Top 10 things to look for when buying a board game

I spend a lot of time reading about the hundreds of board games that are released every year. Much less frequently, I will actually buy a board game. What is it that I’m looking for in a game before I plunk down some hard-earned clams to bring it home?

I mean, obviously, the number one thing that I’m looking for in a game is fun. If you’re buying board games for some reason other than fun, you should probably re-evaluate your priorities. But what actually makes a game fun? How can you know whether a game is going to be fun if you haven’t played it yet? Also—and this is maybe the most important question—are there times you shouldn’t buy a game even though it looks fun?

In order to make my purchasing decisions easier (and yours, too), I’ve created the following list of factors to consider when debating whether or not to click the buy button.

1. Engaging concept

Usually, the very first thing that I look at is, “What is the game about?” Ghosts? Zombies? Saving the world from an unfortunate confluence of diseases?

I tend to be drawn to games that are family-friendly and about things that are relatively pleasant and relatively non-violent: for example, trains, food, history, cowboys, or cartoonish pirates. Over half of the games I’ve backed on Kickstarter have been about either food or trains. (Still waiting for someone to make a game about operating a dining car on a train…)

Sure, there’s more to a game than it’s subject matter, but if a game is centered around a subject that you (or the people you’re planning to play it with) find boring or distasteful, how often are you going to be able to actually play it? On the other hand, if it’s centered around something that you think is exciting, then you’re probably going to enjoy it all the more.

2. Elegant rules

Clear and comprehensible rules are a must. If you can’t understand how to play or you have to check the rulebook every 30 seconds, it’s not going to be fun. One trick that you can use to gauge whether a game has well-designed rules is to look at the list of components. A lot of the time (especially on Kickstarter), you see a game’s list of components and it’s overwhelming, like:

77 score adjustment cubes
16 victory advancement counters
87 gold hoard miniatures
19 player negotiation aids
12 monster health meeples
3 power creep tracks
19 enemy strategy boards
35 setup diagrams
175 worker building cards
45 bidding placement markers
44 bluffing placement markers
14 experience control chits
7 decision reduction dice
27 action majority hexes
41 point balance discs
20 fiddly bits
2 first player tokens
1 reference card

Now, there are probably some people who see a list of components like that and think that game sounds fun. And, obviously, there are times where more components can actually streamline a game design. But when I see a list like that, all I can think about is how difficult it’s going to be to learn the rules myself, let alone explain them to someone else—in the unlikely event that I can actually convince anyone else to play.

I don’t need one game to be everything to me. I want a game that I actually have a chance to learn and play without giving up on everything else that’s going on in my life.

3. Workable number of players

Sometimes you see a game and it looks really fun, but it requires ten players. In that situation, you should think about whether you have ten people together to play a game on a regular basis. Maybe you have a giant get-together every weekend. Maybe you don’t.

For myself, most of the time, I play board games at home with my wife. The rest of the time, I usually find myself playing with one or the other of our families. Therefore, I tend to play games with either two, five, or six players. If a game only supports exactly three or four players, I won’t have the chance to play it as often, so I’m probably not going to buy it.

4. Reasonable playing time

Everyone’s schedule is different, but any game you buy needs fit into your schedule somewhere. For me, if a game takes over an hour to play, I’m not sure that I’m going to have enough time to play it very much. I don’t dislike games that take over an hour, I just don’t want to invest a lot of money in them because I know I won’t be able to play them as often.

5. Attractive art

I’d rather play a game with eye-popping illustration than something with an illegible font and some screen beans. It could be the stark graphic design of Concept or the retro aesthetic of Bottom of the 9th, but beautiful and unique artwork always makes a game more delightful to bring to the table.

6. Quality components

It doesn’t bother me to play a game that has thin cards or plain, plastic cubes. Those don’t make a game worse, per se. Lots of great games wouldn’t get published if some corners weren’t cut to keep their printing costs down. But there’s just something satisfying about playing a game that has high quality pieces, something that elevates the experience. Linen-finished cards and wooden tokens basically always make a game more enjoyable.

7. Good value

Price is always a factor when buying anything, but price isn’t just about the number on the price tag. You have to consider a game’s price relative to the thousands of other games out there. For example, if a game costs $25 and it’s just a small deck of cards, that’s probably not a good value. If a game costs $25 and you get a deck of cards, 20 plastic miniatures, a stack of tokens, and a board, that’s probably a good value.

8. Variety or expandability

I always try to consider whether there’s enough going on in a game that it isn’t going to get old immediately. Now, sometimes this desire does conflict a bit with the desire for elegant rules, but I love when a game includes a massive amount of variety without sacrificing simplicity. For example, Dixit has a core game that can be expanded with a practically infinite number of cards—without adding additional rules. I am a sucker for games like that.

9. Educational content

Sometimes, when I think about buying a game, there’s a little voice in my head that says, “Is learning this game just going to be a waste of your brain space, like how you know the names of all of the Planet of the Apes movies? They’re just made up stories about apes! How is knowing those making you a better person!”

The way I shut that voice up is by looking for games that have some kind of educational aspect. For example, the Ticket to Ride maps are all maps of actual places (albeit from the past), so they help you to learn a bit of geography. Timeline helps you learn a bit of history. Spyfall probably makes you better at lying telling when other people are lying.

10. Different from games you already own

Whenever a new version of a game you loves comes out, you have to consider whether it’s a good idea to buy multiple games that are very similar. For example, do you need two different sets of Munchkin? Do you need both The Resistance and Avalon? Do you need King of Tokyo and King of New York?

This applies to more than just spinoffs and sequels, though. If I see any board game, and I think, well, that looks almost exactly like something I already own, then I’m less likely to buy it. For example, there are a lot of World War II games out there, but I already own Memoir ’44. At this point, I’m pretty unlikely to buy another game about World War II squad combat because, I really don’t need more than one game like that.

So, there you have it. Those are the top ten things that I look for in a board game. Hopefully this gives you some food for thought next time you’re browsing the board game aisle.

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