Cardboard Children – Rab’s Board Game Think Piece

Hello youse. I realised that I’ve never done a board game think piece. You know what a think piece is, right? It’s like – It’s a bit of writing about a thing, and it’s composed of things that you’ve thought about that thing. Or something. I mean, I know that sounds like every bit of writing, but think pieces are different. They must be, because people keep writing them. So what would a think piece about board games look like? Welcome to RAB’S BOARD GAME THINK PIECE.

RAB’S BOARD GAME THINK PIECE

Hi. Here’s a piece of my think.

Look at where we are these days in board gaming. Look how much things have changed! It’s big business now. Where once there were a few little companies publishing games and others specialising in exporting German games around the world in small numbers, under the shadow of the big mass-market boys with their Monopoly and their themed Risks, there are now some big old giant juggernauts stomping around the market. Fantasy Flight Games have the Star Wars license and are running with it like a linebacker for the Georgia Steelmongers (sorry, I don’t know anything about American Soccer), and companies like Plaid Hat Games have transformed themselves from small indies into much larger indies owned by giant publishers. I swear to you – only five years ago, it all still felt really small-time, very niche. Now it feels like board gaming is everywhere.

People are even earning a living talking about board games. The Dice Tower, a YouTube channel run by Tom Vasel, used to be just videos of a nice man talking about board games into a poor-quality camera. Now it’s a big network, and Tom’s full-time job, and he even has people working for him. Talking brilliantly about board games! And there are a few other enthusiast sites and podcasts, funding their work through Patreon and such, turning board game talk into a nice little side-job. Board gaming is just enormous now, right?

And look at Kickstarter! Even a guy like me, who used to be very suspicious of Kickstarter and stuff, has flung a hefty chunk of money into a Conan game that I know absolutely nothing about. Like an idiot. Because I liked the nice pictures. Have you seen the money these people are making on Kickstarter with their zombie games? Zombicide has been Kickstarted about twenty times at this point. People just can’t get enough of those tiny little plastic zombies! Where are they putting them all? Up their butts probably. (This is the first time I’ve ever used the word “butt” in a bit of writing. I should write a think piece about that.) But yeah, look how massive board gaming is!

But is it massive?

We live in a bit of a bubble on the internet, don’t we? On Twitter, I follow a lot of nerds, because they talk about all the things I like to hear about – films, comics, zombies up butts. On Facebook, a lot of my friends are into the same stuff as me – wrestling, horror films, zombies up butts. On Instagram, I just follow really attractive people because I enjoy looking at their faces and bodies. But this bubble – it can make you think that everybody is playing board games, when maybe they’re not.

Recently, due to what might be some kind of psychological and emotional crisis, I’ve been moving in a slightly different social circle on occasion. And I can tell you that, in my head, none of these people are playing board games. When I’m standing drinking a glass of the very best pink wine of some kind at some fancy do in the heart of the Scottish media industry, which is more like one rotating room of delusional strugglers than an actual industry, I’m never going to ask anybody what their best loadout in X-Wing is. I’m never going to ask that fashion model which strategy she prefers to play in Caverna. That young guy who’s loaded on coke probably isn’t in the mood to talk about his favourite card combo in Magic: The Gathering.

But this is all in my head. This is all my problem. Oh no. I can feel the point coming.

That’s the thing about a think piece. Because it’s made up of your own thoughts, it can keep changing all the time. Here’s the meat of my meat, then. (I love meat.)

I think I’ve always had a bit of a thing about cool. We all know “cool” is bullshit. It’s undefinable and without value. But I’ve always wanted to kinda be it, whatever it is. And that’s quite an embarrassing thing to admit. There’s nothing less cool than wanting to be cool. But then, maybe admitting that you’d like to be cool is kinda cool, because it’s admitting a vulnerable side to yourself.

And here’s a sad admission – I’ve spoken about board games on this website for years. I’ve made TV shows about video games, written about them forever. But I’ve always had that slight cringe about it all. How terrible is that?! I hide it well, most of the time. On occasion I’ve even set myself up as some kind of champion of these geek pursuits. “LOOK UPON ME! I WILL CARRY THIS FLAME! THIS FIRE OF WRATH!”

But then, how awful is this thought – “Is this person safe to talk to about board games?”

As disappointing as this may be for you to hear, sometimes I hesitate before telling someone I have over 400 board games in my house. Sometimes I catch myself and think “You are going to sound like the kind of guy who puts plastic zombies up his butt.” There is a division, still, between people like us and the otherfolk, isn’t there? There’s me and you, pretending we’re swinging swords at Orcs. And then there’s everybody else, phoning the bank about stuff. That’s how it works, right? But then, why is everybody watching Game of Thrones?

Why is everybody playing board games all of a sudden?

Why is everybody playing video games?

What’s happening?

Are we cool?

Friends… Are we cool now?

25 Comments

  1. jonfitt says:

    I see that board games have become more accepted in the slightly overlapping circles that surround standard nerd culture, but they’re still a way off being cool.

    But I remember when Playstation was a new thing and you could see when certain types of people would admit to owning a Playstation but still would recoil at the thought of being associated with video games, and wouldn’t have it out at a party.
    It’s a slow process and I think boardgames are gradually breaking out.

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    artrexdenthur says:

    Oh yeah, Rab… We’re cool. And you’re cool!

    More seriously, I think it’s kinda in the middle. As you point out, everyone’s in some kind of bubble, but from my bubble it looks like there’s a lot of people who don’t play board games a whole bunch, but most of them are open to the idea. With a random stranger I don’t know, I still wouldn’t try to launch into a technical conversation about MtG… Just as I wouldn’t try to engage them in an argument about thematic development in Hugo vs Dostoyevsky.
    But I don’t think you have to be embarrassed about bringing up the subject as, say, an answer to “how was your weekend?” (“Oh! I had great fun playing this game…”) Maybe they won’t be super into it, and that’s fine, but I find the worst reaction I generally get is “That kind of thing’s not my speed” rather than “Wow! What a weirdo”

  3. JFS says:

    I don’t know. I don’t think videogames or boardgames will ever be cool. People will play, and a few games will be accepted or even welcomed, but it will never be cool.

    For the last decades, cool has always had to do with certain real-life attributes. Fashion, looks, a certain style of social interaction, belonging to and knowing about some sort of scene. The actual “items” have of course changed, but the categories have not. I don’t see that changing anytime soon, and I wouldn’t now where in those categories gaming might fit in. Digitalism has entered the equation, such as being a member of the right websites (think fffound or so, if that is still alive) being perceived as cool, but I can’t see gaming coming into it. Gaming isn’t rebellious, gaming isn’t detached, gaming isn’t exclusive or underground, gamers don’t have any icons that people would identify with, and gaming does not entail dominance.

    Actually, I think being dominant (or knowledgeable, if you will) in certain ways without breaking the borders of acceptability is what being cool is about. And it’s about dominance in a field that is relevant to real life. Gaming isn’t perceived as such. Maybe it’ll change when pro gamers become millionaires, akin to sports pros, but I think the stigma will last long. Even nowadays, if the in-crowd plays games, it’s only a small fraction of what’s available, and it’s often being done in the vein of “ironic”, or only during certain phases of your life. Gaming doesn’t give you money or power (prestige included), and it doesn’t give you indirect access to those, but those two are likely what makes the world go round. Hard to be cool with something if that thing doesn’t net you anything relevant.

    • Mitthrawn says:

      Good comment. I agree with most of it. As someone who runs with both “cool” and “gamer” crowds, I can tell you that, in my experience at least, the cool crowd doesn’t really play games. For them its about new experiences (did you go to that cool prohibition style dive bar), concerts, drugs and social relationships and entanglements.

      Personally I use totally different vocabularies when I’m talking with my “cool” friends versus my “gamer” friends. And what Rab is describing is something that I feel. Gaming is a huge part of my life, I’ve played well over a thousand games, starting when I was five or six, and still keep up with it fairly well today, but I find myself talking about my music or my writing or other interests when I’m with my cool friends. Because you don’t want to be seen as a poseur, as someone who doesn’t belong with the cool kids.

      So I totally get what Rab is saying, and I really agree with the comment made here that because gaming doesn’t give you power or money or mastery over something, it isn’t seen as cool. I think that’s the point. If you play guitar for a thousand hours, you’re going to get pretty good at guitar (probably). But if you play skyrim for a thousand hours, what will you really have to show for it? Nothing that you can then take into the real world. And because there is no mastery, and no power or prestige gain from going through drudgery (i.e. like a job) gaming is seen as uncool.

    • Mezmorki says:

      I think both of your comments are really interesting and more or less on the money. The transfer-ability of things to the “real-world” is what matters to a great many people. Those same people may look at games as a “waste of time” because there is no transfer-ability.

      Interestingly, we might make the counter-argument that fictional books or movies are similarly “wastes of time” by comparison. Yet so many books and movies, even fictional ones, address real-world issues and concerns that have some modicum of transfer-ability.

      A small number of, mostly indie, games are starting to go in that direction. But the vast majority of games are about chopping or shooting things. And even digitally chopping and shooting things doesn’t transfer into real-world chopping and shooting. And if it does we have an even bigger problem on our hands!

      So I don’t see the prescribed cultural value (and perhaps the coolness) of games changing until the underlying issues that games address shift in a way that makes them relevant beyond their immediate audience, culturally and critically.

  4. Easy says:

    Yes. We. Are. (and we all suffer from the same ailment)

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    Thulsa Hex says:

    Back home in Ireland nobody I knew played board games. Lots of video games and other nerd culture but not much in terms of board or card games, for some reason. There were college societies and things, sure, but I never attended those and didn’t see much of the culture elsewhere.

    I only started getting into board games myself a couple of years ago. I think it was an article on Eurogamer on Risk Legacy that piqued my interest. Anyway, since then I’ve moved to Minnesota and board games seem way more of a thing here. I still don’t necessrially move in “cool” circles but loads of people I know play board games even if they don’t play video games. It took me by surprise, initially. I’m also a 10 min drive from Fantasy Flight HQ, which is a wonderful resource. I guess having institutions like that nearby help a lot.

  6. ephesus64 says:

    As long as we recognize that playing a game is something that we enter into for the sake of the people around us at the table, we’re cool. If we refuse to play games below a certain level of critical acclaim within tabletop nerd circles, we are not.

    Most people we meet need convincing that holding cards and moving meeple about can actually be an involving and fun experience. If we’ve read too many reviews then we might find it hard to go back to something we feel like we’ve outgrown, even for the sake of enjoying it with others.

    I’ve taught close to a hundred people, ages from seven to seventy, how to play Dominion through friendships and youth group work. More than 95% of them enjoyed the experience, several bought the game, some of those bought expansions and moved on to other games. Kids who otherwise only play xbox will ask me incessantly to get out Munchkin or Smash Up. These games have appeal, even if it may take a bigger hit of strategic involvement than these games can provide for some of us to really feel it anymore.

    Am I tired of those games by now? Maaaayyybe. I’m not tired of watching people “click” with something they’ve never tried before, not by a long shot. Makes me want to find the Mouse Guard RPG or something like that and try my hand at being a GM. Point is, yes we are very cool, if we remember that the best thing about any game is the people we are playing it with.

    • ephesus64 says:

      Just make sure the “inner ring” of cool kids you’re describing is the right inner ring:

      “The quest of the Inner Ring will break your hearts unless you break it. But if you break it, a surprising result will follow. If in your working hours you make the work your end, you will presently find yourself all unawares inside the only circle in your profession that really matters. You will be one of the sound craftsmen, and other sound craftsmen will know it. This group of craftsmen will by no means coincide with the Inner Ring or the Important People or the People in the Know. It will not shape that professional policy or work up that professional influence which fights for the profession as a whole against the public: nor will it lead to those periodic scandals and crises which the Inner Ring produces. But it will do those things which that profession exists to do and will in the long run be responsible for all the respect which that profession in fact enjoys and which the speeches and advertisements cannot maintain.”

      C.S. Lewis, “The Inner Ring”
      link to lewissociety.org

  7. tonallyoff says:

    We’re about 20 years too old to be cool pal.

  8. iucounu says:

    My two cents would be that the internet means that people with similar niche interests can form communities in a way that wasn’t possible until relatively recently. The people you meet are selected almost exclusively via those criteria.

    In real life, the people you meet aren’t necessarily filtered primarily by interests, more by things like proximity and economics. So you meet people with whom you have different things in common to the ones you meet online.

    Ideally you try to have a good balance between the two so that you aren’t caught in an filter bubble of one kind or the other.

  9. meepmeep says:

    We’re cool, but it might be temporary, like drinking IPA from wine decanters.

    • Bracknellexile says:

      Is that a Fisherman’s Jaggy Jaw IPA or a Brian Blessed’s Reflection IPA? #Beardlove

  10. klops says:

    I don’t know if we’re cool but what’s even moe important is that I never understood why Fire of Wrath is burning …a door? Is the original card censored or something? Was a sizzling fimir too much for the publisher or what is it?

    What does that mean!!?

    • JB says:

      If memory serves, the other fireball spell (was it just called Fireball?) showed a burning werewolf, didn’t it? So I guess they just wanted something different for FoW and figured a pic of it exploding a door on its way to toast a fimir would work.

      (I just looked it up: link to i57.tinypic.com )

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      Harlander says:

      That door has crossed you for the last time.

  11. TillEulenspiegel says:

    Even in jest, the term “thinkpiece” makes me literally angry with rage. It’s just so stupid in every possible way.

  12. David Edwards says:

    There’s a lot wrong with comparing board games with video games, but both have had similar image problems. Video games were once this uncool thing that uncool people did. Designed by nerds in bedrooms for nerds in bedrooms. Then, slowly, something happened, and now video games are cool things that cool people do and can admit to doing in public.

    Board games have been around a lot longer, but have yet to successfully bridge that same gap. The chasm of coolness. So what’s the deal? What changed, to allow video games to become cool, and can board games follow that parallel?

    Should they?

  13. Gothnak says:

    We are the generation that were brought up with computer games. We didn’t watch Cowboys and Indians, or war films, we played The Bard’s Tale, Manic Miner or Elite. We may have played Monopoly like our parents, but if we were lucky, one of our friends at school had D&D and we had a game of that.

    We are now in our 30’s and 40’s, and we are becoming the film directors, the tv execs, the writers, and god forbid the politicians. Gaming will become the norm, and as we raise our own children we will introduce the plethora of experiences to them and it will grow and grow.

    It’s a generational thing…

    I think we will be the first generation who truly embrace technology until our 90’s unlike our parents as we have been brought up with it, i know the only thing i want from a care home is a decent PC and a connection to the internet. (Saying that, i steer well clear of Twitter, not due to technology, but the horrible cult of celebrity that goes with it)

    • Saarlaender39 says:

      @ Gothnak:

      “WE didn’t watch Cowboys and Indians, or war films, we played The Bard’s Tale, Manic Miner or Elite.”
      ————————————–
      If you could be so kind and avoid the word “we” here, it would really be appreciated.

      See – I am inclined to agree with you on the “brought up with Computers” bit, and the “played Bard’s Tale, Manic Miner and Elite” bit, even the “Monopoly and D’n’D” and the “Twitter (and, in my case, Facebook)” bit, BUT…

      …>> I << and pretty much everyone I knew at that time (aka: all my (male) childhood friends and (male) relatives of the same age), totally DID watch "Cowboys and Indians" – Movies and "War" – Movies…and I'll be damned, if we didn't replay/ reenacted their stories on the schoolyard, or out in the woods, after school.

      And yes – this was at a time, where everyone of us had a Atari 2600 and / or a C64 at home already, so…

      If YOU lacked the friends to play with, I pity you honestly – but don't generalize a whole generation as glued to the monitors, please.

      See, WE enjoyed both, the Movies (and our reenactment of those) AND the hours in front of our TVs/monitors.

  14. Tinotoin says:

    Can’t help thinking of ‘thought sandwich’…

  15. Josh W says:

    My experience is that loads of people are playing boardgames, terrible ones. It’s like some people are playing vast amounts of boardgames, and a random selection are firing out from within that mass and landing in pubs and other people’s living rooms. People see people playing the resistance, and start playing.. Cards against Humanity…

    Actually that’s not true, my ability to play a (Spontaneous!) game of settlers of Catan has increased dramatically.

  16. Ivan says:

    My personal experience:

    I don’t interact with many people outside those I regularly see, but I play a lot of board games with a small-ish group, and I have to say that when I do meet someone new (or engage someone on a new topic), I find that there’s more proliferation of board game knowledge than video game knowledge. I don’t really know how exactly to quantify or explain this, but there are people who I know would look at me blank-faced if I started talking about recent fun experiences in Witcher 3, Diablo 3, the Mass Effect series, etc., but these people have a familiarity with stuff like Pandemic and Betrayal at House on the Hill, etc.

    We had a dinner party the other week and it was mostly people invited by my wife (I didn’t really know anyone that came all that well), and while the conversation was largely about past experiences and politics and non game-y stuff, someone was spying our games cabinet/bookshelf while they ate, and as soon as they could, spewed forth about how awesome a few of the games we had were. (Unfortunately, we didn’t then segue the dinner party into actual playing of a game, sigh.) I feel like if my computer desktop were showing with the launcher icons for various games, I’d get less of a “shared experience” reaction, unless it showed some of the really popular schlockier stuff like CODBLOPS or Madden or something.

  17. Duke of Chutney says:

    ” I’m never going to ask anybody what their best loadout in X-Wing is. I’m never going to ask that fashion model which strategy she prefers to play in Caverna. That young guy who’s loaded on coke probably isn’t in the mood to talk about his favourite card combo in Magic: The Gathering.”

    You will never know Rab if you don’t ask.

    I think its a generational thing. Video games are generally an acceptable pass time for people born after 80-85, but if you are in your 40s they are still childish. People who aspire to be like people of the generation before them pretend they don’t like video games but they will one day be a minority. Give it another 20 years and they will be ubiquitous. I think boardgames will be the same but about another 10-20 years behind.