Everyone wants success for their game. Maybe you don’t even care about making money from the game, but you want to share your game with as large a crowd as possible. Maybe you just want to create a game that will be highly rated and stand the test of the time. That’s great. Some of the highest rated games on BoardGameGeek have been around for 10+ years, and have been played a huge number of times. And that’s a problem.
Very successful games often develop an enthusiastic fan base, that comes back to play the game again and again, learning the ins and outs of a game, sometimes better than the creator. This can create a problem where the most frequent players have better skill, knowledge of the game, and experience with strategy. This is common in competitive video games, where players who play the most have finely honed their reflexes to play the game better, and know tricks and all of the best places to hide in a level. Some games reward this behavior by unlocking more powerful abilities with play.
What this means to the new player is that unless you are playing with others who are just starting out, the other players have a distinct advantage. Now, when I’m learning a new game, I expect to lose. But I also expect that over time, my skill level will improve. In fact, I love talking about a game at the end, and reviewing what I did right, what I did wrong, and how I could have improved my outcome.
But it can also present the problem of experience, where you can’t hope to win a game until you lose another 20 times. If your game is a fun experience, players might be willing to sit through a few losses in a row, in order to understand it. But faced with the possibility of playing through games without the possibility of victory is a daunting challenge for even the best of us.
And that’s the problem with super successful games. People become experts, raising the bar for new players to enter. Puerto Rico and Agricola have come to be known for this. They are excellent games, but experienced players have a distinct advantage. I have no interest in playing them at a convention against people who will crush me, and I don’t feel like I can teach them to new players who will resent a stunning victory.
Perhaps by the time your game is so wildly popular, you won’t care whether new players can pick it up easily, although I think that’s really a bad attitude to take. You should want your game to be welcoming to new players at any point in its lifetime, rather than creating an air of elitism between the have-played and the have-not-played. But it’s also an important issue on a smaller scale. This can be a problem for any game that experienced players have an advantage in, and so the important question is how to prevent this sort of behavior from developing in a game.
As a designer of a game aspiring to, but not yet reaching the heights of such mass popularity, I can only really take a guess. You could avoid strategies that only become obvious after a large number of plays, but this makes it less interesting for people to replay. More effectively, make the balance tight, so it seems like a narrow defeat, even when it is a crushing victory. London frequently plays like that, with end scores belying a skillful play. New Bedford does this somewhat by keeping the scores low, so a victory of 23-17 is a decent margin, but still only represents a few points here and there. Avoiding a runaway leader or using catch-up mechanisms can also help with this. Add random elements so that a veteran has no positional advantage. In poker, the experts know the probabilities better and are better at bluffing, but they that doesn’t give them any advantage of what cards will appear. You can also keep unique abilities minimal, so that new players can understand them all, lowering the barrier for entry. Agricola has a family game that takes out all of the Occupation and Minor improvement cards, so that a new player only needs to understand the actions and major improvements. But if players needed to learn 60 cards before the first game in addition to all of this, it would be very hard to pick up. New Bedford started with this as a goal, to have a lot of strategic depth arising from only 20 buildings. It looks like there will be at least another 20. But since you can see everything available in the game from the start, and it will only ever be 10 or 20 in a game, it gives you a way to bring into new players without sacrificing strategy.
So is popularity a bad thing for a game? Of course not. However you measure success, the problems of an entry barrier will always be around. And it is hard to tell what will become apparent after 10,000 or 100,000 games. The key is to understand how it arises in a game, and how a designer can plan for it to produce a stronger game. And that is true success.