Thursday, May 14, 2015

Plastic vs. Wood - Pros and cons of standardizing in board games (III)

Some time ago we started a discussion about standardizing board game components.
Originally I wanted to debate the pros and cons of plastic vs. wood, as many games offer the design space to choose between these two types of material, but then I realized that was a much to narrow topic. So, let's take a look at plastic and wood and their advantages and disadvantages and where and how do they fit best.

Custom Tokens

One of my first board games was Agricola, a classic and former BGG top ranked game. I was lucky enough to find a copy in Romania back in the day, when board games were as hard to find as gems. A few years later I saw a more recent edition of the same game. With the same rules, the new edition of Agricola triggered a completely different feeling because the token were personalized. The sheep were no longer white-ish cubes but tiny sheep, the grains were no longer yellow discs but little yellow grain-like custom wooden tokens and the cows looked like... cows! And yet the game played just as well with the old tokens.

Do you think that custom wooden pieces add value to a board game? This is the first tough question I want to ask today.

Custom tokens in Euphoria: Build a Better Dystopia
source: BoardGameGeek

In my personal opinion they do, but like every good thing, it comes with an ugly hidden part. Custom tokens are more expensive than regular plain old cubes, discs and meeples. The added value is there, but it comes with a cost which is reflected in the final price of the game. Without going through the whole pricing philosophy, I can give you a simple example: Versailles, with an $55 MSRP - a game printed in 6000 copies - would have had an MSRP of $67.5 with custom wooden tokens. 

So it all comes down to this: would you rather pay a bit more for custom wooden token or settle for the lowest possible price and play with cubes and discs?

Before you answer this question, please take a look at Euphoria to see some of the best custom token in a board game. For me that game would not be the same with plain wooden tokens.

Plastic tokens

There's a whole new universe of tokens made of plastic. I personally discovered this rather late, a few years ago and at NSKN we have not taken advantage of this discovery yet.

Plastic tokens

Regular plastic tokens are significantly cheaper than wooden tokens of the same size. But the key word here is regular. I We could easily replace the wooden resource cubes in Praetor with plastic cubes of roughly the same color. The same for Versailles. But the million dollar (actually just $5K) question is: how would you feel seeing plastic resources in a game about ancient Rome or medieval France for just a few bucks less?

Anyone who has played board games by Martin Wallace will know his "trademark" plastic coins which look a little like the ones in the image above but worse. I personally do not mind them, they seems to add a certain charm and to his games, but I know many who find them "too cheap". On the other hand, the plastic gems in Ascension look and feel great and I don't know anyone complaining about them.

It is probably a matter of taste - whether one likes plastic tokens or not - but they definitely did not become mainstream yet. My bet is on the gaining ground because they are cheaper than wooden tokens, they are even more solid and they can come in almost any color.

There is only one downside: plastic tokens require molds which are expensive, so without making tens of thousands of copies of a game, custom plastic tokens are not really an option.

So, how do you feel about them? Is plastic a real competitor for wood? Would you rather stick to the "classic" cubes and discs or do you see added value in custom tokens, plastic or wooden alike?

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  1. The quality, feel, and look of components add a great deal to the experience of game play. Not only for the stronger symbolic association between components and what they represent (wooden cows are, for some reason, more enjoyable than cubes) but also for the tactical satisfaction.

    There is also the sense of quality. I enjoy putting a game on the table that looks great when all the components are out. Miniatures, Wooden pieces that look like what they represent, and even things like quality metal coins and more durable player-mats immediately seem to draw people into the game more quickly.

    None of this affects the mechanics of a game, but it's the player's perception and engagement that seems to be affected.

    I will pay more for a game that has better components (and have even purchased re-release versions to get better components in collector's editions and such).

    Pat Smith

    1. It's definitely good to produce a game well, make anyone who cracks the box open feel that they are dealing with a quality product. But I personally (I am not the author of this post, and AFAIK Andrei does not exactly share this view), also don't like overproduction. Especially when the game could easily have a smaller footprint than it has.

  2. Nowhere have I seen a more visceral reaction to a component than the reaction to the money in a game. It goes like this: paper<plastic tokens<cardboard<metal. I've always wondered why decent sized game companies don't have a standardized set of metal money that is available for sale in the aftermarket. Those that want it, can have it. No one is immune to the clink of metal. The coins in the deluxe Small World set might be the best I have ever seen.

    1. Well, paper money is the cheapest, smallest and often the lightest option. And about standardized metal money: it would be difficult to make them in such a way, so that they fit medieval, contemporary or s-f settings. Plus, they would be super heavy, which meant very high shipping costs.

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