Gaming Gestalt

This is one of my favorite games–but what an unappealing package!

I appreciated this post by John Garcia on telling newbies about hobby board games. He says that sometimes it’s hard for new players to grasp the fun of a game just hearing what it’s about. “So…you settle an island? Why would you want to collect resources? Who cares if you have the longest road?” He suggests just jumping in—that many times a game is greater than its explanation or what’s contained in the box.

I find this is true for the most part. If a game has an unappealing package (El Grande); an unappealing (Pandemic), boring-sounding (Agricola), or abstract (Carcassonne) theme; or an appearance of complexity (Dominion), it doesn’t matter how awesome the game is, it’s much harder to get uninitiated players to try it. And the bigger the box, paired with these frightening traits, the less likely a person is to be willing to play the game. Ugly art and a big box tells non-geeks that they are about to enter a stifling realm of B.O. and arcana—more components, more to keep track of, greater chance of immersion, less chance of coming up for air. Best to come up with an excuse why you need to leave and cut your losses.

I think this is where Garcia’s point comes in: in cases like these, it’s best just to get down to the game itself, even if you have to use a bait-and-switch tactic. (The initiates will thank you later.) But more on this in a moment.

In contrast, Ticket to Ride practically begs to be played.

There are some games that are attractive to new players without requiring smoke and mirrors and subterfuge. I think if there’s one company that almost across the board makes non-threatening, non-gamer-friendly games, it’s Days of Wonder. Say what you will about the fun factor of some of their games, they are gorgeous. Ticket to Ride has newbies practically begging to play it, as do DoW’s other big-box releases. There are other hobby games that accomplish non-threatening, beautiful packaging as well: Jaipur, Incan Gold (really, most of Gryphon’s bookshelf series), and, to a lesser extent because of its bigger box, 7 Wonders. These can be used as a crucial “first step into a larger world.”

You might argue that players choosing new games based on graphic design alone is like choosing a book based on its cover—something the old proverb tells us never to do. And that’s true. But people don’t listen to proverbs. I work at a publishing company, and I’m here to tell you that the best books don’t always sell the best—and sometimes it’s because we live in a cultural void (…), but many times it’s because the cover falls flat. It doesn’t speak to anybody. The book misses its target audience. I think the same can hold true for games. This is where the linked article comes in.

When was this aesthetic popular?

Several years ago, when I introduced my family to Acquire, I had the 1962 bookshelf series edition of the game, which is not exactly pretty. It’s hard to imagine a time when the game’s aesthetic appealed to anyone. Still, I suggested we try out my new game, and while no one was particularly eager, they were willing to give it a try (even though they balked at the “difficult” rules), mostly because of my success that summer with Canasta Caliente (another small box, non-threatening, beautifully designed package). Acquire proved to be a hit that Thanksgiving, so much so that it was played almost nonstop that Christmas with multiple games happening at the same time (other family members bought their own copies). Getting past the prejudicial barriers proves that the fun of a game is more than the sum of its plastic, wood, and cardboard bits. And in fact, because of Acquire’s success, and then other games afterward, my family is much more open to try anything, even if it doesn’t look fun (most recently Bohnanza and Dominion, both of which they loved).

Of course, there are times when initial prejudice can’t be overcome, as in the world’s worst game of Settlers, which almost irretrievably ruined the game for my wife and which I prefer to leave submerged in the sea of forgetfulness. But these moments are rare. The best ambassadors are the good games themselves and the players excited enough to get them into people’s hands.

I'll try anything once, but my favorite games are generally middleweight Euros.

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