Community and Refinement
Cardboard Revolution, part 3
In this series of posts I examine how the Internet transformed the boardgame industry and hobby in the past 20 years. If you haven’t already, you might want to go read the first parts before plunging into this one.
In part 2, we examined how the Internet has helped the awareness and availability of board games. But the Internet has also brought about a global community of board gamers, letting like minded hobbyists connect to one and another. By tapping into these communities, and often themselves originating from them, game designers and creators have been able to refine and improve their designs, lifting the overall quality of mechanics and concepts and inspiring each other.
Imagine a kid in the early 90s, sitting at home with his newly acquired board game (bought at a speciality store while on a holiday in the big city), desperately wanting to try it. Most likely he’ll rope a couple of his friends into trying it with him or maybe even harras his parents until they give it a go, but if neither friends nor family get excited about it, he’ll soon be sitting there alone, fidgeting with the components or the game will end up collecting dust on his shelf.
Now fast forward to present day. Connecting with other people who are into your favorite game is simple, whether it’s in the game forums on boardgamegeek.com, following a hashtag on Twitter, joining a dedicated Facebook-group, going on reddit, Discord, the publishers online fora and an endless stream of online meeting places for the likeminded.
There are conversations about rules, optimal strategies, speculation, detailed reports on games played and general banter to be found about virtually any game ever invented. If you are short on adversaries, you can find them a plenty for either online games or face to face sessions in your area.
Even a cursory glance at these communities will provide confirmation that there is a vibrant hobby and that you’re not a lone oddball for loving a specific game. Reading other peoples excitement, letdowns and tips shore up your own opinion of a game, help you present it to others and give you tips on teaching it, massively reducing one of the barriers on entry to any boardgame. More often than not, community members have produced video tutorials, handouts or alternate rulebooks that can help teach the game easier and better.
People who choose to become active participants in the community by joining debates, posting their own thoughts or seeking online opponents will often build deep and meaningful relations across geographical expanses and cultural boundaries centered around the shared interest. With a dedicated community analyzing and discussing specific games endlessly, the depth of strategic thought and fundamental understanding of game mechanics can be breath taking to an outsider stumbling into it. In previous eras, only Chess really had that level of analysis and ongoing conversation around it, but nowadays any succesful game with significant depth can spawn it.
Often the time actually playing a specific game can be dwarfed by the time spent discussing, strategizing, clarifying rules and having general banter around it. Nowhere is this clearer than in the community for unreleased and upcoming games, where dedicated fans will often tease out information from promo images or designer interviews, discuss their expectations and share updates on the status of the game. Games, especially heavily hyped ones, regularly disappoint, but the shared sense of excitement and focus will still leave the community with a positive buzz and enduring relationships.
Online communities aren’t just crucial around the game, but increasingly play a significant role in the design and refinement of a game.
For complex games, play testing used to be done by people directly connected to the designer or publisher, but nowadays designers can leverage the wider community and the power of the Internet. Early in the proces, designer diaries are common, with comments and feedback from the community as the designer will lay out the vision and core mechanics of the game. While helping build interest and understanding of the game prelaunch, this also lets the designer float concepts, gather feedback and engage with the community early on.
Once the game starts coming together, the feedback can become more specific. Posting draft rulebooks or session reports (written or videos) lets the community weigh in on anything from proof reading to game flow and mechanics. Supporting either print and play (where people build their own homemade version of the game) or online boardgame platforms (Vassal, TableTopSimulator etc.) lets the designer release the unfinished game into the wild and allows for literally thousands of playtesters.
The scale, previously impossible to attain, brings out balance issues, edge cases and fundamental problems with the design in ways the weren’t doable before. This lifts all aspects of the finished product, from rulebook legibility to component clarity and finely tuned mechanics designed for balance, fun and accessibility.
But mistakes will still happen. There may be uncaught spelling mistakes, confusing phrasing or inconsistent information in the rule book. Or balance issues may appear gradually as strategies are explored that weren’t considered during the design.
Pre Internet, these issues would be an enduring part of the game, with the designer unable to fix anything post launch. Nowadays, boardgames take after software, where the initial release is just a major iteration, but tweaking and improvement often continues long after launch. As the community gets the game to the table, further expertise will build up. Rules questions will show up online, people will report mistakes and the number of plays logged and strategies tested will build over time.
Many designers will be active online, providing straight from the source clarifications to rule questions, maintaining official rulings and errata documents and often posting revised versions of the rules, incorporating errata and corrections. Nowadays, grabbing the latest version of a rulebook or the official FAQ online is often a good idea before diving into a game for the first time.
The data generated from repeated plays and feedback is staggering and working with the community designers increasingly test out rebalances and updates based on these. Where designers don’t do this, the community will often step in and publish unofficial rules, variants or tweaks to address any issues.
A game like “Paths of Glory” (published in 1999) has been tweaked and balanced over decades, resulting in an incredibly tight and balanced play experience, despite the two sides being completely asymmetrical (unlike say chess, which is naturally balanced by both sides being identical).
The community has also built a taxonomy of games and concepts. Two games may be on completely distinct themes and present very differently, but share a fundamental mechanic like card drafting, worker placement, push your luck or area control. This has become almost akin to a component library, where designers can find inspiration and quickly seek out other games with similar mechanics for inspiration. Pulling concepts from different games together into a new combination or creating a fresh twist on an established mechanic will often be the starting point for a new design.
With designers standing on each others shoulders and drawing on the community, the overall quality of games has increased manifold, which is very obvious when an older game is replayed. More often than not, a newer game will do what the old game does, but better, more intuitively, with less down time for each player and with more interesting decisions and trade offs.