Popular Mechanics (An Empirical Analysis), Part 1

This will be the first of a series of posts using data from BoardGameGeek to explore the perception and popularity of board game mechanics, and how these have changed over time. A few ground rules. First, all data presented will be from a January 2016 snapshot of the BGG games database. Second, I will be using the official list of mechanics used by BoardGameGeek to categorize games. This is not because I think BGG's list of mechanics is the best or most comprehensive, but rather because I want to maximize transparency and minimize researcher choice. Whether and how to improve upon BGG's list of mechanics is an important discussion, and you can find interesting discussions here and here, but as for right now, we'll work with the data we have. Finally, I restrict my analysis to non-expansions published between 2004 and 2014, with at least 100 user ratings. This is primarily to minimize error in the listed mechanics, but it also has the side effect of restricting our attention to games that hobbyists (and thus, users of BGG) are more likely to play. (Thus, there will be a greater emphasis on strategy games than children's games, for example.)

Starting Point: What are the most popular mechanics, in terms of # games published?

Before embarking on more sophisticated analyses of any topic, it is always good to start simple, and to see what simple descriptive statistics have to say about the data. So let's start by asking the simple question: "What are the most popular mechanics in terms of the number of games published containing those mechanics?" and "How has the popularity of these mechanics changed over time?" To do this, I calculate the number of games published in each year containing each mechanic. I then rank each mechanic by number of games published within each year. Below, I present the Top 10 mechanics, in terms of games published, in 2004 and in 2014.

Top 10 Mechanics in 2004 by # Games Published*

Rank Mechanic # Games Published
1 Dice Rolling 64
2 Hand Management 60
3 Variable Player Powers 34
4 Tile Placement 31
5 Area Control / Area Influence 27
6 Set Collection 27
7 Modular Board 25
8 Auction/Bidding 19
9 Hex-and-Counter 18
10 Roll / Spin and Move 18

* Games with 100+ ratings as of January 2016; Total Published = 249

Top 10 Mechanics in 2014 by # Games Published*

Rank Mechanic # Games Published
1 Hand Management 129
2 Dice Rolling 82
3 Variable Player Powers 61
4 Card Drafting 58
5 Set Collection 58
6 Area Control / Area Influence 49
7 Deck / Pool Building 41
8 Tile Placement 37
9 Modular Board 32
10 Co-operative Play 30

* Games with 100+ ratings as of January 2016; Total Published = 341


The first thing that stands out is simply how much the industry has grown from 2004 to 2014.  The growth would appear even more stark if I removed the 100+ ratings restriction.  The board gaming industry really seems to have grown tremendously over the past decade.

The top 3 mechanics in both years are Hand ManagementDice Rolling, and Variable Player Powers.  These are fairly "neutral" mechanics in the sense that they can go in games of any genre and weight, so it's not surprising that they round out the top 3.  It definitely appears, however, that Dice Rolling is not growing at the same rate as the other mechanics. Has dice rolling become less popular over time?

From 2004 to 2014, three mechanics fell out of the top 10 and three mechanics entered.  The mechanics that fell out are: Auction/BiddingHex-and-Counter, and Roll/Spin and Move.  The three mechanics that entered are Card DraftingDeck/Pool Building, and Cooperative Play.  Very interesting, and perhaps not surprising. These results certainly line up with my intuition for which mechanics have become more popular over the past decade.

Let's now take a look at which mechanics had the highest increases and decreases in publication rank from 2004 to 2014.

Top and Bottom 5 Mechanics by Change in Publication Rank from 2004 to 2014

Rank Mechanic Change in Pub. Rank
1 Deck / Pool Building +44
2 Worker Placement +38
3 Variable Phase Order +24
4 Co-operative Play +15
5 Player Elimination +15
47 Commodity Speculation -15
48 Simulation -16
49 Roll / Spin and Move -21
50 Secret Unit Deployment -22
51 Hex-and-Counter -22

We can clearly see how much the deckbuilding mechanic has grown. It shot up 44 ranks, from last to #7, since 2004. The influence of Dominion (2008) is widely known and clearly felt in the data. I was surprised to see that Worker Placement has gone up so many ranks, as I thought the mechanic had already been around for a while by 2004, but perhaps it wasn't popularized until later. To round out the top 5, we have Variable Phase Order which increased by 24 ranks, and Cooperative Play and Player Elimination, which both rose by 15 ranks.  I was surprised to see that player elimination had grown so much, as I was under the impression that this was an undesirable element and removing it is a good thing (i.e. The Resistance in relation to Mafia-like games).

Finally, let's take a look at 5 mechanics which fell the most in publication rank.  Three of those, SimulationSecret Unit Deployment, and Hex-and-Counter are typically associated with wargames. Are wargames on the decline? According to the data, 40 wargames with 100+ ratings were published in 2004 and only 19 in 2014. The two other mechanics in the bottom 5 are Commodity Speculation and Roll/Spin and Move. I'm not sure what to think about stocks and commodities games, but I'm not surprised to see that roll-move has declined significantly, especially in the set of games that would attract over 100 ratings on BGG.

Growing Mechanics and their Influential Games

Let's wrap up by taking a look at the actual publication patterns over time for some of the top growing mechanics. In particular, let's do the following exercise. For each of the following 5 fast-growing mechanics: deckbuilding, worker placement, variable phase order, cooperative play, and card drafting, let's plot the number of published games over time alongside the release dates of some influential games with that mechanic.  As for which games to include, I'm just going to use one or two games that I personally most associate as an "early" or "canonical" example of that mechanic. (Side note: I think it's wild that we could fairly describe a game that is less than 8 years old, i.e. Dominion, as "canonical". It speaks to the amount of innovation that is going on in board games and what a great time it is for the hobby.)  Here are the graphs:






Most of the games that I immediately thought of as being associated with a mechanic do appear to be published before the popularity of that mechanic starts taking off. The most stark example is, obviously, Dominion, but we can see for example that both Puerto Rico and Race for the Galaxy are in the early flat region for variable phase order. The one exception to this was 7 Wonders in card drafting, but this is probably just attributable to me having some present-bias and not really knowing the history of the mechanic that well. For example, I didn't know that Ticket to Ride was considered as having a card-drafting mechanic until writing this post (which could explain why card drafting was already somewhat popular in 2004 relative to these other mechanics that we've looked at.)


Well, this was an interesting exercise for me and I hope you found it interesting as well. Nothing really too surprising, I think, but it's good to see some of my intuitions confirmed in the data. What do you think of the results? Do you think the 100+ ratings restriction is too severe or somehow not appropriate? Is the whole endeavor worthless because of the haphazard nature of BGG's mechanics list? Would it make sense to include things like bluffing and deduction as mechanics, which currently are listed as "categories"?  Let me know your thoughts. As always, constructive criticism and suggestions are always welcome! Next time, I'll be using regression analysis to take a look at how different mechanics correlate with a game's average rating.


2 thoughts on “Popular Mechanics (An Empirical Analysis), Part 1

  1. For the last set of graphs, shouldn't the x-axis be normalized to fraction of games? Given that the number of games has grown from year to year, just using number of games would not give the proper trends.

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