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Saturday, February 17, 2007


Boardgame knowledge.

Boardgaming is much like any hobby.

Some people are only superficially into their hobby and their needs can be met at WalMart.

Some people want to become more immersed in their hobby and their desire for more knowledge drives them out of WalMart and into specialty stores.

Still others become so enamored with their hobby that their desire for knowledge leads them to study the hobby, seek out experts and advice, and the hobby ends up consuming much of their disposable income.

How does one obtain boardgame knowledge? From playing many games?

How does one obtain knowledge of literature? By reading many books?

I've worked with women who read two or three books every week. By "books" I mean "romance novels", with the occasional Stephen King or John Grisham novel thrown in for good measure. Their knowledge of Shakespeare, Milton, Twain, Chaucer, Cervantes, or Joyce is less than mine, and my idea of a good read is the rules to BattleLore.

By the same token a guy who spends his high school years playing Magic and his college years playing Risk, Munchkin, Illuminati, and Axis and Allies may not be boardgame literate even though he has thousands of hours invested into the hobby.

Knowledge and appreciation for literature are fairly easy to come by, if you are so motivated. Some people got lucky and had a high school or junior high teacher who set them on the path, oriented them to what was good and bad literature, and told them why it was good or bad. After reading many books they were able to develop their own taste and preference, and know why they liked certain literature above other literature. Those folks probably have a grasp of what constitutes literature, even if they can't explain their reasoning.

For most people literature classes are available at a local college or other institution of higher learning. Bookstore employees are often knowledgeable and can offer guidance.

Where does one go to study boardgames?

There are a few lucky people whose parents are gamers and who have imparted some knowledge to their kids. Unfortunately, most parents think of a "good read" as The DaVinci Code or a Steven King novel, and only one game springs to mind when they think of "games", Monopoly.

I understand there are a few schools offering special classes for boardgames, but those schools are few and far between.

Gamestore employees are notoriously unknowledgeable about boardgames, or worse, have just enough knowledge to be dangerous. The guys who hang out at the local game store are probably oriented to miniatures, CCGs, or are the aforementioned college students who play Risk, Munchkin et al. If you are searching for knowledge about Warhammer, RPGs, or Magic: The Gathering, the gamestore might offer a Ph.D. level education in those subjects. Boardgame information taken from the local gamestore must be taken with a grain of salt.

So how does one become knowledgeable in boardgames?

First, obviously, one needs to play a lot of games. But one needs to play those games with like minded individuals. Like minded individuals can offer feedback and counter-thought to your observations. That does not mean that you should have an after-action session after every game, comments made during the course of the game often serve as thought provoking feedback.

It is important to play with other people who appreciate good games. Even if Uncle Alf likes Ticket to Ride his ability to compare it to other games begins and ends with rummy. On the other hand, if you can play T2R several times with like minded people you can begin to have a meaningful debate on whether the east-west routes are over valued, or if a bad draw of initial routes breaks the game. This debate doesn't have to be formal, it generally just happens during the game.

This is not dissimilar to the English majors (and guys who are hitting on English majors) who sit in the coffee shop, read their horoscope, do the crossword, and passionately discuss Ulysses.

Second, one needs to search out boardgame information. Ten years ago this was an exercise in futility. Books and magazines on the subject were hard to come by, or dedicated to a certain type of game. Mostly one had to find a knowledgeable gamer and glean as much information from him as one could. Unless you could find more than one knowledgeable gamer this method was of questionable value. Learning from one teacher is like... well... learning from one teacher. Imagine earning a degree if every course was taught by the same teacher. Even if he is a good teacher, one must be exposed to other viewpoints to appreciate just how good or bad the teacher is, and evaluate his information.

With the advent of the internet boardgame information is more readily available than ever before. More importantly the quality of that information is very good, if you look in the right spots.

With the internet one does not have to advertise in a specialty magazine for old copies of "The General". Old copies of "The Games Journal" are readily available on-line. Certain reviews from "Counter" magazine are available on Funagain, a commercial, internet game store, and free game reviews are widely available on blogs and other specialty sites.

Third, one needs intellectual stimulation. Just reading about games is like reading a book about literature. It's not a bad source of information, but reading about the subject with other students, and discussing the subject with other students under the direction of a good teacher is a much better method of learning.

That's where Boardgamegeek and ConSimWorld enter the discussion.

On these forums there are a plethora of students offering their opinions on any boardgame topic imaginable. To varying degrees these are informed opinions. Boardgamegeek and ConSimWorld are great places to ask questions, offer opinions, float trial balloons, and defend your thoughts which forces you to better analyze your reasoning. In many respects it is similar to a classroom.

Occasionally an exceptionally informed person will enter the discussion. This is were BGG fails. Without following many discussions over a period of several months it can be hard to discern who is exceptionally well informed, and who is blowing smoke. Sometimes a person will be a good source of information on one topic and blowing smoke on another.

It is much easier to discern who is exceptionally well informed on CSW, but those discussions are mostly limited to specific games. If there is an informative discussion about a general topic it is much harder to find, and once you find the discussion it is much harder to follow. There are not more experts on CSW, it is just easier to spot them in the crowd.

On second thought, maybe there are more experts on CSW. Since experts are more readily recognized in that forum, they are given due deference by most users. Where ConSim is weak is that it only covers a narrow spectrum of boardgames: wargames, and not even the whole spectrum of wargames. An expert on BGG will undoubtedly, eventually be called-out by some know-it-all, snot-nose punk. Snot-nosed punks act as expert repellent. I can recall at least two episodes in the past where snot-nosed punks told the game designer he was wrong concerning the rules to his own game.

Game designers are not the only experts who make appearances on BGG. Off the top of my head I can point to a couple specifics: Chris Farrell's commentaries are invaluable and his geeklist of 18xx games is a "must read" for anyone looking to acquire games in that series. Randy Cox and Matthew Gray's statistics are always interesting and full of information even if that information is not immediately useful. DW Tripp is always there to answer questions about the retail side of the business. Brian Bankler, Alex Rockwell, Richard Fawkes, and others' game commentaries are always good to read if a particular game interests you. And people with expertise in internet sales, boardgame history, traditional games, copyright issues, etc., etc., etc. lend their voice to the discussion at various times.

However, few if any of the people offering opinions on BGG and CSW consider themselves to be students, they consider themselves to be teachers. If you consider everyone offering advice to be a student, except for a few people who you know are experts in a specific field, your search for knowledge will be much smoother and less agonizing.

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