Itís counterintuitive but true that making a board game freely available to play online may in fact lead to increased sales. I had been pondering this thought for some time now, but was recently impelled to compile all of the instances in which this was the case for myself. I have only just now begun to realize how many games I have purchased as a direct result of being exposed to playing them online. It is a sizeable percentage of my collection indeed. This vague notion was recently crystallized when I read a discussion between Eric Endres and Bruno Cathala available at this link. Bruno is one of the designers of Mr. Jack in 2006 and the Mr. Jack Extension in 2007, along with a host of other well-known games (e.g., Shadows over Camelot, Cleopatra and the Society of Architects, Mission: Red Planet, Queenís Necklace). Eric points out that "it should be noted that providing a free online version of a game doesn't necessarily hurt sales, and the opposite may even be true. Having played the online version of Mr. Jack, it is now on my 'must have' list to buy soon. The same thing happened when I discovered Tikal at spielbyweb. I bought that the first chance I had . . . I know it sometimes may seem counterintuitive to selling something by providing it for free. And sometimes it is, but in this case I think it definitely features the game in a way that will help generate buzz and sales for the board game version." I strongly agree, and would go even further in emphasizing how much I think making a game available to play for free online can help improve sales.
Before I go any further, you might be wondering, where can I find all these games to play for free online? There are countless sites that you can use, many with different games and many with very nice interfaces. For example, for real-time play you canít beat BrettspielWelt. While it certainly wonít get any awards for the interface, which is not at all user friendly, it has a plethora of eurogames available for real-time play and a large number of users to play against. For turn-based play, your best bets are probably Spiel By Web and MaBiWeb since both have very nice interfaces and a good selection of games. There are many other websites available as well of course, such as Ludagora, Amarriner, Days of Wonder, and Little Golem. For a full list of websites where you can play board games online, check out the BoardGameGeek wiki page. Iíve tried all of those sites and then some, and have purchased fourteen board games after having tried and enjoyed playing them online.
BrettspielWelt has been responsible for the vast majority of these purchases, including Piranha Pedro, Ingenious, Hey Thatís My Fish, StreetSoccer, YINSH, DVONN, Canít Stop, Clans, Thurn & Taxis, China, and Attribute. Iíd never even heard of Piranha Pedro before being introduced to it on BrettspielWelt, and itís not even a game that ever got an English edition, but itís language independent, and very fun. The components are very nice, making it even more enjoyable to play in person, plus itís all about bluffing your opponents, which works infinitely better in person, yet another reason to own a copy. StreetSoccer is another light, quick, fun game that I wasnít familiar with until I had a chance to try it on BSW. While I thought it was alright on BSW, itís got a lot of dice rolling, and I knew Iíd like it even more in person because dice rolling loses something in translation to the computer. Speaking of which, Canít Stop was a game that Iíd heard of but never tried until BSW, where I didnít even enjoy it very much, but just knew that it would really work in person, and it definitely does. The push-your-luck element and baiting your opponent to never stop really revolves around personal interaction. Iím still thankful that itís available on BSW even if it doesnít work very well on the computer because itís exactly why I bought the game. The Project GIPF games (i.e., YINSH and DVONN) are a series of games that Iíd read about but had never given a second thought due to my innate and irrational fear of pure abstract games. I wasnít ever planning to try or buy any of them, until one day I gave YINSH a try on BrettspielWelt, and was very surprised by how intuitive and engaging it was. I bought a copy shortly thereafter and was extremely impressed by the quality of the components. It wasnít long before I was trying DVONN on BSW as well and of course bought it too. In fact, BSW is responsible for me buying a game that isnít even available to play on it, which is ZERTZ because itís part of the Project GIPF series, and BSW was the sole reason that I even tried any of the series to begin with. Similarly, I bought China even though itís not available on BSW because Iíd tried its predecessor Web of Power, which is available for play online. Project GIPF isnít the only set of abstract games that BSW impelled me to buy. I hadnít given Reiner Kniziaís Ingenious a second thought even though it incorporated one of my favorite mechanics (i.e., the scoring from Tigris & Euphrates), but after enjoying it on BSW (especially the four-player two versus two team variant), I had to have a copy so that I could play the team variant in person where the strategizing and team-work go to a whole new level.
While BrettspielWelt is the online site that has most boosted my offline sales, Spiel By Web is how I discovered both Reef Encounter and Wallenstein, and MaBiWeb was where I fell in love with Michael Schachtís Hansa. The latter is a game that Iíd even played in person before trying it online, but it was with four players, and I wasnít particularly impressed with the game at that point. Thankfully I later tried it as a two-player game online at MaBiWeb, where I realized how great the game truly is. Since then it has become one of my most played games, and is definitely one of the premiere Super Fillers for two players (rivaling even Through the Desert). Similarly, Reef Encounter and Wallenstein are both games that I first tried on Spiel By Web, both games that I have since purchased, and both games that have become solidly entrenched in my personal Top 50 games of all-time. Iím very thankful for the chance to have tried them online first, and know that it was that taste of their depth that made me need to have them to fully explore.
There are also countless other games that I had already purchased before I ever played them online, but am still very glad that I have a copy, and enjoy playing them both online and in person. These include: Imperial, Notre Dame, Ra, Caylus, Amun-Re, Carcassonne, Kreta, Niagara, Ticket to Ride, Samurai, Santiago, Tikal, Tigris & Euphrates, Roads & Boats, and Blokus, among others. Any of these games are ones that easily could have joined the ranks of the fourteen above, if not for the fact that I happened to discover them elsewhere and purchase them before discovering their online implementation.
Board gaming is a social activity. Thatís obvious enough. Itís all about the people. The games and their mechanics are important, but Iím sure most of us would rather play a mediocre game with great people than a fabulous game with people you donít like. Online gaming is a great way to try out new games and get your game fix when thereís no one around to play against, but itís still a sterile and ultimately unfulfilling experience if itís all you have. Playing games online is better than not playing games at all, but it pales in comparison to sitting across the table from friends to play a game. Playing games online never quenches my desire to play, but rather simply spurs me to want to play in person as soon as possible. If I enjoy a game online, I canít imagine ever deciding that I wouldnít need to own it because of its free online availability because thatís just not what board gaming is about. I doubt Iím alone and am sure most people out there could think of a handful of titles that they purchased as a direct result of having played them online. So I think Iíll go play an online board game right now and whet my appetite for face-to-face gaming.