I promised you a wonderful Christmas board game video. However, editing problems have meant that this will arrive too late. The only thing that a writer can do in a situation like this is pour a drink and write. And today I would like to write about games, and how much we should pay for them.
“What is it worth?” That’s the question, isn’t it?
I was in one of my local board game shops the other day, an amazing little place called The Dragon & George. It’s a cosy little place, run by a wonderfully eccentric guy who likes to tell you about his opinions on Scottish history as you look at games about aliens shooting insects. This time, he took me aside to show me some little catalogue he’d been sent. It was one of those things you get from a distributor, highlighting the upcoming releases, from which the fellow would choose stock for his shop.
“Look at this game,” he said.
It was some kind of wargame. Not my thing, really. It claimed to let you deal with the military, diplomatic and economic decisions of your chosen nation. It looked like a deep thing, a serious thing. I can’t remember the name of the thing. It isn’t important.
He had his thumb over the price. I understood this spot of fun. It’s expensive, obviously. And shockingly so. That’s the punchline, right?
“How much?” he asked.
I shot for a hundred pounds. Board games are heading that way in the UK. With the exchange rate as it is, and the rising costs of the cardboard and plastic, we’re seeing stuff that would be forty pounds only two years ago retailing at 60 pounds or more. And this was a wargame. Traditionally, wargames are more expensive.
He moved his thumb. The game was 175 pounds.
He laughed, and I laughed. And the two other guys in the shop laughed. We all laughed, and then I stopped laughing and wondered what I was laughing at. The game was 175 pounds. Yes. And why shouldn’t it be?
What exactly are games worth? What exactly are we paying for? One thing is for sure – gamers aren’t happy about what they’re having to pay. If you visit BoardGameGeek, you’ll see people complaining about it every day. One of the very best games this year, King of Tokyo, was criticised for costing 30 quid despite only containing a deck of cards, a bit of cardboard and some dice. The argument you’ll often hear is that one game costs fifty quid and has loads of toys and goodies inside, and another costs 60 and is printed on flimsy card, and that is bullshit and an indignity and something approaching theft.
Knowing what I know now, having played it all year, I would have happily paid 175 pounds for King of Tokyo. Something is very wrong with how we’re looking at things.
I’m a professional comedy writer, and have been since I was 19 years old. At the moment I have a sketch show on the BBC here in the UK, and I’ve been writing the third series all year. For a sketch show, you need to burn through thousands of ideas to find hundreds of good ones, from which you hope to find maybe a hundred great sketches, from which only half will actually be great because you’re a fucking idiot. I need ideas. If I have no ideas, I can’t write sketches. I need ideas for characters, and ideas for funny situations and ideas for jokes. Ideas are important to me.
What is also important to me is the process of taking an idea and refining it into something that actually works. I understand the work involved in doing that, because it’s what I do every day. I take something that tickles me and break it down into something that I can tidy up in a way that pleases me. Then I structure it properly and test it again. Then I show it to someone – another test. When they don’t laugh, I break it apart again. I remove elements and replace them with things I think I like better. Then I show it to someone else – another test. A smile this time. Good! But still, not quite there.
Break it down, fix it up, test it. Break it down, fix it up, test it. This process is nothing magical or alchemical. It is purely work, and time, and experience. And hopefully, by the end, you have something a lot of people like. It’s stressful a lot of the time, and you often want to grab everything and throw it into the bin, screaming “I HAVE WASTED AN ENTIRE MONTH!” But the end result is very rewarding. People laugh, people say nice things, and you get to do more.
I also have a DVD in the shops. Let’s talk about this a little bit.
My DVD, to me, represents a year of my working life. But more than that, it represents years of working towards getting that sketch show I always dreamed of having. I treasure the DVD, despite not treasuring everything that’s on it. But here’s the thing – one night, someone told me on Twitter that they had paid 22 pounds for the DVD, and it enraged me. 22 pounds? For something you can watch for free on youTube? For something that is just a disc of plastic inside a plastic box? It made ME feel like a thief, and I only get a few pence from each sale. I told people who couldn’t afford the DVD to pirate it, or just watch it online. I got subtly warned off from talking like that from other parties involved in the DVD. As for the person who paid the 22 quid? They told me they liked the show, and so didn’t mind paying it.
I’d already been paid, though. That was why I could rail against the high price of that DVD. I’d been commissioned, and paid. I’d been rewarded already. I didn’t need more money. But people out there liked the ideas, and the work that had gone into making the ideas fly, and were happy to pay good money for it. I shouldn’t have been surprised.
I value ideas. I need to, because they’re my living. But I value other people’s ideas too. I value Kate Bush’s beautiful mind, and the way she can turn every word into a snowflake on her latest album. I bought her CD and then flung it onto a shelf. It will probably never spin, because of things like Spotify. But I had to buy it. I had to make that transaction. I value Sammo Hung’s direction and fight choreography. I could download Eastern Condors, but I buy it instead, second hand. He’ll never see that money. But the transaction feels right. I want to own that idea-thing of his, and I want to give away some of the earnings from my idea-stuff in return.
I put this to you. When board gamers moan about the prices of board games, they are moaning about the price of that cardboard and paper and plastic. They are complaining about the cost of the cardboard children, without considering the work and the love that went into conceiving them. The very people who claim to love brilliant games are complaining about paying for the brilliance.
Why shouldn’t that game we all laughed at be 175 pounds? If that game is a beautiful design, playtested and playtested and broken down and built back up, over months and months and years and years, why shouldn’t it be 175 pounds? Why should it ONLY be 175 pounds?
Why should Cosmic Encounter, one of the greatest games ever designed, only cost 50 pounds? It is worth, believe me, so much more. I don’t think that the designers of Cosmic Encounter are rich men, but let me tell you this – they SHOULD be.
King of Tokyo, by the masterful Richard Garfield, is only a deck of cards and some dice and a little bit of cardboard. But that’s not all that’s in the box. Under the board, you can find Garfield’s years of experience. Under the dice tray you can find his total understanding of what makes a game fun. Inside a plastic baggie you can find the time he spent apart from his family while making the game tick. Total all of that up and tell me how much it costs. Tell me if it’s under or over 30 quid. Tell me if it’s cheaper or more expensive than your last family trip to the cinema.
It’s time we started to discuss exactly what things are worth to us, and what exactly we’re paying for. If beautiful ideas aren’t worth more than the cardboard they’re printed on, we’re all in trouble.
(In case anyone thinks this column is some veiled BUY MY DVD thing – all of Burnistoun is on YouTube. Just don’t tell anyone I told you.)