Anyone who's played board games with a few different people knows that not everyone likes to play the same way. Some gamers are determined to optimise every move they make, while others want to do the most outrageous thing possible within the rules. Still, others are just happy to be along for the ride!
When not every gamer is the same, it's helpful to have some language to be able to articulate the differences. This can help players to empathise with each other better, and to learn what kind of games and experiences others are looking for. The result is that we can choose better games to buy and play with one another.
Unfortunately, finding the language to describe gamers in this way isn't an easy thing. Thankfully, one of my gaming heroes, Magic: The Gathering's head designer Mark Rosewater, has already laid some groundwork.
One of the innovations that he brought to Magic's design was the idea of three common psychographics, or player types, that could be found in their audience: Timmy/Tammy; Jenny/Jonny; and Spike. By keeping these psychographics in mind, Magic's designers are able to make sure that every expansion contains something to appeal to all different kinds of players.
In this article, I'm going to take Magic's psychographics and apply them to board games. It's not a perfect fit, as Magic is a very different kind of game to most board games, but I think it's a good start. Before the end, I'll also touch on a second distinction made on the excellent Ludology podcast by experienced game designers Gil Hova and Geoff Engelstein, between 'care-bears' and more aggressive gamers.
Tammy loves doing exciting things. According to Mark Rosewater, the kind of cards that they would design specifically for Tammy would be the big, flashy looking creature cards that featured enormous hydras, ridiculous dragons or powerful angels, with high attack and defence points. They're the kind of cards that feel really exciting to put into play.
In board games, Tammy is the kind of player who looks for flashy, fun, exciting things to do. This is a little easier for me to talk about, because I actually identify most with Tammy (well, Timmy)! For example, when I play a deck-building game, I just want to acquire the most expensive cards as soon as possible and play them, regardless of how good that strategy might actually be for the game. Games like King of Tokyo also appeal, because the whole premise of the game is controlling stupid monsters and whacking other players with them. What's not to love?
This isn't to say that Tammy doesn't like strategy in games. However, the strategy is secondary to an interesting theme and gameplay that encourages exciting experiences. If the strategy is a means to that end, then fine. However, if the game is all about strategy and fine details, Tammy could lose interest more quickly than games with more exciting hooks.
Jenny wants to use games to express her creativity. Mark Rosewater talks about Jenny as a player who is always looking for different ways to use Magic's cards and to come up with something that feels creative and unique to her. When designing cards for Jenny, Magic's team will often put in a couple of off-the-wall alternative wind conditions and cards that seem useful, but whose exact purpose isn't immediately clear.
Jenny will bring that drive towards creativity and self-expression to board games. Unlike Tammy, a game like King of Tokyo probably won't appeal to Jenny, because there is not a lot of scope to shape the game to your liking. Jenny prefers games where there's a lot of freedom to try different routes to victory. In this way, 'point salad' games with lots of victory points and different ways to gain them could appeal.
If you want to introduce someone to board games who you think could be a Jenny/Jonny, try starting them off with a game like 7 Wonders, where there are several different ways to gain points and a lot of scope to choose the kind of city you want to build.
It's rare that any one person exactly fits one of these psychographics, and elements of Jenny are probably found in most players. Players who identify with Jenny more than any other psychographic may also still be looking for the excitement that Tammy craves, or the strategy optimisation that Spike loves, but above all they want a game that they can explore and make their own.
Spike cares about playing any game as best he can. Mark Rosewater sees Spike as the most competitive player, always looking for a way to gain an advantage over his opponents. The cards designed for Spike in Magic are the cards that can shape tournament-level decks. Their flavour and theme is very much secondary.
In board games, the same is true. Spike is looking for compelling gameplay and interesting strategy far more than he looks for theme or an emotional experience. When he's playing a game, Spike will always be looking for the optimal strategy, whether it's his first play or his 13th. He may not always be super competitive in his attitude towards other players, but he will always do the best he possibly can with the knowledge at his disposal.
Spike will look for games that give him scope to flex his strategic muscles. King of Tokyo probably wouldn't hold Spike's attention for long, but he may prefer the more strategic King of New York. In general, Spike is going to be the most likely of the three psychographics to enjoy heavier strategy games, but there's also a sense in which the actual game he's playing is secondary to how well he's playing it. Whether he's playing King of New York or Terra Mystica, Spike is first and foremost concerned with whether or not he's playing well and getting the hang of the game's strategy.
Care-bears vs competitors
Mark's psychographics aren't intended to capture every aspect of a gamer's personality. Another helpful distinction to bear in mind is what I'm calling care-bears vs competitors. As I mentioned at the start, this came up on a Ludology podcast episode where Gil and Geoff were looking at the interactivity of games.
Their premise was that some players - care-bears - prefer low interaction because they don't like to have their stuff messed up and they don't want to be mean to other players. At the other end of the scale is a type of player that I'm calling a 'competitor' - someone who actively enjoys high levels of interaction and having the ability to directly affect what other players are doing.
A player on the care-bear half of the spectrum is going to prefer games where each player is allowed to build up her stuff without their opponent being able to do much about it. They're also unlikely to enjoy games where players are required to pick on each other or negotiate for resources and positioning. Ticket to Ride is a good example of the kind of game that could appeal to a care-bear as, although there's some interaction on the board, it's very limited and passive and you're mostly left to your own devices.
On the other hand, the competitor loves a bit of back and forth. They won't mind being able to tear down what others have built, and shouldn't be too sad if the same thing happens to them in return! A game like Star Realms is is great for this type of player, as you can have a level of control over everything the opponent does, including what cards they have available to buy and what stays on their field. In fact, any game revolving around life totals is likely to appeal to this sort of player, as you have to choose to attack each other for the game to progress.
I would say that being aware of this scale is even more important than the other psychographics if you're trying to find games that your friends will enjoy. Even if someone loves the look and feel of a game, if it's too interactive (or not interactive enough) they're unlikely to have fun. In all of our reviews, we include an interactivity score, which can help you identify which games fall where on the scale. I would also recommend checking out that Ludology episode (number 168, I believe) if you want to find out more.
Whether you have a handle on psychographics or not, the most important thing is to pay attention to the likes and dislikes of the people you play games with if you want to buy games that stand a chance of hitting the table regularly. Psychographics help give you a framework to think about it, but there's no substitute for taking the time to learn what your friends actually want to play.