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Breadth-gamers and depth-gamers: the two hobbies

Martin G
United Kingdom
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Don't fall in love with me yet, we only recently met
A couple of interesting and near-simultaneous blog posts by geekbuddies yesterday got me thinking about something I’ve written a bit about before, but not really articulated fully.

In the hobby as I see it, there’s a continuum of gamer types of which the two ends could almost be considered completely different hobbies. I’m talking about what I’ll call breadth-gamers and depth-gamers.*

We all have a finite amount of time to devote to gaming, we all have to make decisions about how to split that up, and we all have to compromise to fit in with others. But if you had free rein over the next 100 games you play, what would they be?

If your answer is one play of each of 100 different games, most of them new to you, then you are an extreme breadth-gamer (also known as the Cult of the New). If it’s 100 plays of your favourite game with your favourite opponents, you’re the ultimate depth-gamer (also known as a lifestyle-gamer). An alternative metric would be the average number of times you play each game you own. Breadth-gamers are happy with 5 plays or fewer; depth-gamers expect to get at least 10 and hopefully much more.

I think that recognising the different motivations and preferences of these two extremes helps make sense of a lot of conversations that go on here on BGG and in the wider gaming world.

Breadth-gamers are from Mars, depth-gamers are from Venus

Breadth-gamers are primarily motivated by variety. They feed off the buzz of figuring out how a new game works. For the breadth-gamer, reading about new games and collecting games is as much a part of their hobby as playing them. They read up on new releases, follow the Essen buzz, back numerous games on Kickstarter and probably have a large collection (hundreds rather than tens) with a fairly low average number of plays per game. Breadth gamers are likely to do a lot of their gaming in clubs, because they can satisfy their need for variety without going bankrupt.

Depth-gamers are primarily motivated by mastery. They see the first few plays of a game as a learning experience necessary to start playing the game properly. They like to read (and write) about a few games that they’ve really explored. Depth-gamers are more likely to play at home in dedicated groups. They are likely to have smaller collections or be actively trying to reduce their collection following an earlier breadth-gaming phase. Oliver’s article yesterday is pretty much a practical guide to transitioning your collection from a breadth-gamer’s one to a depth gamer’s.

Because of these differences, breadth-gamers and depth-gamers favour different types of games. For a game to be regarded highly by breadth-gamers it most likely needs to be quite accessible on a first play and with groups of mixed experience-level with the game. It may well feature a mechanical innovation that can be snappily summarised, and a rapid discovery phase in which a handful of different strategies can be explored and catalogued. It doesn’t necessarily need to have much variety beyond the first five plays, because most breadth-gamers won’t get that far.

By contrast, a depth-gamer’s game may be quite opaque on first play, but hint at future subtleties. It is likely to have a long learning curve over which levels of play reveal themselves. Depth-gamers enjoy playing games with other players who have attained a similar level of competence, and dissecting the games in detail.

I would like to emphasise that I’m trying to remain value-free here - these are different types of games designed for different types of gamers, not a hierarchy.

One aspect of John’s excellent article seems to be a depth-gamer’s lament on the dominance of breadth-gaming in the hobby. The depth-gamer often finds the behaviour of the breadth-gamer irrational. Why do buy all these games they don’t play? Why are they always chasing after the new hotness when there are already so many well-established classics? But for the breadth-gamer, reading about and collecting new games is a big part of their hobby. They express the same bemusement at the devoted depth-gamer, happy to retread the same old game over and over again.

What does it mean for the hobby?

So having sketched out these two caricatures, what implications does accommodating both within the same hobby have?

First of all, most games are designed to suit the preferences of breadth-gamers. How could it be otherwise in a rational market? The breadth-gamers are the ones buying most of the games, and they’re the ones that need lots of different games to keep them happy. A depth-gamer only needs a few games they really love to last them a long time. Of course there are some games that can satisfy both types of gamer, but games don’t need to be built for depth-gamers to sell well.

Secondly, BGG itself is much more of a breadth-gaming site than a depth-gaming one. The conversation is driven by new releases, Essen speculation, and ‘the hotness’. There’s no end of first impressions and fairly shallow reviews of new games to read, but a depth-gamer will often be frustrated by the lack of content on their chosen games that goes beyond scratching the surface.

For the same reasons that most games are breadth-gamer-friendly, so are the BGG rankings. It is inevitable that most ratings will come from the people who rate most games. So there’s no particular reason that games with attributes that depth-gamers value such as opacity and replayability will rise to the top of the rankings.

There’s also a bigger problem for depth-gamers. Breadth-gamers by their nature are pretty much happy to play anything once and so can easily flock together in groups of other breadth-gamers and play whatever takes their fancy.

But to get the type of play experience they crave, depth-gamers don’t just have to seek out other depth-gamers; they have to find ones who want to get in-depth about the same game they do! And the explosion of the strategy game market in recent years, fuelled by breadth-gamers’ demand, means that it is less likely that any one game will form a critical mass of depth-gamers around it.

So what’s a poor depth-gamer to do?

All that said, I’ve noticed a number of successful examples of depth-gaming communities recently.

I’ve already talked about small groups of friends who get together to play a particular game. But at the other end of the spectrum, my gaming group London on Board is large enough that it can support multiple communities of interest within, but mostly detached from, the rest of the club. Two notable examples are the Battlestar Galactica crew, each of whom must have played well over hundred times, and the 18XXers, a ‘hobby within a hobby’ if ever there was one. Games clubs also sometimes try to foster a degree of depth-gaming with a ‘game of the month’, though previous attempts to do this at LoB foundered.

There are also online communities, mostly outside of BGG, that have coalesced around particular games. The website dominionstrategy.com has been particularly successful at building a community around strategy discussions of Dominion and its many expansions, and the founder has just launched a similar forum around Twilight Struggle. Depth-gamers can also get their gaming hit online. I’ve recently taken to playing Brass with a group of BGGers who have played it as much as me and I’m really enjoying it because I don’t win all the time!

What type of gamer are you?

I like to think of myself as a depth-gamer, and in some ways I am, but I don’t have the dedication to go all the way. I suspect I’m roughly at the midway point on the scale I outlined. My preference for my next 100 plays would be something like 10 plays each of 10 different games. My collection has just gone past the 100 mark (with a mild dose of Essen fever) but I’m working on getting it back down again, and I’m aiming for at least 10 plays of each game I rate 8 or above.

I'll finish with some questions. Do you recognise the gamer archetypes I've outlined? Which one suits you best? Does the type you are ever cause you frustrations? What do you do about them?

*[I think I may have stolen these terms from Edward Fu]
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