Welcome to The Niche.
Years ago I started Morris Dancing. Those of you who aren't fans of 'the Morris' may not know that there are different styles of Morris: Northwest, Cotswold, Border, Molly... and there's just where it starts. Each discipline has its own exacting requirements and those vary depending on who you speak to- debates about what angle and height your knees should be in NorthWest, the disgust at feeble stick thwacking in Cotswold are the thin ends of a niche wedge. I've had many, long and heated conversations about what constitutes traditional dance. And that's all before I start on Sword dancing which I also do - although that's "Not morris, it's traditional English Dance" Yep, Morris then?
It had never occurred to me when I started spending more and more time in the board gaming community how similar our communities were until this week. And suddenly there it was.
I love Morris and I love Board Games and I love the people in both communities. We are inclusive, friendly, giving, supportive, lovely; we champion each other and our hobbies; we encourage others to take part and we want to see everyone love our hobby as much as we do. It's all going so well - like some kind of hippy utopia until someone does it wrong.
Can you game wrong? - oh yes you most certainly can. You can have too many light, filler games, you can like 'abstract' games, you may never progress beyond gateway games, you may be the owner of a shelf of shame or never have backed anything exclusive on kickstarter...you might even ... brace yourself... enjoy a plain old luck based roll and move game. Just as in the Morris world there is usually someone to helpfully advise you on how straight your line 'could have' been or how high your knees 'could have' been; so too in board games there are a minority of people with very specific, not to say strong, opinions and I worry that sometimes that element in both of my loves - dancing and gaming - sends out the wrong message and leaves some people feeling excluded. So, I want to just challenge a few conceptions...
The very concept of "Gateway Games" is an interesting one. "Gateway" implies there is something that we should all be headed to, rather than having a plethora of choice about our destination... it suggests that you start with games that are in some way inferior, progressing on to 'better' 'more serious' games. When, in reality most of us enjoy a wide variety of games - different themes, different lengths, different challenges. In our house it often varies according to our mood, or how much challenge we can cope with. Sometimes it's a long battle like Escape From Colditz or The Big Book Of Madness; other times it's a bit strategic like Kodama or Coup... but it might also be Dobble, Cobra Paw, or, dare I say... Shut The Box.
Abstract games like Abalone or Mancala are also frowned upon by some people, and yet are amongst the most popular at events - quick to learn with lots of depth and strategy. The kind of games that after your first loss you have to play again because you now know how you went wrong and you can definitely win next time. I never factor in the fact that my opponent is also becoming more focussed and tactical. So it seems very odd that abstract games should be so dismissed - take for example Mr Jack - it's not abstract but it is utterly on a par with Abalone in many ways - the rules themselves are fairly simple, and the opening strategies comprehensible by a 9 year old... but the more you play either, the more devious depth you find...
I think my main concern with this is the dismissal of an entire genre. I have come across people who 'don't like games'. I maintain that they have just not found the right game. I even made a flowchart to help them. So you don't like abstract games?... maybe you just haven't found the right one.
How about the term "filler games"? To me this means one you just have a quick round of whilst waiting for the real meal of the evening to start. But this just seems dismissive - revealing a prejudice towards bigger, complex games that take many hours to play. Sometimes an evening of gaming can be composed entirely of fillers - Love Letters, Gobblin Goblins, Exploding Kittens, Jenga, Terrible Monster... the list goes on. All deliciously light - like a day of eating breakfast food without ever commiting to a whole meal.
They are just shorter. That's it. Short games for when you want a short game. Again the term suggests some sort of predetermined path. Enter through the gateway games, attend games night and play fillers in between more substantial games. Or don't. Play what you want, when you want.
And lastly - the "Shelf Of Shame". We are embroiled in an expensive hobby; many of us joke about how we need to sell a kidney to afford yet another kickstarter or how we need to extend the house to fit all our games in. But we need to be mindful that this doesn't turn into wallet waving of the highest order. If we want gaming to be as inclusive as possible then bragging about buying so many games that we can't even play them all really needs some rethinking. There are some great games on kickstarter and there are so many new games coming out all the time it can seem overwhelming. Games cafes, local board game groups and Cards or Die mean that you really don't need to own everything. One of my driving desires as Cards or Die is to bring people together by sharing a love of board gaming.
Those of you who follow me will know that thrift is a virtue I prize very highly. One of my favourite features on the Board Game Trading And Chat UK facebook group is the threads about charity shop finds. I particularly enjoyed (with hardly any jealousy) people buying up Quinns' Oxfam donations this week. There are some epic games out there waiting to be discovered. I bagged Bucket of Doom for 99p and Tantrix for £1.99. One of the real pleasures though is stumbling across a game like Trek from the 1960s with every piece present and intact. I love how much people cherish board games and I think that's because it's more than just a game. It's a box of memories, connections and good times.
They're not all hits of course. Like this co-operative version of Connect 4 I found
I couldn't be prouder or happier than when I'm dancing or gaming. (On a side note I must mention my dance face - my extreme morris face as my loving friends call it. It's difficult to smile when you're counting beats and concentrating! But I know you understand because I've taken photos at events and I've seen your extreme gaming face. I can not tell you how difficult it is to get pictures of people smiling for my website! But that's a different story) I love connecting with others and I don't really care if their knees aren't high enough or they wibble out of line a bit. (I do care if you bring your sword down on my face but that's more of a health and safety issue than a dance quality issue.)
So, however you play your games or where or which games you play - it's all good. Play lots of games, play games you think you might hate, play games you loved as a kid, play them all. Have fun, connect with other human beings. And above all, be kind and welcoming. We are a fantastic community let's share the love!