Marketing Strategies I Learned from Playing Board Games

7 min read

Collage of board games

In my free time, I like to play board games. I enjoy the various themes that come with each—saving the world from an outbreak, building rail lines across the U.S. in the early 1900s, capturing treasure from a hidden island before it sinks into the sea and is lost forever, outbuilding your opponents in the middle ages, and working together as superheroes to defeat a villain, to name a few. There are board games that appeal to virtually anyone—even those who are interested in quilting and sewing.

But I especially love learning about the different strategies and tactics involved with each game, then putting them into practice. Sure, it doesn’t result in a victory every time, but my gameplay definitely improves as I put these tried-and-true methods to work. And I can’t help but see the parallels between various board game strategies and my job as a marketing and advertising strategist, like the many twists and turns that one must navigate to reach an objective.

Here are six marketing strategy tips you can learn from board games (or maybe it’s the other way around):

1. Understand the basics.

Before getting started with any board game, it’s important to have a thorough understanding of the rules, objectives, and gameplay. Sometimes the rules are simple, but other times they’re complicated, 16-page novels where the rules change as the game progresses (yeah, I’m talking about you, Power Grid). As much as possible, it’s also good to get a handle on your opponents. Are they board game veterans who purchase the VIP ticket package to Gen Con each year? Or are they casual weekend players? Understanding the basic landscape is critical if you want to compete.

The same applies to marketing. Before diving head first into producing web videos, promoting posts on social media, creating brochures and other marketing collateral, or placing print ads in the IBJ, take a step back and understand the basics. What are your business objectives? What are your marketing goals? Who is your audience? What does the competitive landscape look like? What are your competitors doing? Where are your biggest opportunities? Answering these questions and others will lay the foundation as you begin developing your marketing plan and strategy.

2. Focus your efforts.

Chapel card from Dominion board gameDominion is a deck-building game where players try to build up their hands by adding more money and actions, with the ultimate goal of purchasing victory points. One particular card—Chapel—allows a player to trash up to four cards from his or her hand. I was so confused when I first saw this card, thinking, “Why would I ever want to permanently get rid of cards from my deck?” Well, the answer is quite simple. The idea is to continually “trim the fat” from your deck in order to make your powerful cards appear more frequently, giving you a lean deck and an effective hand virtually every turn of the game. Donald X. Vaccarino, creator of Dominion, goes so far as to say that “Chapel is the most powerful Dominion card relative to its cost.”

How does this apply to marketing? Too often, we see small organizations with small marketing budgets trying to accomplish too much and not getting anywhere as a result. They’re spreading their resources too thin. With this in mind, it’s important to take a hard look at your marketing goals and objectives, your marketing budget, and the tactics you’re employing to see how everything stacks up. Every tactic should be directly related to an organizational goal. And if your tactics are all connected in some way, all the better. More on that soon.

3. Plan ahead.

In most games, you have to think multiple turns in advance, and that planning should ideally start before the game does. In Catan, players begin the game by strategically placing settlements and roads on intersections that touch various resources (brick, wood, wool, wheat, and ore). In short, these early placements will affect your entire game and will either help you turn your settlements into sprawling cities or deserted villages. Beyond these initial placements, it’s important to think about how you’re going to grow your empire, what resources you’ll need as the game progresses, and what threats there are from your opponents.

Catan memeSimilarly, in marketing, it’s good to think through your strategies thoroughly, to have a really good grasp of how they will play out in the world, and to have contingency plans in place should things not go according to the original plan. Most marketing success doesn’t happen overnight. It takes careful planning and thoughtful execution over a period of time to gain traction. Which leads me to my next point.

4. Pick a strategy and stick with it. 

The winners rarely change strategies mid-game, and the losers usually go into a game not knowing what their strategy is. But a winning strategy takes time to develop and perfect. You’ve probably heard this before, but I’ll say it again: There’s no silver bullet in marketing. Marketing takes time to pick up steam. You won’t jump to the top of a Google search overnight, nor will you triple your leads in a week’s time. But stick with it, and with a sound strategy and the creative to support it you’re bound to see success. As a rule of thumb, we suggest monitoring marketing performance and making small tweaks on a monthly basis, with larger adjustments on a quarterly basis.

5. Remain flexible.

While it’s not wise to change your strategy mid-game, it is important to remain flexible. After all, there are tons of things you won’t be able to control: the moves your opponents will make, the cards that will be drawn, the number rolled on the dice, or turning up an “epidemic” card. You need to have the ability to remain calm and to adapt as these external threats come into play.

Just as it’s important to keep an eye on how these threats shape a board game, it remains equally important in marketing. Ever hear of Murphy’s Law? Well, Mr. Murphy tends to hang around the marketing and advertising industry. Things will go wrong: There’s a new marketing goal that wasn’t a goal just two days prior, board members aren’t buying into a particular strategy, or a competitor is rolling out a campaign that’s eerily similar to what you’ve been working on for months. As a marketing professional, it’s your job to remain calm, adjust (not change) your strategy, and put a plan in place to overcome these hurdles.

6. Multiply your efforts.

In Dominion, it’s possible to build your deck in such a way that the action cards you play allow you to draw and play more cards. If you have the right combination of action cards—usually consisting of Libraries, Markets, and Villages—you can go on playing and drawing cards until you’ve added a lot of money to your hand. This is called a non-terminal engine strategy.

In today’s immersive media environment, it’s important to have strategies and tactics that go deep. A 15-second pre-roll spot may get a good laugh, but not be likely to trigger an action on its own. If it’s good, consumers will inevitably want to see more, and you need to have the content strategy to support that.

Ticket To Ride is a game set at the turn of the 20th century where you’re competing to claim railway routes connecting cities throughout North America. The longer the routes, the more points you earn. Once you’ve fulfilled two or three large routes, say one going East-West and another couple North-South, it becomes much easier to fulfill additional routes later in the game by adding small tracks to the larger, already established routes—giving you a lot more victory points in the end.

The bottom line: once you have the foundation in place, consider adding to it. The last thing you want to do is cut corners with a marketing strategy or advertising campaign. Make sure you support your content with more content. If it’s any good, your customers will only want more.

Need help with your marketing? Give us a shout.