Lumper or Splitter?

(This is a post from my other blog, and it’s a few years old. Still, whattya think?)

How do you categorize board games? Do you divide them into two or three groups based on some basic feature? If so, you’re a “lumper” – you tend to see similarities among things and group them together. A lumper might separate the world of games primarily into board games versus card games, or two-player versus multi-player, or strategy versus luck. If you think that’s too arbitrary and choose a game detail that’s more germane to the game-playing experience and consists of more categories, you are focusing on differences between games, and you’re a “splitter.” A splitter might have several major categories, such as party, strategy, family, trivia, themed, and kids games, for example.

What kind of a game, for example, is Sequence? Is it a card game, or a board game? If you were (or are) in charge of a game store, where would you stock it? Maybe under Family games? Parlor games? Boardgamegeek.com lists it as both a family game and as an abstract game. If you own it, where do you keep it? Is there any order to your collection, or do you put them wherever they will fit (Box size and shape might be another way to categorize…).

So what are you, a splitter or a lumper? Many will say they’re neither – and that I’m a “lumper” for imposing such a distinction in the first place. But I didn’t make this up – I just see the same issues that I first became acquainted with as a student of Animal Behavior.

My educational background is in Biology, one subdivision of which is Taxonomics – or in modern parlance, “Cladistics.” Taxonomists and Cladists take on the awesome task of describing the family tree of life; awesome because, among other things, no one knows (nor can they agree on) how many living species there are on the planet (see Livescience.com for a nice discussion: http://www.livescience.com/strangenews/070803_gm_numberspecies.html).

Scientists can’t agree on how many species there are, because the definition of species is, itself, a difficult one that is still being debated. There are species who look different and live apart, but can still interbreed (African and Asian elephants, for example), and there are species who live in the same geographic area but because of behavioral differences, do not interbreed (e.g., Baltimore Oriole vs Bullock’s Oriole). Some argue that the ability to interbreed makes them the same species, while others (perhaps the majority) say that they must typically interbreed in nature in order to be a species. The debate is fundamental in a semantic sense – depending on the precise definition of a species, the family tree will have a different branching pattern – but it does not undermine the underlying basis for understanding biology and evolution; it merely affects the final details. So the debate goes on.

Back to board games. As a former retailer and a current collector, and perhaps owing to my analytic yet playful mind, I think about this all the time. I now own over 1,050 games, and have to decide how to organize them. Since I host game events, I need to be able to find what I’m looking for, when I need it. There are a variety of ways to do it, and available space has something to do with it, but I still want to have some organizational scheme that is related to what the games actually are.

Alphabetical categorization won’t do. Abalone is in a hexagonal box, about 12″ across, and it would not fit well on top of, or next to, Axis and Allies in its rectangular, long, thick box. And so on. Strictly spatial categorization won’t do, either – I won’t put Uncle Wiggily next to Clue.

Then again, several of my larger categories are spatial. I keep all of the small-boxed card games for ages 12+ in one place, where there is a small shelving area and they won’t bury each other, and all the other small-boxed card games for kids on another stand-alone book shelf. I do put all of the Monopoly-sized games together, because there are so many, and I can make subcategories within them (in my case, I have them arranged by age range – because they do tend to be primarily kids games). I have a long row of 3M and Avalon Hill bookshelf games, arranged by category (war games, word games, abstract strategy games, etc). So a portion of my collection is organized spatially, but the rest is organized by function.

Kids games are in the same area as the large Monopoly-style boxes. Games for older kids and young adults get their own space (much of the abstract strategy is included here), and the remaining categories get their own space, too: knowledge-based games (geography, words, general trivia, music, arts/entertainment, sports, bible), party games, war games, casino-type games. I have two more categories, as well – Antique games get their own space (even though many belong in other categories), and I have one area set up as “featured” games. This is where I put my favorite games (History of the World, Titan: The Arena, Empire Builder, etc.), as well as games that are beautifully done (Wadjet, Palenque, Age of Renaissance, etc.). Most of the Euro-games go here.

But space is limited in just about any house. I was able to build a cabinet and customize it, but now my collection is too big. I want to know, if space wasn’t limited, how would you categorize your games? www.boardgamegeek.com lists 79 categories, but they also list 44 different game mechanics. Would you use them, or maybe combine some of them to make fewer major categories? www.funagain.com lists 9 major categories: Kids, Family, Strategy, Party, 2-Player, Card, Word, and War. This is perhaps most similar to what I have seen in stores, but they also list themes and genres as further types of categorization. www.boardgamecentral.com list 15 different categories of board games, plus other lists.

Online retailers have the advantage of being able to cross-list games in several categories without confusing customers or intensively training employees. Brick-and-mortar stores, however, pay a premium for space, so they can’t get away with putting a game like Settlers of Catan in each of the sections where it might belong (Strategy, Family, Modular board, City-building, Eurogames, etc).

So my big question really is: Is there a way to categorize board (and card) games so that categories are all-inclusive (every game has a home) and mutually exclusive (no game has more than one home)? I doubt it, but I’m still thinking about it and I would welcome any input, and I imagine the more realistic question is not whether that is possible, but given all the possible ways of splitting and lumping game features, which one makes the most sense, and why?

jh

P.S. I’ll take some pics soon and post them, to show you the way I have categorized my games. I’m pretty proud of the set up because I have also maximized storage and use of space – but when I get new games, my organization sometimes goes out the window!

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