Game systems/families: where do they come from?

Moderator Level 1

I have been wondering about groupings of games that are based on the same general system. Firstly, I don't know what to call these groupings of games, I keep on vacilating between systems and families. Perhaps, before we can define it, I should write what I mean.

I am writing about those groups of games, maybe plus expansions, which are distinct between themselves, but are all using the same or a similar system. Some examples of this phenomenom include:

  • 18xx: This is perhaps the easiest example. According to BGG, there are 231 entries in the 18xx category. These are all strategically complex, highly player interactive, financial management games. Most, but not all, of them are themed around running a railroad company beginning in the 1800. Notable examples of the genre include #1829 (The first one), #1830: Railways & Robber Barons (seminal classic), #18Chesapeake (frequently recomended entry point), 
  • Cube Rails: Behold, there are even more financially focused train games. These games tend to be even lighter than 18xx, and the approach to track laying is much more abstracted than in 18xx. Generally speaking these games will reward the companies for connections to cities, though some will also reward them for the actual routes. Capstone Games has gotten more people interested in this sort of games with their recent publications of #Irish Gauge, #Iberian Gauge, and #Ride the Rails
  • COIN Games: The first two systems I mentioned span many designers and many game publishers. COIN games however have only been published by GMT Games. COunter INsurgency games are games that tend to show guerrilla warfare and counterinsurgencies arround the world, throughout history, and soo they will even model conflict on Mars. These games all share the same central card mechanism that drives the gameplay. But, the games can feel very distinct among themselves. Notoable examples include: #Andean Abyss (The first COIN game), #Cuba Libre (Frequently recomended entry point), and #Falling Sky: The Gallic Revolt Against Caesar (The first foray outside of modern conflict.)
  • Ticket to Ride: Many, perhaps most, of us have played the classic #Ticket To Ride. This general system has spawned many many games and expansions that offer riffs on the original while remaining very recognizable by the central mechanisms. 
  • Catan: The same as Ticket to Ride, #Catan is a hugely popular game that has spawned a host of other versions with tweaks on the original mechanisms.
  •  There are a host of other games that have spawned whole families or systems of games that use the same core mechanisms in such a way that they feel connected. They feel like they are part of the same family. Examples of other games that have spawned these systems might include: #Carcassonne, #Pandemic, and Commands and Colors. 

I find this to be an enteresting phenomonem. It seems like the average game is a one off that may or may not get some expansion support at some point. But, these are games that very much fly in the face of that, every new release in one of these families is not trying to be completely new and original. They have big boots to fill in trying to measure up to the other games in the series. 

I have several questions about this sort of thing. Maybe my first question is, Where do these systems come from? When Francis Tresham released #1829 way back in 1974 did he do so thinking of all the ways that that core system could be permutated upon? When Alan Moon had #Ticket To Ride published in 2014, was he already thinking about #Ticket to Ride: Märklin? Are these systems, generally speaking, planned? Or do these systems, generally speaking, evolve?

Another question is, is there any way that we can recognize when a game will spawn a new system. #Dune: Imperium was released in 2020.  It proved to be hugely popular in the boardgame community. In fact, over on BGG, it's already number 36 on the top 100 list. Will that game, with it's innovative mix of worker placement and deck building spawn new games that use that same system? What about #Lost Ruins of Arnak? What about #Dwellings of Eldervale?

I further question about these game families, what are the inherant qualities that lend themselves well to creating a boardgame family?  As I consider the families mentioned above I see a couple of underlying things that are true for most of families mentioned.

  • All of these games have a strong central mechanism(s) that are super simple and flexible. The individual COIN or 18xx game may be complicated. But, the central recognizable mechanism remains mechanically simple and easy to recognize. This is even easier to see in families such as the Carcassone Family, or the Catan Family. 
  • These tend to be games that depend on player interaction so that the game will "work." In Pandemic style games you must work together to overcome whatever the challange is in that particular game. In 18xx all the financial shennanigans are dependent on the players. etc...

Another question, What is up with all the trains? TTR, 18xx, Age of Steam, Cube Rails, Prairie Rails, and etc... What is up with all these train games that spawn families? Why are the trians so fecund?

So, what are your feelings on these game systems/families? First of all, what should we even call these groups of games? Should we call them branches, systems, families, or something else? Are you the type of gamer that enjoyes exploring these systems? or are you the type of player who has one from a system and that is enough for you? What would you like to add or subtract to my monologue here?

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Moderator Level 112 months ago

This is a very interesting thought experiment and one that I have played with to one degree or another.  About two years ago, I started looking for a worker placement, deck building, engine-building game that wove all three mechanics together well.  The long and short of this search has resulted on my own effort (and current work) on a boardgame incorporating these facets.  

Speaking more broadly to your topic, I highly recommend Eurogames: The Design, Culture, and Play of Modern European Games by Stewart Woods.  If you have not already read this masterpiece it will satisfy quite a few curiousities and essetially offers a history on boardgames with a breadcrumb trail of other resources that only a brilliant game nerd can appreciate.  While I have not finished, I am currently reading through this book and greatly enjoying the combination of ludolody and game ediology that Woods presents.

This is not likely a book for just anyone.  It isn't a light read and is rife with citations and research and history.  If any of that sounds utterly boring, don't buy this book.  

I would argue (based somewhat on my reading) that the German boardgame culture brokered an environment that cultivated and rewarded creativity and allowed for the expansion of our current boardgame family tree.  The 18xx family I think started even earlier and has evolved.  

Moderator Level 112 months ago

Thanks for the book recomendation. This is gonna go on my amazon wishlist.

12 months ago

Interesting topic!

What is up with all the trains?

Lots of train nerd/boardgame nerd crossover. :)


Are these systems, generally speaking, planned? 

Sometimes. Donald Vaccarino had way more cards for  #Dominion than could fit in the first set. They ended up in expansions, sometimes being reworked. He has an excellent series of posts explaning the origins of each card.

Speaking of Dominion, I'd say that it and #Ascension: Deckbuilding Game are the two big "families" of deckbuilding - the "fixed piles" family and the "one deck market row" family. The Dominion family includes things like #Nightfall, #Tanto Cuore, and #Thunderstone. The Ascension family includes #Star Realms, #DC Comics Deck-Building Game, and #Shards of Infinity: Deckbuilding Game.


Are you the type of gamer that enjoys exploring these systems? 

For sure. I'm not a collector to the point where I need to have every game in a family. But I do like playing different games from the same family and seeing how they compare. Commands and Colors is a good example where little changes can have a big impact on the feel of the game.

For example, I enjoy #Battlelore Second Edition much more than #Memoir '44. The three big differences are:
1. variable setup
2. no points for destroying units

3. weakened units have weaker attacks
These games have 99% of their DNA in common, but feel so different because of those little changes.

12 months ago

I think that Ticket to Ride and Catan are kind of outliers on that list. I think that those families (18XX, COIN, many wargames, and here I would include maps for games like Powergrid or Age of Steam) share a common engine but what interest players is the simulation of certain circumstances (history period, a certain war or battle, geographic interest.).

Moderator Level 112 months ago

I think that, in the sense you mention, Catan and TTTR are outliers. But, I do think that they do still form part of a specific family or branch of gaming. 

For example #Ticket To Ride and #Ticket to Ride: Europe are very distinct games. But, they also very much share a common engine.

12 months ago

Yes, yes, of course. But I do not think that Ticket to Ride Europe exists for the same reasons than 1817 or A Distant Plain.

I believe that Ticket to Ride, Catan or Carcassonne versions exist only because those games have been extremely succesful and they are simply profiting from brand status to release as many games as possible without annoying gamers.

Moderator Level 112 months ago

Gotcha, yes that makes sense.

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