Explaining the Appeal of German Board Games

A recent Escapist article offers a thoughtful take on how board games have achieved such high “mainstream” success in Germany. Tyler Sigman offers the following formal factors as the keys to success, which video games should be borrowing (quoted entirely from original article):

  • High Production Values. Quality components and well-executed visuals contribute a pleasant aesthetic to the play experience. Wood pieces and heavy chipboard are common.
  • Session-based Play Times. With rare exception, games top out at about the 90-minute mark, the high end of what can be comfortably played after a nice dinner. “Appetizer” games in the 20-40 minute range are also an important part of any publisher’s catalogue.
  • Family-Friendly Themes. It’s not an issue of censorship; it’s an issue of marketing. The more risqué the subject, the less buyers there are.
  • Make Games, Not War. War is not a popular subject in Germany, and it’s one that is by-and-large absent from Euro-style games. Don’t confuse this for a lack of direct player competition, however.
  • Low Downtime. Downtime is clunky, and it engenders disinterest in the waiting (bored) players.
  • High Player Interaction. Playing against other humans is what keeps things fresh, unpredictable and challenging.
  • All Players Survive ’til the (Bitter) End. May the best player win, but may all players have fun.
  • Balanced Randomness. A skillful application of randomness is the key to making a game appeal to both experienced experts and rank beginners.
  • Mechanics over Theme. Innovation is a major factor; players won’t latch onto a game with ’70s, ’80s or even ’90s mechanics.

I think this is a sensible analysis, though I agree with my friend Tony’s assessment that the link back to video games sounds a bit tenuous in certain examples; Counterstrike hardly seems like a “mainstream” example from where I sit. I’m also very wary of all claims about such-and-such country being a haven for such-and-such geeky medium, where everyone loves the material and it’s free of stereotype and stigma (especially since visiting Paris and discovering that comics—American ones, at least—are considered no less nerdy there than they are here). I think this is a common rallying cry for American geeks who want to change the popular perception of their own fan interests, inspired by a bit of truth but inflated by a lot of hope. All of that said, I must admit that I have found myself wondering lately “what makes German tabletop games so neat,” and this article does a decent job picking that question apart.

4 thoughts on “Explaining the Appeal of German Board Games

  1. I think a major distinction is that most board games fulfill a very different type of cultural needs for the players in comparison to “hardcore” video games such as Counter Strike or the popular Warcraft 3 Mod Defense of the Ancients (DotA.) Interesting to note is that both of these hardcore games are relatively unique in rewarding skills with low downtime as a defeated player must wait a significant amount of time to re-enter the game. I think a major appeal in these types of games are as forum to demonstrate mastery of the game, and and as part of demonstrating their skill frequently engage in dialogues that put down both their opponents and team mates in a way that would seem extremely out of place in any in person interactions.

  2. Beyond the cultural differences between Counter Strike-type online gaming and tabletop gaming, I think there is also a very different sort of social interaction present in board games. In online game design, interpersonal interaction is mediated entirely through the game, and always needs to be designed in. Board games are instead designed to maximize the already present interaction in a fun way, and I feel like these are two very different goals.

    I wonder whether tabletop gaming might prove a good source of design guidelines for the sorts of fancy interaction tools that come out of New Media departments like so many rats fleeing a sinking ship. I’ve thinking in particular of all the demos for multitouch tabletop interfaces I’ve played with, and I can’t think of many that was really fun for more than one person at a time. Always seems a shame since its a fantastic form factor for social fun.

    How nerdy are comics in France, compared to the US? My brief impression of comics in Germany was that they are just as nerdy as in the US, though I all the store employees I talked to were orders of magnitude more friendly and helpful than what I was used to here in the States. Actually, orders of magnitude more friendly and helpful than in any other German retail, thinking about it. Maybe Berlin just has good comics people…

  3. How nerdy are comics in France, compared to the US?

    I need to do some actual interviews, but it seemed like there was a clear division in stores between the imported superhero/sci-fi fare and the meticulously illustrated European (often Belgian, Italian, in addition to French) comics/BDs with high production value. Also, the neighborhood I stayed in clustered comic stores close to video game stores, hobbyist game stores, and science-fiction memorabilia stores, so there was plenty of other nerdy kitsch around. One fellow I spoke to even said he has a “nerdy” comic store and “nerdy” customers…

  4. Wired has a new article about Klaus Teuber and the appeal of German-style board games that might be relevant if you’re interested in reading further on this (and on why Monopoly sucks by comparison).

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