Finding Your Sweet Spot in Tabletop Gaming


generic board game board and components

I’m increasingly convinced that much of our gaming preferences are just people finding and defending small, particular niches, and critics splitting hairs between subjective viewpoints.

Take a game that’s well-regarded. Almost any game will do. Then take another that mirrors some of its mechanics and elements, but not all of them. If the games are popular enough, comparisons will be made. Lines in the sand will be drawn. And camps will be formed, both of which will be happy to tell you why theirs is the superior game for such-and-such reason.

I openly invited this sort of sparring in my review of Eclipse: Second Dawn for the Galaxy, where I compared it to Twilight Imperium. I’m not the first—nor last—to have done so. I do this sort of thing deliberately, but not simply to be provocative.

See, to the untrained eye, the similarities between the two games are astounding. And indeed, I’d argue that even upon closer analysis, they’re going to fill a similar role at many gamers’ tables. I can talk at length about either their similarities or differences, but at the end of it all, I’ll happily turn to either one for a sweeping space opera as told through plastic miniatures and hex tiles.

But then you get fans or reviewers who will bristle at the implication that they’re equivalent games, or even nearly so. And they’ll—quite intelligently and thoroughly—explain the differences. And they’re not wrong.

Let me add a third game to the mix above: Dune, another that I’ve reviewed. While the differences here are more stark than between the previous two, it also fits into the “sweepingly grand, contentious space opera” category. And it has the length and depth to match that description.

So I’ve reviewed each, enjoyed each, and each has a profoundly devoted fanbase, with all the passion that creates.

Preference Dials in Gaming

“Ok Mark, but where is this going?” I hear at least one hypothetical reader asking. Fair enough. Let me get to it.

I look at these three games and I simply see two things: One, grandly epic games that deliver deeply thematic stories and thus have a similar core appeal. And two, dials turned up or down in certain areas. So, for example:

  • The “chaos” dial is set to about 9 for Dune, 7 for TI and 5 for Eclipse.
  • The “components” dial is 10 for TI, 8 for Eclipse and 6 for Dune.
  • The “negotiation” dial is 9 for Dune, 7 for TI and 6 for Eclipse.
  • Now imagine similar conceptual dials for things like strategy, tactics, game length, rules complexity, etc.

We could probably quibble on the exact numbers for those games, but you get the point.

So if I see a similar beating heart underneath each of these games (and I do), when I see disagreement between gamers regarding these games, it seems silly to me, because it’s just debating where your personal preferences fall on those dials.

I like chaos in my games, for example. I enjoy riding waves of uncertainty for good or ill. But that precludes a certain amount of long-term strategizing, so for someone whose preferred “strategy dial” is set 2-3 higher, they’re more likely to enjoy one than the other.

I say all of this because I think it’s good to be mindful of what we’re looking at when we try to parse praise and criticism. A game that “sacrifices” {X} in the service of {Y} might actually be flawed, or it might simply be a game aimed at gamers whose preferences are subtly but meaningfully different than games that don’t “sacrifice” {X}.

Dials in Roleplaying Games

To be frank, the most useful dial to know about Dungeons & Dragons is that it’s the most well-known and easiest to find a game for. So “ease of play” is a 10 for it, which trumps a lot of other dials.

But D&D and RPG history have given us some interesting (and/or exhausting) debates about play styles. And to my eye, all we’re looking at are dials tuned to different settings.

An obvious one is D&D’s 4th edition having the “tactical combat” dial set much higher than previous or subsequent editions. Many who loved these tactical skirmishes see a regression in the game in more recent years. They’re not wrong; they’re actually right…but only for the subset of gamers who will want that particular dial set higher than, say, 5th edition’s combat.

Dice rolling is another metric. And rules crunch. Are there 2 pages of rules to know before you can start playing, or 200? Both exist. How about narrative immersion? Is it a storytelling RPG or a more mechanical experience, built around the game’s systems (combat or otherwise)?

The nuance inherent in these variables is what drives much of the discussion surrounding RPGs. And when someone says that such-and-such an RPG does {X} better than D&D, they’re probably right, and those biting back that they’re happy with D&D are right as well. For clarity, much of this reductionist debate happens on social media, where it’s far too easy to form camps and animosities about subjective opinions. But at its core, they’re usually just talking about the spectrum of experiences available along a few key variables of play.

Applying the Dial Theory

The one mainstay in nearly every review that I write is a section that, if the review is positive, outlines who I think won’t enjoy the game. And if it’s a negative review, it describes who I think will enjoy it.

This isn’t a call to say that all games are good in their own way. I’m not beyond saying a game is flawed. Many are. But the data available to us tells a very, very clear tale: someone out there has either overlooked or doesn’t perceive the same flaws and enjoys the game you dislike. Generally, it’s for an entirely valid reason.

Granted, sometimes I think there’s a willful ignorance of flaws, or an uncritical consideration of them that leads to problematic positions. But other times—many other times, in fact—I think we’re just talking about dials.

We can see extreme versions of this along the Euro/Ameritrash divide in board gaming. Or among those who want direct interaction vs. those who want to work on a puzzle in comparative peace, without worrying much about opponent decisions. Or complex vs. simple rule sets. Or on component quality. Or 100 others.

But those listed just above are easy camps to spot. I think it’s in the margins of those broad groups (and many others like them) where it becomes a more nuanced skill to identify and separate preferences from among games and gamer types.

So when is it harder to discern? I’ll provide a couple examples:

  • I’ve praised games for having magnificent components, and also criticized magnificent components in other games for detracting from the experience. Generally, my “component preference dial” is quite low. I value gameplay over presentation. But why does one game’s components turn me off while another enhances the experience for me? What else is going on that component quality alone can’t explain?
  • There’s a “roll & move” game that I’d list in my top 100 board games of all time. I don’t like roll & move as a general rule. So why does it work in that game? And what dials are tuned to particular settings that turn roll & move mechanics into a pro instead of a con?

These are the questions that interest me, not ones involving the more polarized and polarizing debates that normally occupy the hobby’s time. And it’s because no one’s ever going to convince a hardcore war gamer that party games are just as fun, or sell a complicated, quiet Euro to someone who loves raucous social deduction. But we can refine our understanding of games by going one level deeper into the underlying differences in similar titles, and what that tells us about the people who love them.

For more content, or just to chat, find me on Twitter @BTDungeons, or check out my other reviews and game musings!