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Board Games, "the Buzz" and the Shiny New Penny Syndrome

Mister Nizz

Monday Morning Philosophy

I am getting more and more into podcasting lately and am contemplating doing one myself, if I can add anything of value to the general din of podcasts that are emerging from the aetherverse. One of the better ones is BOARDGAMES TO GO, produced by Mark Johnson, former microgame enthusisast and now Euro player. I've actually played a few PBeM games with Mark from time to time so I kind of "know him" in the internet sense-- I doubt I'll ever meet the guy out in the meatverse but I've been chatting via email on and off with him for a while. More OFF these days as he moves away from the games we used to have in common. Mark's podcast isn't quite as frenetic or humorous as some shows out there, but what I really like about it is the sheer dedication (to the point of mania) that Mark puts into the craft of producing the show on a timely basis, with lots of supporting material and meta-information available to support each podcast. Anyhow, I've been going through Mark's older 'casts and found a few that caught my eye (or ear, as it were). His recent (fiftieth! Good going, Mark!) podcast was with Mike Siggins, whose opinions used to grace SUMO and now he pops up here and there (most notably on CONSIMWORLD, but also on BGG the Wargame Mongrels Yahoo Group, and his own website, Czapska.com). I enjoyed Mike's SUMO stuff then and certainly enjoy his opinions now.

The show was about ESSEN SPIEL, the (the bigass game trade show in Essen, Germany held in October. One of the the strong recurrent themes of that particular podcast was a phrase that Mark Johnson repeated frequently, called "The Buzz". By "The Buzz", Mark and Mike were refering to the fan-generated hype that carries a game along to greater sales volumes (and attendant heavy volumes of discussion, high ratings on BGG and appearance as a hot topic on various websites). Consider this new game, CAYLUS. It debuted at Essen and already has SIX HUNDRED AND SEVENTY ONE comments, and an average rating of 8.44 on boardgamegeek. Those are some mighty impressive numbers, but I recall the same 'buzz' happening for PUERTO RICO, ST. PETERSBURG, and other games. I'm wondering, however, where the buzz will be tommorrow?

I prefer my own term for this phenomena, THE SHINY NEW PENNY SYNDROME. Euros can certainly generate waves of popularity, we've seen this phenonmenon again and again. One of the reasons I like wargames more than euros is that they tend to have far greater staying power than any Euro. Wargames are NOT immune to "the Buzz" or "the shiny new penny" syndrome. We all like to focus on new games-- like a crow focusing on a shiny new penny. Last year, the shiny new pennies were FRIEDRICH (yes, it's a wargame), WELLINGTON, BONAPARTE AT MARENGO, and EMPIRE OF THE SUN. Early contenders for the shiny new penny in 2006 will be THE BURNING BLUE, TWILIGHT STRUGGLE, COMMAND AND CONQUER: ANCIENTS, RAN, HELLAS, and God knows what else.

The difference is wargamers are still playing with last year's shiny new penny, and will continue to do so for a long while. Wargame publishers will write articles about them and publish expansion modules for them. Long rambling discussions on CSW will ensue over them, to the point of argument. Because that's what wargamers do. Each wargame is in either small or large part a "classic" with a built in community, thanks in great measure to WEB-GROGNARDS and CONSIMWORLD, that will greatly expand each game's replayability and staying power. Designers should thank their lucky stars that arguments DO break out over their games-- nobody wants a game that can't generate excitement.

Don't get me wrong, fights break out over games on BGG, and people support games there in their own way, but the furor (with some few exceptions) seems to be over after a year or so. Where are the shiny new pennies from 2000, 2001, & 2002 at the big gaming conventions? Some, like Puerto Rico and Settlers, are perennial favorites for some crowds. Most seem doomed to fade away. Again, wargames aren't immune to fading away, even the ones that get good initial press, but wargames do seem to generate more loyal longterm fans than Euros do.

I wonder if this is due to marketing, or a hugely different customer base? Hard to say really, since there's so much cross-pollination between groups. I play my share of Euros and really enjoy them, as do other wargamers. I guess the best indicator of a difference between the two sorts of games is the content inside the box-- if you can boil it all down to "That's a set collection game" or "that's an area movement and control game", then the game doesn't have enough flavor to communicate the theme adequately, and will probably fade away. That's a basic reality for any game.