Barriers of entry and the Spiel des Jahres

It’s been about a week since the winner of the Spiel des Jahres 2020 award was announced. Pictures by Daniela Stöhr and Christian Stöhr, published by PD Verlag, was given the highly prestigious red award. I haven‘t played the game yet, but from what I have read about it, this decision seems entirely reasonable. But like in years past, some people took to complaining about the wrong game being chosen. These same people often can’t help themselves to mention, that games nominated for the award have become increasingly shallow. It’s also common to naggingly observe that winners of past awards would have a hard time to be nominated today; and are more likely to be sidelined as expert games instead. I’m particularly enamored with people who feel to need to publicly announce how little interest they have in the Spiel des Jahres, how removed it is from their personal gaming preferences and that they have moved on from these types of games altogether. Where would board gaming be today, if it weren’t for those valiant truth tellers to remind us how unimportant these awards and their winners actually are?

These discussions often follow a similar pattern. There are gamers, who want to explain away the award’s relevance by bringing up all the games they like to play. Just as there are gamers who defend the jury’s decision, and champion the games that are criticized. Some arguments that were brought up in this context, have given me pause, though.

It’s been argued, that board games can only find broader acceptance and visibility, if an award-winning game draws new people to the gaming table. I agree with that. If a game’s concept or presentation is aimed at experienced gamers, they are the ones most likely to find such a game appealing. It’s also been argued that inexperienced players are intimidated by complex games. With some caveats, I’m willing to go along with this argument as well. Complexity has many different ways of being presented in a game. But if a game’s designer and developer do a good job, even a multi-faceted game will still feel approachable. But then, the argument would go, that based on those two facts, it must follow that a Spiel des Jahres winner can never provide the kind of depth and challenge that experienced gamers have come to love about board games.

tommyleejonesThis is where I had to take a step back. Treating complexity in a board game as something that can only be handled with sufficient experience is not only gatekeeping, but reeks of self-satisfaction. I can understand this kind of slip-up to happen in the midst of a heated discussion. But there is quite a lot of condescension wrapped up in this argument. It is another way of saying that occasional gamers or people who have only noticed board games in the periphery of their cultural life, can’t recognize the appeal of complex or strategically deep games.

It draws a line between those who know games well and those who are just starting out. It might be done with the best intentions of meeting new gamers halfway, but it is also patronizing. It’s looking at games by what new gamers are able to deal with. As if a game that introduces people to board games, should be one with training wheels on and not a shared social experience between equals. It’s been those experiences, after all, that helped us become passionate about games.

If we want to share board games with people, who don’t have the same wealth of experience with the medium as we do, our choices should be guided by what makes each individual game appealing to begin with. Whether a game is suitable for players new to gaming, should be based on what playing it feels like. Admittedly, the effort a group has to put into a game to fully grasp its unique charms shouldn’t be ignored, either. Game length, player count and even the time it takes to explain the basics of the game can be insurmountable hurdles for some groups.

But choosing the right game for inexperienced or occasional gamers, should be about how and what it makes us feel. We should be looking for the kind of experience that is most likely to help new gamers understand why board games can be a source of passion, excitement and joy to their players. A game that succeeds in doing that, doesn’t have to be simple, but it has to be good.

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