Board Gaming’s Missing History

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These are apparently the rules of Magic Realm.

When I was in college, I discovered Roger Ebert’s series about “The Great Movies.” For the past 10-15 years, Ebert has been steadily releasing essays on films that he considers to be particularly entertaining, moving, or otherwise significant. There are several hundred essays collected now, including such varying subjects as Lawrence of Arabia, Groundhog Day, and Goldfinger. Say what you will about Ebert as a critic, but his command of language is remarkable. His gifts are best used in this context, where he doesn’t need to say whether a movie is worth paying to see, but rather he can focus on the details of what brings greatness. He’s a good candidate to write such essays as well, simply because of how many films he has seen.

Two factors in particular struck a chord with me. First of all, greatness can come from any genre. It doesn’t matter if its a comedy, a tragedy, a feel-good sports movie, whatever. Secondly, his essays provided a wide shot that allowed me to see the massive sweep of film history. I am the type who wants context to what I’m doing. Who has done this before me? What leaps and setbacks were experienced in a particular field? Various pursuits gain a bit of meaning when we understand what has happened before us. And reflecting on the history of different fields makes me wish that board-gaming had a history to call its own.

I don’t mean to say that there’s no actual history there. Obviously there is. I do mean that we have a shocking lack of interest in what has come before. Although the hobby is around 40 years old, it remains very difficult to understand the context of our past. Most gamers possess a saddening lack of perspective about a hobby that has been going on well before many of them were aware.

I’m not sure where we get this dearth of perspective. At least part of it is due to the generally unprofessional atmosphere that has always been a part of board gaming. Basic things like contracts are so murky that people often have no idea who has the rights to some out-of-print titles. It’s not hard to see how details and anecdotes have slipped through the cracks. In addition, the board-gaming community is so tied to the internet that it’s hard to research any details that happened before the internet became the key driving force of the hobby. Boardgame Geek only goes back to 2000, and many gamers seem to regard that as the cut-off date, where the Dark Ages ended and the Golden Age began.

The result is a hobby almost totally devoid of roots. Oh sure, there are people who have been in for a long time. They remember the days before Eurogames were the big hot thing. They might still treasure those old copies of Gunslinger and Kremlin. But those old games will often give way to whatever iteration of deck-building is hot this month. The tastes of gamers are more and more being shaped without the influence of Avalon Hill and SPI. I count myself among these greenthumbs. I’ve been in the hobby for a mere five years, and I discovered many old games thanks to modern reprints. But there are times when I feel like a total old-timer in the hobby. I once talked to a guy who said his favorite game was, no joke, Fresco. (For those non-gamers out there, this is a little like saying your favorite movie is “Snow White And The Huntsmen.”)

I realize that I’m coming off as an old crank here, which is ironic considering how new I am at this whole thing. It’s easy to shake a fist at “kids these days” and curse the darkness. And if we never really get those roots in place, the hobby will proceed as it is now. But I think that if we could find that sense of shared heritage, we might see that board-gaming will be healthier than its ever been. Because more than new flash and pretty bits, people want to know that there’s a little bit of depth to what we do.

It’s true that we play games for fun, and it is inherently a frivolous pursuit. But it’s also true that meaning in hobbies is often found in shared experiences and in sharing those experiences with others. I once read a forum post on F:AT from a guy who said that he has played Magic Realm for 30 years. While raising his children, it was a family tradition when they reached a certain ago to teach them to play Magic Realm as well. Now these kids (now grown, I believe) still play it with their parents. That’s not just playing a game, that’s creating a legacy and a ritual with the people who matter most in your life. That’s the kind of thing that brings people closer together. You don’t even need kids to see that happen, because the same thing occurs with old friends. I dearly hope that I will someday be able to share the same kind of joy with my kids, maybe over something like Merchants & Marauders or Twilight Struggle.

Thankfully, board gamers are slowly beginning to realize that their past extends back further than they thought. The last few years have seen reprints of the vast majority of long-lost classics, and those that haven’t made it yet are likely in the works. Somewhere, there’s a gamer who never thought he would care for Wiz-War who now sees it presented to him on the game store shelf. Some of the old guard will huff and puff about whatever issues the reprint has, but it’s a net gain for the hobby. It perpetuates old concepts that still have value, and it keeps people from turning their backs on ideas that they consider to be outdated or old-fashioned. Thanks to modern publishers like Stronghold and Fantasy Flight, new gamers like myself can connect with stuff that we never would have otherwise played.

Obviously, not every old game is a timeless classic. The sell-by date is often twenty years ago, and a lot of important games are actually painful to play. But even in that case, there’s value in simply being important at one time. In a perfect world, there would be a site that would chronicle the history of the hobby from it’s nascent days in the 1960s all the way through the present time. Some sites made a game try at this, like the much-missed Games Journal. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a good start at talking about this topic. Bruno Faidutti’s site also pulls from all different genres and eras in it’s attempt to find the “ideal game library.” That’s good stuff, so let’s run with it. Rather than the endless churn of the shiny, it’s time to dig into the past to bring up some real gems, forged by time and trial.

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3 thoughts on “Board Gaming’s Missing History

  1. I’m captivated by your post, friend, especially since this is a topic that interests me. I’m interested as a cataloger who would like to see the links, and I’ve toyed with the idea of working on a family tree of games, so to speak. I do take one issue with the comment that the hobby is approximately 40 years old. I’ll take you to task before somebody else does. I get what you’re saying. It seems like you’re dating it by the advent of companies like Avalon Hill in the US. But obviously games have been around much longer than that. You may need to qualify what you mean by “the hobby” since humankind has always been a society of gamers.

    • Yeah, I didn’t qualify that very well did I? I’m referring to gaming as an active hobby, not as a just general cultural artifact. That’s really only been a thing for the past 50 years or so.

  2. Pingback: Board Gaming’s Vanishing History | The Rumpus Room

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