I moved to another province a couple months ago. One of the perks was that it'd be closer to my best friend. And since contact is better - we've been going to bars a few times, both with and without our girlfriends - I came to ask him about this relatively new hobby I got: board gaming.
Incidentally he avoided it, but told me yesterday: he and his girlfriend weren't really into that kind of thing. I understand him. And not only that: since they're about to become parents, time is rather scarce for them (meaning: they're in full preparation of "teh baby"). That our house isn't really up to snuff certainly doesn't help either (we've still got a good few months of renovations before it'll be more than a "slightly above camping" standard). But there's more going on: the games we've played as kids weren't all that good. And since I'm a bit bored, I'll rant a bit about that here...
First, let's look at the evolution of a few other media. Books are the oldest medium. they evolved from scrolls to books to ebooks. Movies changed from black and white to talkies, full color, high definition and now often assisted by CGI when needed. Video games changed from pixelated endeavors into the full blown powerhouses that we have today. And graphic novels...I'm not too familiar with their evolution, but there has clearly been changes as well.
In each of these cases, these leaps in technology changed the way the medium worked as well. Certain parts of 'em became classics which also set the standards for the works that came after them. You can clearly notice this when watching an old movie or playing an old video game. Even if it's a classic, there is a certain clunkiness to it. Blood is unnaturally red in movies...books use outdated words in them...video games have a limited amount of continues and no savegames...those kinds of things.
Board games are no different. Sure, they are an old medium. And arguably(1) the ancestor to video games. So shouldn't they be more evolved during the years and centuries?
The answer is both yes and no. There has been an evolution in games if you take a look at games of a certain age rather than just the classics (first, there was go. And then some centuries later chess and checkers), but it didn't evolve much because games only matter if you have free time to spare. It's only thanks to automatisation that there is a market for the mass entertainment media.
The second argument is the internet. While not a revolution as in video games, there as well, game designers found out a mass library of board games they didn't know existed. And because the markets grew, it became possible to publish a game without being limited to a handful of large corporations (kickstarter is pretty familiar on that front).
These two arguments have brought forth a current board game paradise that is, in terms of quality, head and shoulders over what it used to be...except in perception. And at least to people my age (mid thirties), this isn't something one simply adapts to. Heck...I remember when on a weekend out with friends and they had 'hotel' and 'pandemic' with them, my first reaction was to play the former, as I had played it before.
Since then, I've seen just how utterly wrong I was. But board gaming is still a pretty niche product. Even regular toy stores have about as much playmobile and barbie dolls (each) as the entire board game segment. And these three departments are usually smaller than the video games section. And I'm sad to say that they only occasionally carry an interesting board game. Modern(2) board games are mostly found in specialized stores. There's an easy separation: if you ask a cleric "do you guys carry catan?", and he answers "yes" then it's a toy store. If he answers "yes...but which of the gazillion expansions are you talking about?"...then you're in an actual game store.
Toy stores obviously have their place in the world. They're aimed at children, or better put: they exist for children (the main audience for the store is probably parents). That alone puts me at unease when I browse them, as it gives the impression that games are for kids. Which, incidentally, was what I've been told about video games as well ("grown-ups do not play video games"...this was obviously before gamers grew up to the age where they were old enough to prove those claims wrong ).
The real answer is, of course: games (both video and board) are aimed at their intended audiences. The toy stores just focus on the small segment. Sure, they'll stock up on whatever wins the spiel des jahres, which is basically the equivalent of the oscars for gaming. And that analogy lays out the situation: would you go to a movie theater if all they ever showed were disney movies and - once per year - the occasional oscar winner?
More so: the spiel award is mostly about family games (meaning: easy enough for kids to play as well). They're not bad in any way, but it's only since 2011 that they added in a 'kennerspiel' category, which are a bit more complex(3). So it's not as if those games don't exist...but you can cruise through entire shopping malls and hardly find a handful (unless it happens to have an actual game store...but I haven't seen that in Belgium yet). And this, in turn, results in them staying rather off the beaten path. After all: even if a parent wants to fulfill a child's Christmas wish ("a board game"), they'll mostly pick one of the monopoly clones ("oooh, I know this one. and this one has a Mario theme ") rather than the proverbial Oscar winners who are tucked somewhere at the back ("Splendor? Istanbul? Are these really games?").
...and my introduction ran away with me. I'd say "sorry", but this is a blog post so I'm not bound by ANYONE as to what I'm rambling about (MUHAHAHAHAHAAAA!!!!! ).
What I initially wanted to talk about were the games from my youth. On hindsight, they must have sucked, but we played them nonetheless because of the company and - okay, admitted - there was a chance that we could win from grown-ups. That was what made them fun. But on hindsight, they weren't. And if I ever have children, I'll refrain from pitching these to them. So without further ado...
Scrabble: ah, the classic word forming game. Is this really a bad game? It isn't, but it's not that good of a family game. The reason: the drawing of the tiles is random in a bad way. Randomization is okay in a game (each game involving cards and dice has it), but good games offer a way to mitigate luck a bit through skill. If one person draws an X and a Q, he pretty much has to either trade in his letters at some point or form the only small word they have the letters for ("I'll go with 'mix'"). Meanwhile, the person with the blanco has way more options to either make a long word or a word that passes over the bonus tiles.
Compared to a game of, say, hardback, where you can use each letter as blanco if you agree to forfeit the score on the letter, then the latter has a much better way of skill outranking a bad draw.
Unfortunately, neither are the best family games: someone who reads a lot has an advantage over less literate players, and scrabble itself doesn't alleviate the difference (meaning: the latter group can hardly improve by playing, so they'll quickly quit playing it all together).
Risk: I've heard that the rules of this one have changed, so I should probably retry this one. But in all, I remember this really DRAGGING ON BEYOND RELIEF!!! With three or more players, this really was a back and forth of gaining and losing territory. you gained some, you lost some. I often wondered why the objectives were even included, as you only got occasionally close to your to conquered regions (or you had the "gain 18 territories with 2 armies on each" card, which was about the only possible one to win).
I don't know the modern rules (or the modern risk variants...there's far more than the regular flavor now), but what that game lacked was a clear end goal. Lack of variety probably as well, but that's harder to pinpoint. In any case: most modern games have a clear sense of progression or achievable objective to work toward. If there's a score goal and no way to lose points, then the game will end in a timely fashion you can somewhat predict.
Hero quest: this was my favorite game as a kid, and it sort of saddens me to put it up, but I have to. hero quest is basically babies first dungeons & dragons. That in itself isn't bad. You get to play as cool characters, there are mini's, treasures, traps, an ever changing dungeon, monsters, a way to fight...it has all the ingredients a dungeon crawler needs. I guess it also has quite some clunkiness and repetitiveness to it, but that didn't bother me much (I always played as "the evil overlord" ). The main problem was something you won't find in modern games anymore: rolling to move. Properly moving around is crucial for tactics, and it being dependent on randomisation is also a sad choice ("hang on...I'm coming to rescue you from that orc. Oh...I apparently cannot reach him because I only rolled a 2").
The game of life: yup: another roll-to-move game. We've replayed it with my brother's family a couple years ago. I thought it was so bad it was hilarious. "oh, I rolled a three, so now I'm stuck with a child. If I had rolled less, I would've had a carreer. Oh, well... "). perhaps more than the next game, this game proved to me that what I had learned about board games wasn't a hunch or something (I'll get to that).
Monopoly: *sigh* why is this game so damn popular? Why are the few characters picked up by pop culture? Why is it that new versions are still being made and sold? I...I honestly do not get it!
Look...I can point at the blandness of the design (if it wasn't for the localisation in each different languages, it never would've gained traction), but that's not too bad. I can point at the premisse of wanting to become a magnate tycoon in times of economical crisis and Donald Trump (interesting trivia: monopoly was initially designed as a CRITIQUE of monopolies!) but that's okay as well. The terrible part of monopoly is threefold:
1) way too much randomness in the wrong places
2) too little actual meaning decisions
3) no proper way to recover
The first one is, yet again, the roll move. It's pure luck to land on a not-yet-sold street, and it's even more luck if you manage to get in a position where you can collect a set.
Then there is the part that I even learned as a kid: that the game of monopoly is decided over which trades you can make (if any). You see, after some rounds, most people will have parts of the set but rarely an entire set already (in fact: if someone has it, the chances of trading are almost nil). Whether you land on someone's hotel or in jail is completely luck dependent, so this is the part where you actually have some influence. If you were lucky enough to get the good cards, that is. Okay, technically speaking, the decision on whether or not you should buy a street if it's available is a choice too. It's just not a meaningful one (OF COURSE you should buy the street).
Lastly: you cannot recover once behind. Modern games often have some way to limit players from straying too far from the average by subtle means (a limited amount of space in a backpack, for example. while technically applying to all the players, it only hinders the player who has more than enough materials). Monopoly is a 'the winner takes all'. This wouldn't be so bad if the game was short, but it isn't. So this results in what you've undoubtedly had happen in games: people forfeit their games in annoyance rather than play out the game (and perhaps try again).
Those three points aren't limited to monopoly. But the sad part is: it isn't until relatively recent that these characteristics were even discussed, let alone would cause a game design to, y'know...not get published. More than anything else, it is the school of thought that has entered board game design. It has changed board games in the same way as the beatles and the rolling stones have changed music. But because games take longer to digest (certainly compared to a song), there is a delay in the general conscience. Games like monopoly would never made it to the press if it was designed today. It just gets a free pass because it's so popular.
(1): that is even assuming this is controversial to begin with. I personally don't think anyone would doubt that video games branched off the original idea of "games", but it would be presumptuous to just assume it
(2): I'd say 'adult board games', but that term is unfortunately coined by (without exception dull and -ironically- childish) erotic games. What I mean is "a board game that is aimed at an audience with fully grown brains"
...and yeah, I admit that doesn't sound much less condescending.
(3): still not TOO complex, mind you. This is the sort of game that's right up my alley, but I know quite some great games that really require more methodical thinking or have RPG like freedom of play to just "sit down and play" them. Perhaps it's blasphemy to more hardcore gamers, but I really don't know if the original Dungeons & Dragons would win the kennerspiel if the latter was around at that time.
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