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

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

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!

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Schiwje Belarus!

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Black Lives Still Matter!

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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.