The Best Board Game Ever!

I suppose this post leads on a little bit from my last post, where I mentioned the “Best of…” lists that the media put out before Christmas.   Here’s a question for you:

What’s the best board game?

An easy question to answer?  I expect for a lot of people, it would be, if they don’t play board games much.  They’d probably answer “Chess”, or  “Scrabble”, or “Monopoly”, maybe “Go”.  

Probably not so easy, though, if you play board games regularly, and I’d say there’s reason to think it’s a question that’s getting even harder to answer.   Lately, it’s been suggested by many people who write about board-gaming on the Web and in print media, that we are in something of a “Golden Age” in respect of the quantity and quality of games, both those already established and also the new ones entering the market.   I think I’d agree with that.  In fact, where once, in the dim-and-distant historical past (say, ten whole years ago), there were typically a mere handful of new games released in a month, now it’s impossible – for me, at least - to keep track of all the new releases.  The games of bigger companies jostle with those of tiny publishers on the shelves of bricks-and-mortar and on-line retailers, and then there’s the whole crowd-funding phenomenon, where designs which would likely have not have seen the light of day five years ago can get buckets of money thrown at them by punters eager for the newest sensation.  

So how do we determine the “best games” amongst the plethora of options now available to us?   We could look, perhaps, at the biggest database of board games on the Web, .   BGG has a list of board games ranked using the rating given by its registered users against games in the database, on a scale of 1 - 10, with 10 being highest.   As  it happens, the BGG rankings have recently been featured in an edition of BBC Radio 4’s “More or Less”, a weekly programme about the numbers (like statistics) that govern our lives.  If it sounds dry, I assure you it’s not – give it a go!  Anyway, the presenter of “More or Less”, Tim Harford, is known to be a big board-games fan, and, much to my delight as a loyal listener, he’s taken the opportunity to subtly introduce the topic of board games in several previous episodes.   In this recent instance (starting at 16:20), he talked to Oliver Roeder, a writer for the website FiveThirtyEight, who has  done a statistical analysis of the ratings data from BoardGameGeek.  Mr. Roeder considered only games that had a statistically significant number of ratings, and used the data to produce a list of – not the best - but the worst board games.  The six in his “Hall of Shame” were:

War (the card game), noughts and crosses, Snakes and Ladders, Candy Land, The Game of Life and Monopoly.

Now, with the exception of Monopoly, they’re all very simple mechanically, and all except noughts and crosses are either entirely luck, or luck-dominated - and noughts and crosses is a “solved” game, since two competent players will always draw.   I think all we can take from this, though, is that board-gamers like making meaningful, interesting choices, but then that’s a trivially obvious statement – don’t all human beings like to make choices they feel are meaningful and interesting?  We can’t look at the “worst games” and consider what they’re not to help us decide what the “best” games might be, then.

Mr. Roeder didn’t publish any analysis of the top games, then, but looking at the BGG rankings list, in order of highest-rated first:

Twilight Struggle, Terra Mystica, Through the Ages: A Story of Civilization, Agricola, Puerto Rico and Caverna: The Cave Farmers, Android: Netrunner, Eclipse, Mage Knight Board Game, Power Grid.

The first thing that strikes me about this list is a thing which is personal to me, and it is this:  I’ve only played two of them.   Puerto Rico and Power Grid are the games concerned…and, frankly, I didn’t much like either of them.  Puerto Rico was, in fact, the number-one ranked game on the list for several years, until its place was gradually usurped by other, newer games (it’s the oldest game still in the top 10), and it currently sits at number 5, but even at the height of its popularity, I can’t say I was convinced of its merits – it seemed like a bit of a repetitive grind, without much excitement.   Power Grid, on the other hand, is, to me, like doing maths homework while being poked in the forehead with a pointed stick, at the same time as Katie Price reads me one of her novels (let’s say, “Angel Uncovered”), translated into Esperanto: mentally draining, painful, irritating and completely confusing, all at once.    

So why haven’t I played the others, if they’re the best games around right now?  I’d say it’s to do with my tastes vs. the kind of games that get highly rated on BGG.    Most of the games in the top 10 are complex and rule-heavy, and they’re long:  Android: Netrunner’s by far the shortest, around 45 minutes, but most of them are 2 to 3 hours plus, with Through The Ages clocking in at up to 4 hours!   I tend to prefer shorter (<90- minute) games, and fewer rules, (and, in some cases, tables, charts and exceptions) than are typically found in the top-10 games.  

I think the highset rated games might tell us something about who’s doing the rating.  It seems to me that perhaps the top 10 games are a bit like radical political parties: those who like them, tend to get involved.   What I mean by that is that, in the main, supporters of radical political parties are more likely to become members of those parties, because radicalism attracts activists.  Since, as with members of political parties, those who rate on BGG are an entirely self-selecting group, and thus not necessarily representative of the entire user-base of the website, I think that it may be people who like complex, rule-heavy games are really, really into board-games, and as a result, are perhaps more interested in making their opinions known on the relative merits of games than more casual gamers would be.  If so, I think this might possibly produce a skewing of the ratings.  

So can we usefully look to BGG ratings for a synthesis of opinions that will come some way towards an objective assessment of “The Best Games”?   I’d say not.   At the very least, we’d need to conduct a more scientific survey of gamers as a whole before we could draw meaningful conclusions.   In fact, unlike our pre-Christmas journalists, I’m not convinced that it’s possible to make such an assessment at all.   There are so many factors that influence what makes a game “good”, and so much of it comes down to personal taste and the circumstances of play: the type and ages of players, the event, the time you have available and so one.   And is it a useful determination to make anyway?   I know human beings like to rank things, though – the vast numbers of lists out there on the Internet show us that.   I fear though, that as the hobby increases in popularity, if for no other reason, the diktats of commerce may mean that comparatively arbitrary ratings systems like the rankings on BGG start to have more store set by them.

Right.  Even though the subject of the Cold War bores my socks off, I’m off to buy “Twilight Struggle”.  It’s the best game ever, you know!

A Question of Definitions…

Before Christmas, I, as is my wont, idly Googled search terms as “Best Board Games 2014”  and “Best Board Games for Christmas”, and the like, in the Google “News” section.   I’ve done this for the last five or so years, and I do it because, as a person who’s keen to see the profile of board gaming increase, I’ve found it a useful - if crude - barometer of the mainstream media’s perceptions of the hobby (which also means, incidentally, that I ignore search hits from specialist games sites, or so-called “geek culture” sites).  

A couple of things emerged.  Firstly, the bad thing:  As in previous years, the majority of the lists still read for the most part like a cut-and-paste from the Hasbro catalogue, with Monopoly, Cluedo, Trivial Pursuit, Scrabble and at least one party game like Scattergories or Cranium, as the “adult” games.  Even more depressingly, several lists included multiple themed “versions” of Monopoly, as if they weren’t exactly the same game:  “Hey guys, that was a great game of The Lord of the Rings Monopoly!  Now let’s play a completely different game!  Wait for’s…One Direction Monopoly!  Woo!  Er…can I be Harry?”.   The laziness and venality displayed by this kind of so-called “journalism” enrages me, but that’s not the subject of this post, so I’ll just move on before I need a blood-pressure pill.

So let’s look at the good thing: on a few of the lists there were several games of the kind we’d play at MAB.  Ticket to Ride Europe featured, as did Settlers of Catan, but also things like Pandemic and Forbidden Island – “gateway” games, that can introduce people to the whole world of elegant and intellectually-stimulating board games that exists outside of the hegemony of the Hasbro imperium.  This is very encouraging to me.

Probably the best of the mainstream lists I found, from a gamer point of view, was one in The Telegraph here.   It’s got Ticket to Ride, and Pandemic, but also things like King of Tokyo,  Small World, Biblios and Camel Up! - pretty good stuff.    But it’s the name of the list that got me thinking:  it’s called “15 party games you probably haven’t tried but definitely should”

15…party games.  Party.

Now, to be fair it does have a few party games in there, and they’re not the usual Hasbro fare (Moustache Smash, and Say Anything, for example), and I know that the headlines at the top of an article usually get written by sub-editors, not the writers.   Of course nothing says “Party on, dudes!” like treating deadly, infectious diseases in a game of Pandemic, right?   But seriously, most of the games on the list are not, I would argue, the kind of thing many people would pick to play with a bunch of mildly sozzled adults at a get-together.   If someone used this list to choose a game to play after their Christmas lunch with the family, they might very well come a cropper: “No, Gran! No more sherry for you until you understand that your Fortified Elves can’t continue to build fortresses after they’ve gone into Decline!”.   These really are not, in the main, “party” games.  

So what are they?

Earlier in this post, I used a form of words that might have seemed a bit odd.  I said “…several games of the kind we’d play at MAB”.  Not very clear, is it, unless you already know what kind of games we tend to play?  When I was putting together the MAB website, one of the key aims was to encourage people who didn’t know about “games of the kind we’d play” to find out more, and maybe come down and join us.   But I really struggled with how to explain what these games are to someone unfamiliar with them, because I felt that there isn’t a well-known and clear-cut title that would neatly describe to an outsider the typical game we play.  Now, that, perhaps, in itself raises another issue, because what is the “typical game”?   We’ll actually play pretty much anything – as anyone who had watched us growling and ka-booming our way through Roar-a-Saurus recently could attest.    However, I think it’s fair to say that we do have a sort of core style of game that we play…I just don’t really know what it’s called.

I’m not the only person to struggle with this, which I allude to on the “New to Modern Board Games” page, here on the website.   “Board games”, “Tabletop games”, “Strategy games”, “Eurogames”, “Thematic games”, “Hobby games”: they’re all names that are tried, but none seem  to properly articulate the reality – there’s objections, greater and lesser, to all of them.  The Wikipedia page calls them “German-style games”, an epithet I think is long overdue a review.  I went with “Eurogames” for the site, but I grow increasingly concerned that this name sounds…well…a bit weird to the non-initiated.

But does it really matter?  Well, yes, I would say it kind of does.  Precision in language is very important to people, and the shades of meaning conveyed by subtleties in definitions can make big practical differences.   Say “Board Game” and most people say “Oh, like Scrabble/Monopoly/Cluedo?”.   Say “Strategy Game” and many people think of chess, or maybe wargames.   I chose “Eurogames” because a) many people who like these games do know what it means and b)  I thought it sounded intriguing enough for those that don’t to check out the page…but you couldn’t really work out what was meant just from the name.   I think that to get more people interested (i.e. get more opponents, so I can play more games!), we need to have a way of making a differentiation from the tired, tedious old standbys like Monopoly, et al., that - anecdotally, at least - have put so many people off board games for life.

Perhaps it’s just a question of a lack of present consensus.  Language is consensual:  in order to communicate we need a shared lexicon, and definitions for things rise, fall, and even change utterly, over time.   Perhaps, on the inevitable day when board games take over from all other forms of entertainment, and we rule the planet…ahem, sorry, I mean, when board games get a bit more cultural profile, then perhaps we’ll collectively converge on a term that will be as unambiguous a descriptor as “football”.  No, wait, the Americans call their version of Rugby “football”, don’t they?   Oh, you get what I mean!

As I wrote this post, it occurred to me that, actually, the one I might start using more is “Tabletop games”.   I know it’s also used to describe things like RPGs, but right now it’s got one significant advantage in my mind:  Wil Wheaton’s “Tabletop” web show (which, if you’ve not seen it, I would suggest you check out).   If I say “Tabletop games”, and someone says “What’s that?”, I can point them at the show.   But then…”Tabletop games” also covers things like Monopoly and Cluedo, the very things I was just railing against.

Ah…I give up.  

So…what do YOU call them?

In Which I Introduce An Opportunity to Annoy You With My Thoughts on Board Gaming...

Before Christmas, the Guardian published a series of articles discussing board games, under the general heading "Board Games Are Back", in which a number of contributors looked at the new(-ish) wave of board games that've emerged over the last decade or so.   I'd assumed it was a one-off thing for Christmas - Christmas being about the only time of year mainstream media go anywhere near board games as a subject - but since a new article's been published today (07/01), it seems they're still interested in the topic.   I'm happy to see that their enthusiasm is undimmed (even if they've rather weirdly put the articles in the "Technology" section of the website), and I hope they continue to provide the hobby with exposure.  

Anyway, reading the articles, and particularly some of the views expressed in the comments section below the articles, I got to thinking "Hey!  Just like these folks, I too have a load of half-baked, ill-informed, poorly-articulated opinions on the board gaming hobby!   Why don't I put them in a blog?  After all, what's the point in bankrolling the MAB website, if I can't use it as a platform to foist my idiocy on my fellow MABbers, and unsuspecting members of the public who happen upon the site because they were looking for the Mortgage Advice Bureau?"

So that's what's going to happen.  I'm not sure how frequently I will post here, or if I will keep it up for long, or if anyone will even read it, but it'll be good writing practice for the novel I've been meaning to finish for the last twenty years.   I'll enable commenting also, so people can tell me how wrong I am.

So, expect the first lot of nonsense shortly...


Beresford Quimby