What makes one games better than another? Simple question, you’d think. Turns out, not so much.
A couple of weeks ago a board gaming chum posted a link to Pub Meeple’s Board Game Ranking Engine. The object is to rank either the BGG Top 100 or your own collection (imported via BGG) by a series of head-to-head matchups. You aren’t allowed ties. Inch by inch and row by row, your ranked preferences begin (in theory, anyway) to grow into longer and longer chains until you end up with a single list.
Ranking the BGG 100 took me about 15 minutes. I couldn’t rate some games, like War of The Ring and Mechs Vs Minions, because I had never played them. You’re able to delete those from the final results on the fly as you go. I was left with about 80 games, and below is a table of my Top 20 (drawn only from BGG’s top 100, remember):
|My Top 20 Chosen From BGG’s Top 100
According to Pub Meeple’s Ranking Engine
|3||7 Wonders Duel||13|
|4||Mage Knight Board Game||20|
|5||Pandemic Legacy: Season 1||2|
|8||Star Wars: Imperial Assault||29|
|9||Pandemic Legacy: Season 2||33|
|13||Dead of Winter: A Crossroads Game||68|
|14||Race for the Galaxy||48|
|17||Through the Ages: A New Story of Civilization||3|
|18||Clank! A Deck-Building Adventure||162|
|19||Robinson Crusoe: Adventures on the Cursed Island||39|
Nothing really surprising there. Although I like heavier games plenty, I enjoy medium and light games with elegant rulesets and certain mechanics (deckbuilding in particular) even more. I also appreciate games whose themes mesh with design particularly well.
Now, ranking my entire collection was a whole other endeavour. I currently own about 600 games (not including expansions), so you can imagine how long it took to tackle that list two at a time. Plus Pub Meeple’s engine seems to have a glitch in it because it included expansions even though I specifically told it not to (I tried twice to make sure), and deleting games on the fly seemed to send it into a death spiral when it came to saving my work (which I definitely had to, since it took me numerous sessions over multiple days). In the end I said to heck with it and just tried to stomp most expansions (like promo cards) to the bottom of the list–although certain expansions I did include because (like, say, German Railroads or 7 Wonders: Leaders) add enough to the base game to make them (from a ranking perspective anyway) different games.
Here is where the exquisite agony from the title began. Because how do you compare apples with oranges? How do you compare a game you only played once or twice years ago with one you’ve played recently? How do you compare nostalgic old favourites with current flavours-of-the-month?
In doing over 4000 (!) matchups I found I had to use different criteria depending on the situation. No one factor worked every time. Some questions I asked myself were:
For instance, which is the better game: Campaign Manager: 2008, or Bridge? One is a venerable card game with even older provenance, a huge literature, and despite its age millions of fans worldwide; the other is barely 10 years old, with some pretty distinguished ancestors in its own way (Twilight Struggle, for one), and certainly more accessible and steeped in theme. According to BGG there’s no contest: Bridge rates 7.5, while CM:2008 a still-creditable 6.7. In the end I also tapped Bridge as the winner, on the basis of its extremely deep gameplay spread over two distinct phases (bidding; playing out the hands).
So that was an easy one. What about Puerto Rico vs Lost Cities? Now we have two games of roughly equal age (2002; 1999), both by prominent German designers. Neither has a compelling theme or particularly strong (or weak) artwork. Lost Cities is easier to learn and teach, but the scoring is much mathier than Puerto Rico. PR scales well from 3 to 5, but LC is 2-player only. Unsurprisingly, given it held the #1 spot for years, PR beats out LC by almost a full point, 8.1 to 7.2, with thousands more ratings.
For me, on the other hand, although I will still play PR, I feel the art of game design has improved since then, whereas LC has a quality to me that transcends time; yes, it’s a little mathy, but look at what a robust design it is, continuing to spawn new and interesting variants such as Keltis and this year’s superb Lost Cities: Rivals (which seems to have flown in under the radar and deserves more attention). So, for me at least, Lost Cities wins the match.
As my ranking nightmare endeavour went on, I had some exquisitely-difficult choices to make. In one case, I had to pick between a game that had been my passion/obsession for years as a young military gamer (Squad Leader)–but which I haven’t played for decades–and a modern classic (Twilight Struggle again) which I play both online and FTF. Both were groundbreaking two-player wargames: Squad Leader was the first cardboard wargame to incorporate morale significantly into tactical play, Twilight Struggle virtually defined modern card-driven political games. Both were extremely immersive, designed to put players right into the action. Both have excellent, thematic graphic design. Both have imposing rulesets which nonetheless were tightly-written and virtually errata-free.
In this case I arguably went with nostalgia and Squad Leader–on the basis that its modular boards and “open source” design allowed me (and many others) to create and simulate our own battles on a scale that could never be matched by Twilight Struggle. My point is that I had to go through six or seven criteria where the games were “tied” before finally, desperately, making my choice.
Here are some other agonizing choices I was presented with. Which would you have picked?
I know that for some people some of these aren’t even close, for one reason or another. But for me, each one was exquisite torture. Before you go on to read my choice, take a second, minute, or hour to decide which you would have picked, and why, and then read on:
And yet Codenames also requires quite a bit of processing power to play well, especially as the Codemaster. You not only need to be able to make connections among a myriad of random words, you also have to take into account your teammates’ background knowledge and thinking methods. It is that rare bird: the party game which rewards strategic thinking, and succeeds marvellously.
In the end I chose…Power Grid, but only by a hair, because it can be played solo (not well, but it can). Otherwise, to me, they are almost equally good games, even though they provide very different game experiences.
And yet it was Netrunner for me because (a) setup and takedown for Memoir can be a nightmare, especially the more you have and (b) you can simply do more with less with Netrunner. I only own the first cycle (up until Creation and Control) and I feel I have more than enough to occupy me for ages and ages (and it’s way more portable). Plus, now that FFG has killed it off I hope to buy up some of the later series at cheaper prices.
There is no question that Gloomhaven stands as a huge achievement in design and execution. I wish I had a separate table just to leave it out and play whenever the spirit overtook me. (Especially because, even more than Memoir ‘44, setup and takedown is a beast.) But if I had to choose to play just one or the other even again for the rest of my life (and this is what it came down to, folks), I would choose Scythe. It’s more accessible, more teachable, plays more easily solo, and although I haven’t started it yet, the latest Scythe expansion Rise of Fenris promises to ice the cake in terms of adding campaign-style play and even more gameplay options.
So after all, that, what were my top 20? Here you go:
|3||Fields of Fire||1154|
|5||Arkham Horror: The Card Game||18|
|8||RAF: The Battle of Britain 1940||1085|
|10||7 Wonders Duel||13|
|15||The Barbarossa Campaign||2977|
|16||The Quest for El Dorado||337|
And as I look at this list, as far as a desert-island collection goes, I’d say it was pretty bloody good. You’ve got some old-fashioned consim, you’ve got some deckbuilding, some trading/negotiation, a couple of great Euros, a classic abstract, and a great variety of eras and themes, from ancient to s.f./cyberpunk. And plenty of solo and solo-friendly options to play under the palm trees. So good on ya, Ranking Engine: you delivered on your promise.
What was my lowest-ranked game, you ask? Boss Monster: The Dungeon Building Card Game. Aww…no love for the Boss Monster. I was surprised, actually; I thought for sure Monopoly would be at the bottom but it wasn’t!
I strongly urge you to get over to Pub Meeple and try things out for yourself. You will have some awful choices to make–but they should spark some great conversations.