On Deluxification

After seeing the announcement for a new, super-deluxe version of Castles of Burgundy, I was prepared to sit down and write a screed. Sure, the original is widely considered to be ugly, and even though I don’t share that sentiment, I’d welcome an improvement. Not a lot of details have been released about Awaken Realms’ production, but what they are showing is a mixed bag. Metal coins in a game where coins (though aren’t they called silverlings?) are a tertiary resource at best seems excessive. The art samples they’re displaying look fantastic, though.

That’s besides the point. I wanted to rant and rave about ridiculous, giant, over-wrought productions. I wanted to get heated, griping about ridiculous expectations of excess. But if I did that I’d be playing the same game. The game of brazen extravagance over patient consideration. I’d be trying to cash in on heat instead of trying to provide light. So instead of a rant here are some scattered thoughts.

1. Our board game purchasing choices ought to reflect what we’d like to see more of in the market, because we’re sending a small signal, with our money, of just that. If you truly love board games for their spectacle and their table presence, then go ahead and keep purchasing those games. I understand the appeal to some degree; such games provide hope that their play experience will live up to their visuals. Some of them succeed. But are we investing in the appearance of excellence over excellence itself?

2. A game should only be blinged out, for lack of a better term, in proportion to its aim. Otherwise it’s making a promise it can’t possibly keep. This is one of the reasons I’m skeptical of a super-deluxe Castles of Burgundy. It’s a fairly humble, austere game. Throw a bunch of minis in there to make it look epic and you’re misrepresenting what the game is about. It’s a form of ludonarrative dissonance. Let simple games be simple. Complex visuals ought to be justified by the game they’re a part of.

3. Deluxe components should always be subservient to the practical game experience. I recall playing a very popular game a few years ago. The person who bought it to the con had invested in the full, super expensive pledge level. The problem was that it made the game incredibly annoying to play. The giant cloth map muted colors that made understanding the board state difficult. Everything had to be so spread apart to accommodate this unnecessarily large map that people had to frequently stand up to read card text across the table. 

Most mind-bogggling to me, the minis did not communicate their function well at all. We were supposed to be recruiting these monsters to aid us in battle, but the biggest one on the field hardly had any effect on combat, while some random dude ¼ the size was the most powerful military force in the game. It’s like the characters designs were attached to their function at random.

4. The best deluxe games make playing the game easier. This is the corollary to the previous point. Deluxe versions of games that actually improve the play experience, rather than the seeing-from-across-the-room experience are fantastic. The Eagle-Gryphon/Vital Lacerda/Ian O’Toole collaborations are rightly praised by many. Not only do they look fantastic and come with study, practical bits and pieces, O’Toole is an incredible graphic designer who makes extremely complex games visually comprehendible. 

My favorite deluxe version of a game is Pax Pamir 2e, which is precise, understated, and beautiful. It manages to look fantastic in an understated way, a sign of confidence rather than desperation. I’m confident the new version of John Company will similarly be an excellent production. 

5. So while I’m skeptical of many of these giant-box games, I do see the value in investing resources in great production. But good art is not synonymous with more art. In my mind, the most beautiful games are elegant games, made with restraint and an eye on design. After all, we’re playing with these things, and that involves interacting with them. If you sacrifice functionality for More Art you’re compromising. Games can both look great and actually function as games. It’s just a bit more difficult to do both.

6. I don’t want to price new designers out of their aspirations. To that end I will always be far more willing to take a risk with my money on something potentially new and innovative and daring than something superficially flashy. I want a board game design community that has room for truly thoughtful, beautiful versions of great games from established designers and cheap, scrappy, DIY experiments. I don’t want someone out there feeling like they can’t pursue their design because the floor for entering the market is financing a $150 big box, plastic and extra thick cardboard, headache.

7. Game advertisements that feature a comprehensive list of all the components before any description of what the game is are absolutely bizarre to me. You know that you can buy fancy dice or minis by themselves, right? If you want cool toys you can just get them, no game attached. The assumption that people see the value of a game as the sum of the pieces of that game rather than their enjoyment playing it gets an eyebrow-raise from me. (Confession: I can’t actually raise either of my eyebrows independently of each other. This eyebrow-raising can only be experienced in one’s imagination. I mean, I can raise them together, but that’s more a look of shock than skepticism.)

8. I hope this version of Castles of Burgundy is great. I hope they focus on playability with easy to use, beautiful components, a great insert for organizing those components, and a relatively modest price point. I hope they come to understand that a brilliant design like CoB doesn’t need to look like the game version of a McMansion to reach its fullest potential. I hope it gets even more people to appreciate what a fantastic game it truly is. I also hope the cheap, $25 version stays in print.

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8 thoughts on “On Deluxification”

  1. A good game is a good game. First in line this have nothing to do with deluxe. For me, quality means the cards, the tokens don’t wear out too fast. Sure, it is nice to have a great amount of miniatures in a game. But when i saw the prices for such deluxe games, i can’t breathe. I will never pay over $ 100 or more for a game for the reason it has deluxe meeples or deluxe laminated cards. Instead, i surely will buy two or three other games which interessed me for a cheaper price. So i see, that those expensive games lead people to buy only that game. Without such an expensive deluxe edition game, they have buyed 2 or 3 other games. This leads to a smaller market.
    And those publishers of “deluxe games” shut out people, who have not so much money and can’t afford the game. To me, a dividing in poor and rich gamers. This is absolute annoying.

    1. I find myself far more willing to drop over $100 on something that’s expensive because it’s niche (a Splotter or 18xx game, which I’ve done a couple of times) rather than one that’s expensive because of a lot of pieces.

  2. Great post!
    I find it amusing that in regular board gaming “deluxe” means this huge box, metal coin, plastic mini extravaganza – whereas in wargaming, rounded counters and a mounted map will qualify a game for deluxe status…

  3. 2. A game should only be blinged out, for lack of a better term, in proportion to its aim. […]Let simple games be simple. Complex visuals ought to be justified by the game they’re a part of.

    I think I disagree about that point and my argument is King of Tokyo. It’s a superdeluxified Yahtzee and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I am sure there are other examples, like maybe Sheriff of Nottingham, where unnecessary components make the game better.

    1. Compared to some of the deluxe stuff we’re seeing those two games are quaint. But I’m not against any premium components. I completely agree that the bags with those snaps makes Sheriff of Nottingham what it is, and that’s the kind of thoughtful upgrade that works best.

      1. Sure, those games aren’t Everdell, but my comment was in regards to what you wrote that simple games should look that way. And that is where I disagree.

        Components can improve immensely a game, no matter how simple the game is. Imagine King of Tokyo without the standees. It is simply a worse game. because the components are part of the whole deal, as can be experienced by anybody playing boardgames on Steam or Tabletop Simulator. Rules aren’t the game by themselves.

        I would argue that great games like Blood Rage or Kemet would not have been as acclaimed if they had used wargame counters instead of huge miniatures. Or picture how a simple set of quality poker chips improves any game with money.

        1. I don’t think we disagree! When I say simple I don’t mean austere. I love beautiful games and I love fantastic components. I just think that the components should aid playing the game and that they should be considered as part of a balanced whole.

          King of Tokyo’s standees work because they reinforce the visual aesthetic. I suspect I’d like Kemet or Blood Rage to have simpler tokens for the infantry to contrast with the monster minis (maybe wooden blocks?) but I’m fine with the smaller minis. Those games are largely about giant mythological creatures so highlighting them with the component choices makes sense (and they don’t get in the way of playing the game).

          I don’t see where CoB gets better with minis or elaborate coins, but it definitely gets better with setting appropriate, beautiful art or a built-in insert that aids set up for each round.

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