Boardgamers: Ignore the "cult of the new"

Boardgamers: Ignore the
I was bothered by how much the "cult of the new" is making boardgamers unhappy. It’s time to fight back! When I think back to the time that I first got into games, I notice a curious thing. Most of the boardgames that I had recommended to me back then were not that new, especially compared to the films, books or television that people were talking about. Back in 2007 – long before the explosion of popularity that we have recently witnessed – they were often at least a few years old by the time anyone said “you should try this!”. These were not traditional games, like Chess or Go but many of the classic modern titles that we still rightly venerate today: Ticket to Ride, Carcassonne or even Modern Art, itself already 14 by the time my journey into the hobby was beginning. What we call the “hotness” today – which is something now much wider than the Boardgamegeek algorithm which gives this newness zeitgeist its name – had no impact on my world whatsoever. In no way was I conscious of how peculiar this was. What reason would I have had to question it? To me, the simple exploration and appreciation of a world of games out there beyond the likes of Risk and Monopoly was as pleasant as it was free from self conscious thoughts about what I should be interested in. It was my default experience and it was wonderful. Compared to my experience of the game scene now, this all looks like a quaint and distant memory. Now such appreciation is no longer such an anxiety free experience. Every day I am immersed in news of a torrent of new titles hitting the market; titles that I am not playing and have no chance of playing anytime soon. Every day there is a new hot game that is sold out almost before it hits the shelves. Every day there is another much heralded Kickstarter campaign raking in hundreds of thousands of dollars on the promise of a brilliant game in 6 months' time. Every day there is a clever new conceit from a brilliant designer that people are literally queuing to play. A game that, of course, is like nothing ever made before, with never-before-seen mechanics and exquisite artwork. What’s worse than this? A worrying percentage of the time, the hype is true: games really are getting better and they are hitting us a mile a minute. I am under no illusions that this feeling is just the result of how the market has changed, rather than my own content consumption choices. At the beginning of this journey I was a naïve dilettante, with no understanding of the industry. Today I am a prosumer-turning-professional in this space, who chooses to immerse themselves in a stream of industry news and views. If I hadn’t taken this path there’s a good chance that I’d be a little more blissfully unaware of the latest trends. I might still be a simple seeker of already well-known games. And yet, I am by far not the only one. Such anxieties are incredibly common amongst people for whom it shouldn't matter too. Every day people whose livelihoods most definitely do not depend on keeping on top of industry news share the same story of anxiety: there’s too much to keep up with, their designs will lose all relevancy if they can’t play this whole wave of content crashing over us. They can’t afford the latest games and it’s making them terribly unhappy. For what might be that most innocent and wholesome of all entertainment media – activities, played face-to-face with real human beings, generally free of carefully engineered addictive properties, and dominated by lots of tiny one or two person firms who welcome future competitors to their world with open arms – this really is the most sorry state of affairs. Analog games were supposed to be a fun escape from life’s anxieties, played with people whom you care about. They were supposed to be good honest fun.

This is not that – this is bullshit

And yet our obsession with the "cult of the new" is entirely natural and predictable. After all, it's not something unique to boardgames. As is so often with life, it is their very success that has created the problem. It's true what they say: we really are living through a golden age of games. There have never been so many good titles, available so widely and with such a large army of reviewers dedicated to helping you find the game that you will love. But it has all come at a price. Once there is enough money around that a hobby games company can be worth more than a billion dollars, an unlimited number of potential entrants are empowered by Kickstarter to launch their projects with little upfront capital and everyone and their uncle wants to be a game reviewer, a “scene” is bound to emerge. And once a "scene" emerges a cult of the new is inevitable. And once there’s a cult of the new, an anxiety of not being far enough into this cult's inner circle is inevitable. We love to gossip. We love novelty, and once we can share excitement we do share excitement, all over the tools of Twitter, Facebook and Boardgamegeek. Once there are decent sums of money to be made, it’s worth publishers spending their time and money on marketing channels, earned or paid, that can make products suddenly feel like they're everywhere. This itself leads to the rise of influencers discussing the latest “must have" titles, forming a sense of what is 'in or out' by their collective timing. The comparative simplicity of distribution, low risk and low cost of game manufacturing today also mean that the market no longer tends towards just a few big games as it did in the distant past. Instead, even as companies consolidate, games multiply, making it impossible to play them all. But here’s the thing: this cult – unless you are a publisher looking to make quick profits – doesn’t matter.

If you are a gamer, the cult doesn’t matter

What is the purpose of playing boardgames? To bring people together? To have fun with people whom you know? To beat a satisfying puzzle? All of these seem like reasonable answers and all of them are satisfied by games old and new. What is not on that list? Being the first person among your peers to have an experience of something. The drive to be first to something is deep and natural, but it’s also an instinct that we rightfully distrust as a species, mocking it in various fables through characters desperate, wherever they are, to keep up with their metaphorical Joneses. Why? Not because it’s just another thing that we can all guilt ourselves over, but because it’s an unsatisfying pleasure, especially when compared with the many better reasons that we have for playing games. Telling other people that you have something that they don’t – whether that be a possession or an experience – results in a momentary boost to status and a small dopamine hit. But it often involves putting other people down and when it’s over, it's over. It’s a terrible return on investment for the cost of a lot of cardboard. It is absolutely not the same as the simple pleasure of novelty, of course. But things that are new to you are just as much a novelty, regardless of their familiarity to others. And there are already enough games in existence that they can give you enough novelty for a lifetime, even if you never touch a hot title again. Keeping your plays of in-demand games ahead of everyone else isn't of tremendous additional value. Talking about them does scratch a certain harmless social itch that is deep in nerd culture; the need to share a discussion of what’s new. But as much as such conversations might make you want to play these games, it doesn’t actually require that you acquire every title under discussion. Why? For the very good reason that much as we are living through a golden age of games, the reality is that only a minority of them will prove to be the truly great experiences that you are seeking. Game design has improved enormously. But from what I have seen, the biggest change is that there are far fewer bad games, or games with obvious faults that get in the way of enjoyment. Stiffer competition and a wave of new designers and improved knowledge sharing amongst those designers have made everyone, for want of a less on-the-nose phrase, "up their game". Basic errors have been eliminated, as basic rules about what tends to work and what tends to fail have emerged and become common currency. But that’s the not the same thing as all new designs succeeding in constructing experiences that are in every way better than what older games provided. If I am brutally honest, when I do manage to get my hands on one of these hyped titles (I often don’t, not having any special access myself either), I often end up thinking the same thing: that there is nothing wrong with this, but there is nothing that compelling either.

We don’t know how good these new games are yet

Indeed, I would go further. It's not that the hottest games are universally overrated, it's something far more fundamental: we don’t actually know which of these games are the really, really good ones yet. So many games need many plays before their depths can truly be known. Different people will discover different pleasures in them, and they will perform differently in different social contexts. They need to be played by many people before anything resembling a true and lasting consensus about them can emerge. This process takes a lot of time because of the physical friction that analog games have compared to digital products. Distribution of a physical product means that it just takes longer for everyone to get access to a copy: delivery, fulfilment, whether shops or cafés carry stock and the resulting time that it takes for anyone to acquire it. The need to get people physically together to find a time to play reduces opportunity to play. The relatively limited number of plays that can result from such meetings limits frequency of play. The rulebook, which someone must put time into reading, or the rules video that someone must watch – all of the “code” which a digital product runs for you – involves some upfront work before people even get to play a game, further slowing the process. The natural sorting of great from the merely good that arises from this communal discovery is therefore unavoidably slow. This process can only be foreshortened so much by reviewers; they are themselves pushed for time to really play a game deeply before they move onto the next title that publishers hurl in their direction. But with older games, this “work” has already been done. It’s much easier to know whether you really will or will not enjoy something with a pedigree, because so many people have already played it and contributed their assessment and experience to a shared pool of knowledge. There's probably someone whose opinion you know and trust who's already encountered it. And when it comes to actually investing in a game for yourself, that makes older games a far better financial bet. Not only will there be more opportunities to try before you buy, you are far more likely to get a reliable recommendation on it one way or the other beforehand. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t splash out on something new that sounds awesome. While there is definitely something to be said for focusing on the games that one owns first, it's not my place to tell you to stop enjoying the shiny new toy. I am the first to admit that there is also no pleasure quite like tearing the shrinkwrap off of a new game, of punching out all of the cardboard, or – if you're odd like me – inhaling the pieces for that hit of new boardgame smell. But I hope now that you'll agree that there's no good reason to ever let the absence of such titles turn into an anxiety about not experiencing whatever the "cool kids" (as cool as they get in boardgames) are talking about. After all, we came here for fun. Let's not let our stupid human brains ruin it for us with things that don't matter. ***

Next time... If you are a designer, the cult doesn't matter

For any inspiring industry folk, it's the easiest thing in the world to believe that you have to be up-to-date with everything to succeed: what more appealing and self-satisfied state is there than to fancy yourself as a mover and shaker in the know? But I've got news for you, it doesn't matter to designers either. But you’ll have to wait to find out why...

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