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Decade's End: Where We Are Now

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

22 January 2010 . . .

The decade won't have ended for another year, but few now or later see or will see it that way so let's pause now to look around.

After a couple of years of China-themed games designed to cash in on what many rightly thought would be a very singular Olympics and a spate of dice-rolling games for no apparent reason, there presently seems to be significant design energy in only two areas.

First, because it has had more recent examples, is the cooperative game. This is particularly of the pure cooperative in which all players work and win or lose together. First breaking through at Essen 2000 with Knizia's Lord of the Rings, this form of game took a while to take hold, but in recent years has made great strides and won many fans. For some it's less game than game-like activity, but for them there have also been popular products that introduce a secret traitor who opposes the team (a semi-cooperative game, if you will). As it diverges fairly sharply from the usual type of game and will be a revelation for man, expect this form to generate not a few more examples in coming years.

Second is the revival of what can be called the Cosmic Encounter idea because it was first used well in that game. Whatever such a game may be about, there are a large number of cards, most of which are unique and permit the player to do something not normally permitted by the rules. Over the years the idea has come and gone, appearing in the 80's in games like Dune and Talisman and then in a major way in Magic: the Gathering, which birthed the brand new collectible card game form and a huge host of followers. At this point, apart from Magic itself, the collectibles appear to be dying away and what remains of these types of games is being re-packaged into a non-collectible consumer model. Whether loss of collectibility will permit these games to survive will be instructive to watch. But beyond two-player combat games, the idea has effectively been picked up by a Race for the Galaxy and imbued into a technology tree system (from Puerto Rico, a very important game of the decade and ultimately from many other games) and just a year ago by Dominion, by a former Magic designer. This game is one of the few winners of both the committee-chosen Spiel des Jahres award and the popularly-voted Deutscher Spieler Preis. Clearly it has made an significant impact, already has imitators and this such games will no doubt be a signficant trend for several years to come.

Beyond society games, the world of war games tends to move more slowly in terms of design, perhaps because of the stronger devotion to theme. The significant trend here is the paramount importance of the card-driven design originally created for the game We, the People, which is now being applied to more and more games, especially the more popular ones. Beyond that, not a great deal has changed, but there has been a signficant development in the sense of some war game tropes becoming applied to low intensity conflicts such as the Cold War in Twilight Struggle or even non-conflicts such as (the US election of) 1960.

A genre that has seen substantially more success and crossover appeal is the railroad game. Over the decade inventor Martin Wallace and publisher Winsome Games have been responsible for creating quite a number of new railroading vehicles. Unlike the older Mayfair crayon rails games, these are not merely the same game set in new geographies although they are that also, but with the series Lancashire Rails to Volldampf to Age of Steam they are that also. The success and widespread appeal of these games has created quite a cottage industry of both spinoff and entirely new standalone railroad games. This trend is pretty young and appears to have a good head of steam that should run well into the new decade.

There is a strange dichotomy in the world of party games. On the one hand there are games that are good and on the other, games that have powerful marketing support. If ever the twain shall meet, watch out because the result will be a game that can dominate a decade, the way that Trivial Pursuit did. But games like Fauna and Wits & Wagers have trouble reaching the general public, while the big publishers continue to flog only the by now trite vehicles like Pictionary, Guesstures and Taboo. An interesting related development is that late in the decade Mattel acquired the rights to Blokus, another independent game that premiered at Essen 2000 and has eventually come to do great business. Nothing wrong with this being sold to Mattel; it had probably reached the limit of what its owners could do with it in terms of marketing and shelf space and it's good to see Mattel trying to do new and good games. Of course Mattel has less to lose, board games never having been their forte. On the other hand, it's a poke in the eye to arch-rival Hasbro who turned on a dime and tried to counter it with the copycattish Cirkis. Hasbro might find it better to forget about playing defense and forget about rivals. The best defense is a good offense. Why don't they instead just work on buying or creating some good new games? In that way both they and we would be the winners. Meanwhile we continue to see shelves filled with endless streams of Monopoly, Risk, Clue, Life and all the other old vehicles, most of which are specimens of design technology more than half a century old. If they were a car company they'd be trying to get us into the Model-T.

What new trends are coming is of course very difficult to say. One that deserves skepticism is the introduction of electronic technology. Over the past decade there have been many promises and toutings of new ways to play hobby games, but to date not one has panned out. True, board games have been ported to the Internet, consoles and digital assistants, but none of these have changed or been integrated into the board gaming experience. Rather they are simply extensions of board gaming into other arenas. Meanwhile there have been laser shooters, brain wave devices and even the promise of an electronic surface from Microsoft, but so far nothing has changed. Knizia made a talking electronic King Arthur game which failed so badly it never even got taught English. We are still shuffling our own cards, rolling our own dice and shifting our own pawns and who can say for sure that that's not the way it should always be?

One area in which there probably will be new developments are in other areas. During this decade we have seen it already and there is no reason to think it won't grow. While at the start of the decade the hobby game producing nations were Germany, the USA, Britain and in a lesser way France, besides all of these growing – the strong and continual growth of the hobby in this decade perhaps being the major story – there have been significant new developments in other nations as well.

Italian game makers, taking up the legacy of Venetian colonist Alex Randolph, have brought us many new diversions, often in games which are hybrids of the German and Anglo-American schools. Probably the most memorable is Bang! but there have been many others and almost always with the extra-special attention to presentation that befits the Italian sense of style.

More recently game makers in the Czech Republic seem to have picked up the gaming spirit from next door Germany and not being afraid of longer and heavier vehicles, created not a few notable games, Through the Ages being just one example. Neighbors to the east Poland, Russia and the Baltic nations also seem to have developments, though they have made less of an impression thus far.

The other side of the world has not been quiet either. We have now seen quite a few fun new works from Japan, generally card or small package games. What is especially good is that often the showing in their topics or artwork a distinctive Japanese character. At the same time it seems strange that South Korea which had at one time during the decade an explosion of game cafes, now receding, does not seem to have drawn attention to itself with new designs.

But this sort of explosion is now occurring in China and there are Chinese designs. Unfortunately some of them are simply aping occidental counterparts, e.g. Killers of the Three Kingdoms, and even worse, many of the world's games are being counterfeited there. But it is probable that eventually there will be original Chinese games on Chinese and other topics.

From where else? It is difficult to say, but a better question may be "from whom else?". Because of the Internet, the past couple years have seen the phenomenon of the print-and-play game. That is, on shared gaming sites or even on one's own site, now anybody can be a game inventor. All is made available electronically and anyone can have the game who has the willingness to print and assemble it. While some games, e.g. Himalaya, have found real publishers, it is hard to say where this trend will go. How many of these designs can find significant numbers of fans? When they do not will most inventors eventually become disillusioned or will cyberspace become flooded with a million designs on every topic and of every type? We shall see. ...


by Rick Heli    RSS
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