I like numbers
I like lists, statistics, ways of quantifying things. As my wife will attest, I like spreadsheets.
In light of all this, the most surprising things is probably how little number-crunching I’ve done of my gaming in the past.
Last Christmas, someone from a local game group posted a summary of their game-plays for the year. This seemed like an interesting set of information to capture, so I decided to do the same – a notebook for logging down which games I had played each day, then uploading the data monthly into a spreadsheet for overall comparisons.
A year on, the figures are interesting. Obviously, I know, simply from a rough recollection, that I play some games a lot more than others, but this helps to quantify it. In 2015I played 788 games. The top 3 games account for 76% of all games played, the top 5 for 84%. It doesn’t change the gaming experience itself, but it provides a body of evidence more reliable than my own fractured memory.
When looking back at the numbers of game-plays logged this past year, I don’t feel bad about spending money on expansions for these most-played games. Equally, when I’ve been considering picking up expansions for other things, I’ve been able to take stock of what I already own, and conclude that I really don’t play the existing versions anywhere near enough to make it worth spending money on additional components.
In fact, looking at my collection, a strikingly large number of games I own – 24 in total – weren’t played last year at all. These range from small card-games picked up somewhere for under a fiver to 3-hour epics in gigantic Fantasy Flight Boxes, and from an ancient and battered family copy of Scrabble that is probably older than I am, to things bought in 2014.
There are also surprises: in a spreadsheet-less world, Discworld: Ankh-Morpork is a game that I would list amongst games that we play “fairly often” – but the numbers tell me it’s been 12 months since it last made it to the table. Other games which I can recall distinct sessions of were clearly at the back end of last year, rather than the beginning of this one.
From one perspective, a collection of 53 games, of which just-over half have been played this year doesn’t look great. However, there are none which have never been played (well, there’s one, an unwanted second-hand gift from a charity shop, but I’m basically ignoring that for statistical purposes until it goes back to the charity shop) and the game which is out of favour today could easily see a revival next week (well, mostly. Some games just aren’t very good).
Jumping off in an apparently unrelated direction, which will hopefully loop back around soon, I want to talk about Legacy games. Risk Legacy was the first major game-release of this type, in 2011, and many people will have heard of it, at least vaguely, but in the last few months, things have exploded with the release of Pandemic Legacy which has brought the format to all-new audiences, and is on a seemingly unstoppable rise to the top of both The Hotness and The BGG Rankings.
To be clear from the outset, this format doesn’t particularly appeal to me. Whilst I like the idea of being able to string things together into something overarching (the most-played game of 2015 in my house was the Pathfinder ACG) the finite nature of the product was a major no-no.
To provide as clear a summary as I can without buying and playing the product myself, or ruining it for those of you who want to play it in the future, Pandemic Legacy starts like a normal game of Pandemic. However, it is different in that each game has consequences: when you play your second game of Pandemic Legacy, it will differ, based on how the first game ended. The cumulative effects of this grow with time, until the end of the campaign, at which point you will have a board that differs significantly from a ‘normal’ game of Pandemic, with particular areas destroyed or otherwise transformed.
The thing about the end of the campaign, is that those changes you’ve made are physical. You have added stickers or markings to your board, you have opened sealed packets to reveal hidden information. You can still play a ‘normal’ game of Pandemic, but it will be a game skewed by the changes that your (mis-)management of the world’s health problems have wrought upon the world.
By comparison, once I finish playing through an Adventure Path in the Pathfinder game, whilst it might take me an hour or so to divide up the cards and dismantle the player decks, it is still a fairly simple process to return the game to (functionally) the state it was in when I first got it, ready for another play-through. Indeed, I’ve played the first Adventure Path, Rise of the Runelords, with about 5 different groups. The only real attrition of components comes in the form of printing a new set of character sheets from the website, or of throwing away and replacing a dozen or so penny sleeves if I’ve marked these directly to show character upgrades.
Value For Money
Taking this opinion – that I wouldn’t want to buy a product that would be so definitively “used up” – I weighed in on a Facebook decision regarding the rise and rise of Pandemic: Legacy on the BoardGameGeek rankings. Whilst many of the responses concerned other areas, including the relative merits of Pandemic: Legacy vs Twilight Struggle, one in particular caught my eye. Most intriguing for me, was the comment from some who, having worked out an average of 18 games for a Legacy campaign, said:
“I’d be delighted with the value for money from any game that I played 18 times. Most games in my collection have seen less play than that (I’ve probably played base Pandemic around 10 times).”
I found this a fascinating comment on many levels, and wanted to get into it a bit more.
First of all then, this notion of being “delighted” with the value for money of any game that got played 18 times. In 2015, there were roughly 4 games I played that many times, with another 3 or so just below that figure in the mid-teens.
(as daft as it may seem for numbers this low to be approximate, the matter is complicated by questions of whether “Pathfinder ACG; Rise of the Runelords” is a different game from “Pathfinder ACG: Skull & Shackles” – I’ve treated them as the same – and whether playing 30-second micro-games of Dobble with a hundred passing shoppers should be logged on the spreadsheet – I haven’t).
However, as I tend to own games for longer than a year, that figure obviously doesn’t tell the whole story. I own the original Pandemic: whilst I have only played it twice in 2015, I’m fairly confident that this number would increase, to somewhere in excess of 20 if you went back to a time-period that must now (I guess) be known as “before records began.” Various other games like Carcassone, Ticket to Ride, Dominion, and 7 Wonders, (to name a few) would also go into the pile that have seen relatively limited play this past year, but which I’d be fairly confident have been played more than 20 times in the period I’ve owned them.
Game Design, Marketing, and the Cult of the New
To an extent, we live in the golden age of board-gaming. Whichever way you look at it, I think it’s undeniable that the selection of board games on offer in 2015 is better than it was in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when I was growing up. This is due to a number of factors: better design, greater variety (allowing players to choose games suited to them, rather than all conforming to a narrow pattern), more innovation in game styles, and just a simple weight of numbers through trial-and-error.
All of this comes at a price though, modern gaming comes with different expectations, both for your leisure time and your wallet: new games come out at a terrific rate, and if I weren’t held back by the number of games I already have, and a lack of money to buy new games with (or places to store them) I could easily buy as many games in a year as I owned in total as a child.
When I was growing up, there was never really any question of how to buy a board game. You picked up a box off the shelf, paid for it, took it home, and that was it. Games which strayed from this simple path were few and far between. Nowadays, it feels like the standalone game with no expectation of further purchase or integration into a broader system is increasingly the exception.
I should make it clear at this point – I am an expansion junkie. I am also a completionist, to a moderately obsessive degree. When I go back and crunch the numbers, it’s clear that I don’t need any more Dominion expansions, but the very fact that they’re out there make me want them. I can usually hold myself fairly well at “No Expansions” (at least for some games) but once I get a first expansion, the others usually come tumbling after.
Being sucked in by expansions can, of course, backfire horribly. I bought the Al Hambra Big box set, because it seemed like great value for money, and came with a mighty-fine storage solution. However, the sheer enormity of the thing makes it impractical for taking anywhere (on holiday, when visiting friends etc), and even fitting it onto the regular games shelf is a challenge. Instead it mostly languishes out of the way on top of a bookcase (I’m not saying it owes its fall from favour solely to this, the fact that the 2-player variant isn’t great and one of our most regular game-playing friends wasn’t really a fan played a much bigger role, but out of sight is out of mind…) To take another example, Carcassone was one of the first games we got when we first discovered modern board games, and I think the experience is much better for Inns and Cathedrals and Builders and Traders. However, by the time we’d thrown in Mayor and Abbey, and the rather more dubious Princess and Dragon, then the game was getting clogged with excess mechanics, and the sheer number of tiles were making it take far too long relative to the weight and engagement of the game.
Some games suffer from twin problems, and the expansions can fix one, whilst exacerbating another. Firefly the board game is thematically brilliant, and really captures the flavour of travellin’ the ‘verse, trying to find enough money to keep flying. However, it’s a very long game, particularly when played with inexperienced players, and it veers a bit into “multi-player solo” territory. The solution to the length of the game, is probably to play it often enough that people are comfortable with the mechanics, and the down-time is reduced, but what to do about the Pirates and Bounty-Hunters expansion, which ups the level of interaction? Do you get it straight away, to reduce the boredom, and increase the likelihood of people wanting to play? Or do you play it first, to ensure that the game can handle the added level of complexity? (and thereby, length).
Numbers of expansions, and the related additional complexity that they bring is also an issue when considering who you play the game with. I’m a big fan of the game 7 Wonders (outside of the 2-player variant, haven’t played Duel), but the more expansions I bought, the more I seemed to find myself bringing the game to the table with groups of players who hadn’t played the base game before. It was enough of an obstacle to explain the basic draft mechanic, without adding the complications of Leaders, or the Black Cards of Cities (especially as a packing error somewhere led to me owning this expansion in French…). This is definitely a game which has had less table-time whilst getting more expansions.
You spent How Much?
Circling back from this diversion into the world of expansions, it feels like a lot of the things I’m pondering about modern games, boil down to questions of excess, and wastage. This is, of course, a time of year where lots of people spend lots of money on things, not all of which are actually needed, or indeed wanted.
I guess the real question I’m asking is – How many games is too many? I bought Pandemic 3 or 4 years ago (well, technically, I traded it for Puerto Rico), and played it a lot. I then bought the first expansion (which contains petri-dishes for storage, clearly an essential component). Having not played it that much recently, I didn’t buy any of the later expansions, nor did I get Legacy.
Suppose someone does get Legacy though – at current prices, it looks like they’d be paying somewhere in the region of £50. Compare this to Cluedo or Monopoly and it can look a bit steep (although really, is there any price too high to pay, in order to avoid playing Monopoly), but are the dodgy plastic games of the 1980s really the best point of comparison?
An evening out at a gig for my wife and I is easily going to set us back £50 by the time you’ve included travel. A trip to the cinema isn’t quite that bad, but it’s still likely to be over £20 when all’s said and done. Both of these are experiences that are good for a few hours, then gone, leaving you with nothing.
A board game by comparison, is the gift that keeps on giving. Your first session or two brings you up to an equal “money spent: hours of enjoyment” ratio with your live experiences, and after that, it’s all gravy.
On this basis, the assertion that 18 plays represents great value, seems solid. If you allow an hour a time for a game of Pandemic, and an average player-count of 2, that’s a 7 or 8-fold improvement on the value of a cinema trip.
The trouble with this line of thinking though, is what it doesn’t cover- how do you compare board games with other board games?
Of the top 5 or 6 games which have dominated this year’s game-plays, only 1 is a game which I’ve owned for more than 2 years, and even this is an LCG, representing a continuing investment. If I hadn’t discovered Marvel Legendary, would the Dominion sets I own get more play? Does the rise of Machi Koro explain the disappearance of Settlers of Catan or San Juan?
Ultimately – for the vast majority of us – gaming is just a hobby, and the ultimate aim should be to play the games we enjoy. Unless you are one of that very small group of professional gamers, you don’t need to have the newest game, or even the newest toys for your game of choice, although it can certainly enhance the playing experience if you’re looking to play a game competitively, even if that isn’t with a commercial end-goal in mind.
Does “getting new stuff” increase the likelihood of playing a particular game- and if so, why? Last week, Santa brought me the first Machi Koro expansion this Christmas – this was a decision I thought hard about, and made sure that it felt like the game was getting sufficient play-time to justify the addition before it went on the list. For other games, the expansion has stayed unbought, based on the realisation that I don’t play the base game enough to justify such an extra purchase.
That said, there are games out there which are ok out of the box, but which grow massively with the addition of an expansion or two – issues of limited scope are expanded upon, broken or unbalanced elements can be ironed out, and the possible player-counts can be extended. Sometimes, the reason that a game isn’t getting played could be exactly because you don’t have the expansion.
It’s also worth acknowledging the existence of a real second-hand games market these days. Again, when you tired of Monopoly or Mousetrap in 1990, the chances were that the only place you could get rid of your copy would be a car-boot sale or a charity shop. These days, if you look after a game and it doesn’t suit you, you can probably recoup a significant amount of what you spent on it by selling it on, or even trading it for another game that might be more to your taste. Rather than simply growing, your game collection can be more fluid.
At the end of the day, I certainly don’t want this article to look like it’s me telling you how to spend your money, or what you should do with your free-time: it’s mostly just me thinking out loud about my own approach to my games collection. I would be interested though, to see how other people feel about their gaming and the games they own – is it important to you that a game gets played a certain amount, and do considerations around this come into your thoughts before you buy it? When you buy a new game, is the thought of selling it on in the future something you think about at all – is it the exception or the rule?