I've been playing hobby games for over 30 years, the majority of that time focused on board games. Increasingly, I've been growing bored with them. Not in the sense that the games themselves are boring, but that they all look the same. Consider what lit up geeks in 2016. Terraforming Mars, which was arguably an outer space version of Agricola. Scythe, another step in the plodding evolution of the "waro", a genre that sprang up around the turn of the millennium. Even my favourite game from last year, Hands in the Sea, is a straight-up rehash of A Few Acres of Snow.
When you look at the big new concepts that have come on the scene of late, it's not so surprising. The last time the hobby got shaken up by a really groundbreaking concept was the release of Legacy games. That happened in 2011. The time before that was deckbuilders, which started with Dominion in 2008. A gap of three years between seismic releases has now become one of six years, and still counting.
Or is it?
I assumed at first that my feelings on the matter sprung from my getting older. After spending so long in games, I should perhaps expect to get bored of seeing incremental changes to the same formula. Plus aging makes one cynical: it becomes easy to dismiss hype as passing fad, nothing more. It does seem like it's been a long time since there was something fresh and thrilling to explore. But it could have always been that way: things felt fresh once upon a time because I wasn't familiar with their antecedents. Nothing new under the sun and all that.
I'm also aware I've been spending a lot of time in the past couple of years building and playing expandable games. X-Wing and Armada are the big titles here. But Imperial Assault, Netrunner, Cosmic Encounter and the Commands & Colors games all share some blame for this too. Being immersed in particular systems has its own charms. At the same time, it puts you in a bubble, less aware of what else is coming and going.
So I started asking around about what I'd been missing. What clever games that had come out over the past couple of years and fallen under the hype radar, where I'd missed them. And I found that it wasn't just me. That a lot of people felt the same way, especially those with a good overview of recent releases. A lot of people who chipped in to contest my view seemed to want more to defend their own favourites and purchases than to offer sound suggestions.
Why is this? Kickstarter was a popular whipping boy. That's surprising when a key function of the platform ought to be to secure funding for niche, innovative titles. Of course the truth is quite different. For starters, it's allowed such a glut of games to come to market that it's hard to spot quality titles, let alone creative ones. And what attracts attention is pretty production values and nostalgia. Almost all the top kickstarter runs have been for big boxes full of toys that trade on re-creating the popular titles of yesteryear. Even Kingdom Death falls into this category: from certain angles it looks a lot like a porno version of HeroQuest.
Yet Kickstarter can still be a way to get dangerous, creative games to market. For me the bigger problem is the rise and rise of the games we came in on: expandable titles. It all started with such innocence. The Living Card Game model was supposed to free us from the shackles of greed that collectible games forced us to wear. And everyone was baying about the problems caused by the hype train endlessly derailing great games in favour of new great games. Expandable games promised a one-catch solution to both.
The trouble is, they were too good at doing just that. So good they became a problem in their own right. At one point in the recent past I recall reading that X-Wing was responsible for a third of FFG's revenue. With a catalogue of their size, that's nuts. It's a cash cow, a goose farting out golden eggs faster than baskets can be found to hold them. And the kicker is, they're cheap to make! One big design effort, then years and years of tweaking. If you get it wrong, fix it with the next expansion, like some DLC for a video game. No wonder every publisher wanted to follow suit.
It's a win for everyone, except innovation.
I'm not criticising these games as bad games. Far from it. Yet things don't need to be this way. One of the more popular suggestions I got for games to check out for fresh design was the Arkham Horror card game. I've not got it, or played it yet, but if accurate it's a sweet catch-22, something that's both creative and collectible. It's also an anomaly, as the impulse toward endless expansions inevitably squashes innovation.
It was far from the only suggestion I got, either. So over the next few months, my focus is going to be on reviewing the games that garnered a lot of mentions. With any luck, I might find a game that recaptures that fresh feeling for me again. Either way, I hope it'll provide some insight and entertainment for you guys.