Designing games to Last

As the board game industry continues to grow and new publishers bring out new games on almost a daily basis, I've begun to feel that board games are almost becoming consumable goods. Not just in the literal sense with legacy games that are consumed in the playing–in reality those often live longer than their supposedly non-consumable counterparts. I'm speaking more in the sense of games that are churned through our play-groups so quickly that they only have a lifespan of one or two plays before they're cycled into the trade/sell pile.

Far more of us even have a "shelf of shame"--a stash of games purchased but yet still unplayed, either because we can't find the time or, perhaps more unfortunately, we suspect they will only survive for that one play and we want to hold onto what we imagine they could be to us for as long as possible.

But how could it be any other way? There are so many new games coming out that only the tiniest handful deserve to be played more than once or twice. It doesn't bother me too much that some games stick and some don't. That's already true in the realm of video games, movies, books, and television. It shows a certain maturity to the industry that not every release can become a hit. My real concern, both as a designer and a publisher, is that I want to be the one making the games that are played again and again.

What makes a game last?

A great game is a treasure you can rediscover again and again.  Art by Katrina Lin.

A great game is a treasure you can rediscover again and again.

Art by Katrina Lin.

What is it that separates a classic, a masterpiece, and a consumable novelty from one another? This is a question I find myself asking often as I think about the next upcoming projects from Level 99 Games.

In the past few years, we've produced a lot of smaller games while keeping up with larger lines such as BattleCON and Pixel Tactics. Maintaining three existing series with new releases each year, and also coming out with even more new things is exhausting work. Sometimes I feel as if I'm treading water in the pursuit of upcoming projects.

At moments when I feel overwhelmed, I stop to reflect on what kinds of games I really want to be known for and remembered for. A game like BattleCON, which people can set up and play hundreds or thousands of times–that they can build a community around and host events with and feel a kinship with other players–is a good start.

I'd call a game like this a classic–something that you can play again and again which never gets old. These are the games that really define the hobby for people. They're the games we identify with when we say "X is my number one game". They're games that inspire the imagination and invite you to be part of their world. They aren't perfect, but we embrace their flaws and think of them as old friends, almost.

On the other hand, there are games that immerse you in a complete experience, from the motion of the bits down to the composition of components. And of course, great gameplay is a thing too! Games like these I would call Masterpieces–exemplifying the current pinnacle of the art. These are games like Scythe, Twilight Imperium, and some of the large miniature games out there. I'd humbly hope to count Argent and our upcoming Empyreal: Spells & Steam in this category as well. 

As for the games that don't last, there are a lot of factors that can determine this. I think most of all though, a consumable game is one whose experience begins and ends at the table. It doesn't inspire you to play it again, it doesn't live beyond the confines of its box. Once you're done playing, you feel as if you've seen everything that the game has to offer. Repeated plays do not offer more possibilities or excitement. 

This isn't just a question of variable content either--a game needs to promise new discovery and new experiences on repeated plays. If one battle is like another, then it doesn't matter if the enemies change. If one character fights like another, having twenty classes doesn't help. It takes radical divergence--the kind of divergence that almost makes a completely new game--to capture this feeling. On top of that, it has to be a promised divergent experience which the player is eager to explore.

Ultimately, a classic is a game that invites us to come and experience a new world, and then convinces us to explore that world again and again of our own volition and with our own direction.

Level 99's Philosophy

In the industry, many companies take a "shoot first, see what hits" approach to publishing games.  Art by wickedAlucard.

In the industry, many companies take a "shoot first, see what hits" approach to publishing games.

Art by wickedAlucard.

While it's important from a business standpoint to continue maintenance on our best-selling games, in the future I plan to slow down greatly on new releases and studio projects. I made the decision at the start of 2018 to pursue far fewer new projects than we had in past years.

We're also going to avoid sending every game we make to stores, pursuing more limited runs that will be available from our online store and Kickstarter only. This just makes sense--there's no need to print 2000 extra copies of a game for retailers, just to have the game cycle out of favor in 6-9 months.

This year, we're only working on two new game projects—Empyreal and Seventh Cross—along with three "maintenance releases"—Pixel Tactics Legends, BattleCON Wanderers (along with Devastation's remastered edition), and Millennium Blades: Collusion. We're putting all of our efforts into making sure that these two new games are the big hits they deserve to be, and that they earn a permanent place on your game shelf. For our supporting releases, we're focusing on rekindling the same magic that made you fall in love with the original games and giving you a reason to play all the games in these series again.

In 2018 and beyond, I look forward to making new games that will be permanent staples and treasures of your gaming collection. To that end, we've spent years working on building up the World of Indines, as well as putting tons of details in Seventh Cross, our next upcoming property, to make sure that these are places that capture your imagination. Our ultimate goal at Level 99 Games is to create games that grow and live beyond just their boxes. 

Thank you for being a part of these game worlds, and for carrying Level 99 Games this far! We look forward to sharing new worlds with you in the coming years!

Esper X coming eventually, I promise! We're starting right now to make this world an incredible experience too!  Art by Karl Fan.

Esper X coming eventually, I promise! We're starting right now to make this world an incredible experience too!

Art by Karl Fan.

What do you think? Do you agree with these assessments of classics, masterpieces, and games that get lost in the churn? Leave me your thoughts too, and lets chat!