Minerva and the Tragedy of High Expectations

You’d think the Roman empire was falling all over again. The new edition of Hisashi Hayashi’s Minerva has shipped, and its backers are up in arms. What went wrong?If you read the comments on the game’s Kickstarter page, you might think the game is a disaster. The thread is full of statements like “Worst product I’ve ever backed.”, “the insert is horrendous”, and “really disappointed in this campaign”. (There are positive comments too.)

The reality is a little different. Minerva is a tile-based city builder game that reminds my daughter and me of Machi Koro, only with less rolling the dice and hoping for the best. You’re in charge of a Roman city, and you build it up by buying tiles from a common pool. Each building tile generates resources when activated, but you can only activate tiles a few times. Success comes from lining up your rows and columns of building so you generate the most resources with your limited activations.

Minerva in play

Hayashi designed Trains, Sail to India, and Yokohama, and Minerva shares these games’ interest in using simple mechanics to drive a challenging economic engine. Puzzle fans like me find lots to love in them, but there is no dice rolling and not much action.

A quiet game like Minerva needs visual and tactile appeal to win over game groups, and the Deluxe edition of the game does this well. The tiles are functional and colorful. The wooden tokens represent the resources well. (The red Glory “laurels” are downright clever.) The standout feature is the metal coins. They are small but heavy, and rewarding to clink in your hand.

So What Went Wrong with Minerva?

Many of the criticisms are accurate. Minerva’s good design choices are marred by sloppy mistakes. The coins were stamped with an earlier graphic design and never updated. The rulebook is full of typos and errors. Several “deluxe” elements were dropped with little notice to backers.

Publisher Pandasaurus Games has stood by the game, while promising to address the mistakes. Pandasaurus has also pointed out that it is a small studio, with only two employees and an ambitious slate of games. That’s reasonable. But it’s also clear that the project got away from them a bit.

Trouble Ahead?

Here’s what troubles me. I just moved, and had the happy task of unpacking my core hobby game library — about a hundred board games ranging back to the classic Acquire. Next to most of those games, Minerva looks great. Never mind metal coins — it wasn’t that long ago when full-color tiles would have blown out the production budgets of most games.

Technology has raised production standards, and the growth of the board game market has lead to an explosion in new releases. Even tiny Pandasaurus Games has six games scheduled for this year — not including Minerva, which is technically a re-release. In a busy market, with many games competing, each game has to offer more features and shinier bits to get attention.

Inevitably, that has raised our expectations.

High expectations are good — the board game market has benefited from prettier games with better designs. But remember the complaint about the coins misprint? The current coins look fine — no typos, nothing ugly. Players objected to the words “Pandasaurus” in tiny letters on the coins, and were enraged when the changed design didn’t make it onto the final coins.

That’s getting a little toxic.

Pandasaurus has promised a new set of coins for backers, a choice that may cost them most of the profit on Minerva. This may be worth it to them from a brand building perspective, but it’s a flashing yellow light for the board game market.

Is there a happy balance between market growth and rising customer expectations? Can small publishers keep up with the pressure of fast releases, high quality requirements, and short sales windows? That’s something I’ll be watching closely as we run up to Essen Spiele in October. The board game market may be about to live in interesting times…

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