Across The Atlantic


A few days ago, the American magazine The Atlantic published an article about board games and their strange fascination with colonialism. Three games mentioned all manage to fail in their own way in dealing with the subject: Puerto Rico, Mombasa and Archipelago.

It is interesting to note how these games fail to meet the expectation of a critical audience. For example, Mombasa is criticized for its portrayal of the African continent as a resource-producing landscape without a population, history, or culture of its own. It is an uncomfortably euphemistic enactment of European colonial history. In other words, Mombasa is accused of making use of the exotic imagery and foreign ambience of an African country, but purposefully omitting all the grim tales of history that surround it. A closer examination of the theme is impossible, because – as the rulebook explains – it would hamper our enjoyment playing the game.

Since its release, Puerto Rico has been criticized for how it handles colonialism. Today, it is considered the go-to example far the tactless and tasteless way with which sophisticated game interaction is packaged into a rather indifferent approach to depicting slavery. The article mentions that the game was ranked #1 on the Boardgame Geek leaderboard for a while. Apparently because few boardgamers were that bothered by the fact that plantation workers were brought to Puerto Rico by ship. As if that were a perfectly normal, unproblematic economic transaction that exists beyond any ethical or moral dimension. Puerto Rico trivializes its theme because it merely serves as an atmospheric and exotic disguise for apparently interesting game mechanisms.

The last game I consider worth mentioning in this context – and which is also mentioned in the article – is Archipelago. The topic of colonialism is not ignored here, but – unlike in Mombasa – is a core element of the game’s concept. Nor is the expulsion and exploitation of the indigenous population embedded in the game as a value-neutral act – as in Puerto Rico – but has tangible consequences that players can’t ignore. The game’s illustrations, however, can’t escape the cultural background of the game’s creators. Thus, not only is the view of the indigenous population influenced by European imperialism; the selection of cultural references also seems arbitrary and without the care and sensitivity devoted to references to European cultures. For example, while the currency in the game is accurately referred to as “Florin”, the indigenous peoples encountered in the game are a crude mixture of different sources. Of course, games must always work with broad outlines, stereotypes and clichés, but when one group is carefully differentiated and researched and the other is not, this argument no longer holds water.

What all these examples have in common is that their existence and playability is tied to the ignorance of those who create and play them. Those who know nothing about European colonial history in Africa find it easy to overlook the omissions in Mombasa. Those who consider slavery – and its consequences – to be a long-closed chapter of history that exists roughly in the same haze of the past as “Pirates of the Carribean” can also easily focus on the game mechanics of Puerto Rico. Those who know the depicted cultures and customs in Archipelago only as ahistorical aesthetic devices detached from a culture of their own are not concerned with what they see when they play, but will look only at what they do.

Intentionally or not, ignorance is made a necessary requirement to have fun playing these games. This has worked well in some circles (and perhaps still does), but the more inclusive the gaming community becomes, the more critical it grows, the less game creators can afford or assume such low standards or lack of ambition.

As soon as you know anything about the history of colonialism, such a topic for a strategy game becomes deeply unnerving and unsettling. Precisely because it invokes a perspective and in some cases mental images that are at best racist and at worst brutal, violent, and cruel. As the article in the Atlantic mentions, as players you are asked to recreate an inhumane chapter of history, at least in your mind.

In some cases, this may be justified by the fact that play also includes a deeper examination of the game’s theme. In a way, this can be said about Archipelago. Here, one purposefully manipulates an indigenous population and workforce in order to increase one’s own profit. Similarities to real economic structures and patterns of behaviour are probably not coincidental. You’re invited to become aware of the exploitation and violence you enact over the archipelago’s inhabitants.

Unfortunately, this noble goal is undermined as soon as you notice what kind of game experience or knowledge accumulation the game’s mechanisms are designed for. They aren’t aimed at giving us a representative experience of what colonialism entails, nor are we supposed to gain a deeper understanding of the historical processes surrounding colonialism. In most cases, whatever the designer’s intent may have been, the goals of the people playing the game don’t follow.

The usual approach to complex themes


We do not play a board game to learn about colonialism. The mechanisms clearly articulate their goal (e.g., collect majority of victory points). In most cases, players come to the table with the expectation of an entertaining and occasionally challenging form of competition. The fact that this competition is embedded in something close to actual history, is at most an aesthetic enhancement of the experience. However, it is not understood to be the goal or purpose of the game.

We don’t apply the game’s rules to learn about history, but to win the game. We are free to invent narratives after the fact, and then reflect on them earnestly and come to some clever-sounding conclusion about the game’s theme. This approach seems very en vogue with modern game criticism right now. But gameplay is rarely shaped by what meaning our (re)told stories say. We make our decisions according to real parameters, not according to some supposed statement our actions express about the theme.

This is not to say that a critical examination of a topic isn’t possible through the medium of games. A “serious” game genre could certainly be established that explicitly aims to convey a layered understanding of a given topic. But commercially available games are rarely promoted with how much we can learn from them, but how much fun they are to play. The kind of fun that players rarely examine critically, which is why we games can’t assume such an approach in their design.

This makes it necessary to avoid such themes for our „fun“ board games.

In turn, the question arises whether games should not also avoid other themes? If it is immoral to make a game about colonialism, isn’t a game about war or economic exploitation just as immoral?

But this question is based on the fundamental misconception that games, like movies, books, or TV, are cultural objects that affect and influence us as an audience. But games are not a passive form of entertainment. As players, we are directly involved in what they do. We perform an important part of the game’s content through our actions. We are the ones to connec a game’s setting to its mechanisms in the first place.

The actually issue with these games is that we usually accept their themes uncritically as part of the game world. We willingly and often intentionally abstract unpleasant and repulsive aspects out of our gaming experience so that we can concentrate on having fun. So you bring workers from a foreign country by ship to work on your plantation. It’s fine. There’s simply nobody on the African continent whose livelihood is taken away by our extraction of their resources. It’s not an issue. The past is that terrible after all. We Europeans have only made ordinary and reasonable decisions to achieve our economic goals. What’s wrong with that?

It is precisely this normalization of the idea that the past was an idyllic, romantic era, free of ethical and moral issues, that is so dangerous. It is a glorification of history into a simpler time, a place of refuge where everything was still okay. A world in which wise economic decisions, merely annoyed our competitors, and caused no one else any harm. A time when everyone knew their place, society was still sorted into winners and losers, and these roles could be determined through proven merit. In short, it make the counterfactual and unrealistic idea acceptable that things were somehow better in the past. For men and women. For white and black. For everyone and anyone.

As if.

To be clear, the problem with board games that deal with colonialism is not that colonialism is “misrepresented.” The problem lies in the fact that a critical view of this content and a rejection of glorifying depictions of it is still a fringe opinion and not an indisputable truism.

If anyone were to tell the story of the German autobahn in film and portray all Nazi involvement as respectable, hard workers, that person would rightly take a beating. No matter how entertaining, funny or exciting the story about the autobahn’s construction may have been told; anyone who would portray Nazis positively would not get far. Because we are accustomed to critically question the medium of film.

The critical perspective on board games has not yet reached this level. As long as we are not willing to evaluate and even reject board games because of their insufficient handling of their chosen topics, we cannot implement such themes in a game. In criticism, separating game mechanisms from their theme is no longer acceptable. A game’s setting and background must be examined just as critically and carefully as we do with mechanisms, gameplay and overall experience.

As long as colonialism in a game is not understood, seen and judged as such by players, such games are doomed to fail. No game with such content should be designed to be family-friendly fun, or considered such. It does not do justice to the real-world history these games refer to. But the gaming community should also have more self-respect than to settle for this type of thematic representation in games. We fail this medium if we accept these themes with a shrug, or worse edit, ignore or reinterpret unpleasant implications of a game’s theme because we don’t want our „fun“ spoiled like this.


Perhaps the only wrong approach to using such a theme is to believe that gamers do not want to be disturbed in their uncritical, good-humored enjoyment of the game. Consequently, the only wrong way to play such games is to willfully and knowingly ignore the dark and disturbing aspects of their themes so that one can enjoy the “actual” game.

But perhaps that is precisely what is so deeply European about playing those games.



Featured image by Kevin Olson on Unsplash
Article image (monkeys) by Joao Tzanno on Unsplash

Game Night Verdicts #49 – Undaunted Normandy

In Germany, board games tend to steer clear of any themes that are tied to World War II. This is hardly surprising. But it also means that with the exception of the wargaming scene, there’s not much of a conversation about how (or if) to deal with the topic in a game. Is it acceptable to play war in the privacy of your home? In what way is a game allowed to depict war? What can games even say about wars?

Undaunted Normandy is set in World War II. It is about individual battles in Normandy, with two players fighting each other, acting as US Army and Wehrmacht respectively. If your ears are already turning red, please refer to the second half of this review. First, though, I want to say a few words about the game design craft in this game.

No matter how close you get, you will only ever look down on them.



Right from the start you’ll note that this is a comparatively light and beginner-friendly game. You have to place („control“) certain squares of thet board with your pieces („soldiers“). In order to do this, you have to play certain cards depending on the piece you want to move. To keep the game from feeling too staid, individual cards let you choose between different actions to perform. Some add new cards to your deck. Others let you remove less useful cards, or force your opponent to discard useful ones from their hand. Sometimes you move your pieces, sometimes you prevent the other side from doing so. In sum, all your considerations revolve around playing cards from your hand tactically and strategically, and changing your deck. Those in the know refer to this as deckbuilding mechanisms.

Undaunted Normandy’s design is strong because even non-experts will quickly grasp the basics. Your goal is always apparent. Even with a very basic understanding of the rules, you quickly understand what you need to do to get to your goal. Only the somewhat fuzzy choice of terms for certain card actions require you to memorize a bit of jargon.

Once you’ve taken that hurdle, however, Undaunted Normandy plays smoothly. If you do get bogged down executing an action, it will only happen the first few times. Once you understand the game’s decision space, choosing an action is no longer an overwhelming task. Instead, you’ll carefully weigh short-term and long-term consequences. This makes for a game that is exciting and entertaining, but also rarely feels longer than 30 minutes.

The game’s depths aren’t necessarily found on the board


Now if a game were just the sum of its shapely and inviting mechanisms, Undaunted Normandy would have hit many of the best-of-the-years lists in the German board game scene. But it is also delves into historical themes and content that is usually reserved for Academy Award submissions from Germany. Mixing fun gameplay and World War II in German living rooms is only allowed, if you can make as much money with it as Activision does.

Alternatively, you may turn this topic into a game, provided you approach it with the serious demeanour and respectfulness World War II seems to demand. You might, for example, offer a paragraph about the game’s historical background that refers to the 30th Infantry Division of the US Army. You may explicitly distance yourself from the claim of simulating history. Similarly, every character in the game might be given a name to remind players that they are “leading real soldiers, not random game pieces.”

Ironically, Undaunted Normandy is at its most problematic when it attempts to presents itself as a respectful and responsible approach to its topic. The unspoken idea of representing fictional battles in a board game also brings with it an obligation to reflect, question and comment on real history. This becomes the game’s undoing.

For it is only in comparison to this high self-claim that the large gaps that the game exhibits through its chosen perspective and nature become clear. Game design’s inherent abstraction means that certain aspects will be left out. Undaunted Normandy, for example, knows of neither injury nor trauma for its soldiers. Battles leave no physical or psychological traces. No moral boundaries are crossed because they kill on command. Whatever responsibility you may have for the men in your own ranks exists at best as a vague allusion in the rulebook. The battles you play have the emotional depth and complexity of finger gun shootouts among children.

I understand the intent behind the rulebook’s explanation. It’s a preventative rebuttal of accusations of trivializing real crimes. It’s supposed to signal that the game wasn’t made from a place of ignorance or indifference.

But at the end of the day, players decide how much knowledge of real-life battles and soldiers’ fates will bleed into the feel of the game. It’s our imagination that decides whether we think of blood, pain and agony when a hit is rolled, or whether we’re annoyed that our tactical flexibility next turn has been limited.

The creators behind Undaunted Normandy understand that a game design affects what you do, think or feel while playing. However, they seem to focus solely on what players are shown, rather than what they do with game’s parts. A game’s narrative is framed by its mechanics and filled out by its setting. But it’s the players who can turn this into a story through play. It’s our imagination that reshapes the application of mechanisms into events of a story. It is the images in our mind’s eye that determine how respectfully and responsibly the game we play deals with the real past.

“You are all individuals”

The game creators’ influences ends with the non-binding suggestion of how rules and setting should be brought together. At the actual game table, it is we who decide what a game rule means to the story. We give it meaning or attribute a statement to it. We can pick up illustrations and terms from the game to do so. We are the ones who decide if a card we played is Private Jones, who has a wife and kid back home in Oklahoma, or just “the card with the 5 on it.”

That is why texts on the historical background are only a suggestion on how to understand and perceive the game. Which brings up the question why this needs explaining in the first place? Does a game become more mature by doing so? The cards show intrepid fighters with names of their own, supposedly implying that not all of them will return home when the war is over. But this sentence alone paints a more tragic picture of war as a place of misery and suffering than the game itself does.

Regardless of criticisms, there is no question that Undaunted Normandy is fun to play. Even if its treatment of World War II doesn’t approach the pathos and desperate humanism of a Saving Private Ryan. When you play, it’s more reminiscent of the fun adventure and scrappy summer camp atmosphere that made The Great Escape so memorable. But even for that comparison to hold, Undaunted Normandy would need the kind of harsh and final losses that ran through the film.

Whether Undaunted Normandy trivializes its theme depends on what we’re willing to make of it. After all, the game design delivers too much light-hearted entertainment and fun to refer to the real military conflicts of World War 2 with po-faced seriousness. It’s a fun game that doesn’t teach, explain, or provide insight into history. But perhaps games don’t always have to do that. Even if they are about wars.

On the narrative genres in board games

The other day I was kindly invited to join a panel at Non3pub about narrative in board games. One of the ideas that I took away from the panel was the notion that narrative is not a single coherent concept in board games. In fact, there are multiple ways in which narrative exists in board games. During the panel the point was made that it is more of a spectrum, utilizing different means and tools at the designer’s disposal. While I do think that this approach isn’t without merit, I think it is more fruitful to differentiate more closely. That is to say, I want to think of different board game narratives as different genres.

Games are often categorized by their mechanisms (deckbuilder, worker placement, negotiation game, etc.). I’d say that we should also distinguish between types of narrative board games. In much the same way that rules and mechanisms create different game genres, and ask players to do different things to create an enjoyable experience; so do narrative concepts ask players to engage them differently to create the engrossing story the game promises.

That doesn’t mean that there is no overlap between narrative genres, only that certain features are at the forefront while others are less prominent. After all, few games are “pure” deckbuilders or “pure” worker placement. Most draw from various genres, and the same I think is true of board game narratives.

Naturally, the next step has to be naming at least some narrative genres in board games. Since board games are a participatory medium, it’s not enough to differentiate in tone and style of the narrative, but also in how players are asked to participate in its creation.

Type I – Experiential narrative

We live the game’s narrative. We are its protagonists and there is little to no barrier between ourselves and our role in the game. It’s the most immersive form of narrative in a board game, as we are led to ignore the artifice of the medium itself. An immersive film experience lets you ignore that you are actually safe and sound in a comfortable seat, with maybe a beverage or a snack on your lap. An immersive board game narrative lets you ignore that a colored wooden cube is not gold, that victory points are not prestige or that your friends at the table aren’t actually conspiring to ruin your fun.

I’d argue that this is the most common and widespread form of game narrative, or at least the one that most people engage in. Even if they don’t consider their experience of playing the game to from a narrative in itself. It’s just “playing a game”.

The experiential narrative is not only the one we feel most intensely when we play, it’s also the one that a game’s design most prominently helps to shape. Its incentives give the narrative direction. Its challenges provide the protagonists (i.e. us) with conflict. Its arc of accruing achievements provides the scaffolding that leads the narrative towards a climax. It’s not that board games “tell” stories, but they create narratives, that are unlike those of any other medium, by putting us in the center of them.

This comes with a certain amount of responsibility and accountability, as every player directly affects the narrative everyone else at the table experiences. How we interact with each other, how we respond to conflicting ideas and goals, becomes an integral part to making the narrative enjoyable for all involved.

Type II – Deferred narrative

In this type of narrative, it’s our avatar that is part of the story. We have a strong disconnect between ourselves and our representation or role in the game. This might allow us to put on funny voices or play-act our position when we play. It lets us act in a way that is consistent with the avatar’s goals, but maybe not perfectly in line with what we personally enjoy. It’s the avatar (or the ‘role’) that lies, betrays, attacks or loses. It’s not us.

I believe this to be the second most common way of experiencing board game narratives, and a position many players fall back on once the primary, experiential narrative becomes uncomfortable. This can most often happen in highly competitive games, where the emotional distance placed between ourselves and the events in the game, provides a kind of protective layers.

We’re not the ones doing things or having them done to us. It’s the rules, that we simply follow studiously. It’s not personal, it’s business just a game. These types of narrative are by definition not very immersive, but still allow for high levels of interaction. Provided that the barrier between personal experience and the events in the game is kept up. (It’s one of my pet peeves that this is called the “magic circle”, when it has nothing to do with it. But that’s a different topic.)

Type III – External narrative

In this type of narrative, the story is contained within the game and its components. The game’s narrative is external to us as players and separate from our actions. Through play we are given access to it, discover it or watch it unfold. In some ways it is the least board game like way of telling a story. But it is the one most easily recognized from other media. Books, film and video games generally employ this method to tell their stories.

As players we simply react to new story developments. Sometimes our actions may introduce them, but we are not the ones determining them or controlling them in any way. This style of board game narrative is often looked down upon as it’s said to patronize players and relegate them to be a passive audience to the writer’s prose.

While it is arguably the safest and most “conservative” way to enhance a game’s narrative, there is still much to be said for it. It frees players from having to do much narrative work. They get to focus on playing the game and are rewarded with a new story beat as soon as they’ve achieved some goal or another. It “only” needs a good writer to make it work, and they can focus on crafting story parcels that are dispatched over the course of the game, or even an entire campaign game.

Most efforts have arguably been put into refining this approach in recent years. Game makers continue to experiment with how to convey an external narrative without relying on long blocks of story texts to read during the game. This may include secondary texts to expand a setting’s lore and enrich player’s imagination when they next face a certain foe, or return to a certain location. It may be the multimedia tools of an app to expand a game’s audio-visual representation and so on.

An external narrative’s biggest strength is that it’s easy to grasp and for most players also easy to engage with. This is arguably one of the most important goals of design.

Type IV – Reported narrative

Simply put, this is the story we tell of the game we played. In a very literal sense the narrative is taken out of the game and handed to the players. The events of the game provide us with the material from which we get to weave our personalized tale. Think of the game we played as raw camera footage that we edit as we see fit. Sometimes a lot of editing is necessary to make it seem like an actual story. Actions may have to be interpreted through the lens of the game’s setting and mechanisms. Placing one of our tokens on the board might be interpreted as an invasion. It might be interpreted as setting up a trading post, discovering unknown space and so on. Depending on how much effort was put into aligning mechanisms and theme, we may have little room for interpretation or we might be able to really stretch our creative muscles.

Whereas the experiential narrative is based in immersion, the reported narrative is based in reflection. It asks us to actively interpret and attribute some kind of story meaning on our actions, based off of presentation and flavor texts.

Since games are a participatory narrative medium, players are pivotal in deciding which narrative genre they will pursue in a game. By extension players inclination towards one style over another may clash with the assumptions that are baked into the game’s narrative design.

A game like Pandemic Legacy Season 1, for example, is not a good match, if players are looking for a reported narrative. The game’s developing objectives and storyline put too many limitations on players to let them tell the story they want. All the elements they seek to name, interpret, edit have already been determined by the game’s writers. Players came to the table to tell a story using their experience playing the game, while the game already had a story it wanted to tell.

Similarly, the experiential narrative of a game is highly reliant on the objectives, incentives and interactions a game provides. The more varied those are, the more interesting and exciting the narrative becomes. Which goes some way to explain why so-called eurogames eventually feel unthematic or soulless to players. There are only so many variations of “exchange one resource for another resource to get VP” you can go through, before it all starts to feel stale. Players may have come to experience a narrative, but were instead deferred to the role of “competitor” and to only pay attention to the challenge the game provided.

I think we need to find a way to communicate the type of narrative a game aims to support and we need to advise players in what way they are asked to participate in the game’s narrative. This will not only help popularize board games as a narrative medium with its own unique techniques and features, but should also allow us to aim for more nuanced and sophisticated narratives beyond those stirring tales of overcoming challenge(r)s.


Title photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

Experiential narrative photo by Adam Nieścioruk on Unsplash

Deferred narrative photo by Kyle Head on Unsplash

External narrative photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Reported narrative photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

The lost soul of the Eurogame

The oft-invoked soullessness of a Eurogame is that lonely feeling of only playing for yourself. For your own enjoyment, your own experience, and the knowledge you’re getting better at the game. In short, the lack of “soul” in a Eurogame is a comment on how we miss the communal experience that can emerge from a game. A sense of sharing this experience with other players. It’s more than just sitting in close proximity to each other as we play a game. There’s something about how play itself brings about an experience we share with each other.

One of my most entertaining memories of a Eurogame is a two-player session in which my teammate and I struggled through the convoluted rules of the game together. The game’s challenges as presented simply overwhelmed us. We lacked extensive rules knowledge and experience with the game to handle them easily. So we suffered and failed together. It was great fun.

A recent play of Res Arcana on BGA was similarly entertaining to me. We hadn’t read the rules and tried our hand at the interface without any additional guidance. I’ve had a great time with it. We got to share our helplessness with each other. Despite sitting at a virtual table, we felt a shared bond. Something that the game itself, due to its strong focus on increasing one’s own advantage, action options and scoring opportunites, could not deliver.

Yet this inward-looking focus was not always part of Eurogame designs. On the contrary, a game like Settlers of Catan (1995) thrived specifically due to its communal experience. But even more demanding fare like Tigris and Euphrates (1997) forced you to continually keep your opponents in mind. It’s fair to criticize the game for only indirectly linking its theme and mechanics, but it does not feel soulless.

In it player actions are closely interlocked, which highlights our social interaction through its mechanical back-and-forth. Every decision we make has tangible consequences on the game state. Experienced players know immediately that they must anticipate and consider the consequences of their opponent’s move. You have to put yourself in the mindset of other players. This is an essential part of empathy.

The end result is a game experience we share. It may ultimately be a competitive game, but it is the shared experience of competing with each other that we remember and not our own performance. That’s why many believe they are not playing to win, but playing for the experience itself. It’s an argument that’s also popular because it makes it much easier to deal with the emotional fallout of losing.

Other people exist just outside of this frame

This is the point at which the soulless Eurogame emerges and shapes the current understanding of the genre. Later games slowly but deliberately shift the focus of the game’s design. Instead of placing fellow players and their behavior as an essential element of the play, our attention is instead drawn to our own performance in the game.

More and more, our enjoyment is defined by our individual experience. How do I best solve the puzzle? How can I push my position on the victory point bar as high as possible? How can I make my move even more efficient?

Me.
Me.
Me.

But can memorable moments be created from reflecting on our own actions, if we can’t share them with others? A quick look at the past year seems to answer this quite conclusively.

It is no coincidence that Eurogames with a reputation for being soulless, are forgotten so quickly. People often point at the weak thematic integration. Some blame the lack of a strong narrative or story. But these things are almost always just a symptom of a game worth remembering. They are not the reason the game is burned into our memory. Rather, they provide the words and images to capture the fleeting moments of our game together.

If we look at the games we play in the most analytical and prosaic way possible, we don’t do much more than move tokens on tracks. We place tiles on locations or read out card effects. What makes it special, is that sometimes those actions carry an emotional weight. Maybe because you’ve been waiting tensely to perform them. Or because they come as a complete surprise and upend the whole game.

It’s not the captivating moments that give a game its soul. If we can draw a clear line from an action in the game to its thematic meaning, that game might be atmospheric and perhaps individually satisfying. But a soul is more than that.

We need to connect to the experience we’ve shared, as opposed to the success we’ve experienced alone. A Eurogame regains its soul when we don’t fight for victory points on our own, but try our best together and alongside our fellow players.


Title Photo by Markus Krisetya on Unsplash
Article Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash

Game Night Verdicts #48 – Switch & Signal

While I was in university I worked in a museum for a year. It had one quite large building dedicated to locomotives. The visitors who came ranged from the young to the very old. Their enthusiasm for these metal beasts only made a very vague kind of sense to me. So one day I went up to one of the older regular visitors and asked him why these machines fascinated him so. He told me about his extensive model railroad and spoke with increasing passion (and deep expertise) about how he enjoyed the organization, operations and logistics of running a railroad network.

Switch & Signal is a game that attempts to express this appeal by way of a board game. You use the rail network of Europe (or North America) to transport goods. Through well coordinated card play, you work together to set switches at the right junction, run trains and bring goods of an unspecified nature to a major international port. Safely and on time.

Trains and goods in and around Paris

When you look at Switch & Signal in the context of a model railroad enthusiasm, many of its design decisions make sense. The game’s challenge is not trivial, but with some experience and good player coordination, you will likely win most games. Some board gamers, especially the hardcore faction among coop fans, might consider this a drawback.

To some being challenged and the hard fight to succeed is not only thrilling, it’s also the true and actual appeal of playing games in the first place. But just as you don’t try to deliver the most, best or fastest train in a model railroad setup, Switch & Signal also invites you to find enjoyment in the clean interaction and smooth coordination of trains. Switch & Signal isn’t at its most entertaining when you narrowly avert failure, but when you confidently deal with whatever complications come your way.

Other designs thrive on their high level of variabilty. They entice you with their unpredictable twists and unusual situations you have to master. The reason to play Switch & Signal on the other hand is the familiarity and reliability of what you’ll be faced with. It is a game that promises a little escapism because it gives you a small, intact world to excel in.

It gives you problems you can overcome and a task you can accomplish by working together well. It’s a nice reminder that the emotional range of playing a game can transcend that narrow corridor of adrenaline, an elevated heartbeat and great cognitive effort. Sometimes it’s the familiar and controllable that makes playing a game a rewarding experience.

The one weakness of Switch & Signal might be its somewhat generic production. When you consider the passion of many railroad enthusiasts, a sheet with key data of the different locomotives, their designations or even history would have been a great addition. It certainly would have framed the game differently to players by replacing the interchangeable train tokens with unique ones, and by adding trivia and more background details to the game. I presume the realities of board game production got in the way here.

The thing I’m left with after a round of Switch & Signal is my memory of the older gentleman with his model railroad collection, who allowed me to share his passion for an hour or so way back then. I think he would recognise his love for model trains in Switch & Signal. There are worse and far less charming ways to wrap up a game.

The Review Copy and the Critic 2 – Watering plants

In part one of this now two-part series of articles, I wrote down my thoughts on whether review copies lead to bias. Regardless of how you might feel, at some point somebody will inevitably ask what review copies are for, exactly. In theory, game criticism could exist without them. Unless a review copy directly boosts sales, there’s no reason for publishers to hand them out. At least according to people who consider themselves particularly SMORT.

Review copies, however, allow for criticism to include more than just the perspective of a potential buyer. It can help broaden our understanding of games and lead to a deeper appreciation of the medium, but also a wider reach.

After all, if you buy a game you’re inevitably a consumer. From a publisher’s point of view, your opinion and assessment of the product is simply a more potent type of word of mouth. It’s a publicized consumer recommendation to attract new consumers.

However, if a reviewer receives a game at no cost to themselves, their verdict is either proof of the game’s quality or an indication of how successful the game will be within a particular market segment. Instead of functioning as an advertising tool, criticism can serve as a form of market research. If the reviews are positive, you can promote the game expecting increased, if not even long-term, sales. (Something that came up in a German-language podcast, I participate in here).

A capable salesperson in a game store will advise customers in a way that encourages them to return to this store in the future. As a critic, you can choose to follow the same path, even if this isn’t what being a critic is about. An effective marketing initiative will make potential customers curious about a product and consider buying it. A critic can also do that, but students that hand out flyers at least get paid for doing practically the same job. There’s no reason why a critic should pass on that money. Even if this also doesn’t get at what critics actually do.

The most defining feature of a critic’s work is to voice how a game is and can be talked about. A critique is always a reflection of contemporary gaming culture. It’s an expression of what games can do, what they stand for, and what we consider worthwhile about them.

Those who wonder if we really need review copies to do that, might be too comfortable never expanding their horizons. It is not impossible to imagine that criticism could fulfill its function even without review copies.

After all, there are enough gamers out there, who are observant and talented enough to write good reviews. And there are of course enough gamers out there, who have the means to play new games several times and in different groups in a short time. There are even those who have (or are willing to expend) the financial resources to buy all the relevant and promising game releases each year.

However, the overlap of these three distinct groups is fairly small. It is also very likely to be white, male, and part of the upper middle class. This is not meant as an indictment, but mere observation. It should be no surprise that such a homogeneous group will illuminate only few select facets of the medium. We need different perspectives.

Review copies can help soften one of those barriers, keeping out new perspectives. They enable gamers to step up as critics without paying the high price of admission. It lets them switch from consumer to critic. Board games can only establish themselves as cultural media if we talk about them as such. For this we need a critical debate that includes as many different and varied voices as possible.

Photo by BP Miller on Unsplash

Games are good, not a luxury

I don’t like to call games luxury items. During COVID lockdown here in Germany, game industry sales have steadily gone up. We didn’t discard games like some triviality as soon as circumstances became a bit more taxing. On the contrary, during this period we became more and more involved with what the cultural industry has to offer. We watched more movies, read more books, and played more games. That’s not a sign of luxury, but a sign that culture in general and games in particular are an important part of modern life.

Of course, we could do without games if we had to. But that also applies to very large parts of our food pyramid, and no one would think of calling cheese, peperoni and milk “luxury goods”. To call games a luxury reveals a reflexive hostility towards pleasure. The idea that nothing that‘s supposed to be pleasing and make us more social actually matters. The way “real work” matters. It’s merely a reward for making it through another work week.

Yet the last few months in particular have shown how important it is for our emotional and spiritual well-being to seek out these small moments of joy, we can share with others. Our need to play together is so strong that we are even willing to make use of unwieldy and error-prone digital platforms, if they allow us to participate in this aspect of our cultural life.

While convenient and tempting, I think it’s quite lazy to deny games any cultural potential and value. Particularly when we only look at how it benefits us individually. But the fun we have with a game is only indirectly linked to its cultural merits. Culture is what happens when we engage other people. It‘s the way we discover what we have in common, and it’s woven from the habits we develop together.

Those who are part of a culture do not consider the elements that make it up a luxury, but a necessary condition for keeping that culture alive.

I’m sooo faaan-caayy…..

This is also the second reason why I am uncomfortable calling games luxury items. To take part in cultural life, you need access to it. To take part in gaming culture, you need (in most cases) players, certainly time to devote to gaming, and of course games that provide the basis for playing at all. By definition, luxury goods are those that represent a significant monetary value. To afford luxury is above all a financial question. Those who buy luxury goods do so not least to show them off and present them as a sign of their own status. If games are primarily understood as luxury goods, then this not only allows them to be moved into a higher price segment; it is almost mandatory to do so. Cheap luxury is basically an oxymoron.

So if we were to accept games (and gaming) as luxury, we would also have to accept the corollary and raise the financial barrier to entry. Luxury that everyone can afford is no longer luxury, but simply the new standard. Access to gaming culture is then made more difficult for all those who do not have the means to start a game collection and a regular gaming group. Gaming culture, at the end of the day, exists around those who own games and invite others to play. It’s about passion, not about excess and showing off.

Play, as Johan Huizinga already observed, is an end in and of itself. We play games in order to play them and enjoy the activity for its own sake. It is, simply put, fun. But by sharing and experiencing these very things with others we create a sense of belonging and social cohesion. We feel connected to others who play, not just because we’ve sat at a table with them, but because we can relate to many of their experiences and adventures. We recognise a bit of ourselves in the other person.

Our need to belong is deeply human, and not tied to a desire for luxury and opulence. Games are one way in which we can meet this need. Even beyond the hurdles and difficulties of the last year. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that more and more people devote themselves to games. Just as this feeling of community feels so precious right now.

Game Night Verdicts – Lockdown edition 2

Corona restrictions have led to a significant lack of game nights recently. Several of my reviews were affected by this. While I can‘t guarantee that I won‘t change my mind about these games as I get to play them more, I want to at least write down my preliminary assessment of the games I played since October.

Unpainted but no less wild

To start off with the obvious, Unicorn Fever is a colourful game with a quirky sense of humour. Its combination of colours is just as skewed as the proportions of the unicorns, goblins and dwarves depicted on the game‘s cards. These aesthetical decisions aren‘t just there to grab your attention, but to communicate just how serious you should take the game as a whole. Within its gaudy presentation you‘ll find the kind of rock-solid and effective betting game, that leads to the occasional screams of excitement around the table.

You generally don‘t need a complex set of rules for that. Accordingly, Unicorn Fever is quickly explained. Before each race you get three actions to split into bets, gaining advantages and influencing the racers. This provides enough structure and decisions to keep your interest for more than just a single game. As with its predecessor Horse Fever the winning odds for the unicorns are adjusted after each race. If they placed better than expected, they‘re given less profitable odds and vice versa. This encourages you to bet on underdogs, and to push them past the finishing line with a little luck and a generous helping of card effects.

A true gambler will not be intimidated by probabilities

The game‘s level of excitement is in part due to how volatile the winnings are. In a single race you could win incredible sums or lose it all, depending on how much you want to risk. It‘s this instability that creates tension without feeling arbitrary. After the first race you might find yourself far behind. A hail mary bet might often be the only shot you have at staying competitive. This can be appealing, but it can also be quite demotivating. This isn‘t a game for people who can‘t handle a little frustration.

If you‘re the kind of person to play Unicorn Fever like a dry eurogame with carefully chosen strategies and well-calculated moves, the unpredictability of it all will strike you as an unforgiveable weakness of the game. But the design decisions behind it aren‘t simply justified by way of its theme. Instead the fickleness of successful strategies opens up the game for more passion and theatrics at the table, as you cheer on your favorite. This, at least, makes Unicorn Fever quite memorable.

You can do it, ZOE!

Game Night Verdicts – Lockdown edition

Corona restrictions have led to a significant lack of game nights recently. Several of my reviews were affected by this. While I can‘t guarantee that I won‘t change my mind about these games as I get to play them more, I want to at least write down my preliminary assessment of the games I played since October.

Let‘s start with something small. Anansi by Cyril Blondel and Jim Dratwa, illustrated by Emmanuel Mdlalose and Dayo Baiyegunhi, published by Heidelbär Games. It‘s a remake of an older trick-taking game previously published as Eternity. This edition comes in a nice shiny box, similar to the one used for Spicy. The first thing you’ll notice about Anansi is that there are only three suits. The next thing you’ll note is how they’re presented thematically. The suits are called hornet, snake and leopard. This decision is explained by way of an unusual background narrative. While it may not affect gameplay or your understanding of the rules in any meaningful way, it does give the game a unique, albeit exotic, touch.

Anansi’s art is both colourful and stylish

The real hook of Anansi isn’t its background narrative, though, but the way to score points. In each of the three rounds you play, you score points when winning as many tricks as you declare. So far, so average. The first interesting wrinkle is that you declare by discarding cards from your hand. Those very same cards also affect the winning suit in the current round. This leads to amusingly brain-pretzely turns as you try to evaluate the strength of your hand of cards. There are little to no dull rounds in Anansi. You can’t just mindlessly play down your hand, but have to constantly keep an eye on your fellow players. As is often the case with trick-taking games, they thrive on the meta they build up over time, i.e. how you learn and anticipate your group’s specific patterns and account for them in your decision-making. I’d need a few more games of Anansi to figure out how well this actually holds up over time.

Another game published by Heidelbär Games covers similar albeit distantly related ground: Coyote by Spartaco Albertarelli, illustrations by Zona Evon Shroyer. Another re-release of a previously published game. It was released as Pow-Wow in Germany in the mid-00s. In that game players stuck cards to their foreheads and, just as in Coyote, players had to estimate the combined sum of those cards. Its tone-deaf presentation wouldn’t be fit to publish today. With the exception of people who are upset that baseball fans can’t cite tradition to cling to offensive team names or co-workers who keep asking the guy with the odd name where they’re “really” from, nobody would want to publish Pow Wow now as it was back then. It’s both commendable and reasonable to hire cultural consultants for the game, who are themselves members of the Cheyenne and Apacho Tribes. That doesn’t make Coyote a deeply thematic game depicting Native American culture. It remains a light-hearted and eminently hilarious bluffing game. Players try to goad each other into overshooting a certain number, without exactly knowing that number. Bringing in cultural consultants may seem excessive, but it’s absolutely not. Especially when using the visual language and history of foreign cultures, this should be industry standard.

Standees have replaced headbands. Still clever, though.

That aside, Coyote does not fully unfold its charms until you’ve played it a few rounds. It’s precisely when our understanding of probabilities (or rather the gut feeling we use in its place) is refuted by the actual card distribution that we laugh the hardest. The more you play, the more the capriciousness of the cards gets to trick you. Those are the stories that Coyote gets remembered for. The unique player dynamics unfold when it starts to become clear who is about to be fooled into overshooting this round. Again only repeated plays will show if this mix of secret and open information, deception and mental arithmetic is really interesting or just unusual.

The Review Copy and the Critic – part one of a long and winding road

There are many traits by which you could differentiate a game critic from a typical board game enthusiast. Whether it‘s their ability to articulate how a game feels to play, or the analytical skill to name the reasons for their particular game experience. Sometimes it is just the talent to convey the emotional dimension of a game to their audience. However, the one thing that seems to be on the mind of most people is this: critics get review copies for free. A good enough reason to pay closer attention to what review copies actually mean for criticism.

I’ve heard people argue that critics become beholden to a publisher once they accept a review copy. That there would be a conflict of interest, if a positive review meant they might receive more games in the future at a significant discount or even for free. Therefore it is imperative for the critic to be transparent and unambiguously communicate if they have received a review copy for free. The audience has to be warned of a potential reviewer bias.

At first glance, this seems entirely plausible. Just like the claim that humans use only 10% of their brains; that alpha males always fight their way to the top of the wolf pack, or that there are exactly two sexes. All this seems plausible, but it is still nonsense.

The potential for a review-skewing bias shouldn’t be attributed to the reviewer’s assumed for more free games, but is far more likely to be affected by a phenomenon called the Endowment Effect. Among other things, it makes a person more likely to perceive an object they own as being more valuable and of a higher quality than one they do not. In practice, this means that if you buy a game yourself, you are more likely to overlook its flaws and emphasize its strengths.

So if you were actually invested in reviewers being more transparent about potential causes for bias, you would have to do this for games they bought themselves. The more interesting question is why transparency is so important in a critique in the first place.

The answer can be found in the relationship between the critic and the audience. Transparency is necessary when the critic wants to affect the behavior of the audience. Specifically: when they are trying to influence what their audience should or should not buy. The modern Internet age has even found a term for these types of critics: influencers. Transparency is a must the moment a critic acts as an influencer. There is nothing wrong with this. It simply describes a way in which criticism is presented.

The effectiveness of a critique depends on its credibility. It can, for example, be a result of how similar the critic’s taste is to that of their audience. I’ve heard people say they I should look for a critic who is closest to my own gaming tastes. However, a critique can also gain credibility because it offers analytical and argumentative substance. Do you feel tempted to buy a game because you relate to the critic’s gaming preferences, or do the arguments presented make you curious about the game? The dividing line between the two approaches is never quite clean, and it’s not uncommon for a reviewer to go one way or the other at times. That’s because influencers and reviewers are not opposing positions. Rather, they are two separate fields of work which can overlap, but do not have to.

However, this distinction is not a matter of quality, but of function. A review can serve as buying advice, or as a deeper, substantive examination of the game itself. An audience looking for purchasing advice in a review feels reassured by transparency and warned against possible manipulation by the reviewer. Just as we tend to have some reservations when talking to a salesperson in a game store, since they have a vested interest in selling us a game. Similarly we try to estimate whether the critic tries to sell us a game, if they have been given a review copy. The requirement to always note review copies also expresses how we understand our own relationship to the reviewer. Namely, as part of the influencer’s community whose views are respected because we relate to that person in one way or another.

So when you make review copies a topic of contention, it’s only superficially about journalistic integrity. At its core, it’s about the self-image of the reviewer, their work, and the people who consume that work.

Featured image by Tangi Bertin (https://unsplash.com/@tangib)