After seeing the announcement for a new, super-deluxe version of Castles of Burgundy, I was prepared to sit down and write a screed. Sure, the original is widely considered to be ugly, and even though I don’t share that sentiment, I’d welcome an improvement. Not a lot of details have been released about Awaken Realms’ production, but what they are showing is a mixed bag. Metal coins in a game where coins (though aren’t they called silverlings?) are a tertiary resource at best seems excessive. The art samples they’re displaying look fantastic, though.
That’s besides the point. I wanted to rant and rave about ridiculous, giant, over-wrought productions. I wanted to get heated, griping about ridiculous expectations of excess. But if I did that I’d be playing the same game. The game of brazen extravagance over patient consideration. I’d be trying to cash in on heat instead of trying to provide light. So instead of a rant here are some scattered thoughts.
1. Our board game purchasing choices ought to reflect what we’d like to see more of in the market, because we’re sending a small signal, with our money, of just that. If you truly love board games for their spectacle and their table presence, then go ahead and keep purchasing those games. I understand the appeal to some degree; such games provide hope that their play experience will live up to their visuals. Some of them succeed. But are we investing in the appearance of excellence over excellence itself?
2. A game should only be blinged out, for lack of a better term, in proportion to its aim. Otherwise it’s making a promise it can’t possibly keep. This is one of the reasons I’m skeptical of a super-deluxe Castles of Burgundy. It’s a fairly humble, austere game. Throw a bunch of minis in there to make it look epic and you’re misrepresenting what the game is about. It’s a form of ludonarrative dissonance. Let simple games be simple. Complex visuals ought to be justified by the game they’re a part of.
3. Deluxe components should always be subservient to the practical game experience. I recall playing a very popular game a few years ago. The person who bought it to the con had invested in the full, super expensive pledge level. The problem was that it made the game incredibly annoying to play. The giant cloth map muted colors that made understanding the board state difficult. Everything had to be so spread apart to accommodate this unnecessarily large map that people had to frequently stand up to read card text across the table.
Most mind-bogggling to me, the minis did not communicate their function well at all. We were supposed to be recruiting these monsters to aid us in battle, but the biggest one on the field hardly had any effect on combat, while some random dude ¼ the size was the most powerful military force in the game. It’s like the characters designs were attached to their function at random.
4. The best deluxe games make playing the game easier. This is the corollary to the previous point. Deluxe versions of games that actually improve the play experience, rather than the seeing-from-across-the-room experience are fantastic. The Eagle-Gryphon/Vital Lacerda/Ian O’Toole collaborations are rightly praised by many. Not only do they look fantastic and come with study, practical bits and pieces, O’Toole is an incredible graphic designer who makes extremely complex games visually comprehendible.
My favorite deluxe version of a game is Pax Pamir 2e, which is precise, understated, and beautiful. It manages to look fantastic in an understated way, a sign of confidence rather than desperation. I’m confident the new version of John Company will similarly be an excellent production.
5. So while I’m skeptical of many of these giant-box games, I do see the value in investing resources in great production. But good art is not synonymous with more art. In my mind, the most beautiful games are elegant games, made with restraint and an eye on design. After all, we’re playing with these things, and that involves interacting with them. If you sacrifice functionality for More Art you’re compromising. Games can both look great and actually function as games. It’s just a bit more difficult to do both.
6. I don’t want to price new designers out of their aspirations. To that end I will always be far more willing to take a risk with my money on something potentially new and innovative and daring than something superficially flashy. I want a board game design community that has room for truly thoughtful, beautiful versions of great games from established designers and cheap, scrappy, DIY experiments. I don’t want someone out there feeling like they can’t pursue their design because the floor for entering the market is financing a $150 big box, plastic and extra thick cardboard, headache.
7. Game advertisements that feature a comprehensive list of all the components before any description of what the game is are absolutely bizarre to me. You know that you can buy fancy dice or minis by themselves, right? If you want cool toys you can just get them, no game attached. The assumption that people see the value of a game as the sum of the pieces of that game rather than their enjoyment playing it gets an eyebrow-raise from me. (Confession: I can’t actually raise either of my eyebrows independently of each other. This eyebrow-raising can only be experienced in one’s imagination. I mean, I can raise them together, but that’s more a look of shock than skepticism.)
8. I hope this version of Castles of Burgundy is great. I hope they focus on playability with easy to use, beautiful components, a great insert for organizing those components, and a relatively modest price point. I hope they come to understand that a brilliant design like CoB doesn’t need to look like the game version of a McMansion to reach its fullest potential. I hope it gets even more people to appreciate what a fantastic game it truly is. I also hope the cheap, $25 version stays in print.