Tag Archives: monopoly

Games Britannia and the great global gaming myth [UPDATED]

Benjamin Woolley’s BBC4 series Games Britannia has been a tantalising documentary thus far. For a political gamer such as myself, much of the first two episodes have been meat and drink. I have to admit to not knowing that Snakes and Ladders was adapted from an Indian game called Moksha Patamu which was all about karma and enlightenment and many of his insights are truly fascinating. To the surprise of no-one who reads this blog, I was delighted that it went into so much depth about how Monopoly formed from Elizabeth Magie’s Landlord’s Game, itself designed to educate the public about the need for land value taxation.

But after its section on Monopoly, this week’s episode started to lose its momentum. Cluedo rightly got name checked, but it quickly moved onto a narrative that I just don’t think is accurate. That is, that all the British games companies got bought up by Hasbro, the British games industry died a death and that only British games of note since the 1950s are a game called Kensington and the infamous War On Terror.

The most aggregious aspect of this narrative is that it completely ignores Games Workshop, now a publicly listed company and one which owns a shop in every major British city and town (as well as numerous outlets worldwide). Like a lot of gamers of a certain age, GW is something I feel quite ambivalent about as it seems to be more about making money than producing good games. But its empire, while not as vast as Hasbro’s, is undeniable, and now includes a significant number of computer games, novels and licensed boardgames (ironically, the best GW games aren’t actually published by them these days).

Quite why this company has managed to grip the imaginations of so many (mostly) adolescent boys for two generations is surely worthy of exploration. Yet the best Woolley could do was interview co-founder Steve Jackson (presumably we’ll be hearing more from Steve in the third episode which focuses on computer games and he gets to wax lyrical about Lara Croft – d’oh! Got mixed up between Steve and Ian Livingstone there) and show some old footage from a Games Day in 1982. This is a global leader and deserved better treatment, but it seemed to be a victim of a pre-formatted narrative.

The other aspect only touched upon, is the renaissance of boardgames over the past decade. Not in the UK, and not in the US, but in Germany. This gives a lie to the other part of Woolley’s narrative that simply doesn’t add up: games aren’t all US brands marketed around the world in the year 2009. In Germany, games like Settlers of Catan are huge – as big as Scrabble and Monopoly – and home grown. During the height of Lords of the Rings mania in the early noughties, you could find copies of the Lord of the Rings boardgame in every bookshop. Desgined by a German, Reiner Knizia, he is one of the world’s most successful game designers. And he is English by adoptive country. Surely the man deserved some credit. With no disrespect to the War on Terror guys meant at all, he is certainly a more important figure than them.

Reiner Knizia aside, the whole phenomena of why Germany has become such a focus of innovation is surely worth some study, as is their choice of subject matter. Unlike the US and UK tendency towards militaristic games, the Germans focus on concepts such as trade and economic development. And unlike Monopoly, which takes hours to play and leaves people out of the game twiddling their thumbs (if they haven’t already overturned the board in a fit of rage), German games are much more inclusive and concise. If you are going to do a documentary about the faltering fortunes of the British games industry in the 21st century, it seems ludicrous not to contrast it with the very different direction of the industry in our main 21st century adversary.

Germans don’t get completely ignored; the programme includes library footage of the massive Essen Games Fair in 2008 and Woolley does at least mention that a lot of games are designed by Germans these days. But this is a major and misleading gap in the narrative, and a very frustrating one. It is one thing to make a documentary about Britain’s gaming history; another to wallow in Anglo-Savon chauvanism. Will tomorrow’s episode rectify this? If it is to be all about computer games, I somehow doubt it.

UPDATE: Having seen the third and final part of Games Britannia, I stand a tiny bit corrected. This episode opens with the founding of Games Workshop, although it doesn’t explore anything that happened after 1976. It was a fascinating episode, rightly celebrating the UK computer game industry, and well worth watching. I still maintain however that there is an important gap in the narrative.

The Guardian has validated my lifestyle choice!

An interesting article in the Guardian today about the revival of boardgames. There is however something a little amiss in this story, in that it seems to assume that the health of a hobby is based on how well Britain is doing at an international level, rather than how many people are simply playing.

It also has a preoccupation with ‘traditional’ boardgames. Although it recognises the Euro-game movement in general, and Settlers of Catan specifically, it seems to measure ‘success’ by the popularity of games that granny would have known.

Let’s be clear: a lot of ‘traditional’ games such as Monopoly or Cluedo are, compared to some of the new games that have been emerging, crap. They are largely luck-based and a few good throws of the dice at the start of the game can set you up for the remainder. In the case of Monopoly – at least in its original form the Landlord’s Game – that was the whole point. Diplomacy, very popular a generation ago, takes forever to play and has the added problem of working by excluding players, thereby limiting its appeal to people who are prepared to spend a weekend twiddling their thumbs. Classic games such as Chess and Go don’t have these flaws, but they are predominantly two-player games. By contrast, most Euro-games combine the skill element and ‘fairness’ of Chess with the accessibility of Monopoly. It’s no wonder that they are slowly increasing in popularity.

You also have to question if this indicates anything particularly new. Hobby games such as Warhammer or Bloodbowl had a big following in my youth and continued in popularity throughout the 90s, leading to stories in the financial pages about Games Workshop being a British success story (at least until a miscalculation about the continued success of Lords of the Rings brand caused them to take a tumble). They may not have had the respectability of Monopoly, and some of us might rather resent the business model works by effectively forcing you to buy expensive miniatures, but they encouraged awkward kids to socialise and combined it with the very British schoolboy pursuit of modeling (albeit painting orcs instead of spitfires). The collectable card game phenomenon continued throughout the 90s with Magic: The Gathering and later Pokemon being tremendous successes worldwide. These two combined traditional gameplay with mass-consumerism (there are 458 results when you Google ‘“kiddie crack” pokemon‘).

So it’s too simplistic to say that tabletop gameplay is making a comeback at the expense of computer games. What seems to be happening, rather, is that the nature of the boardgames industry itself is changing. Games Workshop, for example, have just announced the return of an old favourite Talisman and have already returned to roleplaying. The Euro-gaming boom has lead to a renewal in boardgaming across the Atlantic. Much of this success seems to be fueled by the internet, which is proving effective at both spreading the word about games themselves globally (BoardGameGeek being the exemplar of this) and putting players in touch with fellow gamers. Far from people eschewing technology in favour of ‘tradition’, technology itself appears to be fueling this revival. Indeed, technology was at least partly responsible for keeping Chess in the headlines 20-30 years ago as programmers worked to develop a computer that could beat the best Grand Masters.

Thus far, it has been a very behind the scenes revival in the UK (Germany, by all accounts, is a very different story), but I suspect that things like Catan are about to go very mainstream indeed. One of the biggest factors slowing down this trend is the failure of anyone to produce a Euro-game in the same price bracket as a standard set of Scrabble. Basic Catan is £10 more expensive in this country compared to Scrabble (£25 compared to £15), and you get a lot less in the box (this is particularly piss-taking when you consider the English language version is imported from the US which has a low exchange rate at the moment). There’s a killing to be made by a company willing to take a punt.