Game design: With 1,000 games released at Essen, is due diligence still possible?

I caught up with Board Game Geek ‘news guy’ Eric Martin at the Essen Spiel press event. Journalists are a cynical bunch, so it was no surprise we took a bit of a sideways look at the current gaming landscape.

The main point I made was that, in a world where getting on for 1,000 hobby board games are being released at a single gaming event, how can designers, reviewers and even publishers to do their due diligence? Is it any surprise the number of average games grows while the number of outstanding ones stays the same, when it is impossible to track what’s being released?

This thought had started to manifest before the event. After going through a list of Essen 2018 releases, I had a slightly shorter wish list than in previous years. Talking to friends I heard a similar story: more games, less of interest. While you can put a bit of this down to a growing cynicism from being long in a hobby, it seemed too common to be just that. So what was it and why?

This is a bit of a stream of consciousness, so please take it as such.

Are the big publishers getting safer?

The majority of games I wanted at Essen were in halls 4 and 5, where the smaller publishers tend to live. I had practically nothing in halls 1 and 3, which is home to the bigger stands.

As I wandered past those bigger publishers, it was noticeable their games were unsurprisingly family oriented, short and pretty, but also largely bereft of originality. Sure, some had clever little tricks (Solenia being a good example, or The River) but they didn’t offer staying power. These were games that would win win you over with their looks, but that you’d be done with within a few months/plays.

You can argue in the current climate this makes sense: put out a pretty game that’s easy to play and teach (to maximise con sales and video reviewer coverage) and that people will enjoy until next Essen, when you can sell them the next game. Music, film, video gaming – even consumer electronics such as phones – already work this way, so why not board games too?

It feels like a ‘big business’ move into an arena that isn’t used to it – and may not be right for it. When you look at the likes of Hasbro, who have been nailing this market for years, the North Star Games approach (make a few games and back them to the hilt over the years) makes sense. So why are likes of Asmodee, Blue Orange, Iello and the rest seemingly going largely against that philosophy? They do have back catalogues, but the number of annual new releases is very, very high.

More customers – but the same sized print runs?

One reason is clearly the new gamer that has been created by the age of the Kickstarter: hype-hunting, cult-of-the-new driven and desperate for ‘value’ – even if they have to pay £100+ to get it. A game isn’t a real game unless it comes with exclusive content only available on pre-order – even if said content is being made up on the fly as the millions of KS dollars role in.

But then we keep being told we have more new gamers than ever before, so surely the minis companies can continue to have their fun while the rest of us go back to having a fantastic annual crop of games we can actually manage – and that are properly developed and then loved (by both publisher and gamer) on release? Games with enough depth to survive more than a handful of plays?

These still happen, of course, but as I stated earlier – the number doesn’t seem to be growing, despite a doubling of actual games being released each year over the last decade (or less). We’ll always get the Azuls and Gaia Projects, but now we have to wade through so many more mediocre games to get to them: and many really good games are being lost in the malaise, ditched to history after a 5,000-copy print run because they weren’t well supported or covered.

So what do we design – and what do we play?

As a reviewer and designer, I’m lucky to play a larger number of new releases – pre and post publication – than most. But with even the Dice Tower’s Tom Vasel admitting that, as a full time reviewer, he can only play a fraction of releases – where does that leave the rest of us in terms of due diligence?

As a designer, I want to see what’s being done: to spot great new mechanisms and designers, as well as seeing the directions publishers are taking in terms of releases (so as to better know who to pitch my designs to). And I’m sure it’s the same for publishers: they need to know the trends, to help them decide what is worth publishing and what isn’t. I’m sure a lot of releases branded as ‘copy cats’ were probably done out of understandable ignorance rather than deliberate shenanigans.

As a journalist, I’m peppered with requests to cover KS games by people who don’t want me to play them: just to cut-and-paste their press releases, or do a paid rules overview. The games I want to play (by proper publishers) I have to hunt down, hassle, buy or borrow and then – even if I review them – it may do the game no good, because it has been completely overlooked by the hype machine. A lot of really good games simply aren’t getting a fair crack of the whip.

And publisher fatigue is definitely starting to show. I know of several publishers who were hardly looking at any new designs at Essen this year, while others were reported to be looking but with no real intention of taking on any new projects. Others have freely admitted to over-extending in terms of releases – meaning they didn’t have the resources to fully back them in the market – while talk of scaling back the number of games is another common topic of conversation.

Is it even a problem?

Top designer Reiner Knizia got by ignoring other designs and just carrying on regardless (or so the story goes). But rumour has it he has lately been playing more games – and his output is improving because of it after a poor run of form (at least by his own high standards).

But generally I think it is a problem. Retailers can’t stock everything and invariably end up with a lot of crap stock no one wants. Customers end up with as many bad games as good and, where once the secondary market thrived, even that is now reeling under the weight of games being ditched. Publishers are in an annual release-test-develop-release cycle that sees them flying by the seat of their pants, while designers are carried along on the same wave. It’s exciting sure, but ultimately unsustainable.

I expect the next few years will continue in the same cycle: uninspiring, short life cycle, family friendly games will continue to dominate the big publisher release schedule while the innovation will come in 1,000-5,000 print run releases from smaller publishers: these niche publishers will, by dint of caring about a smaller part of the market, be at the right end of the due diligence scale but will be in a market reminiscent of a decade ago.

But designers hoping to make a living will be encouraged to make games for the lowest common denominator, knowing that’s what the bigger publishers want: games they can make pretty and tie to a theme, while not over-burdening the new gamers coming into the market with too many surprises.

I also think the big boys will continue to extend their print runs as the hobby grows, but very rarely into the mega seller category – because they’re largely not making games for that reason (as I spoke about recently, variability doesn’t equal replayability – good game design does). It’s going to take a drop in releases, and a tightening of focus, to get the production cycle of the hobby back on track. It’ll mean more due diligence from designers and publishers, but that can only be good for the hobby.

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