Famous Critics Dissect Boardgames
Benjamin Keightley
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Sometimes we become so comfortable in our community that we miss high-level discussion of our hobby elsewhere. I hope here to collect some of these writings, many of which took quite some work to uncover. The critics and philosophers you will hear from below are (or were) all boardgame enthusiasts. Sadly, mass media such as The New Yorker doesn't necessarily respond well to serious criticism of the boardgame industry, and many writers have since repurposed their efforts into self-plagarizing articles about pop culture.

A bit of Lexis-Nexis digging reveals the original sources for many of these pieces, and I will share some of that with you below. Keep in mind that I have abridged the original texts, as even these shortened versions are likely to strain readers' patience. Enjoy.
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1. Board Game Designer: Reiner Knizia
RPG Designer: Reiner Knizia
Benjamin Keightley
United States
New York
New York
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In July of 2002, Dale Peck slammed Rick Moody's memoir "The Black Veil" in The Atlantic Monthly. Few are aware that this piece has been retooled from the original, a scathing critique of the hobby's most prolific designer. The first two paragraphs follow.

Reiner Knizia is the worst designer of his generation.

I apologize for the abruptness of this declaration, its lack of nuance, of any meaning beyone the intuitive; but as I made my way through Knizia's oeuvre during the past few months I was unable to come up with any other starting point for a consideration of his accomplishment. One of those starting points was this: "Reiner Knizia is a lot of things, but he is not actually dumb." This was an attempt at charity, and though I still think that it's true enough, I don't think that it matters; at any rate, his intelligence does not make up for the badness of his games. Another attempt: "In his breakthrough title Tigris and Euphrates, Reiner Knizia evinces a troubling fascination with adolescent sexual organs (particularly the incredible importance of those famous menstrual/red tiles) that is partially explained in his latest design, Blue Moon City, a so-called 'area-control game with a ludicrously phallic "obselisk."'" Again, the observation strikes me as correct. The problem here was in assuming that what most readers think of as legitimate control over a game's outcome has any role in a Knizia project beyond giving his luck-filled mathematical puzzles something to wrap itself around, the way a vine will wrap itself around the nearest thing to hand, be it trellis, tree, or trash.
 
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2. Board Game: Revolution: The Dutch Revolt 1568-1648 [Average Rating:7.32 Overall Rank:1909]
Board Game: Revolution: The Dutch Revolt 1568-1648
Benjamin Keightley
United States
New York
New York
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Nick Hornby, author and ex-music critic for The New Yorker, published what was ostensibly a review of Radiohead's critically-acclaimed "Kid A" in October 2000. I have learned that this was merely a facade, a rough draft of sorts for his treatise on Francis Tresham's "Revolution: The Dutch Revolt 1568-1648." Below is an excerpt from his latest draft, which was never published. I have it on good authority that Steve "Ward" Bachman has been blackmailing Hornby to keep the piece unpublished. Suffice it to say, it is not a kind article. Two choice paragraphs are reprinted below.

Who knows what earned Francis Tresham his huge audience? One could argue that it was the longer, chancier game of "Advanced Civilization," but it seems just as likely that it was the more straightforward "Civilization" that really connected. Whatever it was, Tresham now has a fervent audience who will give the designer all the license he needs. We have been served plenty of notice to the effect that Tresham is bored with his enviable facility for designing procedural and well-structured games; in various interviews, the man has warned us that "Revolution" would be markedly different from its predecessors, and apparently all sorts of blips and splodges and squeaks, fragments of a bellicose work in progress, have been emanating from game blogs and even the 18xx Yahoo! group.

It comes as something of a relief, then, when you put "Revolution" onto the table and see the austere (and beautifully illustrated) map of the Netherlands, promising a sweet, comforting Turn 0. "Hey! I can handle experimentalism!" you think, but your confidence is immediately knocked flat by the contents of BGG's forum, "Rules Questions," which consists mostly of the lines "WILL SOMEBODY PLEASE EXPLAIN OVERFLOW" and "WHERE DOES THE MONEY PIECE COME FROM WHEN THE HUGUENOTS INTERCEPT THE SPANISH TREASURY???" Turn 0 is an inconsequential piece of puttering around with pieces--forty-five minutes of abbreviated rules and assymetrical setups. "6.7 Water Beggars" is an unpleasant free-jazz workout, with a discordant priority stack squalling over a studiedly crude resolution method. Only once in the design, I think, does Tresham come close to creating anything that electrifies in the way that great chunks of the previous two titles do: "6.14 Movement Within Provinces" is a twitchy, hypnotic phase that you can imagine twenty-third-century boardgame enthusiasts with two heads and green skin still praising on their twenty-third-century message boards. A whole game of that and "Revolution" could have been something-something you wouldn't want to dig out too often, true, but something strikingly ominous.
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3. Board Game: Monopoly [Average Rating:4.38 Overall Rank:20673]
Board Game: Monopoly
Benjamin Keightley
United States
New York
New York
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David Foster Wallace is most famous for his 1000+ page novel Infinite Jest. He is also quite the cultural critic. When his review of Monopoly didn't attract the attention of any major publication, he seems to have (as usual) abandoned restraint. He sloppily jerry-rigged the essay into a review of Tracy Austin's mass-market autobiography. Here is some of the original.

This breathtakingly insipid design can maybe help us understand both the seduction and the disappointment that seem to be built into the mass-market boardgame. Almost uniformly poor as games, these licensed "Monopoly"s sell incredibly well; that's why there are so many of them. And they sell so well because the licensed stories and cities seem to promise something more than the regular old Atlantic Avenue and Park Place.

The naivete on display throughout this title is doubly confusing. On the one hand, there's little sign in the designer of anything like the frontal-lobe activity required for outright deception. On the other, Magie's ignorance of her game's grittier realities seems literally incredible. Random examples from media interviews. When she sees a player "tank" a 1988 game to make time for late-night television and uninterrupted drinking, Magie "couldn't believe it.... I had never played with anyone who threw a game before, so it took me a turn and a half to realize what was happening." This even though game-tanking had been widely and publicly reported as a dark consequence of skyrocketing boredom and superior designs for at least the eighty-five years since Monopoly's publication.
 
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4. Board Game Publisher: Rio Grande Games
Board Game Publisher: Rio Grande Games
Benjamin Keightley
United States
New York
New York
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Finally, and most shockingly, mega-cynic Theodor Adorno didn't get his start waxing poetic about the 'culture industry.' No, it was about the boardgame industry. Reader beware: there is some damning stuff below.

The boardgame industry intentionally integrates its consumers from above. To the detriment of both it forces together the spheres of "Euro" and "American" design, separated for decades. The seriousness of European-style design is destroyed in speculation about its efficacy; the trashiness of the American-stye perishes with the civilizational constraints imposed on the rebellious resistance inherent within it as long as social control was not yet total. Thus, although the boardgame industry undeniably speculates on the conscious and unconscious state of the thousands towards which it is directed, the gamers are not primary, but secondary, they are an object of calculation; an appendage of the machinery. The customer is not king, as the boardgame industry would have us believe, not its subject but its object. The very word 'elegance,' specially honed for the boardgame industry, already shifts the accent onto harmless terrain.

[...]

[T]hose characteristics which originally stamped the transformation of boardgaming into a commodity are maintained in this process. More than anything in the world, the boardgame industry has its ontology, a scaffolding of rigidly conservative basic mechanisms which can be gleaned, for example, from the commercial American games of the early-to-mid nineteenth century. What parades as progress in the boardgame industry, as the incessantly new which it offers up, remains the disguise for an eternal sameness; everywhere the changes mask a skeleton which has changed just as little as the profit motive itself since the time it first gained its predominance over BoardGameGeek.com.
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5. Board Game: Wargame Design [Average Rating:7.31 Unranked]
Board Game: Wargame Design
Cole Wehrle
United States
St. Paul
Minnesota
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Though perhaps not entirely intentional, it should be noted that Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus did in fact predict the tragedy of the wargamer (among other, more significant, cultural movements).

“Trapped between the two poles of political sovereignty [Amerigames and Eurogames], the man of war seems outmoded, condemned, without a future, reduced to his own fury, which he turns against himself”



 
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