Most people would agree that the component quality of modern board games is always improving. With more and more games competing for attention each year it's logical that they need to do everything they can to stand out, and visual appeal makes a big difference. If you're trying to draw attention to your game at a crowded convention or make a box that stands out on the shelf of a store, you have to put a lot of thought into how it looks. As publishers compete in this area, the standards just keep going up.
This situation leads to a couple of questions. What really makes a component good? How can components positively or negatively impact player experience? Can a game succeed without top components? I can't promise definitive answers to all those questions, but they form the context for this article and why I felt that it was worth writing.
What is a Quality Component?
I want to start by making sure that we're on the same page. When I talk about high-quality components, I don't just mean expensive detailed miniatures. A well-made game board with stunning art is a high-quality component. Meeples crafted out of good material can be high-quality components. Sturdy cards featuring great art are definitely high-quality components. Quality does not equal price, though high-quality components can make a game more expensive than it would be otherwise due to the materials used and the time taken to design them.
I admit that there's some subjectivity here, but, for me, a high-quality component is one that looks appealing, won't be easily damaged and serves a function in making the game easier and more fun to play.
Why does Component Quality Matter?
I touched on one reason that component quality matters in the intro. It matters because good components attract attention. Enough hype over components and production can even cause people to forget the harder questions that we should be asking of every game, e.g. is it actually good? The cynical side of me thinks that many big Kickstarters focus on offering loads of great stuff to lure in backers and distract them from the gameplay itself. That said, good components certainly play a role in attracting attention to games which can then prove their worth with excellent mechanics and gameplay.
Component quality also has a big impact on the price point of a game. Though quality does not equal price, players often expect more expensive games to contain components of a certain quality. It's more and more common to see Kickstarter pledges starting at £100 a pop for a game containing large, sturdy, detailed miniatures. Equally, publishers can push prices down by cutting corners on quality, which is not necessarily a bad thing if the components still accomplish their purposes.
Finally, component quality does make a difference to the experience of playing a game. Not every player will feel the same, but I get a lot of enjoyment from interacting with something that looks good on the table, with pieces that feel nice to move around. Takenoko is a game that I've had a lot of success teaching to new players. I believe that part of that success comes from gameplay that is perfectly complemented by attractive, tactile components, with players building up bamboo stalks that are beautifully made from brightly coloured wood and moving a cute panda miniature around the board.
Component Quality - Form and Function
Component quality can also be assessed on two scales: form and function. These are elements of design that apply to many products beyond board game components. The form of a game component is everything aesthetic: How it looks, what it feels like and the emotional response it brings out of players. The function of a game component is simply concerned with how well it does its job. For example, does a first player marker clearly signal to everyone that the right player is starting the round? Are different resource cubes easy to tell apart? That sort of thing.
For me, a high-quality component should be a good blend of form and function, and one of those qualities shouldn't outweigh the other. You run into trouble if, say a publisher has worked exceptionally hard to make very detailed miniatures, but they break apart when you try to move them around a board. You also run into trouble if everything has been made to be purely functional with no thought given to form - this is how you end up with bland games that play fine but don't stand out.
The practical application of these considerations is that, when you're thinking about whether or not to buy a game and demoing it or watching reviews and play-through videos, ask yourself whether the form and function of the components makes sense. Are the components fiddly to use even though they look great? Is their appearance going to put people off the game even if functionally, they do a great job? With these questions in mind, you can be more informed in your purchases.
Is it Possible to Overproduce a Game?
The danger of improving component quality is that we can stray into overproduction. This is where players have to be careful. Overproduction is hard to pin down, but I would define an overproduced game as one where the form of the components goes far beyond what's necessary for - or even hinders - their function.
It's a hard line to draw because everyone has different opinions about what is unnecessary. Some people complain that Grimm Forest - one of my favourite family-weight games - is overproduced because of the big, detailed miniatures. I would argue that those miniatures give the game a unique charm and feel great to move around and interact with, adding to the overall experience of the game.
Given its subjectivity, I would never want to say that a game is definitely overproduced. I think the main issue is when the production quality makes the game cost way more than it needs to for the content of the gameplay itself. An example of where I would certainly draw the line is the huge 'megature' in the Cthulhu: Death May Die Kickstarter. I don't want to pay £100s for flashy components if the gameplay isn't going to be significantly better or more extensive than I could buy in a £50 game.
Other people might disagree and that's fine, but the more we talk about this kind of thing, the more people can make their mind up about what they do and don't want to spend money on.
Examples of Well-Produced Games
I want to finish this article with some examples of well-produced games that, in my opinion, nail the balance of form and function in their components. These are games that I think represent great value for money, look good on the table and feel awesome to play. It should put what I've said into context a little more with some concrete examples.
I've mentioned Takenoko already as an example of a lightweight game with great components. For an inexpensive game, this charming title sees players try to complete objective cards by expanding a bamboo garden, moving a gardener to grow the bamboo shoots and moving a panda to eat the shoots.
Every component in this game looks and feels great, from the hexagonal tiles, to the wooden bamboo shoots, to the painted gardener and panda miniatures. The game's visual appeal ties into the theme beautifully and makes it easy for players of all experience levels to enjoy this well-designed game.
Ashes: Rise of the Phoenixborn
I don't want to leave card games out of this discussion. While they may not have sculpted miniatures of colourful meeples, the quality of the cards and the art on them makes all the difference. Ashes features stunning art from Fernanda Suarez, with gorgeous depictions of people, animals and scenery. Her illustrations bring the cards to life and add flavour to the world that Isaac Vega and Plaid Hat Games have created. In addition, Ashes also boasts clear, colourful dice and a handful of well-presented tokens that aid players in tracking the game-state.
Scythe's components might just be the best that I own. Not only is the game full of stunning art from Jakub Rozalski, the various wooden and plastic pieces all look excellent and do a great job of aiding gameplay. Scythe features wooden meeples, shaped wooden resource tokens, plastic miniatures and a wide array of cards, all of which fit the theme and help make the game more intuitive for players.
One of the best things that Jamey Stegmaier brought in was the difference between wooden and plastic pieces. He used the different materials to make it clear which moving pieces could be active in combat: plastic miniatures can fight; wooden meeples can't. It's a small touch, but it shows how components can go beyond the basics and really help players to learn and enjoy the game.
And finally, I have to mention to the new release from Leder Games. Root deserves a mention because it is a big, successful game that has eschewed plastic miniatures for wonderfully designed wooden animal meeples. The cats, birds, mice and raccoon are brightly and distinctively coloured. They are also shaped differently and feature different facial expressions to ensure that people with colour-blindness and other visual impairments are able to tell them apart easily.
These wooden pieces are moved on a board covered in gorgeous art and are supported by fully illustrated cards that immerse players in Root's unique world.