I’ll wager that every long-term gamer has flashes of boredom with their hobby. Brief sargassos in the sea of gaming where your attention is diverted by some great new computer title, or a film or book. Perhaps a period of intense activity in your personal or working life has taken you away from games, or even just a self evaluation that made you yearn for something more. At the time it feels like you’ve gone off games for good. But a week, a month, even a year later, you’re back in your favourite shop, tracking down all the cool releases you’ve missed. I’ve been there. We all have.
But for the past six months I’ve been somewhere that’s similar, but not quite the same. I’m confident that it isn’t just passing ennui this time. Not only has it lasted much longer than normal, it’s qualitatively different. What’s changed is that I’m listless and disinterested only about new and upcoming releases. I still have an enormous yearning to play games, a gaping chasm that no amount of free time could hope to fill. I want to spend my time playing the games I already have instead.
There’s lots of obvious reasons for this. The economy of the globe is being flushed down the pan, and my disposable income is plummeting while the price of board games is going sky high. A package recently arrived for me containing two games that cost me more than a box with plastic behemoths Twilight Imperium 3 and War of the Ring plus their respective expansions did not four years ago. As a psychological defence mechanism if nothing else, it seems quite natural that I should shy away from looking at and desiring new releases. And yet when I do look at upcoming material, more often than not I’ll shake my head and move on, where once I’d quickly be whipped into a frenzy of excitement, whether I could afford new games or not.
It’s tempting to pin the blame for my enthusiasm finally being swept away on the endless washing of the cult of the new tide. But that’s been eating at me for years with little or no effect. It doesn’t take much practice to pick the wheat from the chaff once you’ve played a few different titles and got your taste down properly.
No, I think what’s finally got to me is the passing of time. The accumulation of age and experience. And I mean age specifically: as a young man there was a time when I found it hard to have the patience required to read a preview article and then have to wait for a product to show. The distance between wanting something that was actually available and not buying it was pretty much insurmountable. That’s just impulse control, and like most people I’ve got better at it as I’ve got older. And a good job, too.
But the experience is the more important aspect. I’ve now played something in the region of three hundred different board games in my life. Three hundred. There are many people who’ve played many more of course, but I still think that makes me fairly well qualified to say that I’ve seen most of the central mechanics, scenarios, themes, problems and solutions that the hobby has to offer, mostly several times over. And now, when I see a new game, I have a wealth of perspective to set it against and ask myself: what does this really give me that a game I already own does not?
I can recall arguing a couple of years ago that there was plenty of life left in the hobby because the ability to slice and dice mechanics and create hybrid games was a potentially limitless source of new and exciting combinations. And I was largely right: almost all the most interesting releases of the last two years have been hybrids, games with sometimes complex mechanics and old fashioned themes, but with the tightness, balance and strategy depth of German-style games. But even this road seems to be starting to run out of steam. From Wallenstein through to Eclipse, how many more times can designers demonstrate their skill at leaping the difficult hurdles that dudes-on-a-map games place in front of balance and tactics before we’ve seen it all?
Ultimately, there is a barrier in board gaming that doesn’t really exist for role-playing and computer games. A physical barrier of wood, plastic and cardboard that games which take place largely in the imagination or inside microprocessors can simply mutate and glide over whenever propelled by designers of sufficient skill. There is only so much you can do with cards, or a board, before things start looking a bit samey. Social interaction, trading, negotiating, diplomacy with disparate groups of people helps a lot, but still, the need to shove a board between the players to do some administration keeps the whole thing tethered firmly to the earth. Don’t get me wrong: I’d rather play a board game than an RPG or a video game any day. But that barrier to creativity and differentiation has to be acknowledged. Even adding in digital components, audio, video can only go so far. There’s an end to the road when it comes to creating genuinely innovative stuff.
I can’t help but wonder if this isn’t partly behind the rash of re-releases that we’re seeing, where anything even passingly interesting from days gone by has its rights sniffed out, and reprint lined up for a hungry modern audience. If designers are butting up against the limits of creativity imposed by the medium, and customers are starting to save their dwindling leisure spending for big releases rather than the copycat churn of the cult of the new, what better solution than to resurrect some long lost title, and try and make it work a bit better than it did before?
I’m sure this sounds terribly gloomy so far. It isn’t supposed to: after all, I’m quite happy re-playing the games I already have. Rather, what this made me think of ultimately is what new blood coming into the hobby is going to make of it all. It’s taken me a long time to reach this point: nearly thirty years with toes dipped in and out of various parts of the hobby, three hundred different games played and probably two hundred owned at some point or another, half of which I’ve sold, traded, loaned or lost. The points on my gaming compass were set by the Games Workshop and Avalon Hill classics of the late eighties. A couple more were added by the European revolution a decade later. But I’m getting on now, almost hitting forty, and so it’s no great surprise that I don’t see some of the newer games hitting the market as seismic shifts in direction: I’m just starting to get a little too set in my ways.
But for new people, it’s different. The board gaming hobby might have physical limitations to creativity, but design is also an iterative process. I might not see all that many of today’s new dudes-on-a-map games are being sufficiently different from their predecessors to be worth my time, but by and large, most of them manage to be ever so slightly better than the older games. Tighter, deeper, more interesting. Same goes for pretty much every genre you can imagine. The newer guys coming into the hobby without the experience, without the jadedness that comes from having seen it all before are benefitting: they’re getting to play superior product untainted by what has gone before. The hobby comes full circle, and renews itself, and all is right with the world.