How to Design and Publish an “Evergreen” Board Game

19 October 2014 | 34 Comments

The evergreen board game is the grail of every designer and publisher. It’s a game that is so well received–not just in terms of ratings, but in terms of actual sales–that it gets reprinted time after time, year after year.

Spoiler alert: I haven’t figured out the magical formula for an evergreen game yet. It’s remotely possible that Viticulture (17,500 copies in print), Euphoria (20,000 copies in print), Tuscany (10,000 in print), and Between Two Cities (15,000 copies) might continue to sell on a regular basis–I certainly hope so. (Those numbers are current as of November 2015).

But the truth is that most board games don’t get to put the “over 3 million copies sold!” words on the front of the box like Ticket to Ride. In fact, many games struggle to sell through even a minimum print run of 1500 units.

So there is no magical formula, but we do have some data to consider. I recently saw a post on the Black Diamond Games blog (a popular brick-and-mortar retailer in California) about their top-selling games, and I decided to use that as the foundation for an evergreen metric.

The factors I plugged into the metric were:

To appear on the list, a game had to be present on at least two of those lists.

Obviously this metric is far from perfect. It heavily skews towards US gamers, and it excludes mass-market bestselling games like Monopoly and Sorry. It also doesn’t include Magic: The Gathering or games that I know have sold very well in the last few years like Zombicide and Boss Monster (they simply weren’t on those lists). I’d love to add more data to this metric, but I found it difficult to find actual sales ranks and numbers. Feel free to mention other resources in the comments.

That said, the evergreen board game metric can be found here. I’ve also pasted a screenshot below (there’s more data on the metric, like BGG rank, year published, cost, etc).

 

2014-10-19_1848

Let’s look at some of the data. To calculate the following averages, I removed the extremes from both ends of the spectrum (i.e., the most expensive game price and the least expensive game price).

BoardGameGeek Rank: 161

One of the most important takeaways from this data is that there isn’t a particularly tight correlation between BGG rank and evergreen status. Granted, an average of 161 out of over 10,000 games on the BGG database is still quite high, and there’s no reason you would want to design or publish a game that doesn’t rank high on the list. But it does mean that designing a game in the hopes of getting a top-20 BGG rating is a different goal than designing an evergreen game. In fact, there are only three top-20 BGG games on this list (Agricola, Robinson Crusoe, and 7 Wonders). Most of the top 20 are complex, lengthy, expensive games–attributes that don’t align with most evergreen games.

Year Published: 2009

This doesn’t tell us much other than that the “cult of the new” doesn’t necessarily translate into long-term sales. This makes sense; this is an evergreen metric, not a measurement of the current hottest games. I think the takeaway here is that reaching evergreen status takes time, persistence, and good marketing. The games on this list have maintained their popularity because people continue to play them on a regular basis, something you as a publisher can impact by releasing expansions, promotions, and other ways to engage a growing fanbase.

Maximum Number of Players: 5

It’s really important to note here that there isn’t a single 2-player-only game on this list. Nor is there a 3-player max game here. Evergreen games seem to be those that engage a number of people, ideally in the 4-6 range.

Maximum Game Length: 53 minutes

The maximum game length (according to BGG) clocks in at just under an hour. Granted, there were a few longer games on the list, but we’re talking averages here. I think the optimal range here is pretty broad, perhaps between 30 and 90 minutes (including setup).

Cost (on BGG or Miniature Market): $33

This cost isn’t the MSRP–it’s the listed price on BGG or Miniature Market. Thus the average MSRP is around $45. This correlates with the data from our retailer survey last month–the sweet spot for games appears to be in the $30-$50 range for MSRP.

Expansions

One piece of data hidden within the chart are all of the expansions associated with those games. Of course, a successful core game begs for an expansion, but I think the presence of expansions can help to reinforce the sales of a game to turn it into an evergreen game. (credit to Alex for pointing this out in the comments)

***

I think there’s a lot more that can be done with this data, so if you know of any other resources, please let me know. I’m also curious to hear your conclusions from the data–perhaps there are patterns you notice that I’m not seeing.

34 Comments on “How to Design and Publish an “Evergreen” Board Game

    1. Also, if you click on the links above the list titled “See Ranks By” You will be able to see a huge difference in Intl vs USA, and a clear eurogame vs ameritrash divide. Same with men vs women, etc. Pretty cool.

    2. I understand that games like Risk, Monopoly and Scrabble sell well, because, well, they’ve always sold well, and they’re ingrained in the American consciousness. Like a tradition we can’t break away from. But man, who would actually rank those games so highly on Ranker? It has to be because they literally haven’t played anything else. Sad face. =(

  1. One thing to consider is that marketing plays a huge roll. I’m sure there are plenty of published games out there that should be an ‘evergreen’ game, but haven’t seen the light of day.

    Jon Morrow over on BoostBlogTraffic.com often asks the question who is better off blogging: the great writer and decent marketer, or the decent writer and the great marketer? You can very easily spin the question a little and ask who makes more popular board games: the genius game designer and passable marketer, or the passable game designer and the genius marketer?

    While I think most of us would like to say that its the first case and not the second that succeeds, it doesn’t take much more than a cursory glance and those who have succeeded to know that it is the second. Which makes sense, after all who will buy a game they’ve never heard of, or when they do hear of it fails to give them any reason to buy it.

    My point in saying all that is that while a lot of things are required for a game to be a real winner (I think you landed on a few big ones, like the number of players, price point, and play time), if all those requirements are met then it ultimately comes down to how well the word is gotten out there.

    And don’t get me wrong, those requirements are important, but I don’t think anyone should ever think that they can just create a great game and it’ll go good from there on its own.

    Its also worth mentioning that a large number of those games are very family friendly, which if you look at amazon’s top 100 seems to be a huge issue.

    1. Piggybacking the marketing engine, a cool metric to add would be the number of likes these games have on Facebook. Almost all if not all of the listed games have a Facebook interest page. That would be where I would go with this list as it will also be the next metric added in my own Kickstarter Badger project. It addresses so much when the publisher has accumulated a following that might justify how successful a game is on KS, and I imagine the same holds true with established game followings.

    2. Ethan: Thanks for your detailed comment. I agree that getting the word out about a game is really important. I think the items on the list above (player count, playing time, price, etc) all contribute to that word-of-mouth factor, along with the company’s marketing efforts (conventions, big box retailer access, etc).

  2. I feel like we need more data points. Particularly from Amazon. If we tracked these values over time, we could start to make inferences about actual sales numbers, and ‘evergreen-ness’ vs ‘popularity at a given point in time’ (for example, TTR has currently shifted from 5 -> 3 on amazon).

    Other things I would think will weight this data heavily is to consider market saturation and age. Since there are so many copies of Settlers in the wild, that should negatively effect it’s demand (too much supply). Similarly, a games made in the last two years, I think it’s way to early to have good data on Popular-VS-Evergreen.

    It would be very interested to setup some scripts to track various BGG, Amazon, etc. metrics over time. Then try to discover some strong correlation.

    1. Brian: Absolutely, I agree that more data is needed. I like the idea of checking in with Amazon from time to time to add more rankings.

      As for market saturation, I think the effect might be the opposite of what you describe IF the game continues to sell. Sure, there are millions of copies of Catan out there, but people continue to buy it. That’s the definition of an evergreen game. (maybe I’m missing your point–feel free to clarify)

      If you want to try to set up some scripts to monitor this on a more consistent basis, I’d be happy to post the results here!

  3. I think it is obvious yet uncalculatable. There are some spheres of interest in playing society. Niche. A free spot. The game that manages to take the place first is the winner and stays evergreen till the time when this niche will be exhausted (it can be one day, several years or several thousand years).
    Sometimes there is a chance for the second game to enter this niche also. The third and the 100th have nearly zero chance. They can sell well but they will not take the niche.
    You see, I say “sphere of interest”. Desire for a unique game of special type. People don’t know how this game will look like, but when it appears, it is a win.
    There are some additional conditions that should be OK in this game. Some of them are:
    1. Game design & balance
    2. Price for the given type or jenre etc
    3. To look nice :)
    4. Setting
    5. Marketing (in can be very different for various types of the games)
    6. Some other reasons.
    In short, quality + price + availability (of the game itself and of information about it). Quality includes the first impression that the game makes, not only game design.
    Hm… It’s hard to see a free niche when it appears, of course. To see, to use and to succeed :).
    The last thing. To understand how it works, compare the top games carefully.

    1. Denis: This is a great list! There are lots of factors in play here. I’m not so sure that being first-to-market matters all that much with board games, but I agree with most of your other points here.

    1. Gamer Dave: Definitely, that was my hope with both Viticulture and Euphoria. Especially Viticulture, which was intended to be a lightweight gateway game. However, it didn’t turn out that way. It’s a medium weight game, and not a gateway game. However, our next game is completely designed around the idea of being an evergreen game.

  4. These are all points I’ve noticed myself among a number of other factors such as art/graphics (as Alan points out above). It’s interesting to see the data you’ve compiled here and it all lines up. A good read.

  5. I think the name is important as well. A short one or two word name that evokes an emotional response (Risk, Pandemic), sense of fun (Forbidden Island, Smash Up, Rampage) or is unique and quirky (Munchkin, Dixit). Of course there are always exceptions, but I think if you’re looking for appeal beyond the niche group of hardcore gamers the name becomes a factor.

    1. Ryan: I completely agree about the name. From a publisher’s perspective, I can say that a lot goes into finding the right name! It’s tough to ever know if you’ve truly found the best, most evocative name, but if you support the game with the right art and design, you can help most names come to life.

  6. Thanks for a great article, Jamey. Do you think that “family-friendliness” could be another way of looking at what you referred to in your comments about “gateway” games? I find that while something may move from gateway to more mainstream or deeper with more ways to win, most often, it is the family friendly nature of a game that allows me to keep it playing. For example, I played Eclipse with gamer friends last night, but played King of Tokyo with my kids today. What do you think?

    1. Ben: That’s a good question. I don’t think that “gateway” and “family friendly” are synonymous, but I certainly think there’s some overlap, particularly with theme accessibility. I think it’s more about how the theme is packaged, though, than it is about the theme itself. On the list above, over half of the game are fantasy or sci-fi. But they’re packaged in an accessible way. You mentioned King of Tokyo, which is a game about giant monsters smashing a city and each other to pieces. Technically that’s a violent sci-fi game. But the art direction, the chunky dice, and the mechanisms make it very accessible to experienced and novice gamers alike.

      How would you define “family friendly?” I’m thinking it goes beyond accessibility. Perhaps a game with little to no direct conflict between players and can be played in about 30-45 minutes? I picture a game that a family of four can plop down on the table after dinner (before the kids have to do their homework).

      1. I think family friendly games also tend to have a portion of luck involved in determining who wins. That helps level the playing field for players of varying skill and avoids players, especially young ones, having a bad feeling when they don’t do well.

  7. I’d like to add a couple of things that haven’t been mentioned so far.

    The Black Diamond column represents sales in Q1/Q2 of 2014 which can affect the figures for some of the games a little. For example, prior to the mid October 2013 Tabletop edition that featured Betrayal at House on the Hill, copies where trading on Ebay for a very low sum (I know, I bought one). Nobody was showing any interest in it.

    After the show the price sky rocketed, helped by the fact that it was OOP. A new 2nd edition reprint arrived during Q1 which may explain a surge in people buying it who couldn’t or wouldn’t pay the OOP price. So web shows and the associated buzz can create temporary sales spikes along with release dates and availability.

    This also ties in with the Black Diamond post. A small anecdote I read in a rock biography has always stuck with me. It was advice given by an established rock superstar to an up and coming rock act (It could have been Dave Lee Roth to Vince Niel from Motley Crue, but I could be wrong).

    The most important piece of advice I can give you is “If you don’t have distribution you don’t have s*^t”.

    The board game industry is very similar to the music industry. It’s a hit driven industry. And with hit driven industries you have to make hay while the sun shines. Distribution is central to this. You can have the best game ever designed, but if it is only available in small quantities and a few locations then few people will buy it. Distribution bottle necks can wipe a game from consumers’ minds as games that are available replace them on their shopping lists.

    A game that is readily available and seen to be readily available encourages growth. People hear about the “hit game”, they look for it and buy it, they talk about it and others buy it. If people can’t find something they don’t buy something. So the effectiveness of the company distributing the game is very important in establishing an “Evergreen” and starting the snowball rolling.

    As Gary decides in his post, Alliance can get more of the games I need so I’m going for Alliance. So if your game isn’t being distributed by Alliance (in this particular case, and other cases could be different) it isn’t going to have the same availability in Garys shop. So the chances of a game selling well in Garys shop are dependant on distribution. It has to be on his shelves to sell and continue to sell.

    Designer Cache, King of Tokyo is a great game worthy of all its success. I’m guessing about this, but the fact that it was designed by Richard Garfield probably had something to do with it. If a designer has attracted a large following, like an MTG following, this can translate into a more rapid initial take up and stimulate word of mouth.

    Naturally, if a designer has consistently put out games people enjoy their new releases will land more favorably in the laps of potential customers. Something of a snowball effect of expected quality. And if the designer delivers again with a new release the snowball gains more momentum.

    This could explain some of your own success Jamey. Euphoria, Viticulture and Tuscany have developed an expectation of quality. When a new game is released the barriers to buying are reduced, because the customer has an expectation of a making a good purchase, which translates into easier sales.

    This is further compounded by the demonstration of good after sales which put a customers mind at rest. I’m safe buying from this publisher, they will deliver and make good on their promises and address any problems I might have.

    Lastly, size. And this is an entirely personal and therefore subjective observation that could be entirely wrong. In the past a lot of designers have created big games, games that land on the table with an almighty thump. It can still be seen today, big impressive games with lots of components and miniatures and blow up inflatable castles and costumes for the players to wear and …. Ok I’m exaggerating.

    The point is some designers think that a game has to be impressive to stand out, sell and continue to sell. It has to be visible on the gaming table and on the store shelf. The recent success of micro games has changed that view a little. A game no longer has to be a big production to be an evergreen. The increase in internet sales also reduces the need for shelf visibility (every game is the same size in terms of attraction potential in a web picture). This is further compounded by benefits to profit margins in relation to pallet shipping, lower outlay costs, physical storage and other factors.

    I posted another rambling thread on the dice tower forum awhile ago if anyone is interested

    https://www.boardgamegeek.com/thread/1248882/smaller-games-bigger-boxes

    I would say that “Love Letter” is an evergreen. It’s a remarkably good game, although I wouldn’t call it a great game. Too date, I’ve bought 3 copies of it (all of them the basic version).

    So why is it so popular?

    Its small, doesn’t take up any room on the shelf, portable, easily explained to others, looks nice, inclusive theme and it’s cheap. And for me those are the reasons for its success. I can look at a number of other games and think of a reason not to buy them (regardless of how good they are), but I can’t think of a reason not to spend £6 on “Love Letter”. So into my shopping cart it goes.

    As an extra, the simplicity of “love Letter” makes it ideal for translating into other forms, hence the mountain of alternative versions available. Getting married, get the Wedding version of Love Letter, like munchkin (huge following) buy Munchkin Love Letter, Christmas is coming, buy the Letters to Santa edition and so on. All these versions result in sales and increased visibility that can lead to even more sales.

    In short, small games are impulse buys, big games are substantial investments that can cause buyers to question making a purchase. And small games can be easily re-themed to appeal to different customer groups or seasonal markets. So size, price and impulse buy potential are all key factors in developing sales. The fewer reasons a customer has not to buy your game the easier it is to sell.

    Lastly, and this once again ties into product visibility as a catalyst for continued sales, are expansions. When an expansion arrives it’s like a fresh injection of product visibility and enthusiasm. If we consider the product life cycle a game could have peaked and be entering the decline phase. A timely expansion is like giving it an energy boost drink that recharges its batteries so it can climb towards its peak once more instead of slowly sliding further down. And the longer a game is at its peak the more visible and current it is.

    Expansion and continued support could be very important in creating an evergreen. It should come as no surprise that King Of Tokyo has had a few expansions to keep it current and it has recently morphed into a new release as King Of New York – which could be viewed as King Of Tokyo the directors cut or extended special feature edition. Interestingly, Ticket to Ride and Settlers have also been very well supported with additional content.

    So while the data doesn’t include expansions a cross referencing between expansion releases and primary game sales might be an interesting variable to monitor.

    I was going to post about what I think makes an evergreen from a game design point (as opposed to the business side of things), but I seem to have rambled on a lot more than it is probably decent to do. Sorry about that. If anyone is actually interested in that I can post a shorter stream addressing it in the future.

    1. Alex: Thanks for your great comment! It was a very interesting read. Two things that really stood out to me were you mentions of the value of expansions and this: “The point is some designers think that a game has to be impressive to stand out, sell and continue to sell.”

      The point about expansions is particularly good–there are SO many games on the list that have expansions. I agree that’s a key part of a strategy for creating an evergreen game.

  8. Comment for today

    Looking at the data it occurred to me that the columns represent different aspects of the overall gaming market, in relation to consumer types.

    The Amazon column could be seen to represent mass market consumers and hobbyists, with the emphasis on mass market consumers due to the quantitative aspect and their higher representation in the overall frequency distribution.

    The Black Diamond sales figures could also represent mass market and hobbyist consumers, although one could guess that the overall frequency distribution would favor hobbyists over mass market consumers. A general consumer is more likely to shop online at a site they know than seek out a specialist hobby store. In contrast a dedicated hobbyist is more likely to be acquainted with their local hobby store and their purchases are more likely to be made their (unless they are sourcing the cheapest available price which may or may not lead them elsewhere).

    The Tabletop and Tabletop Liveplay column might also favor hobbyists in relation to a higher frequency of hobbyists. However, a higher cross over effect might be experienced in terms of general consumers due to their familiarity with the viewing medium and ease of access. This could be further influenced by additional draws like cross over viewing from other channels on Geek and Sundry (it’s only a click away I will have a look), general interest in the guests or host and specific interest in a theme.

    The peoples’ choice column would appear to favor dedicated hobby gamers with a greater awareness of hobby games and quite possible a longer association with them. It has been said that some gamers have an affiliation with the “Cult of the New”. If this is accepted it could explain some of the marked differences present in the column.

    A modern day classic like Settlers of Catan simply doesn’t register or resonate with a lot of seasoned gamers that have moved on to new games. It’s not that the game isn’t a great game or that it is no longer selling in huge numbers, because it obviously is. It has simply disappeared off their current “interest radar” and that is reflected in their active voting. A case of not voting for the statuesque “evergreen” oak of longstanding, because they are being distracted by the fresh alluring scent of the recently sprouted pines. They’ve seen the oak, danced around the oak and now they’ve moved on in search of newer trees.

    In contrast newer entrants to hobby gaming, that could be considered a significant part of the Amazon figures, are discovering Settlers for the first time. It is more visible, widely available and a safe port of call for newer gamers. It could be said that Settlers of Catan has moved out of the hobby area of the market and entered the mass market in terms of consumer awareness and the discrepancy between its placing in the two columns represents this.

    If that’s the case then any similar results for other games could indicate a similar shift. This could be used to assess games with the potential to reach mass market consumers and an evaluation of the qualities that may facilitate such a shift. Pandemic appears to be a game that is currently making that transition.

    So we could ask what qualities do the games that have made a transition to mass market sales have in common?

    The flip side of the coin would be the consideration of games with a high placement in the columns associated with hobby gamers, over a long period of time, that haven’t risen in the Amazon ranks or fallen. For example, Lords of Waterdeep has a high placing in the columns associated with hobby gamers and no placing in the Amazon column.

    If this continues to be the case over time the question could be raised, what qualities has one game got that enables it to shift into the mass market that another game doesn’t?

    A further source of data interest could the IcV2 Insider top 10 lists. The earliest I can find is https://dev.icv2.com/articles/news/15714.html for Q2 of 2009. Regular updates have been given since this time, although recent updates have split the collectable card games and board games into different Top 10’s.

    Some of the more recent links are –

    https://www.icv2.com/articles/news/25376.html
    https://www.icv2.com/articles/news/26214.html
    https://www.icv2.com/articles/news/27067.html
    https://www.icv2.com/articles/news/28123.html
    https://www.icv2.com/articles/news/29330.html
    https://www.icv2.com/articles/news/29998.html

    These listings might provide a cumulative spread of data that could be used to replace or support the data for the Black Diamond Games column. I should also point out that the number 7 entry in the BDG column should be Forbidden Desert not Forbidden Island.

  9. Alex: Thanks so much for taking the time to carefully construct this comment! It really made me think about this subject, and I appreciate you linking to the icv2 lists. Perhaps I’ll add them to the spreadsheet in the future.

  10. Jamey,

    One minor point about your use of the Average() function. It treats blank cells as zeros.

    For example, if you take the average of only the rows with values the Max Game Length average should be 70 minutes not 53 minutes….

    1. Jeff: Thanks for your comment, but I don’t think it’s accurate. The spreadsheet doesn’t use many averages, but I tested it in a few places, and it was not counting blank cells in the calculation.

  11. Yup. I see the confusion. You are actually averaging all of the rows. For some reason I had the idea that you were only looking at the top 10 (yellow) rows… It is interesting that there is a pretty big difference in the average game length for the top 10 v/s the whole list…

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