Monday, November 02, 2015

The Cult of the New

Board gamers talk about a phenomenon called "The Cult of the New", in which we tend to gravitate toward games that receive a lot of buzz and leave old games unplayed as we continually play new games. There is a constant influx - a barrage, even - of new games being released throughout the year, particularly with the rise of Kickstarter as a funding platform. There are a couple of particular spikes during the year around the major conventions: GenCon in Indianapolis in August; Spiel in Essen, Germany in October; and BGG.Con in Dallas in November. These spikes tend to bring buzz and attention to a new crop of games at those times, and usually within a few months those games find their ways onto the tables of early adopters before they receive broader attention. I tend to be one of those early adopters, but I have been curious about how much I buy into the Cult of the New, so I have spent some time looking into my own habits as a gamer over the past ten months to see if I really do buy into this trend.

One of the things I have attempted to determine is just how many games that are released in a year fall somewhere in my radar, but it has turned out to be a more difficult process than I had expected because of the need to define how a game is "New", as that can vary widely in the world of board games with the many different methods of distribution. "New" can mean several things: brand new from Kickstarter; newly translated for the North American market from Europe; redesigned and rereleased in a new edition (not just a printing) that brings significant newfound attention to a game; or even a game that has only been available in very limited quantities that is now being more widely released. As such, games that have been out in some form for several years can still be considered "New"; for example, Machi Koro was initially released in Japan in 2012 and then ported to Germany and North America in late 2014, so it was nominated for Germany's Game of the Year award in 2015 and would still be considered "New." There is a bit of ambiguity, therefore, in terms of defining "New" for the purposes of any discussion about board games, so I'm using some personal judgment as I classify games in that category. For that reason, most of the numbers I will discuss are slightly rough estimates that are meant to indicate trends in my gaming, rather than to serve as absolute statistical values. Also, the term "games" will also include expansions for games, as it's a little unwieldy to write "games and expansions" each time.

How many games in a year?

One way of determining whether I buy into the Cult of the New is to see how many games I actually track and attempt to add to my collection either through purchasing or playing each year. In
 examining my Want to Play list, as well as the games I have played over the past ten months, I estimate that there are around ninety games that were released in that "New" window (from October 2014 to October 2015 and beyond) that would be on my radar as something to want to play. Of those ninety(-ish), about a dozen will not be released widely in North America until sometime in 2016, so that number likely settles in around the low 80s for the calendar year. I have already played 33, or just over a third, of those 80-85 games released this year, and I own 18 of that 80-85 (roughly 22%), in large part thanks to several Kickstarters. Of the one hundred games I have added to my WTP list in 2015 alone, just over sixty of them fall into this category of "New". I have no clue how many games are actually released in a year, but it's somewhere over a thousand, so I'm really only hitting a small segment of all of the games released (under 10%). But on its own, this observation cannot really determine if I am too much in the Cult of the New, as all it tells is how many games I am interested in in a given year, not necessarily how much precedence they take, so I'm not sure that this is enough to determine if I give into the Cult or not.

As somewhat of an aside, I did a quick observation of some of my other media trends and how many I take note of each year for comparison, and I found that board games are quite significantly my dominant hobby right now, as I pay attention to more new games being released than to any other media I am currently following. There are a maximum of ten video games released in any year that I would intend to play, although that makes sense considering that they are each intended to generate 20+ hours or play, as opposed to the much shorter duration of board games. For music, my functional interest has leveled out at around 25-30 albums a year, although it used to be closer to 50-60 in my musical heyday (c. 2003-2007); it dropped to its current level in 2010 and has stayed fairly consistent since that point, mostly in following artists I already know while adding one or two new ones each year. For movies, the number has consistently been around three dozen since I resumed watching movies in 2004, though I had a spike to 50 in 2009. My movie watching is significantly down over the past few years in general, so a lot of those tend to sit on my "watch sometime" list, but they're still on my radar. For television shows, it tends to be somewhere around 15-20 shows that are on my radar somehow throughout a year, which often ends up being 2 to 4 shows at a time spread throughout the year, several of which are short-term (10-13 episode) comedies. But I would almost always rather be playing board games, which should tell you something about my priorities.

Playing new games

One of the "Cult of the New" trends that some gamers are trying to buck is the trend of only playing new games and not revisiting old ones (even if they're not that old). There are challenges like the 10x10 challenge on BoardGameGeek, in which participants are encouraged to play ten games ten times each throughout the year, that are intended to counteract this trend, all of which I'm sure sounds completely ridiculous to anyone who is not a board gamer (you mean you play games once and then leave them there? Why?) So I took a look at my playing habits over the past ten months to determine just how much of them are from "New" games. 
Of the games I have played:

  • 62% (78/126) have been new to me;
  • 26% (33/126) have been "New" (in the past year);
  • 42% (33/78) of new games are "New";
  • 56% (71/126) have been played only once;
  • 57% of "New" games (19/33) have been played only once;
  • 18% (23/126) have hit four or more plays.
  • 12% (4/33) of "New" games have hit four or more plays.

So what does this show, other than the fact that I'm a gigantic nerd? I have a few observations:

  • I have very aggressively played new games over the past year; the highest number of new games I had ever played in any previous year was 33, and I will likely have played more new games in 2015 by the end of this week than in the past three years combined.
  • A significant portion of new games that I play are "New", but it's actually lower than I expected it to be at less than half.
  • The rates at which I play "New" games and other games are almost identical, meaning that I seem to be assimilating "New" games and other games that are new to me at almost exactly the same rate.

I cannot compare these number to previous years mainly because I did not keep as detailed of records in previous years, but even the sheer increase in volume suggests that I am playing more "New" games than I ever have, likely because I have a much wider circle of gaming friends now (not that it's hard to get wider than three people), many of whom invest significantly in board gaming as a hobby - meaning that they buy more new games. There are risks in buying games as they're released - mainly that they won't actually be very good - but it makes it easier to do when the risk is spread out among many people rather than all in your own collection.

Evaluating Want To Play factors

In June, I blogged about how I add games to my "Want to play" list on BoardGameGeek, which I define as games that I have not yet played ever; once I play a game, it's off the list (and likely onto a different one). And just this week, I had a bit of extra time, so I spent some time going through the BoardGameGeek Top 100 (and subsequently the next 1000 after that) to see if I needed to add any games to my "Want to Play" list, which of course I did - 48 times. This year, I have done something that is even a little nerdier than I have done in the past with tracking my games (I know some of you are wondering if that was even possible, but it is, as you will see) in that I have tracked not only the games I have played, but also the changes to my WTP list, whether that was from games that I played off the list, removed from the previous year's list, or added this year. Those recent 48 additions put me at 100 games added to my list in 2015, so I thought this would be an interesting point at which to evaluate whether I was actually correct in how I said I added games to my list as part of my investigation into determining my possible predilection toward the "cult of the new". 

The five factors that I believed determined my want to play list as included at the time I wrote the post were: designer; reputation/buzz/zeitgeist; mechanic (innovation); possible/likely replay value; and theme/presentation. 
I grouped the hundred games I have added to my list over the past year into categories determined by the dominant reason they were added to my list. The categories, of course, could have a lot of overlap, but I put games in just one category each and I ended up with the following numbers:

  • Designer - 25;
  • Kickstarter - 16;
  • Reputation/Buzz - 19;
  • Connection to previous game - 14;
  • Recommended by other gamers - 13;
  • BGG Ranking - 9 games;
  • "Classic" status (games I feel that should just play at some point) - 4 games.

Of course, most of those categories don't match the five factors I identified earlier, but I realized that at least two of those factors (mechanic and possible replay value) are not so much determiners as they are mandatory to end up on my list; that is, if they don't have a mechanic I like or seem like they will be replayable for me, I'm not going to be very interested in playing them. These categories, other than "designer", are more about the source of information in order to consider them, not so much the actual content or style of the game, but every game of those one hundred had to appeal beyond the initial check to make it onto my list. Those five factors seem to still be present to some degree or another, just not in the way I may have originally envisioned; I think if I were to rank them that the order from most important to least would be: designer; mechanic/innovation; reputation/buzz; replay value; and theme/presentation.

So what of the "Cult of the New"? Well, around sixty of the games I have added to my Want to Play list this year are "New", so that means that I am interested in three "New" games for every two games that have been released before the past year. Of course, many of those forty "older" games (some of which date all the way back to early 2014) were also part of the "Cult of the New" in their day, but I either ignored them or missed them because I was too busy paying attention to other games at the time. There are relatively few of the one hundred additions (around ten percent) that came out before the last few years, so this seems to indicate that I am leaning toward "New" games as a trend. 


In looking at the number of games of which I take note in a year, the patterns that are beginning to emerge in how I play and replay games, and how I add games to my Want to Play list in a year, I would say that I have symptoms of progressing toward the Cult of the New. I am interested in more "New" games than I ever have been, and I am playing more "New" games than I ever have before. But I also still play and pursue a significant number of older games (ie. pre-2012), so I'm not necessarily ignoring those games in order to play the "New" ones, which is one of the primary ways that a gamer succumbs to the Cult of the New. I do have a high number of games with limited numbers of plays, which might speak to Cult leanings, but I also have a broad base of total games played not only over the course of this year but over the past few years. So I would say that I'm not entirely in the Cult of the New, but as an avid board gamer that I am aware of and excited about new games that are being released. I suspect that a diagnostic of my collection would support this thesis, as I do have games that have been released throughout the past twenty years in my collection with some skewing toward the past four years in which I have become very intentional about the games I play and own.

But part of what is interesting to me is that I am entering a phase of my BoardGameGeek-ery that I experienced in my other hobbies in that I have a wide enough base of experiences now to really start to build. When I started getting into music in 1999, or movies in 2004, or television in 2006, there was an exploratory period in which I remember getting to know not only the medium but also how I functioned within it; those exploratory periods often lasted 2-3 years, depending on intensity, before I could say that I had achieved significant progress in that medium and could be considered somewhat of an expert. Over the past four years, I have played over 200 distinct games (not including expansions), and I have played many of those enough to be quite knowledgeable about strategies, mechanics, and how to play new games. I have built a broad base of knowledge and understanding, which is why I still have so many games that I want to play even now at 188 and I am constantly adding more to that list; just as when I knew more directors or songwriters, I now know more game designers, and the breadth of my existing repertoire is a benefit to my pursuit of new games.

Having 188 games on my Want to Play list now and adding another 80 each year is also likely unsustainable for any length of time, so I imagine that I will soon (in the next year or two) hit a point, like I did with those other media, in which my interests start to again be more selective as a result of time or just general experience and knowledge. It's entirely possible - even likely - that I will again retract some of those additions to my Want to Play list and reduce the number of new games that I play and want to play, but for now, I'm happy to play what I can and to not be too affected by the Cult of the New. After all, a good game should be a good game no matter whether it was released two months ago or two decades ago, which is why I'm pulling out El Grande (won the Spiel des Jahres in 1996) at tomorrow's games night. Then again, there is a new Big Box edition coming out this year, so maybe it's just a big cycle of Cult of the New all over again...or maybe I'm just thinking about this too much and I just need to play the games I like no matter when they were released.

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