The difficult thing here is that we have competing ideas about what makes a classic. We define the category as something that has been found exceptional among the scrutiny of many over a long period of time. But language is a funny thing and while we can define terms all day, how words are used and meant may not always carry the same undertones as the boundaries of their definitions.
So at the risk of getting all philosophical here (I promise not to go into morphology of words and the underpinnings of language in society) what do we mean when we identify something as “classic” or “classical?” Monopoly or Life or Clue could be argued for classic examples of board games (you see I’ve already used the term differently). Especially Monopoly, being that for most non-hobbyists it is the first game that comes to mind when the subject of board gaming is brought up. But does that make it a classic per our earlier term? Monopoly is so polarizing in our hobby and has clearly taken so much flak that it’s hard to put this in a category of “excellence over time” except for maybe its publisher’s marketing strategy.
We can’t just pick a bunch of old games and call those classics either (like some stupid radio stations that are already playing Bush and Stone Temple Pilots during their “classic” hour). We should quickly draw a line between “vintage” and “classic.” Big Business is a vintage game – and I rather enjoy it much more than Monopoly – but wouldn’t be considered a classic due to its lack of traction and how it has fallen out of sight over time.
So let’s jump over to the hobby-er side of acceptable games (I just pushed my glasses up and took on a condescending air) and talk Catan. Classic? If not, it’s certainly on its way given more time. And regardless of your personal Catan preference, most wouldn’t balk at the thought of it being considered a classic in the hobby. Indeed, many would be thrilled if Catan took the mantel of ubiquity from Monopoly, if for no other reason than to have something new at which to roll our eyes.
Dang, I still haven’t come to any solid conclusions…
A primary qualifier, regardless of the nuanced usages of “classic anything” is time – time for exposure and scrutiny.
Okay, if you want me to call something classic, let’s start with the easys: Chess, Checkers, and Hero Quest. Don’t even try to argue that last one. When we come to the game Survive, though, we’re coming to the cusp of classics. I’m going to call it and say I consider it a classic. It’s been around long enough and had the opportunity to disappear; but instead of falling out of favor, it has been reprinted with several editions and maintains a presence in modern gaming. In fact, I’d say that Survive may be a poster child, or in the least a great example, for what we’re looking for in classic board games. It doesn’t even matter what I think of the game as it seems as though the classic moniker belongs to the larger community. While I’m not the biggest fan of Pit, it’s clearly a classic based on the prevalent familiarity surrounding the game and another good example of how much variety exists in classic games that often gets overlooked.
We could go on like this and debate over this and that game (comment below and we will); as fluid and subjective the topic is, it makes for good conversation. Any list I make of classic games wouldn’t be exhaustive – there are a lot of games that fall into this category. So let me leave you with fencing off a bit of how the classic label is sometimes used. I have heard, and have even been guilty of using the term “instant classic.” This is clearly hyperbole meant to convey praise for a game that is thought to continue to be relevant – and perhaps even novel – far into the future of tabletop gaming. But per our definition above, it seems as though a primary qualifier, regardless of the nuanced usages of “classic anything” is time. Time for exposure and scrutiny. All too often knee jerk reviews turn out to be nothing more than that. But time will tell what games will rise out of our seemingly saturated hobby to take on the classic mantel for the next generation of gamers.
This is a difficult topic to discuss without first defining how we intend to use the term “classic.” Merriam-Webster.com defines classic as “serving as a standard of excellence. Of recognized value.” This definition narrows things down a bit and gives us some focus. While deciding which games are standards of excellence still remains a fairly subjective venture I think we can all agree that there are games that the community at large seems to use as such in their particular genres.
These games either defined a genre or mechanic, or redefined one of those two things in such a way that the landscape of tabletop gaming did not look the same afterwards. Games like Catan, which seems to have started the euro game revolution for us here in the U.S., Caylus, El Grande and Dominion all marked defining moments in the board game hobby. We may or may not have these games on our shelves now, but it’s hard to have a discussion about a deck building game without mentioning how it compares to Dominion for example.
One issue we kept coming back to while we were talking about this topic in our private chat was that of time. How old should a game be before it can make the list? Should time even be a factor? For example, Gloomhaven is a title that has been on the BGG hotness list for some time and spiked up when the Kickstarter campaign for it’s second printing went live. I haven’t played this game yet myself but by most accounts it’s a wonderful example of a dungeon crawler and appears to have some innovative ideas incorporated into it’s design. Is it a classic? I would say that it’s not until it’s been around for at least a few years and been proven to be a good design and not have been quickly replaced by the new hotness.
I don’t feel like there is a hard time limit at play in whether a game is a classic or not, just that it’s been out for long enough for the game to have been played many times by a large number of people and for the “newness” to have worn off.
With the growth of the board games industry in the past few years and the “cult of the new” attitude that seems to take hold amongst us gamers a board game really needs to be something special to hold our attention for long. It might be cheating a little bit, but I don’t feel like there is a hard time limit at play in whether a game is a classic or not, just that it’s been out for long enough for the game to have been played many times by a large number of people and for the “newness” to have worn off. So Lords of Waterdeep (2012) might be up for consideration, but Scythe (2016) needs to prove it has staying power. We need to have a number of people play it many times and discover all it’s imperfections and still decide that it’s a great game after a few years in order for it to be in the running for “classic” designation. This also allows us to see how it affects the designs that come out afterwards. Agricola can be said to have been an influential game, and it’s value to the hobby and to worker placement euro games is well established regardless of whether one likes the game or not. I’d call it a classic, as it has a widely recognized value within it’s category.
I’d suggest that games that are classics will ultimately become pretty easy to identify as time goes on. It’ll be pretty obvious which games stand out. Those titles that stay in print or are continually brought back for reprints or second editions stand apart. They are the type of games that come to mind when thinking of suggestions for new gamers that want to delve further into the hobby. “You like tile laying? Have you tried Carcassonne? It’s so good and so easy to learn….” If nothing else, this discussion of classic games should make us all want to take a look at our game shelf and think about which games we own meet these criteria and then get them out and go play them instead of chasing down the latest and greatest.
When this topic came up I thought, “Oh, this is easy!” I was wrong. The more I thought, the more wrinkles appeared. What really does define a classic board game?
I started thinking about classics in other entertainment mediums: books, movies, art, music and of course video games. The classics from these were often the pinnacle of the current standard or completely invented a new standard that others would follow. They often delved deeply into the human experience in ways that left a profound impression on their audience. And lastly, these classics endured – they lasted over time. These are the elements I want to explore when it comes to classic board games.
These games stand head and shoulders above their peers – it doesn’t take much effort to see them. This doesn’t apply just to current games – many current games may stand out now but will fade with time. These are games that, within their current design context stood out to give them lasting impact and prominence.
If a game is a classic it will become self-evident over time.
These are the games that innovated in such a big way that games that come after can’t help but iterate on the idea. Even if a newer game does it “better” the originator planted a flag in an undiscovered or little-known area of game design.
Games don’t do emotions like love, horror, or wonder well but they do other things that can speak to the human experience like challenge, connection, fun, and joy. A game that comes together in a way that leaves a lasting impression on the people playing it is a contender to be a classic.
This is an interesting one. Without it a game cannot be a classic in my opinion. A game must prove itself over time. But it is also the least important to me. And old game does not make a classic, but an old game that fits in to a combination of the above criteria can be.
What are some classics?
I feel like I’ve been very philosophical up until this point. It was important for me to know what defined a classic game but now lets get into some games that actually are classics, by this definition, of course.
Some obvious ones go way back – Chess and Go. Both of these games have endured over time due to their simple, elegant designs and level of challenge. Both are accessible to new players and deep for experienced players.
Fast forward to the early 20th century and you see games like Monopoly, Clue and Risk come along. Yes, Monopoly is on my list of classics. In a time when gathering the family around a table for leisure was becoming important, Monopoly fit the bill. It stood as a pinnacle of game design in its time which is why it has endured. Clue introduced the idea of deduction to the masses and Risk is the grandfather of the modern war games and other area control-type games.
And now we can talk about some modern board games. This is where it gets tricky. Very few modern games have had a chance to endure so its hard to know if they will be. It feels like a guess at this point – albeit an informed guess. It is very possible we will see many classics come out of this golden era of gaming but I don’t think we are at a point to call it yet.
An obvious one is (Settlers of) Catan. This game helped usher in the modern board game era and really pushed the euro designs in America. We owe many of the hybrid games we see today to this game. Some may be tired of this game but it is still a great game that has lasted long enough to be a classic.
El Grande, Carcassonne and Ticket to Ride are several more modern games that have entered classic status. All have been around long enough to prove their staying power and influence.
In the end, I believe that if a game is a classic it will appear after its time – they become self-evident. They are the ones that, after some time, still stand out from their peers. Classics also show their staying power over a larger group – not just your small local group.
I don’t know how else to end this, so, there you go. The end.
What makes a game a classic? The age ol’ question it seems. When we first decided to do this Q&A there were so many questions I asked myself: How long must a game be in print before one can consider it a classic? What about reprints, do they help? Do public domain games get any consideration? Can a defining mechanism solidify a game’s classic status? Does it even have to be a good game or just widely known?
So many questions, so subjective. I really had a hard time nailing this one down. The first few games I thought of are probably some of the same ones you did. Games like: Yahtzee, Monopoly, and Risk. Anyone who has been following us for a while knows my feelings regarding Monopoly. But can it be considered a classic? Let me tell you, I struggled with that idea. On one hand, I can respect its long-lasting presence in this hobby but on the other hand, there’s just such a lack of intelligent design there.
There’s something to be said for simple, elegant designs which have lasted hundreds of years.
So back to the original question. What makes a game a classic? All too often, I think we get caught up in the nostalgia of older games from our childhoods. The board gaming world has evolved since then so I’m going to have to look at this a bit more critically. As such, here are my rules for the purpose of this discussion.
- A Decade Old. I think a decade gives us a good range of data to analyze a game’s influence on the hobby. This gives the hotness some time to die down and see if people are still talking about it down the stretch.
- Popularity Matters. This one has a bit of a double edged sword attached to it. You’re going have cult followings of bad games, there’s no denying that. However, in my opinion, there’s got to be some kind of a following for a game to reach classic status. Whether that be quantity sold or BGG’s [link] ranking system, there needs to be a precedent.
- Vasel’s Law. Tom Vasel has a rule that great games will always be reprinted. I agree, any game worthy or popular enough to be reprinted is a shoe-in for classic status. Publishers don’t tread on this territory lightly.
- Expansions. Similar to reprints, games that expand upon their foundations generally warrant it because they’re good games or have a decent following.
- Defining Mechanisms. There’s something to be said for a game that defines a genre. Sometimes these games aren’t necessarily the first but are the ones that had the biggest impact. I would say that, of all my rules, this is the most important.
Now that we have some ground rules I’d like to tackle a few games I think are good candidates to be classics.
- The Abstracts – Go, Chess, Checkers, and Backgammon. This is the time tested crop. Believe it or not, Chess is the youngest at only 500+ years old. ONLY! There’s something to be said for simple, elegant designs which have lasted hundreds of years. Go is considered to be one of the most challenging, in-depth games of all time so I gotta give it major props.
- The Accessibles – Hearts, Spades, Rummy, Poker, and Werewolf. These are the games where all you need is a deck of cards and access to the public domain rules. They’re here because everyone knows them and has probably played them. Nothing super special. They just are what they are.
- The Familiars – Yahtzee, Clue, Risk, and yes Monopoly. It’s difficult for me to admit these but for what it’s worth they are household names. These are the games that the majority of the population associates with board gaming. Whether you like it or not, that’s the truth.
- The Pioneers – Acquire, Cosmic Encounter, 1830, and Survive. Ahead of their time. They explored new territory and set the tone for modern board gaming.
- The Modern Era – Catan, El Grande, Citadels, Carcassonne, Puerto Rico, Ticket to Ride, Power Grid, Caylus, and Twilight Struggle. From 1995 to 2005, no games affected the hobby more than these right here. Since Catan hit the scene, board game design has exploded, giving birth to the games we now know and love.
- The Future Classics – Agricola, Dixit, Pandemic, Dominion, Splendor, and Codenames. I feel that within the next decade we’ll still be talking about these. They have a good following and are all great games but just need a little more time to age before becoming true classics.