4 games that lived up to the hype (and 4 that didn't) - Part 2
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 part 1, we explored four games that lived up to the hype. And now, here are four games that didn’t.
When the hype train crashes
1. First Martians (2017)
First Martians was easily among the most-hyped games of 2017. Designer Ignacy Trzewiczek’s successor to his highly successful 2012 release Robinson Crusoe: Adventures on the Cursed Island, First Martians was supposed to take that game’s core mechanics and improve on them while throwing them into an extraterrestrial setting.
But it didn’t take long after the game’s release for players to realize that the game’s rulebook—oft a bit of a sore spot with Portal Games releases—was bad. Like, really bad. Like, a 10-page errata on BGG bad. It was the the key complaint in a damning Shut Up and Sit Down review. The general consensus is that there’s a good game underneath, but getting past the rules is too high a barrier for many to cross.
The rise and fall of First Martians prompted Trzewiczek to write an excellent blog post recounting his experience in the lead-up and eventual release of the game. In his words:
“...the hype was there and it was out of the control. The more I talked about the game, the hype went higher...On one hand, it was the best months of my designer career — my design was hot, everybody talked about it, I was so proud. I was designer of one of the most anticipated games in the whole industry. Quite the feeling. On the other hand, I knew I was screwed. It was impossible to meet the expectations, and the more I tried to lower the hype, the worse it got, the hype went up and up with every interview.”
The whole thing is worth a read, and is perhaps the best first-person accounting of what it’s like to ride a wave of hype, and the comedown when the game doesn’t reach its lofty expectations.
2. Nefarious (2011)
In the first part of this article, Kingdom Builder was listed among the games that lived up to the hype—Donald X. Vaccarino’s first game since the industry-shaking Dominion, it managed to be a respectable follow-up to one of the most respected games of recent years. Well, Nefarious is the other other side of that coin.
A Despicable Me-esque game of competing mad scientists, Nefarious is also a Vaccarino design, released in 2011. And though it does have a middling 6.4 rating on BoardGameGeek, its production is really what tanked it, not necessarily the gameplay.
The game was originally published by Ascora Games, but a quick browse through this BGG thread reveals that company owner Scott Tepper more or less vanished after the first printing, leaving the future of the game in limbo. Vaccarino notes that the contract for the game would be void if Ascora ceased to exist, but without being able to reach the company owner to confirm that fact, it left Vaccarino in a tough spot.
“Also anyone republishing the game would surely love to have all of the original art, which I could buy from Scott except I would have to talk to him at least once to do that,” Vaccarino noted.
Eventually, USAopoly swooped in to buy the rights, returning the game to print about four years after it was first released. But then that first print run was plagued by misprinted chits and subpar card stock, prompting a note from the publisher about corrections being made. Nefarious is still available today, but it certainly missed its window for greater success.
3. A Few Acres of Snow (2011)
This will likely be the most controversial entry on this list, as some consider A Few Acres of Snow to be one of Martin Wallace’s finest games, up there with Brass and Age of Steam. But this game carries a history with it, and pops up frequently nowadays in examples of “broken” games.
Wallace’s two-player deckbuilding game of British and French conflict in North America was very well-received on release, with a level of hype befitting a game using the still-trendy-at-the-time deckbuilding mechanic, from a designer who cranked out some of the best games of the latter 2000s.
But it didn’t take long before a problem began to reveal itself: a particular strategy executed by the British made a French victory nigh-impossible. This strategy, dubbed the “Halifax Hammer,” spawned a 36-page discussion on BGG as people discussed possible viable strategies for countering the British invasion. Late in 2011, Wallace issued several rules changes in hopes of restoring some balance to the game, but many devoted players still considered the game fundamentally “broken.”
BGG user Jesse Dean summed up the whole thing rather nicely in a lengthy blog post that also called out board game critics for failing to address the game’s perceived fatal flaw. Wallace eventually went on to recycle the mechanics from A Few Acres of Snow in his games A Handful of Stars and Mythotopia, and in the process fixing some of the problems from Acres. Today, A Few Acres of Snow occupies an odd position, sought after due to its scarcity and pedigree, but carrying a reputation as “broken” for anyone who digs deep enough into the game’s history.
4. SeaFall (2016)
Pandemic: Legacy set the board game world on fire in 2015. Taking the popular gateway mechanics of Pandemic and slapping an irreversible and evolving plotline onto it, Pandemic: Legacy launched to the top of the BGG charts and popularized the legacy mechanic. The game was designed by Pandemic creator Matt Leacock and Rob Daviau, who had previously explored legacy gameplay in his Risk Legacy.
And so, like Donald X. Vaccarino and Dominion, expectations were high for a follow-up. Leacock played it mostly safe, releasing a few other Pandemic variants over the next year or so. But Daviau swung for the fences with SeaFall, another big box legacy game. The BGG forums were flooded with dozens of posts before the game was even released, speculating, percolating, whipping players into a foamy froth of hype.
But then the game came out. And it wasn’t...great. It wasn’t just that it wasn’t as good as Pandemic: Legacy—it’s that it wasn’t particularly good. There was a lengthy prologue followed by a lot of gameplay that was generally agree to be a bit of a slog.
One BGG user was quick to note in their first impressions of the game that “SeaFall is not Pandemic Legacy,” then went on to say:
“Zero Punctuation once said ‘If you’re going to make something incredibly good that becomes frighteningly popular, make sure it’s the last thing you’ll ever make in your entire life, because otherwise you get to spend the rest of your creative career struggling under the weight of high expectation and bricks.’ Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 currently sits comfortably at #1 on BoardGameGeek’s all-time rankings, ‘high expectations’ might be an understatement.
SeaFall wasn’t a total bomb. It sold a lot of copies. So many copies that major retailers are still trying to offload those copies at deep discounts even today. When a game with an $80 MSRP can be picked up for $15, you know it didn’t succeed in the way everyone hoped. And that’s why SeaFall may be the biggest letdown in recent gaming history.
These were four games that failed to live up to their lofty expectations; for four games that saw the upside of the hype machine, see part 1.