What are the main motivation axes in tabletop gaming? Are there 3 core motivations, or 8? Do people who care about strategy also tend to care about winning, or is that more related to people who enjoy high conflict mechanics?

See how you compare with other board gamers. Take a 5-minute survey and get your Board Game Motivation Profile.

There’s a standardized process in psychology research to address these questions, and it centers on a statistical method called Factor Analysis. This technique identifies how variables cluster together and surfaces underlying commonalities. For example, if we find that gamers who care a lot about having a good time with friends also prefer accessible games that are easy to learn, we might label this as the Social Fun cluster.

Creating the Pilot Inventory

To create a pilot inventory of motivations to test, we looked for proposed taxonomies (e.g., Schools of Design, Gamer Archetypes), interacted with gamers by starting forum threads on /r/boardgames and BoardGameGeek, and had long discussions with our colleagues at Coalition Game Studios.

Altogether, we had 59 motivation items in the pilot inventory.

We collated motivations and attitudes that have been proposed and generated survey items that targeted those motivations. Altogether, we had 59 motivation items in the pilot inventory. We also included usage/habit variables to help the analysis of the data. This included questions related to (for example) typical gaming frequency and participation in board games, RPGs, CCGs, and miniature wargames.

Gathering the Data

We publicized the pilot inventory as a research project to tabletop gamers in our Quantic Foundry mailing list, via social media on Facebook and Twitter, as well as on new forum threads targeting tabletop gamers on /r/boardgames and BoardGameGeek.

Respondents were told that their data would be used to create a tabletop gamer motivation profile (an online app where gamers could take a survey and get a personalized report back). We provided an account registration option, which would allow respondents to retrieve their profile when the online app is ready at a later date. No other incentives were provided to participants.

1,549 valid responses were collected.

1,549 valid responses were collected (i.e., unique IP address, fewer than 2 missing responses, valid entries for age/gender, and psychometrically-plausible responses to the Likert scale questions).

Stumbling into the Genre Problem

Early on in our research process, we had briefly discussed the intended scope of the profile. Were we inclusive of all tabletop games, including CCGs and RPGs? At that point in time, we had decided to err on the side of being more inclusive. And we figured we could always filter the data by genre afterwards should any problems arise.

And well, the problem did arise. The most common complaint we received during the pilot study was from gamers who regularly played multiple genres (most commonly, this was RPGs + board games). They were unsure how to respond to the inventory because they cared about different things in the two genres. So for example, a gamer really cares about narrative in RPGs, but prefers to play abstract strategy board games.

We started discussing potential ways to resolve this problem. Could we ask respondents to focus on one genre when they complete the profile? Could we maintain separate population norms for each genre in the backend? But as we started the data analysis, it became quite clear that these inclusive strategies would only create bigger problems.

The motivation spaces for these genres are quite different.

Fundamentally, the motivation spaces for these genres are quite different. A “theme/narrative” motivation is interesting from a board game perspective, but most tabletop RPG gamers would be in a narrow band on the high end with insufficient granularity to tease apart interesting variations. Similarly, almost all CCGs are 2-player competitive games, so CCG gamers would score in a narrow band of a high conflict and competition motivation without sufficient granularity/variation. There are also likely more nuanced motivations in CCGs and RPGs that wouldn’t be captured in a generic tabletop gaming framework. In the end, the model might end up simply sorting by genre rather than reveal interesting differences between gamers.

Focusing on Board Games

So we decided to focus on board games moving forward. In the data analysis, we excluded gamers who only played tabletop RPGs (n = 43). Then we compared gamers who only played board games (n = 795) against those who played a mixture of tabletop genres (n = 673, most commonly board games + RPGs). We found no substantive differences in the factor solutions for these two groups. This gave us the confidence to use most of the data (n = 1,468) for the factor analysis. When we generated the population norms for the profile tool, we did so with the gamers who only played board games.

Identifying the 4 Main Motivations

The factor analysis revealed 4 high-level motivations, each composed of a central component and a secondary component. The central component is the more dominant motivation, and the secondary motivation is often (but not always) aligned with it. The secondary motivation adds nuance to the axis in terms of whether it is aligned or not. For example, gamers who like strategic complexity are often (but not always) interested in exploring game mechanics and systems.

Here are short summaries of the 4 motivation clusters. For more detailed descriptions of each motivation (along with game examples), check out an example profile report.

1) Conflict

Gamers with high Conflict scores tend be more competitive and enjoy games where players can take hostile actions directly against each other. This could be stealing another player’s resources, forcing them to discard, or destroying their units/buildings.

Social Manipulation (Secondary Motivation): Gamers who score high on Social Manipulation enjoy playing psychological mind games, where outcomes aren’t determined by dice or rulebooks, but instead by their ability to bluff, deceive, and persuade other players.

2) Strategy

Gamers with high Strategy scores enjoy taking on cognitive challenges. For them, games are a fun way to hone and test their intellectual abilities. They enjoy complexity, whether this comes from an intricate ruleset or overlapping mechanics that have short and long term trade-offs.

Systems Discovery (Secondary Motivation): Gamers who score high on this motivation are discoverers who have a broad interest in rulesets, game mechanics, and the play spaces that are enabled and emerge from different game systems.

3) Fantasy

Gamers who have high Fantasy scores enjoy being immersed in another world, with its own lore, history, and cast of interesting characters. To them, the game is a fantasy world that comes alive as it is played.

Aesthetics (Secondary Motivation): Gamers who score high on Aesthetics like high-quality components that strongly reflect the theme and setting of the game. They enjoy tactile components that capture, enhance, and represent the fantasy world created by the game.

4) Social Fun

For gamers who score high on Social Fun, playing board games is first and foremost about having a good time with other people. The board game itself is simply a convenient prop around which friends and family can gather and have fun together.

Accessibility (Secondary Motivation): Gamers who score high on Accessibility prefer games that a broad range of people can pick up and enjoy. After all, if you like playing board games with other people, then it’s helpful to have games that a lot of people can get into.

Next Steps and Additional Thoughts

We are continuing to test new items in the survey and revise the model as we gather more data. Help us improve the Board Game Motivation Profile by participating and sharing your profile with your friends.