Colin HunterNew Zealand
AucklandTo approach the Other in conversation is to welcome his expression, in which at each instant he overflows the idea a thought would carry away from it. It is therefore to receive from the Other beyond the capacity of the I...To approach the Other in conversation is to welcome his expression, in which at each instant he overflows the idea a thought would carry away from it. It is therefore to receive from the Other beyond the capacity of the I...
What constitutes a seminal game? What makes something part of the canon of games? This article and hopefully series on leading games will look at seminal games and seek to explain, somewhat, why these games are considered leading games. This series owes much to a wonderful set of essays compiled in the book Leading Cases by AWB Simpson.
When I first started getting seriously into board games I spent a fair bit of time looking at games and ranking on boardgamegeek. Like most of us, I came to realise how meaningless such things are, but there was an attraction to thinking about what constituted a leading game.
At the time I joined BGG Puerto Rico was the number 1 ranked game. It seemed unassailable. Yet only a few years later we would see its reign end and a new heir apparent Agricola and then a few years later Twilight Struggle would be top of the heap.
I love Puerto Rico. It is one of my favourite Euros and I think it is highly replayable and an excellent design. However, I think Puerto Rico’s success tells us something about aesthetic values of the BGG community in the mid 00s. It is also a story about how groups exclude.
Notion of community in this article refers largely to the boardgamegeek community. I take that to be largely English speaking hobby gamers, by and large, but it is clearly a community that has changed over time. Inevitably any discussion in this regard will be incomplete and certainly doesn’t represent specific gamers or specific groups, particularly outside of the central BGG community.
A Tale of Puerto Rico’s aesthetic beauty
The traditional story we tell about Puerto Rico is that it epitomised euro design excellence. At the height of its popularity it was a ubiquitous game in the euro-hobby-game community that was present on BGG. It was a game that supposedly featured a combination of replayability, depth and design elegance. Puerto Rico was not overly complex but it involved deep strategy and the mechanical grace that entailed. Its combination of non-direct interaction and low luck factor made a game that was well regarded and liked. Its position at number one was an indication of the game’s virtues and corresponding excellence that the community acknowledged.
Puerto Rico would go on to directly spawn two excellent card game versions (San Juan and Race for the Galaxy) and win several awards.
Puerto Rico’s success was therefore a product of its superlative virtue as a design. All hail the scriptor.
I think though that the history and nature of Puerto Rico as a leading game can tell us much more than meets the eye. For me the fact Puerto Rico was considered one of the great game designs tells us something about the community values that went unsaid.
Puerto Rico was considered the epitome of eurogame-ness. Its assertion as the No 1 game of all time, was therefore a matter of assertion of eurogame identity.
Much of the supposed values of eurogames are psychological artifacts of the cultural identifying group on boardgamegeek. By this I mean they are non-objective factors that appease particular psychological states. A good example of such things is the virtue of non direct player interaction. There is no objective difference between direct and indirect player interaction. If I take role X and so you can’t I have relatively hurt your position. Just as I would if I cost you resources directly. From a game theory stand point, at least, there is no incentive difference between direct and indirect action. That isn’t to say that the effects are not psychologically powerful. That should not be diminished, much of what we get from gaming is not a true appreciation of an objective concept, but the engagement at an emotional level, perhaps through the lense of rationality.
The aesthetic values, even if non-objective,(1) that underlie Puerto Rico are interesting. The convergence of factors that makes Puerto Rico a game within the canon of great games are complex and multifaceted, but I will examine two perspectives:1. Puerto Rico as an alibi for colonialism and capitalism.
2. Puerto Rico as a function of a culture war within gaming.
(edit: I have added this section at the request of a reader and I think it is a good idea, if you are familiar with Rolland Barthes Mythology you can skip it)
From Mythologies by Roland Barthes:Quote:A conjuring trick has taken place; [myth] has turned reality inside out, it has emptied it of history and has filled it with nature, it hasI am going to discuss Puerto Rico, at least to some extent, in relation to Barthean ideas of myth and alibi. In Short Barthes considers that myth is a form of speech that in contemporary society can encompass any media and removes the historical meaning of speech in the broadest sense and replaces it with a sort of sanitised (often naturalistic) explanation.
removed from things their human meaning so as to make them
signify a human insignificance. The function of myth is to empty reality: it is, literally, a ceaseless flowing out, a haemorrhage, or perhaps an evaporation, in short a perceptible absence.
The idea of alibi is that mythologies give an excuse for the consequences of historic acts. Hence the role of myth (in a modern capitalist context) is to santise the unpalatable truth of a things' production or history.
An Austere Alibi
In Puerto Rico the players ostensibly play the role of Colonial Governors of Puerto Rico. Famously of course the game labels what are clearly slaves as “colonists” and these “colonists” are used to work the fields and provide labour for industry. One can understand the game as representing the actions of changing mayors of San Juan, guiding development of their own interests, but also (due to general policy) giving benefit to others. Every selection of action being your collective interest’s time as mayor. Chatel slavery remained an important institution as far colonial profit was concerned.
At once this theme is important because it plays into the legitimacy of colonialism. The development of commercial enterprise is sustained through the steady influx of slaves and continued colonial rule. One wins, not by intentionally inflicting harm, but driving down the price of labour and maximising the economic efficiency of one’s trading or construction operations. Of course slaves represented a cheap source of labour for dangerous work. The person playing Puerto Rico is not asked to revel in this. Far from it, the game seeks to abstract its theme. Criticism of Puerto Rico has tended towards it being unthematic, an accounting exercise and boring.
By treating its theme of colonial power in this way Puerto Rico aids apparatus that seeks to give an alibi to colonialism. It encourages its players not to think deeply about its theme, history or circumstances and to create a mental separation between the game and the events it is portraying. Games are abstract, their themes don’t matter, it is just about the mechanisms. Puerto Rico was the epitome of a particular Eurogame ideology.
Of course in the context of at least a somewhat commercial enterprise this has its attractions. It makes the product more appetising to the consumer because they do not have to engage with the moral ramifications of the theme and can focus on the pleasure of play.
A cynical view might also be that this is also consistent with generating structures that de-priviliege the human costs of labour. Puerto Rico’s view point being that of those who accumulated material reward of other people’s labour.
While this is conjecture, I would also guess that at least some people constituting the board game community were not altogether against ideology and viewpoints that tended to emphasise the non-contextual nature of meaning. At least at that time.
As a result the intellectual structures of the community and the metaphoric structures of Puerto Rico’s theme could be seen as consistent and self reinforcing. Puerto Rico a tale of supposed neutral, themeless capitalist institutions generating wealth in developing economies, for the benefit of all.
So Puerto Rico was a Barthean alibi for the gaming community.(2) Through its abstraction of theme and denial of slavery it encouraged the sorts of views that supported an austere, luckless and neutral vision of gaming. Gaming could be fun, but it was at least partly about intellectual engagement. This of course emphasises the class and education divide between board gamers and the Other.
It is important to note though that while I certainly think these values were consistent with turning a blind eye to the impact of colonialism, I don’t think this was the intent within the community (let alone the designer or the publisher). Far from it, what I think is interesting here is that there was a structural consistency between these two positions and that an abstract a-political view of games will inevitably encourage a disengagement from social and political issues.
It is also worth noting that I don’t think this is entirely reflective of the current eurogame community. The 00s is often seen as the height of the elegant euro, where the emphasis on lower complexity and the importance of pure mechanics was the dominant trend. I’m not convinced that is still the case. Another excellent Euro is Field of Arle, which deals with subsistence farming. In Fields of Arle one plays the peasant struggling to warm and feed their family. I don’t think it pulls punches with regard to the difficulty of poverty. You might say the same of many more modern Euros (although of course there are clearly exceptions). Such thoughtful and thematic Euros are the staple of mainstream Eurogaming today, but I think that was less the case in the 00s. Excellent Euros were often more austere than the trend towards the abstract (particularly Knizia designs like Ra and Tigris and Euphrates), but the larger mechanism designs of Lacerda were still to come.
It is also possible to look at the various strands of cultural identity that were at stake in the BGG rankings. If we understand a developing genre conflict within the hobby game community. I am speaking about the conflict between Eurogamers and Ameritrash fans in the mid to late 00s. Famously, a number of excellent contributors were banned (or at least blocked from posting) on BGG. Much of the conflict centered around various aesthetic principles. I think the popularity of Puerto Rico as an archetypical Euro was an indication of the dominance on BGG of the Eurogamer view point. That accords, at least anecdotally, with my own experience. It seemed to me that many of the dominant voices, outside of the small Ameritrash commentators, tended to side with the Eurogamer.
I’m not at all convinced though this was necessarily representative of the eventual victors of this dialectical war. It is interesting to note now that the BGG rankings are full not only of Euros, but also plenty of Ameritrash games and highly thematic games. I’m not sure how true that was at the height of Puerto Rico’s popularity. I will come back to this thought, when I talk about other seminal games, but I think one of the interesting things that a canon of games can tell us is about the way communities change. One of the surprising things to me, looking back on the history is the way the community changed, both in terms of growth and size, but also in tastes.
It is also worth stating that Puerto Rico wasn’t universally reviled by Ameritrash advocates. Michael Barnes in his list of Euros that he loved included Puerto Rico. Perhaps what set the reaction against Eurogames was not a problem per se with its mechanics, but the snobbery that at times went along with the community and the “dominant” thought in that period.
Over the last 15-20 years tastes of the community with regard to games have changed. The increasing popularity of various board games and the massive growth in the number of games produced every year has meant that different aesthetics have become more dominant. Puerto Rico for its part represented a game consistent with the more austere style of eurogames.
However, we should not put too fine a point on this, even by the mid to late 00s the move towards more complex and thematic designs was pretty clear. The status quo bias of the BGG rating system, particularly when there were less people on the site rating games, means that the cultural shifts undoubtedly occurred earlier.
(1) Another way to think of this is to consider that the values underlying “eurogames” and eurogamer identity are narrative driven or perhaps identity driven in that they are part of stories we tell about ourselves. I think this is true of non-eurogames, so this isn’t an attempt to cast aspersions at all.
(2) See Roland Barthes Mythologies.
This article is incomplete and will posit things that are largely speculative without further research. However, I think there may be a workable thesis here and that is as far as I will go
This is a blog that discusses philosophical issues in the board game hobby and reflects on the media of others.
- [+] Dice rolls
Colin HunterNew Zealand
AucklandTo approach the Other in conversation is to welcome his expression, in which at each instant he overflows the idea a thought would carry away from it. It is therefore to receive from the Other beyond the capacity of the I...
Part 1 can be found here:
The second part of my examination of Dune considers the issue of bad faith.
What is bad faith?
We might think of bad fad faith as the act of deception. Classically (and for example legally) bad faith generally means a person intentionally deceiving the Other. The idea of bad faith was famously picked up by Sartre and other existentialists. For those thinkers bad faith included self deception. This often involved the rejection of one’s absolute freedom to make moral decisions. This idea is often caricatured in Existentialist Comics, perhaps not entirely fairly.
Not all writers referred to this as bad faith, for example Beauvoir characterises this issue as one of authenticity. The core though is powerful freedom to see the world as it is, without the objectification and self deception that we might normally engage in. Hence for Beauvoir it is the admission of contradiction and ambiguity in things (not dissimilar to ideas that Foucault would later pick up) that matters. It is afterall Lisanu L'haqq and not Truth itself.
As a private law lawyer, bad faith, of the traditional kind, is something I frequently deal with. Classic examples of bad faith would be lying, cheating, deceit, some kinds of betrayal and oath breaking, fraud, counterfeiting, turning a blind eye, bribery, perjury etc… Bad faith is often synonymous with immorality (particularly on a Kantian view). (1)
While the concept, at least in law, hasn’t been entirely consistent, see the move towards pragmatic metaphysics from Aristotelian conceptions and the eventual modification of legal rules to suit that pragmatism (eg Royal Brunei Airlines Sdn Bhd v Tan). (3)
So what relation does bad faith have to Dune? Or even board gaming generally?
Negotiation, table talk and exchange are really central elements of Dune as a game. There is no necessary enforcement mechanism for deals in the game.(2) That being the case one can and does at least occasionally lie. Now before we go further it is sometimes helpful to understand the difference between to concepts, which are meaningful at law (perhaps not outside that):
When we talk about a lie or dishonestly, it is important to understand that saying you will do something and not doing that thing later is not per se a lie or dishonest. One can change their opinion. It may still be morally wrong, but it isn’t necessarily “bad faith”. We shall call these “promises”.
By contrast representations as to existing states of affairs are dishonest or bad faith if you know them to be false. If I say it was 78 degrees C yesterday in Auckland, New Zealand where I live, this is bad faith if I am serious about it. I know full well that it was not 78 degrees. Hence a comment asserting the truth of that (not as a joke) is bad faith, because my intent is to deceive you about that thing. We shall call these “representations”.
It is quite possible that a promise may be made in bad faith. If at the time I have no intention of honouring it and am merely giving the promise to trick the other person into taking action, I have engaged in bad faith. If I know that the other person is mistaken with regard to the meaning of my promise and I go ahead with it, I am acting in bad faith, because again I seek to trick the other person, my intention is not good. By contrast representations made in error are not bad faith, but any representation made with knowledge of its falsehood is bad faith.
So we can see in Dune that even deal breaking is not necessarily bad faith, as long as when you entered into an agreement you intended to keep it, honestly. However, telling someone you have a card in your hand that you don’t or promising to do something of which you have no intention of doing in order to secure payment of spice is bad faith.
While there may always be some hard cases, these conceptual patterns are, given a particular metaphysical view (or jurisprudential view in law) relatively certain. The rules of Dune allow me to engage in bad faith. At one level we all sit down and consent to allow our players to lie to us or act in bad faith. (4)
That was a long winded way to say something very obvious, so what?
To most game players, including myself, it would seem dumb to say you can’t lie or make deals in which you know your opponent is mistaken. Perhaps in the game of Dune this is the normative assumption that we all agree to and likewise in other games that specifically allow deals and negotiation.
At one level though there is a level of inauthenticity that is necessary to engage in any duplicitous behaviour. I guess the question is whether that inauthenticity can be seen as a bad thing? Traditionally, of course, it was not bad faith since effectively your players consented to you acting in such a matter, but the implication of existentialist views is interesting here.
I can choose as a free being to act duplicitously or not, I can journey to Foum al-hout or not. I am responsible for the consequences of my action on the Other, whether this be the Tahaddi Challenge or betrayal. If that is the case then I am responsible for relationship damage caused by my inauthentic behaviour. I cannot simply hide behind the fact that we all agreed. As Beauvoir suggests:Quote:[Man] bears the responsibility for a world which is not the work of a
strange power, but of himself, where his defeats are inscribed, and his victories as well.” The world one creates is one’s responsibility.
To deny this is of course would be viewed as bad faith. After all, we are free to choose our actions and the consequences thereof.
It is important to understand here though that the performance of deception itself is not necessarily bad faith in this context. It is not the performance that is worrisome, but rather the self deception that I am freed from the consequences of my actions by the creation of the game rules.
Friendship and Fogwood
Famously of course conflict games with betrayal and negotiations have been known to ruin friendships. Diplomacy is a famous example of this. While I think we are entitled to perform the roles we need in the scope of a game, we must be culpable for the outpouring results of that performance.
My experience with my friends playing Dune was that in the long run that narratives of betrayal helped to form a close bond, rather than negate it. One of my long suffering friends, that I have betrayed on more than one occasion in gaming, is a very good friend of mine. While he may still harbour grudges, I think as well we are closer for having come through such experiences. We still play today. In this sense the warrior should not fear Wadquiyas, the drinking of their opponent’s blood, as it creates the familial and tribal bonds of sisters. We can will Wadquiyas to be pride and not shame.
So we must admit that destructive betrayal and bad faith can impair relationships and be unethical, but it can strengthen our relationships with the Other. It is our responsibility to navigate this ambiguity. However imperfect this might be, it presents itself imminently as a fact about gaming. The result is there is no hard and fast rule that we may betray, at least from a moral standpoint. Hopefully, the nature of the relationship with the Other will help to inform us, but we take risks either way by engaging in Kanly and betrayal.
We must test ourselves and the other by navigating this. Often when confronted by particularly difficult scenarios we are not surrounded by our close friends, but often people we know casually. In such situations it is difficult and hazardous to navigate betrayal and bad faith, but I do hope that if we can overturn the cultural stigma and reinvest ourselves as the Wadquiyas, we can see both forward towards our future friends and back away from our tribal norms.
We must embrace ambiguity.
Toward games without conflict
At the other end of the spectrum are games where the rules are silent to or forbid negotiation. This is another area where the issue of bad faith I think can be helpful in negotiating relationships. Many people play without table talk in such games. I must admit that I tend to be favourable towards such normative rules. I enjoy 1830 at any player count without table talk or negotiation. I enjoy Euros this way as well.
That said, I think there is no need to have a rule about this. If we properly understand bad faith, then we can simply say that one should not act in bad faith unless allowed by the rules and then only in those explicit circumstances.
The evil here that I tend to want to avoid is the offer of self serving and disingenuous advice. We can see this issue as a philosophical one as much as anything else. Metaphysical systems (like pragmatism for example) can tend to only look at external action and not internal intent. That thinking can then lead us down to a path that one’s intent does not matter.
To be frank I am skeptical of this, not as a matter of fact, for undoubtedly this is a construct. Nevertheless, construct or not, it fulfils purpose. It is Fiqh. While it is certainly true that we cannot escape bias or perspective in our views it does not follow that we are under no obligation to consider the interests of the Other. In fact, an Other-centric understanding is Fiqh, it is exactly what is needed. I think there is good faith advice for other players that centres around holding oneself to rigorous standards of intellectual honesty. Often such “advice” is self-serving and it turns games into negotiation games, this is not justice. This is not the generosity of sharing water.
For me this is not necessarily a formal failure of rules, but a substantive failure of ethics. We place ourselves at the mercy of the Other and bear our breast to the crysknife. It might be a simple rule to simply disallow table talk, but this does mean we must miss out on some of the pleasures of gaming, the collaborative effort to learn and understand the game. Where we can’t trust each other to act in good faith, then our only remedy is to rely on “rules” about the ability to speak, but there are inevitably edge cases that will disrupt these. Far better, if we can rely on others to act in good faith and only make good faith representations I think.
Ultimately though there will be ambiguity here. There will be uncertainty and it is within that world that we live. We must do the best we can.
Return to Arrakis
We can see that the issue of bad faith raises a host of issues: the importance of internal thought and external action, what it means to act in good faith, what it means to engage in self deception and the ethics of betrayal.
Returning to Arrakis means accepting the shifting sand under one’s feet and the risk of that which is separate, but also close to us, Shai-Hulud, our friends, the Other. Dune, partly because of its mechanistic base combined with negotiation and punishing failure, traps us. Its very mechanisms call forth ambiguity.
(1) Note this is a gross simplification of the issue. In particular, bad faith generally requires bad intent or bad will, however, I don’t think that is the case with regard to Sartrean “bad faith”. It merely requires dishonesty with one’s self, a sort of refusal to see the truth. I’m not sure it matters whether you realise this or not from that point of view. The mere act of objectifying one’s self or from a Levinasian point of view the Other, is itself bad faith. There is a gap therefore between existential ideas about bad faith (I’m not sure Levinas would describe this as bad faith, but it is analogous to the Sartrean idea). For the purposes of this article I will stick with bad faith as some kind of intentional dishonesty, even if that is intellectual dishonesty with regard to one’s circumstances and the world as a whole.
(2)To be clear here, I use necessary in its formal meaning. That is to say while there is an ability to opt into enforcement, if both players agree, it is not necessary to have an agreement in the game that way. I appreciate that me being rather sparse here might make this unclear, see discussion in thread.
(3) While as a lawyer I have no real problem with the decision, it does conceptually fudge the issue of turning a blind eye into an ultimately objective test (albeit with subjective characteristics). This move in the definition of dishonesty is not strictly speaking entirely formal. Law is much more an art than a science in this respect and so in the scheme of things this probably makes sense, but it is interesting to note, as an aside, the way in which conceptual understanding of bad faith and dishonest are not fixed, indeed perhaps the bad faith is in the denial of that fact.
(4) From a Kantian view, as we have consented to this action there is no real bad faith. We are not using people as a means to an end, we have in fact respected their free will, by not restraining ourselves as promised.
- [+] Dice rolls
Colin HunterNew Zealand
One of the most profound times for my development as a gamer was my rather lengthy university stint. Like many, I expanded my interest in roleplaying, miniature wargames and board games. Eventually, a group of us began to meet up and play the classic Avalon Hill game Dune. In playing Dune, I met some of my best friends. We are now scattered by the strong winds of Arrakis, but this is a tribute to them.
I had played Dune before. I remember the experience, if not the game, rather vividly. It was at the end of a convention and I must have been at high school. An older gamer had invited us over to play Dune. My memory of the game is incomplete. I think I may have played the Guild, but I’m unsure. I remember we played with the Duel expansion, which in hindsight was terrible, but in my rather hazy-spice-fuelled memory I had this profound sense of wonder and excitement playing the game.
Years later when I was at university one of my best friends, who was Dune obsessed, suggested we start playing the game regularly and so we did. Six of us, almost every Friday (and every other day we could manage it) would play Dune. All of us were broke students. We ate leftover food from a cafe one friend worked at, pouring over a game or two of Dune. It was, largely, the same six friends. Sometimes when we had a bit of cash we might even make it to our favourite Chinese restaurant (New Flavour, before it was cool) that was open when the University was closed or the takeaway place next door. Then I would slowly slink into bed, full of Dune, dumplings and a sense of ease.
Dune and gaming was an obsession, addictive, but it heightened my senses and reworked my mind. My friends let me forget my, at times crippling, depression and anxiety. I could perform as an extrovert, cunning and manipulative, rational and persuasive. I could peer into the strands of the future in the game and think about the best time to strike. I could think about how my friends would perform and respond, to my own actions and the actions of others.
Dune, like many other gaming experiences, gave me an opportunity to feel respect for myself in a way that often life didn’t allow, but that drug also created a sort of self loathing. All I wanted to do was be lost in a game and the evening’s hedonistic excess, a plate full of handmade dumplings and a bowl of rice or noodles. Of course it was also that deep shame of being a gamer. Something I hope people no longer feel. Fearing discussion in public of my geek-y loves, unable to feel secure enough to discard public sentiment, I would needle myself over both my inability to survive without public approval or at least public criticism anxiety and my own emotional and intellectual dishonesty.
Dune reached back and forward through time to alter the way I conceive of my past and understand the future of my gaming and perhaps social life. I would later react against Dune qua game. Was the aesthetic angst that I would feel at a later period the frustration of the insoluble nature of incentives in the game or a contradiction at the bottom of my own mental state? Was my move towards particular sorts of games not motivated both out of a rejection and love of Dune? I deeply hated myself and perhaps this was just the outpouring of that grief and shame into my gaming life.
Was there a way out?
The respite though was really my friends at that time. One was so supportive, caring and loving that I was able to make it out of my early 20s alive. In hindsight I was searching for support. Support I didn’t know I needed or felt I was unworthy of, but it also taught me the profound love I can experience by caring for others. Another friend so profoundly affected my understanding of the world and philosophy that I have been forever changed by that loving gift of knowledge. Still another friend taught me about real loyalty and friendship. They are profoundly selfless in ways that few others are. Another friend still gave us creativity, fun, wit and intelligence. Another gave a sense of narrative, precision and a love for interesting discussion.
As a gamer
While Dune was not unique for me as a negotiation game, the repetitive play of it did help me to foment ideas about the act of Negotiation. I have posted previously about the issue of kingmaking and this of course is a central element of Dune. I have emphasised previously the issue of ethics in gaming and the incentives and ethical issues in Dune present a particular problem.
One question that was always at issue is whether it was better to win in an alliance or by itself. I had wanted to rationalise this issue. There must be an order of priority, so that there was not simply an incentive for the strong to ally and overwhelm the weak. I never found a satisfactory answer. Those threads of individual incentives could never really be fully analysed. There were always motivations beyond the horizon. Beyond the cycle of water, beyond the cycle of addiction, of spice. It was always antecedent and just out of view.
Games like Republic of Rome (another classic and perhaps one of my favourite games) also had this to a limited degree. The psychological and normative environments matter quite a lot when it comes to how negotiation and cooperation incentives work. Those of course exist outside the limited narrative and ideology of the rational actor and game theory, my beloved analytical tools.
What of course I wanted to eschew was the idea that negotiation was about convincing others to do bad things, rather than evaluating the game state and mutual incentive structures (and perhaps the psychology of the Other). Whatever the case this issue raised a normative and ethical issue. Must we, as a matter of ethics, behave honestly or at least consistently with our value in the game?
Friendship is performance.
We generally think of performance as something disingenuous and therefore bad, unless we are upfront about it. My friends though not only believed they were friends, they performed the acts and rites of friendship. They gave water for the dead.
Playing is also a performative affair. I appear to be morally allowed to hurt my friend’s position within the four corners of a game. Why is that? Why am I allowed to manipulate my friend in a game? Why can I act in bad faith and lie?
I will talk about the issue of bad faith action later (I’m not convinced you can, but it is a debate for part 2). The answer though, if it is allowed, is that I engage in the performance of game playing. I take on the being of a game player where ethical restrictions are seemingly lifted with regard to particular sorts of actions. I can’t flip the table, but I can lie to you. My uneven footfalls are part of the performance.
We should not take performance in this sense to necessitate something bad. One might perform something out of a duty to the Other. My friends performed friendship. By doing so they maybe saved me. In a game we perform as the gamer, freed from certain ethical considerations.
Dune taught me about the power of performance. It doesn’t have to be contrary to being. It doesn’t have to be bad faith in the abstract. We do not make ourselves into that thing, confining our being to the concept, rather we can inhabit the expression, we can be the beautiful face dancer.
There are of course a continuing set of contradictions at our core qua humans. There are contradictions at the core of Dune. I can’t fully rationalise all of these. No matter how many conceptual boxes I create, there will always be something more. Dune now flows with me through the river of time. I love my friends and miss them every day. We can perform our love for the Other, our friendship for others and the gamer for the Other.
- [+] Dice rolls
Colin HunterNew Zealand
That is it. I’m pulling the trigger and I’m beating the biggest, baddest dead horse there is, well one of them. That’s right I’m talking about the motherf*cking definition of wargames today.
I know what you are saying, “I already read that 5,000 post thread on the Board Game Geek wargaming sub-forum about it”.. “I hate pointless discussions of semantics”... “I don’t play wargames”. Well I don’t care, cause I’m about to drop some heavy truth bombs (lowercase “t” only of course).
Some people are obsessed with the question about what constitutes a wargame. When I say some, I mean 1 or more… and believe me it is way closer to 1 than it is to more. This issue reared its head famously in light of the success of Twilight Struggle. Which evidently did and didn’t count as a wargame. The ensuing debate revealed the shittyness that humans will stoop too in order to win a debate about semantics. Well, I’m fucking carrying on that proud tradition of idiocy and shitty behaviour, because…. well… because… um… something… something *drops smoke and runs*... *doubles back*... oh yeah… I’m a total narcissist.
You might broadly break down the categories of definitions into three.
A Broad Definition
The first category is those whose definition of wargame is wide enough to include any game that has “war” within its thematic content. Under this definition Chess is a wargame because its theme is about medieval warfare (I guess). This definition tries to look at the term “wargame” formally. It doesn’t look at the substance of the war theme, but only whether it exists. So simple, you don’t measure how wargame-y something is, you just see if it has any wargame context. In such a definition pretty much anything is a wargame that touches on war.
So under this definition Twilight Struggle is a wargame as it features some war in the game. So are numerous other games that feature some conflict, like Republic of Rome, Chess, Polis, A Few Acres of Snow, etc...
A Narrower Definition
The second broad category that we can see is one which again looks formally at the issue (1), but requires that instead of any wargame content the entire or at least a significant portion of the game is undertaking war, operations or similar conflict. Again the emphasis here is on whether the game in question fulfils the formal requirement to be about war. Games that have economics
Under this definition games like Twilight Struggle, Republic of Rome, Polis and A Few Acres of Snow are not, since they all feature aspects substantially unrelated to war, whether that be colonisation, spying, politics or trade.
I Know it when I see it
The last category is a sort of pragmatic and substantive category. This includes people who just don’t care that much about this “incredibly important” issue. This category is a sort of evaluation in the round. People get a gut feel for whether it is a wargame or not. There is no real categorical definition and it is contextual. How fine a point you can put on this is up for debate, but I think importantly the category is substantial rather than formal. That is to say something is a wargame because of its substance not because it ticks a formal box.
There are probably other categories here, for example wargame might mean “tabletop miniature game” and not the board variety or vice versa. There are undoubtedly categories that amalgamate several definitions. I have undoubtedly left some out too. I hope that traces the outline of the relevant positions.
This is Super Dumb
This whole discussion is of course rather dumb to say the least. The fact this issue matters is a little beyond me. So why discuss it? Well what I want to get at here is how misplaced this whole discussion is.
Let us go back a minute. Let us ask first, why do we want to have a category of things called wargames? Why does it matter?
I think there are probably a lot of answers to this question. The answer to this question, should, but for whatever reason often doesn’t, resolve the issue. I think a teleological view is therefore much more helpful when we want to categorise a thing.
This is where we tend to mix things up a bit. If we want to know what genus a species is part of, then it is a matter of looking at certain criteria and determining which category that species falls under. In such circumstances the taxonomy of the thing is descriptive and about understanding the relationship with other things within the larger set (genus). The purpose of the categorisation is to understand relationships between things within that category. The category itself is not an objective thing in the world. A squirrel is a product of its genetic lineage, but it doesn’t care what sign we apply to its categorisation or which of its relative species are in the appropriate box.
What I am getting at here is that the categorisation of board games in the wild, so to speak, isn’t analogous to some other forms of taxonomy. We are not creating a science of boardgames. Board games are not genetically related and while we might understand them as being part of families and an extension of human utility and evolution, our categories would not be Wargames, Eurogames, Party Games, etc… From a systemic standpoint the difference between Twilight Struggle and Paths of Glory is minimal.
That doesn’t mean categorisation isn’t useful, it is, but I think we need to ask what is the reason we want to categorise games in this way?
There are some obvious answers like:
We might want to exclude particular examples of games from an argument we are making about “board games” because they don’t fit nicely into our argument.
We might want to enforce our own tribal groupings.
We might want to create a special category on a website so that our particular interest group can identify themselves through the consumption of consumer goods.
We might like to exclude people from our social community.
There are probably other reasons too.
What I want to get at here is that talking about the definition of a wargame in the absence of the purpose of that definition is not particularly useful, unless you think there is a platonic form of the idealised wargame and all wargames are made in that image. While I know modern Platonists, I’m not sure that would represent a majority view (which isn’t to say it is wrong, but arguing about Platonic metaphysics is beyond the scope of this article).
A Better Approach
I think this is actually a moral issue. Outside of moral bounds, it seems to me that any particular definition is at best arbitrary. So the only real decider here is ethics. We have to argue over substance. Once we consider that, are any of the reasons I outlined above really good ethical reasons to exclude games from a category? I tend to think not. So outside of some good reason, I think we need to allow a really broad categorisation of wargames.
This can vary a bit depending on the purpose and instance of the categorisation. If you are having a discussion with someone and you need to “win” the argument by defining Wargame such that it proves your point, by excluding the Other’s argument, then this isn’t really an ethical way of dealing with the issue.
Our moral imperative, in general (2), here means inclusion rather than exclusion. Even if that means including games in a category that we are not comfortable with, overcoming our emotional response to things is the least we can do for the Other.
The reason that I think inclusiveness here is the better rule of thumb is that there is little really to lose. This isn’t a high stakes instance. No culture or society is at stake. No marginalised group is losing. There are not really arguments of substance in favour of confining the set of wargames. Where there are no significant stakes, other than our feelings of tribalism then we should embrace the Other into our group, should they wish to be part of it.
This principle treats the Others advancing contrary arguments, not only with charity, but as transcendent being, not means to an end. It is perhaps an insignificant gift, but still a gift to the Other.
Ethics in the End
This isn’t to say one must always keep expanding the wargame category, at some time preserving a group identity might be just, but if the issue is winning an argument on the internet through definition, we can do better. We must do better. Whatever-the-F*ck the Other wants, so far as it is just, we should give to them. That includes being a wargame.
(1) I say that it is a formal category. In reality I’m not so sure. I think it outwardly appears to be, but any definition that says that most or substantially requires compliance will inevitably be somewhat fuzzy (modal logic notwithstanding).
(2) There are conceivable circumstances where a wide definition will not be just, but I think as a rule of thumb, that is a good place to start.
- [+] Dice rolls
Colin HunterNew Zealand
Dan Thurot is currently writing a wonderful series of blog posts about how Root is an exploration of the ideas of Michel Foucault. I highly recommend reading the series, currently only the first article is publicly available and it can be read here.
However, there is a part of me that really recoils from this sort of analysis. Not because I think there aren't some ideas in Root that are related to Foucault’s thought, but rather because this whole analysis strikes me as out of phase with how we should understand Foucault.
Let us step back a bit and talk in some generality about Foucault’s thoughts. I want to look at Root and Thurot’s analysis through the way in which Foucault might understand representation.
The Order of Things
In The Order of Things Foucault eventually comes to the conclusion that there is an inherent contradiction or paradox at the foundation of the self and the ability to create/understand representations. At once there is an inherent contradiction between an analytic and empirical understanding of history and the self. This analytic understanding precludes the transcendent (or at least empirically unbound) ability to conceive of representations.
As Foucault says:Quote:...what is indicated, on the horizon of all actual representations, as the foundation of their unity, is found to be those never objectifiable objects, those never entirely representable representations, those simultaneously evidence and invisible visibilities, those realities that are removed from reality to the degree to which they are the foundation of what is given to us and reaches us: the force of labour, the energy of life, the power of speech. … The new positivity of the sciences of life, language, and economics is in correspondence with the founding of a transcendental philosophy.Without trying to explain all of Kantian metaphysics and Foucault’s response to it, I think what he is saying is that understanding philosophy or things or anything really involves a sort of contradiction. At one level we are finite and empirical beings and therefore engage in the world at that sort of level. By seeming contradiction we are also things capable of making nonrational, non-finite representations. This ability must lie in some transcendent manner (see Kant’s ideas about Transcendental Idealism). Therefore, we are both finite and transcendental. As Foucault saysQuote:It is trying, in effect, to anchor the rights and limitations of a formal logic in a reflection of a transcendental type, and also to link transcendental subjectivity to the implicit horizon of empirical contents, which it alone contains the possibility of constituting, maintaining, and opening up by means of infinite expectations…The History of Sexuality
So when Foucault in the History of Sexuality part 1, introduces the term “biopower” that is discussed in Thurot’s essay, it is in a much larger context than any narrow discussion of narrative, theme and story in the game are capable of. It is at once articulating the suppression and rationalisation of sexuality with the undermining of that very goal through its continued discourse.
My objection here is the reading of Root in some way that minimises what Foucault is getting at. That seeks to extricate the textual analysis as merely being that of Foucault’s positive thought on “biopower” (or other examples). Frankly, this in itself isn’t really that clever or novel.
Whatever is the case, we must step outside the mere narrative in discussing the games as a critic. We must move to its context that deals with the paradox at the bottom of thought. The seeming focus on positive narrative structure, rather than the structural nature of Root as a cultural artefact is of far more interest and is much more compatible with what Foucault is getting at.
Surely what Root says about us and the way in which we live. Isn’t the interesting thing about Root, not that it tells us about various concepts of Foucault, but the seeming contradiction between its capitalistic nature as a market commodity and its deeply non-capitalistic representation of values in the game? Isn’t it the paradox between mechanical violence and artistic representation that seems to undermine that in order to sell more copies in a materially defined world? Isn’t Root in its fullest sense an articulation of the paradox that underlies human thought? Thurot should not be afraid of stepping outside the text when it comes to the discussion of Foucault.
To be fair, this is being overly critical. I love Thurot’s essay here, but I felt a few repostes that perhaps challenged a more structural and holistic look might have some merit. In some ways the least interesting part of Root is its narrative articulation of Foucault’s positive ideas.
Really, my on critique here makes the same mistakes and perhaps this is the contradiction we have to live with.
This has been a painful write for me. I have to stop and get something out now. Thanks for reading and apologies to Thurot and Wehrle, I love both Root and Space-Biff very much.
- [+] Dice rolls
Colin HunterNew Zealand
Wargame Aesthetics and the Wonderful World of Carl Fung (1)
I love playing wargames. I love playing them as games. What might put me out of step with some wargame enthusiasts is that I tend not to critique wargames on a more mechanical and decision making basis and eschew discussion of simulation value.(2)
While I tend to think that aesthetic values have tended to broaden overtime, with even certain branches of eurogames accepting a wider range of aesthetic values. Whether this is true of the hobby as a whole or merely that part of the hobby represented by boardgamegeek, but my anecdotal observation would be that the importance of elegance in heavy Eurogame design is more muted than it used to be.
I have always been interested in the mechanical side of gaming, but by the quirky nature of psychology, I have also been really interested in wargames, over Eurogames in particular. I would like to think that is because wargames are great games qua games, but I think much of this depends on your aesthetics outlook.
This article isn’t an argument for wargames being great games. Noted wargame fan (and Eurogame producer) Uli Blenemann admitted in his Five Games for Doomsday interview (https://fivegamesfordoomsday.com/2018/12/31/uli-blenemann/) that wargames were terrible designs. I’m hopefully not throwing Blenemann under the bus by bringing this up.
I think Blenemann has a point though. If we conceive of aesthetic values as those being espoused by the Eurogame community, then wargames (often) are bad games. This is because they don’t necessarily emphasise elegance or put much stock in the design decisions with regard to complexity and detail traded off against the depth of those mechanics. So from that perspective, many (but not all) wargames may struggle to show their importance
This sort of thinking though is somewhat narrow. Why should we assume that only Eurogame aesthetics matter? One viewpoint that really highlights a completely different and authentic take on wargames aesthetics (which is much more inline with tradition) is that of Carl Fung.
Fung’s views are not in themselves particularly novel, but he does bring a particular insanity to wargame research that I particularly appreciate. Fung writes the fantastic blog:6892Hans and Carl Take of Nakatomi Plaza)
Fung is a historical research nut. In his blog he details the intricacies involved in trying to develop accurate orders of battle for wargames, design issues and anything else that strikes his fancy. One thing that strikes me about Fung is his uncompromising outlook in this respect.
In a few online discussions I’ve had with Fung on BGG, I’ve always noted his insistence on the importance of historical fidelity and his desire to eschew game mechanics to “fix” particular design aesthetics.
For example, in scenario 5.8 in Brazen Chariots (5.8) one of the maps is abstracted and Rommel disappears from time to time, random dice roll. The lack of a third map means that the commonwealth player has no real incentive to keep the road open from Tobruk to Bardia. In addition the way in which Rommel disappears can be pretty decisive in the game. For me a possible “fix” was to simply allocate victory points for various objectives including keeping the road open (and various other effects). This way you could maintain the game incentives that existed in the three map scenario (or at least approximate them).
Now I appreciate this is easy to say and it may not have worked, but Fung rejected this suggestion. As he articulated, the objective of both sides was Tobruk. Both sides had to deal with the implications of Rommel moving between Bardia and Tobruk. Reading between the lines a bit, I think what Fung is getting at is that did not have technical incentive to control the Bardia/Tobruk road outside of its operational function then the players should not be incentivised to take it, except as a means to an end. The Bardia/Tobruk road was not an end in and of itself. It was not the objective.
You can see an equally strong view in Fung’s criticism of Undaunted Normandy (https://boardgamegeek.com/blogpost/97659/undaunted-vs-daunte...).
Here Fung outlined:Quote:I want and like wargames to have a modicum of accuracy as this leads to the teaching element of history and wargames. My precept for designing is to exhaust the historical research so the guts of the wargame is along accurate lines. Whether or not the players understand or appreciate the accuracy is another matter, but its there carte blanche. If the design has different make ups for the US and German platoons and this leads to design issues, then I would at least look to resolve it to highlight the differences. It would also be nice to showcase the differences between the two so players would have different ways of operating when playing either side instead of having both sides act and behave similarly. This is not an overhanded way of teaching history but rather built into the game itself without really jamming it down the players' throats. In ASL, each nation's squads behave differently, and experienced players know how best to use each nation's strengths or weaknesses to win. Otherwise we have a generic platoon/squad/individual game under the guise of being a WWII game.
Fung is of course not alone in this outlook, but my intellectual engagement in the issue has certainly come through his writing. His unflinching insistence on historicity is central to particular wargame design aesthetics.
The Lack of Importance of Euro Design Aesthetics in Wargames
While Eurogames have obviously been influential on a crop of wargames in the last 15-20 years there are particular styles of games where this influence has been muted. Let us be frank, many of these are hex and counter games, especially of the WWII operational ilk.
One of the reasons I think these sorts of wargames tend to be more immune to modern game development is because they don’t face two issues:
Disability with respect to depth of decision making; and
The tolerance of wargame players.
If we look at the depth of decision making we can see right away that this isn’t an issue for many hex and counter games (although not all). This is because the sheer scale of such games tends to be large, especially in the operational sphere. This means every turn has many, many different possible outcomes, just based on sheer movement, let alone combat resolution. As a result the games are very heuristically focused in their decision making and there is no real need to focus on design depth. That is to say the power of scale plus complex interactions between pieces can keep even the most analytic gamer interested (from a sheer decision space mentality).
Obviously, there are exceptions, but I think this is certainly true of many “good” hex and counter games.
By contrast I think Eurogames, due to their lack of scale, have to be very careful in how they are designed. The fact that Eurogames are not shallow and are interesting to play is a testament to their designers. They work from necessarily narrow premises and in that sense are very “elegant”. In this sense Blenemann is correct. Once we remove the focus on elegance though, one can immediately see there is no problem with many hex and counter wargames from a pure “depth” perspective.
As a result, design aesthetics, for functional reasons, are not as geared towards the issue of depth, because by their very nature they are deep games, it is not a design challenge to create an interesting and intellectual game, to the same extent as many Euros. That isn’t to say this is a one way street. Even Operational Combat Series’ (OCS) has been pruned and simplified over many iterations of the rules. That said I don’t think the focus is quite the same, nor the design issues quite so intense as with Eurogames.
Even more than this of course wargamers will put up with detail and complexity. The fact they will work through a 50+ page rulebook, no matter how tightly written, tells us something about the nature of the gamers that are playing these games. The fact that component quality is not always quite as present in wargames and the importance of function, does tend to indicate differing values. This of course enables wargames to be what they are, but we should not forget that the market preferences here play a part.
What Can we Learn from Wargames, more generally?
I think what we can learn is there are diminishing returns when it comes to depth. At some point the pay off of more mechanisms and more complexity does little real work. Is Advanced Squad Leader generally deeper than OCS? Who really cares? I think where this can matter is at the simpler game end. So Euro designers have to worry about this proportionately more. Given that I think heavy euros have moved towards the more complex end of things, one might think that there is a point in designs where sufficient depth is reached and the focus can shift to other areas. Perhaps this is an obvious point, but the interesting point to consider is at what point do Eurogame aesthetic no longer entail? At what point should we move away from depth and towards stronger narratives or simpler games? Really, hasn’t the industry already done this?
What I’ve come to appreciate about Fung is his attention to detail and strong views on the historicity of wargames. That may not be my gig, but I think it a wholly rational response to wargames qua games. We don’t need to worry about complex wargames that focus on the minutiae of the historical events. I think much can be gained by stepping outside this, but there is much to be said with regard to games that don’t. The production of OCS, ASL, BCS, GOSS and the like is not enabled by an outlook that prioritises efficiency and elegance. We only get those games out of a culture and mindset that is different from a prevailing Eurogamer aesthetic.
I’m really happy to have both. When I’m honest about it, I would take any of the heavy wargames over most Euros, but that said I’d much prefer a world where we have both. Plurality here is king.
(1) I hate this sort of article. I”m not defining what wargame aesthetics are and it really isn’t much of a detailed look at the problems. This article talks in broad generalities that almost undoubtedly break down under close scrutiny. All I can do is admit that and move on. Part of me doing this blog is not getting too caught up in what I know is bad writing and bad arguments. Hopefully, I haven’t made the world too much of a worse place.
(2) This is only true to some extent, but my general focus has not been on simulation.
- [+] Dice rolls
Considerations of Class: Discursive Representation and Working Class Identities in the Modern Hobby Game Community
26 Oct 2021
Colin HunterNew Zealand
On the recent Essen podcasts from Five Games for Doomsday, Ben Maddox (Ben Maddox(benisace)Germany
DeutschlandIt's the journey not the destination.
In a discussion with a board gaming personality of some sort (my memory fails me and I’m far too lazy to re-listen to all 5 episodes again to find out), Maddox asked why have parts of the modern board game industry focused on representation with regard to gender, race and sexual identity, but not with regard to working class people? Put simply it was Maddox’s observation that even when the industry included people from less well represented groups in society, they were almost always at least middle class.
Link to Five Games for Doomsday Essen episodes:
I wanted to consider the reasons for this, if Maddox was indeed correct then why was there a lack of focus on class?
I should say from the beginning that Maddox frames the games industry as one centered around the Eurogame and those sorts of games featured as Essen. I think this is far too narrow a scope and often explicitly excludes many people from the hobby. This is understandable perhaps, but I mention to begin with that my discussion of the hobby will be unfortunately limited in this respect as well.
Class as Identity
While class at one form or another exists in all groupings (and of course people in particular) I think there is a conceptual gap between self identification of class within particular societies. By this I mean, bluntly, some people tend to have a strong identity of class as identity and that this relationship tends to depend on the society that person belongs to or identifies with.
For example, an English person might feel a strong sense of class identity due to the particulars of the society in which they grew up in. Class might even be said to be an essential element to one’s own identity in such circumstances. Potentially, someone from the US might not see class as an essential element of their identity. Afterall, the myth of the American dream might mean they don’t put an emphasis on economic and social class. This isn’t to say class exists in the former and not in the latter, but it might be something that certain people tend to group things on the basis of class and others do not based on their background.
It is also worth noting that the separability of class from race, culture or religion is not always easy. I do think that Maddox might see class as a constituent of identity, whereas others might see it as an accidental property.
This might seem to be a matter of what qualifies as identity and what does not, but whatever the case, I think one can understand that cultural factors might mean people put different importance on the nature of class.
Identity vs Descriptive Attribute
The modern tendency has been to see attributes as fundamental parts of the individual’s identity. This can be seen clearly in discussions of sexuality. It isn’t clear for example that same sex sexual practices in the past meant the same thing that they do today. What it means to be Queer is much more than simply engaging in non-straight sexual practice. People are freer today to define their own sexuality as a matter of their personal identity.
While same sex sexual practices are not new, the meaning we ascribe to them, as a society, are probably somewhat different than they were in the past. The point is that western societies of the last 50 to 60 years have begun to think of these things as strongly a matter of identity.
Identity has come to be synonymous with the authentic self. Therefore, acting against one’s identity is an exercise in bad faith of sorts. This has raised the stakes of oppression with regard to those attributes. While class to some may be of equal importance (and I think arguably should be), there are certainly sections of western societies that consider class a matter of personal wealth, something not part of one’s identity and easily(?) transcended. Dreams are free I guess.
It would be foolish to think that identity plays no role in the historic or even current treatment of people, but equally class, whether it is a matter of identity or not, surely impacts the nature of perspective put forward by content producers.
The board game hobby (at least the mainstream hobby game side) is a capitalist enterprise. Ultimately, we purchase games that are not cheap, take considerable time to learn and require a particular cultural capital to understand. Those games are produced within the confines of the market system and produced at scale for mass consumers.
There are considerable barriers to entry for those that cannot freely partake in a consumer market economy. This doesn’t mean that most people can’t play Carcassonne for example, but there are opportunity costs to deal with this. It must be harder to be culturally disconnected from mainstream hobby gaming than it is for middle class people to engage in it. This isn’t to say a person from a working class background can’t engage in that part of the hobby, but there are structural barriers to engagement.
This means there are less people from those backgrounds involved in the hobby. Given the time it takes to be involved professionally in the industry and the ability to have access to free time and education sufficient to build the cultural capital necessary to partake, it is hardly surprising that the first safe port for working class people is not hobby board games (although games and boardgames are of course staples of people of every class). There is an economic and social privilege associated with our hobby.
In particular, if we consider that a significant part of the modern hobby game experience is conspicuous consumption through the purchasing of products, it takes at least some wealth to engage in the hobby. This doesn’t mean that one can’t buy a single game and play that to death, but the cultural world around the hobby certainly encourages consumption. Can someone without those means feel part of that boardgaming culture? Is the person who plays Go every day really part of the same hobby as those that play games half a dozen times and move onto the next game? I don’t think they tend to be.
In essence the very consumerist and consumption orientation of the hobby creates its own class system whether we like it or not.
So was it Capitalism all along? The systemic market structures obfuscated the real challenge to its hegemony, the working class? I don’t know. There are undoubtedly elements of capitalistic interest here. That said I don’t think the sole cause of representation issues is merely a class struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, although this is not an unuseful lens to consider the problem from.
I think Maddox is clearly right that the voice of working class people needs to be felt in our industry. To be fair, it can be on occasion. That said, I can understand why well meaning people do not necessarily focus on class. However, If what we want is a more pluralistic set of viewpoints in the design of games then it hardly seems an imposition to think about the issue of class and representation.
I don’t think the focus on identity, per se, is the way forward. If we want a pluralistic view point in the industry, then we need different sorts of voices. This includes voices of the poor and of the working class. This isn’t to say the work that has gone on to include women, LGBTQIA+, different races and cultures is bad, far from it. Whether people consider their own class identity as important or not, the goal is surely pluralism. That being the case it doesn’t matter whether one considers class part of their identity or not, it matters that such backgrounds might offer new and novel ideas in the hobby.
So why pluralism? Well frankly, I think having different viewpoints makes the hobby more fun, more inclusive and more just. Even if we look at this from a narrow point of view and merely look at exciting games, I’m really excited by what is being generated from people of a diverse background and those who want to think about the hobby.
While I might love a game about the Battle of the Bulge, Medieval Farming or Mediterranean trade in the Renaissance, I'm much more excited about more diverse games and perspectives, whether it is Amabel Holland's This Guilty Land or The Vote: Suffrage and Suppression in America, Zenobia Award winners like Tyranny of Blood: India's Caste System Under British Colonialism, 1750-1947 or Tetsuya Nakamura's A Most Dangerous Time: Japan in Chaos, 1570-1584.
It seems it was the first episode on Essen in the interview with Michael Fox (Thanks Ben for doing my work for me). Link here to the episode: https://fivegamesfordoomsday.libsyn.com/essen-21-day-one
- [+] Dice rolls
Colin HunterNew Zealand
One of my favourite review writers is the indomitable Dan Thurot (Space-Biff). Earlier this year he posted an article entitled Talking About Games: Narrative and Exposition. The article can be found here:
I had originally thought I would write a response and discussion to the original piece. I might publish my thoughts about the general discussion later, but I decided I wanted to focus on the basis for the rest of the article.
The article in question is a relatively long exposition on the way in which we should think about and critique “narrative” games. The part I wanted to really look at was the first section of the article.
Board Games as things that are played
The writer advances the proposition that when we are talking in critical terms about board games we should focus on when the game is being played as that is when the game is most wholly itself.
The writer states:Quote:But we don’t speak critically about games on shelves. We speak critically about games as objects of play. Because when we think “board game,” we don’t think about a box that contains a rulebook and some components. We think about the processes of play. We think about the actions we take. The overall structure of the game’s phases and turns. The feel of slapping a chip against cardboard or sliding a not-so-miniature into range of a vulnerable opponent. We remember when a game made us feel good, or when it made us feel bad, or when we became so bored that we dozed off during Geoff’s turn.
As the writer concludes:Quote:So is a board game more of a board game when we’re playing it? It must be. And that wholeness of feeling has everything to do with something intangible, because the rules are not physical objects contained within the game, but guidelines and actions we undertake at the prompting of the game’s designers.I think there is a lot to unpick at this stage.(1) This may seem an innocuous premise, but I’m not sure it entirely bears out.
Thurot’s view seems to be a very Aristotelian way of thinking about board games. That is to say that a thing is defined by its purpose. The purpose of a board game is to be played, therefore any critique must focus on play. I have a real sympathy for Aristotelian metaphysics. As a private law lawyer I think that natural law and in particular supported by Aristotelian metaphysics is remarkably useful in understanding basic principles of private law. That said, it is also a highly artificial beast. I don’t pretend that law is revealing any truth (let alone Truth) about the world, it is a systemic mechanical game that we regulate society and the mind with. Understanding the power of Aristotle, doesn’t lead us to the conclusion that he was right.
Equally, while I don’t necessarily disagree with the article’s argument, I do think we should note that there are other critical forms, especially more modern ones that would take exception to the idea that the critical space for media is limited to the playing of a game. Regardless of when we might think that the board game is at its most board gamey, the fact is our consumption of the board game is influenced by many, many things: our backgrounds, the cultural context it is consumed, the meaning of signs, its role in capitalist institutions, our roles as consumers, etc… The point is, that there is a cost to narrowing the scope of discussion to the board game qua gaming experience. I am not against this in principle (there is clearly something to be gained too), but if we really are the critic, surely there are other aesthetic theories available.
The writer’s own views don’t seem to be consistent with this. As the writer stated on a recent Five Games for Doomsday interview the game for the writer is in the critique, not the playing precisely (https://fivegamesfordoomsday.com/2021/10/18/dan-thurot/). Isn’t the critique embodied elsewhere than in the playing of the game, isn’t it in the reflection on the game? It is a sort of Sartrean pre-cogito. One must first have the ability to question, in order to reflect on play. If this is true then the heart of the critique is not the process of play, but the reflection on that process of play.
Some of the writer’s best work is when he critiques the meaning of games qua cultural artefacts. Take for example the writer’s excellent work looking at Pax Emancipation (a game about liberating slaves, kind of). The full review can be viewed here: https://spacebiff.com/2019/01/26/pax-emancipation/
The writer notes:Quote:Parliament’s idea of acceptable liberty for America includes oppressive legislation, while the Evangelists don’t mind hooded vigilantes keeping blacks in their place. Playing counterpoint, the green Philanthropist faction always wants to remove every barrier, because unfettered businessmen obviously have everybody’s best interests at heart. This is, after all, a game by Phil Eklund.This is a wonderful analysis of the moral bankruptcy present in Eklund’s ideology, but as a player of the game it is the title on a small chit (and probably some interminable footnotes in the rulebook). As a player it is at best peripheral, at least for me, to the playing (and even narrative) of the game. More to the point, how is this about the “processes of play”? The process of play in Pax Emancipation is about removing abstract barriers. On reflection and engaging in critique, I of course consider what the game is saying, but the level of abstraction present in the game, I’ve never really felt much of anything for the titles on the barriers.
Perhaps this is my own failing, but I do think there is something unsaid here about the nature of the Critique vs the nature of play.
Let me say that despite this, the writer is not necessarily wrong, but I want to try and reframe the discussion. For me the issue is not a descriptive one. It isn’t that we can simply look into the world and see what part of the board game is the most board game-y.
Rather, it is a normative choice, because it is a choice of framing. We can consider the importance of the context of a board game. We can look at its framing. These are all interesting and powerful perspectives. The focus on the playing is of course a powerful tool for the design. As the writer notes later in their essay he has helped and wants to help designers in the way they consider narrative games.
Perhaps that is a pragmatic response, but as a critic, I do wonder about the value of critique that seeks to focus on game process and minimise the other things. I think Thurot is at his best when he talks about the other things. Maybe the focus on narrative board games should be about encouraging disparate and pluralistic perspectives on narrative.
Encouraging pluralistic aesthetic standards, not singular answers to board game design, I think is the more emancipatory act and the view we should prefer as critics. Maybe what we need is not a shared vocabulary, but disparate voices.
This is not to say the writer's article is worthless. There is much to be taken from it, but I do think that there is also more we can do.
(1) It is also worth noting that this view of the board game is quite similar to the nature of the board game qua art articulated by Ben Maddox in this video, I’ve commented elsewhere on that, but may write further on it.
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23 Oct 2021
Colin HunterNew Zealand
Kingmaking is an issue near and dear to my heart. It raises a conundrum that often is seen as a real challenge to games. Many games are criticised for merely being about kingmaking. In this post I am going to look at the game Oath: Chronicles of Empire and Exile and the way in which its scriptor’s views have influenced the game through its metatexts.
For those unfamiliar with the game it can be found here: Oath: Chronicles of Empire and Exile
The game itself is a sort of conflict game of sorts. Players struggle for rulership of the realm. Its seemingly novel attribute is that every play affects the board state of the next game. It is suggested that the winner of the previous game goes on to play the ruling faction in the next game (although this isn’t a rule).
Oath often ends with significant kingmaking decisions. Some of the players on the final turn have no way of winning, but they do have a way of ensuring that one of the other players can win. This is of course true of many games, but be that as it may, the scriptor of Oath (Cole Wehrle) has tended to consider this a feature of the game.
Many gamers really dislike this sort of experience. They can tend to feel that the game ends in an arbitrary manner and feels unfair. I am not particularly moved by these sorts of arguments. For me games with more than two players are categorical games that involve some sort of kingmaking. Whether it is the last decision you make or the one before, some decision you make will probably decide the game for a third party. You always make kings, when you don’t win.
Oath’s scriptor has clearly considered the implications of the importance of kingmaking. This from the game’s design diary:Quote:One of the biggest payoffs to this approach happens in the end-game. Oath is a very interactive game with more than it's share of kingmaking. But, within the context of a campaign game, exactly how a game ends will have a direct impact on the kinds of choices that will face players in the following game. That alone often provides players a hook into thinking about the next game and trying to connect one play to another. How a player wins is more important than who wins. A sorta amazing thing happens after you get a few games in a campaign where players will start changing their frame of reference to the metagame rather than the individual match. If they love the game-state that's been created, they will look for ways to win that allow it to be preserved. If they hate it they will try to tear it down.
Even more explicitly is this video (although pre-oath) on the virtues of kingmaking as a thing in games (related to the scriptor’s previous game):
If we simplify the scriptor’s point here it is that what matters is how you win, not who wins or at least that should be our normative ideal. The result is a gaming experience that one might say centres around narrative, metaphor and the literary, rather than values of rationality, categorical analysis or finite ideas.
In the video above Wehrle considers that the ideal of fairness is a modern phenomenon in gaming and that it has been the advent and popularity of certain modern aesthetic ideals that have weaned us away from the notion of kingmaking as a normatively acceptable thing.
So is this right?
I tend to agree with the scriptor in many respects. The idea that fairness as an ideal is the “be all and end all” of gaming aesthetics or even experience is arbitrary at best and deeply limiting at worst. In fact, I suspect that my philosophic outlook and Wehrle’s are rather similar.
There is a point though that I take umbrage with. At one level disruption of the prevailing narrative can be a powerful tool for normative change within groupings of people. One has to challenge the very base aesthetic assumptions to overturn our unsaid and possibly oppressive views. The idea that “fairness” is the ultimate end, does exclude particular kinds of games from consideration within a canon of good games. The people that enjoy and live other sorts of experiences become the cultural exile, the other. There are psychological and cultural ramifications for such things, but is the way forward, really back?
There is no magic circle of gaming. We don’t really stop gaming at one definitive point and start at another. Metagame is a thing. Even the most well meaning of us almost certainly engage in it from time to time. While I think the scriptor and I might agree about that, I think there are some issues that are being unsaid.
I recoil a bit from the idea that we would not give primacy to the Other. That is, we should put the Other ahead of ourselves, so far as it is just. What I think the objection to arbitrary kingmaking is that it fails to do justice to the Other.
Yes there is no magic circle, but there is respect for the Other. That means, at the very minimum, that we should act in good faith. That is that we should at least try to obey the cultural norms of the table, if they are just. Is it more just for me to act capriciously where possible? Is it more just for me to start the game with a vendetta against another player? Is it more just for me to arbitrarily decide who wins from the outset of the game? The answer is of course there will be hard cases, but in general aren’t most of these easily answered no. Those where a player really can’t do anything to give them a chance at winning and in such case justice has no real demand on anyone, but outside that case is it really doing justice to my friends to treat them in bad faith?
The magic circle may not be real and ethical obligations may be arbitrary, but that said, don’t I owe my best efforts to make good? I can’t see that sitting down with my friends and engaging in callus and capricious behaviour really adds anything to the experience of gaming. Gaming is ultimately a cooperative enterprise even if only one person wins. We need mental fictions and so far as we can acknowledge they are not rested upon the absolute, I’m not convinced they really are inferior to outright ethical wrong. If there is no magic circle that means gamers the game has no beginning or end, then surely there is no magic circle that means all is truly permitted. Good faith isn’t a bad rule of thumb.
The argument is in oath that we should make the kingmaking decisions more meaningful by making bargains at the end and realising that the campaign game keeps incentives going. I don’t think this is really an ethical thing. There is no rule in the game that provides any incentive for me to deal or negotiate. One of the things that I consider the most interesting about negotiation games is when they involve analysis of relative board position. This requires some mental construct on which to hang the value of things. This is the victory condition/s normally.
If I cannot win via victory conditions or there is no conceptual understanding of game end then there is no analysis for me to undertake. Yes that game end might be an arbitrary construct, but it is one that enables me to do justice to the Other. It means I can more easily start the next game without capriciousness and in good faith.
Maybe good faith is a bad thing. Maybe there are social norms to be overturned here and yes the fact “fairness” is emphasised is a problem. Be that as it may, I’m not sure that throwing our hands up is the answer either, or at least not necessarily.
I appreciate that certain groups will tend to like different methods and to some extent what people want to do is fine. However, are my friends wrong in wanting to not fall down the rabbit whole and simply normalise a seemingly worse normative state? I’m not so sure.
Oath works anyway. The scriptor does not tell us how we must play the game, nor must we adhere to the scriptor’s will. His contributory metatext of course will influence certain readers, but whether it should matter or not is hardly fixed. We can play the game in good faith, accepting that there are times that the winner will be decided by the arbitrary decision of a third party. That is life and that is gaming. I agree with Wehrle that it is the ride and the method of achieving a winner and not who wins, but that does not lead me to the scriptor’s conclusions.
So yes life and gaming can be non-totalising, concepts can overwhelm description, but that does not lead us to a sort of simplistic nihilism. No, it mandates our love for the Other.
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