Trends in Board Game Mechanics

CC Pexels

Introduction

Sophisticated “Euro” boardgames are a big hobby these days, and a far cry from old Uno and Monopoly. Often more like economic simulations, these modern board games demand parsing many complex choices, and efficiently using resources, usually to amass “victory points” before the end.

But Euros aren’t static: they’ve changed tremendously in the last few decades. Deck-building, social deduction, and “legacy” elements are all major “mechanical” innovations that have opened up new areas of play. To look at trends in board game mechanics, I analyzed a longitudinal slice of data from Board Game Geek, the de-facto catalog of all board-gaming statistics (though its audience is very serious, and its ratings skew towards “heavy” games).

Basics About the Dataset

The data covered the years 2000 to 2019. I limited the selection to games with at least 100 user ratings and at least one weight rating — both to improve data quality and weed out vanity games with limited appeal: I wanted to get a feel for the general “pulse” of board gaming across these decades. 11,048 games were analyzed, but with many being more recent, as the industry has grown since 2000.

Part I: Number of Mechanics Per Game

I was focused primarily on mechanics and how they’ve changed. In the data, up to 9 are listed per game. How these are defined and assigned is obviously somewhat idiosyncratic, and subject to how BGG operates. That said, the mean number of mechanics per game was 3.3, with a lot of variation: most often, games have 2 or 3 core mechanics listed.

There is an interesting spike at 9 mechanics. I presume that if you’re going to be very complex, why not go for broke, and have tons of mechanics (probably more than 9, but we hit the limits of the data).

Games Grow More Complex

There was a real change over time in this average, with games in 2000 featuring about 2.5 mechanics, and those in 2019 averaging 4. It’s not clear whether this really describes design practices or is an artifact of the classification methods (and activity of BGG users in a burgeoning hobby).

Weight Means More Mechanics

BGG users also rate games on “weight” which is something like complexity and depth for serious hobbyists. A scale of 0 to 5 is used, with over 80% of games falling between 1 and 3: the mean weight is 2.2. In these analyses, I generally bin the games by weight (0 up to 1, 1 up to 2, etc.).

The number of mechanics does tend to track with the weight of the game, but this plateaus: the heaviest games don’t tend to have any more than moderately have games. The chart above shows this, with bar width indicating the sample size (number of games).

This also varies over time:

Games in general have gotten more complex, but the heaviest games have seen even steeper increases in the number of mechanics. Of course, this may just as well hinge on our own expectations as we assign weights to games — and we’ve redefined what “heavy” means, to imply more mechanics.

Part II: Most Popular Mechanics

One hundred and eighty distinct mechanics were listed in the database. Unsurprisingly, a few were extremely common while most were rare. This is a familiar trend in the natural sciences; something like the Pareto distribution. The bottom third of mechanics were each used in fewer than 10 games, whereas the top 9 mechanics were present in a thousand or more games each!

Here is the list of mechanics with at least 50 uses, ranked according to what percentage of games employed them.

A caveat here. We do have to be careful in our interpretations here. BGG users tag games to be helpful to each other, using familiar nomenclature — not to scientifically classify games. The popularity of a mechanic surely reflects how useful it is to gamers, even though others might be just as technically accurate. For instance, “Matching” is employed by just one game in the sample! This doesn’t mean games don’t feature matching, though: it means they use more specific forms of it that board gamers will recognize. Various mechanics cover similar territory, and which are assigned to a game may come down to culture, timing, and marketing, as much as fundamental qualities.

Trends in the Top 5 Mechanics

The top five mechanics overall have been fairly stable in popularity, in part perhaps because they are very broad categories. Still, there have been shifts over two decades: note the coinciding rise in Card Drafting and Hand Management:

Largest Changes in Popularity

The stars of other mechanics have risen or fallen more dramatically though. Both Cooperative Games, and “Deck, Bag, and Pool Building” began near zero but climbed to be in 4% to 6% of new releases. Meanwhile, roll-and-moves, always derided, dropped to almost nothing among BGG-rated games.

Part III: Mechanical Combinations

Mechanics don’t occur in isolation, and what makes many new games interesting is the way they combine familiar ones. With the average game using 3 mechanics, and 180 mechanics in the dataset, there are a lot of possibilities. In this analyses, I’ll focus on 2-way combinations.

Naturally the most common combinations often involve the most common mechanics like Dice Rolling, Hand Management, and Variable Player Powers — which are all in the top 5 overall. Yet other combinations must also derive from the fact that some mechanics simply go well together — or have a long history of use.

Unlikely Combinations

I estimated how likely a combination would be, based simply on the popularity of each mechanic on its own, and then compared this to its actual frequency. This revealed some combinations that were more likely than expected. Here are some, from combinations that occurred in at least 50 games overall:

  • Chit-Pull System & Hexagon Grid
  • Network and Route Building & Stock Holding
  • Hexagon Grid & Simulation
  • Role Playing & Storytelling
  • Auction/Bidding & Stock Holding

On the other hand, some combinations didn’t appear as often as their constituent mechanics would have suggested — something about them is just hard to make work; or we haven’t tried hard enough:

  • Auction/Bidding & Cooperative Game
  • Area Majority / Influence & Storytelling
  • Role Playing & Worker Placement
  • Campaign / Battle Card Driven & Worker Placement
  • Chit-Pull System & Hand Management

C’mon, designers: I know you can do a “Dungeons & Viticulture”!

I hope you found this entertaining. If I can obtain more resent BGG data, I’d love to extend the analyses to 2022.

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