The Greying of an Avalon Hill Gamer

Everyone else in the gaming blogosphere seems to be talking about Lewis Pulsipher’s (the designer of Britannia, apparently) recent article called “An attempt to explain why (and how) boardgaming has changed in the past twenty years“. It even made GameFest’s front page, I’m not sure why – they rarely spotlight outside articles, and when it comes to this one, what the other bloggers have rather generously failed to mention is that Mr Pulsipher is just blowing smoke.

Not one of his sweeping, stereotypical assertions as to the changes in the boardgame world is backed up by a shred of serious data. People are worse at math? You’d think that sort of claim could be made with some statistics if true. But no, it’s simply asserted without evidence, one rather implausible claim after another. Am I seriously to believe that kids are now so intellectually bankrupt that they have to add up the pips every time on the dice instead of simply recognizing the patterns as Mr. Pulsipher would have us believe? This is just the most ludicrous, unsubstantiated claim in the piece (perhaps the school district in his area is really, really bad). In short, what he’s saying here is “back when I was a kid …”, the rant of everyone who starts to realize they aren’t young anymore.

This article has been written many times before by many different people, and what it boils down to is “why won’t people play my favorite old games with me?”. Who cares? We are now, in my opinion, in the golden age of boardgaming, wargaming or otherwise. On the wargame end, GMT publishes more games in a year than Avalon Hill ever did, and games like Paths of Glory and Europe Engulfed are enjoying surprising success and longevity for their complexity, with Paths of Glory just being reprinted for the third time (let’s remember, classic Avalon Hill games were rarely very complicated). Columbia is apparently doing quite well in the low-to-medium-complexity, high-quality niche, with many titles in print – Rommel in the Desert, a classic 20-year-old game worth of today’s standards, was just reprinted. The Europeans are giving us huge numbers of games with a quality undreamt of 20 years ago, achieving more in depth and interest in 60-90 minutes and 6 pages of rule than all but the best comparable Avalon Hill games, and with amazing physical quality (if you want the reason why the boardgaming world has changed, I would suggest you start here). We are now enjoying the games of Reiner Knizia, unquestionably the most brilliant and prolific game designer ever to practice the craft. While the individual US print run numbers don’t compare with the glory days of Avalon Hill, remember that AH had a no serious competition in the “games for hobbyists” segment of the market, foreign or domestic, for several decades. Today there are quite a few serious players in the US (Rio Grande, GMT, Columbia, Mayfair, Fantasy Flight, Überplay/Eagle, Days of Wonder, even Hasbro/Wizards/AH), and dozens in Europe – the joys of internationalization – and the US boardgame market is growing strongly. You can read 20-page analyses of Puerto Rico, Goa, or War of the Ring on BoardGameGeek by twenty-somethings. Kids are playing Magic: The Gathering with opponents all over the globe in tournaments for real money (not as much as they used to, but still). Settlers of Catan, a ten-year-old game, is still a top-seller (having outsold by several factors any game Avalon Hill ever made) and still enjoys wide critical and popular acclaim. And Dungeons and Dragons in it’s new third(ish) edition still, I imagine, outsells them all. And that’s despite stunning competition from great console games like Halo.

In short, the gamer today is part of a broader, more vibrant, more interesting community than ever before, and has access to games that have made a quantum leap in quality in every respect from 20 years ago. That’s what’s changed. Even though the 70s and 80s did produce a few great games even by today’s standards (Titan, Dune, 1830, Squad Leader, and Rommel in the Desert, to pick a few), you still couldn’t pay me enough to go back. Well, you could, but I’d probably give up gaming. Regardless, you take my point.

As a parting shot, I quote from the article:

It would help if we had more short wargames. However, marketing very short wargames is also a problem. I’ve designed a number of wargames that can be played in an hour, but I’m not sure they’re marketable. They are much “smaller” than the typical wargame, and less strongly historical. When people play them they like them, but who’s going to buy them?

I guess that whole Memoir ’44 thing must be a massive shared hallucination. What’s its ranking on BGG? 7th? Days of Wonder isn’t exactly complaining about the sales, what with rumors of three expansions.

I have a couple sessions in the queue here, so we’ll be returning to our regularly scheduled program of gaming criticism momentarily.

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