Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Looking for an Addition to the Gamers Library? Keep Looking.

As the interests of the gamer and the hobbyist overlap, so too do the interests of the gamer and the collector. People who become serious about experiencing the wide variety of board game entertainment currently, and historically, often find themselves searching for particularly useful resources in their pursuits. In my adventures searching for useful books about roleplaying games I have found Heroic Worlds particularly useful. The Complete Guide to Role Playing Games was the first book of this nature I purchased. While by modern standards The Complete Guide is nowhere near complete (even for the time it was written), I still find it to be an invaluable resource. In fact, it is the cornerstone of the books about roleplaying games section of my home library.

Other books in my library include The Fantasy Roleplaying Gamer's Bible, I own both editions, and Dicing With Dragons. I have many more, but these few are among some of the better resources if you want to understand and collect roleplaying games.

Recently, my attention has expanded to include a desire for books about boardgames and card games. Ever since I read that first, very dry but very informative, page of The Oxford History of Board Games I have been in pursuit of helpful references regarding board games. In particular, I am looking not just for a checklist with beautiful images of hard to find treasures, but a book like the Oxford that contains descriptions of play. I understand that intellectual property rules may prevent the release of detailed rules, but I would like some description to base my interest on. True, there are some games worthy of purchase merely as examples of extraordinary illustration, but I am first and foremost someone who enjoys playing games.

This is the kind of resource I was hoping to find when I purchased The Games We Played. Sadly, this book was not what I had hoped it would be.

The Games We Played is the companion volume to a museum exhibit at the Henry Luce III Center for the Study of American Culture. As a companion to the exhibit the book is an amazing publication. It contains beautiful photography of interestingly designed board games accompanied by brief comments about what games have to say about the society in which they were created. To be fair though, the analysis is nowhere near the level of The Oxford History. The book provides just enough information about any particular game to give it a social contexts of the design and illustration, but rarely are any descriptions of the game play given. For example Bull and Bears: The Great Wall St. Game (1883) (Parker Brothers would make a similarly titled game in 1936) is described in the following way:

By the 1880s, wealth had emerged as the defining characteristic of success in American games, as in life. Bulls and Bears was based on the vicissitudes of the stock market -- an ideal theme for games -- and was designed to make players feel like speculators, bankers, and brokers, if only for a time. Possibly illustrated by famed political cartoonist Thomas Nast, who provided illustrations for some of McLoughlin Brothers' books, the gameboard depicts a nattily dressed bull and bear shearing sheep (under the removable spinner), a sublte commentary on the making of financial empires at the public's expense.

Bulls and Bears is unusual among nineteenth-century board games in incorporating caricatures of contemporary figures. In the lower corners of the board, rairoad magnates William Henry Vanderbilt and Jay Gould, whose speculation contributed to the fanancial panic that inspired this game, smugly read tickert tape showing the value of their stock. Gould is also shown at the top left looking glum as he contemplates the bear market. Cyrus Field, a railroad investor in collaboration with Gould, appears opposite him armed to defend his money bags.

The above quote is useful in a discussion of board game as social artifact, but it does little to discuss the playability of the game. Ideally, a book like The Games We Played would do both. Instead, the reader must settle merely for an interesting discussion of historical relevence. Like most museum exhibits the discussions of the particular artifacts are brief, but not "written down" for a younger audience. Vicissitudes anyone? Why not just say realities or accurate representation? The information provided in the book inspires one to find out more about the people who played the beautifully illustrated games featured between its covers. Sadly, the book doesn't inspire the reader to become one of the people who has played the game. There are great advantages to recognizing the craftsmanship behind consumer products, the removal of utility from them is not one of those advantages. The gamer asks, "if no one is going to play the game, how is this different from a painting?" Then the gamer walks on unfulfilled.

If you are looking for an introduction into board games as a part of American social history, this book is for you. If you are looking for a checklist of some of the games that existed in the nineteenth-century and don't need to know what a game will play like before you buy it, this book is for you. If you want to see the complexity of the art of illustration, this book is for you. But if you are looking for an examination of gameplay as social phenomenon, this book is not for you. The authors have forgotten, it seems, that a part of the social significance of these boardgames is not merely what they represent, but how they represent them. The mechanics used to determine success or failure in Bulls and Bears are just as much a social commentary as are the (probable) Nast illustrations. How random is it? How predictable? I don't know, but I'd like to.

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