Thursday, May 8, 2014

Cardboard Olympus, Part II: The Old Gods

In the introduction to the series I discussed the simple nuts and bolts of rating and ranking a game on Boardgamegeek. Alas, understanding those basic mechanisms is but a first step beyond the threshold, for the real mysteries of reaching the Olympian heights are yet to be discovered. So let us see how the oldest of the games still prevailing in the top ten managed to climb that mountain and remain there since their first ascendance.

Garden Paths of Olympus

The box cover of Keyflower
source: Boardgamegeek/keyflower
Making a game both reviewers and gamers will love is merely a solid foundation, upon which a publisher needs to build the whole structure of the game’s success. If it wasn't so, games like Keyflower or Roads and Boats, which are admittedly excellent design achievements, would actually stand a chance in a fight for supremacy against, say, Agricola. And since the BGG ranking clearly indicates something else, there must be other reasons for the latter game being so much better (ranking-wise) than the two former.

The box cover of Roads & boats
source: Boardgamegeek/roads-boats
It is no secret that we are and have been living for some time in a world where spin is king and (in some areas at least) publicity, proper marketing and advertising sells a product much better than any of its perceived quality. However, believing that in Agricola’s case advertising was the sole key to success would also be a mistake.

Agricola sold in over 50 thousand copies within just the first year of its publication. This number is impressive to say the least, but being able to reach it is not only a matter of making a game that will have a potential to sell like hotcakes, but also of being able to actually deliver in bulk. A small company will have a hard time investing in printings and securing constant flow of copies, whereas a bigger, more established publisher will effortlessly use existing channels to both market and deliver their games. This means that only those who secure a wide distribution of their product may count on a decent number of BGG users to rate their games and break the top one hundred, top fifty or the coveted top ten.

The Mortal Enemies

Agricola has always been a strong contender, for a long time having to bow to only one game which would prove its ranking superiority – and that game was Puerto Rico. As I am writing these words Agricola occupies the third position in the BGG ranking, still behind two other games (which I will discuss in some detail next time) with Puerto Rico hot on its heels.
The box cover of Agricola
source: Wikipedia/Agricola_(boardgame)
Puerto Rico has been in the top ten list for over a decade. This should not come as a surprise to anyone: the simplicity of its rules (that were quite innovative in 2002) mixed with strategic depth provided a bedrock for the game’s early success and the strong publisher did the rest. The impetus of a five year head start Puerto Rico had had over Agricola, makes the epic battle rage on (and it is entirely possible that the moment you read this article, the positions of the games in the ranking will be, again, reversed).

The box cover of Puerto Rico
source: Wikipedia/Puerto_Rico_(game)
What both these games have in common, however, only proves the rules laid out above, while adding another one to the mix. Both Agricola and Puerto Rico would (apart from conquering new markets) rekindle the passion of their fans either with a steady flow of expansions (in the case of Agricola) or with component improvement and a lavish special edition (in the case of Puerto Rico, which was expanded only once but was given a few minor makeovers). This however, falls under the general rule of publishing powerhouses, for only companies able to expand and support their games on a regular basis may hope to keep their products in one of the exceptionally high positions of the BGG ranking.

But, a splendid game and a strong publisher are not all that matters... as I will try to show next time.

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