I’ve been listening to Mark Johnson’s Boardgames To Go again, and it’s got me thinking. His most recent show was a discussion with Greg Pettit about whether or not any of “our” modern boardgames have a shot at becoming real classics along the lines of Chess, Go, Monopoly, or Scrabble. So, of course, I’ve got to chime in with my thoughts about the whole whing-ding.
The first thing I want to discuss are the five criteria or characteristics that Greg identified in games that had achieved “classic” status. So here they are:
- Replayability – as commonly used, the game has enough variety or depth that it doesn’t get old very quickly
- Availability – both in terms of how easy it is to find/buy the game and how far it has penetrated into the awareness of our society
- Accessibility – easy to learn and quick to get playing
- Adaptability – the game can be changed/adapted to different target groups or can be expanded for additional replayability or increased depth
- Relevance – in terms of reflecting real-world conditions or teaching important skills
I totally buy replayability, availability, and accessibility, but the other two are too much of a stretch. Instead, I think that I would include:
- Opportunity – Outside of the qualities of the game itself, societal circumstances were “just right” for the game to become popular. The obvious example of this is Monopoly, which was created during the Great Depression, had a relevant theme to the time, and because it was a cheap entertainment alternative, was able to gain widespread popularity very quickly.
- Survivability – Classic games have outlived other games from their same time. For whatever reason (probably all the reasons above), these games managed to achieve a level of recognition and cultural status that pushed them past being merely a fad and into becoming a cultural icon. Therefore, they persist.
And the interesting thing about these two characteristics is that I don’t think that either one necessarily speaks to the objective quality of the game itself. I mean, when you look at the nuts and bolts of something even as classic as Chess, is it really any better a game than something similar but more modern, such as Hive or one of the Gipf series? If Hive had been created somewhere in the 12th-15th centuries, would people all over the world be studying it, writing books about it, and playing in huge international tournaments of it? In my thinking, Hive has just as much replayability and probably more accessibility (and I think it’s more fun), but it clearly has not had the history (survivability) or the opportunities to expand in availability that Chess has had.
To Answer the Question…
So to answer the overarching question that was first posed in the podcast… No, I don’t think that any of these modern boardgames has a chance at becoming a “classic” in the same way that Backgammon, Chess, Go, Monopoly, Risk, or Scrabble has. And the main reason I think so is because I just don’t see the opportunity being available for any of them to become cultural icons. Right now, we live in a culture that is defined by change and technology, and the general population is just not going to give consistent time and interest to any one specific antiquated form of entertainment for long enough for it to happen. And yes, I did just call my beloved hobby an “antiquated form of entertainment” because that’s how most of our society sees it (and personally, I prefer to believe that they think of it as “antiquated” rather than “childish”). Despite how much I sincerely wish it were not true, the billion-dollar industry of video games is far more influential in the world than is the niche boardgame industry, and even within it I don’t see any one specific game becoming a real “classic” because of the push in technology that makes everything before it obsolete within a few years.
On the other hand, I do see a few games making inroads into the collective awareness of the greater culture. Specifically, they are the “big three” gateway games: The Settlers of Catan, Ticket to Ride, and (as much as I hate it) Carcassonne. All three of these have accessibility, replayability, and adaptability, and are beginning to push the availability characteristic as well. And while I think that many more people will learn to play them and enjoy them over the next 10 or 20 years, I just can’t see them gaining the notoriety and penetration of these “classics”, where even people who have never played them before are aware of what they’re about.
Mark and Greg also had some trouble defining exactly what “Classic” means. Beyond the first definition discussed above, they also made often comparisons to various forms of art, which in general draws a lot more from the inherent quality of the work rather than from the external forces surrounding it. Of course, that’s probably not really true, but it is at least more true to say that the Mona Lisa survived and became a classic because of its quality than it could be said of Monopoly (which doesn’t necessarily suck altogether, but is certainly weaker than many games that have come after it).
And in addition to classic meaning just the “best” works, it can also refer to works or games that are revolutionary in some way. So even if it never becomes popular in the dociety as a whole, something like El Grande (even if I personally don’t care a lot about it) could still be considered a classic because it pretty much launched the whole area control scoring mechanic.
Reframing the Discussion in a Time Capsule
WIth all the trouble that Mark and Greg had in settling on a definition of “Classic”, they finally settled on a question that they were both interested in and happy to answer. Essentially, the question was, “Which five games would you put in a time capsule for people 50 years from now?” So it’s a far more subjective question about which games you think would make good classics or are important enough to showcase to a future generation what this hobby boardgaming deal was all about. So here’s what I came up with:
- Pandemic – For all the reasons that Greg and Mark mentioned, Pandemic definitely belongs in the capsule. It’s the most refined and best overall cooperative game, and the cleverness of its mechanics makes it perfect to show off for future generations.
- Citadels – This game is a great example of how a game can bring social dynamics into play, and the role-selection mechanic is also an important part of modern boardgaming. More than that, however, the tone and atmosphere of Citadels is way different from all 4 other games I chose, which is imporatant to show them as well.
- Tribune: Primus Inter Pares – I wanted a worker-placement game on the list, and the one that I’m liking best right now is definitely Tribune. I also think that the way it handles victory conditions is so novel and interesting that even a future audience would be impressed. Of the really good ones, it’s also one of the easiest to learn and play.
- Ra – I had to have an auction game in the mix, Ra is simply the best. It doesn’t have all of the issues with new players not knowing the economy/value of stuff like Modern Art does, and I think that it’s a lot more fun.
- China (or Web of Power)- Both because it’s a representative of area-control scoring and because it’s one of the most elegant games I’ve ever played, China would make a great game to top off my list.
Yeah, it’s highly driven by personal preference, and I might would make it differently tomorrow, but I think it looks pretty good overall. So, if anyone is reading this in the year 2059, go out and search through flying-car garade sales until you find all these games and give them a try!