I recently got involved in a pretty heated debate over a list of perceived grievances about hobby gaming posted by one Michael Barnes. Whether you agree with his arguments or not it the list itself makes interesting reading, written as it is with the authors’ usual style and panache, and the discussion that follows is lengthy and peppered with personal abuse but is even more interesting to my mind. I don’t intend to go over that ground again here - that would be pointless since you can read the discussion if you want to know my opinions of the subject - but rather I thought it would be interested to look at what I think is the reason why some people perceive there to be problems with creativity, variety and professionalism in the hobby because personally it seems to me that a lot of these issues are linked to one single underlying factor.
There are two particular things that stand out about board gaming in comparison with other gaming hobbies that are relevant here. The first is the relative ease of design and production in our corner of the industry. Someone who wants to design and publish a computer game has got many, many long hours of level design before them and then many longer hours of writing and testing code to say nothing at all of the vast teams of people and thousands of man-hours that go into developing top-drawer professionally published video games. If you’re in the RPG corner you’ve got a lot of source material to think about before you can even consider game mechanics. If you want to design a miniatures game then you may even have to start to think about designing and sculpting your own figures, a process that requires incredible dedication and skill. And of course, you’ll likely already have realised that a budding board game designer has a huge and daunting overhead of repeated design-test-develop cycles in front of them. But what’s unique about board games is that alone amongst hobby games there is a sizeable contingent of games which remain very close to their mathematical roots, to the point where maths and logic skills are a great aid to successful play: abstracts and a lot of Euros. And if you reverse engineer that you’ll note that that means maths skills are a great aid to successful design. What I’m getting at is that a lot of the most streamlined, logical design in board gaming likely don’t require a lot of play testing because a maths whiz will be able to work out whether or not the elements of the design are well balanced and challenging enough by applying good logic to the design and algorithms to the testing.
That probably sounds like a bold claim, especially from someone who has never designed a game. And of course it doesn’t really apply to a lot of family games, wargames and ameritrash games. So in support of my claim I offer this evidence: how come it is relatively common to see game design competitions in amongst Eurogame communities, often with ridiculously short closing times attached to them? Other hobby areas do hold similar competitions but they’re rare events, with significant lead times and often considerable kudos if not actual cash attached to doing well. Yet some Euro-fans appear to treat the process of design as a rapid, throwaway process just because they can. You can see a similar thing going on with professional designers, where the most active of them are churning out several games a year. Compare this with designers in other areas of board gaming who tend to see one or two games at most come out in a given year. And Lord knows, if I had the knack to churn this stuff out and make a name for myself and a bit of money, I’d probably do it as well. Publishing can be similarly lightweight - most people could afford to fund a small, minimal-quality print run of a self designed game if they wanted to, or failing that there’s self-publishing for people to make as a print-and-play.
Which brings us on to the second element I wanted to discuss, which is the tendency of board gamers to collect things. That tendency pretty much ensures that if a hobbyist wanted to put down some money on a self-financed print run of anything other than the most atrocious game design, they’d probably sell enough to cover their costs. After all the rarity adds to the desire: I wish myself sometimes that I’d picked up a copy of Border Reivers while I had the chance - it looks like a pretty interesting game - and now the publisher has folded without ever doing a reprint. Now this, unlike design churn, isn’t unique to board games. Pretty much every element of the gaming hobby tends to encourage this aspect to some degree. What’s different about board gaming is the sheer physical space and time required to store and appreciate a sizeable collection of games. The stuff from my miniatures gaming days fill three small storage boxes in my loft: that’s three full fantasy armies plus assorted rule books, paints, modelling tools and so forth. Over the course of a few years I had the time to play with every one of those armies repeatedly. In other words although I collected stuff it didn’t take up too much space and I got plenty of usage out of my collection. On the other hand I have single coffin-box board games that wouldn’t fit in one of the packing cases I use to store an entire miniature army, let alone my entire board game collection. And 1/5th of my collection of board games has never been played, with a similar proportion having seen play only once or twice because again, unlike most hobby games, board games often require both extended free time to play and other people to play with. A miniatures gamer, alone, can paint figures. An RPG fan, alone, can read source books or design adventures. And either can do it for a much of as little time as they please. Not so the poor board gamer: if I want to play Twilight Imperium 3 I have no choice but to find at least 3 other gamers and at least 4-5 hours of time in which to play it. And by the standard of a lot of board game hobbyists, my collection is relatively modest and well-used. The point I’m making is that uniquely amongst hobby games the collect ability-aspect has got to the point where for many gamers the collecting is more important than the gaming.
So where am I going with this, you might well wonder? I don’t think either of these aspects is healthy in themselves and I think they should be discouraged. But if personal distaste isn’t enough to convince you then I’ll go further and say that it’s these twin aspects which have had the pernicious influence on the hobby as a whole that causes Mr. Barnes, and others, to see stagnation and sameness creeping into every corner. Because between them, what they lead to is an unsustainable volume of board games being published: more games than gamers can sensibly consume and play. I don’t believe there is a lack of variety or inventiveness in the board game hobby. It’s simply this sheer volume of output that causes there to appear to be a lack of innovation or creativity because the games that do stand out for whatever reason, whether its something new and clever in the design or something unusual in the theme or something striking about the art, unfortunately stand a very good chance of simply being buried in the avalanche of mediocre crap that surrounds them. Even if there are gamers and game writers out their championing the titles that they feel, passionately, deserve more attention, even if they actually get that more widespread acknowledgement, the sheer weight of the new stuff rolling down on top of them causes them, eventually, to be discarded and ignored in favour of newer, inferior titles.
This problem is exacerbated by my own bête noire of board game journalism which is the seeming inability of most reviewers to actually help people pick the wheat from the chaff. Again, it’s a unique aspect of the board gaming hobby that contributes to this which is the exceptionally wide range of tastes that the term “board gaming” covers. The distinction between different genres of video games is pretty narrow yet “board games” covers everything from family-friendly Euro-lite card games to monster wargames that take a lifetime to set-up and play and, even more confusingly, there is just sufficient commonality between the two to make a fan of each genre want to occasionally dip their toes in the others’ water so to speak. But the end result of this is just another reason as to why board gamers seem to continue to tolerate being drenched in chaff in a manner that would have turned off many other hobbyists many moons ago.
This problem even feeds into the lack of professionalism generally amongst writers in the hobby, one of the few critiques that Michael made in his original article that I wholeheartedly agree with and indeed would even extend to a lot of people who should know better, including many designers and publishers. Indeed one could even argue that pushing this stuff out en masse is actually pretty unprofessional in the first place but hey, people keep buying it so other people will keep making it. But when there’s such a glut of stuff around to look at, how can anyone seriously take on the task of bringing more objective, let alone aesthetic, analysis to the task of analysing so many games? As a game hobbyist I’ve simply had to pass by a number of games labelled as innovative by other writers in recent years, such as War of Edadh, and similarly other writers have no doubt missed out on some more marginal games that have impressed me with their creativity such as The Hell of Stalingrad. Video game journalists have it easy by comparison - it takes perhaps 30 hours of play time to get enough of a handle on a top-quality title to subject it to a rigorous critique, and the release schedule of big name games is spaced apart enough to easily fit in the time required and have plenty to spare to look at less glittery offerings from smaller publishers. For a good board game, 30 hours of play time might hardly scratch the surface, and the release schedule is overloaded with unknown stuff from unknown publishers, any one of which might be a gem waiting to be discovered.
There is of course an unfortunate Catch-22 here which is that if we reduce the volume of output from designers and publishers, there’s a smaller chance that something creative and clever will turn up in the first place. The answer to this links back to the level of professionalism on display from designers and publishers: if they were to spend more time making sure that what reached the market was top-quality stuff then we wouldn’t have this problem in the first place. Of course they’d have less stock to sell, and that in turn means higher prices. But here, again the volume problem links back to Michael’s list of concerns because I think a lot of gamers would be willing to spend more money on games if they had a much higher level of quality assurance. And if you’re charging more for the base product, the extra added by cool stuff in the box be it miniatures or artwork or the electronic wizardy Michael wants or, who knows, something truly, outrageously creative that we’ve yet to think of, will be a smaller proportion of the price and will be noticed less. So we pay more but we get better games with proportionately higher production quality.
Sadly, the bottom line here is that before we can address this problem, gamers have to decide for themselves whether there actually is a problem. A lot of board gamers seem to like collecting unplayed games and watching them gather dust. Indeed as the original article points out the currently top-dog of gaming sites, boardgamegeek, is as much about collecting games as it is about playing them. I originally got out of the world of miniatures gaming because I got fed up with the fact that most miniatures gamers, and the businesses that catered for them, were more interested in the modelling and painting side of the hobby than they were in the game side. It’ll be a great shame if and, and others, were to eventually burn out on board games because too many board gamers were more interested in collecting crap than playing gems.
Matt is the founder of Fortress: Ameritrash. He is also a regular columnist for Board Game News.