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Knights, Pirates and Pharaohs, Oh My

RANDOM MUSINGS on the fin-de-millénaire games scene . . .

12 September 2006 . . . Themes, or rather the lack of novel ones, was the lament of my recent comments on Robber Knights (Raubritter) , the title of yet another in a long string of medieval settings that didn't have to be. But there's no need for surprise at this. The existence of so many games about the middle ages, pirates and ancient Egypt points to only one reality: people will try to make a lot of money.

Ultimately the publisher decides the theme rather than the inventor, so the responsibility tends to lie more there. In fact, at this point I understand that inventors have become so dubious about the possibility of their themes surviving publication that most have become apathetic about theme in general.

But why does theme make such a difference? Isn't there an audience for everything? Maybe not. And for one very big reason called the Spiel des Jahres. Follow the money with me now.

  1. Every publisher (and inventor too!) wants to win the Spiel des Jahres because this jury's little stamp of approval can elevate sales from a few thousands to a few hundred thousands.
  2. The fact is that a lot of these extra sales come from a group who all year long do not buy any games, in fact, grandparents buying the Christmas present game for their grandchildren.
  3. Think a moment about grandparents. Are most of them going to want to buy a game about science fiction, which in the public mind is associated with shooting and explosions? Do they want to buy a game about ruthless business moguls? Do they want something on cheap entertainment like modern sports? Or are they far more likely to pick something which looks non-threatening and seems to have at least some redeeming features in terms of educating about history?
So the gaming fanatic shouldn't be surprised by a system creating products catering to a proven audience.

It might be interesting to have a look in fact at the Spiel des Jahres winners, from a thematic basis and. A tally by theme came up with

More significantly, the medieval theme has really come up big in more recent years when the award has really gained its importance.

Interestingly, the transport theme has picked up a bit lately and may be growing.

We can see what the aberrations have been: art and archaeology (too esoteric?); restaurants (too bland and too narrow) and spies (too violent?).

Violence too has probably exluded the pirate game thus far; it must be that its success comes from some other source.

Egypt has also somehow failed to appear so far, perhaps also being too esoteric.

Abstracts made a good start, but have not really held up.

The same goes for fantasy.

But maybe there's hope, science fiction fans. When your generation becomes grandparents, maybe then there will be sufficient openness to the topic that such games can get made. Let's watch and see, shall we?

For the curious, here's how I classified them:

  1. Hare & Tortoise - fantasy
  2. Rummikub - abstract
  3. Focus - abstract
  4. Enchanted Forest - fantasy
  5. Scotland Yard - cops and robbers
  6. Railway Rivals - transport
  7. Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective - cops and robbers
  8. Heimlich & Co. - spies
  9. Auf Achse - transport
  10. Barbarossa - fantasy
  11. Café International - restaurant
  12. Adel Verpflichtet - art
  13. Drunter und Drüber - civic planning
  14. Um Reifenbreite - racing
  15. Liar's Dice - abstract
  16. Manhattan - civic planning
  17. Settlers of Catan - medieval
  18. El Grande - medieval
  19. Mississippi Queen - racing
  20. Elfenland - fantasy
  21. Tikal - archaeology
  22. Torres - medieval
  23. Carcassonne - medieval
  24. Villa Paletti - civic planning
  25. Alhambra - medieval
  26. Niagara - transport
  27. Thurn und Taxis - medieval
  28. Ticket to Ride - transport


by Rick Heli