During the discussion which followed a recent column about classic board games, the subject of whether or not “lifestyle games” should be included came up. The term was used as a descriptor for games which some gamers follow to the exclusion of most other titles, usually because they have an appeal beyond that of simply playing the game itself such as collectability or modeling. I found this an interesting point to raise because mentally I never lump these games in with board games, whether they actually have a board or not. And yet examining these games casts, I think, an interesting light on the current state of the gaming hobby.
Lest anyone should think that this is going to be a rant against these sorts of games in favour of those which are more commonly percieved as board games, let me start by saying that I’ve devoted the bulk of my hobby gaming years to titles of this nature. First it was AD&D then Magic: the Gathering and then Warhammer. So to accuse them of being in some way inferior would be very hypocritical, not to mention arrogant given the fact that in all probability far more gamers religiously stick to a chosen lifestyle game throughout their gaming years than dabble in a diverse board game collection. This is why I mentally tend to exclude these games from the “board gaming” hobby: for me a wide diversity of taste in your game collection is the marker that differentiates a board gamer from a lifestyle gamer.
But my rejection of lifestyle games in favour of a hobby that I define partly through diversity leads me directly into yet another possible charge of hypocrisy. Because I’m forever fulminating against the constant churn of the modern board gaming hobby and instead suggesting that we as gamers should be demanding titles of high enough quality to withstand many, many repeat play through the simple means of ensuring we do just that: play a game many times before moving on to the next thing. This sits ill at ease with my desire for diversity: after all, isn’t a lifestyle game the ultimate example of the sort of devotion that I’m extolling?
Well, the companies that design, make and sell lifestyle games still have to turn a profit, just like any other game company. And the obvious way to go about this is to manufacture and distribute material concerning whatever it is beyond the game play itself that’s appealing about a particular lifestyle game. Collectible games sell themselves through an ever-increasing circle of game pieces. Miniatures games through the figures themselves and the modeling material needed to support the game. Other lifestyle games have what might be called a “story” option: they become focused on expanding the details of the setting against which the game is played and sell their extras in the form of sourcebooks or even novels. Many lifestyle games of course choose to take all three options to maximise the revenue streams available. So in the final reckoning, playing a lifestyle game isn’t that different from a board game collection: you’re still amassing large amounts of gaming material, it’s just that the products are focused on a much smaller number of basic gaming systems.
This glut of material and the variety it generates in a single game is an interesting phenomenon in itself. Because it almost inevitably leads to serious balance problems somewhere in the system. The potential variety of armies you can build in Warhammer is almost limitless, but spend any time playing with serious enthusiasts and you’ll discover that for each race in the game there exists a small number of army “templates” that generals follow with relatively small amounts of deviation. There’s even a term from them in that hobby: “cookie-cutter armies”. Another classic example is the manner in which very large numbers of cards in Magic have been retroactively ruled as being either limited to one per deck or banned completely after being found as over powerful in certain combinations, creating a truly dazzling number of play formats each one of which restricts deck building according to different rules. It’s actually this phenomenon that put me off lifestyle games: I got fed up with the situation of either having to digest yet another glut of rules to try and keep things in place or having to endure endless arguments about what I’d picked was “power gaming” or not. I saw that in many cases the apparent variety which is a big part of the appeal of these games was false. And besides which what I was interested in primarily was the game itself, whereas many of my fellow hobbyists found the peripheral aspects of the game - the painting, the collecting, the story - as much if not more appealing than the game itself. So I moved on to board games.
The inevitable conclusion one has to draw from all this is pretty simple. To truly get away from the cult of the new, one needs to devote oneself to one of the classic abstract games such as Chess or Go which offer gameplay deep enough to demand years of practice. They are, in a sense, the ultimate lifestyle games. But I don’t much like abstracts, and most people who call themselves gamers don’t devote themselves to these sorts of games. The answer of course is that there’s a balance: variety is good, but too much variety is bad. Limit yourself, try and squeeze as much play value out of the games you have as you can and everything will work itself out. But it’s also interesting to note that many lifestyle gamers do not play their chosen game exclusively. Most dip their toes in other aspects of hobby gaming from time to time. Back in the far-off day when I was playing 1st and 2nd edition Warhammer I would inevitably be exposed to other games workshop products as I flipped through White Dwarf or ventured into a shop to buy some figures. And in some cases I would be intrigued and would buy: that’s how I got my small collection of old, valuable Games Workshop board games.
Looking back on the situation I used to be in as a teenager, where I might spend a whole day on the weekend involved in a massive miniatures battle but might manage to squeeze in a play of a board game after college I’m struck by the thought that many lifestyle gamers in the modern age are probably doing exactly the same thing. One of the unifying things about lifestyle games that we’ve not yet touched on is that they tend to be very heavily themed - probably to bring out the story angle for marketing - and that their themes are unabashedly geeky: pulp fantasy and science fiction, for the most part. And this suggests to me a solution to a conundrum that’s been bugging me for a long time: why is it that although the most vocal and visible sections of the board gaming community are Eurogamers, the game publishers that appear to be making the biggest sales are those making the Ameritrash games? The answer, I suspect, is that most of those sales, and most of the play time on these sorts of titles is actually being racked up by lifestyle gamers. They’re silent about it because most of their energy goes in to their main hobby but it’s not difficult to see the appeal of something like Neuroshima Hex to a Battletech aficionado. Certainly my own personal experience of local clubs focused on board gaming is that they’re full of Eurogame fans, and yet when I gave them the opportunity, the people at my old Warhammer gaming club waxed lyrical about the virtues of War of the Ring.I don’t regret changing the main thrust of my hobby at all. But I’ve still got all my figures stored lovingly in the loft, each painted warrior coated in several layers of varnish and nestled into individual foam pockets. I find it hard to part with them, even though my chances of ever playing games with them again seem minimal - I just don’t have the time, and there are plenty of board games with paintable and customisable components should I ever get that urge. As I’ve said before, almost every gamer is also a collector to some extent. But those of us in the board gaming hobby would do well to take more note of our brethren who choose lifestyle games instead. Not only is their level of devotion something to be admired, but I suspect that they are silent partners in many of the activities that we regard so exclusively as ours.
Matt is the founder of Fortress: Ameritrash. He is also a regular columnist for Board Game News.