Understanding Board Game Weights
Typically, when board gamers talk about board game complexity, we'll see some mention of the the 5-point scale. So-and-so is a 3 out of 5. But what does that number really mean for the players around the table? #meta
If you're starting your journey into the vast world of modern board games — if you've checked out games on BGG or asked about them on r/boardgames on Reddit — then chances are you've ran into the “standard” 5-point scale that so many people use when describing games. It's a great metric to use when comparing games to each other — certainly a 4/5 is more complex than a 2/5, but is it twice as complex? Unfortunately, the numbers don't really capture the difference between them for those unfamiliar with the system.
Here, we'll go over some of the common terminology you often see in discussions and for each broad category, I'll try to give an example of what it feels like to play a game in each weight-class.
Understanding the Scale
- The complexity (or weight of a game) ranges from 1 to 5.
- A game gains weight from 3 main sources:
- Difficulty in learning. Simply put, a game might be hard for the average to pick-up and learn, even if it's not difficult to play. For instance, the card game Bridge isn't particularly hard to play once you know the rules, but if you're not familiar with trick-taking games, it can certainly seem like a lot to learn.
- Difficulty in interpretation. Playing a game isn't just about taking random actions from a list of legal moves, but being to understand the current “state” of the game and the consequences of your actions. Oftentimes, games that are hard to interpret are known as dense. Generally speaking, the lower the density of a game, the easier it is to analyze.
- Difficulty in execution (playing well). This is often called the depth of the game (see Terminology below). While depth is often associated with games that have lots of rules and mechanics, the two don't always go hand-in-hand. Chess, for example, has very few rules and mechanics yet features a ton of depth.
- Weight increases in an exponential manner. An easy rule of hand is that each major jump (from 1 to 2, or 2 to 3, etc.) approximately means the game is twice as complex. So a 4-rating game isn't twice as complex as as 2-rating game, but more likely 4x as complex.
- Weight is a bell-curve, and a pretty spiky one at that that. If we assume the curve to be centered around 3 out of 5, then there are significantly more games in the 2.5 to 3.5 weight range than there are above a 3.5 or below 2.5.
- Things that SHOULD NOT be conflated with the weight of a game:
- Playtime. Just because a game takes longer to play does not mean it's a heavier or more complex game. The game of Dreidel has super simple rules, but can take a shockingly long time to play.
- Enjoyability. Heavy games are not necessarily better games and they should not be considered the zenith of board gaming. Some, in fact most, people just have no interest in a super heavy game, and that's fine. There are plenty of enjoyable games in each weight-class and they shouldn't be considered a “lesser” game just because they're lighter.
Games Up the Scale
Here, we'll define common terms used to classify games in certain weight ranges. We'll also try to illustrate what it feels like to play a turn of a game in each of these weight-classes. Don't fret if you're not familiar with the rules of the games I use as examples; they're not important. The purpose here is to get a sense of what the average turn feels like from the player's perspective.
Family Games – All “Family Games” are a subset of “Gateway Games”. They share the same ease-of-play, but often are even simpler to accomodate children. Typically weighted to be in the 1.0-1.5 range.
Game Example: Karuba Weight: 1.45 Example turn:
I need to place square tiles on the grid of my board so the paths on the tiles connect my Explorer to Gems on the board as well as temples with treasure. I now have to place a new tile on my board and there are three spots I can put the tile. Spot 1 needs a path that makes a left turn, but this tile only has a straight path, so I can't place it there. The Spots 2 and 3 would both work, but the Spot 3 also lets my Explorer collect a Gem, so I choose Spot 3 over Spot 2.
Gateway Games – These are games most often used to introduce new players to the world of board games. Gateway games tend to share a couple common features:
- weighted to be in the 1.5 to 2.5 range,
- usually focus on only 1 or 2 primary mechanics,
- player actions are limited in number and consequences are straight-forward,
- and game expects no pre-existing experience so they're easy-to-learn.
Light Game – Usually used interchangably with “Gateway Games”.
Game Example: Sagrada Weight: 1.92 Example turn:
I'm placing different colored dice in a grid to build a stained-glass window. Some spots on the grid require a specific color die, while other spots require a specific numbered die. It is now my turn and I have a randomly rolled pool of 5 dice to choose from though there are two I really want, a Red-6 and a Green-2.
I would really like the Red-6 die as that would get me 6 points; however, there is a spot on my grid that requires a green die that would also give me more available spaces in the future. Additionally, last round there were a lot of green dice that were rolled, which means that there will be fewer green dice available in the future, so if I don't get this green dice now, I might not get another chance to get a green die until much later.
Therefore, I'll forego the points and take the Green-2 to ensure I don't run out spaces for my next few turns. Since there are lots of red dice still left in the game, I'll have plenty of chances to score points for red dice in the future.
Light-Mid / Mid-weight / Mid-heavy Games – Because so many games exist in-between 2.5-3.5, “Mid-weight” games often straddle a line between their lighter and heavier counterparts. While what is “mid-weight” is entirely subjective, we can approximate the distinction in thirds:
- light-mid: 2.4 to 2.8
- mid-weight: 2.8 to 3.2
- mid-heavy: 3.2 to 3.6
Light-Mid Example: Pandemic Weight: 2.41 Example turn:
I'm working with all the other players to help control the outbreak of 4 different diseases. Every player has a character that has a special ability; my character's ability allows me to travel faster than my teammates. The player immediately after me has the ability to treat diseases more efficiently.
It is now my turn and I can perform 4 actions. On the previous turn, an outbreak just occurred in the city of Seoul and is pretty serious. Should that city have another outbreak soon, we may lose the game. However, my teammate who is good at treating diseases is far away from Seoul while I can reach it easily. So I want to use two of my actions to (1) travel to Seoul and (2) set up a Research Station so my teammate can get here quickly on their turn.
For my third action, I can play it safe and treat diseases at Seoul while I'm already here so we're no longer in danger of losing the game. Alternatively, I can be risky and try to reach another player and share cards with them so we can expedite the process of curing (permanently removing) one of the diseases. Because this is a cooperative game, I'll discuss with my team which action is the most beneficial depending on the cards we each have.
Midweight Example: Concordia Weight: 3.01 Example turn:
This is a game where every player plays as a merchant travelling around ancient Rome trading resources and money in an attempt to get the most points. To do so, I have a deck of cards that determines what actions I may take; I can also buy additional cards during this game to either increase the number of available actions or give me more opportunities to score points at the end of the game.
It is currently my turn and I need to choose an action to take. The resource I most desire at the moment is Wine, and there is a province close by I can reach to buy Wine. I can see there is another player who also needs Wine and is in close competition with me to reach the province. Whichever one of us gets to the province first gets to build a House at a significantly lower cost.
However, there are also two cards currently on the market that fits very well into my strategy: a Farmer card that produces Grain, and an Architect card that allows me to move my Colonists. Since I currently have a lot of Houses in regions that produce Grain, the Farmer card would let me produce Grain more often. On the other hand, because most of my Colonists are currently sitting idle in Rome, the Architect would let me move them more often allowing me to build my trade networks quicker.
Looking at the board, I can see that nobody else really has Grain houses, so it's unlikely anyone wants the Farmer card immediately, though plenty of other players also have Colonists stuck in Rome. Because I'm tight on money and cannot afford another House if I don't get there first, I'll forego the Architect card and move this round knowing there's a high liklihood I'll still get a chance to get the Farmer card next turn.
Mid-Heavy Example: Troyes Weight: 3.46 Example turn:
This is a game where players allocate Workers into houses — white, red, and yellow — to get dice which are then spent on taking actions. Dice come in 3 colors — white, red, and yellow — which correspond directly to white, red, and yellow actions. At the start of every round, players need to contribute dice towards fighting off Maurauders. Players can also accrue Influence throughout the game, which they spend on bonus things such as rerolls or more Workers.
It is halfway through the 2nd round and it is now my turn. I have a White-5 (W5) die, and two Yellow dice, a 1 (Y1) and a 2 (Y2).
My W5 is a pretty high roll and I can invest that W5 into training of one of my Workers into a Craftsman which will give me an additional Action option for the rest of the game. However, I can see that another player has a W5 and a W4 that they're most likely going to use, so I can potentially save my W5 and let them buy it from me. Since I'm short on money already, letting them buy that dice will give me some much needed cash for the next couple of turns. Then, I can train a Craftsman relatively easily in a future turn. Therefore, I'll leave my W5 for someone else to purchase.
There isn't a lot I can do with my Yellow dice since I rolled low numbers, and I don't have a lot of money to spend so it would be expensive to buy another player's Yellow die to use in conjunction with my own. It is also unlikely that someone else will want to buy these dice since they're low numbers. I do have a bit of Influence from my last turn that I could spend to reroll my Yellows, but I could also save that Influence for a Worker. I'll see if there's a better action I can take since there's a high likelihood I'll still both Yellows next turn.
I will be the “Start Player” next round which means that I will be the one that has to deal with the worst Maurauder. Because Red dice are extra effective at dealing with Maurauders, I would like to make sure I have at least one worker allocated to getting me a Red die. I currently do not have any Red dice, and I need to spend a Red die to allocate a Worker to the R-House so I can guarantee myself a Red die next turn. This will also allow me to displace one of my opponents Workers, so they won't have as many Red dice next round.
Luckily for me, the player following me has three Red dice! They will definitely want to use all three on their turn because there's a rewarding R-Action on the board, so I won't have a chance to buy their dice on my next turn. So, if I spend my money right now to buy just one of their Red die, and spend my Influence on a new Worker, I can use that Red die to allocate my new Worker to the R-House. Not only does this benefit me, but it also simultaneously weakens their upcoming turn, which makes this my best move.
Heavy Games – Most games >3.5 can be considered “heavy games”. In many ways, they can be considered the exact opposite of “Gateway Games” as they:
- almost always combines lots of different mechanics together,
- player actions are either numerous (A, B, C...), or are multi-layered (A triggers B which triggers C...),
- consequences of actions aren't easily deduced, sometimes only having pronounced effects much later in the game,
- and games expect players to have a pre-existing understanding and experience with many mechanics.
Game Example: Terra Mystica Weight: 3.97 Example Turn:
Each players plays as a different mystical race of people attempting to claim territory, build Structures, and get Victory Points (VPs).
- Some territories match your color — which you can claim for free — while others match colors of other players, which you need to Terraform (into your own color) to claim.
- Structures are buildings you place on claimed territory that do a variety of things. When other people build Structures next to your territories, you get Power, a resource you can spend on Special Actions (SpA). Structures are also upgradeable into new types of buildings.
- VPs are rewarded for upgrading your civilization, acquiring territories, meeting an ever-changing list of objectives, chartering Towns by clustering your own Structures next to each other, and currying favor with any of the local Cults.
We are halfway through the game and it is my turn. There are multiple things I want to keep track of.
- First, the current objective gives me points for building “Strongholds”, a particular kind of Structure.
- Second, I'm in close competition with other players on two of the Cults. I'm currently in the lead on the Fire Cult, but a close 2nd on the Water Cult.
- Third, there are Cult bonuses at the end of this round for reaching a milestone within a specific Cult. For this round, I need to move up 1 step in the Fire Cult to reach the milestone. Not to mention there's also bonus VPs at the end of the game for having the most favor in any Cult.
- Fourth, I want to keep an eye on the territories to make sure I don't get boxed in by other players. Because I claimed most of my territories close to other players, I'm often in direct competition with them for the best spots. However, it wasn't all bad since being close to other players allowed me to gather a lot of Power.
- Fifth, Power can be used for special actions for bonus resources. The caveat is that each special action can only be used by one person each round.
Because the current objective is to build Strongholds, I want to focus on that since it gives me points this round and lets me unlock my race's special ability, which is a strong upgrade for me. To build a Stronghold, I need to do a series of upgrades going from Dwelling > Trading Post > Stronghold. Therefore, I'll have to first build a Dwelling in a territory I can claim. Unfortunately, there are no territories easily accessible to me in my color, so I'll need to Terraform another color into my own. To Terraform a territory, I need a special resource called Shovels.
There are two possible territories for me to Terraform, one costing only 1 Shovel, but the other costing 2 Shovels. I really want to Terraform the 2 Shovel territory in particular since that would allow me to charter a Town for bonus points. There are two ways for me to get 2 Shovels, either by spending 6 Workers or 6 Power. Unfortunately, if I spend 6 Workers this round, I do not have enough Workers to upgrade a Dwelling up to a Stronghold. I can upgrade an existing Trading Post, but it won't be in the right location for me charter a Town. Therefore, my only option to get both a Stronghold and a Town this round is to use the 6 Power SpA for 2 Shovels or the 4 Power SpA for 2 additional Workers.
On the other hand, Power is hard to gain and can also be exchanged for a Priest which allows me to move up on the Cult track. I do not have enough Power for both 2 Shovels and a Priest, but I do have enough Power for a Priest and 2 Workers. If I wanted to get both a Priest and 2 Workers, that means I would have to spend two turns this round to use both SpA. Additionally, if I do get a Priest, I need to decide whether I want to use it on the Fire Cult or Water Cult. Moving up on the Fire Cult would mean I get the Cult bonus at the end of this round. However, moving up the Water Cult would allow me to pass the current leader of that Cult, giving me a good chance to get points at the end of the game.
Therefore, for me to decide how to proceed, I'll need to look around the table and see how likely it is that someone else will try to Terraform the same spot I'm going for. Similarly, I'll need to see if anyone else has the Power and/or desire to use the SpA I want to determine if I can take my time spending two turns on two separate SpA, or if I need to quickly snatch up the 2 Shovel SpA before anyone else. Finally, in the highly likely event I cannot get everything I want this turn, I'll need to decide if it's more worthwhile to aim for the Stronghold or the Cult bonuses.
Very Heavy Games – Once again, not a very creative name. Amongst heavy games, there are a subset of games that are challenging even for very experienced gamers. Typically, these games exist in the 4.0+ range.
An example turn in the very heavy category might be a bit too long to explore in this article, though if you're exploring games in that weight range you probably already have an idea of what to expect.