Friday, June 05, 2015

Want to Play

One of the most fun parts of being a board gamer is playing new games. I have spent some (okay, maybe a lot of) time considering how and why I hear about new games to play and how I add them to my "Want to Play" list (or WTP list for short). Over the past almost four-and-a-half years, I have played 124 new games in addition to another 60 or 70 new expansions for many of those games, including 33 so far in 2015 alone. One might think that having played that many games would mean that my "want to play" list would have decreased significantly...but one would be mistaken.

In those same four years, my list has increased from nothing (in 2011) to 110 in 2013, 142 in 2014, and 162 in 2015. But what of my aggressive progress in playing new games over the past five months (33 so far, matching my total for all of 2014)? Well, my list currently sits at 163 items in my "Want to Play" list (139 games and 23 expansions), which means that I have added more games to my list than I have played new games since January 1. It's a bit of a quandary, but it's one to which I'm resigned, much as there will always be more movies to watch - both new releases and from the past - than there will be time for me to take in (#firstworldproblems). With that said, I thought I would take some time to think about the games I want to play, how they get there, and how I might look at this process in the future.

Defining "Want to Play"

The first step is to define what games go on my WTP list. I only include games that I have never played on my WTP list; once I have played a game, I take it off my list. I do, of course, also keep an informal list of "games I want to play again" which is reserved for those games that I played once (or maybe twice), but only the non-played games stay on my WTP list (until I play them, of course). There are games on my list that have been there for a long time and games dating back twenty-five years, but the majority of the games that end up on my WTP list are either recent, current, or upcoming releases. From my list, 105 games are dated 2013 or later, with roughly 30 per year that I have not yet played (in addition to the 10-20 games from each year that I have played). Between 2010 and 2012, there's a drop-off to about a dozen per year, with 33 total. For 2007-2009, there are still a dozen total (4 per year), and for the years before 2006 dating back to 1990, an average of juts over one per year with 23 total.

This makes sense for several reasons. First, there are more games being produced now by more game designers and companies, and those games are more widely available thanks to methods like Kickstarter. In short, more games are getting more attention now, so there are more to want to play. Second, games that have been around longer tend to be easier to find at some point to play. Third, the reputation of and interest in a game does change somewhat over the years, and so there are games that at one point I wanted to play that I have removed from my list for various reasons - mainly because at one point a year or two ago, I was attempting to keep my list to games that I actually thought I would get a chance to play, and a lot of those older (ie. pre-2000) games are much harder to find.

Here's a further breakdown of those 163 games on my WTP list:
  • 11 expansions I own but have not yet played, including five alone for Flash Point: Fire Rescue;
  • 10 small-box or microgames ordered through Kickstarter over the past year (or so);
  • 1 additional game I own that I have not yet played;
  • 25 games and 2 expansions that have yet to be released, several of which were initially marketed through Kickstarter and 5 of which I have pre-ordered;
  • 16 additional games on my wishlist;
  • Another 98 games (including some expansions).

Reasons for Wanting to Play

Analyzing the basic composition of my WTP list is one thing, but it's another to actually think about why these games end up on my list. When I consider my list of games to play, I realize that there are five main reasons that a game lands on my radar, which happens primarily through BoardGameGeek news, previews from other websites, direct emails from game companies, or (now far less commonly) seeing it in a store. Here are those five reasons, in roughly descending order of importance.

1.       Designer: If I play a game by a designer and I like it, I will look into their history as a designer and place other games on my list. For example, after I played Castles of Burgundy, I wanted to try most Stefan Feld games, and I still have several of his games on my list to play. It is very similar to the way that I treat movie directors, as I find that I enjoy experiencing a wide variety of works by a designer once I enjoy one of their games. Of course, it means that the more designers of whom I am aware, the more games I want to play, both in their back catalog and current releases.

2.       Reputation/Buzz/Zeitgeist: Many (usually older) games have well established reputations, so it makes sense to play games that are well-regarded. On the other hand, many new games come along with the requisite “check this out”/”cult of the new” sentiment that also means that I feel the need to try them out at least once, either to know what they are like or just to be part of the conversation (much as I watch certain movies when they're released just to be in the know). This reputation may include myriad factors, including BGG ranking, notable awards (especially the Spiel des Jahres, Deutscher Spiele Preis, Dice Tower, or BGG awards), or just the general hubbub on the board game parts of the internet.

3.       Mechanic (Innovation): The mechanic of a game is a big draw for me, particularly if it presents some kind of innovation to the style of game. For example, I really enjoy worker placement games, so it makes sense that when a new one is released that I add it to my list. I particularly take note of games that give some kind of twist to a familiar mechanic, though I admit that some have gotten a little tired (like deck-building or the aforementioned worker placement).

4.       Possible/Likely Replay Value: I have a fairly good sense of what games I will like, and I am definitely more inclined to want to play a game if I have a sense that it will become part of my regular rotation and see lots of replay. Most of the games on my list have that possibility, though, so that's why this factor ranks lower; it might, however, help me prioritize which games to play first.

5.    Theme/Presentation: Presentation matters, even if the theme is somewhat dry. A game has to look good and look like fun, and the theme of a game can draw me in on its own. This is easily the least influential factor for me, but it does influence my choices to a small extent, so that's why it's here.

On the other side, there are a few features that more or less automatically present themselves as disincentives for me wanting to play a game. When I find out that any of these items are part of a game's design, I check out quickly. (Fans of a certain style of game often pejoratively called "Ameritrash" - see this post for more explanation - will see how my tastes diverge from theirs with this list.)

1.       Fiddly bits: I know that most games have something "fiddly" about them, but there are some games that I just know will be far too involved for my liking, whether through extensive set-up times, overly intricate play procedures, or heavy text interactions.

2.       Overdependence on luck: I'm just not a fan of dice-based games that don't let you mitigate the luck factor. It's why I find it hard to play Catan without Cities & Knights.

3.       Miniatures: That is a world of gaming that I just do not understand whatsoever.

4.       Lack of possibility of replaying: There are some games that I know I should play once and that I would likely never play again (or at least cultivate my own interest in playing again). 

5.       Need for expansions: If a game needs an expansion to work, I'm not very interested - at least unless the expansion is easy to learn, too.

Managing my list

Over the past few years that I have been tracking, the number of new games I play has fluctuated: 11 in 2011, 30 in 2012, 17 in 2013, 33 in 2014, and 33 already in 2015, which puts me on track to more than double my previous year's results. Right now, I'm averaging playing two new games per week, though I do imagine that my progress might slow down that I would end up at around 60 new games played in this calendar year (which would still be incredible). Of course, when you factor in the fact that I'm adding more than 30 games each year to my list (or so it would seem), it would take me almost a decade to play through each game on my list - and something tells me that I'm going to want to change that. Here are a few goals I'm setting for myself.

  1. Play all of the games I own that are on my list. This should be the easiest one, as I have easy access to 22 of those 163. I'm going to make this a goal for the next few months of summer. 
  2. Reduce my list through removing items as well as plays. It has been awhile since I removed games from my to play list, but I think I need to do some weeding using my aforementioned criteria. I think that I might be able to remove about 10% of the list through this process.
  3. Continue aggressively pursuing new games to play. I have been successful so far this year, and I hope to continue playing new games at a rate comparable to what I have achieved so far. I'm going to set my goal at an average of one new game from my list per week in addition to the games I own. 

If I achieved each of these three goals, I would have my list down under 90 by the end of the year from its current state. I will assume that I will add roughly another 10% over the course of the year, so my goal will be to have my list at around 100 games going into 2016.

The practice of playing new games

Now that I have spent all of this time thinking about my list, I wanted to conclude with how I actually go through the process of playing new games. It is a skill that needs to be developed, and one that some people are just not as good at. I have often ended up being the instruction reader and teacher of new games within my circle because I have developed the skill of learning and playing new games, so here are some of my tips and tricks for learning new games.

0. Have access to new games. Whether it's through a local gaming group, a board game store, or friends like me, the prerequisite is to have access to new games to play. Of course, you could always buy them yourself, but I always like to try before I buy, so find others in your area who have collections and who want to play. (SaskGames is a great start for gamers in the 3-0-6, but sites like BGG or MeetUp have a wider range.)

1. Read over the rules ahead of time. I always find it useful when I know I'm going to play a new game - even if someone else is teaching - to familiarize myself with the rules beforehand. I have read enough rules to know generally how they work - and it often helps the teacher of the game (if it's not me) to have someone else with a fresh memory for some of the details that are harder to remember. If you're not a "rules" person, though, then you can...

2. Find a "teaching guide" on BGG or a video on YouTube. Board gamers are an awfully helpful lot, and many of them develop resources to help themselves teach games to others, whether those are printable teaching resources or player aids on BoardGameGeek or "how to play" videos on YouTube. Especially when learners are visually oriented, these are very useful resources.

3. Start with simpler games. One of the problems that many people have is that they try to (or by their friends are forced to) jump in at a level that is way too complex for their abilities. Playing board games - especially learning new ones - is a skill that has to be developed, rather than one that just innately happens. Play Dominion before moving onto other deck-builders; play San Juan before other role selection games; play the family game of Agricola before trying the full game. Play them repeatedly to gain familiarity with basic strategy and functionality. Then, once you have some idea of what you're doing,  work your way up to the more complex games and don't try to rush your way into them.

4. Know your audience. Who you're playing with - whether you're teaching or learning - can make a huge difference as to how you teach (or what you play, for that matter). Find out their level of experience and whether they have played comparable games. Don't pick games with a lot of details if they are newer to playing games. Just know how to make it work.

5. Be patient! Playing new games, both in learning and teaching, takes a lot of patience. You will make mistakes, and you will have some frustrations as you play. Allow those to happen, and keep your eyes on the bigger picture: your goal is to learn to enjoy the game - or to help others to do so - not to master it on one play. Take your time, take the pressure off, be gracious, keep the rule book handy, and give yourself extra time for learning something new, and you will soon find yourself enjoying even those fitful initial plays (and the many subsequent plays that will follow).


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