For people who aren’t invested in tabletop games as a hobby, it can be difficult to explain what it’s all about. You might say how much you love board games, only for people to be left wondering how on earth somebody could spend so much time playing Life and Monopoly in their spare time. In this article, we’ll attempt to differentiate between classic American board games, and the deeper, more complex games that are typically covered on this site.
When the average American hears the term “board game,” they’ll likely think of one of the games mentioned above. Monopoly, Life, Clue, you know, the types of games you’d see on the toy aisle at Target. Although there’s not a single, agreed-upon term for such games, for the sake of the article, we’ll call them “mass market games.”
Modern games, the type we cover on BGR, and the ones that make up the majority of the hobby now, are often known as “designer games.” Again, there’s not one singular term that’s agreed upon. Prior to recent years, many of these games would be referred to as “eurogames” or “german games.” As the years have gone by, however, American equivalents of eurogames have found their way into the market. The feel of the games are different enough to warrant distinction between the two, and “eurogame” is a word that’s more typically used now to describe a specific type of designer game. While we are going to use the term “designer game,” they are also often referred to as “hobby games” or “modern games>”
In the points below, we’ll examine how designer games differ from the mass market games you’re used to seeing in stores.
Designer board games are made for adults, mass market games are made for kids and families
Mass market games, for all intents and purposes, are considered by retailers to be toys. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they appeal exclusively to children; many an adult has had fun playing games of Monopoly and Sorry or whatnot. However, the board games are made to be playable by children, and adult audience or not, are most typically referred to as “toys” within a retail context.
Designer games, on the other hand, are by-and-large designed for adult audiences. It’s true that most of them have a recommended age-range of 12/13+, but that’s simply to denote that that game isn’t exclusive to adults. Yes, many children can, and have learned to enjoy designer games. While they’re typically more complex than mass market games, it’s not like they require the mind of a college graduate. Despite that, the games are typically designed to be played by adults. Designer games can be wonderful social experiences, and in today’s world where we’re often looking at our smartphones more than each other, many adults crave an experience where they can sit down and have some face-to-face fun together.
Designer board games are more strategic than mass market games
Most mass market games share a handful of mechanics. These mechanics include, but are not limited to: Rolling dice to move a piece around the board, players getting eliminated when they lose, and having one clear path to victory. Although there is almost always an amount of strategy to a certain degree, many toy aisle games come down to “whoever rolls the dice the best wins.”
Designer board games usually are dependent on player skill to secure the win, and they almost always provide the player with plenty of different choices they can make on their turn. A common trend amongst designer games is to minimize luck, and maximize potential. Most games that involve dice-rolling as a prominent mechanic, for example, have plenty of decisions that the player can make to influence the odds of the dice rolls and mitigate the amount of luck. While toy aisle games offer an experience, designer games are designed to make you think, both strategically and tactically.
Designer board games are made of high-quality components
Mass market games are made to appeal to an extremely huge range of people. Given that you can find the same ones in just about every single Target and Wal-Mart in the country, it goes without saying that there’s a lot of them. This, combined with the fact that most of them are only played on occasion, means that mass market games are made of cheaper stuff than designer games.
One of the first things you’ll notice about a designer game is that both the box and its components are likely to feel more firm and sturdy than what you’d find in a mass market game. Cardboard tokens (referred to as “chits”) are a mainstay of designer games, and you’ll often find yourself punching out a bunch of pieces from cardboard sheets when you open one. Although the exact boardboard used varies across different games, most designer games use a thicker, textured cardboard material that feels more premium than anything cardboard in mass market games.
Designer games also tend to use wooden pieces, or in the case of many recent American games, detailed plastic miniatures. Almost all of the components in designer games tend to be of higher quality than what can be found in mass market games, and this is reflected in the price; mass market games can usually be found for $20 – $30, while designer games average at $40 – $60.
Designer board games have expansions, mass market games have variants
You’ll see a common trend among mass market games: there’s about a billion versions of each one. There’s a version of Clue for all of your favorite TV shows, and plenty of video game Risk variants to go around. Let’s not even get started on Monopoly. This is a common trait of mass market games – they (usually) exist for novelty reasons. Most mass market games are a thing you like to play when you get bored, so there are plenty of themed variants that allow you to get maximum enjoyment should you choose to play them.
Designer games, on the other hand, are made for people who enjoy playing games for the sake of playing games. They usually feature rich mechanics, and if you get hooked on a particularly good one, you can often play it for years without it getting old. As such, designer games typically tend to have expansions which add on to the base version to make it even more engrossing. Given that mass market games are cheaper, shorter, and simpler, it’s usually easier just to make an alternate version than to create something that adds on to it.
Designer board games are hard to find in mass retail
Mass market games, well, are obviously easy to find in the mass market. It’s hard to go anywhere that sells toys and not see the classic American mainstay board games we’re used to seeing. It’s slightly less common, however, to walk into Wal-Mart and see Terra Mystica on the shelves. While the designer game craze is something that’s growing slowly into the mainstream, designer games still aren’t quite popular enough to be sold all over the place.
The exceptions to this rule are various “gateway games,” which are relatively simple compared to most other designer games, but still a great deal more complex than mass market games. Gateway games that pick up steam can eventually find their way into mass retail. The most classic example of this is The Settlers of Catan, though as of late, certain others such as Ticket to Ride, Pandemic, and King of Tokyo have made their way to Target shelves.
Most tabletop gamers are hobbyists, so it’s within hobby stores where you’ll find designer games. While some general-purpose hobby stores carry games, you’re more likely to find a friendly local game store (abbreviated to FLGS, or LGS by the gaming community) that specializes in them specifically. A newer, more popular model is starting to emerge in the form of the “board game cafe,” which is exactly what it sounds like – a cafe where you can sip some delectable coffee and play your favorite games in a nice, chilled-out setting.
That being said, designer games are on the rise, and there are several national retail chains that have begun to carry them. Barnes and Noble is an example; they tend to carry some of the more popular designer games. For the most part though, tabletop hobbyists either need to resort to local game stores or online retailers such as Amazon to get their games.
Designer board games give credit to their authors
It was hard to write this point in a way that doesn’t sound awkward, but essentially, most designer games have a name on the box that credits their designer, whereas mass market games are typically the product of a megapublisher with their brand plastered all over it. The point I’m trying to make here is that designer games are designed with great care, which is one reason why you’ll see the lead designer’s name on the box.
Think of it as the difference between auteur films and big summer blockbusters. People don’t go and see Iron Man because of the director, they want to see it because it’s Iron Man, and the publishing companies will pour all kinds of money into it to make sure it pleases the masses. Should the director drop out, another one will take their place. This isn’t the case with auteur directors, who determine the entire vision for the project. If Quentin Tarantino drops out of a Quentin Tarantino movie, well, that movie’s not being made anymore. Although auteur directors are often backed by huge publishers, there is a distinct, noticeable difference in the types of films that they are when compared to mainstream blockbusters.
It’s similar in the world of board-gaming. A lot of people will play a Reiner Knizia game because it’s Reiner Knizia, or play a Stefan Feld game because it’s Stefan Feld. There are plenty of well-known designers in the gaming world, and although they’re most likely unknown to anybody outside of the hobby, the point is that plenty of games have specific “authors” that put their heart into the game’s design, which is one of the obvious contributors to the name “designer games.” Even tabletop publishing giants such as Fantasy Flight Games tend to credit the game’s designer on the box.
Overall, there are plenty of differences between designer games and mass market games. Despite these differences, it’s important to remember one thing:
Board games are board games, and the most important thing is to have fun with them
When it all comes down to it, a board game is a board game, whether you’re playing Risk, Clue, Lords of Waterdeep, or Twilight Imperium. Unfortunately, among board gaming hobbyists there can often be found a sense of elitist snobbery when casual mass market games are mentioned. While I do not disagree that they are certainly two very different things, it’s not wrong to enjoy mass market games, and in the end of the day, you should play what you want to play. I love designer games, and I believe that most anybody who enjoys playing mass market games as a pasttime would love them if they had a chance to be exposed to them; that being said, mass market games can be plenty of fun in their own right. If you’re a newcomer into the hobby and you’ve experienced some snide remark from a hobbyist after you mention that you like Monopoly, just move on, because there are plenty of cool gamers out there, and, well, there’s nothing wrong with liking Monopoly anyway.