For nine seasons (from 1989 to 1998) the National Broadcasting Company aired a sitcom by the name of Seinfeld. It would end its run as the highest rated sitcom of its time and is still considered a high-water mark for the genre. Despite it being, according to its creators, “about nothing”. That’s an ironic description of a show that was proud of its characters never growing, learning or changing throughout its episodes. The majority of its plotlines and conflicts grew out of trivialities and neurotic behavior. It quite literally took the character Jerry Seinfeld would play on stage, and extended his exaggerated touchiness and glibness into a narrative persona. That Jerry Seinfeld was heightened, unfiltered and artificial but also very, very funny. A lot of people seem to believe that I do not like eurogames. I’ve never found that a particularly fitting description of my personal taste in games. I’d say that a lot of what defines eurogames, I appreciate a great deal. I would argue that it is due to the emergence of those games, that elegance in design became something that players learned to enjoy and appreciate. A game’s design could suddenly be “beautiful”. A eurogame’s accessible and by extension quickly internalized rules and play dynamics provided players with depth and room for experimentation and discovery. A great eurogame is a celebration of game design as craft, as mastery of form.
And sometimes a eurogame is about nothing. Like Seinfeld.
Now I’m not talking about that superficial criticism of “pasted-on theme”. The fact that gameplay can be abstract, and thematic integration of rules can be a reach isn’t a flaw in and of itself. Theme is more than just what you see on the table, and what you relate the rules to. Although I do think that when people cite a lack of theme as a negative, it is usually a sign that the gameplay isn’t quite there.
So what does it mean for a game to be about nothing? To answer that, let’s talk about what it means for a game to be about something first. What does that high-minded goal of being about something actually look like?
One of its key elements is perspective. How do we as individual players and as a group approach the game? What parts of the game do we engage with? Which elements do we emphasize in our experience? Because which parts of the game we ascribe importance to, will heavily influence how we perceive the game as a whole.
Take for example The Godfather. What is the film actually about? Is it an exploration of the Mafia and its internal structures? Is it about the sins of the father corrupting the son? Is it about the bonds of family, even when that family is deeply toxic? Is it about what it means to be a man? Is it about the downfall of the American dream? Is it about all of those things?
The answer is, of course, yes and no. The Godfather is and can be about those things. It can also be any mixture of them. It all comes down to your personal experience of the film, decoding its narrative and how it does or does not get you emotionally involved. Maybe the relationship to your father plays a role. Maybe it doesn’t. Maybe you can relate to the seductive power of violence. Maybe you can’t. But you’d be hard-pressed to argue that it is actually about nothing. Or that its quality is purely subjective.
Board games are no different in that regard. A game can be about its setting. It can be about its mechanics. It can be about the narrative that grows out of play. It can be about the story you discover in play. It can be about the interaction between players. And so on and so forth. All those approaches to be about something can be valid in a board game. Even at the same time, or in combination. They may also be invalid for some games, or at the very least highly unlikely or implausible.
But generally, a board game starts to be about something once play means something to us. Which is a difficult thing to communicate or show, because meaning is not inherent to any thing, place, process or event. We ascribe meaning to those things, because they affirm our values (or the rejection of the same). They affirm what we believe in, and what is important to us. We create meaning. We project it onto the world around us. But that doesn’t mean it’s fake or illusory. We will meaning into existence by treating events, objects and people as if they carry meaning within them. We make a game meaningful, because we see something in it that reflects who we are, who we believe ourselves to be and who we want to be.
Today’s celebrated sitcoms like The Good Place or Brooklyn Nine-Nine do not follow in
the footsteps of Seinfeld, and its background noise of nihilism. Instead these shows embrace growth, warmth, empathy and solidarity. They quite intentionally reject the cynicism of making a show about people whose only drive is their own ego. (A show that doubles down on those things is arguably It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, a successor to Seinfeld in many ways.) Fans of those shows respond to the values espoused by its tone and narratives. They respond to what the shows are about.
In many ways, I feel the same way when board games are about something. The experience as a whole, that is presentation, theme, play dynamics, etc. it all resonates with me in one way or another. (I think it’s the reason why I was so excited about Insider when I first played it, and why I still hold it in very high regard.) A game starts to be about something because it resonates with what Huizinga described so aptly in this quote:
To dare, to take risks, to bear uncertainty, to endure tension – these are the essence of the play spirit.
At their best, board games provide us with human connection. They lay the foundation for a social experience or even shared memories with other people. It’s why I play board games. Any game that aims to do that, is a game that is about something to me.
So this is where I draw the line with eurogames. When a game’s design stops being about people and starts being about this almost self-referential subversion of assumptions in strategy or gameplay… I mentally file those under Seinfeld games.
You know, games about nothing.