I sometimes have a nauseating feeling that I am playing the same game over and over and over. I have been a board game hobbyist since 2003, and I mostly play heavy Eurogames. Board games is enjoying a golden age now. There are many new games being released every year. I find that among the popular heavy Eurogames, there is a certain sameness, and that sometimes bothers me. At first I thought I could liken these popular games to pop songs. I later realised they are probably more like heavy metal songs.
Hobbyist games (and by that I mean wargames, role playing games and collectible card games as well, not just heavy Eurogames) are still a small niche in the grand scheme of things. Declaring them pop songs would be flattering ourselves. Normal people play Monopoly and Uno, and at most maybe some Ticket to Ride or Catan. These are the pop songs equivalent. Heavy metal songs are a niche, but a big enough one. There are many metalheads out there, enjoying the same type of music. There are enough fans to support an industry. As hobbyists we tend to think of ourselves as better than muggles, not unlike how rockers and metalheads frown upon people enjoying sappy pop songs.
We think we are so cool, but we (especially the heavy Eurogamers) are mostly just accountants. Many of the games we play are elaborately decorated spreadsheets. Or project management training exercises. Or high school probability test papers. We are not really warriors or generals or vampire slayers. A heavy metal band is just people playing music, not very different from a string quartet. We think rock bands are cool and string quartets are boring, but they are in principle the same. They are people playing music and delivering a message, a story, and emotions. They hone their skills to play the best music they can, in the style they like. It’s just that the band is packaged in an attractive bad boy or rebel image, while we think of quartets as being staid. Becoming a good string quartet is probably harder than becoming a decent metal band.
It’s just sugar, salt and fat. Again and again. Why do people keep enjoying junk food? It is simply because our bodies have not evolved to adapt to the modern world. Our bodies are still the same as those of our ancestors on the African savannah. You see sweet fruits, you stuff yourself with them, because you don’t know when you’ll come across more. It’s survival instinct. That’s why unhealthy junk food businesses are able to keep us addicted. You may have heard of those four-chord progressions, and three-chord progressions in not just pop music, but also rock and metal music. Similar drum beats, similar guitar distortion effects, similar hoarse screaming. In hobbyist games, you have multiple paths to victory, collecting resources then converting them to victory points, building your city / empire / tableau, and combat resolution tables. These are things we are comfortable with. It’s part of our psychology to enjoy progress. We devour the same stuff over and over because they make us feel good. Different name on the box, different artwork, different designer, different setting, but underneath all that, you often see the same soothing elements – victory points, accumulation of wealth, progress on tracks, filling up a map and so on. We are all subconsciously staying within our comfort zones, whether as board game hobbyists or as metalheads. It is natural to dislike and be suspicious of anything that goes against what we are familiar with. We build the echo chambers in which we trap ourselves, without realising it.
Miniatures. Oh the miniatures. That’s consumerism. Games with miniatures do very well on Kickstarter, leading to more games with miniatures on Kickstarter. Not to say that they are all poor games. Beautifully sculpted miniatures certainly add to the gaming experience. The value of board games is the experiences they give us, and aesthetics is part of that experience. Miniatures are not always necessary, and sometimes they are used more as tools to help market a game than as tools which enrich the play experience, which is sad. Well, maybe I have never been a big miniatures person. They are not very important to me. Not every metal band needs to dress like KISS and have fireworks. I’m content as long as they don’t go on stage in shorts and sandals.
What do game publishers actually sell to us? Yes, the most important one is the experience of playing a game. Then there’s also the miniatures mentioned above. People like owning something pretty. Owning stuff is probably a compulsion that we inherited from our forefathers too. In periods of scarcity, mankind held on to what possessions it had to help it survive until the good times returned.
One more way which board games make us feel good is they give us a learning curve. We love this learning curve. The process of learning a game and playing it competently is rewarding. Usually it takes a game or two to become familiar with a game. Sometimes after that’s done, we feel we’ve seen all there is to it, and we move on to the next shiny new game. It doesn’t matter that there is likely some further depth we have not explored. We’ve seen enough. There is no longer enough kick from further mastering the game. We need the next game to give us that kick. This is one way I explain why board game hobbyists keep churning through new games. This is like pop songs. People who listen to pop songs will always keep moving on.
Some of the more recent games I enjoyed bring something new to the table. Not all of them are heavy Eurogames. I enjoyed the picture treasure hunt in MicroMacro: Crime City. I liked the different trick-taking experience in The Crew. I admire how Wolfgang Warsch came up with so many interesting new ideas – The Mind, Fuji and The Quacks of Quedlinburg. Even though Illusion was just so-so for me, I liked how different it was. I wonder whether it is because these games gave me more kick in the learning-something-new department.
Hobbyist games are becoming a mature market. Like the movie industry, there are huge hits, and there are also large companies which cannot afford to fail. I imagine that’s why many established companies go for safer designs. And miniatures. Business is business. These are real companies with real people and real livelihoods. Publishing games is no longer a small business or a side gig for them. Although it saddens me that many of the recent popular games don’t thrill me, I am happy that there are still many other games and new ideas to be discovered. Go indie designers and new designers!
Ultimately, there’s nothing wrong with people enjoying the same stuff over and over. It’s their money and their time, and they are not hurting anyone else. They are supporting the industry, and making it possible for game designers, game artists and game publishers to earn a decent living doing what they love, creating what we all love.
So yes, rock on, Mr and Ms accountant!