It was exactly one year ago–March 15, 2020–that I last played a tabletop boardgame face-to-face with anyone (except for my mom, who I’ve been bubbling with since October). Fittingly, it was Love Formula with my partner and her daughter–whom I don’t live with and whom I couldn’t bubble with for various reasons.
One year ago I was deep in planning for a March Break boardgame camp I would be co-running at my FLGS. But as March crept closer, enrolments stalled and then cratered, and then of course we had to cancel it because of the lockdown here in Ontario.
In the weeks and months that followed every one of us has had a different and difficult journey–financially, emotionally, existentially. Everyone hungers for things to get “back to normal” yet, those of us who know our history realize things will never return exactly to the way they were before the COVID pandemic spread across the world.
This being a website about tabletop games and culture and all, it seemed as good a time as any to think about what marks (scars?) This Pandemic© Year have left on me, tabletop-wise.
GUI rules all: As gaming moved online, the games I chose to play were not often the ones I wanted to play. There are games I just can’t imagine playing on a screen, even though they have fine online implementation. I tried playing a solo game of Paladins of the West Kingdom on Tabletopia, for example, and despite being an excellent port I just found it frustrating–too much tabbing around the virtual board. Instead, the game I’ve played the most over the past year has been It’s a Wonderful World. It’s got it’s own proprietary site for play (https://game-park.com/) and despite not having any expansion content it’s a seamless transition to digital. I have a pile of boxed games waiting for the day when they can actually hit the table, and I can only imagine the negotiation and triage waiting to happen when game nights and cons start up again as everyone fights to table games from their personal Shelves of Opportunity.
Socially mediated: Interestingly, the online version of It’s a Wonderful World chose not to have a chat function–a decision I understand totally because it keeps things very simple on their end, and they don’t have to deal with any of the issues which makes the public chat on Tabletop Simulator such an embarrassment. The biggest thing I’ve missed this year is the socializing that goes along with gaming, and though voice-chat on Discord mitigates somewhat it’s still not the same. In fact, it’s made me ask: at what point does digital boardgaming cross the line and become videogaming?
Shut Up And Take My Money: Although the tabletop world had been heading in this direction anyway, I think this past year has seen an increase in over-the-top productions on Kickstarter. Some of the pictures of people posing with their stacks of Tainted Grail, Tidal Blades and Bloodborne boxes really brought home to me how much some people have bought into the More Must Be Better philosophy. Equally interesting has been how quickly some have turned around and sold their copies once they realized they’d bitten off more than they could chew. Then there’s the local gentleman who decided to do some arbitrage on the Stardew Valley boardgame as yet unavailable in Canada, buying up a bunch across the border and charging a 50% premium to Canucks who simply had to have it–without even checking out whether it was good or not. Even Academy Games (best known for its historical games like Freedom and Conflict of Heroes) has got into the act with its tabletop port of Stellaris, whose KS pitch video had zero information about actual gameplay (at time of writing).
Battle Fatigue: As I talked about in the Game Changers podcast, Tabletop design and gaming have been going through a reckoning as a critical mass of gamers has found a voice to challenge many of the assumptions behind modern games and gaming culture. COVID itself became politicized. But even had COVID not come along, political forces would have continued to play out in our community. During the Black Lives Matter protests last summer, publishers and content creators (us included) felt a need to take a public stand in solidarity. Some chose not to (including many wargames publishers, a fact which pained me greatly). I’ve heard and read a lot of disturbing stuff in the past few months that makes me embarrassed to be a human being let alone a boardgamer. But I’ve also seen things that give me hope. Ultimately, I believe tabletop games–like all other artforms–sits in that weird area where entertainment, leisure, and escape meets culture, responsibility, and, yes, politics. Sometimes it all feels like a giant slog.
But then I sit down and play a prototype of a game coming out later this year and it’s so amazing that it reminds me why I love boardgames.