Over the last few weeks, I have had the privilege to play a number of new games. Unfortunately, nothing that has been on the many lists covering favourites or popular releases from Gen Con or Essen, but new games none the less. So when I looked at my shelf and was wondering what to take to my school board game club I felt a wave a fatigue wash over me. I wasn’t so much bored with the options, only tired of reading rules and feeling like I had to check every move. Tired of trying to work out new strategies and find the best way to play. So it may come as no surprise that what caught my eye was the 2003 Spiel des Jahres winner, Alhambra,
I must admit that there was a sense of renitence with taking this game to play with grade 7-12 students. I knew my first hurdle would be explaining what the heck an Alhambra actually was. This made me worry that if they couldn’t connect with the theme, they might struggle to connect with the game. As a back up I took several other games to fill the time, but still had hope that I might get a game in of Alhambra.
I walked into the room and dumped the games on the counter. The students immediately picked up Alhambra and were very interested in the game. “What is it, Mr. Adams?” “What’s it about?” “What’s an Alhambra?” “Can we play?” Um… yes. The game went really well and the kids had a blast. They had so much fun I was overjoyed by the experience and was warmly welcomed when I returned with the game the following week. I was particularly surprised at how well they took to a game like Alhambra. It really hit none of the marks I would expect from a game played with young people. It has a dated feel (mostly due to the art design), it has that Euro experience of parallel play with minimal interaction between players, it is entirely mechanics driven, and it has an agrarian theme set in the 13th century. No futuristic colonies, no modern or new mechanics, and no strong connection of theme to mechanics.
It just made me wonder why this game would be such a success. I had to spend some time theorising why this was. My desire to play something familiar to me turned out to be new and exciting to this particular audience. This game was a solid game that found new life with an audience who was simply too young to have ever played it, or possibly anything like it. I considered that perhaps it was a novelty. It seemed to me that the experience of a new game is still the same even if the game has been out for awhile. This led me to reconsider what it meant to be part of the “cult of the new”.
Saying someone was part of the “cult of the new” was once a way to shame others about being fickle and flighty with their gaming. Instead of committing to a game and learning how to play it well, they sample whatever is new and move on to the next exciting shiny publication. All you had to say was “cult of the new” and people understood the gaming indiscretion. But the cult of the new is almost a given today. Some embrace it boldly claiming they are only interested in the newest and latest. These attention deficit gamers struggle to ever fully learn or enjoy a game beyond a few plays. For me, I have found this type of experience both exhausting and costly. I simply do not enjoy spending every game night reading rulebooks continuously as I take each turn. Yet for some, it is the totality of their experience. Now I do not intend this to be a criticism. I think attitudes are changing and being more invested in new games is just a product of modern society and remains a value-neutral experience, which is perhaps why the “cult of the new” label has lost its stigma. Yet for me, I find myself incapable of sustaining that sort of gaming habit. At the same time, I do love playing new games.
My financial incapability of being part of the “cult of the new” got me thinking. Perhaps games are getting to a point where older games with solid mechanics might find a fresh start if brought out today. As a result, I become more active in the trading forums on BoardGameGeek. Why? Because budgets are tight and my experience with Alhambra made me realise that there are many games out there that I have not tried. And while those games may be tired and no longer of interest to their owner, I am an entirely new audience that has yet to experience them. It has also made me more accountable for my collection, forcing me to trade away an older game for a new gaming experience. In the last couple of weeks, I have had several new gaming experiences with older games and loved it. Asara was a great game designed by a couple of my favourite designers, Wolfgang Kramer and Micael Kiesling. I even picked up Baseball Highlights by designing giant Martin Wallace. These games may not be on any Essen or Gen Con list but the gaming experience has been great.
These kids at school have taught me to be less “cult of the new” game, but “cult of the new gaming experience”. This is no way means I will not need my regular favourites. Some nights I know I just need to get out Small World or Alhambra. But when I go out for something new, I will be looking at new gaming experiences, not necessarily new games.