Research Review: Article Investigating Factors That Impact Appeal of Board Games

By Jeremiah Dwyer

This is a review of an article published in the Journal of Consumer Marketing (2007). It is entitled, “An inquiry into the factors that impact on consumer appreciation of a board game.” It was authored by Alain d’Astous and Karine Gagnon, both of Montreal, Canada. Normally I review articles that have more direct relevance to psychology, specifically clinical or forensic (which I post on my blog). However, I also have an interest in blogging about other things (when I blog at all!), and that includes games. I figured I’d see what kind of research was out there about board games, rather than the usual things, such as examining whether video games lead to violence. Thus, one literature search later, I was able to identify a few articles addressing various aspects of board games that I thought might be interesting, including this one. However, this article is much more of a business analysis of board games and board game preferences, rather than a straight examination of the psychology of board games, so to the extent my understanding of particular business terms and concepts is lacking, I apologize.

As is typical with journal articles, the authors lead with an introduction to their study, to include a review of past research that leads to their particular question. Here, the authors note that certain board games enjoy significant popularity among large groups of people, and personally I was encouraged by the identification of Settlers of Catan in this opening sentence, alongside of Scrabble and Monopoly. The authors go on to note that while researchers have examined the reasons behind consumer preferences for many different leisure products, little research has explored preferences for board games. Basically, the authors posit the question of what features explain the popularity of certain board games?

The authors do cite several prior studies into playing games, and they note a particular description of the theories of game playing that was offered in the 1973 book Why People Play, by M.J. Ellis:
1) Classical Theories – playing games is seen as a human instinct
2) Modern Theories – games represent a means to fulfil some unsatisfied psychological or emotional need
3) Contemporaneous Theories – games are conceived as activities that are performed to maintain an optimal level of stimulation and to avoid boredom
Another categorization was identified, from the 1981 article “Play: a ludic behaviour,” by H.I. Day:
1) Exploratory games – associated with discovery
2) Creative games – associated with imagination
3) Entertaining games – associated with mere enjoyment
4) Mimetic games – role playing
5) Cathartic games – play as a form of therapy

The current authors note that Day also identified three fundamental dimensions a game can be identified on, regardless of which category the game fell into: the level of internal control it offers, the intrinsic and extrinsic forces that motivate the player, and the affect (or pleasure) that ensues. Together, these three dimensions equate with the “playfulness” of the game, which is the uniqueness of the game experience.

The authors move on to note that game-playing is seen as a form of leisure activity, and then review some of the theoretical considerations associated with leisure choice in general. Primary among these are intrinsic satisfaction, a sense of accomplishment, and even the perception of freedom associated with certain leisure activities. The authors also review a theory of board game-playing by Vinacke (“Variables in experimental games: toward a field theory,” 1969) that discusses the various aspects of playing a board game (such as knowing the rules, considering specific situational variables, etc.), but note this in the context of why certain games may be more appealing.

Another view is reviewed by the authors, as offered by Orbanes in 2002 (“Everything I know about business I learned from Monopoly,” Harvard Business Review). Here, the authors outline Orbanes’s six basic principles for creating a successful board game:
1) having rules that are simple and clear
2) making the game comprehensible and accessible to all kinds of players
3) establishing a rhythm so that players can easily follow the evolution of the game
4) giving all players the possibility to influence the game outcomes, notably by having a game based on chance and strategy
5) allowing the players to live a truly unique experience
6) creating an off-the-board stimulating social experience

The authors then get to their research. They note that they first needed to define a “board game” for the purpose of the research, and did so: “For the purpose of this research, a board game was defined as having the following characteristics: it could be played by two or more players, around a board (or a physical support), with a set of rules, and a clear objective.” The authors acknowledge that this definition limits the inclusion of many forms of games, to include chess and checkers.

Sampling and Data Collection: First, the authors interviewed 13 board game players and 13 board game professionals, in order to identify the factors of board games that would be worth examining. The players were divided fairly evenly along gender, education, and playing intensity. The professionals were identified through the help of a private firm. Nine of the professionals were male, and the work experience ranged from 5-35 years. The sample included game creators, distributors, and a manufacturer.

Among the findings of the author’s interviews with this sample were the following:
1) The participants agreed the rules must be clear and understandable
2) Many participants noted a quality game is organized around a relevant theme that is original, not too complex, and actualized to the social context of the players. In part, theme was noted to allow for stimulation of one’s imagination, consistent with the earlier theories noted above.
3) All participants noted the game should provide stimulation, entertainment, and ought to be fun. Passive moments, where player’s had to wait, were discouraged. Some creators indicated a belief a board game should be conceived with the idea that it will provoke discussion, arguments, and jokes.
4) Games should be dynamic, and not redundant. Occasional surprises were also encouraged. That is, even though players ought to have an idea of how they are doing, they should also be aware of possibilities that might occur, which lends itself to tension.
5) Too much chance was discouraged, and it was noted this would interfere with the theory that games are played in part to provide a sense of accomplishment. Decision-making lends itself to a feeling of competence.
6) length was identified as an important variable.
7) Number of players and type of game were also cited. That is, certain issues (such as game length) mattered more with certain types of games (for example, length of a game as related to a strategy game versus a humor or “party” game).

Research Hypothesis: The researchers hypothesized that the potential determinants of the appreciation of a board game could be found among these seven ares:
1) the comprehensibility of the game
2) the entertainment that comes along with playing it
3) its rhythm (i.e. it is dynamic, not redundant)
4) elements of unexpectedness
5) the level of control players have
6) the level of challenge
7) its potential to create fantasies (i.e. the extent to which it leads players to have a unique/uncommon experience).

Survey: Data was collected via survey from 169 adult Canadian boardgamers. Participants were asked to think of a board game with which they were familiar, and answer a series of questions about it. Following that, they could repeat the exercise with a different, but also familiar, board game. The survey asked participants questions in all hypothesized areas, as well as various demographic questions. Interestingly, female respondents outnumbered male respondents 2:1. Most responders were under 55-years old. Education was pretty evenly distributed. Monopoly was chosen by the most participants (24.9%), followed by Scrabble (17.1%). Overall, Cranium was the game identified as most appreciated (though the category “Other” included 28.8% of games chosen), while Monopoly was least appreciated. Here are some of the relevant comparisons:
1) Appreciated Overall: Most – Cranium; Least – Monopoly
2) Comprehensibility: Most – Scrabble; Least – Risk
3) Entertaining: Most – Cranium; Least – the others (Cranium was statistically ahead of all others)
4) Rhythm: Most – Scattergories; Least – Monopoly
5) Chance: Most Chance – Scattergories; Least Chance – Monopoly
6) Challenging: Most – Risk; Least – Clue
7) Fantasy Stimulation: Most – Cranium; Least – Monopoly

Other findings: First, the findings that were in agreement with prior literature. Statistical analyses examined the rating by players on the various games, and why those games appealed to them. The authors found that games that allow for fantasy and uncommon experience were significantly more appreciated. Among all of the factors measured, this factor had the strongest impact.
The second important factor was overall experience of being entertained. The games that allowed for interaction, having fun, arguing, etc. rated higher. Another finding was that the element of surprise in a game was found to be significant, but only among males players – female players did not rate games with this element as any better. The authors note prior research on gender-based risk-aversion, as well as studies into gambling, that might account for this. Rhythm, conversely, impacted women more than men.

The authors note that one limitation of the study was the game’s self-selection by the participants. This was done in order to avoid participants being asked to rated unfamiliar games. Unfortunately, this resulted in participants choosing games that were very familiar with, and generally had high opinions of. The first game selected by participants was preferred to the second game chosen by a statistically significant margin. This was offered as a reason why comprehensibility may not have achieved a prominent place in the factoring; people chose games they already knew and understood.

The authors also noted that the challenge of a game did not rate significantly. No real explanation was offered, though they did note that board games may simply rely less of its challenge as opposed to its social aspect, than, say, video games. That is, board games don’t rely on their degree of challenge to still be considered good, as compared to video games, which don’t offer other aspects to make them appealing. As usual, the article ends with the usual emphasis on how further research into this area would be great. In this case, I agree! However, the authors also offer an addendum to their article entitled “Managerial Implications,” and another entitled, “Executive Summary and Implications for Managers and Executives.” The first addresses the business side of board games, with these findings in mind. The second is a brief overall of the findings of the article.

Okay, now its time for my opinion. I found the article interesting, mostly in terms of the data gathering and conceptual breakdown. the actual data didn’t impress me as much, because they surveyed generic people identified as board gamers, who then made decisions about board games that are typically considered pretty light and/or flawed. I’m not going to rip on any particular game, but the disconnect between the initial focus groups (who I am assuming are more hard-core BBG types) and the survey respondents (who seem to be more causal, mass-market game players) renders the findings as limited. I also agree with the authors that the self-selection of what games to rate, while necessary I suppose in terms of how they gathered data, also significantly limited the utility of the findings.

However, I will say this – I am glad this type of research is being conducted. While this particular article, and its findings, may be limited, and even some of the conclusions may seem “tell me something I don’t know” to people who are serious board game players, exploring this stuff in a data-driven and statistically analyzed way is great; even when it is only confirming “what we already know.” If nothing else, the Introduction section provided leads on a few other journal articles and books worht checking out, should I be able to hunt them down!

BTW, here is a link to the abstract of the article:…
and here is a link to my web page:
Any thoughts, opinions, or criticisms are welcome (though I prefer thoughts and opinions)!

By Jeremiah Dwyer

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