Why does it seem that the well is dry? Heavily reused mechanics and game design tropes. Some excellent games are light on innovation, just a mélange of reused and repurposed ideas. Many game genres are iterative, reusing the same core mechanic dressed up with a new presentation or new gimmick.
Why do you think some people do not like board games?— Pangea Games (@PangeaBG) June 22, 2021
Is the well dry? No. Human capacity for innovation is limitless. There is no perfect game
Just because many games are derivative or iterative doesn’t mean that there is no new design space to be explored.
There’s many ways to enjoy a board game. Social dynamics, artistic-ness, learning, and a myriad of small pleasures.
Why does the hobby need innovation? Specific issues still exist in some classic tried-and-true designs, and there’s still plenty of people for the hobby to reach.
Did you know that there are literally thousands of new board games released each year? This is a surprise to most everyone, even ardent fans of hobby-style board games. But it’s true. The board game hobby has had steady growth for decades and it’s not stopping.
So there are thousands of new and unique games, right? Where do all these new games come from?
When you take a closer look at a lot of these games, though, there’s definitely a lot of iteration of design in some games. Sometimes, new games can seem downright derivative of others.
A strong indicator of this is how a particular mechanic - that is, a little system of rules that forms a segment of a game - appears in one popular game, and imitators and iterations proliferate quickly, sometimes for long periods of time.
Take a game called Dominion. It popularized a mechanic called deck-building, where players add cards to their decks as a match progresses. There’s a market of cards to add, and managing the contents of your deck is a captivating feat.
When Dominion made a splash, almost ten years ago, the hobby saw a flood of Dominion-alikes that used that deck-building system. From Core Worlds, to Thunderstone, to Ascension, to Legendary and its myriad spin-offs, to the plainly-named DC Deckbuilding Game, to Clank, to Star Realms, to Shards of Infinity, to Fort, new games tried to do what Dominion did but better. And to what end? People still play Dominion regularly, and new copies make their way into players libraries frequently. Did we really need all those imitators?
Or, take a look at how publishers will rebrand existing, successful games with hot new licenses. Fantasy Flight Games published arguably one of the best dungeon crawl board games, Descent: Journeys in the Dark. When the publisher got a hold of a broader Star Wars license from Disney, one of the very first games they made with that license was Imperial Assault, which was mostly a new version of Descent with a Star Wars paint job. More recently, top-tier hobby games Love Letter and Splendor got the same Disneyification treatment as well. Infinity Gauntlet and Marvel Splendor are practically the same game as Love Letter and Splendor, but dipped in sugary candy coating of superhero imagery.
And, on the topic of board game themes, so many games try to tell the same story over and over again. So often, Euro-style games return to the same themes that tropes that they’ve used for decades now: farming or mercantile, often in ancient world settings such as Rome or Mesopotamia, sometimes medieval Europe. When people turn to American-style games for more exciting milieus, they often find a different kind of repetition: generic Tolkein-inspired fantasy of knights and dungeons and dragons; generic science fiction leaning on tropes like robots and aliens and spaceships; never-ending legions of zombies - and zombie games; and whatever literary series that’s fallen into the Public Domain, like Cthulhu or Sherlock Holmes.
To reiterate, the hobby is inundated with new titles every year. With so much opportunity to explore and innovate, it seems like designers and publishers keep going back to the same touchstones over and over again. Doesn’t it seem like all the good games came out 10 or 20 years ago, and the hobby is just trying to recapture that magic? Have we passed the end of board games?
There are absolutely no indications that board games, as a modern hobby or an ancient expression of human nature, are going anywhere. The growth of the board game hobby is steady, healthy, and sustainable (in as much as a modern industry can be), built on discerning consumers and passionate designers and publishers.
It’s easy to lose sight of this when there’s such a flood of new games, and so many of them borrow and copy ideas from each other. It’s dizzying, to be sure, but it’s also a sign of a healthy, evolving thing. Biologists may call this speciation - successful board games go on to inspire designers and authors to make similar but unique games. Fortunately, the success of a game isn’t determined exclusively by profit-seeking market forces, but also aesthetic appreciation of design.
Aesthetics and taste is also one of the most fascinating things about the hobby. The intangible virtue of “beauty” in art has a direct analogue in game design, the intangible virtue of “fun.” Every person experiences fun in their own way, and there are many different flavors and genres. For example, some people appreciate difficult challenges, and some just like the satisfaction of success. Some people like games that are conducive to abstract, strategic, logical thinking. Conversely some people like games that reward intuition and inspire nuanced social interactions. There are still many more dimensions of fun a game can exist within. There’s no one perfect game, and there never will be, and this is ideal.
So while it seems that the repetitive commonalities of the torrent of games released every year seems like stagnation and creative bankruptcy, it’s actually the opposite. Successful games are imitated and innovated upon. We’re watching the creative process of a whole subculture in real-time. Each unique game is a small step in finding more sophisticated experiences that make games easier to play, more fun, and often more thought provoking than before.