Friday, August 27, 2010

What Kind of Hobby, Part 2

Wow, has it really been over two weeks since my last post? Worse yet, was my last post really the same one I'm writing on update on today? Yep, looks like it. The weird thing is, in my mind I've already written about seven insightful, amusing, and stunning posts. Now I just have to get them from my imagination into reality (where they will be transformed into stupid, boring, and mundane posts).

So, first of all, I have to share what I think is big news regarding my last post. In that one, I lamented that unlike books and movies, games don't really have an outlet to be shared without being purchased. Well, that has changed. Boardgamegeek, the central website for everyone in the boardgaming hobby, has just launched a new site: Board Game eXchange.

Board Game Exchange is basically a Netflix (or Gamefly) for board games. I think it is an excellent idea. I'm concerned that their pricing model is too high, but the concept is fantastic. Basically, for those not familiar with Netflix, you subscribe to a mail-order service for a monthly fee. Then, you pick a board game you would like to play. They send it to you (including a prepaid method of shipping it back) and you play it for as long as you like. Will this break the board gaming hobby out into the the larger population? I doubt it. But it is a good start.

For me, unfortunately, the service is not as valuable. I have so many games already, and the selection is somewhat limited, that I don't see much benefit in joining. However, if I were just getting started in the hobby, I think this service would be a godsend. Yes, it's expensive, but what a great way to experience multiple new and different games for a (large) fraction of their normal cost. If you don't have a game group or other access to a larger collection, this would be the way to go.

Now, on the the "Part 2" section of this post.

I thought of two more hobbies to compare with playing board games. Perhaps neither is particularly positive, but I think they are both appropriate in different ways.

Is it like playing with trains?

I have a friend who is really into model trains. He goes to conventions across the nation. He has a large set up that he puts on display at a local mall every Father's Day. He's really into trains, and the model train hobby is one way for him to explore that interest.

Now me, I know virtually nothing about trains, real or model. I think they're cool, but I could barely name any of Thomas's friends, let alone discuss their history. But it got me to thinking. How much different are our hobbies? It is definitely a passionate minority that knows all kind of obscure facts about their subject. We both have conventions. We both have preferences (HO scale or Auction mechanism?). We could both talk to outsiders and bore them to sleep within minutes.

We're both collectors. His diorama (or whatever the proper term is) is constantly growing and changing. He's very precise when it comes to time period. He can look for particular items to "complete" what he's working on. How is that different from those of us who have to have a certain edition of a game, or complete a series whether we like the game or not?

Lastly, and this will probably get me in trouble with train enthusiasts, but we both play with our toys. We play games, they play trains. I'm sure that's not the phrase they use, but it's essentially the same. It's not enough to set up an elaborate landscape; you've got to run a train through it! It doesn't mean anything to have the engines if you never see them run. And while they could play with the same train for hours, we could play the same game many times. It's not a perfect analogy, I admit, but I think it's pretty darn close.

But the most damning link to me is the sheer volume of train-themed games. There are train games of every level of complexity. There are train games that are territorial, economic, historical, and trivial. Surely that isn't just a coincidence. There must be some hobbyist-mindset connection I'm not seeing.

Is it like comic books?

I actually have a lot to say about this comparison, but I will try to make it brief since I have such a habit of going long on these posts.

I think the board gaming hobby is very much like the comic book hobby. There is the obvious parallels regarding collecting and reading/playing. There is the devotion to particular artists, writers, designers. There is the preference for particular eras, themes, or genres. All of these make good comparisons.

But what I want to talk about is more the industry. Comics have been around for decades, obviously, and they have taken many forms and branched in many, many directions. For most of their history, they were seen solely as a diversion for kids. But in the last 30 years, that has changed. Kids grew up, but kept buying and reading comic books. When you have 20- and 30-somethings with large disposable incomes as your audience, of course the business world takes notice.

It is no surprise to any comic book fan that Hollywood has discovered a gold mine. The potential was always there, perhaps it just took a while for the technology to catch up. Personally, I think it has more to do with the change in the target age groups of both comics and movies (one getting older, while the other went younger).

But here's the thing. It is easy to see why Hollywood wants to make movies of every comic book. They are both visual, story-telling media. That would seem to be enough. But any comics reader could tell you that there are innumerable things that a comic can do that a movie cannot. Yes, the action translates well, but the literate elements of comics are often lost. Comic characters have histories spanning decades; movie characters compress that into 20 minutes. I'm not saying comic based movies are bad, just that they will never be the same as the actual comic books.

So, how does this relate to board games? I'm starting to see a similar development between board games and video games. Many popular board games (Settlers of Catan, Carcassonne, Ticket to Ride) are available on the Xbox 360, and many more are available for the iPhone/iPod. Video games are much higher profile, like movies. They're a totally different medium, but they share similar traits with board games. Many games have been available on the internet for years, but the transfer to the home box market is pretty big.

The difference, I think, is that comic book movies are often watched by people who have never read the comic source (I've never read Iron Man, but I liked the movie). I don't think the same is happening with video game versions of board games. I get the impression that the only people playing them are the ones who are already familiar with them.

Is this transition a good thing? I'm not sure. I don't think it's bad, but I don't think either video games or board games will benefit from it.

The other big similarity has to do with the creative aspect. During the big comic book boom of the '80's and '90's, it was not only possible but very common for a couple of guys to write and publish their own comic books. The vast majority of these disappeared into obscurity, but there were plenty of success stories as well. From Bone to Strangers in Paradise to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. It was a huge explosion of creativity and new artists and writers.

Right now, I think we're at a similar stage for board games. Publishing a board game is by no means a simple endeavor, but the growth of the internet has expanded options for publishing, promoting, and marketing these games to their target audience. Again, the rules of the universe (I forget if the 80/20 rule has a name) dictate that most of these won't be that great. But the important thing is that creative people don't feel shut out of participating in the creative side of this hobby. I think that's a wonderful thing, and makes this a great time to be into this hobby.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

What Kind of Hobby is Playing Board Games?

One of my favorite hobbies is playing board games. Although I know a lot of people who share this hobby, I would not consider it common, nor especially "mainstream." So when people ask me about it, it usually requires some bit of explanation.

Many times, if I say I like board games, the response is, "Oh, like Risk or Monopoly?" Depending on my mood and how much I care for the person, my response can be anywhere on the spectrum between a full description of the merits of German board game designers to simply, "Yeah, pretty much." And sure, I have a standard "elevator pitch" answer, too.

But what I've been thinking about lately is what other hobbies playing games is similar to. Of course, it doesn't have to be similar to anything; each hobby can stand alone on its own merits. But just for comparison and as a nice experiment, I thought about how I would compare it to some of my own other interests. I've picked some things I think are similar and different about them, but they are by no means exclusive; they are just the ones I chose to focus on for this post.

Is it like reading?

Many people read (sadly, not everyone), so this is something most people can understand. Reading can be educational or purely entertaining. It can take you to an infinite different times and places with ease. It's pretty cerebral, but it also encourages creativity.

How they are similar: Aside from what I mentioned above, I think another strong similarity is the idea of personalities. For books, it's authors; for games, it's designers. Just as some readers will buy the next Tom Clancy or Jackie Collins or Dan Brown book to hit the shelves, many gamers are just as dedicated to Reiner Knizia, Martin Wallace, and Klaus Teuber.
How they are different: Books are inherently solitary; games are not. Sure, there are readings and book clubs and discussions, but when it comes down to it, to experience a book requires only you and a book (and some time). Games are the opposite. Though there are "solitaire" games, I think the vast majority of us would define a game as a contest between two or more people. This is good in the sense that it makes gaming a more social hobby.
What games need that reading has: Libraries. Game libraries do exist on a small scale at conventions and game get togethers, but how fantastic would it be if you could check out games at your local library? And what about discount book stores? The value of a good book is not diminished by having been read. Why aren't there more outlets for second-hand games? Of course, thrifters like myself know that there is if you're willing to spend the time looking.

Is it like watching movies?

I've always believed that seeing a movie is a solitary experience that masquerades as a group experience. Sure, you see them in big groups (at theaters), but your interaction with the film itself is entirely internal. With the exception of talking patrons and cell phones, your experience at a movie is only dependent on what's going on within you.
How they are similar: Multiple people have a similar experience, filtered through their own personal biases. Also, people enjoy watching movies multiple times (especially with home video), just as many have favorite games they revisit often.
How they are different: Movies are passive; games are active. People often get excited by films that "challenge" them, either through interesting new ideas or radical perspectives or ethical dilemmas. But in the end, nothing the viewer can do will change the outcome of the movie. Games don't have as much impact, but they *require* participation. You are more or less in control of how the game ends the entire time.
What games need that movies have: I could say movie rental houses (which are dying out) or public theaters to spread to the masses, but I don't really think those apply. What I would like to see for games is more criticism. Film is studied. Whether it's a simple "thumbs up/thumbs down" or a dissection of the mis en scene, there are all levels of film criticism. Do games merit the same level of scrutiny? I don't know, but I would love to see it anyway.

Is it like collecting?

Many hobbies revolve around collecting sets or examples of a particular thing, whether it be penguins or stamps or comic books or autographs. This sort of hobby focuses more on acquiring, but for the collector there is equal enjoyment in each of the objects themselves.
How they are similar: As many in the board gaming hobby can attest, it isn't long before your measuring your collection not by what games you have, but by how many. Like books and movies, new ones come out every year, all year long. Could you get every baseball card? No. Could you get every Chicago Cubs card? Possibly. Could you get every card for this season? Definitely. The difficulty here is in distinguishing between owning something you enjoy and enjoying something you own.
How they are different: Despite the ease of growing a collection, it really isn't about owning games you never intend to play. Sure, some feel the need to have all the Alea numbered big box games, but most of us value quality over quantity.
What games need that collecting has: A price guide? No, definitely not. But I wouldn't mind seeing a few more trade shows now and then. Even if not for trading, then at least for public display. How neat would it be to see some rare games out for display, or better yet, for play?

Is it like sports?

I don't really like adding this one because to me, sports are games. How can you compare two of the same thing? But, there it is.
How they are similar: Competition, pure and simple. Everyone understands the thrill of victory in sports. It is just as fulfilling in a hard fought board game.
How they are different: Cultural ubiquity. Sport exists at some level in every part of the world, at every level of society. Whether you play or just watch or paint your face to watch the local match, everyone understands sports.
What games need that sports have: Acceptance. No one bats an eye if you tell them you spent all day Sunday watching football. Planted on the couch in front of the TV is fine. But if you said you were inside playing D&D all day, wow, what a different reaction. Living vicariously through sports stars is okay, but acting out fantasy in your living room is not. What I find most amusing about this is the huge rise in "Fantasy Football" over the last decade. Watching wasn't enough-- they had to make a game out of it!

I thought I had a few more hobbies to compare to, but they've all escaped me at the moment. Besides, I think my analysis is running thin by now anyway. I'll just wrap it up here. What do you think? What hobby would you compare it to? How do you try to get people to understand it?

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