Psychology of Board Games

Statistics and Speculations on the Behavioral Science of Board Gaming
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What do we mean by Game Weight?

Corey Butler
United States
Saint Paul
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If you visit a game page at BoardGameGeek, you'll have the opportunity to make two different kinds of ratings. One allows you to rate the game on a scale of 1-10 in terms of how much you enjoy playing it. This rating is THE rating, the one that determines the rank of the game. The other rating, over on the right side of the screen, is the weight rating, which is on a scale of 1-5. This somewhat neglected metric has always been problematic, and there have been long discussions on what it means, if anything. "Weight" is just a metaphor, but intuitively it seems to refer to something that we should be able to measure. Today I'd like to take a closer look at game weight and see if we can understand it a little better with some input from cognitive psychology.

Game weight has been subtitled "complexity" in an attempt to clarify what it means. Complexity could be quantified in terms of how many rules, mechanics, or components are involved in the game. It could also refer to how difficult the game is to learn. The BGG wiki page offers the following additional suggestions...

For different people weight means different things, usually a combination of things like:
*How complex/thick is the rulebook?
*How long does it take to play?
*What proportion of time is spent thinking and planning instead of resolving actions?
*How hard and long do you have to think to improve your chance of winning?
*How little luck is in the game?
*How much technical skill (math, reading ahead moves, etc) is necessary?
*How long does it take to learn the rules?
*How many times do you need to play before you feel like you "get" the game?

Are these descriptions helpful or do they just muddy the waters further? Should we try to conceptualize weight as a single, unidimensional entity, or are we stuck with this multifaceted kitchen sink? The trouble with the kitchen sink approach is that weight ratings might not be very meaningful if people are thinking of different things and comparing apples to grapefruits. But how do we achieve a consensus definition when there are so many different opinions?

Coming at this from a psychological perspective, I believe that game weight is best conceptualized as cognitive load, which refers to the quantity of information held in working memory during the performance of a task. For example, adding 76 plus 47 in your head involves more cognitive load, and thus more effort, than adding 6 plus 7. Trying to calculate three moves ahead in chess involves more load than visualizing only one move ahead. Likewise, playing Agricola involves more cognitive load than playing Yahtzee. Cognitive load is closely linked to complexity, but only incidentally linked to other features mentioned in the wiki article, like presence of luck and playing time.

Cognitive load can be a good thing if you really enjoy getting into a game and thinking about it. But if it becomes too much of a burden, player aids and cheat sheets are a great way to remove the tedious parts of load so you can focus on strategy and tactics. The main problem is that working memory is a limited capacity system. It can only hold about five items at a time. Fortunately, with the development of expertise, much of the work in a game is outsourced to automated habits and schemas in long-term memory, lessening the cognitive load one experiences while playing.

From gallery of shotokanguy

Let's test this idea further by looking at some sample weight ratings...

Rise and Decline of the Third Reich (W=4.32)
Gloomhaven (W=3.75)
Chess (W=3.74)
Agricola (W=3.63)
Axis & Allies (W=3.04)
General Quarters (W=2.30)
Carcassonne (W=1.93)
Ticket to Ride (W=1.87)
Yahtzee (W=1.19)

These ratings represent how "heavy" the games are in the minds of the people who rated them. We have no idea what the raters were thinking about when they made the ratings, but they seem to line up reasonably well with the cognitive load model. Third Reich has many, many rules and pieces to keep track of in working memory, whereas Yahtzee clearly does not. The naval miniatures game, General Quarters is a problem though. I would rate it considerably heavier than Axis & Allies in terms of complexity and cognitive load. Were these games rated by the same population of gamers?

Muzafer Sherif's social judgment theory proposes that people make judgments according to internalized standards or anchors. All judgments are subjective, according to an individual's particular frame of reference. Thus, weightlifters judge test weights as lighter than watchmakers, and wargamers may well perceive certain games as lighter than nonwargamers. For a wargamer interested in historical naval miniatures, General Quarters is fairly lightweight. A euro gamer who has played Axis & Allies a couple of times would almost certainly rate General Quarters a 4 or a 5. This is a real measurement problem for weight ratings, regardless of whether or not we tie the concept to cognitive load theory.

When I came up with the idea of weight as cognitive load, I thought it was a pretty original concept. Naturally, a google search revealed that others have used this same terminology. User Joel Wolski even suggested a nice approach for handling individual differences in perception of weight. Rather than using gaming background as I suggested above (e.g. wargamer vs. nonwargamer), his formula proposes that weight could be viewed as a function of cognitive load and gamer's strength...

[Game weight] = [game's cognitive load] รท [gamer's strength]

It's a nice solution and can account for how games could receive the same weight rating despite having objectively different levels of cognitive load. Now all we have to do is figure out what "strength" means.
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