Epic Gumdrop Ep 41: Boardgame Cities & Countries

King of New York

This episode Jeff and James look at the variety and numbers of cities and countries used as boardgame settings.

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(Length: approx 33 min)

Boardgame Cities & Countries

This week we dig deep again into the BoardGameGeek Database. But this time it isn’t for a specific game mechanic or theme. This time it’s for locations games take place, specifically cities and countries. If you want to check out the data compiled for this episode, take a look at our Boardgame Cities & Countries Data.

Each year various organizations attempt to find ways to judge the world’s countries and cities by some kind of objective criteria. We too shall do this. Depending on the number of listings each city has on BoardGameGeek

There are categories set up for nearly 200 cities and 127 countries, and each has a page with the boardgames that take place in it, etc.

Of course I immediately had a few questions:

  • Which city/country is the most represented in boardgames?
  • What are the main reasons games are set in cities/countries?
  • What cities/countries have a surprisingly low number of games set in them?

This led me to making a quick spreadsheet tallying up the number of listings for games set in each city and country listed in BGG. This is not science. It is based on games being tagged by city or country. There are probably loads of games that slip through. Are the games tagged because the game thematically takes place in the location, or just that the location is a place on the board? Not entirely sure. For instance, the cities used in 2015 game The Voyages of Marco Polo are not listed for that game. Traders of Osaka does not have a family listing either. The data isn’t perfect, but it never is. Note: I didn’t pull out expansions or fan expansions from this list. I think they are a good indicator of how popular a setting is.

Let’s take a look at cities first.

Boardgame Cities

Q: It’s guessing time – which city has the most games listed?
A: New York. Barely beat out London.

Q: How many games do you think New York has?
A: 90. It has games like Tammany Hall, Manhattan TraffIQ, King of New York, it has Spider Man games, games about Mafia, games about Gangs…

Tammany Hall

London had 87. I kind of thought it would win. You’ve got everything from murdery Letters from Whitechapel to Sherlock Holmes to railways to the Great Fire of London 1666 to rebuilding the city. Or as Samuel Johnson said: “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford. Except that all this does not apply to London as a setting in boardgames. Boswell, where are my pants?”

Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective

Q: Which cities do you think make the top 10?
A:
1. New York (New York, USA) [90]
2. London [87]
3. Berlin (Germany) [56]
4. Chicago (Illinois, USA) [45]
5. Las Vegas (Nevada, USA) [45]
6. Paris (France) [42]
7. Moscow [38]
8. Venice [37]
9. Sparta (Greece) [30]
10. Hamburg [23]

Some interesting facts:

  • Only 40 of the cities listed have 10 games of more
  • Nearly all of the cities 3 or more (only three cities have 2 games listed)
  • Nearly all of the cities have an -opoly game listed

What are the other reasons a game is set in a city?

The reasons are probably the ones you would expect:

  • War
  • Transport (often trains)
  • Sports
  • Because the city holds a special place in world history

Which city is a big surprise?

  • Las Vegas in fifth place, with 45 games
  • But then Las Vegas is a city of games, so maybe it should have been first?
  • Notable title: Pigskin Vegas (1980) which included betting real-time while watching TV. More notable for its title than gameplay.

Which cities are generally lower than expected?

  • Los Angeles [13 games]
  • Tokyo [9 games] – maybe there are heaps of Tokyo games, just not in English. Could just be a natural bias in BGG as it is a predominantly English site.

What are some glaring holes?
Mexico City doesn’t have a listing. I guess they don’t really have the population compared to, say, Calgary, which has four games (two of which are, incidentally, about the Calgary Stampede). If you do a search for “Mexico City” in BGG there are four games that come up with that in the title. Then I realized that some of these titles were categorized by Country: Mexico, not by City: Mexico City. BoardGameGeek is amazing, but of course it isn’t perfect. Much like all of us who visit the site daily like it is a form of life-saving medicine.

Our beautiful, rainy city, Vancouver, is not listed. There are, however, four “Vancouver” games if you search for them. Or if you look under Country: Canada. They are all utterly terrible. Frankly, they don’t even deserve to be listed in the BGG. They should be flagged for being offensive in every way. So this may be our next job – creating a really good game set in Vancouver. Here’s a few ideas I’m going to work on:

  • Skytrain game: people always complain about transit breaking down. A game about getting transit up and running so that you can transport commuters. Yes, this is basically a train game. Think Martin Wallace and angry commuters.
  • Shipping game: Vancouver is a port city. Instead of a typical port game, though, this one would be all about the transport of drugs and the involvement of various gangs and the role of the longshoremen. Le Havre but with way more drugs?
  • Real estate game: If you have a conversation with someone from the Lower Mainland for more than three minutes it inevitably turns to the objectively bonkers real estate market here and the endless conspiracy theories surrounding it. Maybe you’re a real estate agent trying to buy and sell properties in a market that is going through turmoil? I need to channel my inner Friedemann Friese for this.
  • Since we recorded this episode I’ve come up with prototypes for these – this might be a future episode.

A few cities and games of note:

  • Frankfurt may only have 10 titles, but one is Stop-Over Frankfurt (1991) which involves UFO spotting. Interesting use of Frankfurt as setting.
  • Pompeii only has 6 titles. I thought there would be more but maybe we don’t want to play natural disasters, we only like our fatalities man-made.
  • A big title for cities in the eastern United States is Blizzard of ’77 Travel Game.
  • There’s only one Canterbury Tales game set in Canterbury, The Road to Canterbury (2011).
  • Cannes seems like a great setting for some film games but there’s only 4 titles total here. To be fair, they are Splotter’s Cannes: Stars, Scripts and Screens (2002), Le Festival de Cannes (1959) and an expansion for the latter title. Also, Monopoly: Cannes.
  • The notable title for the city of Colditz (3 titles total) is titled Escape From Colditz. I’m guessing that wasn’t sponsored by their tourist information board.

Now it’s time to take a look at listings by Country as a category listing in BGG.

Boardgame Countries

Q: Which country has the most boardgames listed? (not which country makes the most, but which games take place in or involve this country)
A: Germany. By a looooooongshot. 749 titles listed under Germany. Germany owns boardgaming. Germans are avid boardgamers so it reasons that their designers would set titles locally to appeal to the home market. Or Germans own BGG and have loaded it with their titles in some sort of really arcane plot. Not sure which.

Q: Which country was the next runner up?
A: USA. 534 titles. Not even close to Germany. But, then, are games designed by Americans that don’t have an explicit setting by default just set in America? Or do we assume fictional setting in this case?

Here’s the top 10:
1. Germany [749]
2. USA [534]
3. England [354] (note: also 67 listed under United Kingdom)
4. France [319]
5. Greece [266]
6. Japan [238]
7. Egypt [187]
8. Spain [181]
9. Russia [178] (also 23 listed for Soviet Union)
10. Australia [145]

The boardgames listed under each country, much like city listings, are dominated by train games and games relating to warfare. There are a lot of games from international publishers listed, but I’m not sure how non-English language inclusive this list is. As boardgames continue to explode in popularity, perhaps this trend will go global and more older titles from various non-English speaking countries will appear.

As for which country has the most classic games set in it, not sure. Spain gets both Alhambra and El Grande, for instance.

Big surprises here? Poland [137] had more listings than China [134]. There are a lot of wargames out there.

Tzolk'in

Also, Mexico only had 52 listed. And 5 of these entries are base game and expansions for Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar (2012). And one is a Ducktales game where “Uncle Scrooge, Huey, Dewey and Louie Duck, Gyro Gearloose and Launchpad McQuack travel to Mexico to search for QuetzalQuac Treasure. They must climb a pyramid, fight monsters and find precious items.” I would have thought that Mexico would have the kind of numbers Egypt has, even if just as a historical setting.

Q: How many games set in India?
A: Not nearly enough. 49. A country with 1.2 billion people needs more than 49 games that take place in it that aren’t just about conflict between India & Pakistan. All I truly know is that I really must play the Power Grid: Australia & Indian Subcontinent (2013) map now.

10 Days in Asia

I also noticed that Alan R. Moon is heavily represented in countries throughout Asia due to the game 10 Days in Asia (2007) and Ticket to Ride Map Collection: Volume 1 – Team Asia & Legendary Asia (2011).

Slovenia and Macedonia belong to the one game club (along with Barbados, Grenada and Saint Lucia) – their sole entry is Foto Yu (1986) “A game in which you travel across the republics of former Yugoslavia and take photographs of beautiful landscapes and historical monuments. Player who takes the most photos is the winner.” That seems quite nice, although it might also be really dark and full of sharp eastern-European political commentary. Can’t be sure.

For the record, the lonely title for Barbados and Saint Lucia is an Age of Steam expansion. And Grenada only gets Mission: Grenada (1985), “a tactical level simulation of the U.S. rescue mission on the small island nation of Grenada.” Trains. And war. War. And trains. Such is the circle of life.

What are my takeaways from researching for this episode:

  • War and transport are the main reasons to use a country or city as a location.
  • Settings are often used for historical purposes (even if they’re not a war setting).

This should be a sort of design challenge. Set a game in a city or country in a unique way that is both respectful to the setting and isn’t about war or transport and isn’t historical in nature. And isn’t an -opoly game. I was going to say King of Tokyo, but that’s purely about conflict isn’t it?

Suburbia

Or maybe when the setting is just window dressing for a mechanic or theme why not come up with a fictional setting like Suburbia or Machi Koro. Maybe we’ll see more of this after the grief/free advertising Five Tribes received over the slave card originally in the game. Surely some of the older games out there are so culturally insensitive that they would not even be made now. While fascinating, researching for this really made me think a lot about how we use location and setting. I ended up feeling like there is so much more than can be done. All of my future game designs are going to take place in an imaginary part of deep, deep space. Space… but that’s another episode.

I had fun doing this research, though, it was surprisingly much less work than I expected. I seriously thought this would be the topic I would throw aside after four hours of clicking.

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