Art commentary: it’s okay to love board games, even the bad ones
By John-Michael Gariépy
These cheesy board games were repetitive and horrible and I loved every one of them.
When I was a child, my mother carpeted houses and trained me. I spent much of my childhood in the homes of strangers. If I was lucky there was someone my age or an Atari 2600 to play with. But most of the time, I kept each other company. I read Endless quest children’s books and encyclopedias. I poured over 5,000 puzzles and tinkered with a plastic suitcase full of Legos. And I’ve played solo on a lot of board games, giving each imaginary player a personality and a set of tactics. I have walked them through the entire lineup, over and over again.
Mom knew I loved board games, so I tended to buy a new one every Christmas and birthday. But my parents weren’t playing board games themselves, so I was grappling with any example of Milton Bradley’s box art that looked appealing as we wandered the aisles of Service Merchandise. Screaming Eagles featured F-16 fighters on adjustable bases locked in endless aerial combat. The Mad Magazine game trotted pawns through a steeplechase of gags, with the first person to to lose all of their money was declared a winner (the game also featured a single $ 1,329,063 bill which, once won, was nearly impossible to get rid of.) In the Rodney Dangerfield board game, No respect, the players had to… well, I still don’t know what you were supposed to do in this game. At the height of Dangerfield’s success, he demanded that a game be made with no respect, and Milton Bradley tossed him a board and a bunch of numbered tiles and said, “Do it yourself.”
So yeah, it’s no surprise that I grew up loving board games. And I was lucky, because we’re living in the golden age of tabletop gaming right now. Every once in a while I get a review from a book or movie reviewer who has been tasked with rating a board game and it’s clear they never got the memo. They say how surprising it is to see a board game – weren’t they “obsolete” by the video game market? They are wrong. The board game market has caught a chord on the video game spoiler, and it’s caught wave after wave. Kickstarter alone has seen over $ 1 billion pledged to games by 2019, with 69% of that funding going to table games. And, surprise, surprise, in 2020, the year everyone was trapped inside and forced to socialize with their roommates, board game sales hit record highs. We are gilding the flower of an ever-flourishing art form, although I suspect most people have yet to recognize the flower growing in their garden.
And board games are art. I do not see how we could oppose it. There are the obvious illustrations that dot the surface of the box, board, cards, dice, and tokens, as well as the general aesthetic choices in the design of objects and how they combine into engaging shapes, albeit sometimes chaotic. And don’t forget the set of instructions that control and pace the flow of the game – turning players into actors in a contest where the choices they make determine their fates. Board games are the pinnacle of audience participation and performance art. It is culture in a box, ready to unravel and test fighters, who are also guided participants in the sharing of surprising little discoveries.
With all art comes innovation. Over the past three decades, designers have made conscious choices to get rid of “roll to move” mechanics, elimination of players, downtime and loss of control that lead to problems. moments of “bad feelings”. There has also been an increase in abstract thinking board games, a wave of cooperative games where players fight the board, games with tight resource management with a surprising array of potential strategies, and a recent push towards one player. , print and play games. As more and more games enter the common lexicon, more and more tools become available and more and more designers are mixing and matching these tools to push the boundaries of cardboard. And, while no game is ever perfect, a lot of them have proven to be great in different ways.
As a game reviewer, I had the pleasure of watching these games mature throughout the Kickstarter revolution. I went from being a person who admired games that I now see as flawed, to becoming an advocate for smart, complex and gamer-friendly designs. The tastes of my friends have also matured. We talked on podcasts about what we liked and didn’t like. And we’ve invested in games the same way people support art: we’ve become patrons of designers who have earned our respect or grabbed our attention. We helped fund their crafts and received part of their inheritance. These little masterpieces have been respectfully placed on top of our very large “to play” pile. Gone are the pool house parties animated by a Boom-O deck: everyone laughed at the one player whose bomb timer was always reset to zero seconds after the explosion. Gone are the epic episodes of Risk from my college days where a poor idiot was stuck defending his third of the world against the player who squatted Australia until the light of dawn broke through the blinds. Gone are the days of OK Soda and Axis & Allies in a friend’s basement on a hot summer day, when setting up the game took almost as long as an endless roll of the dice for a single player.
They are long gone. And I can’t say I’m having more fun with my hobby now than I did then.
In the 1950s, the film industry also saw a similar wave of high and low entertainment. Some directors have taken advantage of the possibilities to create masterpieces like At the water’s edge and A streetcar named Désir. Others took advantage of cheaper camera and production costs and sparked audiences’ interest in the fantastic to create insanely bad movies like Man from Planet X and Plan 9 of outer space. Back then, those pirate movies were being filmed – if they got any serious reviewers’ scrutiny. But they were a lot of fun. Over time, exhibitors learned they could pack a midnight screening, night after night, for Boris Karloff’s final disguise. A new expression played on people’s lips: “This is so bad, this is good. Some movies are terrible and that can be satisfying. We don’t need to treat them seriously except to heckle them seriously. You don’t have to hang on to every word. Let the television flash in the background while we talk on the phone or have a snack. Our expectations are low, and when those expectations are met, it is catharsis.
Many modern game critics seem unable to understand this principle. Remember, these are game reviews with opinions that I value and respect, many of which are smarter than me. But they don’t seem able to appreciate being the butt of the joke. They don’t understand why a player might want to do everything right while having the carpet swept under them. They find it all anathema: the embrace of wasted time, the endless shuffling of the game, the minor meaningless paper money transactions, the trick jumping, and the kind of dice roll that leads to the carpal tunnel. These critics, who play a dozen different games every week, can’t appreciate the value of aimless grinding while kibbling with friends. I don’t agree with these reviews, but I can’t say I blame them.
It happens to me too. Sometimes when I review a game I forget to check what the game is doing correctly as an experience. Most games do something right. After all, the vast majority of games aren’t from the boardroom, but have been created by designers who are passionate about their craft. These designers want to share something with you. And if that’s my margin for success – for a game to stimulate a shared experience – then most of the games I’ve played are successful.
After all these years, that’s all I ever wanted from a board game. I wanted someone to spend time with me and interact with me as I sat on the carpet, waiting for Ma to call me to clean up the leftover wallpaper. I didn’t want my conventional suspicions to be confirmed; I wanted to be surprised. And a lot of those terrible games did. Whether it was Mall Madness mocking me (?) When it inevitably rejected my credit card to buy something in the electronics store, or Star Trek’s Klingon: The Next Generation interactive VCR game that required me to answers him with a big “Yes, Captain Kavok!” before, again, I found myself locked in a stasis field. These games were repetitive and horrible and I loved each of them.
They don’t make them like they used to, and that’s good. Modern board games don’t come cheap.
“That said, even if you’re up for the challenge of playing a game like Risk, you still have to convince your friends that yes, this silly gaming beast can be fun to play. The simplest approach is to pick a game that was good in its prime but has fallen out of favor. It’s much easier to present something with an appealing sparkle of past notoriety, now polished with nostalgia. But if the nostalgia doesn’t work like a hook, then I recommend doubling down on the good / bad vibes. Nothing goes better with a bad game than a bad movie, both played simultaneously.
So dust off this copy of Fireball Island, polish those fireballs, and wreak havoc on a tropical island as our fearless adventurers fight to steal the giant ruby from tiki idol Vul-Kar. When you’re done, you can always play something more involved and introspective, but there is no rush. If you are having fun playing a game then you have already won.
John-Michael Gariepy has reviewed over 400 board games between three podcasts over the past decade. But he’s much more excited to show off his new book: Winning streak: Tales and trivia about the 40 most popular board games which can be found at www.winningstreakbook.com.