Thursday, December 13, 2007

General Gaming Observations - Evolution

No review tonight. Sorry. Instead, I will wax unapologetic about the evolution of board games. I will be so painfully obvious that many of you will be bored to tears. And to those people who would complain, I say, 'Shut up. Get your own blog.'

I come from old gaming stock. When my old man started gaming, he didn't even know my mom. He and his buddies would stay up all night playing Risk - that, or they would steal stop signs and fill the neighbor's pool with live lobsters. (I haven't ever done that lobster thing, but I have stolen my share of road signs.) My dad was into historical recreations, so the old-school Avalon Hill games appealed to him in a huge way. Before I was old enough to wade through all of the Jack Chick anti-D&D pamphlet, my dad had me pushing cardboard chits around hexed-off maps that were supposed to be North Africa, or Eastern Europe, or Ancient Rome.

Back then, games did not come with miniatures. Sure, you could buy them and paint them - my old man had a ton of HO scale Germans that were half-painted - but the games came with cardboard sheets full of perforated counters, and there were these little plastic organizers that would let you separate them into their different designations. Man, what a pain in the ass!

Another thing missing from those early games was colorful rulebooks. You break open a Days of Wonder game and you get a book where they spent so much on graphic design that the artists drive Jaguars. You can't sell a game any more with a type-written rulebook all divided out in outlined form. My old man would read those eye-bloodying rules and highlight the important parts. When I read rules any more, I kick back on the back porch with a beer and cigar. If I'm still reading when the cigar is finished, there are too many rules and I play something else.

One thing most of those old games did have was a dedication to historical accuracy. Before Chainmail spawned Dungeons & Dragons, we didn't have hundreds of different fantasy worlds. We had THIS world, and you didn't recreate goblin hordes assaulting elven strongholds, you recreated the Hundred Years War. Even the games that brought you down to a man-to-man level were based in history, like Squad Leader and Assault.

Of course, those games weren't the only thing going. Back around the time I was born, the start of what would become Dungeons & Dragons was taking root, and society as a whole was about to change. Before D&D, fantasy movies were few and far between. Once D&D came out, we started to see lots more. And now perfectly normal (read: non-geeky) people own the Lord of the Rings trilogy extended version on DVD.

All this meant that as I was growing up, we were seeing a new kind of game. Games had pictures in the rules now, and expensive illustrators made a name for themselves decorating game boxes. Games started to depart from the historical corral, and crazy stuff like Melee and OGRE and Car Wars were published in plastic bags or snap-shut plastic boxes. Counters didn't have symbols on them any more, they had drawings of cars or monsters or giant robots. And as the games got less accurate and more fantastic, they started drawing in the kids a lot younger.

Of course, selling a game to a ten-year-old nerd requires considerably different marketing than selling games to 40-year-old college professors. And so as gamers started parting with their money at an earlier age, games started to appeal to us kids. Themes got paired with art, rules got easier, and cardboard chits turned into plastic toys. Of course, this didn't all happen at once, but the article is about evolution, not the Big Bang of gaming.

Jump forward to today. Now we've got Tannhauser, Heroscape, Battlelore and Descent. These aren't games, they're boxes full of toys that happen to have rules. When I say, 'components,' you think, 'plastic.' When I say, 'production value,' I'm talking about how much the publisher paid for the linen stock and the top-notch art.

So now you're expecting me to rail on about how in my day, we didn't have these fancy-schmancy plastic figures, and that's the way we liked it. You're expecting me to bemoan the fall of the bookshelf game and the game-in-a-bag. You want to hear me tell all about why we had it so much better when we were kids, when games were games and not boxes full of toys.

And who am I to disappoint?

You know how much it costs to get into Heroscape? If you said, 'forty bucks', you're dreaming. Trying hundreds, if not thousands. Sure, you can play with just a master set, but only if you don't like the game enough to buy the expansions. And how about Descent? Eighty bucks for the basic game! My kids can't hold on to their money long enough to save up for a comic book, let alone put together eighty bucks. The kids who made the pretty games possible grew up, and now we're the only ones who can afford 'em.

So the response would seem to be cheap games, right? Just roll out the rules on the office copy machine and have a handful of cardstock sheets printed up. Go old-school! I can name a few companies off the top of my head who have gone that route... and you probably can't (if you can, good for you, now shut up, I'm working here). The point is, those games just don't sell. They don't employ hundreds of people and have distribution centers in Sioux Falls with corporate offices in Des Moines. Those game companies are like four guys in a basement somewhere who get together on weekend breaks from their tech support jobs.

I think it's sad that we can't get those old-school games any more. Yeah, you can maybe run one down on eBay, but I mean there just aren't people making a name for themselves with games published on a shoestring. Sure, you can publish your game on the web, but then, so can every other Tom, Dick and Knuckledragger, and there's just too much noise-to-signal to get your games out there (I would like to take this opportunity to thank both of my readers).

Furthermore, our hobby has gotten painfully expensive. It used to be you could skip a couple lunches and use the money to get a new game; now you have to skip a week's worth of lunches, and a couple dinners, too. And the games still have to get made in China - some nine-year-old boy is painting your plastic soldiers and then sleeping under his desk, and you still have to mortgage your soul for the next Arkham Asylum expansion.

Why, in my day, we didn't have these plastic figures and painted maps! We had...

Wait, I like plastic figures. I like toys. I like illustrated game boards and pre-painted miniatures and professional card art. I love Days of Wonder games, that feel like Christmas morning when you open the box, with hundreds of little plastic soldiers or knights or Egyptian castles. I adore Heroscape maps, with castles and trees and waterfalls and ruins. I love the snap-together dungeons of Descent, and the tiny robots of Risk 2210. I like to flip through a full-color rulebook with cool art in the corners and admire the designer's skill.

So I'm a sell-out whore. I admit it. I like flashy toys.

But I can still miss those bygone days, when I could pass on a movie and spend the money on a game. Where my imagination filled in what the game was missing. Where I didn't need to spend a week making terrain and painting miniatures just so I could play a two-hour game of Warhammer. Ah, for simpler times.

Now help me decide - more dwarves for Battlelore or the latest Descent expansion?


Anonymous said...

Great rant. being 40 myself I agree with a lot of what you say. Games have come such a long way, just having access to & BGG says so much of how far the Board game has come. I for one also love all the pre-painted stuff, but after spending over $3,000 on heroscape you have to wonder if your nuts spending that much, and so many times I have said it is good to be a big kid with a paycheck that can afford to spend that much on a game. I am just getting back into gameing and am finding out how expensive it is to buy lots of games.

Oh well at least I can afford to buy all these games that will never get played enough, IMO.

Greta blog, thanks for sharing.

GO with the Decent expansion!

Unknown said...

Back in my day we had the Atari 2600 that we played ALL FRICKIN' AFTERNOON having 16-pixel cowboys shooting at each other. Nowadays you've got ultrarealistic guys portrayed on the screen shooting at each other and you can't play for more than 30 minutes without getting bored. Uphill. Both Ways!

Kids today... :(

Anonymous said...

Nicely said! There's also the cost vs. time spent playing ratio, which makes it hard to justify buying more than a few of these beautiful, professionally-designed games.