Issue 19: What's the best year in board games?


I hope you’ve had a nice week. I’ve got a bit of a weird newsletter in store for you today, in which I took a look at some data from BoardGameGeek and tried to find the best year in board games. Enjoy it — we’ll be back to a bit more regular programming next week, when I’ll take a look at the Pandemic series and its several iterations.

Before we get to the meat of this, some side notes:

”Maybe it’s a time management game about trying to lead every club at your high school before you eventually discover that there’s something better out there for you, and that something doesn’t hold the same glamor or prestige you wanted. The message? Sic transit gloria. Glory fades.”

  • I’m playing with some ideas for this newsletter — one of the more successful issues has been the first one in this form, which pitted Azul against Sagrada. What games should I compare? If you’ve got ideas, I’d love to hear them.

  • I’m still working on putting together a board game book club. I haven’t forgotten. If you’ve got interest in joining in, let me know.

  • Finally, if you like this newsletter and you feel like sharing, please do — it’s just a little extra motivation for me, and hopefully it’s something other people enjoy, too.

If you, like me, find yourself overly worried about what things are the best things, you might have wondered what year has been the best year for board games.

I’m here to tell you that we can try to figure it out — and we’ll do it with science. Or at least we’ll do it with a spreadsheet, because spreadsheets are generally fun things to toy around with. Does a spreadsheet count as science?

Before we get into the data, we need to first understand the limitations it presents, which are numerous. We’ll then talk about what BoardGameGeek data tells us is the best year, including a discussion about whether Kickstarter has influenced BGG data in a significant way. Finally, we’ll settle on a best year, and I’ll talk about some of my favorite games that year. Ready? Let’s go.

Limitations of BoardGameGeek data

BoardGameGeek’s BGG Rating system, which is the metric used to determine rankings on the site, is a little arcane, and it demands some discussion about how the calculated metric is created. It also presents one of the biggest challenges in evaluating the data, so it demands special attention.

First, not every game in the database gets a BGG Rating. There are 202 pages (right this second, at least) of ranked games. (Tic-Tac-Toe, ranked no. 20,199, is very last.) There are 1,241 pages in total. So, you know. Lots of games.

What is the BGG Rating, then? Well, let’s parse out what they say about it.

To prevent games with relatively few votes climbing to the top of the BGG Ranks, artificial "dummy" votes are added to the User Ratings. These votes are currently thought to be 100 votes equal to the mid range of the voting scale: 5.5, but the actual algorithm is kept secret to avoid manipulation. The effect of adding these dummy votes is to pull BGG Ratings toward the mid range. Games with a large number of votes will see their BGG Rating alter very little from their Average Rating, but games with relatively few user ratings will see their BGG Rating move considerably toward 5.5. This is known as "Bayesian averaging" and a quick search of both BGG and/or the Web will reveal much discussion on the topic. You will see this rating listed in advanced searches, your game collection, and near the top, most right corner of game pages.

BoardGameGeek FAQ

Fascinating, huh? Secret algorithms are neat. Bayesian averages are neat. And taking an eye toward avoiding vote manipulation seems important.

There are some measures in place to prevent or minimize game score manipulation - for example: users with a history of certain rating patterns will have their ratings omitted from the game's average score.

So that’s great! There’s this weird, annoying thing where some folks feel the urge to rate games at extreme values on completely external factors than having played it — like, you know, whether it was released on Kickstarter, or whether it’s cooperative, that sort of thing — and other people will jump in and rate the opposite. That sort of behavior doesn’t sound like it weighs in too much to average rating, so that’s nice.

All of this makes the BGG Rating an interesting beast, but it also is worth remembering there’s also a significant selection bias here, too. Folks who are not heavily into board games are not likely to create an account on a hobby website, and they’re even less likely to play the heavier games that end up at the top of the ranking. As we evaluate these rankings and try to figure out what the best year in games is, these are factors we’ll have to keep in mind.

The most popular year

I didn’t really expect this, but 2016, at least as of Jan. 28, is arguably the most popular year for games on BoardGameGeek. Or maybe it’s 2008. Let’s find out!

First, 51 games from 2016 made it on the top 500. That’s more than any other year, but there are 46 games from 2017, 44 from 2015, and 42 from 2018. So it’s not necessarily wildly out of bounds from the others, but it is a bit of a jump.

Second, there are more votes in total across those 51 games than in any other year, which sounds a bit inevitable, right? There are nearly 700,000 votes in total, and there are nearly 40,000 more votes than the next-closest year in totals, 2012.

But that actually leads us into another way to consider these numbers: Which years have the games with the most votes? There will be some bias here because of some of the most popular games, and we’ll have to figure that out, but I think we can look at it at least a little objectively.

If you had to guess the three most popular games on BGG, what would you pick? Catan? Carcassonne? Pandemic? Yes, yes, and yes. (Amazingly, I just got 100 percent on the quiz I gave myself after looking at the raw data. Truly a wonder.) Each of those has over 100,000 votes on the site.` It gives you a real sense of scale for the audience rating games, because it really is not incredibly significant in the grand scheme of things in an audience that’s presumably much larger. That also comes with its own set of problems, so really, we can only judge the most popular year according to BGG users who actively rate games.

So! To get through some of this, I filtered out those three hit games. Here are some of my takeaways:

  • 2008, sans Pandemic, features just nine games in the top 500. It’s the least since 2003, which has just four. It does make me wonder if there’s significance here, because 2007 has 18 ranked games, and 2009 has 22 ranked games. This might warrant some further investigation.

  • 2008 also features an average of nearly 33,000 votes per game on average. That’s much higher than its neighbors, and it joins 1993 and 1997 in similar counts. But both of those have very few games — 1993 has Magic: The Gathering (ranked 158,) and 1997 has For Sale (#299) and Bohnanza (#451).

  • The top games from 2008? Le Havre (#47), Battlestar Galactica (#80), Dominion (#97), Stone Age (#110), Cosmic Encounter (#143), Space Alert (#215), Ghost Stories (#269), Dixit (#276), and Time’s Up! Title Recall! (#401).

That spread actually makes me a little skeptical about whether 2008 is the most popular year. I think I’m landing back on 2016.

The best year

I’m leaning here toward 2012 or 2014, both of which have the highest votes per game in any post-2008 year, and they have a good number of games in the mix. But ultimately, the best year is a subjective claim, and the data can only tell us so much, given the critical limitations of BGG data. So maybe I should call it my favorite year, but I’m narrowing it down to these two artificially and not particularly by my preference. There’s not some game in either year that I’m itching to pick, after all.

But as I’m looking further into the data, I’m realizing something interesting. Neither of these years features games that really crack the top 50 with any regularity. You know what years do? 2015, 2016, and 2017, with 7, 8 and 10, respectively. That’s the strongest set of years we can see, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it all falls in the last five years.

There are multiple factors here. First, I think it’s indicative of significant growth in the hobby. Designer board games have been growing in the public consciousness, after all. Second, as the hobby grows, the number of people ranking games will go up, and people are more likely to pick up the game everyone’s talking about. Third, there’s always a tendency to talk about new games among content creators, and that’s a natural thing — it’s sort of the nature of reviews, right? (Of course, there are people who specialize in talking about older games, either because they’ve been overlooked or because they’re just not garnering as much attention as they once did. That’s great! I love content like that. But I also loving learning about new games, and I love talking about new games.)

But I do think it’s worth pointing toward a bit of a trend in design, too. Mechanics that might seem well-established are sometimes newer than you might expect. A great example: Deck-building only came to prominence in 2008, which is only 13 years ago. Asymmetric games — at least, asymmetric games that aren’t war games — have been growing in prominence in the last six or seven years, too. There’s a maturity in design, and with more people coming into the hobby, it does mean there’s a greater chance that people can dedicate all of their time to design and not treat it as a hobby of their own. (There’s no shame in either, to be clear.)

With all that in mind, then: I’d like to propose that this year is the best year in gaming. I have zero proof (obviously, given how few games have been released to this point,) but I think it holds up. I think the collective quality of games has been steadily improving, and there are a lot more good games, especially considered as a ratio of games released. Is this cheating? Probably. But I didn’t promise you a good answer.

But what about Kickstarter?

You might consider Kickstarter as a generally negative force in gaming. I don’t know that I do. In fact, I think it’s generally a positive force, and not because there’s now a proliferation of miniatures in games. (They’re fun, I guess, but I generally avoid games that have a lot of them. Personal preference and all that.)

The growing prominence of board games, and the growing attention paid to them, combines really well with Kickstarter to help get companies off the ground. There are, of course, some predatory companies that actively look to part people from their money. That’ll be the case anywhere. But look at Indie Boards and Cards — now Indie Game Studios after merging with Stronghold — or Stonemaier Games. Or look local to me at Fowers Games or Red Raven Games — they’re companies for whom Kickstarter is a not-insubstantial part of their strategy.

Small companies can be afforded opportunities to flourish that they might otherwise not. So when we talk about the growing presence of Kickstarter-funded games in the top 100, I think it’s worth considering that.

Still, Kickstarter does something weird to the rankings. Investing in the process can lead to generally more positive feelings in ratings, which can lead games to move up the charts a bit faster. If we look at the top 50, we’ll see plenty of Kickstarted games:

  • 1 — Gloomhaven (2017)

  • 3 — Brass Birmingham (2018)

  • 13 — Spirit Island (2017)

  • 14 — Scythe (2016)

  • 23 — Viticulture Essential Edition (2015)

  • 24 — Orleans (2014)

  • 25 — Nemesis (2018)

  • 28 — Root (2018)

  • 32 — The 7th Continent (2017)

  • 35 — Blood Rage (2015)

  • 36 — Everdell (2018)

  • 37 — Kingdom Death: Monster (2015)

  • 43 — Clans of Caledonia (2017)

  • 48 — Anachrony (2017)

  • 50 — Too Many Bones (2017)

When you combine Kickstarter enthusiasm with the nature of the Board Game Geek rankings, I think you can see the influence pretty plainly. Of the top 50 games as of writing this, 14 made their way into production from Kickstarter. That’s not a bad thing! I really don’t think it is. But I do think it has an outsized influence on the top 50, and that can have an influence on consumer habits, too.

Why I think I’ll start rating my games

I have been bad at rating the games I purchase and play. It is not something that I usually remember to do. But I think one way to try to account for all this is to be more actively participatory in the process — and if enough of us do that, maybe there will be more movement and change, and games that are currently struggling to move up the rankings can start to jump up a bit, simply owing to the way the system works.

Is that a flaw of the system? Maybe. And maybe there’s not a way to change it, but if we at least understand it, we can start to understand the rankings more fluidly.

Wait, what is the best year?

I actually think the methodology and data is flawed to a point that it can’t tell us what the best year is. That’s why I said this year is the best year. Maybe that’s the “Cult of the New,” or maybe that’s a recognition that designers are doing exciting, interesting things, and there’s a greater understanding of the general whiteness and maleness of hobby game design, as well as ways we can all collectively work to better the hobby for all. Getting new voices involved will further the breadth of design strategies, and that’s only a good thing, but it’s also the only right thing to do.

But what’s the best year in the past?

I dunno. I think maybe 2019. With that in mind, here are ten of my favorite games from 2019. (And to think, you probably thought I’d never get to an answer. I might even try to justify it. We’ll see.)

  • Azul: Summer Pavilion (#160) — a lovely spin on the Azul franchise

  • Cartographers (#126) — easily one of my favorite flip-and-fill games

  • Paladins of the West Kingdom (#75) — a super cool worker placement game with a different take on workers

  • PARKS (#156) — A family game about visiting national parks!

  • Pax Pamir: Second Edition (#86) — A heavier game than most on this list, it’s a tableau building game where you exert influence in Afghanistan politics in the 19th century

  • The Crew: The Quest for Planet Nine (#44) — I talk about this game all the time. It’s amazing. I love it. Play it.

  • The Isle of Cats (#117) — Polyominos, cats and a ship? It’s just the best combination of things imaginable.

  • The Taverns of Tiefenthal (#277) — Wolfgang Warsch takes on deck building and worker placement; it’s neat!

  • Tiny Towns (#318) — A wonderful family strategy game of pattern building to earn points

  • Twice as Clever! (#374) — A sequel to a sublime abstract roll-and-write game

  • Watergate (#181) — An asymmetric two-player game pitting the press against Nixon

  • Wingspan (#20) — A well-regarded game about building a tableau of birds to earn points (though I think it’s a better game if you don’t worry about winning, which might be kind of counterintuitive.)

See how great these games are? These are all games I would love to play right this very second. (Unless you’re reading this when it’s sent out, at 7:30 Mountain on Monday mornings. I generally would rather be asleep at that time on that day. But if you read all the way to the end, I’ll play a 7:30 a.m. game with you. Just give me the date.)