Talking About Games: Felber’s Farewell
Deep breath. Let’s talk about something controversial.
If you’re a hobbyist board gamer, there’s a good chance you’ve heard about Tom Felber’s farewell article, “Tom Stops! 10 (Not Just Nice) Things He Wants to Say at the End.” It’s sparked plenty of angry words, both in support and in repudiation, some defensive and others thoughtful. It probably doesn’t help that the original is in German (Felber is Swiss), which, as those of us who speak the language can tell you, tends to come across more frankly than English, especially in translation.
Foremost among the complaints seems to be that unfortunate dismissal, “Why should I care what this person has to say?” Which, sure, he isn’t part of the US/UK games sphere, so why indeed? Even his credentials as a journalist (but not in English!) and as a Spiel des Jahres jury chairman (but that award isn’t for me!) seem to furrow brows rather than raise them. Perhaps it’s because Felber’s games writing is too accessible for us hobbyists, consisting of list formats that accumulate both clicks and ire.
Personally, though, I’m more interested in talking about Felber’s essay point by point, because while I disagree with some parts, there’s also a kernel of truth that prompts me to wonder about the core of his frustration. No, not merely that he’s an “old man yelling at a cloud.” But rather that he’s a seasoned journalist and games writer who feels that the hobby has undergone some gradual seismic shift that has left him out in the cold. That’s what those shared Simpsons memes seem to miss: he appears to agree that he’s the old man. It’s just that the clouds aren’t worth yelling at anymore.
Okay, so let’s break this down.
#1. The Internet is Always Right
“Even if I presented a game ten different times to ten different groups with different preferences and talents, the reported experiences of the oft-euphoric internet failed to materialize. There are only three explanations for this phenomenon: either the others were exaggerating, playing on drugs, or I and many of my teammates are no longer compatible with the world. My competence seems to have fallen out of time.”
Man yells at cloud? He says as much.
I have two thoughts here. The first has to do with how Felber approaches games writing, which has less to do with his own subjective experiences and more with assessing a game’s broad appeal. The Spiel des Jahres, of which Felber was the jury chairman for seven years, is an award that uses very different criteria from those I would use, if only because having thirteen jurors pick a bunch of games and then veto those picks will result in things that appeal to those thirteen jurors. The same goes for my own group of players. If my Best Weeks were written via committee, you could scratch off all the weird stuff, because even when a particularly odd title appeals to nearly everybody I share a table with, there’s a gulf of difference between everybody and nearly everybody. Just picking a single day at random (link!), you can say goodbye to Red Alert (too toy-ish), Moon Base (too arty), Mr. Cabbagehead’s Garden (nobody played it), and Era: Medieval Age (it’s a dice game). The best titles of 2019 would have been Ecos: First Continent and Cartographers. Which isn’t a methodology I personally prefer, but if we’re talking about stuff I can introduce to my mother, well, she thinks Cartographers is a hoot.
In that light, Felber’s approach, which is to play a game with multiple groups across different demographics in order to assess its viability for his recommendation, seems entirely appropriate. He isn’t running a personal blog. He’s writing consumer guides that inform hundreds of purchasing decisions. In his words, “I don’t think much of bloggers and influencers who judge games based on a ‘first impression,’ or who play games with only two players that are meant for four or five. Many who publish on the internet about board games always try their games with the same four or five noses, which of course already have their firm preferences.” His argument is that first impressions aren’t sufficient to get a sense for most games not only because of tastes, but also because they might not even be playing correctly.
My second thought is that he isn’t exactly wrong about internet wisdom being somewhat breathless in its delight. He isn’t talking about your favorite critic, review channel, or podcast. In the same way he evaluates games broadly, he’s speaking broadly of games media, about the hundred channels that seem to exist for the sole purpose of boosterism. And I’m not talking about enthusiasm. Enthusiasm is great! Look at me showing my enthusiasm by using exclamation marks! He’s talking about the tendency to play a game once or twice, gush that it’s utterly wonderful and perfect, and then move on to do the same for a dozen other games every month. If he seems exasperated, so am I. So are lots of other people. Because loving everything is mass burnout waiting to happen, for game critics and players alike.
Again, note that I’m not saying any one person is singularly responsible. The default position is positivity. For one thing, it’s nicer. Although nicer to whom? To publishers and game designers rather than game players, even though the latter is where I would argue a reviewer’s responsibility lies. But apart from that, positivity is easier to share, to promote, to upvote, to slap onto a Kickstarter page. Positivity keeps the review copies and preview contracts rolling in. The entire game as we’re playing it is weighted in favor of those who are willing to share the positive and keep quiet about the negative. Not because any one person or outlet is taking advantage of our enthusiasm, but because as an aggregate that highlights certain takes while diminishing others, enthusiasm is the utter default.
Holy crap, there are nine more of these.
#2. Farewell to Engineering
Felber argues, “In the heyday of German game designers, great importance was attached to the fact that the games were mathematically balanced.” This directly birthed the Eurogame phenomenon. Unfortunately, modern games, even complex games, have been hijacked by “the theme, the graphics, and the material.” Also, they aren’t balanced.
As before, it’s useful to narrow the window of Felber’s argument, which he explicitly identifies as German-style design. And I wonder how many would really disagree with the sentiment that many modern Euros are a bit Frankensteinian, a mishmash of parts that don’t necessarily cohere with the simple elegance evident in ’80s and ’90s German designs. Again, not all, but many. To me, this is connected to the withdrawal of players from the game’s competition space. With the rise of so-called “multiplayer solitaire” — which I’m not deploying pejoratively — the complexity that was once presented by rival human minds must now be duplicated by the game itself.
Strangely, my best example is actually a video game. I don’t enjoy multiplayer shooters. Probably something to do with teabagging, aimbots, and fourteen-year-old fascists. Still, the arena holds certain undeniable thrills. That’s why the recent Doom Eternal, which trades the exploration of the original Doom for arena-style combat, has hooked me. In Doom Eternal, with its chainsaw and acrobatic movements and deadly but not too deadly enemies, I’m the guy at the top of the leaderboard. I’m a living god, and the peons I’m tearing through are the low-ping server population that usually includes me. The system has successfully replicated the highs of a multiplayer shooter without requiring the lows of enduring crummy human beings.
Two thoughts. One, this isn’t a bad thing, just as multiplayer solitaire isn’t a bad thing. Two, solo games excluded, board games are about sitting down with other people. The system, being manually operated rather than backed with the processing power of a computer, can only accomplish so much when I have ready-made opponents right there. That’s an essay in its own right.
Still, some of my ambivalence to Felber’s point can be expressed as a difference of values. Unless the game in question hinges upon balance — a dueling game, say, or one that hands an enormous advantage to one player — I’m more interested in social balance than mathematical balance. In that regard, Ameritrash as a gaming phylum is as obsolete as German-style Eurogames. But that can be a good thing! More and more designers are embracing hybrid designers rather than sticking to a single lane.
#3. Games Often Require a Certain Intelligence
…and that scares some folks away. The point here isn’t that non-game-players are dumb, but rather that there’s a particular set of skills that lends itself well to many games. I think this again intersects with what Felber values: mathematical precision, balance, and a well-regulated (but not over-regulated) contest between individuals. Even beyond the necessary head for arithmetic, variable investments, and pattern recognition, some people find games frivolous, and those of us who champion games as a pleasant hobby or even as a useful social tool need to acknowledge that.
I’ve written in the past that abstract games can be unappealing not only for their lack of a setting but also because they’re more plain-faced about revealing their players’ (perceived) level of intelligence, so fair enough. Then, as though to illustrate the particularity of this necessary brand of intelligence, Felber continues with his next point.
#4. The Integrative Nature of Board Games
Also known as, “Some people are stinkers, both literally and figuratively.” To quote Felber more directly, “If I’m honest, nowhere in my life have I met as many annoying people as at the gaming table.”
This is probably the one that’s spurred some of the reactions I’ve seen, with people criticizing Felber’s choice of table-mates or saying he ought to find a better group. Never mind that this isn’t always possible, in particular for a games journalist. How many tables has he shared with strangers? How many lines has he stood in? How many inappropriate conversations has he been privy to by the trappings of a game’s two-hour playtime? This goes double for Felber’s chosen method of evaluation, in which he plays with multiple diverse groups on purpose in order to assess a game’s broad appeal.
Let me share two brief stories.
Once, at Gen Con, I found myself standing in the line for Fantasy Flight Games. For two hours. Directly adjacent to a very pleasant and very talkative Frenchman. With utterly awful tooth-rot that projected approximately four feet in every direction. I fought hard to ignore the miasma even as it threatened to batter my constitution into submission. Yes, standing so long in that line was my bad decision — but hey, I was keen to get my hands on something specific. Yes, I could have left at any time — but that’s an exercise in sunk cost, and, honestly, our entire species is terrible at recognizing fallacies so I’m giving myself a pass. The point is, I was courteous because that’s how I was raised. But my new friend was not similarly courteous with his hygiene.
Another time, I was asked to teach A Study in Emerald at a convention. We had five players lined up, but one dropped at the last minute. Desperate to fill out our numbers, because A Study in Emerald is best played with a full complement, we placed a Gamers Wanted sign on the table. Moments later a fresh-faced young man appeared and volunteered to play. For the next two hours, he groused and bullied, complaining of the game’s imbalances and everybody else’s methods of play. He did not win. Nor, upon not winning, did he leave the table. Instead, he continued to grouse about how bad the game had been, and how badly I should feel for bringing it to a convention.
I wish these examples were more isolated than they really are. Our hobby may require a certain intelligence, but it unfortunately doesn’t always encourage other graces. On this point, Felber and I are in agreement.
But where his previous points were apt, the remainder make me wonder if perhaps Felber is one of those people who might also require some courtesy at the gaming table. Nearly every other point is a complaint about some trait or another that he doesn’t appreciate. Let’s blitz through them.
#5. Together Alone
In which introverts have seized control of means of production with multiplayer solitaire. And, look, I would rather share not only a table but also a game with my friends. The thing is, though, that there are plenty of titles built to satisfy that need. Does Switzerland not have Root?
#6. The Alleged Lightness of the Game
Even though we often say they’re light and creative, games are serious business. It’s an observation that sparks a few talking points, in particular about how games function best when we wholly invest in the social contract we call the “magic circle” — and how, sometimes, that isn’t possible. I have a pair of friends, married and competitive, who cannot oppose each other in a game lest they put on a show. Their solution? They now play as one person. Some people’s egos are crushing and cannot brook violation. My solution? I avoid playing games with those people.
#7. Our Dear Teammates
In which Felber feels like a social worker because his game nights are overcomplicated. And I sympathize. My personal policy is that I play a game at least three times before I cover it. Sometimes this is difficult. Sometimes the wrong people show up to game night, so we play something lighter or less competitive. To me, however, ensuring that a game gets played thrice is a useful solution to the inherent sociality of board games, and how the group around the table can make or break the experience. By playing multiple times, I’m not only coming to grips with the game — I’m coming to grips with me.
That said, playing with so many people that we could be running a pharmaceutical trial, complete with blind study and control group, strikes me as a smidge too much effort.
#8. The Explanatory Bear Problem
Too many people don’t pay attention when the teacher explains the game’s rules.
#9. Eating or Playing?
Too many people eat greasy food while playing.
#10. Always These Misunderstandings
Too many people don’t understand irony.
This is already rather long, so I won’t spend much time pointing out that the back half of this list is really one extended complaint. Nor am I being flippant in lumping them together; discourteous people are aggravating, largely in part because they often flourish on the courtesy of others. It’s all too easy to come across as abrupt when we tell someone at the gaming table that they’re being rude. Or worse, that they need a shower. By not drawing clear social lines, we tolerate those who regularly cross where those lines should have been drawn. For that reason alone, I don’t think Felber is wrong in pointing out that some folks aren’t pleasant to share a table with. We might reply with, “Oh, let’s be nice” when somebody raises a fuss about bad behavior, but don’t we also release an internal sigh of relief? I know I do.
What I find more interesting, though, is that Felber’s removal from the hobby is two-pronged. There’s the social side, but also the side that deals with games that are breathlessly promoted but turn out to lack substance. As I wrote earlier, this is more complicated than any one channel behaving in bad faith. It’s also more complicated than competing methods of evaluating games. To me, it speaks to the current timbre of the entire hobby’s clamor. There are too many games being spoken about too positively. Even the curators cannot keep pace. A while back, somebody asked if I intended to write about a particular game. When I replied that I doubted it, the response was, “Why, snobbery?” No, friendly person who illustrates so many of Tom Felber’s points. The reason is time. When I read Felber’s article, I don’t only see a man who’s grown crabby toward certain behaviors, just as I don’t only see a man who has dismissive opinions about the best way to gauge a game’s quality. I see a man who’s been swept away by a tidal wave of game releases. I see a man whose preferred method of play isn’t keeping up — and before you go thinking that’s a condemnation of his method, nobody can keep up.
Food for thought. I don’t have any answers to this one. I don’t even think there are answers, beyond the usual. Promote good games criticism, consider supporting the people you find helpful, and maybe take part in the process with input and insight. Either way, when someone like Tom Felber steps away from writing about games, it’s a loss. We’re saying goodbye to one of the few voices who sometimes says what we don’t want to hear. Even when it’s an old man hollering at a cotton ball of cumulus.
Next time, I’ll be talking about how Cole Wehrle’s Pax Pamir makes three distinct arguments about colonialism across two editions, one expansion, and two authors, and what that teaches us about framing arguments in board games. If you support my Patreon, you can read it right now!