Let’s begin with a question. Imagine two different board game settings. The first is a goofball portrayal of piracy, complete with silly names, outrageous violence, and plenty of plunder. The second is a goofball portrayal of colonialism, complete with silly names, outrageous violence, and plenty of plunder.
Which bothers you more?
This was supposed to be a short piece.
You’ve heard the refrain before. “Stay objective.” “Keep politics out of it.” “I just want to hear how the game works.”
Fine, you caught me! Nothing gets past you. Those are three refrains, not one. Except… aren’t they the same thing? All three complaints ultimately come down to a single expectation, that game reviews should conform to some sort of master code, a Strunk & White’s Elements of Style to gather all forms of criticism, bring them together, and in the darkness bind them. Objectivity all over again.
I know what you’re thinking. Haven’t we been here before? True, a few installments back I talked about objectivity and subjectivity. But that was principally about defining those two terms and examining how they sometimes bleed into each other thanks to some complicated linguistic history. Today, I want to travel in a different direction by talking about some of the advantages of subjectivity. Namely, why is it better for everyone when our game critiques are as subjective as possible?
Morality has become a strange notion. Part of the problem is the mental imaging it tends to conjure: at odds with science and ethics, possibly relative, very likely handed down from Mount Sinai on stone tablets, definitely something to do with a scarlet letter. The term seems anachronistic, a throwback to a simpler age. And by “simpler,” I mean either “more enlightened” or “more backward,” depending on one’s assumptions about history.
Let’s set those images aside. Instead, I want to talk about morality as a function of art, and the role of both artists and critics in crafting and evaluating moral statements. In this regard, morality deserves a hopelessly hand-wavy definition of its own — that it’s preoccupied with the well-being of individuals and societies. Vague! Don’t worry, we’ll return to this.
At a more specific level, today we’re talking about one of the crucial delineations in evaluating board games on moral terms; namely, the difference between portraying and endorsing. And it all begins with a brief pamphlet entitled Histriomastix.
I appreciate any game that makes an argument. Even — perhaps especially — if I don’t agree with that argument. Even rarer is a game that makes multiple arguments for the price of one. All the better if some of those arguments are at odds with its other arguments, like a hydra snapping at its own throats.
Cole Wehrle’s Pax Pamir is one such game.
Across two editions and an expansion, Pax Pamir makes three distinct arguments from two separate authors. Those arguments have been both criticized and applauded, sometimes fairly and sometimes reflexively. Because this is the internet, both the critiques and the celebrations have often been painfully simplified. It would require an essay apiece just to deconstruct them fully. Rather than doing so, I want to touch upon all three so as to examine something tangential to their specific stances on the subject of the Great Game in 1823-1845 Afghanistan — namely, how differences of framing prompt divergent readings of Pax Pamir as a cultural artifact and historical argument.
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.
Words are weird. I still remember in the second grade when my father insisted I refer to a particular bodily function as “urination,” while my friends called it “going pee.” When I inverted those terms, both groups became upset at me for being gross. The meaning was unaltered. Neither word was particularly crass. But there I stood, excoriated for my choice of vocabulary. My lifelong terror with linguistic solipsism had begun.
Following up on our previous conversations about the meanings and importance of negativity and criticism, today we’re looking at three more concepts. This time, however, these are the broadest possible traits that should be found in any critique — the bare minimums, you could say. Although as you’d expect, we’re peddling in ambiguities.
In my field we spend a lot of time talking about the ambiguity of categories. One of the big examples is a relatively “new” period called Late Antiquity. The argument goes like this: in many imaginations, including those of many historians, there was Antiquity, with its Roman Empire and thickly-forested Europe and distant dynasties that we don’t talk about very often in the West; and then, after an ill-defined collapse, we eventually arrive in the Medieval Age, with its castles and plagues and religious wars.
The problem is that this model was too simple. Which, well, that’s part of any model’s goal: to simplify something complex into discrete parts so we can talk about it. Hence, a paradox. If your model is too granular, it’s impossible to conceptualize within a reasonable span of time. If it’s too simple, you overlook all the stuff that happened in the cracks. Like, y’know, what the collapse of the Roman Empire actually looked like. Or what all those distant dynasties were doing in the meantime. Categories enable us to learn, but they can also inhibit our learning.
Here’s another story about categories. Once, at a convention, I was invited to dinner with some fellow board game folk. We got to talking about our varying experiences in the hobby. Some were podcasters, others crafted visual media, and some were actual game designers or developers — another distinction that’s not entirely defined. When asked, I mentioned that I was a reviewer. The person beside me leaned forward and said, “Yes, but really, Dan is closer to a critic.”
A critic, you say? What’s that? Never mind. It sounds important.
Where the first four parts of Talking About Games focused on the words employed by board game reviewers and players, we now zoom into the stratosphere with the haste of an eagle diving at a plump squirrel. That’s right, I’m talking big picture. For the next few months, we’ll be talking about criticism more broadly — what it is, what it’s good for, and the biggie, why it is. Important, I mean. Critical, if wordplay is your jam.
Today, our topic is positivity and negativity. And it came about because of two happenings that made me ask why I bother writing about board games in the first place.
The circle has turned yet again. Here we stand, ready to talk about what we talk about when we talk about board games. Hold on… (counts on fingers.) Yes. My count was completely correct. Well done, me.
To recap what brought us to this point, we began by talking about the inexpressiveness of the usual mechanics/theme dichotomy found in board game criticism. I then proposed the five categories I use in my own thinking and writing about games. Thirdly, we talked about chess to flesh out the concept of “feedback,” the spooky glue that integrates a board game’s other elements. And today, we’re going to do the opposite, by taking a game — and, far more importantly, a good game — to talk about its failures of feedback.
The game is none other than…