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How Can Abstract Games Find Commercial Success?

January 2, 2013

how to publish an abstract gameI’ve fallen asleep thinking about abstract games every night for more than a decade, and I’ve designed several hundred such games, the rules for which fill out bundles of notebooks I keep in my garage.

Having spent such a colossal portion of my waking life designing abstract games, I’ve long wished there were a way to monetize some of this work. I revisit the challenge periodically, and often end up frustrated. Most commercially successful games aren’t abstract, most abstract games remain unpublished, and most which are published struggle commercially.

Nonetheless there are exceptions. In this post I focus on two commercially successful abstract games, Blokus and Pentago, and the lessons they may offer

Blokus game board

Blokus, in mid-play

Pentago game board

Pentago, in mid-play

I’ve been studying these two because I see both everywhere: game stores, book stores, toy stores, big box stores, novelty shops and even drug stores carry them, across the US. Both are traditional, luckless, themeless games with simple rules, and each has sold more than a million copies, making them among the best-selling  board games of any kind.

Why do these games succeed so spectacularly where others fail? Research and contemplation has led me to believe the following factors are critical:

Hustle - First, as with any product, the most critical among the many critical factors is probably old-fashioned salesmanship and hustle. Generally speaking, products don’t cut through the noise of the marketplace unless they have someone behind them willing to press and press and press their appeal to all prospective buyers. Obvious though this may be, many games don’t have that kind of support. Blokus and Pentago do, or at least did.

Brand Focus – Both Blokus and Pentago, in their rise to commercial success, were published by companies that treated each game as its own brand, and published only that game. Many publishers think of themselves as the brand, publish many games, and treat those games as extensions of the brand. I don’t think this works well to maximize the success of any particular game. Focus is critical. The company should be built around the game, not the other way around. This is how it was for Blokus and Pentago. A company called Sekkoia was formed for the sole purpose of selling Blokus, and a company called Mindtwister was formed for the sole purpose of selling Pentago. Note that things later changed for both games, but only after commercial liftoff: Blokus was sold to Mattel, and Mindtwister started publishing other games/toys, though they still seem to put far more resources into Pentago than any other game.

Short Play Time – The game should be short. Pentago takes 5 minutes to play, and Blokus takes 20. Consumers apply a different standard to abstract games than they do to other kinds of games, in this respect. I’m not sure why, but here’s my best guess: abstract games are mentally taxing, and most people only enjoy mental taxation in short bursts.

Quality Threshold – A game must satisfy some minimum level of quality: it must be enjoyable to play for some sufficiently broad group of people. I emphatically don’t believe a game must be among the best of its kind to succeed commercially. I’ve no doubt you can find many other abstract games that would beat Blokus or Pentago in head-to-head “taste tests” (assuming equally appealing sets of components; more on that below). My claim is corroborated by the abstract game ratings at boardgamegeek.com. There are many games with higher average ratings than both Blokus and especially Pentago there. This isn’t to say abstract games don’t have to be good to succeed. Both Blokus and Pentago are, in their own ways, excellent. But they aren’t the very best. The idea that quality doesn’t matter  beyond a certain point is an important one for game designers like me to bear in mind. I spend most of my time trying to create the Best Game Ever Designed. But for commercial purposes, some of this focus wasted.

Form Factor! – The most overlooked item on this list. I hereby coin Bentley’s law: the more minimal an abstract game is, the more care must be put into making its physical aesthetic absolutely drool- and coffeetable-worthy. Minimalism is hard to do well, but it can be amazing (ask any Apple product designer). Both Blokus and Pentago have excellent product design. Both have eye-catching color schemes, for example, and both have pieces which snap into place on board, which makes the games look neat and ordered in play (a feature many of the most commercially successful abstract games seem to have – see Abalone or Othello for example). Of course, one constraint here is that the amazing form factor has to be achieved at a reasonable price point.

The practical corollary to Bentley’s law is simple: don’t publish an abstract game without hiring a top-notch product designer. Few who publish abstract games do so, because it’s expensive and the cost seems too risky given the commercial record of abstract games. But if Bentley’s law is true, failure is partly the result of poor product design, so the choice to skimp on design could be self-defeating.  Note Pentago has been through several design revisions (I count three wood versions and two plastic versions, not including the multiplayer versions), and widespread commercial success didn’t come until after revision. How do you know if a game has the right form factor? Answer: the Coffeeshop Test. Set the game up in a coffee shop and if people play it, unprompted, you’re good to go. Otherwise go back to the drawing board.

Novel Components – a game must feature some physical components which feel novel to the average consumer. Consumers must feel like they’re getting something new, and that they’re getting some kind of toy in addition to a game. Novelty is key for getting attention (says this Neurobiologist). Blokus has clear acrylic polyominoes which snap into place, and Pentago has that neat twisting board. The average consumer has seen neither of these things in any other game, and both have a pinch of “wow” factor when you first behold them.

I believe commercial success is only possible when an abstract game has every one of the above factors working in its favor.  If any one is missing, the game will never be among the best-selling board games. There may be one exception: it may be that an extraordinary form factor can overcome the need for novel components, because a beautiful form can itself act as a kind of novelty. But we should take care not to fool ourselves when our games aren’t physically novel enough.

There’s one other factor which, while not as critical as the above, probably also helps:

Familiar References – a game can be described as related to something else with which buyers are already familiar. For example, you can tell a person that Blokus is “like Tetris”, and she’ll instantly know it’s about fitting polyominoes together. Or you can tell her that Pentago is “like tic-tac-toe, except the board twists”, and she’ll know she’s in for an n-in-a-row game.

This kind of reference-to-the familiar is probably important in successfully pitching product pickers at retail chains. Most retail gatekeepers don’t know or care about games per se; they care about whether they can sell widgets. For that reason, familiar references can help them feel comfortable with a product. This is my speculation anyway.

Where does this leave me?

Only one of my games has proven the right kind of appeal: Catchup. It’s the only one non-gamers eagerly request. It also passes the shortness test, clocking in at 15-20 minutes.

However, it’s weak on two points: the physical components aren’t novel enough, and it’s hard to describe it as related to something else with which the consumer is already familiar.  I think the only circumstance under which I would consider publication is if I could create a physical form that passes the Coffeeshop Test with flying colors. I have some ideas about how to do it, but it’s a pretty stiff challenge.

[Update] Stiff challenge or no, I’ve decided to work toward a Kickstarter for Catchup. We’ll see how it goes.

Are there published games which could do better if they were promoted differently?

If my analysis above is correct, then yes. I think there are a bunch of games with commercial potential but in the interest of brevity I’ll focus on just a couple: the games of Kris Burm, from the GIPF project. His games are already commercially successful relative to most abstracts, but they haven’t reached the rarefied air of Blokus or Pentago, and I think at least one of them could. His games are short, one or two of them do very well on the Coffeeshop Test, and I they handily beat Blokus or Pentago in head-to-head “taste tests”.

I think this games have fallen short in the Hustle and Brand Focus categories. Kris Burm is a better game designer than a salesman, and no one has yet built a company focused solely on one game of his.

The game I would choose to build a company around is Yinsh. Even in its current incarnation it does well on the Coffeeshop Test (though I think it could do even better with the help of more product design – I would keep the pieces as they are but redesign the board), its rings have a novel, toy-like feel, and it can be described in terms of familiar references: “Othello crossed with Tic-Tac-Toe”.

Questions for readers

What have I gotten wrong in my analysis? What have I missed?

What abstract games, published or unpublished, have the potential to be (more) commercially successful, and why?

Also of interest: my guide to abstract games online.
Nick Bentley

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19 Comments
  1. Do you think, and this is serious, it would be easier to get a MacArthur Genius Grant for game design or commercialize an abstract game?

    • nickbentley1000 permalink

      I’ll go with commercialize. Two reasons: a) I’ve already seen that abstract games can be commercially successful, and b) games are generally considered to be too trivial to get consideration for a MacArthur.

  2. The successful abgames may just be outliers, with nothing in them to fully justify their success. Sure, the amount of merchandising and aesthetics and branding correlate with sales, but only to a point. Check Abalone for eg. A reasonable boring game with a drawish nature. Why was it such a big success? Pretty marbles? Perhaps the points you made are necessary conditions for success, but unfortunately they are not sufficient.

    • nickbentley1000 permalink

      Abalone is a great example of a game that satisfies most of these conditions well. It’s an especially good example of the “minimal quality” argument (it’s not even close to the best of its kind), and the “form factor” and “novelty” arguments. The pushing mechanism feels fun even if you have no idea what you’re doing and it feels like a toy of sorts.

      Also, as I understand it, it rose to popularity through the efforts of a company dedicated entirely to promoting it alone.

      But I agree with you: necessary but not sufficient. Success in many endeavors relies at least in part on luck, and this is certainly one.

  3. Boy do I need to digest this post. Although my abstract strategy game ( http://TheOctagonTheory.com ) received really good reviews, even from Edge Online ( http://www.edge-online.com/review/octagon-theory-review/ ), the sales on the iTunes App Store were so dismal that I pulled it at the end of last year because it wasn’t worth supporting it.

  4. nickbentley1000 permalink

    Hey, yeah, I remember when the Octagon theory came out. I love the look of the iOS interface, though I’ve yet to play the game. I don’t know how much of my advice above applies to iOS though. That market is different from the market for physical games. An open question for me is: if one publishes a physical version, should one always also publish an iOS version along with it? Can iOS sales and physical sales eat into one another? I know that for certain games, the iOS version has dissuaded me from purchasing the physical version, not because I don’t like those games, but because the iOS version is so good, I’d prefer to play the game on my iPad than with a physical set.

  5. Dan permalink

    What do you think of the games that have sprung up around a set of components? I am thinking particularly of Looney Pyramids, but the same could be extended to a deck of cards (Uno, Canasta, Spades, etc). I could also mention Stone Henge which has attempted to create this community, with middling success.

  6. nickbentley1000 permalink

    The standard deck of playing cards is the only “system”, it seems to me, which has achieved breakout success. It’s hard to draw inferences about the viability of such systems today because standard playing cards rose to popularity a long time ago when the market for games/entertainment was completely different (and much less competitive). I don’t know any modern systems which have achieved scale anywhere close to Blokus and Pentago, for example. My understanding is that UNO started out as one game, and only became a “system” much later, after it had already achieved breakout success. So that probably shouldn’t count as a successful system.

    Although maybe a publisher could diversify their product portfolio under one strong brand (thus maintaining focus) by publishing new games with the same or similar components, making them system-like: The makers of Blokus, especially, seem to have done, if not exactly this, something similar: now they sell Blokus Duo, Blokus Travel, Blokus Trigon, Blokus 3D.

  7. Thanks for the fascinating analysis. Blokus is a two or four player game (and three with Trigon). I think more-than-two helps acceptance in the mass market immensely. Because there are often four players in Blokus, you can’t calculate the best move because you have more than one opponent, raising the uncertainty level immensely, promoting intuition, and also allowing youngsters to participate adequately.

    Although much of the point of two player perfect information games is that you can calculate the best move, if you’re good enough, this isn’t what gamers look for nowadays. They want games where they can employ intuition rather than logic, and where the choice of moves is pretty limited.

    • nickbentley1000 permalink

      I agree that multiplayer helps on average (although the best-selling version of Pentago is the 2-player version, not the multiplayer version, so it’s not always true).

      I disagree with the notion that “much of the point of two player perfect information games is that you can calculate the best move”. Modern abstracts tend to have larger branch factors than older abstract games, and as the branch factor grows, intuition becomes increasingly important compared to calculation. My favorite modern abstract games aren’t even close to calculable by humans. Slither is my favorite game and it’s branch is over 1000 on most turns. Arimaa is an extreme example, with the average branch factor over 10,000. Forward calculation isn’t much help in such games, and that’s one reason I absolutely love what’s happening with abstract games these days.

      I think our ideas about what abstract games are an can be are mostly informed by older designs such as Chess, and that’s one of the obstacles to popularizing the very different modern ones.

  8. I’ve read that Capablanca just made the best move, rather than relying on lookahead, so I see the point. Yet a perfect-information two-player game LOOKS calculable just as chess looks calculable, and perceptions being as important as they are in games, I think that puts people off.

    I’m not sure I see the point in retaining perfect information if we’re going to have players rely on intuition. Why not make the game look somehow less “formidable” by including hidden information?

    The biggest obstacle to marketing abstracts is that there’s no story/theme/atmosphere, and those are used to sell games. Look at the back of a Euro box – most Euros being abstract games, though usually with some hidden information – and the box tells you a story that, in most cases, has nothing to do with how the game plays. Often the box won’t tell you ANYTHING about how the game plays. (And I’m not sure what that says about people who buy games in stores. . .)

  9. nickbentley1000 permalink

    I agree with all of this. The only reason I focus on perfect information is that I have a colossal obsession with them, not out of any commercial consideration.

    That game boxes often say nothing about how games play is a really important point: because it emphasizes how, in many ways, the game itself is not at the center of the purchase decision.

  10. alihv permalink

    I don’t think that meaningful generalizations from two successful samples are possible. People would like to feel some emotion when they play a game, they just don’t know how to feel anything from an abstract. They may feel “ooh, shiny and Tetris-like” (Blokus) or “ooh, funny gizmo” (Pentago) but that doesn’t mean that the only success is possible through those two emotions.

    It’s true that design and artwork sell a game, but they don’t have to go into the components themselves. Look up “Hikaru no Go effect”: a single anime had a huge impact on the number of Go players worldwide. That’s because it has shown people how to feel something about playing Go.

    If we take a broader definition of a theme as some emotional anchor, then unthemed games are simply never sold. Chess and Go are now themed by tradition (and Chess was war-themed back in the day). Blokus is sort of Tetris-themed. Pentago is themed by its funny mechanism, like Rubik’s cube. Also Go is now Hikaru-themed for some, even if common sense suggests that it’s the other way around.

    And if you pose the question in this way – not “how to sell an unthemed game”, but “how to make a theme for a game” – then there are much more than two successful samples. I understand that you seek minimalist designs, not disguised abstracts like Antike Duellum, but I’m just saying that everything is open and if you can, for instance, draw Hikaru no Ketchup, then many of your rules can be broken. Maybe something else will work for you, like giving away copies as prizes at kids’ math competitions (has this been tried before?). There’s no need to follow in someone’s footsteps.

    • nickbentley1000 permalink

      I think I understand your point. I think I agree that evoking feelings is the ultimate goal, and that it’s dangerous to hem oneself in with recipes. When I use the phrase “brand focus”, I’m thinking of it as a container for all the different kinds of storytelling and evocation that can help someone feel. Your point about Hikari No Go sort of stopped me in my tracks because it inspired many modern people to play a game which fails to satisfy some of the criteria I’ve listed. In the various places I’ve discussed this post, yours is the first example that seems to contradict what I’ve said.

      On the other hand Go has the advantage of being a cultural institution with a long and glorious history, which makes certain kinds of storytelling easier. Many games, like Chess, thrive on the backs of their standing as cultural institutions, so I’m not sure how useful Go is as an example.

      You’ve certainly given me something to think about though, so thank you. Your idea regarding schools is good, I think. I’ve written about promoting games in schools before in the context of another game, and even tried to convinced its author to market it as an educational tool:

      Zendo as a tool for Teaching the Scientific Method

      In fact I think that game, Zendo, is far easier to build a story around in an educational setting than any of mine (though I haven’t managed to convince the designer of that, or maybe he’s just not interested in promoting his game). I may revisit the idea for my own games. I like the math prize idea. It’s not an idea I’ve contemplated before but offhand it strikes me as promising.

      I agree as well that it’s very hard to generalize from a sample of 2, but there are so few modern luckless abstract games which have become household names that we’re stuck with a tiny sample size. If I hadn’t taken the time to research these two and write this post, I never would have gotten your thoughtful reply, along with several others, all of which will help me to think more deeply and get a better idea about what I don’t yet understand, so there’s value even in weak analysis!

  11. I have often speculated about how well chess or go might sell if they had not existed before and were issued as games today. I think, not well at all. Quite apart from both being very “difficult”, chess would be heavily criticized for being so unbalanced in favor of white, and having so many draws. I don’t see their long history and intertwining with culture as story or theme at all. It’s simply the good luck of circumstances. Monopoly, a poor design at best, enjoys the same advantage. If it didn’t exist and was issued today it would be a tremendous flop.

  12. David permalink

    I agree with a lot that is said here, however, on the point of short play time and mental taxation, this is true, but it is probably also a case of the lack of distraction in an abstract that themes bring to the gaming experience. An abstract has no thematic disctractions, or illustrations…its all thinking over the board. This might be why some abstract designers pin on a theme and illustrate the board, to make people forget they are just thinking. I’ve noticed also that you can have more lengthy and complex rules if you have a theme than if you don’t.

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