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Sam's 4-point ranking system for board games |

Sam's 4-point ranking system for board games

Aug 04 2019

I play a lot of board games and have a terrible memory. Last year, I started recording the names of every board game I played, along with some extra information about each game like how many players it supports or what mechanics it uses.

I also record a rank for each game on a 4-point scale. The scale has held up for more than a year and is a little more complicated than "4s are great and 1s are crappy", so I'd like to go into more detail: why I like the ranking system the way it is, what it means, and some examples of how I use it for board games.

Why there are only 4 ranks

The website BoardGameGeek uses a 10-point scale for user rankings of its games. Lots of organizations use 10-point or 5-point scales for ranking all kinds of things. Why does mine only have 4?

There are three reasons for this:

So I chose a 4-point scale. You must choose whether you generally liked a board game or disliked it. It is easy to distinguish between all the ranks, and between each pair of positive or negative ranks.

Aside: I think a 6-rank system would be doable. More than 6 and the third bullet above becomes a problem. I chose 4 to keep it simple.

What the ranks mean

4: I will always play this game. I'll often ask to play this game. It's one of my favorites.

3: I will usually play this game. I'll always play this game if asked. I like it.

2: I will sometimes play this game, usually only if asked. I don't like it that much.

1: I have to be convinced to play this game. One of my least favorites.

Note that these descriptive phrases apply specifically to board games. Your mileage may vary if you're trying to apply this scale to other things.

Note also that these rankings do not require the game you're playing to be "good" or "bad", if that's the kind of thing you worry about. It's OK to like a game that is poorly designed if you still have a great time playing it. It's also OK to hate a game you think is well-designed; maybe you think it's boring or takes too long.

Rank extensions

There are two primary ways to extend the 4-point ranking system.

One of these is the question mark after a ranking: so, 4? and 3? and 2? and 1?. These denote uncertainty. I use this mostly for board games I've only played once: I had a great time, but did I just get lucky? Will the novelty wear off? Alternatively: did I just get unlucky? Would I know what I was doing during the second playthrough?

The other is silly, but I'll mention it anyway. Many people have an absolute favorite board game, or an absolute least favorite. For those games, the scale extends slightly. Your most favorite game of all time may, if you choose, receive a rating of 5. Similarly, your least favorite game may receive a 0. I don't have a 5 or a 0 myself (though I know the top ten-ish games in contention for both). Some people really like the extremes though.

The ranking system in action

Some games enter the system as a definite 4, even after only one play. Quacks of Quedlinburg, a push-your-luck bag building game, and Railroad Ink, a light roll-and-write, are two recent additions. Quacks lets me play the odds on every turn and find out whether a silly strategy like "buy all the yellows and oranges" works, which gets me excited. Railroad Ink felt like the perfect length for a marker drawing of some highways and railroads, and also felt like it would scale well to lots of players.

Some games seem like 4s, but I'm not sure yet, so they're 4?. War Chest, a tactical game about maneuvering units on a map, fits the bill for now. We only played a single full game and I wanted to try all the different units and strategies immediately. However, there's only so much game in the box, and it's possible the different units don't change the game enough to make a 4 correct.

I've ranked about a third of my games either 3 or 3?. The 3? ranking is kind of a cop-out; it means that I liked it, but I didn't love it and am not sure if I would continue to like it. Being the largest category, most game types and mechanics are represented here. Games like Concept and Snake Oil are good fits at 3: I don't always want to play them because they want larger groups, but when I have a larger group they work well. Some games are 3s because they're good, but not the best in their category. Fox in the Forest is a fun 2-player-only trick-taking game, but if I'm picking a 2-player game to play I usually have better options.

The 2 and 2? ranks can be a bit of a sting, but they're not all bad. Games that are fun, but with some annoying parts or fiddly parts end up here, like Seasons or Dragonwood. Games that might be fun if I was significantly better at them can end up here, too. Terra Mystica and Le Havre, both large economic games with tons of moving parts, are tentatively 2s.

Games ranked a 1? usually mean they weren't fun to learn and play, but I have a nagging feeling I missed something. I had a terrible time with Hive but I surely must have learned it wrong, given the praise it gets from other gamers. I got destroyed at Cappuccino the first time I played (with another first-time player) and couldn't figure out how, but a second look might make more sense.

The 1 ranks are the worst of the worst. I don't think they're fun; there are always better options; I may not even think they're a game. Yes, it's easy to bag on games like Exploding Kittens and Cards Against Humanity for being mindless card games. But I also had poor times with KeyForge (no printed rules or tokens, yet a ruleset that requires both!) and Bottom of the 9th (a dice-rolling luckfest that doesn't feel like it has any meaningful decisions). The 1 ranks are some of the best stories; maybe I'll do a follow-up post talking about my 4s and 1s.

Limitations of the ranks

If you are trying to order all your games, this ranking system will not help you very much. I've applied a rank to about 300 board games. 90 of those games are a 3, and an additional 39 are a 3?. How do those 3s compare to each other? If you gave me a series of one-to-one comparisons, you might be able to arrive at a strict order, but I don't think that's the point. I've liked — but not loved — about a third of the games I've ever played. That's a reasonable thing to say.

As mentioned above, you're not directly scoring whether you think a game is "good", you're only deciding how much you like it. These are very personal rankings. There are many things which may enter into a decision to critically recommend a game: the quality of its design, the style of game, the price, and other information. You get to decide which of those criteria you care about for your score, and you may change those criteria arbitrarily.

As a specific example: I have given 4s to games with very low randomness and very high strategy, like Santorini and Patchwork. I've also given 4s to games with tons of randomness and guesswork, like Skull and Camel Up. The point is not whether I think these games are well-designed or even fair. (Looking at you, Camel Up.) The point is that I have fun playing these games every darn time.

The ranks and explanations depend a little bit on you wanting to play the same board game multiple times. This applies to most board games for me, but perhaps not for you. Novelty can be a huge part of a board game experience. If you are primarily interested in exploring new worlds with new mechanics and twists, the "play-it-again" ranks may not work for you.

For example, I really liked Pandemic Legacy: Season One. I gave it a 4. But I don't want to play it again. I already know the story and the changes that become a permanent part of the game. Playing it again won't change very much. But I had a blast playing it, and it holds up very well in my memory.

A different example: maybe you like a game like Stone Age. It's a healthy 3 or 4, and you have fun playing it. But you play it too much. Your family or friends always ask for it. You've tried every strategy and know generally how to win. Now you don't want to play this game anymore. Do you change your ranking? It's up to you. I'd argue that you should: the ranks are already a snapshot of your feelings at a point in time. If you feel down on a certain game, it's OK to say so, but it's your call.

Closing thoughts

I'm still playing new board games as well as replaying old ones, so new ranks are being added or changed all the time. I know what sorts of games I like better than others, so I don't play too many stinkers. Most of the new games I try are 3s. There's some variance upwards for really fun experiences (most recently Everdell) or downwards for poor experiences (most recently Big Book of Madness). Even discovering the bad games is all part of the fun.

If you'd like to see the full board game spreadsheet, shoot me an email using the link below and I'll send it to you.

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