Thursday, May 18, 2006

The Golden Age of Board Games

"The Golden Age of Science Fiction is twelve."

It's a well-known quote popularized by David Hartwell in his essay of the same name. But, Hartwell never meant to say that we experience an age of wonder in our adolescence that cannot be replicated in adulthood. Instead, he claimed that the greatest wonder in science fiction comes when an individual is first introduced to it. The 1940s was not the true golden age of science-fiction, nor the 1960s, nor the 1980s; instead it was when each fan became a member of that culture.

When a reader is first introduced to science fiction, he enters a world of legends. He hears stories of Isaac Asimov's Foundation, rumors of a Rendezvous with Rama, perhaps even whisperings of Gene Wolfe's multilayered Book of the New Sun. They become larger than life, and so they take on mythic proportions. When a reader finally consumes Asimov, Clarke, or Wolfe he is not just consuming the actual tales--those words that they wrote--but he also is consuming every thing he has ever been told about them, and every image he has ever conjured up in his mind to tell those tales that he had not yet read.

So it is with board games as well.

I have enjoyed a Golden Age of gaming not once, but three times.

When I first discovered roleplaying games through the blue Dungeons & Dragons book, I began to seek out those legends that had come before. I searched out Greyhawk and Blackmoor, the two original supplements to the game. I tracked down back issues of Dragon magazine. Later I would sit in my childhood bedroom with a TSR catalog, wondering over such strange games as Dungeon, Saga, and They've Invaded Pleasantville.

A decade or more later I enjoyed a new interest in small-press American board games, and I often haunted convention flea markets and regularly visited game stores which sold used games. Divine Right, Arkham Horror, The Riddle of The Ring, and The Source of the Nile had taken on mythic qualities and thus they entered my collection in that time period.

And so it was a third time when I discovered Eurogames, four years ago now. Reiner Knizia, Klaus Teuber, and Wolfgang Kramer were the names spoken of in hushed, reverent tones. I pined for Ra, dreamed of Taj Mahal, and wished for Tikal. El Grande had already taken on such a legendary quality by the time I first played it that I was awash in its possibilities, awed by its magnificence.

My Golden Age of roleplaying games was 10, my Golden Age of American board games was 20, and my Golden Age of Eurogames was 30.

Now the mysteries have been uncovered. The legends have faced the harsh light of truth. There are few secrets left for me to uncover in the world of Eurogames, other than that which has not yet been published: the games still being developed and playtested by designers across the world.

My Golden Age has faded and become silver.

Other write of this and they call it "burn out". They ask, "Is it just me, or are this year's games not as good as last's?". They fondly say, "Do you remember 2000? That was the best year for games." Or maybe it was 1998 or 1995. Or 1975.

No reality can ever stand up to the dream. We are chasing after phantoms that will forever elude us. The Golden Age is behind us, always behind us, unless we move ever onward to new and different things: new genres, new entertainments.

But there is another option as well. If we look beyond the facade and see the truth we may find enjoyment there as well. It can not live up to the dream. Nothing could. But do you prefer dream or reality?

When I turn 40 perhaps I will have moved on to a new Golden Age. A new dream. Perhaps I will be chasing a new phantom. I can't see the future. However, in the world of board games I have found a strong core of enjoyment. I have found a true gold shining beneath golden dreams. So perhaps I will remain Eurogaming instead. I am certain that I will never again know that secret thrill that I felt the first time I heard of Puerto Rico, the first time I played El Grande, but that was a thrill born of phantasms, not facts.

Enjoy what you have, not what might be.


Anonymous said...

Oh, well, I discovered eurogames 2 years ago, at my 40.
Great...and I have read that is a very good hobby to fight Alzheimer also :-)

ekted said...

Ever new game and new book is a new world of wonder for me.

Hertzog said...

Shannon :

Even though I've only recently discovered your thoughts on board games and game design in general, I find them to be invaluable and always entertaining. Thanks for taking the time to write such thought provoking articles!

I wholeheartedly agree with you on the magic fading as your gaming collection reaches its peak, but I am fortunate enough to have a miracle cure against this. Or at least a delayed reaction.

You see, living in a third world country literally a world away from Europe and the USA allows me the luxury of squeezing every precious moment of enjoyment from every gaming session. New acquisitions have to be carefully planned months in advance, as our exchange rates rarely favor overspending.

In addition, shipping is also horrifically expensive (due to weight) and it takes up to two months, sometimes more.

So hunting for those little gems are never diluted by playing mediocre games- :-)

Don't drown in abundance!


Mark Haberman said...

Wow, I think this is my favorite blog post ever.

Gerald McD said...

I wrote an email this week about my golden age of video gaming -- the original Pong and the Atari 2600 game machine and cartridges.

You described well the "golden age" experience. My experiences have not generally been preceded by "legends" or expectations, but rather experienced cold turkey, sometimes just stumbled onto. There may be a difference in the reaction, because there is nothing for the book, game, music, or whatever to live up to -- it is just an amazing, exciting phenomenon. Some of mine have included science fiction books (I knew of no one else even reading SF in my town in 1960); music (rock-and-roll of the 1950's and 1960's -- experienced as it happened); and games (I bought a Euro-game before I had even heard the term or found BGG).

Nice article, as always. Thanks much.

DWTripp said...

A reaL nice article Shannon.

Interesting that you should bring up the Book of the New Sun in the same line as the Foundation Trilogy. If I have this age thing figured right, someone turned me onto Asimov just before you were born and Gene Wolfe's brilliant series while you were still playing T-Ball.

Which, I think, proves that you have hit the nail on the head... that the pure enjoyment of well done art, be it games, novels, music or whatever is always new and fresh to someone just coming to the table for the first time.

No doubt our experiences with books that others loved before we discovered them were as thrilling as they will be for those who still haven't stumbled on them.

It's just as much fun with board games, particularly when a person relatively new to the genre excitedly shows me their copy of a game I already know and love. My enjoyment of playing that game is heightened by their enthusiasm and through them I have rediscovered old "Golden Ages".

I remember about 12 years ago walking into my son's room where he was listening to a couple of Johhny Hammond cuts he had downloaded off a hacker site, he looked at me and said, "Hey Pops... have you ever heard this guy? He's awesome!" Oh man, had I heard him? Maybe 12,000 times...

So I sat down, listened with him and asked him who the dude was. Golden Ages are where you find them, eh?

Thanks for a great piece of writing.

Shannon Appelcline said...

Thanks for the comments; this was one of those pieces that filled my head until I wrote it down.

And _Book of the New Sun_ remains one of my favorite series. I've read it 3 or 4 times, most recently just a year or so ago. I loved it again.

Yehuda Berlinger said...

Excellent post, Shannon.


Hertzog said...


Just reread my post and I sounded so preachy! My apologies and keep up the good work Shannon :-)


Shannon Appelcline said...

Didn't seem preachy to me, but thanks.

Anonymous said...

I believe in proper crediting of sources where possible, so I want to note that the quote at the top of the column originates with a science fiction fan named Pete Graham. Discussion on rec.arts.sf.fandom has suggested that he in turn was summarizing and/or inspired by a speech given by Randall Garrett.