4 games that lived up to the hype (and 4 that didn't) - Part 1
The hype machine. It’s a blessing and a curse of the board game world, driving interest in unreleased games but creating expectations that are sometimes impossible to live up to.
On a 2015 episode of The Game Design Round Table, host David Heron noted the excitement and challenges that arise when people start to talk about a game before it’s even released, when they start projecting their hopes and dreams for a game onto a still-incomplete product.
“The more that sort of gets out, the more that sort of leaks out, the more we release things, the more people sort of talk, and they sort of start creating this idea of what their dream game is,” Heron said, in reference to his (computer) game, Star Trek Timelines. “And I read them and I want to give it to them, and I know a certain portion of them are going to be disappointed.”
This is especially pronounced in board gaming, where the No. 1 spot on the BoardGameGeek hotness represents thousands of potential sales, and where Kickstarter builds anticipation for a game through a sense of buy-in and the shot of dopamine that enters backers’ brains when they unlock that latest stretch goal, together™.
And in the end, hype can make or break a game. In that spirit, here are four games that lived up to the hype—and in part 2, four games that didn’t.
1. Gloomhaven (2017)
Gloomhaven hit Kickstarter in September of 2015 and raised a little over $385,000 to fund its first printing; a successful amount by today’s standards, but a much more significant figure back in 2015. And an especially impressive sum for a largely untested and unproven creator promising a lot of game at an $80 price tag (again, that was still a pretty high number way back in 2015).
The hype was evident from the start. Within five hours of Isaac Childres’ first post on Gloomhaven’s BGG page, one user who had been following his design blog on the site let it be known their expectations for the game:
“If you're able to accomplish all the things you've set out for according to your blog, this could be the closest thing I've ever seen to a PERFECT game (at least to me).”
Of course, time and success rendered that statement a little less hyperbolic. But let’s be honest: comments like these are the board game equivalent of predicting that a sports team with a losing record will go on to win the championship in the next season. If you’re right, you look like a genius. If you’re wrong, well, you might look like an idiot for a minute, but it was only a bold prediction based on incomplete information. Gloomhaven was still a gamble.
You may already know what happened next—Gloomhaven went on to see massive commercial and critical success, with a second Kickstarter raising nearly $4 million and about 180,000 copies in print or soon to be in print. Tom Vasel also declared it his favorite game of all time (though it fell a bit in his 2018 list). It’s appropriate that No. 1 on this list just happens to also be BGG’s No. 1 game of all time.
2. Gaia Project (2017)
A number of games were left off this list because it felt too early to judge whether they’d managed to live up to their lofty expectations, but it doesn’t feel too soon to say Gaia Project achieved everything it was supposed to.
As the successor to Terra Mystica, reactions were initially a little mixed on whether Gaia Project improved on the formula. But in the year or so since Gaia Project hit the market, a consensus has emerged that it generally surpasses its progenitor in most ways. (Gaia Project also sits comfortably in the top games lists of several Cardboard Reality contributors—as Nick put it in the Slack channel recently, “Gaia Project has to be the best received game on the podcast amongst everyone.”)
Most notably, it took Gaia Project only about a year to surpass its precursor in the BGG rankings, which is no small feat, as Terra Mystica cracked the top 10 long ago. Gaia currently sits as the eighth-highest-ranked game of all time; Terra Mystica has dropped to the 10th spot, and it will be interesting to see how much further it drops as its successor continues to reach new tables.
3. Kingdom Builder (2011)
After the first two games on this list, this one may seem like a bit of a surprise. After all, it sits much lower in the BGG rankings (hovering in the bottom half of the 400s) than Gloomhaven or Gaia Project, and is also a significantly lighter game, with a 45-minute playtime.
Though it may not have the universal acclaim of the BGG userbase, Kingdom Builder represents other significant achievements. In 2009, designer Donald X. Vaccarino captured lightning in a bottle with Dominion, the game that basically invented deckbuilding as a genre and won him the prestigious Spiel Des Jahres. But that wasn’t all—Dominion was also a commercial blockbuster, spawning more than a dozen expansions and earning a place on shelves next to Catan as a perennial, easy-to-learn crowd pleaser.
So how exactly do you follow that? The pressure must have been immense for Vaccarino to deliver another success. And somehow, Kingdom Builder, one of his first post-Dominion titles, came about as close as any game could have. The simple area-control title published by Queen Games won Vaccarino his second Spiel Des Jahres, just two years after his first, and spawned its own batch of expansions.
Another 2011 Vaccarino release didn’t fare so well, though—more on that later.
4. Scythe (2016)
This one might be more divisive than any others on the list. People who dislike Jamey Stegmaier’s Scythe often really dislike it, while many fans of the game consider it their favorite game ever. But in terms of sheer numbers and overall success, there’s no denying that Scythe set a high standard.
In the same episode of The Game Design Round Table mentioned at the beginning of this piece, Stegmaier, designer of Scythe and cofounder of Stonemaier Games, discussed the wave of hype surrounding his 2016 release. It got to the point that he had to warn people what the game was really about, and that it wasn’t meant as a gateway game, since the broadly appealing art and theme were drawing in a wide swath of interested onlookers. After Jamey initially described the game as Kemet meets Agricola, he also had to clarify that comparison as a bit of “pitch lingo,” meant to describe the game only at a high level.
Indeed, Scythe’s actual gameplay of farming before mechs (instead of mechs before farming) is a common complaint among detractors of the game, even to this day. Still, Scythe rode its wave of hype to a successful $1.8 million Kickstarter, a top-10 ranking on BGG, GOTY awards from Dice Tower, Origins, and BGG, and nearly 200,000 copies of the game making their way into stores over the course of just a couple of years.
Hard to argue with that.
These were games that managed to live up to their lofty expectations; for four games that didn’t pull it off, see part 2.