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Board game designer explains why broken titles still sell

A tabletop gaming designer explains why one of Amazon’s best board games barely functions as a game – and what we can learn from this

Broken board games sell - product photo of I Should Have Known That held by a hand

If tabletop gaming is your main hobby, your idea of what the best board games are probably looks a little different from the rest of the population. Titles like Gloomhaven and Brass Birmingham may rule the roost over on BoardGameGeek, but the best seller’s list on Amazon is still dominated by Checkers, Clue, and Guess Who. There are even a few games selling well that are, as Underdog Games designer Nick Bentley points out on March 6, objectively broken. He uses a Twitter thread to explore why.

Bentley’s Twitter study focuses on a trivia board game called I Should Have Known That. It’s currently 34th on US Amazon’s best-seller list, and Bentley says it’s sold “at least 500,000 copies, but probably more like 1,000,000”. “Incredibly, it’s broken when played by the written rules”, he adds.

In a game of I Should Have Known That, a player is asked a trivia question, which they can choose to answer or to skip. They get no points for correct answers, but incorrect answers deduct points from their score. As Bentley points out, “optimal play is to pass every turn”. You’re more likely to win I Should Have Known That by refusing to play.

“I Should Have Known That is a best-seller by any measure, yet it fails to be a working game”, Bentley says in Monday’s Twitter thread. “What gives? In reading the comments, I’ve noticed most people either ignore the scoring or house-rule their own.”

“It appears people aren’t buying the product for the game, per se”, he continues. “They’re buying it for the trivia. They don’t much care that it doesn’t work as a game, so long as it lets them have fun posing trivia questions to each other.”

According to Bentley, this is proof of one key game design lesson: “people don’t buy games; they buy experiences”. He suggests I Should Have Known That, and trivia games like it, are successful because they offer interesting and challenging questions for a reasonable price. Gameplay, scores, and winning seem less important.

Bentley’s lesson for game designers is this: “It’s more important to understand what experiences will delight specific people than to conform to preexisting notions of what a ‘game’ is or should be”. “Games are social rituals designed to create experiences”, he says, “but experiences are the goal”.

“All mechanistic game formalisms are tools which can be used to help create experiences”, he concludes in the Twitter thread. “But even the most basic of them can be ignored if you can create the right experiences for your target audience without them.”