Why is every board game designed to be the last you’ll ever need?

Four games and eleven expansions worth of Railroad Ink dice.

It seems like every modern game is designed to be the last game you will ever need. A desert island game, an endless buffet, a bottomless ocean of content. Each game is sold to buyers with this promise that if you buy it you and your friends will never be bored and never really have to move on to another game. This occurred to me as the big box of Railroad Ink Challenge I had backed on Kickstarter at the beginning of lockdown arrived in the mail this week. This is a giant box designed to hold four individual games, each of which includes its own thematic expansions, plus a box of 7 more expansions and 2 larger maps to play on. Suddenly I am drowning in dice and have more ways to play Railroad Ink than I’d ever imagined. And if I am being honest, I am not sure I will even play every aspect in this box one time. Of course, I am hopeful. I have grand visions of me and my friends laughing around a table and playing game after game of it, discovering each expansion like a box of chocolates. But here’s the catch. Everyone else has an endless buffet of their own to get to the table. It is very rare, and certainly unpredictable to guess what game will get ten or even five plays in a year. Will Railroad Ink be the one that my group keeps turning back to week in and week out? I kind of doubt it.

It’s possible that this is all exacerbated by COVID. There is a long queue of new games, acquired when there weren’t any game nights to play them, waiting to get their chance in the sun. Shiny things from Kickstarter campaigns keep showing up in the mail, new games keep hitting the shelves, there is an onslaught of great games as I wrote about before. What is the point of an endless buffet if the furthest most people get is the appetizers, and then they ask for the check? I wrote early on that my shelves were full of memories, each game reminding me of a time it was played and the fun I’d had with friends. But now the shelf is mostly a wall of potential experiences versus real ones. As a result, the urge is to skip along the surface of each game like a stone on a lake, touch each game, maybe getting a learning game or two in, but never actually dive in with any depth. It seems counter to what the games were designed for, and I pine for the classics that I wrote about last week. Games that show the entire realm of possibilities on the first play, but which hold up to countless plays.

I admit, it’s a weird rainy day and I might be getting overly philosophical about the whole thing. There are more games than ever, and they are designed to be more replayble than ever, so what is the problem? A shelf full of potential should be exciting, especially as game nights become a thing again and all those games start hitting the table. Isn’t it strange to ask a game to be less? Well, yes and no. I think it’s best to illustrate what I’m grumping about with a bit of an example. A game that I have managed to get to the table, and finish is My City which I wrote about recently. This is a legacy style game where you play through 8 chapters, 24 games in total and you are done with the experience. The game is thirty five dollars, but can often be found cheaper and adds one or two new things a chapter over time. By the time I was done, I had had enough My City for a lifetime and I don’t really need to play it again. 

Modern games are full of bling and have become luxury items

By comparison a game recently went up on Kickstarter called My Father’s Work. For ninety nine dollars this game offers three scenarios, an app driven story with each scenario having a small novel’s worth of writing, a  spiralbound village board that changes based on your decisions, and bespoke components, right down to little glass bottles with real removable corks. The Kickstarter page writes about how you can play through the same scenario multiple times and still not see all that’s in the box. On the one hand, that sounds amazing. On the other, will I even get this to the table 24 times? It’s not exactly a fair comparison, and I know that. The games are completely different in terms of play style and length. But the price is getting steeper. Ninety nine dollars is more than a lot of people would spend on a board game and keeps this particular game out of reach for some. And honestly this price is not a lot compared to other bottomless games where you can spend 150, 200 or even 300 dollars to get all of the content, like the recent Monster Hunter Kickstarter that tops out at $295 before shipping. That includes two base games and four expansions, which you can buy without having even played the game one time

I am not naïve, and I understand the sales pitch. Kickstarter campaigns are all about wish fulfillment. To keep up with the joneses a board game campaign has to convince you that it will wax your car and toast your bread, or at the very least it needs to promise that it will have enough game to last you forever. I have watched the model evolve from its infancy in 2012 to the slick marketing blitz that it is today and I see how the gears turn. My question is why does a game need to be bottomless versus just being good and affordable? If My Father’s Work came out with one scenario, some good old fashioned wooden cubes and meeples and still had the cool spiral bound map, would it be an inferior experience? That sounds like a wonderful 60 dollar game and maybe if I did feel it was played out I would buy an expansion in a few years to mix things up. But this is the old model. The new board game market is made of ruthless and weaponized desire. Renegade will sell you the game and two expansions up front, but only if you catch the hype now. For those of us who are on the hype train, and have the disposable income to spare, maybe this is all gravy. But I do feel like we are rapidly becoming a luxury hobby for the rich, and we are leaving a whole audience behind with this format.

On a different note it is a telling twist that the number one requested feature for My Father’s Work is a solo mode; a way to play it alone. These games are so big and so bottomless that its audience is demanding a way to play it without having to worry about getting a group of friends together. This trend was accelerated by COVID of course, as recent conditions have made it literally impossible to get a group together. But it started before then and puts a ceiling on any game that doesn’t have it as there is a whole audience who will not buy a game unless they know they can play it solo. I am not personally into solo gaming, but I also don’t mean to shame it. If that is how you prefer to play games, more power to you. But if there is an audience who is craving solo modes just to remove another barrier to getting the game played, perhaps there is a different underlying problem altogether. 

Who knows, perhaps I will someday be stuck on a desert island with one of these games and I will be thankful that they are endless. Railroad Ink Challenge does have a solo mode and it might be a nice thing to play over a cup of coffee in the morning. Maybe I’ll explore the depths of all those dice yet.

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