Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Everybody Wins: Modern Board Game History

We live for books. A sweet mission in this world dominated by disorder and decay.”

Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose

As I get older and
our society stumbles through the Internet Age I’m acutely aware of the ephemeral nature of anything I find on the web. Online resources about the history of the adventure gaming hobby and the companies and people who produce our favorite game-related entertainment come and go. Bookmarked sites I used to rely on vanish without a trace. People move on from their website projects, which languish without updates or fade without support for a hosting service. While people can update and expand information on the internet, none of it matters if it eventually disappears. Print books, however outdated, still offer us a more permanent resources. Books about the adventure gaming hobby provide a snapshot of the state of affairs at the particular moment of publication. So I’m delighted when I see a volume like James Wallis’ Everybody Wins: Four Decades of the Greatest Board Games Ever Made documenting notable board games in the context of the prestigious German Spiel des Jahres award.

After a brief history about the establishment of the Spiel des Jahres award (“Game of the Year” for non-German speakers), Wallis proceeds year-by-year with the first award in 1979 through the most recent at the time of publication, 2022. Unlike other game-industry awards, the Spiel Des Jahres winner isn’t chosen by popular vote of any demographic, but by a panel of game journalists as a “critic’s award” based on what they felt were notable games in a particular year (and, coincidentally, released in the German-speaking market of Germany, Austria, and Switzerland). Most Americans might associate the recent “renaissance” in board games, especially Euro-games, with the release of and subsequent popularity of Klaus Teuber’s Settlers of Catan in 1995 (now commonly known as Catan); but the award began in 1979 and spent several years featuring lesser-known titles as the “cabal of games-positive journalists” promoted the award amid new developments in board game design. Certainly Catan’s worldwide success – and its winning the Spiel des Jahres in 1995 – helped bring the awards to greater prominence.

Wallis devotes four pages to each year’s winner, including one full-page color illustration of the game and smaller illustrations of components. He lists designers, number of players, appropriate age, and the approximate playing time for each winner. A prominent, central sidebar on each game’s title page offers the publishers’ names (often different ones for different language releases), a note on the game’s current availability, and Wallis’ own brief evaluation of whether it was a worthy winner and whether it’s still worth playing today. Numerous sidebars cover a host of related topics, from concise designer bios and different game types to notes on game mechanics, evolution of new developments, and other interesting tidbits. Every year also includes a sidebar of other notable Spiel des Jahres awards (as they evolved over time) and other recommended games that released that year.

Everybody Wins is a delight on several levels. It’s an engaging record of the award-winners and the other notable titles each year. The sidebars offer informative morsels about the board game world. And it encourages readers to browse the different periods of recent board game history. After reading the introductory sections, I found myself paging through to see what board games I own won the Spiel des Jahres (7), what winners I might want to some day add to my collection and play (3), and what games I own Wallis considered recommended titles (8). A fools errand, all, because the informative sidebars kept distracting me with entertaining insights.

Everybody Wins is 224 full-color pages bound in a hardcover volume. I’m not sure what qualifies as a “coffee table book” these days, but I’d certainly leave it out for guests to peruse and, hopefully, whet their appetite to try some board games. Although its physical form remains incapable of taking into account future Spiel des Jahres winners, it still remains a lasting and insightful record of current winners and other notable games with Wallis’ enlightening commentary.

It’s a shame nobody has yet published such a print record and commentary aboout the winners and nominees for other adventure gaming hobby awards like the Charles S. Roberts Awards for wargames and the Origins Awards for a host of game categories. Sure, websites for such awards currently exist, in some cases even listing each year’s winners (though not all nominees). Lists of winners, however, cannot offer the more detailed insights and “historical” notes like those in Everybody Wins; it’s this level of detail for which I yearn in adding more volumes to my meager “history of gaming” library.

In my 40+ years in the adventure gaming hobby – as a player, creator, and editor – I’ve often sought out books documenting the emergence, growth, and development of the game industry. Lawrence Schick’s Heroic Worlds: A History and Guide to Role-Playing Games was the first I bought upon publication in 1991; it’s a snapshot of the industry at that moment in time, primarily a catalog of publications for numerous game lines, peppered with insights from various game-industry luminaries. James Dunnigan’s The Complete Wargames Handbook also includes some information about wargame publishers at the time; I’ve since found a few other volumes purporting to be “complete” surveys of existing wargames in the late 20th century. John Curry’s expansive History of Wargaming Project has brought back into print classic hobby wargaming texts and published new research on military training wargames, particularly from World War II.

I own several books broadly surveying notable games across the years. More recently we’ve seen a crowd of books about the earliest days of the roleplaying game hobby, many focusing on Dungeons & Dragons and its impact on generations of players. The Designers & Dragons series aspired to tackle the daunting challenge of covering many aspects of the roleplaying game industry over the decades. Jon Peterson’s scholarship already fills three volumes, Playing at the World, Game Wizards, and The Elusive Shift. And we’re awaiting publication later this year of the colossal The Making of Original Dungeons & Dragons offering insights and reprints of some of the game’s earliest manuscripts, correspondence, and other documents (with historical context from Peterson).

I believe history consists of numerous intertwined stories, great and small, at various levels of society. The adventure gaming hobby mighty occupy a very small cultural niche, but to its devotees it’s filled with stories about bureaucratic companies, colorful characters, imaginative product, and the conflicts that inevitably erupt when such volatile forces collide. Goodness knows I’ve rambled on about the more positive aspects of my time at West End Games. Every company, every person who’s worked for a game company, has their stories. Some offer more entertainment and interest than others. It’s worth preserving them before the participants pass on and the more factual details evolve into popular myth, if they’re not altogether forgotten.

If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.”

Rudyard Kipling

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