Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Categorizing Board and Card Games by Use?

Categorizing Board and Card Games by Use?

Those who have read this blog for a long time know that I am a categorizer.  I try to organize things into categories in order to better to understand them and their relationships to each other. Recently it’s occurred to me that within the context of a game club meeting or even a smaller game session, different games have different uses, they fit into the session in different ways. This often is reflected in different price points, different lengths, different effort requirements, and so forth.

So the following are categories organized by how games are actually used at game meetings.

I’m sure other people must have done this at some point, although a simple search for “destination game” on BoardGameGeek yielded very little. Perhaps readers will let me know about other efforts to categorize games by usage.

First we have destination games. These are games that people look to play, or occasionally organize to play beforehand, when they go to a game session. These are usually games that take quite a while to play and may take some effort as well. Many of them are 2 to 3 hour games, while the ones that are just an hour are often serial destination games, that is, you expect to play two or three times consecutively, possibly the same game, or other serial destination games, in one game session. You expect destination games to be more expensive than many other games because they’re offering you more hours of use, and they’re often “more involved” if not “more complicated”.  If the term “weight” is used to indicate the effort involves, destination games are often heavier games (though the special occasion games, below, are usually the heaviest).  Serial destination games may be lighter.

Most destination games are for more than two players. Two player wargames are often serial destination games, two people get together and play the game two or more times, switching sides.

For serious chess players chess is a destination game although for some it will be a serial destination game.

Special occasion games take so long (or have such unusual requirements) that people schedule meetings just to play the game, enabling them to recruit players specifically for it. Sessions are organized days or even weeks beforehand, especially if a large number of players is required, for example Diplomacy with seven, History of the World with five or six, or Civilization (the boardgame) which requires a large number of players to work well.  Many RPGs are of this category, as they require both quite a few players and a referee as well as a lot of time.  For many people Britannia is a special occasion game (especially if players aren’t experienced, then it can be 7 hours instead of 3.5-5), though if your game club runs many hours it might fall into the destination category. A two player “monster” wargame is also a special occasion game - sometimes several occasions before you can actually finish it.  Miniatures wargames are often special occasion, though the smaller ones can be destination games.

At the other end of the spectrum we have filler games. These games almost always allow for a widely varying number of players because the purpose of the filler game is to let people play something before everyone has shown up for the destination game, or to play something after the destination game is finished. You never know in those circumstances exactly how many people you’re going to have, or how much time you’re going to have. Consequently filler games need to be relatively short, frequently under an hour and sometimes as little as five to 10 minutes. Some of the shorter serial destination games may be usable as fillers in the right circumstances.

I reserve the term “flexible filler” for games that can be played for 30 to 45 minutes but can also be played for as little as 5 to 10 minutes. These are often point games so that you can set a particular point target, or simply play in the amount of time available and then see who has more points.

Filler games are usually lighter games, ones without a lot of strategy to them.  People often use the term “beer and pretzel” games in this context, but I prefer to avoid that term.  It’s not unusual for a filler game, especially a longer one that can also serve as a serial destination game, to be a “screwage” game. (See “Competition, direct conflict, wargames, and screwage games,”

A subcategory of filler game is a convenience game. These are games that can be played in tight spaces (such as a vendor booth at a convention or in a car), or in unusual circumstances where it’s inconvenient to play most other games. Much of this is about the physical conformation of the game of course.

You’d expect fillers to cost significantly less than destination games, even though, in the end, you may play a filler for more hours during it’s “lifetime” than you will many destination games.  Given the “Cult of the New” that is so strong in the hobby, people tend to focus their attention on destination games but then only play them a few times before moving on to something else.  Popular fillers can actually last much longer.

Where do the old “micro” games fit? The micro category seems to have been virtually wiped out by CCGs like Magic: the Gathering and Yu-Gi-Oh. Keep in mind that most micro games, and most CCGs, are two player games. Each individual play of a CCG can be quite short, but players tend to play several games consecutively, often for several hours.  So these might best be characterized as serial destination games - lots of people come to a game meeting specifically to play their favorite CCG over and over again.

Gateway games have come to be popular to introduce people to hobby game playing. Settlers of Catan is the most well-known, but Ticket to Ride also fits this category. Originally these games were serial destination games or long fillers (and again can be treated as both). Gateway games tend to be simpler than destination or special occasion game.  They also tend to be shorter because “the unwashed” often aren’t accustomed to sitting and doing something for long periods.

Sometimes what ought naturally to be a filler game becomes a destination game. For example, Munchkin ought to be a fairly short game if designed properly, but when played by serious gamers it becomes rampant leader bashing as everyone goes up to level 9 before somebody finally is allowed to reach level 10, and the game takes a couple hours.

In general, party games are filler games, the party is what's important, not the game.  Few people take party games seriously.

I’m not strongly in touch with game prices, though obviously they’re going up.  (I recall FFG’s Britannia in 2006 was $40, in 2008 $50.)  Destination games cost much more than fillers, and special occasional games probably cost more yet.  Serial destination games may be the cost of destinations or of fillers, or anywhere in between.  Gateway games, because of their large print runs, should be close to filler game price even though they often amount to serial destinations. 

So where does this get us as game designers?  It will probably help you to be aware of what kind of game you’re designing when you’re still in the conception stage.  It certainly won’t do to market your game as a destination game when it’s really a filler, or vice versa.  Also, a destination game may justify more expensive components than a filler, because the former is likely to sell for more by virtue of being a destination game.

Consideration of game usage may also affect how many players you design a game for.  Though nowadays, given the social nature of tabletop gaming, you’re limiting yourself anytime you design a game that cannot be played by at least four.



Anonymous said...

That's an interesting way of looking at things. A lot of people try to identify a type of game that is a "gateway", for instance, when that is probably best looked at as a use for a game, not a type.

I'd be interested to hear what you would describe as an 'old "micro" game'. Recently there has been a big wave of games that many people describe as micro games, though different people use the term in different ways, and many of these are multi-player and definitely not in the same space as Magic and Yu-Gi-Oh.

Lewis Pulsipher said...

Some years ago I wondered what had happened to the old micro games, and asked around. They've been displaced by CCG-like card games.

They were generally two player games, short games, usually wargames, with not many pieces, small board, few or no cards, so that they could be produced quite cheaply, often packaged in a ziplock bag rather than a box. Ogre was one. Dwarfstar's line of eight boxed games including the original Dragon Rage were late-ish microgames.

Part of "micro" was the packaging. The 2011 edition of Dragon Rage is a big-format production, though it's the same game (with the addition of the second map and scenarios for it). No one would call it a microgame format now. Part of "micro" was relatively few pieces and, usually , two players. (It's hard to have enough pieces for more than two players, among other things.)

A third part of "micro" was the fairly short time it took to play, which also tended to eliminate more-than-two-player games from consideration.

And most micro games, 35 years ago, were wargames. It's not so easy to make a cardless, two player, otherwise cheap-format game that isn't a wargame, because conflict is pretty inevitable when there are only two players.

So now what games do we have now that are small, short, two players, and highly conflictual? CCGs. Most are "wars" between wizards (or something like that, in practice they tend to be quite abstract). When the collectible part is left out, as in "Living Card Games", you can also have pretty cheap games compared with today's boardgames. Keep in mind, $10 in 1980 is $28.49 in today's money, and $10 in 1975 is $43.64. Ogre is 1977. I don't recall its original price, could have been as low as $5. I think the Dwarfstars were $10.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for clarifying. I actually have copies of GEV and Car Wars in the old plastic "pocket sized" packaging. They have been languishing on the shelf for too long -- I really must get them out again to see how they stand up.

This is, of course, a very different style of game to what is being marketed today as a microgame. Stuff like Love Letter, with 16 cards and some scoring tokens, or the extreme example of Coin Age, basically a credit card sized board and some pocket change.

As for your comparison between wargames and CCGs (and similar), I think part of the issue is ease (and thus price) of production. If all your game components are poker-sized cards with a common back, production and packaging is cheap and easy (though vast quantities of artwork may be an issue!), and you almost automatically have something that can be carried around in your pocket. Map-and-counter games have to go some way to compete.