Spotlight on Games > Interviews
Rick Heli plays board games in the San Francisco Bay Area

Moritz, who was kind enough to grant me a previous interview with him, suggested that he be allowed to turn the tables and not without a certain amount of trepidation, I agreed. After I had pumped him for all he knew about why German games are the way they are, he thought it might be just as useful for Germans to learn from an American about why American games are the way that they are! Will wonders never cease ... But it seems I became a bad interview subject, always turning around and subjecting my interviewer to yet more questions. The result was for us a rather wide-ranging and amusing conversation. We hope you find it so as well. February 26, 2005 (all links cited repeated at end)

Rick Heli is a famous gamer who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area – well everybody knows that, because you're just visiting his website :-)

Rick, you have started a very successful series of interviews with gamers from all over the world, which also succeeds as a cultural analysis of why and how people game all over the world. So I thought that it would be nice to interview the interviewer, yourself, as well, to further this – I might even call it "philosophic" – discussion. I will avoid questions about your personal gaming history, because you have answered them already in your excellent Reviewing the Reviewer.

But one passage there struck me as very odd considering your later opinions, and it goes like this:

"I think the industry has a lot to learn from (German/Eurogames), but am not sure if they are really here to stay. I liken them to light pastries which taste very good, but at the end leave me feeling somewhat empty and wanting more. My feeling is that this type of game is another fad (sic!), just like collectible card games, RPG's and micro-games each were in their time."
As I learned to know you as somebody who is certainly a big fan of "Eurogames", well, of all kinds of games, I would first be interested to know what you think about your statement today, in 2004. Do you still think Kramer, Knizia, Cassola-Merkle etc. are "just a fad"?

A sforzando opening, Maestro!

I see now what a dangerous thing a written prophecy is – years later it returns to haunt you. But I don't know whether to be pleased or dismayed. Clearly German games have continued to do well despite my prediction and that's nice, but did no one heed my words? :) Age and Experience make pessimists of us all someone once said. Maybe next time I'll even vote Republican – oops, even the Republicans don't seem to be pessimistic conservatives anymore. Never mind.

I'm still conservative about my expectations for games though. As just one sign, have you noticed how many reprints have rolled by in the last three years? With Oceania Klaus Teuber is having his third go at Entdecker. Someone should do a study to see just how low a rating a German game has to have for it not to be reprinted. While remaking the classics so that now the wider world can enjoy them makes some sense, doesn't it also suggest a creative deficit? Perhaps even a true whose fruits have been mostly plucked?

Another problem I foresee: the proliferation of titles. If we look at movies, another entertainment field, there are also too many, but as they have no physical form and are consumable, it's not such a problem. Watch them and then your commitment is over. But a board game occupies space in your house and asks for your time again and again as well. You can only play so many in a year, so what's to become of the rest? Germans seem to be doing a fine job of selling their used titles to Americans, but what are Americans to do five or ten years hence? Even if we can sell them, those games live on in someone else's house and take up the space where the industry would like to place a new board game instead. I think it's going to become a big problem. I know that already with each new acquisition I become more resistant to the next one. I've seen the same thing with wine and that's a consumable! One can now even buy "two buck Chuck", a very drinkable wine at a mere $2 per bottle.

By the way, because of this phenomenon I expect someone in the near future to come up with a meta-game idea that uses in some way the list of titles, cover art or even the bits in an owner's entire collection. Of course one could say that is already the online version of that.

So color me still pessimistic, albeit on a longer time scale. But this makes for quite a chiaroscuro effect with the optimism expressed at the end of your interview, Moritz. Do I persuade you of anything or do you perhaps feel that the true size of the world market may be larger than commonly thought?

So the pessimism is still there? If you ask me I would agree with your observation that the market can only take so many games with "Kramer-Leiste" [scoring tracks] and victory points through majority in an area ... Although I would probably argue that the basic idea of the "German" or "Euro"- game, which is to present a concise set of unfiddly rules for a challenging multiplayer board game experience that doesn't involve war or conquest (to put it very simply) is here to stay, as it brought board games a completely new audience.

The tiredness you talk about was slightly apparent in this year's Essen, where the German offerings seemed a bit more repetitive than usual, whereas the foreign offerings have increased in quality. Bruno Faidutti has long battled verbally against the predominance of "German style" games, and now Eagle games even offers an expressively so-called "Euro-American hybrid game" (Bootleggers). Would you consider this as a kind of Sorcerer's Apprentice phenomenon, where the pupils suddenly turn against their master to finally overthrow him?


Much as I dislike many of its features, I think we have to look at Monopoly and the 3M games, especially Acquire, as progenitors of what we see in Germany today. But while after World War II Americans sidetracked most of their energy into war games, Germans made a virtue from a deficit, posing the problem "what kind of game can you make sans war? and found great answers.* So the first metaphor which occurs to me is the science fiction one of the advanced civilization that forgets how to make its own technology.

But you're right, now Americans and increasingly the rest of the world – there's a university game design course in Hong Kong that plays Carcassonne at its first meeting – are hurrying to catch up and learn what Germans have discovered. It won't be easy though. We still care a lot about theme and that makes design twice as hard. We still can't manage to duplicate the very high quality German cardboard items (cards, boards, boxes, tiles) and still prefer cheap looking plastic to wholesome wood. (I wonder if folks realize what a long tradition German craftsmanship is. The other day I was reading a German book from 1910 and its pages were so thick and sturdy that one could have been ripped out and held in the hand for use as a breakfast dish.) I suppose the rest of the world will someday catch up and maybe surpass, but maybe the more interesting phenomenon is that the market could truly become more of a world market and that the designer could come from anywhere. The old question "What if Mozart had been born on the island of Samoa?" might lose all meaning.

But on the other hand, what's been going on lately in Germany?

Does it mean there really are only so many ways to make a satisfying 45-minute game for 3-5 and even Germans are looking for something new?

*For an example of such a limitation in film, albeit artificial, cf. The Five Obstructions.

Yes, I have seen at trend towards the formerly avoided war games on the German market lately. I don't believe that there are limited possibilities for any game theme – as long as people come together to play there will always be room for non-violent game designs, but one could of course argue that any game includes some aspect of violent domination: "Who will be the winner of the race?" "Who earns more money than the others?" "Who has the majority in an area"? are in a way exchangeable with "conquer this or that territory".

The most violent and aggressive game I've ever played is Chess – in no game is it so much about "I'm going to dominate you because I'm so much more clever", and most Chess players I know take a sadistic glee in "destroying" the opponent.

The "family" aspect in German games has helped a lot to bring women to gaming as well (as I already mentioned in my interview the quota of female gamers is considerably higher in Germany).

But why have Americans got sidetracked? As you rightfully pointed out, American designs like Monopoly and Acquire have been very influential designs in Germany. Psychologically one would think that the losing nation would want to relive their glory in games, maybe even turn the tide of history in imagination, but in fact it was the Americans who began the big boom of war gaming, not the Germans. Very often I even find that Americans love to play the Germans in World War II games more than playing the Allies. Why is that? To simplify it: There are very few games about Vietnam (a not so glorious war), but if there are games about World War II it is often the Germans who get the American game design edge. Why are Americans so enamored of war games, and why has it perhaps put them a little behind in game design?

I don't know if I would go for "violent domination", but at least competition, sure. Even the most innocent play, novel or movie has at least some conflict between characters or else the audience simply becomes bored. Perhaps this is an artifact of our evolutionary past? We've been competing for survival for millions of years now ...

And you're absolutely right about Chess. I once heard that it was promulgated very successfully to a group of gang members ... kind of makes you think when someone asks you sit down to "a nice game of Chess".

But returning to the American detour, I think that a big part of it was the legend of Monopoly, that Charles Darrow had invented this wonderful game, taken it to Parker Bros. who published it, making him a zillionaire so that he could retire and just grow orchids for the rest of his life. It all seemed so simple to get rich. Of course it wasn't simple. It wasn't even true!

Darrow latched onto a game invented and patented by Lizzie Magie some 30 years earlier that was in common use in homemade versions up and down the east coast. He took it to Parker and they rejected it. He tried selling a few on his own and was wildly successful – no surprise there: he was just selling a commercial version of a game lot of people were already enjoying. So Parker was forced to go back and reconsider, eventually getting a very dubious patent in order to stamp out the competitors. But anyway, I think this brought a lot of people into the hobby not for a love of games, but for a love of money. That you could get some cheap cardboard goods and sell it for a big profit is an idea which still seems to have an awful lot of currency, even today. I can't believe though that this is really the way to make good games. But one can see how this approach will tend to shy away from one of the great strengths of German games: high quality boxes, components and artwork.

So if they weren't going to go in that direction, where could they go? Clearly they couldn't just keep inventing the same thing over and over again. If the bits were considered too expensive to improve, how about the rules? The first four Avalon Hill games all used the same Combat Results Table, as if that were a manifest truth, something like pi or e or E = mc2. Could not something be done with that? Improving "simulation" in every way possible became the goal. Let's have more types of CRT's, more pieces representing smaller units on bigger maps with more and more detailed rules. Then we can say that our game is better than the next guy's because it's got more of these things in it. This eventually culminated in games so large they are called "monsters", maps that took up entire rooms, rule books that looked like doctoral theses and playing times over a thousand hours. Not everyone played all the games, but basically these war games – we have to admit that awful as war is, at the level of generalship it is one of the most dramatic, detailed and strategic endeavors in human experience – war games swallowed virtually all players of the more serious board games.

I think a lot of us kind of knew that war games were not exactly what we wanted, but we really didn't have any other choice. For example, I played many of them, but virtually all were multi-player games and even if they were not, I turned them into such. So I think I was looking for the typical multi-player strategy game, but this was just the best I could get. Today the war game players lament that the glory days of the 1960's-70's are gone and talk a lot about how to bring them back. What some may not realize is that they will never return because not all of those players were really war game fans in the first place. And now that they have society games, CCG's, RPG's and computer games, they will not be forced back into that particular ghetto.

The folks who are still content there, by the way, are often interested in playing the German forces in World War II, just as you say. And the publishers often encourage this by making some of the elite German troop counters look or operate in an extra special way. But I think we could just as well ask, why are pirate games so popular? There certainly are a ton of those. Perhaps for the same reason? Being a pirate may give vent to the childish side of human nature that just for a change enjoys not being Good or Right, a latent Freudian id if you will. And because it's a board game it's all right because nobody gets hurt.

Now regarding Vietnam, I think that's not really a safe, comfortable zone for most Americans. Those who are old enough usually prefer not to think of it at all and the young don't really know anything about it. Moreover, the situation there was far from the kind of 50-50 outcome one usually wants to see in a game. The best conclusion today is that the United States should not have been there in the first place, kind of a deflating thought. Compare that to Germany "almost" defeating Russia, von Schlieffen almost overwhelming France or Napoleon almost winning at Leipzig. There's a lot more interest there, not just because it has faded from real existence into history, but because it really could have gone either way.

Usually I would like to throw a question back to you here, but I think I've gone on long enough on this one and maybe I'll just ask for your reactions? :)

The idea of the possibility of profit as the main reason to produce games would ring strange in German game companies' ears. But you're right: When I speak to American companies (like I did at this year's Essen) there always seems to be a kind of gleam in the eye when it comes to speaking of sales, whereas most German game companies I know seem to be more of an idealistic bunch. Of course they know that they have to sell games, but they also see a pride in the product itself, no matter how it sells. They know that the market is dominated by Trading Card Games and the like, but they find a certain pleasure in producing "their" game. Or think of Alea, a sub-division created especially for "high-class" games that aren't necessary designed for big sales, rather for the connoisseur (although of course 3M games comes to mind ...). But the impression in Essen was that business felt slower than usual, and that the German companies might not be able to keep their high production standard in the future. We shall see!

Let's stay with the subject of American Games a little longer. We have already discussed that their difference lies in their history, and I personally found CRT games as you described them much more interesting then German games (until I "saw the light", so to speak, and discovered the beauty of "Euro" game design).

I heard you compare American games to "fantasy movies before Peter Jackson". Why is that?

Yes, because in an interview I heard Jackson talk about his Lord of the Rings film and make the observation that prior to him the industry had little confidence in the fantasy genre. They always relied on some crutch like animation or satire to put the movie over; they would never "play it straight". The story would get significantly re-touched and nobody would spend the money to make the film look both nice and believable. I make an analogy to American games because for the most part there hasn't been the confidence there that would permit a high quality presentation.

But I hope their German counterparts do not contract this malady, even though it seems to have already been evident at this year's Essen. If significant "give" develops in the German market, it will be interesting to see in which directions it goes as there are probably several choices, e.g. fewer titles, lesser materials, production in China, more reprints than we've already seen, etc. I should hope, however, that it wouldn't be necessary for a couple years as worldwide markets would still seem to have some growing room. I think this would be a good time though for the German firms to make sure their products are world ready, i.e. English rules in every box, symbolic language rather than text on components, etc. The larger ones should be looking into co-publishing agreements in more countries as well in my opinion. Clearly there's a lot happening in Korea and Japan (see my Ro Sato) for information on developments in the land of the rising sun).
Die Macher

But it must have been strange for you to discover German games right under your own nose. I started with the first edition Die Macher and was suitably impressed. A couple years later I played Settlers of Catan for the first time and felt rather dismissive. But I was surprised. That solitary playing had actually got under my skin and the game had begun to haunt me. The war games I had been playing in the meantime just seemed so lifeless in comparison and for all the reasons, duration, play options, quality of materials, presentation, etc. I also had to admit to myself that part of my early dismissal was jealousy that someone else had managed to create such a good game. So I returned to Die Siedler and have now probably completed several hundred playings of it. But how was it for you? Was there a single moment in which it happened or was there more of a gradual process?

I find the description that Settlers haunted you very funny – the game haunts me as well, but for totally different reasons! In fact I know nearly no "gamer" in Germany who likes Settlers, it is regarded as light entertainment for "non-gamers" in fact. There is a running joke at our gaming group, Spuiratzn, where every game you play that involves any kind of hexes (even Wargames) will have bystanders come up to you and say "Hey, is this a new Settlers variant?". Of course these people haven't seen the light yet ... This by the way doesn't apply to Das Siedler-Kartenspiel, which is considered a very good 2-player game ...

But I can perfectly imagine that after a long, long diet of American-style war games, Settlers can seem like a very fresh breeze indeed! For me the "revelation" game, that made me look more closely at the German games in my country was in fact El Grande. While I was playing away at the usual ultra-complicated American fantasy games, I visited friends (non-gamers), who were proud to have the new Spiel des Jahres (as I already mentioned in my article that many "non-gamers" buy the Spiel des Jahres simply because of it's reputation), which was El Grande. I expected something slightly uninteresting, but was very surprised to find El Grande a thoroughly enjoyable, tense and satisfying game (and my friends kicked my butt in the game, because it's mechanism were new to me). Of course it has been surpassed by better designs in the meantime, but El Grande still holds a special place in my heart, it "haunts" me, if you wish so.

Ursuppe: "a game with a good 'American' theme
and a good mixture of different gaming
concepts that work very well together."
Your remarks about German games having to look more for the foreign market certainly is true. This year's Essen might have been a revelation show for some German producers, as they clearly could see the other countries catching up in game design. But I think the traits that you mentioned as being significant for new games (for example icons instead of language) are actually something that German games invented (one could cite El Grande as a good example of "sign language" over "language content"), so I don't see a great problem there. In fact I think the best development could happen, if German game designers took themes and ideas that are popular in other countries instead of doing the old medieval trading or "majority in this or that area" shtick. "Euro-American" hybrid game should also work the other way round! An early example for this was Ursuppe, which has a good "American" theme, and a good mixture of different gaming concepts that work very well together. I would personally like to see more games like this. Another area mostly unexplored in German games is good historical games, the closest we got in the popular market is perhaps Wallenstein, but I think we could go further in that direction. Imagine a new German Britannia with "German" mechanics and production value –wouldn't that be great? As long as we all can learn from each other, we will all be happy gamers, I think.

Let's turn to another topic –games as an "art form". One can certainly say that classic designs like Chess or Go approach creative art. But contemporary art has experimentation, conservatives and avantgardists. Would you perceive an equivalent in game design? Who are the "John Cages" of game design today, so to speak?

Just played Settlers again today. Didn't win, but that is another story. :) Here in America we have a game that's perfectly fits the cloth you've cut: it's called Monopoly! Now which one would you rather have polluting the landscape? Fresh breeze indeed!

I went to google and typed "define avant-garde" just to be sure and basically can distill down the many definitions to "New, experimental techniques often in opposition to established ideas and traditions". Given that, I would say we don't see a lot of avant-garde work at the moment. Perhaps this is the definition of a Golden Age? In contrast to an age of uncertainty and paradigm shift? In America, an argument could be made that Cheapass Games is avant-garde because his games seem to be as much humorous essays as they are games. Some people don't like the games and claim they aren't games. But the same has been said and continues to be said about a lot of abstract and post-modern painting. So maybe it fits. Other than that, maybe the biggest avant-garde movement of recent years was the collectible card game, which also had and has its detractors, but appears here to stay, even if moving toward the fringes.

In Germany, would you say that Thomas Fackler's $1200.00 games are avant-garde? They're certainly something quite out of the norm, presumably appealing to the customer by virtue of their materials and workmanship as much as for their game value. Or is this just the prevailing paradigm taken to its logical extreme? One could also say that since war games have been severely frowned upon in Germany over the past half century, that Phalanx, Histogames and others now making them are forming an avant-garde in that market, even if not so for others elsewhere.

But couldn't we call you something of an avant-garde artist in your own field of music? I mean, the papers said you wrote "a porn opera". Do you recognize any fellow avant-gardists out there?

Well, the "porn opera" titulation was basically a big misunderstanding, but I wouldn't deny that what I am doing in music could be considered "avantgarde". It is just that my generation of composers became a bit bored by the term when it slowly transpired that the Avantgarde composers from the 50's and 60's (people like Boulez and Stockhausen) are now over 70 and pretty established and conservative, but still calling themselves "Avantgarde". "Avantgarde" is always a kind of anti-reaction, and not only in music or art it is a problem that the anti-establishment from hence is now the new establishment of today!

We even invented a new term, "ADEvantgarde" (which is a pun with the word "ade", which means "good bye" in German, but also a mixture of "avant" and "devant", not only ahead in space but also in time). But in general the term "avantgarde" has an old-fashioned "smell" nowadays, as has the term "modern". But if you ask me if art should be daring or risky then I would certainly answer with a big yes, as art should be free to transgress moral or esthetic boundaries ...if it has to! But my feeling is that we have a lot of incredible new art out there that doesn't stick out because it is not shocking or transgressive, but which still is great art. If "shock value" or " bizarreness" become the only values of good new art, it is also somehow very limiting. An artist like Vermeer for example wouldn't be very successful if you judged him by "shock value", but he undeniably was a great artist!

The only difficulty is that nowadays one needs some kind of "shock-publicity" to stand out at all, and this feels very wrong to me ... When I think of classical Avantgarde in game design, I personally would think of a company like Eon. For me their games capture something of the free-wheeling spirit of the 70's, and we know now that many of the ideas they introduced were there to stay (variable player powers were a first in Cosmic Encounter, and the same game introduced the concept of "expansion sets"). You can even trace collectible card games back to their inventions! The most avantgarde game they produced is Darkover though, which is little known and little played. I played it quite often in the 80's, but it can only be played with the right people in the right mood. When I tried it out with the Westparkgamers it was considered a complete disaster! But I think it is pretty "Avantgarde" when players look each other in the eye and count "one fire out, two fire out, three fire out ...", and when one of them laughs he loses his armies! (Darkover is basically a war game with very weird mechanics).
The devil bunny from
Devil Bunny Needs a Ham

"Cheapass"-games is more "underground" than avantgarde. I have yet to see innovative designs in their games, but they very often score big in the bizarreness compartment. Devil Bunny Needs A Ham to Settlers of Catan is like Fritz the Cat to Dick Tracy! There have been two major movements in music since the "Avantgarde", and they are the "minimalist" movement (Steve Reich, Terry Riley, etc.) which explores the richness of very simple patterns ; and the "post-modern" movement (Alfred Schnittke, Kryztof Penderecki), which combines different musical styles (these movements in themselves are reflections of similar tendencies in art and architecture).

Hannibal versus Rome
My theory is that game design saw the same tendencies, as tendencies in art usually pervade culture in general (or tendencies in culture in general pervade art, whatever ...). The equivalent to minimalism would be "Euro" game design, which tries to keep rules to a minimum, and which avoids any artificial "exceptions" or "chrome", which could be compared to convoluted counterpoint or figuration. And they have been very successful at that! The equivalent of "post-modernism" would be collectible games (Magic the Gathering basically tries to be many games in one: a board game, a card game, a role-playing game, a strategy game, etc.), or anything that combines different mechanics to great effect. Lately we saw many games doing just that, a war game example would be either the "card-driven" games by GMT like Hannibal versus Rome (historical game plus card game plus traditional war game) or the Block-games by Columbia games, which combine Stratego principles with classical war game mechanics.

The new "Euro-American" trend could be seen as an expression of "crossover", which also has it's equivalent in music. And the reason why we find it so difficult to find newer examples for true gaming Avantgarde is that also in art "avantgarde" has become less important than it used to be.

So in theory one should just look at the trends in art to foresee the future of games :-) And if I look at how art is treated in the US (and increasingly in Europe) I foresee a sad trend away from "author games" and design-"pour le"-design (art-pour-l'art) in favor of commercial and mass-produced games with very little soul. Or am I wrong? Please prove me wrong and foresee a bright future or a continuation of the "golden age" ... (this was a kind of question – this interview is increasingly becoming a dialogue ...)

Maestro, you introduce so many themes that it's almost overwhelming. But fortunately it's still at the level of the six different voices in Mozart's Figaro rather than the 19 different bird songs found in a maddening composition of Messiaen. :)

I would say that inventing a term like "ADevantgarde" (ADe pronounced "ah day" and derived from the French "adieu" = "goodbye forever") is a perfect example of an avant-garde mentality! :)

Speaking of Vermeer, from what I have gathered from reading notes at his exhibitions and reading the The Girl With the Pearl Earring, he was actually not all that successful in his own time. Of course now his stock has shot up practically to the Van Gogh level. I wonder if there are any game designers who are not smashing hits right now but will become so much later?

I would agree that the Eon folks fit avant-garde back in the '70's. Regarding Cheapass, they do seem to be underground, but also they have this counterculture idea of "don't buy the bits more than once – just buy the idea". But in your comments I think we've got round to the age old question: are games art or science? The great Reiner Knizia once did an interview at Die Pöppelkiste and I managed to slip in this very question. His answer? Both, and in equal measure. This makes sense to me. So maybe I'm splitting hairs, but I consider things like new mechanisms part of the "technology" of games, rather than the art. Things I would consider art in games, besides the obvious one of the presentation which in this context may be better termed a "craft", would be the feelings the game induces (fast, slow, angst-ridden, storylike, etc.), how the game relates to culture and society, its relation to theme and other, similar qualities.

But speaking of theme, if the mood of the moment is minimalist, shouldn't we all be playing pure abstracts?

I think you're implying that actually the order of the day is fragmentation and I fully agree, in games as well as in art. This multi-polar situation tends to rule out the avant-garde for without a clear leader, what is there to create an opposition to?

So you see continued success for the Thomas Kinkades of the world? I should hope not. On the other hand, President Bush's favorite painting seems to be somewhat in this mode. Perhaps the red states prefer this sort of thing? I'm reminded that Hitler was an artist and I don't think most Americans know what kind of things he painted, probably imagining horrible, twisted images. In fact he painted kitsch. But back to the future of games, if we're talking about mass production, I think with companies like Hasbro and the ever popular Monopoly clearly beating every other game, both here and in Germany, the future is now. I'm not sure if things can get much worse from here so we can but hope that they get better.

After knowing Bush's favourite painting I understand some of the problems in the US better :-)

You are always an amazing source of interesting facts, that's for sure! I think we can basically agree that the "mood of the moment" is minimalism plus postmodernism=sleek, elegant rules, lots of eye candy, nice playing material in game terms. Minimalism is fading (has faded) in contemporary music, it will (might) fade in games.
Advanced Squad Leader

And yes, "fragmentarism" is increasingly evident. It is interesting to look at the role-playing scene for example: there had been a great trend to simpler rules and faster play in the 80's and 90's, to overcome monster designs like Chivalry and Sorcery where it took 6 hours to only roll up a character. Now all these unplayable monsters are back with a vengeance (even C&S), and there is a definite "retro"-trend to big rule books with clumsy rules listing thousands of exceptions and "flair". The "old-style" war game scene has been declared dead several times, but it seems to be more alive than ever, with lots of great websites, computer and online versions of even the most forgotten and obscure SPI-games, and a new edition of Advanced Squad Leader (ASL) is on the way!

With all this liveliness and all these "sub-scenes" a declared avantgarde is very difficult to define. But there still is a mainstream at work, as you noted correctly, and Monopoly and Settlers are still the most visible aspects of gamedom. So the challenge for the mainstream designers could be to subvert the "popular" designs while still retaining their "popular" aspect. If we look at music historically we find that "avantgarde" was far from being always unpopular. Schoenberg and Hindemith had a lot of enemies and distractors in their time, but also a fanatical following. Stockhausen was as well-known as the Beatles in his prime, he is still an international "brand name" so to speak.

Betrayal At House On The Hill
I find some of these "avantgarde" aspects in the better games of Hasbro and co., let's take Star Wars: Epic Duels for example, or the excellent new Betrayal At House On The Hill. These games are far from being groundbreaking, but they introduce some wilder ideas and concepts into the mainstream market that could prove interesting for the future. Is it perhaps possible that the "giant companies" can be subverted from the inside, or would you think that the underground or freelance approach works best for new games?

We both know that there are many fine DTP games out there, but they will never find a greater audience or be as influential, I fear, or am I pessimistic? Will people in 75 years play genius Desktop Publishing games from today? I know that there are some obscure "gems" of rare-to-find games of the 70's that are still played, but none of them were truly "Desktop", they all made an effort to get "properly" published in some way ... So, is DTP truly the way to go to be an "avantgarde" and independent game designer?

Now let me look at the trends in my own jaundiced way. :) Doesn't the fact that SPI games are played on-line only prove how little interest there is in having them in new editions and how cheap and available are the old copies? And hasn't that "on the way" ASL been in that state now for at least 5 years? Perhaps the best description can be borrowed from Monty Python: "not dead yet ..."

But yes, I think there may be plenty of opportunities for subversion – some might prefer "co-opting" – these days. I thought Hasbro's EBay game (American edition) was surprisingly decent, for example. Playable and probably truer to the theme than EBay would care for – it's all about "sniping" the opposition! In the world of film, I recently heard that Michael Moore's next project is on the pharmaceutical industry and Pfizer sent a message to a lot of its employees not to talk to him and gave a number to call if he tries. But some of the employees sent the number to Moore ... as powerful as a corporation can get, it seems they will always be composed of people.

It would be nice to think that DTP is the future, but I find it hard to predict. DTP is perhaps too new and I don't see much precedent (yet) ... unless Monopoly is to be claimed as one. But it gained popularity in a world of very few board games. Today we're swimming in them. BGG has some 14,000 titles already and is still growing rapidly with no end in sight (and that doesn't even include RPG's).

What I meant was that I don't see any gaming genre vanishing from the scene once it has been there. In general our digital culture has the tendency to store everything and to create forums like the "geek", where even the most obscure games find a place, and will therefore always be revived by somebody. In my opinion there will always be "specialist" games – the concepts might change or vary, but once there was miniature war gaming (basically since H.G. Wells, but perhaps also much, much earlier – who knows if the old Romans didn't know it? Chess is also a miniature war game, if you want ...) there will always be miniature war gaming, as the concept won't die out.

These SPI online games might never be wildly popular (actually that is probably a fact), but I can't see the old-style hex-and-counter war games vanish altogether, first of all there are too many "classic" games of this type which deserve continuous playing, and second they can easily be transformed in any other medium (computer, virtual game board, etc.). It is amazing how many things that aren't popular anymore won't refuse to die ... But let's go from the hypothetical to the pragmatic. Or "saddle the horse the other way" as we say in Germany. We were talking about games of the future, but not about how games have changed people. You and I have gone through several metamorphoses regarding taste, you yourself have written a quasi-educational article called The Well Rounded Gamer. It seems to me that the expectations of gamers today have changed, but that they also HAVE been changed by the games themselves, be it over-exposure or longing for "something" different. Why do you personally like games? Do you feel you have grown as a gamer? Have they educated you?

I wish games were educational myself, but I never seem to remember all the different area names of Civilization for example, if you know what I mean :-)

To be sure: nothing ever goes away entirely. One can probably still buy a buggy whip, somewhere ... and the way the world is burning oil maybe they'll even come back into fashion again. I think Chess probably did start out as far less abstract than it is today, by the way, and I'd dearly love to know just where and how it really started, whether it was India, China or wherever ... not to mention how, when and where the Chess ancestor branched off to become Animal Chess, Stratego and other games.

I find ascribing any pedagogical utility to The Well Rounded Gamer rather too generous – clearly it's merely a bald attempt to convince more people to support game publishers. ;) But I'll certainly agree that expectations have changed and it has been driven more on the producer than the consumer side. I think for most of us game players we didn't and don't necessarily know what we want a priori, but once we see it, definitely do know what we like and what we don't.

American Megafauna
by Sierra Madre Games
But the reasons to like games in general as against other hobbies or as a way of spending time is a very large question. I believe Jim Dunnigan spent an entire chapter on this in his book on war games, giving reasons such as intellectual exercise, competition, socializing, education, etc. So I think there are a lot of reasons and each person brings a different mix of appetites to the table. Given that, I don't know how interesting my personal one is, but I suspect I'm this weird kind of person who seems equally mixed by art and science whereas most people I know lean more heavily one way or the other, equally between rational and aesthetic considerations. I find that games fit in that space just perfectly and our earlier cited quote from Herr Knizia is the proof. On top of that, I'm a big fan of history – for some reason I've always been fascinated to know the origins of things and the reasons why they are as they are – and most of these games fit into history somehow. And finally, I love to learn (and think everyone should).

I have learned a lot through games, but paradoxically more from war games than the German ones. With the old SPI games I got the magazines which always included extensive background articles that conveniently pulled together a lot of obscure information one can't readily access without a large library, and even then with difficulty. More recently, the games of Phil Eklund (Sierra Madre Games) have been great in this respect and have since inspired me to do a lot of independent reading on, for example, the subject of dinosaurs and evolution. I maintain a page on recent findings in the area and a separate one for the back story of The Settlers of the Stone Age.

But German games almost never provide background information, the major exception being Bambusspiele and sometimes a little from Kosmos. Why is that? Do you have any idea?

Share with us also why you like games please. :)


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