“Cult Of The New” And Design Incentives

posted in: Commentary | 2

“Cult of the new” is an unfortunate phrase I hear a lot around the board game community to describe behavior where people get excited only about the newest, most talked-about board games and compulsively buy those games. It’s a pejorative, I think, designed to quietly mock those who jump from game to game without appreciating what they have.

Despite the odd phrasing of it, I understand the sentiment. Don’t let it be said that The Thoughtful Gamer doesn’t appreciate older games. Of course, “old” is relative and since I only got into board games less than ten years ago I don’t have much of a perspective on the Eurogame heyday of the 90’s. Over 90% of the games I own are from 2004 or newer. And most of the games I’ve been playing recently are new due to review copies and general interest.

Oh no, am I a cult of the new person?

I don’t think so, but, of course, I’m biased. I do enjoy playing new games and given that I’m reviewing games now, the new ones are more likely to get that honor. But I also try very hard not to get caught up in the hype of new games. I always think about Machi Koro, which I bought after I saw it being talked about everywhere as the next great filler game. After playing it a couple of times I was disappointed and confused–how could so many people be hyping this game as something great? Then the backlash rolled in and I realized that this was all part of the social media cycle for a new game with an interesting premise, hook, and/or art. People get excited, and then other people naysay. Rinse, repeat.

 

This is entirely tangential to where I’m going to go with this post, but I don’t understand those who love to talk excitedly about every game and imply that they’re all good. They’re not. If you’re trying to an ambassador to the hobby, what good does it do to refuse to differentiate between qualities in games? I understand that, as a critic, it can be hard to think about all of the work behind a game that ultimately fails. But we’re trying to help people make purchasing decisions and unless someone is loaded with cash, that help can’t be “buy it all”.

Anyways, I think we’re all enticed by the prospect of good new games, and that’s what drives the production of so many new games each year (in the thousands). And to some degree we know that there are quite a few brilliant games that have already been made and, perhaps, relegated to the back of the closet. Some prefer to focus on the older games, and others prefer to hunt down the new stuff. The problem, if there is one, is one of emphasis. How much should we, collectively, look forward, and how much should we appreciate the past? I’m going to come down with the opinion that we probably spend too much time and effort looking for new games and not enough time playing old ones. I’m guilty of that myself, and I’m not trying to dictate what you do with your time and money, but I think the question “what is the best general, collective mindset” is interesting.

The reality is that both perspectives are somewhat valid. There are absolutely older games that don’t get as much credit nowadays as they should. I think anyone who is a fan of newer area control games would be delighted and surprised if they played 1995’s El Grande. However, I also think that game design is improving and developing. To think that all of the best games are behind us would be quite pessimistic and almost certainly inaccurate. While perhaps there is more chaff in this growing industry than their used to be, great games are still being made by people who are passionate about design, and I trust that they’ll continue to learn and be better.

But, producers are driven by what people want, and how we consume and purchase games will change how they’re made. What does that look like when people are buying more games and playing them fewer times before moving onto the next one? Here are my speculations.

Valuing First Impressions

Inevitably, the first impression a game gives off will be more important as publishers try to capture a larger audience. There’s a certain amount of forgiveness that people will extend to a game before dismissing it. If you’re invested in the hobby and you’ve done your research and you know what to expect, you’ll be more forgiving if you expect the end result to be worth it. But for people not as invested, their attention needs to be gripped immediately or they may move onto one of the many other options available. Here’s how I see games doing this.

1. Simplifying. I could be wrong, but I feel like games are by and large getting shorter and more simple. There are still big, sprawling dudes on a map games and meaty euros, but when I look up what games are on the horizon it’s sometimes actually hard to find one with an estimated playtime of over and hour.

I also know that modern board games have a lot of their roots in European designs from the 80’s and 90’s that were largely lighter family games. Perhaps it’s a bell curve and the heyday of longer, heavier games has already passed. Or maybe my experience is too limited and it’s always been like this.

Unlike these gem chips

Regardless, if there is a shift in how people consume and purchase games towards more games played fewer times, then simplification should be the result, because they lower the cost of entry and they appeal to a wider range of people. In other words, if there are a shrinking number of people who are willing to get a game that may not be fully understandable from a strategic perspective for a few plays, then those kinds of games will be less profitable.

2. Variability. What impresses on a first play? Being able to be awesome. I think that games that sell big effects and dramatic gameplay will emerge more in a first impression culture. It’s more memorable to be able to pull of a large effect on your first play compared to more subtle gameplay.

3. Campaign and Legacy Games. Games that promise a specific number of plays or time commitment will appeal to those who like to play and move on. While some, like Gloomhaven, defy this argument by having their legacy campaign clock in at hundreds of hours, I think that people are comfortable with having a defined end date to their game. Finishing and moving on becomes part of the experience sanctioned by the game itself. If the game can be expanded or reiterated (think Imperial Assault or TIME Stories), then it’s a win-win for publishers and first impression players–the publishers get to publish more and more expansions and people who enjoy the game already are a built-in audience to buy and enjoy more content.

4. Appearance of Balance. This is actually the idea that inspired this article. I was talking with the fine people behind Hollandspiele on twitter about what balance really means when you consider learning curves. In an asymmetrical game, at what point do different learning curves result in imbalance. If only after 100 plays both sides are statistically close to equal, I don’t think anyone would consider that to be a balanced game. But what if it takes half a dozen plays to really grok a particular faction? What if the other side is much easier to comprehend strategically the first time?

I think that while a lot of people wouldn’t admit it, they think that balance in a game is based on their perception of balance in the first couple of plays. If the game appears to be balanced and there aren’t any FOO strategies that someone can use to beat beginners off the bat, then it actually is balanced. It doesn’t matter what the statistical balance is on the whole, as long as it’s maintained in that first impression. The result may be imbalance in the long run.

Valuing Depth

Games that are targeting the dedicated player will have more space where they can design, because they can sacrifice some of the “first impression” effect for greater depth and subtlety. This can be good and create, ultimately, better games. It can also allow for more sloppiness, for oftentimes constriction facilitates innovation.

More niche design will result in:

1. A wider range of assumptions. Any game is going to come packaged with information it assumes its audience knows–even very simple things such as the “value” of a die face being the sum of the pips on that face. As gamers we probably give no thought to most of them, even though they’re critical to how we classify games. What’s a genre other than a set of assumptions about the form? Most people would assume that you take turns in a game, but we have real time games that break that. There are many stories of people assuming that games are all combative until they were proven wrong by their first play of Pandemic.

If you’re designing a game for a more dedicated audience, you have at your disposal more assumptions. Iconography shared from other games might streamline the game (once people get used to it) and make it language-independent. Mechanisms may reference other, familiar games and may be understood by how they deviate from that example. Until recently I had no clue, for example, that the symbols used in many wargames to distinguish units were actually standard NATO symbology. 

2. Non-apparent strategy. I remember the first time I tried playing the game Go. I was fascinated by the news that an AI had finally surpassed humans at this ancient game. So I bought a cheap set on Amazon and gave it a try. I had no clue of what to do. Go presents you with a flat plane and says “do something”. So I placed a stone in a random spot for a few turns. Then my opponent, who had some experience, managed to do something to capture a good number of my pieces and I had no clue what I did wrong.

Go requires a certain amount of commitment before you can start to appreciate the strategy involved. With something like Catan, you can easily understand from the first play why building next to some numbers is better than other numbers. If you’re designing for a more niche and dedicated crowd, you can build in an amount of depth and strategic discovery that you wouldn’t be able to otherwise. If you finish your first game thinking, “I don’t know what a good strategy is” you have to have some measure of trust in the game that you’ll be able to discover strategy AND enjoy the process of doing so, or else it’s not worth it.

3. Elements that require prior knowledge. A deck of cards in a game can be a huge barrier to understanding. Twilight Struggle is famous for this. An experienced player is essentially always going to beat a new player simply because they know which cards are going to be coming up. Or think about drafting card in Agricola. If someone is playing for the first time they’re going to have very little knowledge of how to draft effectively before the game even begins. Food Chain Magnate has milestone cards that are absolutely critical to understand before you can play effectively. Mess up your first couple of turns there and you will not have a way to recover.

All of those games are difficult to play well your first time simply because you don’t have the requisite knowledge of the game to do so. Sometimes it’ll be easier to pick up that knowledge–your second play of Food Chain Magnate will be much better than your first. But sometimes it can take a long time to reach a level of competent play. This will turn away a lot of people but is accessible for people designing to a more niche audience.

4. Less dedication to art. While this, like all the items I’m listing, is not necessarily going to happen in a situation where people are more dedicated to playing a game a lot, I think the incentives are there. Great art is expensive and time consuming, and while it is enjoyable during the game, the biggest value it brings to publishers is to bring people to playing the game in the first place.

When you have a more captured, niche audience, that eye-catching attention is less important because they’re going to be somewhat bought into the game already. Instead time and resources can be dedicated to clear design, which is more valuable with a more complicated game.

All of the actions neatly laid out

Summary

All of this is measured on balance and on the aggregate. I don’t think any one of these design philosophies is necessarily better than the other. I enjoy games that lean both directions. But, I would be saddened if the incentives provided by the marketplace (i.e. by purchasing patterns) pushed out games of the second category. The true problem with the “cult of the new” isn’t that it exists, it’s that it potentially drives game design in a direction that harms the future of games.

Think about movies as an analogue–how often do we hear complaints about derivative, big budget action films, and yet how often do those movies still make a large profit? As an industry develops, safe plays emerge, and that encourages stagnation in design, rather than innovation. I don’t want to see that happen with board games. We shouldn’t give games a pass on design shortcomings because they appeal to a broad range of people or have only a good first impression. We also shouldn’t be too forgiving of more niche designs if they’re sloppy.

I, as a reviewer, try to stay as level and as clear headed as I can. I’d love if I could come to every game after the hype has died down and review it without that prior knowledge. Unfortunately, I’d also like to review games when they’re most relevant to the people who are reading my reviews. But I think it’s critical that reviewers like me do not get caught up in the cult of the new mentality. However small our voice, we might be able to subtly nudge the community towards understanding games better and reward the games that are truly excellent.

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2 Responses

  1. gojaejin

    The way that I’ve come to frame the issue is: would I like the playing of modern board games to (a) move in the direction of a hobby, or (b) move in the direction of consumerist entertainment? And I unreservedly prefer the former.

    When people pursue as a hobby chess, go, Scrabble, bridge, poker, billiards, tennis, disc golf, model train building, gardening, woodworking, cooing, or birdwatching, the crucial common factor is a substantial investment of effort toward improvement that pays off in feelings of deep accomplishment. Hobbies are often preferable to work not because they are so much easier, nor because they’re entirely about relaxation, but for the somewhat opposite reason that they reward dedicated effort and true skills much more consistently than most of the awful jobs out there.

    The logic of hobbies is not that of consumerist entertainment, like when people pay for Netflix to veg out in front of numerous movies and TV shows. If you’re constantly choosing flashy new garden features out of a catalogue and having others create them while you’re away from home, then you’re not a hobbyist gardener; you’re a rich dude who can afford landscapers. If you have the fanciest pool table in your den, but haven’t learned to play well, then it’s a shallow status symbol, not your hobby.

    Now, maybe I’m just a judgmental asshole who doesn’t appreciate how hard some people work, or how desperately they need to unwind in an easy chair with the boob tube on. But I honestly think that most of the people I know would feel more energized and content if they replaced a big chunk of passive entertainment time with some kind of hobby.

    Is our — well let’s just say “pastime” — moving in the hobby direction, or the entertainment one? Well, Your Thoughtful Honor, Exhibit A for the prosecution is that we have very few prominent reviewers or critics who become masters of games and then explain to the public tips and habits to gradually move from novicehood to mastery. All of the most successful reviewers appear to give a majority of their reviews after a single play, and even put games at the top of their all time lists after only a handful of plays. Just think for a second about the long list of hobbies I listed above (which of course are but a thin slice of those that exist in our culture). and it should be clear how absurd our status quo would be for any of them. A review of 9-ball, encouraging you to play, who has played six times in his life and unsurprisingly sucks at it? A supposed chef talking about her favorite recipes, each of which she has attempted exactly once? A “model train builder” proudly showing off what she paid for and had someone else construct, instead of proudly showing off the products of her own hands and brain?

    Exhibit B is the increasingly frequent critique of board game designers, to the effect that it’s their fault alone if they don’t manage to hook reviewers or buyers instantly. God forbid we should trust pioneering experts about the deep satisfaction we can attain after enduring a fair amount of early frustration, tons of initial losses, and “learning games” that seem nearly endless, until they’re miraulously not.

    We already have enough movies and shows. I don’t want a movie on cardboard, with some easy “participation” along the way. I want to do things that are hard and discover how to get better at them, because — not to get too existentialist about it — that’s what it means to “get busy living, not get busy dying”.

    So, while I don’t think that newer hit games are generally worse than older one’s — quite the contrary! — I’m worried about the size of collections and the speed of acquisitions because I would like to be part of a hobbyist community that likes to find a reasonable number of arenas (games) in which to internalize the rules, develop strategies and counterstrategies, and increasingly challenge each other. Fresh new games are sometimes amazing, especially when there’s reliable evidence that’s they’ll be replayed many times with increasing depth. But if I’m playing with collectors (shopaholics), knowing I’m going to be pending most of my gaming time learning new rulebooks, then stumbling through as a novice with other novices, then I guess I’d rather be improving my gardening.

    • gojaejin

      One thing I forgot to add: certain extremely prominent reviewers, unsure of some basic rules in some games on their all-time Top 10, particularly stunned me.

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