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Choice and Bias: Why New Games Top the BGG Rankings

W. Eric Martin
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Board Game: The Brady Bunch Party Game
In the early 1980s, I watched a lot of television — hours of it every day, starting with cartoons when I came home from school, followed by the ever-present re-runs of shows like Gilligan's Island and The Brady Bunch, then continuing with game shows and whatever else happened to be on in the evening. At the time I had no desire or drive for anything. I hung out mostly with my brother and kids his age, sometimes tossing around a football in the backyard or roaming through the woods behind our house or swimming in our above-ground pool, but even so I'd still watch many hours of television each day.

Looking back on those years, I'm horrified at what I watched and how many hours I watched it. I try not to kick about it too much because, hey, what are you going to do with regrets about your past except to (perhaps) let them guide you to better things in the present?

At that time, we had the three U.S. broadcast networks (ABC, NBC, and CBS), a few local channels like WOR (Poughkeepsie represent!), and the one network that I always checked last on the dial: PBS. The dial on the television — a television that my dad had built from a kit, undoubtedly with the grudging assistance of me or my brother as he had us pitch in on most projects he undertook, such as that pool mentioned above — went from 2 to 13, with several of those channels serving only static.

It's funny to ponder how (relatively) little we had available in terms of choices, yet that limited range on the dial didn't matter to the Nielsen rating system and to the newspapers that reported statistics of who was watching what. Sure, we had only three major networks, but the media could still play up the battle of who came out on top in each time slot of each day, of which show — in one way of thinking about things — was better than the others.

Now, "better" is a tricky word since more people watching one show instead of another doesn't mean that the first show is necessarily better for you, the individual viewer. Each year, the Super Bowl has the highest viewership numbers of any program on television, but if you don't care for American football, then you'll probably watch something else on TV. (You might turn off the TV, too, but if we're talking solely about ratings among television shows, then you opting out of the system means that your opinion doesn't count.)

The creation of the FOX network in 1986 broke the rating dominance of the three networks in the U.S. No, FOX didn't beat out any of the network shows in its early years, but some percentage of viewership moved away from those older networks to the newcomer. Then other networks arrived on the scene — The WB, UPN, Court TV, Tribune Broadcasting, Pax TV — and these days the number of broadcast channels seems limited only by the willingness of cable companies to assign a number to them.

The diverse range of choices available to viewers has led to us scattering to many different shows and channels — and this doesn't even take into account streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, and Disney+ that allow you to dip into decades of movies and television shows, not to mention the original content created by these services. Ask a hundred random U.S. residents what they last watched, and you'll possibly receive one hundred different answers.

This scattering of the audience doesn't mean that we don't have hits, but the hits rack up a smaller percentage of the audience than hit shows of past decades. People find what suits their tastes and focus on that, venturing into new territory when they read about something by chance or friends recommend shows.

•••

Board Game: Lost Cities
I sampled modern board games in the early 2000s, but I didn't get into them heavily until someone saw me playing Lost Cities at a Magic: The Gathering prerelease tournament in 2003, found out where I lived, and suggested that I contact Mark Edwards in southeast Massachusetts to get a bigger taste of the new games on the market.

Mark's closets held hundreds of games that I had never heard of previously, so on each Tuesday in the months that followed, I'd join the other Guy Stuff Gamers at his place and learn whatever it was people decided to teach me. As I discovered over time, Mark's tastes largely matched mine — or perhaps my tastes were shaped into Mark's tastes since he would often put one of his favorite games on the table to play: Ra, Acquire, and Kohle, Kie$ & Knete, which had hit the market in a new edition that same year as I'm the Boss!

We typically had enough players on hand to have two tables running at once, and since people took turns suggesting games, I ended up playing games that — had I known then what I know now — might have had me scooting to the other table. Still, as often happens in a group, you're happy to play whatever is suggested because you like playing with the people around you, regardless of whether the game is to your taste.

Board Game: A Game of Thrones
The best example of this for me was playing the original A Game of Thrones board game from Fantasy Flight Games. We played it three times in quick succession following the game's debut in 2003, and in all three games I was the one who enabled the winner to win. In one game, I wasted two of my first three actions, choosing things that I could not do as I simply couldn't grasp what I was supposed to do in the game. In another game, I wasted multiple actions in the north, leaving no defense anywhere, which allowed Mark to sail further north and sweep south through my territories for victory.

A Game of Thrones highlighted a skill that I didn't have — the ability to plan multiple actions in sequence on a map while accounting for and attempting to anticipate the potential actions of others — and being the constant goat didn't inspire me to play the game more to develop that skill. A common complaint about Puerto Rico is that the player sitting to the left of the newbie will win, but I've never experienced a giveaway like my losses in A Game of Thrones and my rating for that game on BGG — a 4 — reflects the inappropriateness of that game for me. I'm fairly confident that not only would I not enjoy playing the game, but that I would create an unenjoyable environment for others, so I should avoid playing it again in the future.

Over the years, I've developed a decent understanding of what I like to play — although I know that I can still be surprised — so these days I pre-reject hundreds of games as soon as they're announced. Anything with space combat is right out, as are dungeon crawlers, war games, anything related to The Lord of the Rings or other epic fantasy settings, anything with lots of fiddly rule exceptions and modifiers, and nearly all games with a playing time over ninety minutes.

I can't even get all of the games that I'm confident I'd like to the table, so why would I spend time on the games in those categories? The only reason I'd do so is to accommodate friends with whom I'd like to play, but ideally we can find something that will fall into the overlapping Venn diagrams of our game tastes. Thanks to the proliferation of new releases on today's market that's almost guaranteed to be possible — and yet that very proliferation has a strange consequence for how we view the quality of today's games.

•••

One common criticism of game ratings on BoardGameGeek is that, on average, newer games have higher ratings than older games. People highlight this fact most frequently by pointing to the huge number of new games — that is, games published within the previous five years — in BGG's top 10 (or the top 20 or the top 100). Gloomhaven doesn't deserve to have the number one rating, they argue, and Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 didn't deserve to be #1 prior to that; those games are just new and popular, so folks are giving them high ratings.

In general, the argument seems to be that people — other people, mind you — tend to be overly enamored of new games. They spent their money on something, most likely a gussied-up Kickstarter title with a bucket of miniatures, and they've somehow convince themselves that they like the game more than they should. (I'm not sure why someone else's rating of a game would have more merit than your rating given that the two of you are different people with different tastes and experiences, and it makes little sense to argue that their rating is wrong, but let's overlook that detail for now.)

Some counter this claim of ratings inflation by arguing that games today are simply better than games of the past. Designers have learned from all those who have come before, and they're creating sharper, better-tuned games. Publishers have upped their game as well, using better artists and more fanciful production techniques to deliver more polished packages. This argument mirrors modernist thinking of the mid-20th century, the idea that in all artistic fields the creators of today work on the shoulders of those who have come before, synthesizing techniques to create work that implicitly acknowledges that which has come before while also saying something new and perhaps more meaningful or resonant at the same time. Creators grow up enmeshed in this way of thinking about the creative process and know that in turn they will be surpassed by others.

This argument has some merit because game designs published today do have a larger field of work upon which to draw than those created five, ten, or twenty years ago. Turn the clock back to 2011, and the term "minimalist games" might have had you thinking about titles from Cheapass Games rather than Love Letter and the dozens of other tiny games that have followed it. Skip back to the mid-2000s, and deck-building wasn't a thing outside of Magic: The Gathering and other collectible card games. Consider board gaming before the turn of the millennium, and you'll find little in the way of co-operative games, with tile-laying being something you did in the kitchen when the linoleum wore out.

While this might be true, I'd instead argue that you find newer games popping into BGG's top 100 list more frequently simply due to the number of games that are being published. Whether or not games today are better than games of years past, more new titles hit the market each year, with those games providing an ever-widening variety of experiences.

If you asked people in 2008 whether they wanted to play a deck-building game, they would have responded, "You mean Dominion?" It was the only deck-building game in town, so you played that or you played some other type of game. Today you can play deck-builders that are co-operative or merged with dungeon crawling or set in the world of superheroes or set in another world of superheroes or set in a favored and familiar world like Dune or The Lord of the Rings. You have a hundred choices for deck-building games, and while you might have enjoyed Dominion enough to rate it an 8, you were blown away by the chance to put yourself in the world of Aliens — and then you got to bring Predator to the table, too, which meant that you could now ignore all the fantasy deck-builders hitting the market. Sure, those other games might be okay, but why would you settle for okay when you can get the game that's exactly what you want, in this case, action movies on your tabletop with you getting to power up to save humanity.

Board Game: Legendary Encounters: An Alien Deck Building Game
From gallery of W Eric Martin

This variety in terms of subject matter and mechanisms and playing time and player count and artistic diversity is exciting to see — but also overwhelming. If you're anything like me, when you first started playing modern games, you wanted to buy nearly every one you tried because they were so revolutionary compared to the games of your childhood, and before long you found yourself with more games than time, and you realized that you needed to be choosier. Instead of saying, "I want to play it all", which entails buying it all, then not necessarily playing it before I acquire something else, I say, "I want to pick out the best games for myself and try those first."

From conversations online and at conventions, I get the sense that hundreds of other gamers are mirroring this behavior. We look at the BGG convention previews for Gen Con and SPIEL — previews that feature hundreds of new releases — and we find ourselves scratching off 90% of the titles based solely on a game's setting or player count or playing time or publisher or any number of other details just to give ourselves a manageable number of titles to consider.

We might say that we'll try something out in the future, but since a dozen more titles are in line behind whatever we're currently considering, that promise is akin to a child's when they say they'll clean their room in a few minutes. It just ain't gonna happen. As a result, (almost) all of the games that I would rate poorly due to them not being to my taste instead receive no rating from me at all. Gloomhaven, for example, won't ever get my 4 rating (or whatever it might be) because I will never try it and neither will tens of thousands of other people who quaver at the thought of spending $140 on a monstrously large, scenario-driven, fantasy game that will overflow a table with components — but it will get 20,000+ 10 ratings from those who are looking for precisely that type of game.

The BGG top 100 also features dozens of "new" games that are revised editions or spinoffs of earlier titles. In the top 10 alone, we have seven such games: Pandemic Legacy: Season 1, Brass: Birmingham, Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion, Twilight Imperium: Fourth Edition, Gaia Project, Through the Ages: A New Story of Civilization, and War of the Ring: Second Edition.

All of these titles might indeed be "better" than their predecessors when viewed objectively (assuming that's possible), but these revisions and spinoffs tend to pick up positive ratings over negative ones precisely because some percentage of gamers will opt out of ever playing them. After all, if you've previously played Pandemic or Terra Mystica or Through the Ages and you hated them, the chances of you trying the new version are slim. Why put yourself through that potential trauma when you have a thousand other games that might appeal to you more? As a result, the players who rate these revisions and spinoffs tend to be hardcore fans of the original titles or people who have tried and liked some out-of-print game that they can now finally acquire.

•••

Despite all that I've said, I don't think that the BGG rankings are useless — but I don't think they're that useful either, at least not for someone who has any idea of what they want to play. I've played "only" 28 titles in the BGG top 100 and 44 titles in those ranked 101-200, and that's fine as I'm not interested in playing most of the titles that I've "missed".

As Dale Yu of Opinionated Gamers wrote on an internal mailing list, "The side benefit of 1,000 new games a year is that I seriously have no FOMO about games. My dance card is completely filled with the games that I get now — and I'm cool with that." (Also, he undercounted the number of new games by a couple of thousand.) For the most part, I focus on as many tiny, tricky card games as possible, with occasional forays into abstract strategy games and minimalistic Euro designs. I want tiny rule sets that I can absorb so thoroughly that I don't have to think about them while playing, the rules effectively creating a shared landscape of walls and tunnels that I can then explore in competition with others.

As a result, to find new games that will likely be to my tastes, I'm much better off looking for gamers who like the same type of games that I like, then making them Geekbuddies and seeing what they've rated and what they're writing about that I don't already know. When I discover a game I like from an unfamiliar designer, I trace that designer's list of published games and look for bargains in the used game stalls at SPIEL, similar to how I'd hunt down every single title from authors like Alain Robbe-Grillet and David Markson after striking gold in some random book of theirs I read. I receive recommendations from real-life friends who know my tastes.

With this in mind, I'd encourage you not to dismiss a game simply because its BGG rating seems low compared to other games — or to purchase a game simply because it has a high rating. Networking and self-directed research will always be more valuable than a ranked list by the "masses" because your tastes won't necessarily align with the "average" gamer, not that such a thing exists anyway. Cultivate your own rankings, and value them more highly than any other — and post your ratings on BGG so that others who value your particular tastes can find recommendations of what to try next.
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