Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Game 2.0

Microsoft releases a version of an operating system. Then they work at it making it better and release an update. And so on. Microsoft is still selling Windows, but Windows today is not the same Windows from 1990.

Some board games also evolve internally, or are adapted and developed by others, in the same way that features from operating systems, browsers, and word processors develop in-house or by building on the competition. Games move online, mechanics from other games make their way into existing ones (like the latest versions of Risk), or other companies make competing but better products.

So why did Hasbro update Risk, but leave Monopoly's rules alone? Why are we still playing the same Chess, Scrabble, and Battleship, when, with rare exception due to compatibility, no one uses computer applications that are older than ten years? Sure, evolution leads to a numerous dead-ends for every viable step forward, but nonetheless there are steps forward.

I don't think it's just bad marketing. I don't think it's just a monopoly on the toy shelf.

Many games are bought for other than entertainment purposes: ritual games (like Snakes and Ladders and Mancala), keepsake games (like Monopoly version XYZ), pretty games (like Chess sets).

Also, there is a perception that "new" games are only niche products. Yet, 38 of the top 100 games at Amazon are "new" games, counting various Scene-It's, Cranium's, and Killer Bunnies expansions (and Settlers of Catan and expansion, Race for the Galaxy, Blokus, Puerto Rico, Power Grid, Dominion and Dominion Intrigue, Lost Cities, Carcassonne and expansion, Wits and Wagers, and others).

Of the remaining games, many of them are new licenses for older games (like Spongebob Squarepants Operation, or Beatles Monopoly); a licensed game is bought for its toy value, not its game value. They don't really count.

New games are likewise 32 of the top 100 board games at Target (more party, less strategy games), 26 of the top 100 "games and puzzles" at Walmart, and 24 of the top 100 "games and puzzles" at Kmart. On the other hand, they're only 7 of the top 49 at ToysRUs.com, and 2 (if you push it) of the top 24 at boardgames.com. I think these guys simply don't stock many newer games.

Thirdly, there is a perception that people only play board games to teach kids a social activity that parents or grandparents played when they were younger (doesn't everyone play video games, now?)

That doesn't hold true for music, mostly. It certainly doesn't hold true for video games, though there is a small reactionary movement in that direction. It rarely works for movies, with certain exceptions. It kinda makes some sense for books - there are many great recent books, but we're not going to stop reading Anne of Green Gables or Little House on the Prairie any time soon, I hope.

In other media, if you discount movies shared as rituals or keepsakes (nostalgia), you're left the timeless classics. One therefore hopes that the games that endure are timeless classics.

In some sense, Chess is a timeless classic. But it's really not more of a timeless classic than the same game on a 10x10 board with two "Prince" pieces on each side. Monopoly is a timeless classic, but there are tons of ways to make it better, and tons of games that build on the concept and make it better.

A large number of people stick with what they know in board games, but not with other things in life: video games, music, movies, clothes, books, and so on. This resistance to evolution is troubling and unnatural.


David Klein said...

I disagree with your statement that 'Chess is a timeless classic. But it's really not more of a timeless classic than the same game on a 10x10 board with two "Prince" pieces on each side.'. I think that you aren't giving the exact balance of power in chess enough credit. You can easily see how changing the cost of a building in Puerto Rico by 1GP can easily change the balance and therefore enjoyability of the game. I believe that one of the reasons that chess is a classic is because of the exact balance. Since people have obviously tried the "Prince" and other variations over the years, I think that the exact combo that chess uses probably has a lot of influence on its being a classic.

Dug said...

Let's set aside the simple fact that boardgame tech and computer tech are advancing at radically different rates, not to mention that those advances are economically advantageous for the computer software companies. The fact that Monopoly uses pretty much the same tech as almost every other board game produced in the past 50 years (online-based errata aside) tells you why one market works very hard to remain stagnant and why the other is constantly changing.

Yes, I'm aware that there are roughly 20,000 "versions" of Monopoly, all different solely in their cosmetics. My point is that the underlying foundation of the game has never changed, while in the computer world it revs (according to Moore's Law) every 18 months. The expansion of broadband access, for example, brought about the possibility of MMORPGs on the scale we now see them, when in 1995 they were in existence but a fringe part of the hobby.

That said, those of us immersed in the hobby are seeing dozens of new titles every year, even now that we've passed what I consider the high water mark for boardgames in the years after 2000. In other words, there is just as much innovation in board gaming as in video gaming, just not the changes in eye candy. I suspect that the ratio of games that will be considered "classics" will be higher in boardgaming circles, at least in the US where we've tended to get the cream of the German/European crop.

Of course, I'm speaking of the hobbyist while you're speaking of the mass market. In the US, board gaming is seen as a waste of time, while video gaming is seen as a valid pastime. I suspect that the human predisposition to the new and shiny has a large effect on that dichotomy. I'm unable to speak to whether or not other countries/cultures have a similar or different attitude.

I love these thought provoking posts, Yehuda. Keep 'em coming.

Yehuda said...

David: I think the balance of Puerto Rico and the balance of Chess are entirely different fish.

Puerto Rico has already proven to be tricky to adjust, owing to its limited supply, uneven starting positions, and turn order.

Chess, on the other hand, is remarkably resilient. I'm fairly certain that hundreds of the variants are just as balanced as the current standard (which evolved over time, by the way). But in Chess, people play by memorizing books of strategy - kifu, and much less tactics on the fly. That appears to be its selling point today: like antiquated programs, too many people lose too much if the game is changed. Bobby Fischer's Chess960 proves that.

Dug: Thanks. Not everything I post is perfectly thought through, so comments and corrections are always welcome.

Yes, the technology hasn't changed much, but uses of the technology have. So I would expect people to adapt better uses of the same technology. Instead, they like to leave things as they are and pretend that the better uses don't exist.

Perhaps the reason our software is constantly getting better, is that our hardware demands it - usually, it is understood to be the other way around! We simply can't keep playing the old games, so we make new ones.

If hardware doesn't keep changing, will we be using the same Office suite for 75 years?

Funny, but as I noted on Purple Pawn, nearly every major newspaper has at least paid lip service to the idea that board games are neither extinct nor a waste of time. Yet so many journalists are still ignorant of the stories their own papers run.


Luke said...


Thanks for this great post. I could not agree with your main point more. Monopoly is 75 years old. We do not drive the same cars we did 75 years ago, why play the same board games?

In fact, I just made this exact point in a PBS documentary on board games yesterday. I do believe this is changing, but the fact that the U.S. mass market has been resistant to evolution in board games is confounding.

Hopefully games like Wits & Wagers and Apples to Apples can help transform the U.S. mass market so that the general public will begin to embrace change in their boardgames.

Luke Warren
Public Relations Director
North Star Games