Published Betas

A fair number of people these days enjoy board gaming as an alternative to video games.  They’re often a more social activity, gathering a group of friends in the same room to play a game (which is becoming harder to find with modern video games), and there’s just something to be said about the experience of moving around chips and pieces, holding cards, and so forth.  The reason that I mention this is that one of the problem facing video games these days seems to be creeping into board games as well: the dreaded “published beta”.

Admittedly, I’m not that big into video games anymore and don’t really follow big new releases, but from what I’ve seen on forums and other online discussions this is a somewhat common issue:  Games are released in some kind of semi-complete state, requiring patches, bug fixes and other intervention shortly after they come out to get the game to a playable state.  I’d like to say this isn’t the case with board games, but after experiencing three examples this week alone where board games required updates after they were released, I’d say it’s a non-trivial issue for us board gamers as well.

Example 1: A Chaotic Life!

This one happened a while back, but is one of the more prevalent examples of this behavior I could think of.  A Chaotic Life! was a game that was Kickstartered to great success, raising over $42,000 out of a modest initial goal of $2,000.  And for only $10 for what looked like a silly little game, I had no qualms about backing it.  And when it eventually arrived, Amber and I played it and… it just fell flat.  The game seemed to drag on and wasn’t very fun, unfortunately.  This seemed to be such a common issue for backers that the publishers released a Kickstarter update letting backers know that they would revisit the rules to make the game more playable and fun, and to their credit they were able to jump on this issue pretty quickly, within about a week after fulfillment began.  Then, over the course of last fall, backers were able to try out the new rules and provide feedback, eventually leading to the creation of a whole new final set of rules for the game.  While this story has a (moderately) happy ending, it’s unfortunate that it had to happen in the first place — one would think that a reasonable amount of playtesting should’ve caught these issues before the game was published.  However, this issue may be a common one for games funded through Kickstarter and independently published.  The old saying of buyer beware certainly applies here (though since it’s Kickstarter, maybe a more appropriate phrase would be “backer beware”?).

Example 2: Arcadia

Arcadia is a game we picked up at Gen Con 2015, and one Amber was particularly excited about.  A game about building an amusement park?  Yes please!  However, this game was another one where our initial impression of playing it was that it just dragged on — we only played about half of the game before putting it back on the shelf where it’s just been sitting for the past few months.  However, earlier this week I noticed a new Dice Tower video where Tom Vasel (whose initial review of Arcadia was lukewarm) revealed that the early copies of Arcadia, including the one he’d reviewed and those sold at Gen Con, had a bunch of misprinted cards which broke the game in various ways.  And so, after reaching out to the publisher to get replacement cards, I received an e-mail from them that they would be sending them out to us.  So now I’m excited again to give this game a second try, but this situation brings up another big problem with this type of “bug fixes” for board games.  The APE Games post about card replacements was published on August 30, 2015, but I was not aware of it until just this week, and if it wasn’t for me noticing the new Dice Tower video, I may never have known about the replacement cards.  Fortunately this issue only affected a small number of games (the ones that were sent to stores for retail were able to be corrected in time), but the people who got those affected copies would have broken games unless they actively went in search of information as to why the game was such a slog to play.

Example 3: Boss Monster 2

This is another Kickstarter game, and not quite as dramatic an example as the previous two.  Boss Monster 2 is a sequel to Boss Monster (fancy that!) and was another very successful Kickstarter, raising over $335,000 of its $25,000 goal.  And the game was good.  For the most part, it played the same as its predecessor with a few new cards and mechanics.  However, this week, in a Kickstarter update where they announced the upcoming custom card creator, the creators also mentioned that a few of the cards that were included in the game needed corrections and were being released as errata-ed versions.  The plus side is that Kickstarter backers would be able to get credit to receive these cards for free, but anyone else would need to buy the corrected cards through the custom card website.  Really though, this is a fairly minor issue that just affected three cards, and shouldn’t really affect gameplay at all (in fact, I didn’t notice anything amiss when we played the game), but it is another example of a game being fixed or tweaked after it was released.

Example 4: Shakespeare

My final example is another relatively minor one.  Amber and I recently bought Shakespeare and were really excited to get it played right away, so we got it to the table this past weekend, and really enjoyed it.  It’s a highly thematic Euro game, which is nice and refreshing.  And in this case there was nothing about the game itself that needed changing or tweaking, but rather the rulebook.  As I was poking around on the BGG forums this week, I saw a post mentioning that the official English rules have been updated since the game was released.  In particular, the starting position of the players on the scoring track was not mentioned in the original rulebook, which is important because the players’ scores start at 5 (and they can lose points).  In addition to this, there were some other clarifications on rules that needed to be made that we assumed while playing but weren’t explicitly spelled out.  In this case, as I said, the post-release correction wasn’t with the game itself, but just with the rules, and the reason it was needed was because the rules were translated from the original French.  However it is yet again a case where a game (or in this case its rulebook) was updated after being sold to consumers, and those who purchased it wouldn’t necessarily have been aware of the changes unless they actively went looking for them.


Final Thoughts

This is not meant to be any sort of comprehensive listing or analysis, nor is it meant to in any way disparage the games I mentioned.  I simply wanted to point out something that I have been noticing with games lately, and that coincidentally came up three times within the past week.  As I mentioned before, this could be a common phenomenon with games funded by Kickstarter — these games aren’t always going through traditional publishing channels, and as such may not have as rigorous testing or editing standards.  The tradeoff or benefit of this, though, is that the game creators have a listing of all the backers and an easy way to contact them via Kickstarter updates or messages, so any problems encountered can be rectified and pushed out to all backers easily.  What’s more challenging is when people purchase games from the publisher or a store.  In that case they may not be aware of changes or corrections made to a game unless they actively go looking for them.  This is unlike when video games require patches or bugfixes, because in that case you usually can’t start the game until you install the requisite fix.  One may wonder how many games they have that have been updated (or had components fixed, rules corrected, etc.) since being released without one’s knowledge.

What do you think?  Have you encountered situations where you’ve bought a board game that felt like a published beta version?