Do We Overplay Our Games?


A common complaint about many boardgames (especially games that shoot up on the popularity list right around launch time) is that they don’t hold up to many plays before they get boring and repetitive.  This  criticism that often results in a flurry of plays of a new board game, followed by a tradeaway or auction shortly thereafter.

This grievance is an interesting one, in my opinion, since it applies to so very few forms of entertainment; and it affects the tabletop gaming world in a few significant ways; some good, some bad.

Think about this: when you buy a new book, or a new movie, you excitedly read through it (or watch it).  And then?  It goes on your shelf.  Probably for a few months at least, but maybe even years.  Why do you keep it?  Well, maybe you want to read it again someday.  Maybe you want to have it available to lend it to friends and family.  If it’s a movie, it might come out when you have a group of friends over.  But however often it is consumed, we never read our books or watch our movies 10 times in one week and then complain about how it’s the same experience every time.

Yes, I do realize that board games are not exactly the same as books and movies.  They can be more expensive, take up more shelf space, and they can even be harder to find time to use.  But still, they are products made of paper, cardboard, and the creative ideas of a whole bunch of people, meant for our entertainment.  But they can’t change frequently; they’re stuck as they are printed.

I think the criticism has a few major effects on the hobby.  For one, quality games that are well designed and even fun to play often drop out of sight too quickly.  The “cult of the new” excitement results in the game being played dozens of times on first release; then it gets tired, traded away, or sold.  People forget about it and stop playing, when maybe it’s a game worth shelving and bringing out every few months.  Perhaps it would hold a lot more of it’s entertainment value if it wasn’t expected to be as frequently changing as a video game with constant updates, sequels,  and downloadable content.

Another effect is that it encourages game designers to create games with a variety of strategies.  It encourages variants, expansions, and clever ways of changing up the game so that unexpected things happen or new tactics can be used to achieve victory.  This is definitely a good thing; innovation and creativity are the best thing for our hobby, and we should encourage that.  Stale re-hashes of old games are unwanted, and if a game does have well-implemented variability, we’re all happy.

But I think it also results in lame, tacked on elements to make a game “different each time you play.”  Some games don’t need the extreme variability; some games suffer from a too-extensive setup time because of some arbitrary shuffling that barely impacts the gameplay.  It may, perhaps, cause designers to focus too much on how they can create a “different experience” every time the game is brought out, instead of focusing on quality, sensible, fun mechanics that make a great game.

I’m personally fine with games that don’t change everything up each time you play, as long as they are fun to play.  I don’t mind a game sitting on my shelf for a few months.  Don’t get me wrong: I love games like Cosmic Encounter, in which the alien powers drastically alter the way the game plays out each time, and other games with variable setups that force new strategies and new scenarios.  But I think there’s room for those sorts of games, in addition to the “plays-the-same-way-every-time” games.  Perfect example: Kill Dr. Lucky.  The game is basically exactly the same each time you play.  Sure you have different cards that allow you to do different things, but the basic strategy is always the same.  And the jokes on the cards never change, and you pretty much see all of them every time you play.  But since it’s several months to a year between plays, it’s still fun and hilarious every time I play, and there are a few perfect situations for that game to come to the table.  Sure if I played it every day, or even every week, it would lose it’s luster – but maybe it, and other games that are not as “variable” – still deserve a place on our shelves right along side the other kind.  As long as the games are good.

What do you think?

Futurewolfie loves epic games, space, and epic games set in space. You'll find him rolling fistfuls of dice, reveling in thematic goodness, and giving Farmerlenny a hard time for liking boring stuff.

Discussion5 Comments

  1. My complaint is the opposite: we don’t play our games enough.

    I think part of the appeal of a board game–at least for me: I can’t speak for anyone else–is that it’s a contest you can keep coming back to. I may best you today (or every day, as the case may be 🙂 ) in Midgard, but you’ll get me tomorrow. Even in Dominion or Cosmic Encounter, where the game differs every time you play, there is still a common thread between the games, and they are linked.

    I don’t think games need the “replayability” gimmicks you speak against (which many times are annoying); they just have to provide a different experience, which often the players provide. There should be more to explore. The mark of a good book (in my estimation) is one I couldn’t possibly have understood completely the first time through. It demands to be reread. Similarly, a good game shouldn’t give me all it has to offer in a single play.

    I can’t say with certainty what the result of the sheer number of games released will be, but I’m not terribly optimistic. Supply and demand is a double-edged sword, and always clamoring for new doesn’t necessarily deliver improved. I’d much rather play a good, tried-and-true game 30 times than take a shot in the dark with 30 new titles.

    Of course, the danger is what happened with A Few Acres of Snow, which seems unreasonable to me. I suppose there’s a healthy balance to be struck between competing extremes.

  2. You have many good points. There are definitely a few core games that I love and want to play more; I just also see the value of some games that are worth saving to play on occasion. No matter how often you want to play El Grande, sometimes it’s not the right game for the situation.

    I agree that the re-playability gimmicks aren’t needed; I’m just saying, I think that’s the answer some designers come up with.

    And I’m not saying EVERY game deserves to stick around. There are good games and bad games of both types. I just think some games don’t deserve the derision they get for not being as re-playable. Eminent Domain is probably the prime example. I think that game is quite enjoyable; and I would be glad to have it on my shelf to pull out every once in a while, even if it wears out when you play it too frequently.

  3. While I like games that have great replay value because of some mechanic of variability (i.e., your Cosmic Encounters or Dominion), I do think it is an over-rated element. If a game is fun, it is fun the way it is made – and you’ll play it for any number of reasons, despite its “same-ness.” My kids and I really have a blast with Bang! and play it a ton, but there’s really nothing variable about it. Your role may change game to game, but after you’ve played it so much, you’ll end playing the same roles many times over.

    Plus the need for such variability is moot when I consider the popularity and staying power of such card games as Cribbage, Bridge, Rummy, Poker, et al. Those games have certainly not stood the test of time because of variability!

  4. I think the re-playability gimmicks are a great way to keep players on their toes (when done right). The randomness of alien powers in Cosmic Encounter or the random board layout in Last Night on Earth. They keep players from the “learning the trick” as it were and being able to completely control the game.

    That’s the great thing about card and board games (and what may give them an edge over video games at times). The deck will shuffle and deal out different every time and you have to adapt.

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