Thursday, September 20, 2007

Everything New Is Old Again

Perhaps one of my biggest pet peeves about contemporary cinema is that Hollywood has apparently run out of ideas (actually, they ran out about 20 years ago), and has spent most of it's time "reimagining" or "revitalizing" old stories, characters, plots, etc. For a while, every cartoon you ever watched as a child was getting a blockbuster makeover for theatrical release. From the Flintstones to Transformers to Charlie's Angels, it's recycle, recycle, recycle.

Sadly, it's mostly been trash.

It's a bit alarming to have the revelation that the gaming industry is going through the same problem. How many variations of Carcassone came out before there was one that I'd enjoy playing with gamers (actually, there are two: Discovery and City)? I rarely buy new games anymore, mostly because they feel like yet another permutation of what has become a fixed set of mechanisms, pasted together with a theme that hasn't yet been used. There are exceptions, but in general I feel like I'm just getting yet another hamburger from yet another fast food joint.

So when I read the news that Teuber is going to refresh the Settlers franchise, I know that the golden age of Eurogames is officially over. We all love Settlers, but it never was a particularly good game, at least not with people who figured it out. There are a million expansions, many of which I own, and some actually make it a better game. The sad fact remains that with players of equal calibre it is almost certain doom to be the first person to place your town as you'll also get stuck with the worst place, and two OK sites are considerably better than a great one and a crappy one, especially if you can place them one after the other.

So maybe Settlers needs a bit of an overhaul, but this means that all of the expansions require overhauls as well. Not that I'm teaching a math class here, but my investment in the Settlers system (and we're just talking expansions here, not the card game or the atrocity that was Elasund and Candamir, or Starfarers which I still believe is the best of the bunch) extends to Seafarers, Cities & Knights, Das Buch, three 5&6 player expansion sets to allow me not to have to mix red and orange on the board, both historical expansions, plus three or four mini expansions that let you fish or build a waste management empire (or whatever they happen to be, it's all a blur after a while).

You can see how this would be a commercially appealing idea at a time when putting out a new game, even by an established designer and publisher, is met with a collective yawn. Settlers, rightly or wrongly, has a great reputation with non-hobbyists both here and in Europe. The other day I was in a game store, and a couple came in wanting to buy that "great game they played with friends over the weekend". It's like they drank Nescafe their entire lives and just discovered that McDonald's has OK coffee. God help them if they ever challenge themselves and try *good* coffee, or a *good* game.

I don't mean to dis Settlers - it was a landmark design at the time, and clearly has been a huge hit. I'm simply saying that there are many very good games out there, and Settlers really doesn't compare terribly well to them, even from a non-hobbyist perspective. Ticket to Ride is an excellent game to play with non-hobbyists, as is Carc: The Discovery. And while I *might* consider pulling out Settlers to get non-hobbyists interested in Euros, the simple fact is that it's main competiton is the unholy Triumvirate of Classic Ameritrash titles: Clue, Monopoly, and Sorry. When you play a game that involves few meaningful choices, of course Settlers looks like you've discovered the Promised Land when what you've really discovered is that there's something other than Cleveland.

Sorry, Cleveland. Congrats on that win over the Bengals, though! And I thought you were very nice to that Johnson boy who got lost in the Dog Pound.

So the big gorilla of gaming has decided to put its weight behind recycling their biggest money-maker. If there is a more obvious sign of the Apocalypse of Eurogaming, I really couldn't tell you what it might be. What I can tell you is that I am pretty unlikely to repurchase an entire game line, especially when the last efforts to link new designs to the franchise (Candamir!) were so weak.

On the positive side, the wargaming industry seems to be experiencing a renaissance of new designs, from Combat Commander to MMP's International Gamer's series. See, I like A Victory Lost just fine.


Greg said...

Amusing segue to football. Loved the Dog Pound dumping beer on Chad. I also have to give it up to T.O., *gasp*, for his riff on the Patriots "scandal".

I'm not sure what to think about the Catan re-issue. Perhaps I'll comment further when I've had more time to formulate my thoughts.

scott b said...

From what I've read, the game is just getting new graphics, not an overhaul, so I'm not sure what all the fuss was in this column.

Also, why begrudge a person who discovers Settlers. In my opinion, it's better than 95% of all Euros out there. At least it's more fun. Should he instead not have had fun with the game? Should he only get excited about Puerto Rico or whatever other top 20 game?

I'm not sure how you're measuring people's skill in Settlers, but don't you think the dice have some impact on the game? I seriously doubt the people I play with can predict with any certainty how the dice will come up throughout the game; we do our best to make initial placements and then do our best with what the dice offer. And aren't others' movements on the board going to affect your decisions?

You just sound like a very jaded gamer right now if this is your reaction to the updated Settlers graphics.

Dug said...

A couple of clarifications:

1) While The Boardgame News said that Settlers was receiving a graphics and design overhaul, the truth is that the design is remaining more or less intact. This does not detract from my argument that game companies are recycling rather than innovating.

2) I believe that people should play the games they want to play with the people they want to play with. Period. That said, there is clearly room for critical analysis of a game, and while I suspect Settlers is a sentimental choice for many (me included), it does not stand up to comparison with many other Euros at all levels of complexity and duration. If anyone is interested I'd give a critical review of the game in a future entry.

3) My thoughts on the game come from something like 30 playings of the base game and various permutations, including Das Buch scenarios. One thing I will state categorically - This is a game where it matters more who you play with than the game itself. The one WBC tournament I took part in of this game was perhaps the most painful four hours I have ever spent, culminating in a game that nearly resulted in a knife fight (I would not have been involved).

4) I am a jaded gamer, no question. I am also a critical (in the positive sense) gamer, an analytical gamer, a social gamer, a generous gamer, and a fun gamer. I simply see that the hobby has been in a golden age for the past ten years and is reaching it's end. The games won't go away, but at the same time it's pretty clear that few really intriguing games are coming out. While it is possible that I'm just more discerning (and I am), we've reached a point where even a new Wallace title doesn't get me excited. The key word being "me".

If you like Settlers, play Settlers. I just happen to think that a) there are better games out there, and b) the industry has run out of ideas or is running out, and the recycling of the most successful franchise in the hobby merely punctuates that thesis.

Greg said...

My perspective on all this is different than yours. I've only been into gaming in the modern sense for about six or seven years and I think I would be lucky if I've played more than 150 times in that span. The majority of my exposure to a larger variety of games has come in the last year since I've started reading gaming blogs, listening to gaming podcasts and attending meetups. So I don't notice repeated themes or play mechanics as often as you would.

That being said I don't think the golden age of games is ending, just that the marketplace is getting diluted. There are more quality publishers in the American market than ever before. Production values are at an all time high. There are more games to choose from, though some will inevitably be derivative. As a result the market has expanded so it is getting harder to notice the stand-out games.

I think some remakes are demanded by the market. The impending Cosmic Encounter reprint seems to be in that vein. For Settlers, Mayfair could be trying to broaden the appeal of it's cornerstone franchise which already has a reputation for being a gateway game. Will the improved production value lure a few more to try it?

I don't think even the endless expansions for Settlers or Carcassone have reached the cynical level that Hollywood remakes have. That atmosphere was born in a risk-averse environment where hundreds of millions of dollars go into making a movie that could end up losing the majority of its investment. Some players really like those games so much that they love any variation they can get on the theme.

Re-issuing a game like Settlers doesn't really effect most gamers unless it prevents another game from coming to market. Some gamers who already own Settlers will not update. Some are so enamored of it that they will buy any perceived upgrade. Others don't own it and may finally be won over by the improved production and design. And there are those who hate Settlers and will continue to ignore it.

I don't think we'll see a collapse in the games market unless we all lose interest in games. I don't see that happening. Especially not when everywhere I turn I learn about how to raise kids as gamers. We love sharing our hobby with others. We are all growing the market. There may be years when there aren't many new or original designs but I think we and our hobby will continue to prosper.