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!