Classifying things we encounter is important. It gives us a way to describe them to others, allows us to decide whether things are similar or different and provides a method to create connections between them. Classifications help us with decision making and prediction. However, classifications alone don’t fully describe things and especially when we talk about classifying tabletop games, there are a lot more nuances and details that cannot be described by classifications alone. So I want to explore how far classifications can go until their usefulness deteriorates.

Let’s start with how categories are applied to tabletop games and how this is useful. I think many of us will have seen the classification sidebar that appears on the overview page for every tabletop game on the Board Game Geek (BGG) website. You have type, category, mechanisms and family, all of which are different versions of classification. I don’t want to discuss how well this breakdown of games on the BGG website is implemented, or whether there are too many overlaps, ambiguities or missing classifications, but I do want to talk about how these different classifications can help in the way they are currently available.

If you’re quite involved in the tabletop games hobby, chances are you will have been asked by people what games you would recommend to them. That’s already a tough question, which can be made a little easier if they tell you what sort of games they have already played and like. It allows you to think about games that are similar – and in your head you’re starting to break down the games they like into some rough categorizations, such as player count, game length, complexity, mechanisms employed, whether they’re co-operative or competitive, maybe the art style of them, and maybe some other things.

Once you have distilled the most important categories, you can suggest games that have similar properties. In fact, you rarely do this consciously. You will usually know immediately what games are similar. If someone likes Fluxx for example, they might also like Star Realms – or if someone likes Clans of Caledonia, they might like Terra Mystica. You will also be able to say what differences there are between the game that the people like and the ones you suggest, including different mechanisms or whether the game is more complex and takes longer to play.

At the same time, you will never be certain whether your recommendations are going to be a good match. Fluxx and Star Realms are both hand management games, but just because someone likes one, they won’t necessarily like the other. It’s just that those two games are a pretty good match – at least in my view. You might have a different opinion of what game might be a better match, but even then you can’t be sure that your recommendation is right for everyone. All you can do is make an educated guess.

The point is, you’re using your classifications of a game to find alternatives – and you can do something very similar on the BGG website, or any other directories that use classifications. Find a game you like, then search for others whose classification overlaps with it. So when I search BGG for “card games with hand management”, the result is a long list including Android: NetrunnerDominionLove LetterStar Realms and Fluxx, all of which I’d say are good matches.

However, there are also games listed that aren’t great matches, such as The 7th Continent and Wingspan.

You could argue that if the BGG classifications were more detailed, you would get better results, and that is, of course, true, at least in principle. Also, if I had added player count and game length or complexity into the search filter, the list would have been better. An option to add theme or art style might also have been helpful to find closer matches. Yet, a database search will never be as good as asking a friend for advice.

The problem is that there are some things that are very hard, if not impossible, to classify, at least when it comes to having to describe in words why you like a game so much. Simply saying that it’s the set collection element combined with the competitiveness isn’t going to be enough. Fluxx and Jaipur, for example, both fit those two criteria, but are very different games. I don’t think I’d recommend one of those two games, if someone likes the other – but of course, someone will like both games.

A lot of what makes an enjoyable game experience can be classified, but not everything. Just think of how you experience game length in different games. One game that takes over an hour to play could feel very exciting and over too quickly, while in another the hour just drags on and feels much longer than it is. The feeling you get from rolling chunky dice is different from rolling cheap, plasticky ones. Having a game be decided on the last turn and finishing with a tight margin is much more memorable than a game where the winner was pretty clear from the start. None of these things can easily be classified, if they can be classified at all.

Yet, when friends ask you to recommend games, chances are you will give all of them answers from a relatively narrow pool of games. You will have your own favourites, so you will probably recommend those first. That means your advice will be a sort of echo chamber, narrowing the options for your friends. When searching a database, like the one on the BGG website, you will very likely come across games you would never have considered or even heard of – and at the same time also see many games that are probably a bad match. Yet, the opportunity of being able to be presented with a list of games that you or your friends might like, but that you would otherwise have never seen, is a good thing in my view.

Sure, you will have to do more research on the games listed in the search result on BGG, but then the same is true when you recommend games to friends. I think you should always tell your friends to try games first, to be sure that they enjoy them. Of course, when you recommend games from those that you own, you can play them with your friends, so they can see for themselves, whereas when you just go by a list on BGG, trying the game will be a bit harder. However, even then you can probably find playthrough videos and reviews to help you decide.

So, classifications definitely have their place and their use, but they are definitely not the be-all and end-all to find the perfect game. You always have to use common sense and your intuition too, as well as your impression of what someone loves about a game, in order to make recommendations. Yet, don’t be blinkered and always rely on your favourites, but be open to new games.

I’d really love to know what you think about the topic of classifications. Do you think they’re not useful? Do you think they take the heart and soul out of deciding what games are for you? How do you decide what games to try, or what games to recommend to friends? Please share your thoughts in the comments below. I can’t wait to hear what you have to say.

Audio Version

Music: Soft Ambient Medical Corporate Background by RainyAudio

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  1. Age old question and great discussion—really shows how popular tabletop games have become. It’s a good problem to have if we’re having difficulty in “exactly” classifying games—it speaks to the tremendous variety and nuances of them meaning that there are games that should resonate well with more people.
    Imagine if only a handful of publishing gatekeepers dictated what we were supposed to like. That would be far more “vanilla” than what we have now. It’s good to have more to choose from in a genre than just the Beatles or Elvis. =D
    Perhaps tabletop games are starting to have the variety we find in literature, music, and movies.

    1. Thank you for your comment. Yes, it’s great to see so much variety in our hobby. That’s a boon and a curse at the same time. It’s great to have a big choice, but if there are too many options, it can be overwhelming and make it possibly harder to actually find something you like.

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