By: Chris Wray and Jeff Lingwall
We often mention the “cult of the new” in boardgaming, meaning the feeding frenzy that follows the release of new games. BGG ratings bear this out. For instance, as of today, 23 of the top 25 games were all released in the last ten years. The only exceptions are Puerto Rico (2002) and Power Grid (2004). 41 of the top 100 games were released within the last five years.
But are new games better games? In other words, are games more like literature (hard to improve on the best, despite the passage of time), or like iPhones (just keep getting better, or at least bigger). As reviews of the new Gen Con releases filter in, it seems an appropriate time to examine whether the best place to shop for games is the convention floor, or the thrift store.
We downloaded BGG data for all board games published in 1994, 2004, and 2014 with more than 100 ratings. Why only three years? Because it takes an enormous amount of time to pull the data, and we thought seeing snapshots for the past two decades would still prove insightful.
We excluded games below 100 ratings to remove from the sample those entries that have had little presence in the marketplace. We also excluded expansions. The data download occurred in late June and early July 2015.
Our sample included 71 (8.8%) of the 804 board games published in 1994; 243 (12.3%) of the 1967 games published in 2004; and 287 (9.5%) of the 3020 games published in 2014. If there are two things un-disputable in the BGG data, it is that there are more games being created and published each year than ever before, and that most of these games do not achieve wide circulation, at least not among BGG users.
The analysis below is subject to the limitations of the data we use. BGG did not yet exist in 1994, so it is likely that some games are excluded from the sample because users did not bother to rate them several years later. Similarly, as time goes by, more and more of the 2014 games will enter the sample. This is meant to be quick and lighthearted analysis, and the BGG data has its limitations, so keep that in mind when evaluating the conclusions are below.
Ratings Are Trending Higher
There’s no questioning that ratings are trending higher. The average rating in 1994 was 6.30, but it had risen slightly to 6.31 by 2004, and it sits at 7.12 for 2014. Similarly, the median is also rising: it was 6.34 in 1994, 6.24 in 2004, and 7.10 in 2014. The chart below shows that ratings are trending up: 1994 (the blue line) and 2004 (the red line) have a large distribution of games towards the bottom of the rating scale, but the distribution shown for 2014 (the green line) is to the right (i.e. higher) of both 1994 and 2004.
But why? It is because games are getting heavier, and gamers like heavier games? Does it have something to do with theme? Is it because of the cult of the new? Or because millennials are doing more of the rating? Or maybe games are genuinely getting better, standing on the shoulders of giants? We couldn’t find a conclusive answer, but it seems to be a combination of all of these factors.
Weight: Rise of the heavy game?
Our first hypothesis relates to weight. There seems a large anecdotal difference between the lighter-weight German-style games of the 1990s and the heavy Euros of today. German-style games (think Catan or Carcassonne) tended to be very streamlined and only have one or two central mechanics. Today’s games seem to be a mashup of several mechanics, often resulting in a longer, more complex game. If games have gotten heavier, and if BGG users prefer heavy games, then average ratings would rise accordingly.
This is a hypothesis that lent itself to a bit of number crunching. BGG reports two ratings, the raw average user rating, and the tweaked rating BGG uses in its ranking calculation. We used the raw ratings to avoid the quirks present in the BGG average. Along with ratings, we also recorded the BGG user weights. For the uninitiated, weight roughly relates to how complex (“or heavy”) the game is — a higher weight means a more complex game. The following graph plots the average rating and average weight for each game:
Several points are evident. First, there is a little evidence that games are getting heavier generally. There is a good mix of light and heavy games produced in each time period, although most of the very heaviest games are from the 2000s. Second, ratings increase almost linearly with weight in each time period. BGG users consistently rate heavier games higher, which is a discussion for another day. But most important, the 2014 games are consistently rated higher than the games from earlier years at each weight. Light or heavy, BGG users rate the more recent games higher. So contrary to our expectations, an increase in game weight is not driving game ratings, although it might be a small part of it.
Themes: The rise of Ameritrash?
If not weight, perhaps recent themes appeal to users more than past themes, so recent games are rated higher on that basis. For example, if you like Star Trek and Catan, you now have Star Trek Catan, so for you the gaming world has gotten a bit brighter. Or, if you were never sure how to attract your Cthulu-loving neighbor into the hobby, you now have options. (Too many options, in our opinion.) With the increased number of games being published each year comes a greater variation in theme (and combinations of theme and mechanics), so it is easier for players to find — and possibly only play and rate — games that interest them, which could lead to higher ratings in itself.
BGG does not track themes, but games are assigned to categories that roughly capture a game’s theme. For example, Ticket to Ride is categorized as “Trains” and “Travel,” and Power Grid is categorized as “Economic” or “Industry / Manufacturing.” Games can — and frequently do — belong to more than one category, and some categories have significant overlap. For example, the “Horror” category contains many games from the “Zombies” category.
We pulled the numbers for the most popular categories for 1994, 2004, and 2014, once again only pulling data on games (not expansions) with 100 or more ratings. The data for “War” below comes from adding several war-themed categories together. The percentages shown are for the total games in our sample that year. Once again, keep in mind that several games fall in more than one category, and we didn’t pull the data for all categories. (TIM stands for “Trading in the Mediterranean,” including civilization building games, ancient themes, farming, and other typical Euro themes, which tend to be less fictional than other themes.)
What’s happening to theme? Abstracted themes and war themes — which were relatively popular in 1994 — have become a small part of the game market. Themes typically associated with Eurogames have increased, but the largest increase comes in those themes that are traditionally associated with “Ameritrash” (the hobby’s word, not ours). The sum of four categories heavily associated with Ameritrash — Fantasy, Horror, Science Fiction, and Space — have gone from less than 20% of the games in the 1994 sample to more than 40% in 2014.
Whether this is a good or bad thing depends on your personal preferences. If you prefer — or at least don’t mind — games having fiction-based themes, this is a good thing. But many gamers — particularly Eurogamers — disdain some of these themes.
For a great discussion of the topic of how themes appeal to different types of gamers, listen to the Boardgames To Go podcast, Episode #125 (“Boardgame Themes for Grown Ups”).
Rating Inflation: The Cult of the New? (Or the rise of the Millennials?)
Along with weight and theme, perhaps ratings are trending higher because of ratings inflation. This could be the “cult of the new” phenomenon at work, or it could just be a function of who is rating the games.
Both of us tend to rate games higher the more we play them. If either of us were to look at a game we’ve played 50 times, we’d think, “If I’ve played it 50 times, it must be a great game!” We’d give it a very high rating. But for many in the hobby — and particularly in one local game group we’ve both played in — the opposite seems to be true. They would say, “I’m tired of that game.” And they’d give it a very low rating.
Some gamers rate games purely subjectively — how much they like it and would want to play it — and others use a combination of subjective and objective factors. The former might be tempted to rate older gamers lower by virtue of being tired of them. That’s easy to understand: both of us have games that we’ve played so much they’ve worn out their welcome, and while we’d never put a lower rating because of that, we understand when people do. Either way, the users that use more objective ratings might not give such a disadvantage to games they’ve overplayed, which by their very nature tend to be older games.
Perhaps there is ratings inflation by virtue of who is doing the rating. The people who played games in 1994 grew up when a “C” — which is a 70-79% on many non-curved grading scales — was a decent grade. So maybe when they rate games, a 7.0 out of 10.0 isn’t bad. Conversely, many people who play in 2014 grew up thinking a “B” — which is a 80-89% on many non-curved grading scales — is a moderate (or even bad) grade. So maybe they think a 8.0 out of 10.0 isn’t bad. As millennials enter the world of gaming and add their ratings of recent games to the BGG database, perhaps this is driving ratings up. We can’t dive deeper into this hypothesis in our dataset, but suspect this might be driving some of the increased ratings, possibly leading to ratings inflation.
(In case you are wondering, we’re both millennials. We’re by no means picking on that demographic.)
Maybe the games are just getting better…
Maybe the games are just getting better. The consensus around the hobby seems to be that we’re living in the golden era of board games. There’s almost certainly a kernel of truth to this, especially for the highest-rated games. Mechanics have been streamlined, and thanks to BGG, there’s more of a focus on game development than ever. Some extremely popular mechanics have been invented — or arguably mastered — in the past decade (see, e.g., Dominion and the rise of deck/dice/bag-building games).
The presentation value of games — likely a factor in the ratings of most gamers — is certainly on the rise, and to the extent games are perceived as being better, that’s probably part of it. All else being equal, would you rather have the artwork from the 2004 version of St. Petersburg or the artwork from the 2014 version? We’d both go with the 2014 version. What about the 1994 version of Manhattan versus the edition still in print today? The former probably looked great in 1994, but in our opinion is a bit of an eyesore today, and we suspect most people would rather go with the 2014 art (which looks quite nice). Visuals matter, and it is easy to look at an old game think that it looks dated because, in the end, it is dated.
Conclusion: Standing on the Shoulders of Giants
If games are getting better, its because they are standing on the shoulders of giants. Each year there are comical examples about how a fresh coat of paint can inspire the “cult of the new” to unexpectedly latch onto an older game. Mexica has been getting rave reviews in recent weeks, but gamers seems to be in disbelief when they’re told that the game (and indeed the entire Mask Trilogy) is more than a decade old. A few months ago members of a local game group brought in the new edition of St. Petersburg, talking up this hot new engine building game. They were shocked to learn that there was a 2004 edition that won the Deutscher Spiele Preis. Maybe new games are just better — we can’t prove it with the data, although the analysis was fun to do. But it does seem, at least to us, that old games are forgotten prematurely.
If pressed to offer a conclusion, we would say this: we think great games are like literature, and while every few years a book might need a new cover, what’s inside is timeless. And the next time you go game shopping, check the thrift store as well as the convention floor, because in the end, a top game from 1994 or 2004 is still much higher rated than a below-average game from 2014.
Thoughts from Other Opinionated Gamers
Matt Carlson: I find it hilarious the hear about people excited about a “new game” when it’s been around so long. Glad to see reprints helping people get back to the “roots” of the hobby. Of course, I probably qualify as a grumpy old gamer by now, where it takes a bit more to generate my interest since I’ve seen it all. (Isn’t that what qualifies me to write for the site?) I’d be curious to see a comparison between games that are out of print (and not freely available) vs games that are currently (or recently) in print.
Brian Leet: I particularly notice that the first two curves for Ratings are Trending Higher are very very similar, while the curve for 2014 is significantly skewed higher. With only three data points it is difficult to see the shape of this trend. One possibility is that the nature of ratings on “recently” released games is different than those for which there is an established history. For example, perhaps players try new games they are more likely to enjoy and only play other and older games over time, leading to a natural ratings decay. This seems relevant in that 2014 is definitely recent. Would the same analysis results have been present had you used 1990, 2000 and 2010?
As someone who thinks we are indeed in a golden age for gaming, I base this on the broadening appeal, availability and variety of games. Even if the overall average, or even peak, quality of games is relatively unchanged then it remains that the increased variety means both a greater likelihood that there is a perfect match for any player, as well as more players to match with! That is not to dismiss the premise of games generally standing on the shoulders of giants, I just need more evidence to be convinced that this is any more so today than in years past.
Larry: I definitely think ratings inflation is a significant part of the equation, but it’s probably also fueled by other factors. The change toward more attractive themes could easily be part of that. Even though the Geek is quite international in its scope, it still is an American-centric website, so it’s not surprising that games with themes closer to the American ideal (as opposed to the German or European one) are higher rated. There’s also the rise of Kickstarter, which, at least in theory, gives gamers the games they want (and particularly with the themes they want). That could also goose the ratings.
Where I don’t see the improvement (and this is, by necessity, subjective) is in the gameplay. Newer games don’t seem more innovative or more challenging or tighter or with a higher fun factor than older ones. They may look better and may have more attractive themes, but they don’t seem to play better. For many, the first two factors may be enough to say that the games have improved. It’s not nearly enough for me. I do think we’re in a Golden Age of Gaming, but for me, that age began 15 or 20 years ago. I definitely don’t think games are any better now than they were at the turn of the century.
One thing I find particularly interesting is that the 2014 designs rate 0.8 of a point higher than the 2004 ones. The significance of that to me is that many gamers, and many kinds of gamers, consider 2004 to be the greatest year for games of all time. Whereas I haven’t seen any kind of consensus that 2014 was much better than 2013 or 2012. And yet, the games from that “ordinary” year rate significantly higher than the ones from this great year of a decade ago. Are these newer games really as improved over the older ones as that ratings differential indicates? I just don’t see it.
Joe Huber: The real question here seems to be whether or not games are objectively improving. And the ratings on BGG provide no real insight to that; yes, the average is higher for 2014, but there are many reasons that could be outside of an improvement in the games. In addition, there might be a particular strength or weakness in the games from one of the years that causes oddities in the data. If I try to look objectively at game design, I see a number of innovations that have changed game design over the past two decades – but no data to answer the question of whether these changes have led to improvement. I do also think it’s safe to say that there are more games being published, with no significant net drop in quality.
Subjectively – I’m not really any more certain. Using the years Chris and Jeff chose to study, I had the most luck in 2004, with nearly as large a sample size as 2014. But – the difference is quite small; if I discovered a single additional game from 1994 which I rate a 10, it would jump from third to first for me. If instead I broaden to eras, either 2013-2015 or 1995-1997 stand out above the rest. However, 2013-2015 follows on a major slump for me from 2008-2012. The more I look at my data, the less I’m convinced that games are getting better – or worse – for me; there are ups and downs, but no clear direction.
Jonathan Franklin: I think that more games means that each gamer can play only games they are likely to like, rate them all highly, and still have a rich gaming life. If I played co-ops in the past and loved them, I can seek them out and love them all. If I don’t like co-ops, I never play one and therefore never rate it. If I want only tactical dungeon crawlers, there are now plenty to fill a night or two a week for a year. As with other forms of media, you can find your niche and there is enough there that you don’t have to venture outside your comfort zone any more. With that comes higher ratings for everything. In short, self-selection might be the cause of higher overall ratings.
Greg Schloesser: Like Matt, I have been around the block a few times. Probably a LOT of times. As a result, it takes quite a bit to impress me. Some would say I am becoming somewhat of a curmudgeon, while others will say that I’ve become jaded. Perhaps. However, in order to truly impress me, a game has to be very creative or original, or make substantial improvements upon existing designs. Or, it has to be simply fun and enjoyable. I am finding fewer and fewer games that meet any of these criteria.
I do believe our hobby has expanded considerably. “Our” games are now available in more and more “non-game” retail stores, and there seems to be more and more game clubs (and even cafés) forming. In my day-to-day travels I run into more and more people who enjoy playing board games and are at least somewhat familiar with the types of games we play. That is progress.
Being new to a hobby usually means one is easily impressed and is often extremely enthusiastic. One tends to enjoy just about anything. I know I was certainly guilty of this (although “guilt” doesn’t equate with “bad” in this sense) when I first discovered European-style games. Now, however, I’ve grown more discerning.
Since there are more new gamers, it likely means that more of these folks are finding the Geek. Their enthusiasm likely translates into them eagerly entering high (inflated?) game ratings, comments and reports. Thus, there is a proliferation of newer games rising to the top of the BGG rankings. I don’t think this is surprising at all.
Give ‘em a few years and they’ll become a curmudgeon like me!