What makes us want to play particular games and then keep playing them? That's the question I'm going to look at over a short series of articles that looks at how board games grab and hold our attention. The articles will cover the whole process of owning a game, including buying it, playing for the first time, playing it more often and buying expansions.
In this first article, I want to look at the very earliest stage of wanting to play a game. How do certain games capture our attention and imagination and make us want to buy and play them? What is it about the design, production and marketing of a game that makes it stand out and give good first impressions to gamers? This question is worth asking because game publishers need to nail this part of the process if they want their game to take off in an increasingly crowded marketplace.
Different ways for games to capture attention
One of the people I follow on Twitter unknowingly gave me some great fodder for this article. @GameMinimalist ran a poll, asking people what their most important deciding factor when buying a game is:
💰 🎲 💰 what’s the most important deciding factor when buying a new board game? 🤔
— Board Game Minimalist (@GameMinimalist) October 22, 2018
I'm not surprised by the results at the time of writing. Mechanisms are leading with 41%, followed by 30% for reviews, 16% for theme and 13% for designer/publisher. I'm also not surprised to see that, despite there being a clear winner, all the options have a fair few votes. With full permission from Board Game Minimalist, I'm now going to take a deeper dive into each of the four options that he included in his poll and have a closer look at how they encourage us to buy games.
Reviews (and Media Coverage)
Anyone looking to buy a game is blessed with a sweeping array of media to help them make a decision. Search for any game in YouTube or Google and you'll be presented with everything from review videos, to play-throughs and how-to-plays, to written articles like the ones you'll find in the Zatu blog.
All of this helps us to make a decision on what game to buy. Seeing a favourable feature of a game we're interested in can often be the final push we need. In fact, I recently pre-ordered Everdell, having had it on my radar since it launched on Kickstarter. What was the last thing I did before ordering? I watched Zee Garcia's Dice Tower review video.
Word of mouth and recommendations from people we trust are hugely important in any buying decision, be it for board games, a place to eat out or a new laptop. Most people will be swayed if they hear a good review, which is why many board game publishers go out of the way to get their games reviewed and featured by the likes of the Dice Tower and Watch It Played.
For a board game, making a good first impression is sometimes just about being seen.
The Reputation of a Designer or Publisher
Some games attract attention on the reputation of their designer. Many board game enthusiasts will be familiar with names like Eric Lang, Stefan Feld, Martin Wallace, Reiner Knizia and more; a new game from a favoured designer is often an instant buy for some people.
Take Reykholt. An otherwise unassuming game about greenhouses in Iceland, Reykholt was catapulted to the centre of attention in the build up to Essen because it's the latest release from celebrated German designer Uwe Rosenberg. Rosenberg has enough of a following that a game simply having his name on the box is enough for some people to want to buy it.
Interestingly, however, this option was the least popular on Board Game Minimalist's poll. I find this surprising, given the number of people on Twitter I've seen gushing over games being released at Essen 2018 simply because they've been designed by the likes of Uwe Rosenberg or Stefan Feld.
The publisher can also make a difference. New games from businesses like Days of Wonder, Fantasy Flight and Renegade Game Studios are all likely to do well because people trust the brand. It's the same in any competitive industry. Still, while the publisher's name can help sell a game, I'm not surprised that it's seen as a less important factor than some of the others.
An Engaging Theme or Attractive Artwork
Full disclosure: this is the option that I voted for. For me, theme and artwork can make or break a decision. I've completely ignored games that others have raved about simply because of the theme and appearance. I've also bought games on appearance - Wildlands is a recent example of a game where I was only interested because I scrolled past a short unboxing video on Twitter.
I think theme and art are so important because they can really shape players' experience of a game. They're also easy to understand without playing the game, which makes them so important in a purchasing decision. I can decide if I like how a game looks by seeing a still image, but I have to watch a video or play a demo to see if I like the mechanics.
I wonder if this is a factor that influences some people more than they realise. Perhaps, though I know that many board gamers won't care about the theme or look of a game as much as me.
It's interesting to consider games based on existing intellectual properties in this category as well, whether they're set in the same universe as a current game (like the Magic: the Gathering board games) or they're based on other media. IP-based games tend to sell well to the IP's existing fan base, simply because those people are already bought into the story, characters and art.
Interesting or Original Mechanisms
Finally, we come to the most popular choice in Board Game Minimalist's poll: mechanisms. The mechanisms of a game join with the theme to form the core of the experience. However, we're talking about the first impressions in this article. Can mechanisms really form a first impression of a game, before you've played it?
Yes, to an extent. Many games will include a description of their mechanisms for potential buyers to read and consider. Kickstarter campaigns will also make some mention of mechanisms to give players an idea of what to expect. Buzzwords like 'area control', 'worker placement' and 'tile laying' all help to give players an idea of what a game involves even if they haven't played it.
Phrases like those above can have a big impact on whether or not a player chooses to buy a game. Just as players will enjoy certain themes or the work of particular designers, mechanisms also have their fans. Simply hearing that a game involves worker placement will be enough to sell it to some people and turn others off.
And yet I'm not convinced that it's as big a factor in forming first impressions of a game as Board Game Minimalist's poll suggests. I have a suspicion that the voters may have inflated its importance in the purchase decision. I just think that a description of mechanisms alone doesn't give a good enough idea of a game unless it's paired with good reviews or compelling themes. I might be wrong, but that's the sense I have.
Closing Comment on First Impressions
To sum all this up, there are many ways that a game can make a good first impression. Perhaps the most important thing in convincing us to buy games is not any one of these discussion points, but rather the success (or not) of the publisher's marketing strategy. After all, some games can excel in all of the above points but flop through a lack of exposure. We have to hear about a game before we can buy it.