Mega Hits of the Board Game Industry

What do the most successful hobby board games of the past few decades have in common?

Posted on 7/29/2017 by Tim Rice

Board Game Mega Hits

Each year, hundreds of new and interesting board games hit the market, and most people never even find out they exist. In the grand scheme of things, the board game market is relatively small. When most people think of board games, antiquated titles that have had decades to ingrain themselves into pop culture (Monopoly, Clue, Scrabble, etc.) are still at the forefront of people’s minds.

The games that are released today, in most cases, are heads and shoulders above these classic titles in terms of quality. However, competing with the tried-and-true titans of the industry is no easy feat, and most games don’t have what it takes to break through to the mainstream.

Every once in awhile though, a game is released that transcends the hobby gaming niche and achieves a following that reaches far beyond what’s expected. These are the games that not only sell well, they sell well enough to share store shelves with the aforementioned “titans of the industry” and get played by people who have no idea how vast the world of hobby gaming actually is.

These are the games I want to talk about today.

I thought it might be interesting to take a look at a few examples of uber-successful games that have grown out of the hobby market in recent times and compare them to see if any patterns emerge. Obviously there’s no foolproof formula for creating a hit board game, but these games do tend to share certain characteristics that are worth taking into consideration.

The way I see it, the games that become mega hits all have three important characteristics:

  1. They are easy to learn and easy to play.
  2. They have a core mechanic that is unique, memorable, and engaging.
  3. They are exceptionally well-designed.

For this article, I’m choosing six games that I think best exemplify the "mega hit" distinction and measuring them against these three criteria. Hopefully this exercise will be useful for generating discussion about what the average game consumer is likely to enjoy.

The Hit List

The following list details some of the most well-known and influential designer games that have been released in the past few decades. These are the games that I’ll use as data points for my analysis, not only because of their incredible success, but also because they’re all solid representatives that showcase what the hobby has to offer.

Catan (1995)

You can’t compose a list of mega hits without including the OG eurogame phenomenon: The Settlers of Catan. This game is generally considered to be the first German-style board game to achieve widespread success in the US, and even 22 years after its release, its popularity is not slowing down. It features resource management, dice rolling, a modular board, and of course trading/negotiation.


Carcassonne (2000)

The fact that Carcassonne has managed to remain one of the most well-known hobby games after 17 years on the market, despite being basically themeless, is quite impressive. I’m pretty sure there are more Carcassonne expansions out there now than there are atoms in the known universe. This classic blend of tile placement and area control deserves a place on the mega hit list.


Ticket to Ride (2004)

Who could have guessed that a simple game about connecting trains on a map would resonate so well with so many gamers around the world? The Ticket to Ride franchise has proven that polished and streamlined game design can take a game very far. Its main mechanics are set collection and route building.

Ticket to Ride

Pandemic (2008)

The cooperative game craze is here to stay, and Pandemic is basically the genre’s poster child at this point. Believe it or not, this game about curing the world of disease is quickly approaching the highest levels of popularity, and the ambitious Pandemic Legacy has achieved massive critical acclaim as well. It seems this franchise has become a juggernaut of hobby gaming, and its success is not slowing down anytime soon. The game features a variety of mechanisms including set collection, an action point allowance system, and of course cooperative play.


Dominion (2008)

Not many games are both enjoyable and unique enough to start an entirely new genre almost single-handedly, but Dominion is the exception. This card game used the deck building concept which was popularized by collectible card games such as Magic: The Gathering, but instead of having players build the decks before the game started, building the deck was the game. This novel idea inspired countless other designers who created deck-builders of their own, but still none have matched the success of the original.


Codenames (2015)

I wanted to include at least one newer game on this list, and Codenames wins that spot thanks to the explosive success it has seen in the past couple of years. This simple party game about word association has certainly achieved mainstream success, and only time will tell if that continues and propels it to the same level as the rest of these games (I suspect that it will, it's well on its way already). It’s a rare party game that appeals to both casual gamers and board game geeks alike.

  • 7 Wonders - This card drafting game continues to sell exceedingly well thanks to its quick, strategic gameplay and support of a large range of player counts.
  • King of Tokyo - It’s Yahtzee, but with giant monster battles. Of course people love it!
  • Qwirkle - Apparently it is still possible for an abstract game to hit it big!
  • Apples to Apples - This modern classic is often forgotten, but it’s an enormously influential party game whose mainstream success shouldn’t be understated.
  • Wits and Wagers - Another fun party game that has achieved impressive success.
  • Magic: The Gathering - Obviously this game is a mega hit that is arguably bigger than any other game on this list, but I believe it belongs in a league of its own. The same goes for the Warhammer miniatures game franchise.
  • There are several other games that have seen enormous success, but I decided not to include them because they’re not necessarily "representatives of hobby board gaming" in the same ways that the six I chose are. Munchkin, Cranium, Cards Against Humanity, Fluxx, and Exploding Kittens all belong in that group. (I’m not trying to criticize these games, I’m just going off of my interpretation of the community sentiment).

Ingredient #1: Easy to Learn, Easy to Play

In this modern society of instant gratification, most people don’t have much patience for reading long instruction manuals. It’s no coincidence that all six of these games are medium to light weight: the easier a game is to learn, the more people will be willing to learn it. In addition to that aspect, play time and player count seem to be important factors as well, since being able to pull out a game with a variety of people in a variety of situations is a huge advantage.

  • Catan works with 3-4 players (although the 5-6 player extension is common), can be played in 60-120 minutes, and has a weight rating (from the BoardGameGeek community) of 2.36/5. It fits into the strategy game genre as well as the family game genre.
  • Carcassonne works with 2-5 players (6 with an expansion), can be played in 30-45 minutes, and has a weight rating of 1.94/5. It fits into the family game genre.
  • Ticket to Ride works with 2-5 players, can be played in 30-60 minutes, and has a weight rating of 1.88/5. It fits into the family game genre.
  • Pandemic works with 2-4 players (5 with an expansion), can be played in 45 minutes, and has a weight rating of 2.43/5. It fits into the strategy game genre as well as the family game genre.
  • Dominion works with 2-4 players (5-6 with an expansion), can be played in 30 minutes, and has a weight rating of 2.37/5. It fits into the strategy game genre.
  • Codenames works with 2-8 players (although I imagine 2-3 is not common), can be played in 15 minutes, and has a weight rating of 1.36/5. It fits into the party game genre.


  • There is a noticeable similarity in the player counts that these games support. All of them except for Catan support 2 players, and all of them support 3-5 if you consider expansions. It seems likely that the majority of play sessions fall into the 2-5 player range, so that makes sense.
  • All of these games (except for Catan again...) can be played in under an hour. 30-60 minutes seems to be a sweet spot.
  • Family games and strategy games are well-represented. Codenames is the only party game.
  • As expected, the weight ratings range from light to medium-light. None of them reach 3/5 which indicates a medium weight game (although I’ll admit that the BGG community does have a tendency to underrate the complexity of games).
Ticket to Ride

Ingredient #2: A Unique/Memorable/Engaging Mechanic

No matter how easy a game is to play, nobody will care about it if it isn’t interesting. One trend that I’ve noticed is that mega hits tend to take one or two mechanics and distill them down to their essence, which results in a clean, streamlined experience. These mechanics don’t necessarily have to be unique in the sense that they’ve never been done before, but they do have to be unique in the sense that non-gamers have likely never played anything like them.

I’d argue that every single one of these six games has at least one of these "golden mechanics" that is both distinctive and intriguing, and that it was a major factor in their success. Having that one feature that people remember and tell their friends about is one of the main things that sets these mega hits apart from the rest of the pack.

  • Catan basically introduced the eurogame genre to US gamers, which at the time was incredibly different from anything else on the market. Most people consider the trade negotiations to be the “star of the show”, but the ancillary mechanics of resource management and the modular board should be recognized as well. The entire package was (and still is for most people) a refreshing experience that only this game could provide, and that’s why it’s still relevant today.
  • Carcassonne is one of the purest tile placement games out there, and I think the simple novelty of being able to build your own board throughout the game is what excites people the most. Not only that, it also introduced the iconic meeple, which shouldn’t be overlooked considering it’s basically a mascot for the hobby at this point.
  • Ticket to Ride, or “the train game” as my family likes to call it, benefits greatly from a gorgeous board and colorful components. It’s a clean and tense network building game on its own, but watching the routes grow throughout the game is also aesthetically pleasing.
  • Pandemic is the most popular cooperative game out there right now, and it’s a lot of people’s introduction into the genre. The concept of working together rather than against each other in a board game appeals to a lot of people, so when you add on a sharp design, great components, and a unique theme, you’ve got yourself a hit.
  • Dominion started its own golden mechanic: deck building. People loved this mechanic so much that the game’s questionable presentation/art didn’t slow down its success at all.
  • Codenames’ iconic mechanic is a bit harder to pin down. Word association games aren’t necessarily unique, Password and Pyramid were popular game shows several decades ago. However, the addition of a grid of options that allow for more flexible and abstract clues really does foster an entirely distinct experience, since finding that line between too specific and too broad (and also avoiding false positives) is the most stimulating part.

There seems to be a trend here where each of these games has that one mechanic that defines them. Catan is the trading game. Carcassonne is the tile placement game. Ticket to Ride is the route building game. Pandemic is the cooperative game. Dominion is the deck building game. Codenames is...the word association game? (OK fine, maybe that one is the exception). Anyway, this begs the question: what mechanics don’t have a mega hit associated with them yet?

  • Worker Placement? Agricola, Stone Age, and Lords of Waterdeep are quite popular, but I wouldn’t call them mega hits. Perhaps a lighter implementation of this mechanic could be the next big thing.
  • Social Deduction? The Resistance, Werewolf, and Bang! franchises all have a solid following, but not quite to the level of these other games yet.
  • Legacy? Pandemic Legacy could turn out to be just as successful as the original if its current momentum continues.
  • Something new? Dominion started a new trend, the next mega hit could be something totally different from anything we’ve seen before.

Ingredient #3: Exceptional Design

Board game design has come a long way since Monopoly was released. There’s no substitute for solid design fundamentals; things that were common in games of the past such as long turns, player elimination, and roll-and-move aren’t necessarily going to fly in today’s market.


The third ingredient was originally going to be "it has to be fun", but I decided that fun is too subjective of a term. No matter how fun a game is, there will be people who hate it. That’s why I changed it to exceptionally designed, because even if you don’t think these mega hit games are fun, it’s hard to deny that they are remarkable achievements in terms of design.

  • Catan keeps players engaged constantly by giving them something to do during every player’s turn, both in trading and in resource generation. It’s also a rare multi-faceted experience that incorporates strategy in the form of network building and resource management, luck in the form of dice rolling, and social interaction in the negotiations.
  • Carcassonne features extremely quick turns, offers players refreshingly tactical decisions consistently, and impresses players with visual progression.
  • Ticket to Ride is a classic example of "easy to learn, difficult to master". It somehow manages to be deep and engaging, while at the same time being elegant and effortless. This multi-dimensional appeal ensures that anyone can enjoy it.
  • Pandemic is a sharp implementation of a solid theme. The idea of battling against disease outbreaks is an idea that everyone can get behind, and the mechanics consistently create unique puzzles that require teamwork to solve.
  • Dominion has endless variety and replayability, with solid mechanics to back it up. Crafting interesting and unique deck strategies each game is truly something special, and this game provides that in a clean and efficient package.
  • Codenames took a risk by deviating from the typical low-effort and laugh-heavy formula that most party games tend to follow, and it paid off. It somehow created an experience that is both intellectually challenging and incredibly accessible, and that’s impressive.

Interestingly, all but one of these games won the coveted and highly-respected Spiel des Jahres award (German for Game of the Year) for the year they were released. Pandemic didn’t win, but it was nominated against Dominion to be fair. This raises an interesting question: would these games have become mega hits if they hadn’t won? There’s a proven correlation between winning the award and eventual sales numbers, so that’s interesting to think about.


In reality, there’s a fourth ingredient that might be less compelling, but is arguably the most important of all: great marketing. Even if a game meets all of these criteria, getting enough people to care about it is not a simple task.

The verdict is, unsurprisingly, that it takes A LOT for a board game to become a mega hit. You would think that, as long as a game is fun, it can find success, but clearly there’s much more to it than that. However, awareness of the hobby and the industry as a whole is still growing at a respectable pace, so perhaps within a few years we’ll see even more games in the spotlight.

As always, I’d love to hear other thoughts as well. What ingredients do you think make a mega hit? Are there any similarities that I missed? Please leave a comment if you so desire.

Thanks for reading!

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