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

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)

May Lightning Strike You

To most of us games are escapism, entertainment and shared fun with friends. But even though we talk about disappearing into a game we really enjoy, they do not exist in a vacuum. Regardless of what we understand games to be: an artistic product, a shared experience or just fun times with friends, they are an extension and a part of the real world. As such games are subject to tangible and material limitations. One of which we all now operate under as COVID-19 keeps us from going to meet-ups or having game nights how and whenever we want. But such limitations aren’t new. At least to people who, due to identity or opportunity are only able to participate under certain conditions.

It’s no accident that topics such as representation are particularly hotly debated in those parts of the global gaming community, in which the intentional exclusion of people is a pressing, societal concern. Being able to participate in the cultural life around you, is tied to limitations that society imposes on you.

The heated political polarization we can see happening in various countries is ultimately due to certain groups attempting to radically rewrite such limitations for all aspects of society. Reactionary, right-wing and fascist forces seek to fundamentally restructure how we live together. Every group that criticizes them, defies them or simply doesn’t fit their narrow way of life is supposed to be pushed to the margins of society. They are supposed to be so heavily restricted in how they live, thrive and survive, that the idea of dissent, let alone resistance, becomes unthinkable. The goal is not political persuasion or reaching some democratic consensus, but to grind down the opposition into a state of permanent hopelessness.

It is harrowing how many examples there are of this. From blatant voter suppression in the United States of America, to the purposeful push towards financial bondage of the working class in the UK to the social, physical and mental endangerment of women in Poland due to further tightenting of its abortion ban. Poland’s constitutional court has issued a new ruling or clarification that has caused widespread protests already lasting days. A growing number of people are siding with or against the right of women to bodily autonomy, and the right to protect their physical and mental health as well as their life.

One of the people, who have declared their political position now, is Portal Games.

With a comparatively subtle, yet unambiguous change of their company’s Polish Facebook banner Portal Games sides with those who protest the court’s ruling. They do so without a call to action, or a public statement or even a reference to a charity. 

This new banner shows a young, naturally very attractive woman, casually carrying an oversized red lightning bolt on her shoulder. It is the same lightning bolt, which is part of the symbol, that graces placards and flyers of those who oppose the abortion ban.

This is worth mentioning, because the head of the company, Ignacy Trzewiczek has never been shy about running his company with a strict sense and eye for business. Even his publicity work (podcasts, videos, etc.)  has always served to position the brand Portal Games as a positive one, with close ties to the gaming community. Although the company has, somewhat quietly, been more inclusive of women in the industry both in front of and behind the scenes, explicit political statements were generally avoided. Presumably, because it may put off any potential customers. It is the old fairy tale, that business – like games – exists in some separate sphere far away from all our other social concerns. 

Naturally, this banner change has led to all kinds of interpretations. People are trying to decode the reasons behind it and assume ulterior motives that fit with their own world view. Is Portal Games trying to cozy up to socially-liberal gamers without committing to any meaningful action (like a call to action, a public statement or a reference to a charity)? Or are they, in light of strong political tensions in the country simply careful not to offer people too much room to attack, by foregoing a call to action, a public statement or a reference to a charity? Or has the blatant injustice become so unbearable that silence would seem like tacit endorsement and a betrayal of one’s values which can’t be neatly summed up in a call to action, a public statement or a reference to a charity? Because why should people stand for something or someone, unless they can profit from it?

A cynical world view is one which sees self-interest as the driving, if not only motive for human action. It is an alluringly simple explanation for any and all injustice one sees or feels. As is often the case with explanations that are as simple as they are widely applicable, they tend to lead people astray. Those who think of Portal Games as shrewdly capitalizing on a cultural moment only reveal their own hopelessness and inability to imagine human solidarity. Cynicism becomes just another way to surrender to those who seek to eschew democracy by robbing those who dissent of hope.

As a counter-example, there is Richard Shako form Histogame, whose website is both clear and explicit in its position with regards to the political tension in Belarus. He is open about his goals and intentions. His company’s going on strike is a way to overcome what powerlessness one might feel when seeing the injustices in Belarus.

Changing your facebook banner is not a political act. It is at most a symbolic one. As such it can’t by itself bring about any material change. But it is an attempt to communicate one’s beliefs and values. Portal Games’ simple action becomes more meaningful because it breaks with the past. It communicates something that has nothing to do with cuddly imperialists or a sexy post-apocalyptic fantasy.

It is a show of solidarity that is supposed to have a symbolic effect. It’s the attempt to encourage those who feel their hope dwindling. It’s a signal to the people protesting for their beliefs and values, that their actions are not met by a silent wall of indifference. Because the willingness to show solidarity with others is the basis of democracy.

To that end I want to say:

Wypierdalać!

&

Schiwje Belarus!

&

Black Lives Still Matter!

&

Trans Rights are Human Rights!

Spiel 2020 – The future is a digital past

This year the Internationale Spieletage in Essen (as Spiel is called by its full regal name) have been replaced by SPIEL.digital. Now that it‘s behind us, it‘s time to reflect on the experience. Let‘s start with the blindingly obvious: Spiel is not what it used to be.

It did not take me all that long to get there. There were no hallways packed with people. You didn‘t have to carry bulking bags full of games out of the halls. Instead there was a website that visitors had to slowly learn how to maneuver in. Naturally some reacted with the expected loud proclamations of disappointment and bitter disillusionment. If you’re familiar with the responses to the Spiel-des-Jahres nominations and winner reveals, you’ll probably recognize this song. Every decisions was wrong and misguided. Everyone can see what should have been done instead. Everyone knew all along how this was going to be a spectacular failure.

But even the response to that, follows a familiar pattern. These people are just nerds who are completely out of touch with the rest of the world, and treat their first world problems as intolerable injustices. They are neckbearded neophobes who reject anything that doesn’t fit into the old, familiar patterns they’re used to. SPIEL.digital is the inevitable march of progress and there were more successes than failures here.

It’d be rather convenient to simply say that the truth is somewhere in the middle. But I don’t think that’s the case. I’d say that both sides are right in their own way. But which argument carries more weight is ultimately down to your own expectations of what Spiel.Digital is supposed to be about.

Spiel has many facets to it, which every visitor experiences somewhat differently. For starters, it’s a novelty show. It’s a place where the passionate gaming enthusiast can find out what the next 6-8 months might bring. But it is also a giant playground, where you can try out new games and old (i.e. those that you could buy as far back as two years ago!). A playground in which the wealth of new ideas never fails to delight and entertain. But it is also a sales fair, in which traders and publishers can make great, even company-saving profits. (The recurring cases of stolen cash registers notwithstanding. Although I’d like to imagine that these skidmarks in human form responsible for those robberies are having a spectacularly bad time this year.) But Spiel is also a business event in which future collaborations are established, and friends and competitors get to meet and interact with each other. On top of all that, it’s a big communal experience that can shape a board gamer’s identity in a way that only disappearing in a huge mass of like-minded people can achieve. Being at Spiel has always felt like four days in which you were exactly where you are supposed to be.

As I said, Spiel is many different things to different people. But with Spiel.Digital it’s not how it used to be.

Plainly put, as a sales fair Spiel has regressed. One publisher or another may have ended in the black, but those who relied on international sales were most likely disappointed. This was, in part, because Spiel.Digital lacked the infrastructure that would have otherwise encouraged impulse buying, which anyone could profit from in years past. Where once a nice cover, a tempting discount or a friendly chat at the booth was enough to lead to a sale, Spiel.Digital had people jump through quite a few hoops to get there. A surprising number of games weren’t available to purchase or only up for pre-order. Some were only available as imports, and even those could rarely be bundled with other games. If you dared to order more than three games internationally, you ended up paying shipping costs that amounted to the price of a shrink-wrapped copy of Gloomhaven – Jaws of the Lion. This was often enough to quell the typical shopping spree that Spiel would often induce in its visitors.

The novelty fair side of Spiel was similarly limited, but no less interesting than in past years. Quite a number of publishers came well-prepared with rules videos, articles and digital gaming tables to somewhat try out the new releases. Which made the cases, in which enthusiastic buyers were asked to wait 3-4 months for their copy to arrive, even more agonizing. Especially publishers who reached out to content creators early on, managed to leave a highly professional and competent impression on visitors. Those who didn’t or couldn’t, need to take advantage of the fact that the website will still be operational for the rest of the year, and add new content and purchasing options to their virtual booths.

In fact, if there is one thing that’s become obvious with Spiel 2020 is that it’s been the year of board game content creators. Where in the past the wealth of purchasable games pushed gamers into spending deliriously on new releases, shaping our memories of the fair, it is now the experiences surrounding the live streams that we remember Spiel by. Instead of an endless scroll of slightly tacky “loot pics” on social media, it’s singular moments that stay with us. Were you there when “Team Knuffig” was born? Did you hear the phrases “Are we still live?” and “Do you mean I should push this bu- ?” Do you remember when Manu couldn’t for the life of him remember the name of Klemens Franz?

This year’s Spiel FOMO isn’t about games you didn’t play or buy, but about the authentic and very human moments of boardgamer silliness, you could be part of despite ample physical distance.

My Spiel.Digital experience was almost exclusively positive. There was always a sense of community after four days spent with friends at the fair, that would follow me home, and still stick with me for weeks afterwards. This year I realize that the experience of intensely engaging with games and the people who are similarly passionate about them continues to electrify me. I continue to get carried away talking about games on social media channels. I’m planning and weighing which new releases I should consider picking up post-Spiel. I’m still beaming with pride, that Beeple Radio, which I participated in, was so well received by so many people.

But I also realise that Spiel.Digital still has much to improve for next year. Especially international and internationally-minded players missed out this year. I find little use in armchair analyzing the reasons for it. Still it’s always been the international quality of Spiel that has turned it into the most important four days of the year. I hope that this aspiration towards internationality will return in full-force in 2021. In order to do that there needs to be infrastructure that brings publishers and buyers closer together. Some wrinkles of the website’s user interface need to be ironed out, too. So it won’t just be an easy time for those fluent in all manners digital, but also encourage the type of occasional gamer who would be happy walking out of the halls carrying a copy of Monopoly Essen and a copy of Menara.

For that to happen the industry needs to acknowledge that the presence at Spiel.Digital is not measured by the size of the hexagonal tile and the many places linking to in the database. It’s the skill of the livestreams (video or audio) that draws people’s attention to games that they can buy right here and right now.

It’s when Spiel.Digital coalesced to lead visitors from a fun shared experience to an easily acquired game, that it felt like Spiel the way it used to be.

Play beyond the rules

One of the odd little quirks in board gaming is how players get into the habit of narrating their actions as they take them. Some might do it to help memorize the intricate web of rules they‘re operating in. Others might do it to some pizzazz to the otherwise quite subdued actions we take as we play. Some might even do it, so as to not sit in complete silence as everybody contemplates their next move.

Whatever the motivation, by speaking out loud players also expand the act of play beyond the purely mechanical layer of following and executing instructions laid out in the game’s rulebook. Whereas the game predominantly takes place in our minds as we analyze the board state, calculate (or vaguely guess) our odds and weigh our options, by phrasing our actions in the language of the game, we reach out to turn a solitary mental exercise into a fleetingly shared experience. The actions we thought up become reality, not only because we took them but also because we gave them a name. We fell a tree and made a noise, so that other players could hear it.

Narration is a subtle contribution to what makes games enjoyable and fulfilling. Some more so than others, of course. Explaining your actions in a game like Through the Ages adds merely a flourish to the experience. We are generally too wrapped up in wrangling our nascent civilization into some presentable, i.e. pointscoring, shape to appreciate or even care about the small steps our opponents are taking towards world domination. But a game like 7 Wonders played in complete silence feels like an eerie cult engaging in an occult ritual about bringing forth the brightly-colored spectre of primary school math homework.

The point being that in order to experience a game fully, we can’t assume it is enough to simply tackle its rules as hard and efficiently as we can and expect fun to spew out like a roll of mints dropped into a keg full of Coca-Cola. To be clear, this is not about the old canard of theme vs mechanics. This is not about “appreciating a game’s theme” by mimicking kindergarten-style storytime as you bounce your miniature across the board or put on fancy voices as you narrate some card’s flavor text. All while busily plotting out your move to maximize your chances on your next turn.

A game that’s more than its rules

It’s about pointing out that a game’s function is not limited to memorizing, combining and applying its carefully calibrated rules towards whatever goal the rulebook has set out for its players. A game’s function is just as often about the expected behavior players will engage in within the framework of the rules. It can be about what happens when you add the vibrant dynamism and chaotic energy of 3-5 distinct personalities to a purposefully constrained environment, like a board game.

Anyone who has ever played Werewolf, The Resistance or most party games should be able to recognize how the rules of these games, while still providing the essential foundation for the experience, were not the source of enjoyment or even the most arresting features of playing them. It’s the surprising twists and turns that happen as players pursue their goals, that create laughter, enjoyment and a sense of sharing play together.

But it’s a mistake to believe that this re-centering of the experience, one or two steps removed from the rules themselves, is only true for rules-light games and party activities. Games like Wiz-War, Cosmic Encounter or Twilight Imperium really only get room to breathe and live up to their potential when players see the rules not as a narrow maze to move through and find their block of cheese, but as an open platform on which we engage each other as players.

Shaped by the invisible lines that separate what’s part of the game from what isn’t, we get to explore the possibilities of how to interact with other people in a different context. We can get to know each other anew, or simply slip into different roles than we’re used to. Maybe tough-as-nail competitors instead of socially-minded friends.

A good game is more than the sum of the parts, that come in the box. A game comes alive by how we choose to play it. Recognizing what a game needs and being able to hit the right notes in play, is not a question of personal taste but simply practice and habit. It’s also a topic for another time.

Why it’s so difficult to do the right thing in a game

Most games are supposed to be fun. But not every game picks a neutral setting and aims “only” to entertain. Some games purposefully choose challenging themes and set ambitious goals for themselves in how they want to be perceived. They try to do their themes justice by putting so-called ethical decisions before players. I find this commendable in so far that serious consideration was put into how games affect players and what kind of questions they bring up. It’s the kind of self-awareness that all game development should be about.

But I’m more interested in the nature of these ethical decisions. What exactly makes them ethical? And why do they matter so much in how a game handles its theme?

Whether a decision is ethical or not depends on why we made it. For most game designs this is a big challenge to overcome. Almost all decisions we make in a game aim to help us win. We look through this lens at all the options a game offers us. Our decisions are rooted in self-interest. But in the common understanding of ethics and morality, self-interest doesn’t really top the list of ethical behaviour.

If you’ve ever wondered why “the economy” often seems to opt for the path that harms more people than it helps, you should find the reasons here. Unless the goal is explicitly keeping people from harm, decisions are simply not made with this goal in mind. This is the practical application of utilitarianism. A strand of philosophy which measures the validity and legitimacy of a decision by maximising the number of relevant people it benefits. If you are not part of the relevant group of people, you will not be a factor in the decision-making process.

A commonly used thought experiment to challenge utilitarianism (or even disprove it in the eyes of some critics) is the trolley problem. In this hypothetical situation you have to decide whether a trolley will go down one set of rails, killing a number of people or another set of rails killing only one person. At first, the answer seems simple enough: if only a single person dies, it’s better than having multiple people die. But as soon as these people stop being abstract concepts, because you know them or have some personal connection to them, the decision becomes more difficult. Utilitarianism reaches its limits, when we stop seeing statistics and start seeing people.

Playing games generally follows the principles of utilitarianism. We look at the situation from a distance, and apply the rules as efficiently and goal-oriented as we can. Moral or ethical decisions are only possible when we break with this practice. For example, by introducing human beings into the equation. It’s only by expanding our perception beyond victory points, decision spaces and control to include human beings, that we open up the game to ethical decisions. Ethical decisions are those in which human beings become relevant to us.

There are a few ways to do just that. You could remind yourself, that you’re playing with actual people at the table and not just opponents and competitors. As in the trolley problem above, the ethical dimension of a decision comes into play, when it includes actual, real (to us) people.

Simply taking a token from the board or removing it from the game, does not constitute an ethical decision. For one thing, those game elements will be reset for our next game. Our decisions have no tangible consequences. More importantly it is a decision about ideas and mental constructs. It is morally and ethically irrelevant, if a playing piece is moved from one area to another. Regardless of what label we give those playing pieces and play areas. It’s only when the actions we take in a game have a direct effect on the people at the table, that play moves beyond utilitarian self-interest.

Ethics are a loose collection of guidelines how to live with others, based on empathy. As long as we can empathise with others, we can act ethically. Which is not to say that decisions should be made out of empathy alone. Instead, our empathy must be part of how we come to a decision. In a game, a decision can be ethical if it was made in consideration of how it affects other people. Ethics in a game only enter play, when our ambition is limited by its ramifications on others. Players who respond with anger and outrage, when they’re lied to, betrayed or disproportionately attacked, often speak out because of their sense of justice, i.e. their understanding of ethics and morality. Something that they may be more acutely aware of in that situation.

In order to introduce ethical decisions in a board game, many creatives rely on carefully developing the game’s theme. As mentioned above, this is only somewhat useful, since cards and tokens do not present questions of ethics and morality, even if the game’s terms for them carry strong, emotional connotations.

The moral and ethical implications of a game’s theme is not transported by individual elements, but the experience of play as a whole. As long as it’s part of a game, using the “slavery” card or using the military action to expand my resource income, doesn’t make us ask any questions of morality. These questions are brought up after the game, when we consider to what extent the game did its theme justice. It happens when we ask ourselves just how truthful, authentic and valid the game’s theme has been represented.

An important criticism in games about colonialism, is that they support ideas and narratives about the era, that white-wash and downplay its injustices and cruelty. The untruth inherent in those games is rightfully attacked and rejected by anyone who understands these issues well enough. The morality of these games expresses itself in how it presents its theme. The ethical decision players get to make, is whether to critically examine the validity of this depiction or not.

 

And then there’s one more approach, that is vaguely reminiscent of how books and films manage to portray morally challenging situations and decisions. Simply put: characters are drawn to be human-like in order to evoke our empathy.

When we empathise with these characters these media get to unfold their full narrative impact on us. Talking animals in an animated film are the most obvious example of this. The goldfish or clown fish is given human-like qualities making it easier for us to grant it human-like status. Something similar is possible in games as well. Once we start humanizing our game pieces, our decisions also draw on our empathy. Only then do our decisions have an ethical aspect to them. Our game pieces become part of the relevant group that we base our decisions on.

In the vast majority of board games ethical decision pull players in two opposite directions. Our ambition drives us to look at the game as an abstraction so that our capable use of its rules will bring us victory. But in order to consider ethics and morality at all, or even act on them, we must allow ourselves to feel empathy. Either with the people at the table or the fictional characters of the game.

This tension isn’t easily resolved. At most, you can position yourself between the two opposite ends, and only occasionally experience the game’s ethical decisions. When it comes to doing the right thing, our ambition to win usually stands in the way.

Metagame and the limits of what can be said

In a twitter poll I recently launched, I asked people in my wider social media circles about their views on board games. Specifically, I wanted to know if it was acceptable to talk other players into working against the assumed leading player in a competitive game. The result on both my German and English twitter account was quite decisive. A great number of people sided with talking players into taking action to prevent somebody else from winning. It was even argued, that that’s what playing games is all about.

I was somewhat surprised by that result. After all the very same behavior gets heavily criticized in cooperative games. It’s even reason enough for some people to avoid cooperative games altogether.

Nobody likes to be bossed around, even with the well-meaning intention of winning the game for everybody. Your enjoyment of a coop game will invariably suffer with such a player at the table. One of the most important qualities of a board game lies in giving players agency. That’s why some games lose their appeal the moment you’ve discovered an optimal strategy to win. The same is true for any game in which averting defeat is only possible if you pick the one, correct response to any of your opponent’s moves. If one of the many options available to you after a player’s move stands out as the optimal choice, it doesn’t really feel like agency. You get played by the game, instead of the other way around. This is true, even if it’s not the game that removes your agency but another player.

Apparently, competitive gamers arent’t that fussed about this issue. A notable number of players consider it perfectly valid and even part of a game’s core appeal to talk other players into doing something, in an attempt to prevent somebody else’s victory. Some circles consider this style of arguing and haggling “political play”.

Regardless of what you want to call it, these games possess an additional layer to play and require a wider understanding of what is contained within the game. This carries some notable risks with it. When your success is undermined or even invalidated, because you couldn’t counter the skilful rhetoric and persuasion of another player, it can be irritating and annoying. Not least of all, because there might have been some disagreement as to what behavior was or wasn’t part of the game. A game may start off as being about strategic considerations of tactical decision spaces only to wrap up as dramatic argument between amateur salespeople.

When a game’s arc causes players to get angry or despondent, people tend to look at drawing up new rules to deal with the situation. An unbeatable strategy gets defused by changing certain rules or values in the name of game balance. If the game’s setting is the reason to avoid it, it is reworked to be more acceptable or appealing to people. When the way players exerting influence over each other leaves some with a bad taste in their mouth, the most common response seems to be to simply play a different game.

To many, Pandemic is the mother of all alpha gamer problems

This can’t be said for cooperative games, though. Here this artful persuasion is so strongly rejected that many reviewers seem to praise games, that introduce rules to make it (nigh) impossible for one player to play quarterback to everybody else. Which makes it even more interesting that in competitive games similar rules are rarely celebrated, if they included at all. Instead this behavior is tolerated as a natural aspect of competition and in some cases even considered the core of the game. Luckily this is the kind of viewpoint you can take disagree with. I would even go so far to say, that most gaming groups make very fine distinctions when and how you are allowed to influence the decisions of other players. But I think these distinctions aren’t inherent to the games themselves, but instead made by the groups. It’s not the rulebook but the players themselves who elect to accept certain behavior as part of a game or not.

In this game speaking up is the key to enjoyment

Regardless of whether you’re playing cooperatively or competitively, at heart this question is about balancing personal ambition with the shared experience of playing together. If claiming victory is the highest and only priority of playing with others, allowing an alpha player to roam free is a small price to play to win. In a competitive game you are more likely to make the table laugh than draw their ire, if you start to explain how to best block the leading player from winning the game.

But normal gaming groups take other facets of gaming into account. Beyond the wasteland of competition, games offer a number of reasons to get them to the table. Whether it’s exploring the tactical options of a game, experiencing the tense decision points it offers or even the shared misery of arduously scraping together small victories against a challenging system. A game isn’t memorable because of how well you scored, but because the decisions you made were responsible for the game’s outcome.

There is no magic trick to know when influencing the decisions of another player crosses a line. It only takes players who can and want to understand why they’re playing this game right now.

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.

On the meaningfulness of games

A few days ago, a friend of a friend passed away unexpectedly. I only knew him from the number of times we’d played together in the last seven or so years. Maybe longer, even. He was not a childhood schoolmate of mine, nor did we have many opportunities to spend time together outside of games, cons or the like. He was part of somebody else’s weekly game night, mostly made up of friends going back to their shared school days in the 90s. I would join their game nights on a semi-regular basis for a while. When my son was born I became a less frequent guest and when I moved to the other end of the city, I rarely had time to join them for a few games. We ran into each other at Spiel in Essen, and promised to play together again soon. And now that’s a promise we can no longer keep.

There’s this accepted truth among a great number of reviewers, designers and players that games are, when it comes down to it, trivial. That they are inessential luxury items, with which we indulge our escapist impulses. The belief persists that games are mere consumerist distractions, made to occupy our idle minds before we engage in something with actual merit. This stance never really sat well with me. But right now, I feel offended and insulted by it.

I feel a sense of loss that I won’t get to play a game with him again. That his passing has robbed me of something valuable and irreplaceable. I can barely imagine the pain his close friends and family feel. They had a much deeper connection to him after all. They grew up with him, they met regularly, had dinner and his friends lived in the same neighbourhood for a number of years.

All that really connected me to him were the games we played together. Some as competitors, some as allies. Sometimes we plotted against our host, sometimes we plotted against each other. He was a very capable player, tactically minded and strategically skilled. What made him a great player, though, was that he understood he was always playing with friends first and against competitors second. We also had a similar sense of humour, so even when things weren’t going our way in a game, we could crack jokes for each other.

I am going to miss those moments. Because they’re not trivial or meaningless. The games I had the chance to play with him, even the crowd-funded ones, were not consumerist distractions. They were a chance for us to connect and bond. They were not without merit, just because I didn’t publicize them to turn them into other people’s entertainment. The grief I feel does not even begin to compare to that of his close friends and family. I don’t need to be reminded of that. It will not take years for me to accept this event and move on. New people will eventually join my social circles, who I will share a game night with and maybe connect with as well. But I also recognize that games are the reason I can even begin to feel grief over his passing. They are the reason why he isn’t somebody else’s friend who has died, but also mine. Under the intellectual challenge, the moments of tension and the emotional ups and downs as we jockey for victory, games offer us, when it comes down to it, a chance for human connection. That is not meaningless. It is not trivial. And neither was the time I got to spend with my friend.

Goodbye Alex.

Barthes told me to do it

The other day I had the opportunity to be taught some new games. As is so often the case, the explanation began with the unassuming phrase, that nevertheless made me stop and wonder. „This game is about…“

Every rules explanation or introduction begins with a phrase like that. It’s the necessary framing so the rules can make sense. So I wondered who gets to decide the framing of a set of rules. A quick glance at the rulebook or the game‘s box generally offers its own framing. This game is about being a daring adventurer in a dangerous fantasy world. Maybe it‘s about making loads of money as an industrialist. Or maybe it‘s about leading a civilization towards world domination.

But that‘s really just the game‘s setting. It‘s a filter we use to make play more fun, but it‘s not what the game is about at its core. A game is about play, i.e. what players actually do. But if we only look at the rules, we‘ll soon notice how similar they all are. There‘s a goal you‘re supposed to reach. The rules present you with a number of things to do, in order to overcome the obstacles standing in your way.

So if the rules are the ones to tell us what a game is about, the answer is always the same: playing games is about winning. Either against other players or the game itself. But experience shows, that this answer is also incomplete. If only the game‘s goal matters, then no game can be said to have any relevance to its theme. Puerto Rico would be just as controversial as Jenga. The difference between a game like Secret Hitler and Azul would be merely mechanical. The historical background of war games and conflict simulation games would be mere coloring. There would be literally no point to them.

But games resist such a simple reductionist view. They‘re not about setting or mechanisms alone. You have to merge the two in order to truthfully answer what a game is about. This isn’t done by the people you’d necessarily expect it from. Because a designer doesn’t get to choose what their game ends up being about. Once the rules are set, their authority over the game’s meaning evaporates. Even additional clarifications in the rulebook or a blog, do not lend them power over how theme and mechanics come together to create the actual game and how it’s played.

It‘s the gaming group itself, that definitively answers the question of what a game is about. We determine it as we try to grasp the game, mentally sort through its mechanics and turn our attention towards the things we care about. The path to victory points, the feel of new mechanisms or even the exotic setting the game presents us with. Games become about the things we care about in them. Our decisions reveal our convictions about games.

In comparison, the designer’s work consists of presenting us with a range of elements to choose from. What is included in this selection, though, can be just as revealing as the things that are not. A small detail we would do well to keep in mind when we talk about the artistic merit of a game.