Summer Thoughts of a Games Reviewer

Monday, 31. August 2015

People feel the need to differentiate themselves from other people. On the one hand this is how people create an identity, but on the other it is the cause of many of this planet’s most serious problems. That’s because this need to differentiate oneself doesn’t just affect fans of football teams, rock bands, or car brands but also members of different nations, religions, languages and economic classes.

One of the reasons I enjoy playing games is that it brings you into contact with people, the majority of whom don’t have this need for differentiation. I’m always amazed that practically all of the gamers I play with are open-minded, curious and tolerant people. Playing board games can mean sitting at a table with complete strangers, people you’d never think of meeting in your wildest dreams, and having fun. Over the course of the game you sometimes get to know these people better and make friends that last for a long time. For examples, while playing modern, non-traditional analogue games I’ve never come across a racist, which isn’t the case with a lot of other leisure activities.

It’s interesting, however, that this openness and tolerance suddenly stops when it comes to the games themselves. Outsiders may think that people who like to play games are relaxed, “playful” people that don’t take things too seriously. Everyone who does play a lot knows from their own experience that the opposite is often true. Maybe it’s the case that an activity which requires the participant to voluntarily engage with tough (occasionally completely absurd) rules, which can never, ever, under no circumstances whatsoever, be broken, tends to attract those people who are stubborn, strict and structured. Many of these players have fixed opinions about games and always prefer similar things. They always know best and never let themselves be swayed from their standpoint. And they are surprised when the jury puts games on the recommendation list that are a little different.

During my discussions with these so-called game-freaks about the quality of specific games, time and again my discussion partner concedes that he hasn’t actually played the game we’re talking about. But he nevertheless knows exactly what it’s like and how good it is because he has years of experience, he’s studied the rules, read the magazine reviews and memorised all the comments on Board Game Geek. In the world of board games there are an awful lot of people who (think they) know a lot about games they’ve never actually touched.

And the attitude of these gamers sadly seems to have rubbed off a little too much on the producers. As an outsider you’d think that the creative process would be the most important part of board game production. But if you look at the list of new releases, you’ll conclude with a heavy heart that there appear to be quite strongly established patterns and ideas as to how a game should be. Of course, it’s practically impossible to invent truly innovative new game mechanics and that good games are mostly new combinations of old favourites. But why are the same old themes and artwork constantly being recycled?

For example, I find it astonishing how often games set in a faraway exotic country present either an arrogant, clichéd colonial perspective or a rather childish, naïve view, without once being remotely ironic. Board games are swarming with romantic adventures with Bedouins and merchants in the East, even though the actual historical locations never used to be like that. We journalists have spent years writing until our fingers bleed that board games aren’t just kids’ stuff. Games are for adults too. However, it can’t be avoided even today that due to their quality, complexity and classification as a “Kennerspiel”, the games the jury recommends or which eventually win the awards are the ones with children’s themes and children’s artwork.

The aim of us journalists – and also that of the “Spiel des Jahres” jury – is for board games to be taken more seriously as a cultural asset. Strolling through the shelves of games stores, looking at the box covers, I sometimes catch myself thinking: “How is anyone seriously supposed to take that as culture?” Why are the publishers laying waste to our concerns? It should also be the aim of the industry that – apart from the awards ceremonies and Christmas gift guides – board games receive more attention in the media. They can only do this, however, when they deal with interesting themes and journalists can tell intriguing stories about them. As a reader of a daily newspaper I yawn when every two weeks the reviewer brings us a game about Rome, the Middle Ages, the East or the jungle. And I yawn just as much over games with film or TV licences, even when they evidently – mostly not due to their qualities as a game – sell very well.

Fortunately, each year there’s proof that things can be different. That’s why at the end of the summer and at the beginning of a brand new gaming year I hope that the openness that characterises the social side of the board gaming scene transfers and multiplies into the choice of theme.