BoardGameGeek (BGG) is the most popular website on the internet for people who are into boardgames to discover, discuss, and give feedback on games. If you aren’t familiar with it, you can think of it like Wikipedia for boardgames, with additional community and social media features such as discussion forums, photo sharing, and a marketplace. BGG has a rating and ranking system for games that is powered by user input. Anyone with an account can rate games they’ve (hopefully) played. These ratings are used to determine an individual game’s score and various other things, such as its ranking on the site. I think it’s important to remember when reading this article that BGG users represent a small fraction of boardgamers, we are looking at a niche within a niche, where BGG users probably comprise the people on the more enthusiastic end of the boardgaming community.
Anyone is free to rate games on BGG using its rating scale, 1-10. The BGG Wiki offers a guide on how they recommend you rate games, which I’ve copied here:
- Awful – defies game description.
- Very bad – won’t play ever again.
- Bad – likely won’t play this again.
- Not so good – but could play again.
- Average – Slightly boring, take it or leave it.
- Ok – will play if in the mood.
- Good – usually willing to play.
- Very good – enjoy playing and would suggest it.
- Excellent – always enjoy playing it.
- Outstanding – will always enjoy playing and expect this will never change.
The above rating system probably looks a bit odd to you, because everyone is different and how we rate things is extremely subjective. Some BGG users will stick to following this system and some will just rate things how they feel they should be rated. Some users probably don’t even know about this scale recommendation. You can probably also notice that this rating guide breaks down very quickly when you stop and think about it a bit more deeply.
As a short example, one of my favourite games is Eclipse, a fairly long and heavy game. I love playing it, I always enjoy playing it, but whether I want to play it or not at any given moment bears on a multitude of factors. I would also say it’s better than Kingdomino, but I’m much more likely to be happy to break out Kingdomino and play it at any moment than I am with Eclipse.
I actually don’t rate games on BoardGameGeek myself, and this is because I feel very conflicted with my thoughts on games and can’t boil them down to a simple rating that I feel accurately represents my overall feelings on the game. I could play Codenames one night with a group of friends and have a fantastic, 10/10 time, but the next time I play it’s a so-so 5/10 experience.
There is also the subject of intentional or unconscious rating bias. I will give a few examples to explain this. First up is the positive filtering bias phenomenon that may have some influence over the ratings of game sequels and expansions. A good example of this is Pandemic Legacy, a game that is a campaign version of the popular game Pandemic. People who buy or play the game are likely to already be fans of the original game, and thus the subset who do play it are more likely to have rated the original game well, and give the sequel a more favourable rating. People who didn’t like Pandemic would have rated it low, and having passed on Pandemic Legacy, (shouldn’t) won’t rate it, filtering out the lower ratings and pushing it’s ratings higher. In other cases, we regularly see games from Kickstarter receiving high numbers of positive ratings, similarly because the nature of distribution means the games are less likely to be exposed to those who don’t enjoy them, and maybe there is a little purchase justification pushing up ratings too.
Supposedly, since BGG has such a large pool of users rating games, as long as enough users rate things, and they are generally consistent with whatever their subjective style may be, the ratings should average out across games to provide some meaningful information. With all these caveats and more, this really brings out the question: “Are BoardGameGeek ratings useful?”
There are three terms BGG uses to describe ratings and rating related metrics. The User Rating is and individual rating that yourself or another user has given a game. The Average Rating is the average of all user ratings for a game. The Geek Rating is a value that is computed using the User Ratings as an input, and an obfuscated algorithm partially described here which helps mitigate some of the bias effects described in the above section.
BoardGameGeek has an infamous page: The Top 100 Games which is regularly referenced in discussions all over the boardgame community. Games here are ranked by their Geek Rating, and you can see that many games Geek Ratings differ from their Average Ratings by a fair amount.
Looking at this page myself, a few things immediately come to mind. First of all, I don’t know exactly what my top 100 games would be but this isn’t it. There are a LOT of new games on this list. Maybe this means that games are outright better than they used to be. Maybe it means that games have better marketing and social engagement these days (‘don’t forget to rate us on BGG!’). I think the thing that stands out to me the most is that none of these games are ‘newbie’ friendly, but then again I think we need to consider who this list is for and when it might be useful.
If you’d asked me 5 years ago what some good games are, I would have told you to have a look at the list, and pick out a game whose theme sounds appealing to you and give it a go. If you look at the list from 2013 you can see several titles within the first 20 that are ‘gateway’ games, great for beginners. Today I count 2, maybe 3 games I would recommend as a first game.
I think that it is no mystery why this is the case, the reasoning for this fundamental change in the list is clear. The BGG top 100 is now a popularity contest for the members of the site and the community. This, combined with the biases described earlier result in Gloomhaven, an extremely heavy and relatively inaccessible game (for many reasons) being ranked #1. I’m not saying it doesn’t deserve it, it’s surely a superb game, but I’m trying to highlight that the BGG ranking system doesn’t produce a useful result for making decisions because it is so biased. Rather, it let’s people point to highly niche games and say they are ranked X on BGG. If you plan on looking at the list to decide what game to play or get next, keep in mind it’s a subjective thing, the #1 game on BGG isn’t necessarily for you.
BoardGameGeek Weight Ratings
A lesser known feature of BGG that I have found somewhat useful in assessing if a game for me is the Weight Rating feature that each game has. Again, this rating is subjective so take it with a grain of salt, but it is essentially a measure between 1 and 5 of how complex a game is to learn and play.
A rating of 1 is a very light game. The rules can be taught in a few sentences and the game is generally quick with low amounts of complexity in rules and strategy. A rating of 5 probably means everyone will need to read the 40 page manual in advance, the game will probably go for several hours and be quite complicated.
If you are just starting out, looking at weight ratings and picking games with lower ones can help with making decisions on what will be easy to learn and figure out. As you get more confident with games you can work your way up to higher weights, heavier games generally build on concepts in simpler ones so having a familiarity with mechanics from lighter games helps reduce the burden of learning when moving onto to more complex fare.
Of course, as the weight rating is subjective it can be prone to bias and what I call ‘weight hype’. Some games are infamous for being complex, convoluted, and very heavy. They tend to get a bit of a reputation which can result in their weight rating being a bit higher than it should be. Most games have their rulebooks available on BGG in the files section. If you are interested in a game but it looks like it might be a bit to heavy for your liking, have a quick browse through the rules or watch a video to make sure before passing up on it!
How I Evaluate A Game Based On Its BoardGameGeek Page
I don’t usually browse BGG looking for new games, but let’s say I’m in a games store and a tantalising looking game has caught my eye and I want to know if it’s good. I get out my phone and load the BGG page for the game (googling ‘Game Name BGG’ usually works). Immediately you are presented with a few numbers to consider. The Average Rating appears bold in a big hexagon. If it’s less than 5 I will put down the box and back away carefully. If it’s greater than 7 then the game is almost certainly ‘good’.
Also consider the ‘rankings’, especially the one for the category the game is in. A game might be ranked at 1000 overall but be number 30 in ‘Worker Placement’. That means for its specific game genre, it’s quite alright. I’ll have a quick look at the weight and community age ratings (these give an indication of complexity). From there I’ll have a quick glance over the forums to see that there aren’t any glaring issues with the game.
As I’ve been drawn further into the world of boardgames, the above situation is becoming increasingly rare. I’ll almost never purchase a game I’ve never heard of. Most of my game purchases are games I’ve already played (someone else’s copy), or games I’ve heard good things about on social media.
How do I find good games that fit my preferences?
I don’t use BoardGameGeek! I’m quite active on Instagram (there’s some links at the side or bottom of this page to my account) and I spend a bit of time browsing through posts from the people I follow and seeing what they are playing. There is a bit of a trend of people showing off newer games rather than older ones so it’s a good way to discover what is coming out and see short casual comments on the gameplay. One of the things I enjoy most is seeing photos of games being played as it gives a better idea of what the game is like than promotional shots.
If I see a game getting a lot of buzz and positive feedback from boardgamers I know I already have like interests with, I’ll get interested. I hardly rely on BoardGameGeek any more to decide if I want to get a game, but it’s a great resource to look up rules and information when you get interested in something. I mostly use it after I’ve purchased or played something to read about a game, or browse other interesting game related discussion.
Summary – Is BoardGameGeek Useful
In my opinion, Yes, BoardGameGeek is useful as a wiki and community discussion tool. In terms of the ratings, ranking and weightings – I think the weightings are the most useful. The ratings (User and Average) are somewhat useful. They give a general indication if a game is worth considering. The rankings however, I think are not useful for decision making, or for comparing games. Don’t worry if you look up your favourite game and find out it’s only ranked 1543 on BGG. Your enjoyment of it is not lessened by a number that is generated by an aggregation of subjective ratings!