A plushie of the 'This is Fine' dog

The Obligation

You’re reading this on Monday. On Friday Mrs Meeple and I will be on a plane, heading off to our new home in Gothenburg. It’s an exciting time to be sure – I’m looking forward to starting my new role at Chalmers University of Technology. I’ve been working towards this, or something like it, for a long time – I have finally fully merged my interests into a job that sees their value. Games are no longer something that I have to crowbar into my professional life. They’re written right there in my job description. What a time to be alive!

It’s also a time of milestones. ‘Last day at work’, ‘last time I’ll see these friends (for a while at least)’, ‘Last night in the home we’ve had for five years’. There’s way too much to do for me to get melancholy or maudlin, but the whole process has really loosened up some thoughts I’ve been having about board games for a while. I’m not overly contemplative about the move itself, in other words, but it has shaken free some things that have been bothering me in the background for a while.

One of the great things about working in a very mobile and international sector like higher education is that the process of moving is a hundred times easier than it is for many people uprooting themselves. Part of the new job is the provision of a ‘relocation package’ and that means for a lot of what’s been happening we’ve mostly just been in the way. The movers came in, and in a morning carted off all the possessions we were sending off to Sweden. And a few that we weren’t, because communication is always a casualty in these kind of events. One set of things that was going was, of course, our board game collection. It’s probably the single biggest line item on the inventory. One of the people quoting us for a move marked them down as ‘toys’ in the manifest and I was quietly enraged. ‘Sir’, I felt like saying, ‘These are not toys. These are the tools of my profession’. Here they are, the night before they got packed away into boxes.

Shelves of games banded up and ready to go

That’s not even all of them. Some are in a bag ready for me to take to my mother so they are there for Christmas because I’m not going to cart them through international airspace if I can help it. I don’t want to have to explain to a stern-faced security guard why I have a box entitled ‘The Resistance and a pile of foam firearms in another box marked ‘Cash and Guns’.

I’ve been shedding games wildly over the past few months, ever since I knew we were moving to Sweden. I’ve outlined some of that already in our post about Tabletop Scotland 2019, but I’ve also given away big boxes full of games to some of our friends. I’ve shed maybe a hundred of them, mostly the bigger box games I’d truthfully never play. My God though I wished I’d gone in heavier with the culling machete. That happened at the point I was frantically trying to put rubber bands around them in a way that had a chance of not snapping over the next few weeks in transit. At that point I kind of realised something I’d known but not confronted for a while. They’d ceased to be boxes full of promise and instead became looming, oppressive obligations.

If it was just the stresses of the move I’d expect that to change when they finally arrive at our new apartment, but honestly this is just the final resting temperature of something that’s been boiling inside me for a while.

This past Friday we had a games night with a couple of our friends who we won’t be seeing for some time. We played Chinatown, because Chinatown is an amazing game and it had exactly the right kind of vibrant social energy we wanted from the evening. It was wonderful – like being immersed in a warm, comforting bath. We played a game we already knew, that we knew would be fun. It was a chance to exploit a known richness in my game library rather than explore more uncertain terrain.

This isn’t likely to be true of people that don’t produce ‘content’ (urgh), but every games night in which I participate has a secondary purpose. It’s a chance for me to move one or more games closer to the ‘ready to review’ pile. Mrs Meeple and I rarely get a chance to return to those games we have raved about on the site – the constant need to produce a review every week means that our very limited time has to be spent carefully to make sure that each piece of coverage is fair and rounded. There are reviewers out there, full-time and hobbyist, that manage to produce multiple reviews in a week and I honestly have no idea how they find the time. Writing the reviews and teardowns is the quick part of the process for me – arranging time to play enough games to keep up with the output is the really hard part.

I guess in some ways that just shows the difference in mindsets between the way I approach Meeple Like Us and the way others approach their own outlets. I’m an academic first, firmly, and a content creator (urgh) on the side. I suspect many view it the other way around – they’re a content creator being subsidized by a full time job.

Those same games all boxed up ready to be packed on the truck

And that’s what I mean when I say the games on my shelves increasingly feel like obligations – not fun in a box, but a duty that I need to execute at some point whether I actually have any particular desire to do so or not. I’ve been feeling pretty burned out of late – a difficult, complex move coupled to the drumbeat of production has sapped away a lot of my enthusiasm. That I suspect is temporary but there’s no denying that I’m not hungry to play in the way I have been in the past. That lack of appetite is a problem that I need to constantly work around. And it’s not helped by the fact that many games are gluttonous with the attention they demand.

I have had Star Wars Rebellion for literal years at this point, and I’ve never done more than open the manual. Why? It quotes a playtime between three and four hours on BoardGameGeek. We play games at least three times before they get reviewed and that means that I’ll likely need to spend between nine and twelve hours playing this game before I’m in a position to write something. And that assumes that I feel like I understand a game like this well enough after only three sessions That’s more than a full work day. That’s an extraordinary chunk of time for a game to demand of two people. At the higher end of the estimate it’s a full 24 person hours. It’s a time demand that makes me wince every time I think about it and that’s a shame because the game itself sounds like a lot of fun. It just seems fun that is aimed at someone with a fundamentally different kind of life. I don’t even have kids or any real hobbies outside of gaming – I honestly don’t know how other people can get games like this reviewed without it being their full-time job.

Legacy games are another issue on top of this – they demand not just play-time but an ongoing commitment. We’re about two thirds of the way through Pandemic Legacy Season One. It’s definitely a game that will be getting a glowing review if I ever get to the end. But my god, that’s a twelve game campaign that sometimes needs you to repeat particular months if you fail. Honestly at this point every time I look at the box I just feel anxious. I don’t even remember what has happened in the previous months of the game and that makes me feel worried about opening it up again. All the rules that got added in, all the new mechanisms, all the new features – I’m going to have to learn them anew every time I set it up. I have Charterstone still sitting in the shrink wrap. I sold Seafall for about a fiver. But there are still games on my shelves that are going to expect me to play them dozens of times before I can offer a fully authentic view of the experience. Honestly? That feels excessively entitled. Every time I hear that someone is developing a new legacy game it makes me a little angry before I remember that I’m not actually forced to play or cover them.

Every so often I see a new video game advertised as having something like ‘eighty hours of the main campaign’ and honestly it sounds like a threat as opposed to a promise. When I was young I used to adore games like the old gold box SSI AD&D titles. Sprawling games where massive, lengthy campaigns were married to careful tactical combat where each battle could take a good half hour or more. In my youth, when I had no other calls on me, I’d love to spend that amount of time immersed in a game world. Adventuring through Krynn while the cold Scottish rain beat on my bedroom window – it was magical.

You never know when you’re young though how good you’ve got it – going to school seemed like an unbearable time sink. Imagine nowadays if someone said ‘You get to go to a building every day and learn things with your mates’. Imagine simply having the time to see your friends daily. I’ve never been a subscriber to the belief that school is the best time of your life. I was bullied too mercilessly for that to be true even in the best of circumstances. And honestly if school was your high point it just makes the rest of your life seem bleak. But you know – that arrangement is something I would pay money for these days. That easy surplus of time was a treasure I had no idea how to value.

We often talk about the ‘shelf of shame’ in this hobby – the growing collections of games we bought but never played. Really though, the shelf of shame is actually a shelf of sadness. It’s the collection that you bought for the person you can never be – the person with infinite time that is surrounded by friends with equally infinite time and compatible appetites for play. One thing they never pack into the box is the time to appreciate what you’ve just bought. That’s a precious currency and it all comes from the same fixed and ever shrinking budget. That budget is also being spent on building a career, a family (for some) and finding some meaningful time for yourself. What’s left over at the end – that’s all you can realistically afford for more frivolous pursuits.

I’ve spoken myself a number of times about the conspicuous consumption in this hobby, and I maintain it is a massive problem that is exacerbating these issues by forcing ever greater numbers of games into the marketplace. I’m less inclined to think of it as an issue of greed and capitalism though. I think it’s driven in a large part by a kind of animal panic about the scarcity of time. We don’t buy time when we buy things, but you know… you can kind of convince yourself you do.

We should be demanding games justify every minute they ask of us, but we’re not there as a hobby. We’re at the stage where we buy games designed by people like us, but for people like we used to be. It’s a largely middle-aged hobby that acts as if everyone has the same richness of time as an eight year old. Some people will actually have that time, and I’m overwhelmingly jealous. I feel though that many games don’t realise how profoundly unwelcoming those play-times are.

I’m not really arguing for a solution here, other than perhaps for us all to be more critical of how much time we spend to get the fun out of a game. Maybe it’s not actually a problem at all. It probably isn’t. It’s probably my own elevated levels of stress talking. Really I’m just writing this as a kind of frustrated howl in the wild. Time is the one truly valuable thing that we possess – you can always get more money, but you can never get more time. I feel like a lot of games on my shelves simply don’t care that we’re all on a one-way journey to the grave. They don’t care that there’s a lot of other stuff that needs to get done with the time we have left before we can feel okay about arriving at our final destination.