Thursday, July 24, 2014

Cardboard Olympus Part IV: A Matter of Faith

Do you remember Black & White – an old video game created by Peter Molyneux? If you don’t, let me refresh your memory. In Black & White you play as a god, invoked into being by prayers of a family hoping for a miracle to save their drowning offspring. As time passes, your task is to make more people believe in you, for your powers – and your avatar – grow with the unwavering faith of new believers.

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What does this all have to do with board games and the BoardGameGeek ranking? Well, as I previously said, entering the Cardboard Olympus requires a powerhouse publisher and a well known designer (besides an excellent game, which should go without saying). If all that is true however, how is it possible that Twilight Struggle is and has been the number one for some time now?

Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that GMT Games is in any way lacking, but if we compare it to Wizkids, Asmodee or Fantasy FlightGames, it is still relatively small, with substantially smaller print runs. Now, it is true that Twilight Struggle has been the all-time bestseller for GMT, but if you compare the number of boxes sold to Agricola, you will see how vastly less popular Twilight Struggle actually is. Since we know that just being a great game is not enough to justify a godly position, there must be something more to the seeming miracle of a political wargame reigning supreme over mages, knights, farmers, colonists, dwarves, mystical lands and power grids.

And there is - the loyalty of the people who play games published by GMT Games. Anyone who is a fan of this publisher, knows that it has a business model that used to be quite unique. A game goes through a period during which the fans can look at its prototype components, read designer diaries, ask questions and possibly even become play-testers, and decide to pledge a fixed sum of money towards the game, which guarantees them a copy, if the game is ever produced. If enough pledges are gathered in the time allotted, the game goes to the printers.

The above system is called P500 and if you’re seeing some similarities to Kickstarter, then you are absolutely right. This is why I said this business model used to be unique. It still is actually, but not as much as when GMT started using it years ago, when crowd-funding was merely a glint in somebody’s eye. Still, even now it brings something very unique to the table: a sense of participation and loyalty, usually associated with either the largest and oldest companies, or those who really know how to work their crowd-funding magic.

Obviously, P500 has one more advantage: it lowers the financial risks of publishing a game. However, from the BoardGameGeek ranking perspective, it creates something even more important: the willingness of the fans to invest themselves in the project. And this investment means that they will buy, play, talk and be more disciplined and eager when it comes to rating a game on BGG.

“Hold on a moment”, a hear you ask, “does that mean that a place on the Cardboard Olympus can be secured merely by fans who are a vocal minority?” Well, yes… in a way. Although you may also say, that it’s more of a proof of how much passionate fans can do for a relatively unknown, but nonetheless excellent game. That is why one should never underestimate the power of a happy community of followers, for becoming a cardboard deity is not only a matter of cold calculations but also, to a reasonable extent, truly a matter of faith.

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