30 Sep 2016

The Rumpus Room
San Il Defanso / Nate Owens

"I write all of this stuff because games are just that important to me. I think about them a lot and I am actively trying to raise the level of discourse when it comes to this hobby."

The broad-view, analytical, unpretentious: The Rumpus Room is home to some of the best writing on board games that I have yet found. Sharp critiques of trends in the hobby. Reviews that go beyond describing a game or its effect on you, and trying to get to grips with the why. For a hobby filled with educated fans there seem to be few writers who tackle their subjects with much ambition - Nate Owens, as the quote above indicates, is one of the precious few.

In the spirit of sharing and celebrating the work of good critics, here are some of his articles that I would call his best:

Why Video Review Suck, And How To Fix Them
"To start off with, I hate that most of the video content in the hobby is in the form of reviews. Reviews are a tiny part of what’s possible with the board gaming press. They are important, yes. But the most thought-provoking material is an idea or discussion about how we relate to other players, or about consumerism in the hobby, or even just talking about a particular series of games that was cool. Unfortunately, video isn’t simple. It takes time to produce and edit, and so most content producers are satisfied to simply churn out a 10-minute video about the latest whatnot. Often, even these are limited in scope. It’s usually a guy sitting in front of his game shelf. He introduces the game, spends 8 minutes explaining the rules, and then 2 minutes giving an opinion. It’s the 8-minute explanation that truly galls me, especially when I’m already familiar with the game. Invariably I will skip to the part where they give their opinion, usually in a way that suggests they just walked in front of the camera and started talking. 
First of all, I think it’s vital to inject some visual inventiveness into how videos are shot. Do we need to see one more shot of someone standing in front of their game shelf? The straight-on poorly-lit shot is not one I need to see again. It’s here that some film-making chops would probably serve someone well. Robert Florence had a flare for changing it up when he produced Downtime Town videos. Those were videos that looked fun. And for crying out loud, does the rules explanation need to be a pair of hands hovering above a pile of components?"

Heroes and Wonders - Mare Nostrum Review
"What’s striking about Mare Nostrum is how lean the rules are. There is nothing there that isn’t necessary, and at first glance it feels under-designed. Certainly that was the initial response on Boardgame Geek back in 2003. The different civilizations all are distinct with their own strengths and geographical advantages, some of which aren’t evident until you’ve played several games. Greece was a big sticking point for some who felt they were especially vulnerable to attacks from a belligerent Rome. I’m not one to often comment on balance issues, but anyone who is griping about the balance in Mare Nostrum has not played it very much. The real issue is that the game doesn’t make any effort to balance itself. There is no catch-up that will help the guy in last place and hold back the leader. The players have to take it upon themselves to hold each other back, and if that’s not something that sounds fun then you will hate Mare Nostrum, because that’s basically the whole flow of the game. Pay attention, use all of the tools to hold back the winner, and sneak into that win by yourself. It requires a good five games before it begins to come together, which would be a deal-breaker if the game were more complex. 
In theory this is a eurogame, but it feels like no other eurogame I’ve ever played. It absorbed all of the good lessons of European design, the threaded turns, constant player involvement, and manageable playtime, but it’s a design without a safety net. It trusts the players to figure things out on their own, based not on some strategy hardwired into the rules but on what the other players are doing. It is truly wonderful to see the game unfold, both while you’re playing it and from session to session. There are so few rules to keep in mind, but there is so much to consider, and you consider those things as a group. It’s risky for two players to go after the leader, because that often will mean that another player will have an opening. Building a wonder is almost always a good idea if you can manage it, but it usually taps you out of resources for a whole turn. Resources are limited and every one counts, so even the status quo of establishing borders and hunkering down isn’t sustainable. Someone will always rise up and need to be dealt with, and it is done with more than military might. It involves agreements, promises, and threats."

Board Gaming's Missing History
"I don’t mean to say that there’s no actual history there. Obviously there is. I do mean that we have a shocking lack of interest in what has come before. Although the hobby is around 40 years old, it remains very difficult to understand the context of our past. Most gamers possess a saddening lack of perspective about a hobby that has been going on well before many of them were aware. 
I’m not sure where we get this dearth of perspective. At least part of it is due to the generally unprofessional atmosphere that has always been a part of board gaming. Basic things like contracts are so murky that people often have no idea who has the rights to some out-of-print titles. It’s not hard to see how details and anecdotes have slipped through the cracks. In addition, the board-gaming community is so tied to the internet that it’s hard to research any details that happened before the internet became the key driving force of the hobby. Boardgame Geek only goes back to 2000, and many gamers seem to regard that as the cut-off date, where the Dark Ages ended and the Golden Age began."

I'm Tired of Campaign Games
"The other tonic to campaign games has been one that is, ironically, an even bigger commitment: Dungeons and Dragons. I’ve been working through a campaign with some of my best friends using the fifth edition rules, and it has made me a believer. It is still extremely challenging to find the time and energy for everyone to play, but unlike campaign board games, here the effort is absolutely worth it. No matter what anyone says, this is OUR adventure. Our DM has created it for us, but she couldn’t have foreseen us doing some of the things we’ve done, like when I managed to steal a magic mask from a nothic in a dark room without ever having to enter combat. It’s something special that belongs to us. It took a lot of preparation and effort, but it’s so rewarding. 
Details like that put to shame anything that can be generated by a board game, because board games are not really designed to tell set stories. They are designed to generate their own narratives on the fly, not to impose one outside of the framework of gameplay. There’s nothing really wrong with campaign games in terms of design, and indeed some have done really well with this. I like how the Pathfinder game basically abstracts the whole thing into a Dominion-level kind of card game, and Pandemic Legacy’s impact has been undeniable. But even the best of the genre still feels like its struggling against the medium to me."
Keep up the great work, Nate!

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