“What is your favorite game?” is one of the questions I get asked most commonly about board games. The challenge with this question is that, for me, the unit of consideration is not a game, but the “game experience.”
This is a concept I’ve come to understand over the last few years in studying gaming programs in libraries. Successful gaming programs in libraries are not just about putting out a stack of games in a back room – they are about providing an experience where the game is at the center.
Some of the concepts behind this come from the book “The Experience Economy” by Pine and Gilmore (1999), which takes the concept of the service economy one step further toward the Experience economy. Their idea is that companies need to think about providing an experience to customers, which goes far beyond simply providing a product.
Returning to board games, the game experience is more than just the game. It is a combination of the game, the players, and the context in which the game is played. All of these things come together to form the game experience. Each plays an important role in what the player takes away from playing a game.
Here’s a concrete example:
Many people would say that Race for the Galaxy is a good game. But in order to have a good Race for the Galaxy game experience, it is important to be with players for whom this is an appropriate game. If you play RftG with people without experience with modern board games, it may or may not be a good game experience. The game is very symbolic, and the number of stages and symbols that need to be understood before starting the game can be overwhelming.
So, the match between game and player is an essential part of the game experience. A good game is only a good game if is an appropriate game for the players.
The context in which the game is played is almost important. If you are at a bar, and people want to play games, the quiet and intense game experience of Race for the Galaxy is probably not a very good match. You can take the same players, put them in a coffee shop, and replace the beer with coffee, and you will have a much better game experience.
The game is at the center of the game experience, but it does not stand alone.
It is because of this that I am challenged to answer the question “What is your favorite game?” My typical answer is something like “Whatever is most appropriate for the players and the situation.” After dealing with the puzzled look, I will follow up with a question of my own – “With whom am I playing this game?” One of my favorite games with other serious gamers in a quiet setting is Steam Over Holland, one of the 18xx train games. But I would never try to play this in a party setting or with gamers new to serious board games; it would be a bad game experience.
Therefore, as I talk about games, I will sometimes use this concept of the “game experience.” It is something to think about as a designer: What is the game experience that your game provides? How could you improve the game to create a better game experience for a specific group? Can you make the game experience better for your target audience and context?
Here is a challenge to you:
Instead of answering the question “What is your favorite board game,” I would like you to answer the question: “What was your favorite board game experience?”
For me, my favorite board game experience was a game of Auf Achse, a game about driving trucks to deliver goods. The game itself wasn’t a deep game, but the setting and players created a wonderful experience as we made our own backstory to the game based upon German truck drivers and their coming out processes. It was certainly a memorable and enjoyable game experience.
Feel free to talk about your experience in the comments below. Think about the game as compared to the game experience.