Cause and Effect

We’re often told to be careful not to mistake correlation for causation.  The maxim that correlation does not imply causation is burned into your brain from day one of any statistics course.  Just because the rate of swimming accidents increases as ice cream sales increase does not mean that ice cream causes swimming mishaps.  This might be an obvious example of this fallacy to spot, but it is nevertheless true that we can easily fall into the trap of assuming that a causal relationship exists where there is none.  What about the reverse error of mistaking causation for correlation?  We are much less wary of this far less common possibility.  And yet, I recently came across an example in the board game world where a correlation was being measured and provided without any consideration for the causes of that apparent correlation.  It struck me that the data showing a close correlation between the game ratings of myself and various friends may have been “corrupted” by my learning a number of games from and playing those games with the individuals in question.

The website at issue is of course the fantastic BGG Rating Correlation tool.  This allows you to see how well or poorly your game ratings correlate with all other BoardGameGeek users that rate a specified number of the same games as you.  As I’m sure you’ve already gathered, this is not going to be a serious statistical piece and any misstatements I’ve already made or will make regarding statistics should be kindly overlooked.  I’m more interested in the impact that your playing partners can have on your game tastes and game playing habits.  This is a glimpse into one of the causes of a ratings correlation.

War of the Ring may be the best example in my experience of the phenomenon in question.  This epic game that pits good against evil, light against dark, your brain against an incredibly convoluted rule set, is one that would have been a serious contender for my recent April Showers piece if only I’d first tried it in April.  Alas, the limits of restricting oneself to a narrow subject are myriad.  Regardless, War of the Ring finds this opportunity to rear its head.

War of the Ring is a prime example of a game where my high rating correlates to that of a friend of mine, but it was that same friend who caused my rating to jump as high as it did.  I first tried the game a couple times in 2007, but it was nearly impenetrable.  Neither I nor my opponent had any familiarity with the game, so we struggled together to plow our way through the dense thicket of rules.  The game was not immersive as it should have been; it was the opposite.  It repelled us at every turn, striving to keep us at bay and prevent us from becoming comfortably ensconced in the world of Tolkien.

Fast forward to 2009 when I finally had the opportunity to play the game a couple more times, but this time with someone who was intimately familiar with the game, who in fact counts it as one of his very favorites.  This time I have someone to run the game for me, which makes all the difference in the world as I’m sure you well know and as Joe Huber recently discussed in detail, albeit from a different angle.  Now I could see how immersive and thematic the game was; now I could appreciate it the way it was clearly meant to be appreciated.  This friend was plainly the direct cause of our ratings becoming correlated as he not only taught me the game, but taught me to love the game.

The same can be said for a game at the opposite end of the spectrum, a game with the best introductory paragraph ever – Igloo Pop.  The Zoch game about a young ice giant that wants to buy fish sticks but cannot remember how many.  He has nine shopping lists in his basket, so he goes from igloo to igloo and shakes each.  He thinks he’s hearing delicious fish sticks bounce off the igloo walls, but when he takes it home, wild and laughing Eskimo children tumble out of the igloo, excitedly shouting to be shaken again.  The ice giant is happy to have made new friends and promptly forgets all about his shopping lists.  Truly an inspiring tale of love, loss, and redemption… or something like that.

The game itself is a raucous affair of shaking plastic igloos filled with beads and trying to determine (and/or guess, depending on your aural abilities) how many beads are in each as fast and frantically as possible.  It’s not a game I imagine I’d ever have come across or tried on my own.  But in the vein of friends shaping your gaming tastes and playing habits, a friend of mine kindly introduced me to Igloo Pop and fostered my love of the game.  I’d never have known about the game or rated it in such close correlation to him if not for his meddling ways.

Unlike War of the Ring, this is obviously not a game where I needed an experienced teacher to hold my hand through an educational play to appreciate the game, but simply a game that I likely would have missed altogether if not for a gaming buddy trotting it out at a game day a few years back.  Now our ratings are more on the same page because of such influence.

The same story could be told for countless other games, generally from one of these two angles.  The convoluted games where it took a patient guiding hand to make me see the light — Through the Ages, Antiquity — or the off-the-beaten-path game where it took another set of eyes and ears to spot the game among the mass of releases and bring it to my attention — eBay Electronic Talking Auction Game, Bamboleo, or Machtspiele.  Regardless, ranging all the way from the epic narrative arc of War of the Ring to the childish laughter of Igloo Pop, my tastes are clearly guided by outside forces.

Perhaps such tampering with the results of this kind of correlation analysis is inevitable.  We are the product of our surroundings in large part and cannot help but be shaped and molded by their influence.  I suppose in the end my ratings and opinions on games are not my own, but an amalgam of my experiences and the input of everyone I’ve sat across the table from.  Along those lines, it naturally follows that in addition to being subject to such causes, I’m also the source of this effect on others.  And that’s a nice thought — as I’ve introduced countless others to this game or that game over the years, along the way I’ve hopefully had a positive impact on their enjoyment of a game or two.

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9 Responses to Cause and Effect

  1. jeffinberlin says:

    Nice article, Tom. Enthusiasm is contagious–that’s often how we attract new people to the hobby.

    I can’t help but think this sometimes happens in the negative, too. If other players are extremely bored by a game that you might like, they might sour the game through constant complaining or less-than-enthusiastic play.

    And I’ve noticed that the same can happen in game ratings, as gamers sometimes seem to compete in a metagame to see who can dis a particular game with the most obnoxious comment. Not that this is restricted to gaming critique–I’ve seen the same kind of group-think snobbery in film and architectural criticism.

  2. jon says:

    I’m in the odd position of playing games with friends at home, and teaching games at BM! to relative strangers. And the games I play at home are almost always new to us, so are group learning experiences, and the games I play at BM! are very familiar and favourites of mine, but invariably I’m playing people who have never seen it! So I am skewed both ways.

    But learning games at home is so much easier than in a noisy club, and I have so many unplayed games at home. I suppose I need another home-game-day of just old games. Go back to the start and play games we all know already.

  3. Adam K says:

    One thing about most board games – you don’t play them alone (generally). Unlike movie reviewers or book reviewers or even (most) video game reviewers, who can experience the subject of their review in isolation and thus pretend to take on some kind of objective standard in their writing style, board games are by nature a communal experience.

    Of course the people you play with will color your opinion of a game. I think that’s to be expected. In fact, I think acknowledging it adds a level of honesty to the review that is absent in reviews of other media. A critic can sit in a theater by themself and pretend that their opinion of a movie isn’t influenced by their peers, their culture, and hundreds of other factors in the world around them, but it simply isn’t true. We’re all influenced by the people and situations in our lives, and our opinions never arise from a vacuum. And that’s particularly true when it comes to experiences that require the participation of other people in order to have them.

  4. jeffinberlin says:

    Excellent point, Adam.

  5. Tom Rosen says:

    Excellent points all! Thanks for the comments Jeff, Jon, and Adam. I agree Jeff that there’s also a dark side to this that I didn’t explore here, which is that both enthusiasm and negativity can be contagious. I know I’ve experienced both ends of the spectrum. Good point Adam; I hadn’t thought of the distinction from movie/book reviewers who can more easily convince themselves that they’re considering the work in isolation. It makes it all that much harder to try to “objectively” review or analyze a board game, which as you remind us is so much more communal by its very nature. It’s often when I have an about-face on a game that I am able to remind myself how little I alone can control my feelings on various games.

  6. Eric Brosius says:

    I’m reminded of an xkcd strip:

  7. Joe Huber says:


    For me, the natural conclusion of this phenomenon is one that I reached some time back – play games with enthusiasts of those games. Regardless of whether or not you can differentiate what fun the game provides from that your opponents provide – you’ll have more fun.

    Of course, if _you’re_ the enthusiast, that works. But where I find it most important is when giving another try (or a first try) to a game you’re uncertain of. One of my favorite personal examples is Beowulf. I first played this with Chris Farrell, and had a wonderful experience (though I recognized that much of this was due to the company). I did try the game again later, and it was pleasant enough but not nearly so enjoyable. So I will very gladly play Beowulf – with Chris, or perhaps with another enthusiast. Otherwise, it’s not a game I need to get to the table. The difficulty, of course, is that it’s hard to game with a wide enough variety of individuals to have the right audience for every game…

  8. Eric Brosius says:

    And similarly, if you want to try Hamstern, you should try to play it with Joe.

  9. Michael Sosa says:

    I do think that the effect of other people’s enthusiasm or lack of for a game is overrated though. In my case it is rarely a factor. I love and dislike games independent of who I am playing with, even if it does impact how much fun I’m having. I’m not sure being frustrated in learning the rules should be taken into consideration when evaluation how much of your fellow gamer’s preferences influence your decision. Rules that are tough to learn or misunderstood will impact your initial impression of a game, but if that is all your opinion is based on then we should agree it is based on a weak foundation.

    Perhaps your own individual personality is a larger factor in how much other’s tastes influence your own. If you are easily persuaded by a group then their preferences will logically have a significant impact compared to a gamer who goes his own way and does not mind being the lone wolf. I find that I have plenty of minority opinions, such as rating Runewars a 3, after three increasingly unpleasant games with enthusiastic partners. Perhaps my view is colored by a latent desire to rebel against the group!

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