This is part two in an ongoing series looking at community platforms:

  1. Stack Overflow
  2. BoardGameGeek

What is BGG?

BoardGameGeek (or BGG for those in the know) stands out as a community platform because it has:

  1. close to 100% name recognition within the board game hobby and
  2. close to 0% name recognition outside of it.

BGG (née "BoardgameGeek Database") opened its forums on July 9, 2000 and allowed users to submit games to the database on July 27. The core of BGG is a database of nearly ever board game ever designed. The rules around submitting a game to the database strictly define a game as opposed to a puzzle or other activity. Defining the scope of a community like this turns out to be a vital component of a community startup. That ensures everyone is looking the same sort of thing.

Speaking of which, here's what a game page looks like:

Example BGG game page with specific features called out that I will

(Select the image to get a full-sized screenshot.)

I've numbered some important items on the page above the fold:

  1. BGG serves ads directly targeted to board gamers. Given the need for revenue, this is a win all the way around. Visitors see ads for products they care about, advertisers get a better return on their investment and BGG gets more revenue than if it served programmatic ads. A huge advantage of that well-defined community is that it makes selling ad space to relevant companies much easier. This is one reason to resist the temptation expand the scope rather than spin off a new community. (More below.)
  2. Members can give games a rating from 1 to 10 with each number having a distinct meaning. Based on community ratings, Teotihuacan: City of Gods was ranked 83 overall and 62 among strategy games. That's among the best rated games ever, which is important since BGG rank drives game sales.
  3. Every game can be edited by users. Admins review some changes and others go through GeekMod, which is a collaborative voting system. Community members can earn GeekGold for submitting various corrections. What you see on the page comes almost entirely from user submissions, which includes users who are publishers and designers of games. It's in their best interest to keep the database updated and complete because consumers use it to make purchase decisions.1
  4. Teotihuacan has an average rating of 7.9, which is quite high. If you click the number, you'll get a breakdown of how many people gave each rating, comments (mini-reviews) and all sort of statistical data BGG has collected. Every time I look I see metrics and stats I hadn't seen before. Most people care, but the people who do care get a lot out of the data.
  5. Many games include player count, play time and age recommendations on the side of the box. BGG also lets the community suggest the best player counts and age limits, which work better than the publisher's numbers thanks to the wisdom of the crowd. Additionally, the community can give games a complexity rating that can help potential players decide what the play. Teotihuacan is fairly heavy so it might not be a good choice for new players.
  6. Community members interact with games in a variety of ways:
    • Rate the game.
    • Add the game to lists.
    • Log play sessions.
    • Mark the game as a favorite.
    • Subscribe to updates of the game page.
    • Find places to buy a copy. This is a revenue opportunity for BGG thanks to a commission if people purchase via the link. People can also sell used games via the GeekMarket, which nets BGG a fee. And BGG sells games on its own store.
  7. After the main game information tile, there's a standard menu for finding out more about the game. Forums are important, of course, but you might look for a copy of the rules under Files or browse Images and Videos. There's overlap between this navigation and the buttons in the info card because the info card.
  8. This Overview Video explains Teotihuacan at a high level and promotes GeekUp Bits for the game. What are those? In the last few years there's been a market for improved components for popular games. You can find them on Etsy and BGG got into the business as well. A common upgrade is wood replacements for cardboard game pieces. The video itself was produced by BGG and does an excellent job selling the best features of the game.
  9. Meanwhile the Watch it Played! video for the game comes from a popular YouTube channel that makes instructional videos for games.2 These videos are sponsored by the game publisher so that people can learn how the game works in detail before they buy or play the first time. BGG has some hand in producing these videos as well.

Not ever game will have all of these items, of course. Less popular games, such as MimocirQ, which I submitted to the database, show the bones of the structure. For more popular games, a handful of details copied from the game box are enough to set up a place for community engagement. In addition to general forum discussions, the community contributes content such as rules variants, strategy guides, complete expansions, detailed reviews, etc. I've even received a comment from the designer of a game I'd reviewed. BoardGameGeek has become the central hub for the hobby. It's a virtuous feedback cycle in which community contributions provide value to everyone in the board game industry which, in turn, attracts more community contributions.

Right now BGG is doing a fund-raising drive. When people contribute they have a chance to submit a quote that might be randomly selected to be shown in the fund-raising banner:

I supported because… "It's the only site I would miss if the Internet went away." - Ryan Lennon (rlennon)

While browsing the site to write this post, I collected quotes praising BGG:

I supported because…

  • "It's the only site I would miss if the Internet went away."—Ryan Lennon (rlennon)
  • "If you like boardgames, where else are you even going to go? BGG FOREVER!"—Benjamin Jones (Defacto)
  • "This site is an amazing resource and enhances my enjoyment of the hobby"—DJ White (dwhizzle)
  • "BGG has a great community and it's my goto place for everything board game related. Thank you BGG!"—Les (les_)
  • "Use it everyday to help our group find and play the best games and to buy."—Davis Brasfield (DavisBrasfield)
  • "It's given me a lot of joy to swap stories with fellow boardgamers across the world and discover new games"—Jack James (ninjafoodstuff)

Getting started with BGG

It's been nearly 4 years since my first contribution to BGG: a somewhat negative review of Wingspan. After playing with my family and reading glowing reviews, I wanted to share my disappointment. (Getting people over the "nothing to share" feeling is the key to community participation.) After posting my review . . . nothing happened. It didn't show up in the forums and I must have clicked away from the page that explained reviews are, well, reviewed by the GeekMod system. Why reviews and not other posts? I'm still not sure.

When my review did get posted, I got a bit of GeekGold. Not nearly enough to buy an avatar, but it did solve the mystery of why some people have avatars and others don't. Then I started getting comments disagreeing with some of the points I'd made. I've since learned that I was a bit unlucky since expressing negative feelings about popular games gets people defensive. I've learned to anticipate this phenomena.

So many things about the BGG on-boarding experience are bizarre and unexplained. Oh you can find out how it works, but not by trying to do things on the site. It wouldn't surprise me that people don't contribute as much as they would if a user experience expert revamped the system. BGG makes up for that deficiency by having obvious value for people who want to learn more about board games. I jumped through various hoops to become a contributor because the community had clearly demonstrated the value of contributions. My Wingspan review resonated with other people and that feels fantastic.

The BGG network

BGG branched out to RPGGeek and VideoGameGeek. Both use the same software, but neither has anything like the same reach (as far as I can tell) in their respective communities. I mentioned in my look at Stack Overflow that the Stack Exchange network was sorely neglected. It looks like BGG's video fame spin-off didn't get as much attention as the flagship. There are many other places to get information about video games, such as IGN and Rock Paper Shotgun.

The site for RPGs shares enough with board games that it got some of the more recent style changes and features like listings on the GeekMarket. It also has targeted advertising from Kickstarter campaigns. Without financial details its hard to know for sure, but I expect RPGG more than justifies its costs. Even VGG probably pays for itself from the annual fundraising drive.

The network is a sure sign BGG is a community platform since it reuses functionality in a new context. VGG uses a little less of the platform and that's ok. Maybe BGG overestimated demand or maybe demand dried up. Whatever the case, there little to gain by shutting the community down as long as it continues to provide value to visitors. The time to shut down a community is when it can't moderate itself.

Community for the long-haul

I don't know how long BGG will last. It's currently riding a Kickstarter-fueled boom, so everything looks good for now. Has the company over-extended itself? There's no way to know, at least from the outside. What I can say is that it continues to make itself more useful for the board game hobby and has a revenue model to directly benefit from community engagement. The industry might suffer setbacks, but as long as people play board games, there will be a demand for what BoardGameGeek offers.

  1. I numbered these sections a month ago and I had a definate reason for putting 4 after 3. I just don't remember it. I also can't find the screenshot I was editing to swap the numbers so you'll just have to live with an imperfect flow.

  2. These videos explain the games well and are quite entertaining thanks to the personality of the hosts. Rodney Smith founded the channel and is particularly engaging. These videos are fun to watch even if you already know how to play the game.