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Often, one plays a computer game through once and then is done with it. "Replay-ability" is something that is a great plus with a game, but not every successful one has it. But with board games, being able to play again and again is a basic necessity for its success. And some games are still loved (e.g., Monopoly and Risk) generations after they were first invented. The ultimate in replayability. Why is it that some games continue to hold lasting appeal even when society, culture, and the people themselves have changed so much since they were invented?

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I think the basic premise of this is flawed. There are board games that have terrible replayability, and there are computer games that have great replayability (Tetris anyone). I agree with some of the answers, but they could just as easily by applied to non board games. –  bwarner Jan 2 '12 at 22:54
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6 Answers

I agree with Lo'oris' argument that most older well known games are still widespread mostly because they already are everywhere. How many people go out and buy chess boards compared to the number of people who simply have them around from previous generations?

I think there are some additional aspects:

Simplicity

In my experience games need a good balance between complexity and depth in order to be popular. Basically the ratio of options a player has divided by the amount of rules he has to learn. A lot of games that are popular in our family are relatively easy to learn but offer a lot of possibilities in comparison. This can be illustrated especially well with games that are in very similar but somehow one of them just feels better. Compare Pachisi and Dog/Tock. The have the exact same basic concept — move your pieces around the board one time and get into the safe haven. But in all the groups I've played in Dog/Tock has completely displaced all other Pachisi variants because with a few additional rules it has become a much more interesting game.

Uniqueness

Most modern boardgames aim to produce a specific atmosphere or experience that is perhaps unusual for the players — a feeling they would otherwise not have. With so many games out there a lot of times games can feel similar to each other. There are countless games where you throw dice, move along a path and do something according to the field you landed on — nothing special. And then there are games that somehow manage to capture something special. For example Pandemic expertly captures the rush of working together against an overwhelming threat, Bohnanza produces an intense trading atmosphere, and games like Werewolves or Battlestar Galactica allow people to play out their mischievous and paranoid traits.

Whenever a game is released that succeeds with a good combination of these two (and maybe other) aspects then it is likely to become quite popular. Of course others will try to copy and improve that mixture. Some will fail but others will eventually succeed. At that point a battle will take place between the improved qualities of the newer game and the established following of the older one.

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For the curious (like me), here's a link to the Wikipedia article on Dog/Tock (currently a stub): en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tock –  Firefeather Mar 9 '11 at 17:26
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Monopoly and Risk were better than many others when they came out, so they were successful and became very widespread: now their "appeal" is only based on either nostalgia, or "getting used to them", or "not knowing the better alternatives", because overall they are very very poor games (especially Monopoly).

In general boardgames have a better replayability value simply because they are designed to have it, as opposite to some videogames that are (more or less) designed to be played just once. You will notice how PvP videogames usually have an higher replayability value than the PvE one: that's because playing against your friends makes the game more unpredictable than playing it against fixed opponents/levels. Since boardgames are almost exclusively PvP...

It's worth notice that both the videogame and the boardgame industry are recently experimenting different kinds of gameplay, so what I just said is only valid up to "a few years ago": now things are changing.

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curious - what makes you say Monopoly is a "very very poor" game? –  warren Feb 23 '11 at 14:12
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@warren: I don't know about Lo'oris, but here's why I dislike Monopoly so much (Copied from my user profile): It lasts hours, it's not very intellectually or socially entertaining, you have all sorts of house rules (many of which break the game or prolong an already insufferable game), people say they don't like board games when they really just hate Monopoly and haven't discovered better games. –  Firefeather Mar 9 '11 at 17:31
    
@Firefeather - funny, outside of playing international Monopoly, I rarely have a game last more than 75-90 minutes –  warren Mar 9 '11 at 20:35
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@warren: That would be nice; I think the house rules are mainly responsible for all the long games I've played (things like winner-is-the-last-one-bankrupted, haggling over trades, pick up tax money when landing on free parking). Unfortunately, some of these house rules have become incorporated into the rules. Also, its lack of intellectual or social entertainment value also makes it feel long. I think one reason why there are so many house rules (even all the bad ones) is that the game is so boring when played by the official rules. –  Firefeather Mar 9 '11 at 20:45
    
@Firefeather how is "winner-is-the-last-one-bankrupted" anything but a standard rule that was there from the beginning? That's how I always understood the game was meant to be played, and I learned the game as a small child by actually reading the instructions (and then getting mad at the people setting up 'free parking' funds). –  Karl Knechtel Dec 31 '11 at 5:14
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Something I find that helps tremendously in replayability is variable start-up. This is critical to games like Settlers of Catan and Dominion. Every time you start things are going to be very different and require a different strategy. Compare this to something like monopoly, which is going to start exactly the same and have the exact same strategies almost every time. If you've never played Dominion with a certain kingdom card, or never played Catan where you end up without any brick, its going to feel very different and re-engage you possibly as much as the first time you played it. New strategies and evaluations of new situations make up most of the difference between the game you end up playing 5-15 times and the game you end up playing 50+ times.

How this variability in strategy is achieved varies as widely as board games themselves do. Dominion has different kingdom cards, Catan has variable islands, bridge has your starting hand, Carcassonne has what tiles you draw, werewolf has different personalities you're playing with, and many cooperative games have different player roles and varying threats that need to be addressed. But the more similar a game is each time you play it, the less you'll tend to want to play it again.

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I think this simply comes down to the game mechanics.

What makes a great game great, is that depending on the strategy employed by the person you are playing against, it can significantly change the outcome of the game. Not one strategy is going to last you through winning at all times, but requires you to shift and change your strategy based on the approach your opponents are playing. A good game mechanic can ensure that the available strategy for winning is varied and dynamic.

Predictability is boring, variety is not.

That said, I am a much bigger fan of luckless games. Whilst I like to try to outsmart my opponents, I hate to lose or win by the luck of the dice or the random turn of a card.

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I like some element of chance to the game most of the time because it more closely mirrors how life appears to work :) –  warren Feb 23 '11 at 14:13
    
Luck is important because, I agree, predictability is boring. I'd also comment that the reason why some people don't like too much luck is that luck comes at the cost of the feeling of control. I agree with Csíkszentmihályi's theory of Flow, in that the most enjoyable state of mind can only be achieved in activities where one can believe he/she has a certain level of control of the situation. –  Firefeather Mar 9 '11 at 17:45
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It's possible to have an element of luck in the creation of the "environment" and then leave it entirely up to skill to make the best use of that environment. –  Karl Knechtel Dec 31 '11 at 5:16
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The social aspect is huge, and it's importance cannot be overstated. Even with all the new technology, playing video games with people in other locations doesn't provide anything close to the same camaraderie of a bunch of people in one room. And even now there are very few video games that work for more than 4 people at once, and many multiplayer video games have a steep skill curve and will be less fun if some of the participants aren't as good as others.

Another factor (inspired by the comments about Monopoly) is adaptability. One of our most popular tags here is one that's completely absent from gaming.stackexchange: [house-rules]. With board games, it's easy to experiment, try something unusual, twist and combine. Most games I like I've at least tried to play in a different way, and some of the variations have stuck. This is so easy to do with board games, and takes a lot of effort and some specialized skills to do with most computer games.

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This is wrong. Most games are not really "adaptable", and as soon as you recklessly introduce some random house-rule without thinking straight and testing much, you will likely break the game. –  Lohoris Dec 31 '11 at 11:58
    
@Lohoris, well, [house-rules] is the the 5th most popular tag on the site. I did edit my answer giving adaptability second seat to the social aspect, which I think is by far the most important factor. –  shujaa Dec 31 '11 at 19:56
    
@Lohoris I must beg to differ slightly. Most variants started as house rules somewhere, and handicapping systems are almost always part of house rules. Yes, many house rules will "break" the game, but some succeed spectacularly and spread, sometimes creating a new game or popular variant. Chess was created by adopting a series of house rules to caturaṅga over time. Many multiplayer versions of Magic: The gathering started as house rules that spread. I don't think they are a reason board games are popular, but they certainly aren't a bad thing. –  TimothyAWiseman Jan 3 '12 at 21:02
    
@shujaa: due to your edit, removed the -1 ;) –  Lohoris Jan 3 '12 at 21:25
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I think the main (though not sole) factor is the competition, and depth is another major one.

I love video games, but in most of them I am playing against the computer, often with a difficulty slider, often with the ability to adjust it after the game has begun. It is fun, but not competitive. I might play it through twice (especially if a different play through style) but more than that is very rare and by then I've seen it most of everything there is to see. Enslaved: Journey to the West is one of my favorite recent vide games, but I only played it through once because there wasn't much more to see or do on a second playthrough.

With Chess or Go on the other hand, I am competing against another human (I do play against computers on both, but I see that largely as training/practice for playing against humans). They also have enormous depth, where I frequently discover things that are new to me in games or in books about the games. In contrast, while I certainly missed some things, I found most of what was available in Enslaved: Journey to the West in my playthrough. Even more, professional Go and Chess players are discovering things that are new to the entire world.

To agree with and expand on what Lohoris said, video games that incorporate depth and competition last a lot longer than others. Starcraft, which is all about competition and has enormous depth, is still played many years later and only really started dropping in popularity when Starcraft II came out with those elements and better graphics.

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