Essen 2014

Jess and I went to Internationale Spieltage SPIEL this year. It was the first time for both of us and so a bit overwhelming — I went to GenCon a few times in the Milwaukee MEC, which was my idea of a large commercially-focused convention and this was considerably larger and more commercial than that.

If you're going mostly to try and buy new and hard-to-find games it seems like you really want to be there the first day and the last day. The first day because limited items will sell out quickly. We didn't get to the Japon Brand booth until the second day, and already many games (Onitama, Villannex, The Ravens of Thri Sahashri) were sold out. Some were even sold out before the convention, via preorder. Most of these won't be offered for sale anywhere else (except probably-gouging resellers). Similarly I got Onirim at the Z-Man booth Saturday morning, and while they had plenty of copies left, the promotional expansions were all gone.

Conversely, the last day is when most of the non-publisher booths will be running sales on popular or overstocked games.

Both the first and last days are also the least crowded.

Overall I think boardgames are doing a better job than videogames of diversifying themes. Yes, it's a lot of spaceships and axes but: Furry bouncers? Mushroom hunting? There's more interesting stuff than one group can play coming out of the middle-sized and larger publishers. But there's also still a disturbingly large segment of boardgames that reproduce troubling history. I mean that in two ways:

First, there's a lot of games that encourage awful historiography. One major offender this year was Historia, a game about technological progress from "the start of civilization" to the Singularity (which is the "end" of the technology track, and of course happens shortly after our current age). Another was Progress: Evolution of Technology, a title to make even Auguste Comte blush. These games are frustrating because there are so many of them and so few of them really introduce new designs rather than just new arrangements or themes. But they're also frustrating because this is the best medium we have for exploring structural "what if?"s in a formal way, and so much of it is given over to bowdlerized retreads of what we already know happened.

But second, there's still a lot of boardgames that are just flat-out sexist and racist. Many of them are the same ones: "Civilization" games always follow a European-inspired trajectory and viewpoint, even if you're playing as "the Egyptians." Centuries of chattel slavery, colonialism, and white Christian imperialism are condensed to simple placement mechanics like "workers," "exploration," "settlement," etc.

There's more to history than Amero-European influence's waxing and waning; why not use other viewpoints? (One of the most interesting games I saw was Mahardika, a cooperative game in which you play as Sukarno, Hatta, and other founders of Indonesia fighting for independence.) There's more to say about that waxing and waning; why not games that interrogate rather than simply use that history? And (I hope) there's more to Amero-European culture than slavery and imperialism and trade policy; where are the games about that?

Even outside those designs, the games that aren't about historical topics still cover or feature mostly-white, mostly-dude subjects. This problem runs across the whole spectrum of game themes and sizes, from Pathfinder's only black characters being an extra-cost expansion to the 34 to 6 to 2 male to female to unspecified/ambiguous gender ratio in Boss Monster.

From an outsider's perspective, the boardgame industry feels like it's trying to compress the last decade of bad business development in the video game industry into a short period for itself. Many games have expansions (DLC), some of which were obviously planned from the start, sometimes even feeling like they're just half the "real" game cut off and sold separately. Every game has preorder bonuses, and like videogames they're often retailer- or venue-specific.

Like videogames, the production costs on the high end are growing fast. Larger boxes, lots of parts. Like videogames, this isn't accompanied by higher measures of manufacturing quality — games aren't getting stronger cards, more accurate cuts and prints, or wood and metal instead of cardboard and plastic. They're just getting more parts and bigger boxes.

These additional pieces are not always justified by the designs: Piles of tokens where a single die counter would suffice, or wooden or die-cut pieces that could just be a card or sometimes even just an agreed-upon area of the table. "Check out our unique meeple" plays into growing boardgamer-as-consumerist-identity memes; like videogames, this attitude is in turn necessary to prop up the high-cost market, which in turn raises the stakes and demands and produces even higher costs, etc. The median price of a new boardgame is trending to $60 and the high-end $100+.

Unlike videogames, boardgames don't have the same properties to let the bottom fall out of the "low end" in the same way. The fixed costs of manufacturing means I don't expect to see piles of new $1 or $2 games any time soon. But that doesn't mean there aren't repercussions for smaller designers, who seem to be mostly moving to print-and-play (which just distributes the manufacturing cost inefficiently over the player base), digital boardgames, and Kickstarter.

And wow. Kickstarter (and generic "crowdfunding") was everywhere. I thought "Kickstart this thing we're going to make and take real investment for later anyway" was bad in videogames, but in boardgames even the large companies like Filosofia/Z-Man and Funforge are doing Kickstarters basically as high-profile preorders. There were multiple booths selling "we'll run your crowdfunding" services. This should serve as a warning next time someone offers to erode labor and consumer protection with vague promises of "increasing competition" or "removing the middleman," but it probably won't.