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Designing The Best Board Game On The Planet

The game ends in nuclear war only about 5 percent of the time. That’s a good thing. It gives Ananda Gupta faith in humanity.

The game is called Twilight Struggle, and it’s the top-ranked board game in the world. It occupies the No. 1 spot on the authoritative gaming-world website BoardGameGeek.

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Gupta, 38, of Columbia, Maryland, is the game’s co-designer. A video-game designer at Firaxis Games by day, he recreated a post-World War II universe out of cardboard. In Twilight Struggle, players peddle influence and alter history with playing cards in an effort to win the Cold War. And, ideally, avoid nuclear apocalypse.

I spoke with Gupta, and turned to a vast board game database, to uncover what makes a board game great.

Serious games — whether they be hobby games, boutique games or Euro games — are having a moment. Over the past five years, their market has grown an average of 15 percent a year, to $700 million in 2013. The Settlers of Catan and Ticket to Ride — popular gateway drugs of the genre — are the third- and fourth-best selling board games on Amazon.1 There’s more to these games than “roll the dice, move your mice.” Games in this broad category are typically characterized by deep strategy, an emphasis on skill and the lack of player elimination. In other words, they’re not Monopoly.

On BoardGameGeek, Twilight Struggle is ranked No. 1. Settlers of Catan: 138th. Monopoly: 10,441st.2

The site’s database contains more than 74,000 games. Ratings are determined by users, who rate games on a 1 to 10 scale. Github user Rasmus Greve has posted data from the site online. To consider only board games with fairly reliable ratings, I restricted the data set to just those games with at least 50 ratings. This leaves us with a closetful of 7,553 games.3

These are the BoardGameGeek ratings of all such games, by the date of their original publication.

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We may now find ourselves in the middle of a golden age of serious board gaming. The number of titles, and their average ratings by players, increase each year. Impressively, amid this renaissance, Twilight Struggle maintains its No. 1 spot despite having been published in 2005.4

So, how do you design the world’s best board game? The first lesson is persistence.

Twilight Struggle traces its roots to the early 2000s and a board gaming club at George Washington University. That’s where Gupta and co-designer Jason Matthews met. Not GW students themselves, they were friends with some, and would go to the school to play and also to bemoan the increasing complexity of historical games — a genre especially dear to them. The rulebooks were overlong, the game mechanics baroque.

Simplification, to Gupta and Matthews, was the name of their design philosophy. Rather than overwhelm players with a fat rulebook at the start, the designers spread the information required throughout the gameplay, on cards. A typical Twilight Struggle card reads, “Truman Doctrine: Remove all USSR Influence from a single uncontrolled country in Europe.” The Twilight Struggle rulebook is a relatively slender 24 pages.

They originally intended to do a game about the Spanish Civil War but realized they’d been scooped by a guy in Spain. “We’re probably not going to do a better job than he is,” Gupta joked. They eventually settled on the Cold War. Most games on the topic had focused on when the Cold War got hot. But thermonuclear war is depressing. Gupta and Matthews instead designed a game about the geopolitics, rather than a hypothetical military conflict.

Matthews, of Alexandria, Virginia, is an American history expert and was the legislative director for Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana. Gupta, a history buff, was doing policy work at a think tank, then was in school for computer science, before dropping out after he landed his first job in the video-game industry. The two would discuss key aspects of the Cold War — the domino theory, the arms race, the space race — and these would make their way into the game.

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The first Twilight Struggle test map, circa 2002. Courtesy of Ananda Gupta.

But publishers balked. “The Cold War? Why would anyone want to play a game about the Cold War?” Gupta recalled being asked.

Salvation came in the form of the company GMT Games, and its Project 500 — a kind of Kickstarter before Kickstarter was cool. Interested gamers would pledge money, and GMT would print the game if enough capital was raised. Even then, it took a grinding 18 months for Twilight Struggle to generate enough pledges to warrant a printing.

That first printing sold out in 20 minutes. It has gone on to amass 17,781 ratings on BoardGameGeek, as I write, with an average rating of 8.33.

Gupta has a few theories about why his game has done so well. For one, it’s a two-player game — the Americans vs. the Soviets. Two-player games are attractive for a couple of reasons. First, by definition, half the players win. People like winning, and are likely to replay and rate highly a game they think they have a chance to win. Also, with just one opponent, there is little downtime. You don’t have to wait while the turn gets passed around the table to three, four or five other players. That’s boring.

Here are games’ average ratings by the number of players a game supports.

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The data offers some evidence for Gupta’s hypothesis. Games that support three players rate highest, with an average of 6.58. But two-player games are a close second, with an average rating of 6.55. Next closest are five-player games, which average 6.39.

Another element working in Twilight Struggle’s favor is its length. BoardGameGeek lists its playing time at three hours, but Gupta said it’s more like two and a half. (When designing, he was aiming for two.) Games’ lengths need to strike a balance.

“You have to feel like something meaningful has been done in the game. You have to feel like the game had a beginning and had a middle and had an end, and that you were engaged,” Gupta said. You don’t, however, want to get burned out.

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Again, Gupta’s suspicion seems borne out, empirically. The shortest games are the lowest rated, on average. But players don’t favor length without bounds. Three hours seems to be right around the point of diminishing marginal returns.

Another key to the game’s success is its mix of luck and skill. Twilight Struggle is clearly a game of skill. There are expert-level players and tournaments, and the experts put even the game’s designer to shame. Gupta played in a Twilight Struggle tournament, and “by luck of the draw, I faced the previous year’s champion,” he said. “It was embarrassing how quickly he wrecked me.”

There’s even a website — Twilight Strategy — devoted to the strategic intricacies of the game. “They are doing a great public service,” Gupta said.

But there’s also a healthy dollop of luck. Players draw cards randomly and, by the laws of probability, are not likely to have had any specific hand before.

“Without luck, Twilight Struggle would not be what it is,” Gupta said. “I think that’s what keeps Twilight Struggle sticking is picking up that first hand and you’re like, ‘Okay, what are we doing here?’ ”

Remarkably, the empirical success of the game came mainly not from the fine calibration of some statistical model, but rather from game designers’ intuition.

“Twilight Struggle was designed and balanced by horse sense, rather than by number crunching,” said Gupta, who does the latter much more in his video-game job. “Looking back at some of the shortcuts we took on Twilight Struggle makes me cringe.”

He added: “There is definitely a split between people who design primarily from horse sense, from instinct, and then let the spreadsheets fill in the blanks. And then there are the people who start with the spreadsheets.”

A final piece of the puzzle is balance — the idea that either side thinks they have a fighting chance to win. That makes for a good game. Balancing Twilight Struggle, in particular, was tricky. The creators were trying to design a game in which the Soviets had the advantage early, and the U.S had the advantage late — “To basically mirror the dynamic that eventually the liberal democratic capitalist economy would outpace the socialist one.”

Here, too, they relied more on brute force than any sophisticated model. To achieve balance, Gupta played the game a lot — often against Matthews or other not necessarily thrilled members of the GW club. So, it’s not surprising that Gupta doesn’t play his own game much anymore. But there are online tools that can help generate gameplay data. CyberBoard and Vassal, for example, can help crowdsource test plays of the game. Gupta hopes to take further advantage of these in his coming game, Imperial Struggle.5

Twilight Struggle is emblematic of a sea change from older, magisterial games with titles like Rise and Decline of the Third Reich, War in Europe and The Civil War. (The Civil War’s listed playing time is 1,200 minutes.) The redistribution of game information from massive rulebooks onto game cards was a revolution that can be traced to Mark Herman’s We the People, a game about the American Revolution, and Paths of Glory, a World War I game by Ted Raicer.

“What that meant was the game was a lot easier to learn,” Gupta said. “That started a renaissance in historical gaming.”

Twilight Struggle, in turn, has its descendents. Its most direct is 1989 — no, not that “1989” — another Cold War game. Other offspring include 1960, a game about the Kennedy-Nixon presidential election, and Labyrinth, about the war on terror after 9/11.

But these games aren’t the end of history. The next innovation, predicts Gupta, is topic — what the games are about. Historical game designers are beginning to move beyond Gettysburg, the Bulge and Waterloo.

“Ninety-five percent of human conflicts are not covered by games. We’re seeing more games that are less focused on America. We’re seeing more games focused on struggles that are not of interest primarily for their aesthetics.”

He added, “I think most of the interest in the Napoleonic Wars, to be honest, is because the uniforms are so cool.”

In addition to spawning the next generation of games, Gupta is busy spawning the next generation of gamers. Much of his gaming is now done with his 10-year-old son. He recommended the games King of Tokyo and Sushi Go! for the budding gamer.

But Twilight Struggle has topped the leaderboard for a long time. Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown? Not necessarily. Gupta thinks there’s a chance for a successor.

“People have understandably said, ‘Isn’t it somebody else’s turn?’ At this point, it wouldn’t break my heart if another game were to eclipse it,” he said. “It’s just a matter of when and how.”

Footnotes

  1. Connect Four and Hedbanz are Nos. 1 and 2.
  2. Matthew M. Monin, a BoardGameGeek representative, said in an email: “The top games in the rankings represent a number of different genres within the gaming community. They are all obviously excellent examples of their respective genres, but they also all have a fair amount of cross-genre appeal. Twilight Struggle, for example, could be seen as a hybrid of a classical war game crossed with a more modern ‘majority-control’ style strategy game.”
  3. For more information on the data-mining project, and this data in general, see Greve’s and his co-authors’ paper.
  4. Note that Twilight Struggle’s No. 1 rank doesn’t mean it simply has the highest average rating. BoardGameGeek’s algorithm does a number of things to assure that a game with a relatively small number of ratings can’t climb the leaderboard too quickly. It’s important to note that some argue that ratings may be inflating — a symptom of a cult-of-the-new effect: Players tend to have a bias toward new games and to rate them more highly, at least for a time.
  5. According to an interview from early this year, Imperial Struggle will be about “the global rivalry between Britain and France from 1697 to 1789.”

Oliver Roeder is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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