The Games Journal | A Magazine About Boardgames

Game of the Month

Mark Johnson

September, 2003

It's been said that the favorite boardgame for most hobbyists is whatever is new. Although there are established favorites such as Acquire, Settlers of Catan or El Grande, a look at session reports shared on websites and online discussion groups shows that many of us enjoy playing the latest new games. This steady influx of new titles means you can find yourself playing and buying new games all the time. What's wrong with that? Nothing, of course, but there's also something to be said for slowing the pace down, spending a little more "quality time" with fewer games.

A couple of years ago my game group decided to try an experiment called Game of the Month. Together we picked a game and committed to play it week-in, week-out for an entire month. The following month we chose another title. It worked very well, and now my new game group is doing the same. Along the way I learned a few details about this experiment that other game groups may want to consider.

Why Do It?

When the Game of the Month idea originated, it was for one particular game: . This is a trick-taking card game with all sorts of clever features such as contract bidding, variable partnerships, rank and suit trumps, and nonstandard card distribution. As you'd expect, all of that cleverness means that the game is kind of tricky to explain and learn. The trouble arose when we'd only play the game once a year or so—each time people needed to relearn the rules. Then, after a game in which we knew we had made novice mistakes, would be put away for months. When it finally made it back to the game table, it had to be explained all over again and the lessons learned from the previous play were forgotten.

So our initial reason for Game of the Month was to give our gamers a chance to play certain games at a higher level of skill. We did find other benefits, though—knowing that you'll be playing the game several times in a single month frees you to try different or risky strategies. For example, you can play one game of Euphrat & Tigris very defensively, then try another where you build monuments as fast as you can.

By the second week, rules explanations were shortened to rules refreshers and got shorter as we went. It was great when we put Game of the Month Medici on the table near the end of the month, immediately launching into the game. No explanation was needed at all! Not only that, but people began to play the games quicker as they became more comfortable with the rules and strategies. As someone who thinks playing games quicker is almost always better, this was wonderful.

Some players in my current game group haven't had as much experience playing family strategy games as the previous group. When I introduced the idea of Game of the Month to them, I figured they'd reject the idea, preferring to play as many different games as possible. To my pleasant surprise, the reaction was just the opposite. They really appreciated the chance to "climb the learning curve" for these games instead of always being faced with something completely new.

Our group doesn't bother with much advance planning for our game sessions. The Game of the Month is an exception, of course. We find that this works very well, to have one game that everyone knows will be played and can plan for (or against!). The rest of the session remains open for whatever we'd like. Some players use this advance notice to read online discussions and strategy tips. Games whose rules are posted online can even be studied beforehand, though that's not required.

Picking Your Game of the Month

Although any game could be chosen as a Game of the Month, some titles work better than others. Those well-suited for weekly play will make the whole experience more fun but needs to take into account your the preferences of your local group. Picking the game is something we try to do together, though oddly enough this is the only place we have trouble. We always have too many suggestions and not enough strong opinions about games we want to try. I suppose I should be grateful—having the opposite situation, with too many strong preferences, would be difficult.

  • The first consideration should be number of players. My personal collection has too many games that play best with exactly four players, don't permit more and suffer with fewer. If your group sometimes has five or six gamers on a given night (or just three), then those games can be problematic. Games that stand up to a wider range of players are generally better choices.
  • Games with substantial rules make good choices. That's because these games struggle with the usual routine of only being played every once in a while. Now's your chance to sink your teeth into a challenging game, starting to really understand and appreciate it.
  • Some games offer notably different paths to victory. These are often the better, more highly respected games anyway and they make particularly good choices for a Game of the Month. They reward the sort of attention you're going to give them.
  • Similarly, games that are more strategic than tactical give players a chance to plan for the next outing, building anticipation.
  • Whether you pick games with real length and complexity—or just the opposite, choosing the lighter games—is strongly dependent on your game group's preferences. The "meaty" games are worth the attention you'll give them, and they're often difficult to bring to the table often, let alone back-to-back. However, playing a complex game every week will dominate your entire month, not leaving much room for anything else. The opposite approach is to choose something shorter, one that everyone can plan on playing together while still allowing other games to be played in a session.
  • Another consideration that depends on your group is whether you want to explore newer games or established classics. While everyone else is playing the latest new game once, then posting their opinions online, you may want to plumb its depths. This puts you in an especially good position to write a good game review (hint, hint). On the other hand, maybe you'd like to come to your own conclusions about yesterday's games that have won awards or enjoy the respect of game reviewers.
  • Race games and others that lend themselves to league play can be lots of fun. Keep records throughout the month, giving those second and third-place finishes some meaning. At the end of the month you can tally up those records to see who's the champion of your "season."
  • Last, you finally have a chance to play all variations of games that have expansions. Often, no one is the mood to try three different flavors of the same game in quick succession. As a Game of the Month, however, this can offer the best of both worlds—similar enough game experiences for the players that want to explore a system, and distinct enough for the players that like to try something different.

Try This At Home

No matter what you choose, it's important to remember that you're doing this for fun. If it ever starts to feel like a burden, just skip a week, take a month off, or drop it entirely. No one should feel obligated to play the Game of the Month. Our group usually goes for a few months with enthusiasm, then we take a break.

Are you curious about which games we've chosen for our Game of the Month? After , my groups have gone on to explore Medici, Settlers of Catan, Acquire, The Princes of Florence, Frank's Zoo, La Città, Merchants of Amsterdam, Ra, Carcassonne, Verräter, Industrial Waste and Formula Dé. Next month we're digging into Vinci.

Try floating the idea of Game of the Month past your game group, making sure to point all of the different ways you could go. You just might find a new framework for your hobby that will enhance everyone's enjoyment.

-Mark Johnson

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