Are today's games better, or just cooler?
I’ve always liked playing games. When I was growing up, the main regulars in our house were Downfall, Guess Who, something I can’t remember that involved fitting numbered shapes into holes against the clock … and of course Monopoly.
You don’t have to spend much time on BoardGameGeek’s forums before you come across a disparaging comment about Monopoly. Usually the complaints are that it’s roll & move (seemingly poison to most gamers today), that it takes forever to play or that it has player elimination (again, a red flag for many). But year after year, it’s still one of the biggest selling games in the world.
We’re in a golden age for board games right now – there’s never been such an amazing choice, availability of games, quality of components, sheer imagination on the part of the designers. So why is it that whenever those ‘recommended’ lists get published, they still have a decent proportion of those seemingly outdated classics from the last century? Who’s got it right – the mainstream reviewers, or the ‘serious’ gamers?
As an example, this recent list of recommended board games for families includes Monopoly, Cluedo (Clue if you’re in the US) and even Operation. Codenames and Exploding Kittens get a mention, as you might expect given their huge popularity in the last few years, but if these older games are so terrible and outdated, why is it that they keep coming up on the ‘top games’ lists? Even Snakes & Ladders is in there! Is it just lack of imagination or awareness on the part of the reviewers? Or can they see something that ‘proper’ gamers can’t – that it’s not necessarily about how cool or innovative a game is, it’s about whether people actually enjoy playing it.
This list from Moneyinc.com of the biggest-selling games of all time has a couple of ‘crossover’ games, most notably Catan, and of course as it’s covering ‘all time’, it’s less likely to feature newer games, but there’s still nothing from BGG’s Top 100 list in there. And even a look at some of the sales listings for last year shows that those classics just won’t go away.
So what can we take from all this from a game design perspective? As a designer, it’s inevitable that your design preferences will follow certain biases. Most of the games I’ve designed so far have playing cards of some kind, most have a board, some have counters or markers. But none of them have brightly-coloured moulded plastic parts (see Guess Who, Downfall, Mousetrap). Now that’s partly because I know how to get boards and cards made professionally, and they’re easy to knock up at home for a prototype. But is it also because I’ve somehow disassociated myself from ‘kids’ games’ because I somehow think they’re not as good? Have I got an inbuilt bias or snobbery against plastic parts, or even worse, against games that are genuinely, unashamedly fun?
And if you groaned or rolled your eyes when I mentioned those games, why was that…?
I had a great game of Pandemic last night with my kids. They loved it, picked it up easily and found it super-immersive – both of them came downstairs this morning talking about what we should do next time (we ran out of cubes with only three diseases cured, since you ask). It would have been great to have something like that (or Ticket to Ride, or Carcassonne, or Town Builder: Coevorden) available in the 80s. But then again, I’m pretty sure my kids would love to play Downfall or Mousetrap. And they definitely love Looping Louie.
I also spent this past weekend with some non-gaming friends (in a suitably socially-distanced way, of course), and they were keen to hear about what I was up to design-wise and we talked about what games we played and what gaming is like today. Only one of them had even heard of Carcassonne, and none had heard of Catan, Gloomhaven, Pandemic or Ticket to Ride. Maybe it’s because they don’t advertise outside boardgaming circles. Maybe they’re missing out (I’m sure they are, in fact). But they wanted to know why I wasn’t working on the next Dobble, Trivial Pursuit or Uno – they couldn’t understand why I wasn’t specifically aiming for the mainstream.
I guess in the end this is a bit like music tastes – when someone asks you what you’ve been listening to, how much do you filter it? Would you say the last indie/hipster band you heard of, or would you admit that you’d had Rick Astley and Steps on repeat all day? There’s a reason why mainstream stuff tops the charts – it’s because people like it. The same applies to the Booker Prize winner versus the latest pulp page-turner. Which would you rather take on holiday (or lockdown staycation) with you? And which do you reckon ‘shifts more units’? And which would you tell your friends you were reading right now…?
Of course, game design isn’t about shifting units – I want to design something new, fun and exciting. Of course, I want people to play my games, and to enjoy them. I’d like my games to be successful, but I don’t think I’ve ever had sales figures in mind as a measure of that success (which is probably just as well…)
At the end of the day, games are meant to be fun. That’s literally what they’re for. Innovation is wonderful, niche games are really important, and we need a wide range of ideas from the in-depth to the weird, to the dark and sinister, to the month-long campaign games. And sometimes, we want something light, bright and fun that we can play with anyone. So when we’re enjoying this wonderful hobby of ours, let’s not pretend we’re too cool for school, and let’s not be too disparaging about great games that seem mainstream. At the end of the day, it’s all about the fun. :-)