If we’re living in a golden age of board games, then the website BoardGameGeek is the internet’s sifting pan. The bounty of games overfloweth — one can now sit down at a table with friends and settle strange and bountiful islands, fight Cold Wars and terraform Mars. BoardGameGeek helps sort through it all, a kind of arbiter of popular taste.
A new game now tops those rankings: It’s called Gloomhaven, and it’s the current BoardGameGeek No. 1, having taken over the top spot this past winter. The game has won scads of awards, including more than a handful of Golden Geeks and a Scelto dai Goblin — the goblins’ choice. Its place atop the BoardGameGeek list cements its status as a flagship of the current golden age.
The BoardGameGeek list is valuable real estate in high-end board gaming, and the No. 1 spot is, of course, the prime position — Boardwalk, if you will.1 Only seven games have occupied it since the site launched in 2000. The seven No. 1s are a motley bunch, including a civilization-building game set in the ancient fertile crescent and a war game set in the 1910s. But they all have something that speaks to what’s en vogue among the kind of people who go online to rate board games: intensive strategy.
But the site recognizes that its most highly rated games aren’t all for everyone. “As with any other medium — books, movies, music, etc. — you can’t just pick whatever is rated No. 1 on some chart and expect it to provide a great experience for you,” said W. Eric Martin, a BoardGameGeek news editor. “You should look for games that match your interests.”
Now it’s Gloomhaven’s turn to try to interest you. Years ago, Isaac Childres, the game’s designer, like many budding board gamers, got his start in “serious” gaming with Settlers of Catan, then logged on to BoardGameGeek and worked his way down its empirically ranked list: the strategic farming of Agricola, the capitalistic infrastructure of Power Grid, the castle building of Caylus. The list, in many ways, dictates board-game culture. It represents an aggregated consensus of early adopters and fervent fanatics, which then trickles down to the broader gaming public — and to future star game designers of top-ranked games.
In Gloomhaven (which retails for $215), “players will take on the role of a wandering mercenary with their own special set of skills and their own reasons for traveling to this remote corner of the world. Players must work together out of necessity to clear out menacing dungeons and forgotten ruins.” The game’s website likens it to a “Choose Your Own Adventure” novel. Just don’t forget your swords or spells. Childres attributes his game’s success, at least among the hardcore denizens of BoardGameGeek, to the way it improves on the appeal of the roleplaying of Dungeons & Dragons, in which crawling dungeons can become rote. In Gloomhaven, you have special abilities that you can use over and over, and once you use them, you can watch them make cool stuff happen. It’s heavy on the fun stuff, rather than the grind of repetitious orc slaying, and as the BoardGameGeek leaderboard shows, gamers are appreciative.
The BoardGameGeek rankings, similar to movie rankings on IMDb, are based on user ratings, which run from 1 to 10.2 Gloomhaven (8.62 Geek Rating) benefits from ratings that are extremely heavy on the 10s — more than half of its raters gave it that maximum score. Contrast this with former No. 1s such as Agricola, whose ratings follow a more expected bell curve that’s centered around 8, or Twilight Struggle, which is about equally weighted on 8s, 9s and 10s. Only Pandemic Legacy,3 the No. 1 before Gloomhaven took over, is nearly as heavy on the 10-point ratings. Even still, Gloomhaven’s average user rating (which is slightly different from its Geek Rating) is a full 0.35 points higher than the second-place game, which may help it cement a lengthy legacy.
Most of the older No. 1s took a while to climb there, having been released years earlier and having slowly earned enough high ratings from loyal fans to rise to the top. Gloomhaven has been different: It was released just last year, and even then only to its Kickstarter backers. It isn’t available for wide public sale quite yet. So its raters so far are likely a specific subset of the gaming culture — people who find the concept so appealing that they were willing to shell out cash for a game that didn’t exist yet. “For the most part, people don’t rate games that they haven’t played,” Martin said.
Given Gloomhaven’s dramatically skewed ratings, are the geeks running out of room atop their list? As the top Geek Rating inches closer and closer to the perfect 10, it will become harder and harder to dislodge the No. 1. The game has its haters, of course. “Very over hyped game,” one user wrote this month, rating it a 3. But those who hope to see it ousted, and to see their favorite to take over, may have a while, or an eternity, to wait. When you’re rating on a 1-to-10 scale, a game can only go so high, after all.
But there will always be incremental progress, in human endeavor generally and in board game design specifically. “Human athleticism always seems to be increasing,” Childres said. “There’s always someone who is able to reach farther and farther limits, for whatever reason, maybe some small-scale human evolution. Board games are evolving as well, standing on the shoulders of the great games and iterating on them.”
Darwin, grab a sword.
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