaier, the generous spirit behind the Kickstarter lessons blogScythe is not the first home-grown game to succeed, nor is it the first home-grown game to make millions. The visibility of the project just made it feel like it was, and that’s important. The biggest thing we can learn from Scythe comes from the fact that it is proof that small publishers can make it.

9. Brass: Birmingham
Photo by d0gb0t on Board Game Geek under the CC-BY 3.0 license. (Source)

Brass: Birmingham is a recent strategy to the well-loved original game Brass, which came out in 2007. It’s an economic strategy game where you can take two of the following six actions every turn:

  1. Build – Pay required resources and place an industry tile.
  2. Network – Add a rail / canal link, expanding your network.
  3. Develop – Increase the VP value of an industry.
  4. Sell – Sell your cotton, manufactured goods and pottery.
  5. Loan – Take a £30 loan and reduce your income.
  6. Scout – Discard three cards and take a wild location and wild industry card. (This action replaces Double Action Build in original Brass.)

Economic strategy games are a mainstay of the board gaming world, and Brass: Birmingham has been considered by many reviewers to be an instant classic. In short, it’s the best possible implementation of a crunchy, complex, problem-solving game in a beloved genre.

8. Gaia Project
best board game - gaia project
Photo by W Eric Martin on Board Game Geek under the CC-BY 3.0 license. (Source)

As if Terra Mystica weren’t a fantastic achievement in board gaming in its own right, Gaia Project is a souped up version IN SPACE. It doubles down on everything that made Terra Mystica brilliant – the complex decision making and the epic theme of expanding civilization. Then it marries the game to a theme board gamers have demonstrated time and time again that they love – science fiction.

Gaia Project is a picture-perfect study on how to “fix something that ain’t broken.” The game’s existence is proof that the creators were listening to feedback on a deep level, addressing gamers’ basic needs while taking the game in a surprising cosmic direction.

7. Twilight Imperium (Fourth Edition)

I’ve spoken about Twilight Imperium at length in a different article, but it’s such a good game that it bears mention again here. This is a long, complex, expensive board game. There are a ton of different components and it can take up to eight hours to play.

What is the appeal of a game that monstrous in scale? Simply put, Twilight Imperium is a game that you can completely immerse yourself in. That’s the appeal – everything else disappears around you as you play it because the fantasy world is so well fleshed-out.

6. Star Wars Rebellion
best board game - star wars rebellion

Star Wars Rebellion is the only high-dollar intellectual property that you will see on this list. Board gamers are rightfully skeptical of the quality of games that come from movie studios and video game companies. Yet Star Wars Rebellion shows that big money can produce fantastic games that are really high-quality from a gameplay standpoint.

It also marks a turning point in board game storytelling. People on Board Game Geek who give this game a 9 or 10 keep saying “Star Wars in a box.” Star Wars is an incredibly enduring franchise based around story-telling beats that go back to ancient mythology. Board gaming, as abstract and mathematical as it can seem on the outside, is dependent upon story, too, whether we build it into the game or not. This game’s success proves that people want stories in their games.

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5. Twilight Struggle
best board game - twilight struggle
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Speaking of stories, you can’t get much more interesting than the utterly insane forty-odd year stretch of time where the USA and USSR had nukes pointed at each other. The concept is so absurd that Stanley Kubrick made a comedy movie out of it. Twilight Struggle masterfully captures the tension of that era in the best wargame ever designed.

It has incredibly clever area control and hand management mechanics. It has depths that have led to 400 page strategy guides on the internet. It’s complex, engaging, and never seems to play the same way twice. Yet it always goes back to tension. Twilight Struggle is a masterpiece of capturing tension in games.

4. Through the Ages: A New Story of Civilization
best board game - through the ages
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Through the Ages was a smash hit when it came out in 2006 and was an even bigger smash hit when it was reissued in 2015. Like Terra Mystica and Gaia Project, it is truly epic in size and scope. It is a long, multi-hour game that spans thousands of years.

The mechanics are great, the decisions complex, and the gameplay overall is a blast. That’s not why it’s so enduring, though, at least not in my opinion. It’s a matter of size and scope. There is something deeply awe-inspiring about taking a civilization from antiquity to modernity. All the beauties of developing culture and all the ugliness of waging wars is captured within this game. It’s really kind of jaw-dropping, even more so because of the fundamental – if exaggerated – truth of its basis. This is not some sci-fi fantasy world. This is the world in which you and I live, work, and play.

3. Terraforming Mars
best board game - terraforming mars

Terraforming Mars was a smash hit when it came out and the hype has never died down since. For good reason, too. It is a truly fantastic game and we have a lot to learn from it.

I went back and forth in my own head thinking of how best to describe what we can learn from this game, but I think my friend Dr. Michael Heron at Meeple Like Us says it best in his own review:

I love this game – it’s fun, full of fascinating mechanisms and satisfying decisions.     It’s collegiate in its competition while also being cut-throat in its communality.    It rewards creative play more than any game I’ve seen in a long time.

2. Pandemic Legacy: Season 1
best board game - pandemic legacy season 1

Pandemic Legacy is already built upon the incredibly durable and interesting mechanics of Pandemic, the international sensation of a game that inspired so many spin-offs. That alone would make it a solid game in its own right, but Pandemic Legacy takes in one step further. It was one of the first major legacy games, promising players an engaging story that unfolds over time. This paved the path for future legacy games, which is yet another reason to enjoy it.

1. Gloomhaven
best board game - gloomhaven

Gloomhaven is so massive that it’s hard to begin to describe why it’s good. It’s heavily story-driven, huge in size and scope like Through the Ages, and it has great components. The theme, backed up by lots of story, is incredibly in tune with gamers’ desires for rich, lived-in fantasy worlds. This game captures what gamers love about literally every other game above it in this article. Gloomhaven truly is the apotheosis of gamer desire.