The Fallen Canon of Boardgames

This is something I’ve been thinking about and I’m finding it hard to articulate without it just sounding like old man griping (which it may well be). It’s pretty inside baseball stuff, so if you’re not heavily into boardgames, here’s a Vine of Cappy catching snowballs.

We’re coming up on my 10 year anniversary at BGG. I got into boardgaming about a year or so before that but I registered for BGG on 9-11-2005 (never forget).

At the time, there was a sort of established “pantheon” of classics. You had your holy trinity (Settlers, TTR, Carc) and you also had things like T&E, Puerto Rico, Princes of Florence, El Grande, Wallenstein, Power Grid, Samurai, Through the Desert, and a few others. These were titles that it was assumed pretty much everyone was familiar with. If you did the kind of geeklist where you said something or joked about different games, you’d probably have a lot of these as examples. There were new games coming out, and things got hyped, but in general it seemed that these games were on one tier and everything else was on another.

The first two games I really remember challenging this were Pillars of the Earth and Caylus. Caylus came in like a juggernaut, and it was declared a new classic almost immediately. Pillars didn’t have that much momentum, but I remember feeling like it was being given more “legitimacy” than it deserved.

When I compare that to the current climate, things seem really different. Not just that there are different games in the Top 10, but this sense of a tier of “the canon” is completely gone. Part of this is because a lot of those games are currently out of print, but in addition there doesn’t seem to be much of a communal memory past the previous three years or so. There doesn’t seem to be any desire to have one, either. The majority of gamers seem to fall in one of two categories: those who are only into whatever the newest thing out is, and those who are “collectors” and are just looking for sheer numbers, regardless of quality.

Having been around for 10 years now, I’ve seen things come and go. I know that some of these old classics just aren’t that great; Samurai is just okay, Princes of Florence is dull, Carc feels pretty played out, and the less said about Caylus, the better. Maybe it’s just me, but I still have this sense of there being a “canon” and a newer game entering it (like Agricola or Dominion) should be rare, and a big deal. But I think I’m in a definite minority in feeling that way.

I know I’m falling for a nostalgia trap. Looking at the dates for some of those “classic” games in 2005, most of them were also about 3 years old at the time. But a lot of them stuck around. Some, like Trias and Clans have more or less been forgotten, but a big chunk of them are still there. The announced reprint of El Grande has surprised some folks who weren’t even aware it was criminally OOP, as I think it just seemed like an evergreen title.

I played 100 new-to-me games last year and so many of them were mediocre chaff that didn’t seem to aspire to be anything BUT mediocre chaff. I got very little sense of anyone really swinging for the fences and trying to do anything but entertain some gamers for a couple months. I played Istanbul the other night and it’s not terrible, but no one will be thinking about this in 6 months. So often I see something being hyped and just think, “You want me to get excited about THAT? That sort of thing drew yawns 6 years ago.” To unfairly pick on Istanbul some more, it’s a game that won a major award for having merchants run a wheelbarrow around an old-timey town collecting fruit and cloth to sell at the market. This is from the guy who did Traders of Genoa! Tell me he couldn’t have done this in his sleep years ago.

I know that a lot of this is my own hangups. Like, I don’t see the point of spending $60 million to make a movie whose only goal is to make $70 million and then be forgotten. That seems stupid to me. Likewise, I don’t see the point of putting out another cloth-on-a-boat game just to have something on the shelves, with no goal except to make the rent. I get that not every design is going to be T&E but again, I’d rather play something that aimed high and missed than something that successfully covered its bottom line and a little more.

That’s enough. Feel free to shred it and make “get off my lawn” jokes, I just wanted to get that out.

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