I may not remember precisely when I rediscovered board games, but I do remember the moment I knew I was hooked. In January of 2016, a friend invited me to join his much-anticipated playthrough of Twilight Imperium, a super-complicated game centering around galactic exploration and conquest. The only catch? The group was meeting three states over, requiring an hours-long drive through terrible weather – and a quick turnaround if I were to be back at work on Monday morning.
I made the drive and was eliminated in hour nine of what would become a twelve-hour game.
Over the intervening years, I’ve found that board games have become an increasingly important part of my relationships with others. They are a common thread that can pull together disparate friend groups. They are also an analog experience that helps me unplug – at least metaphorically – from my responsibilities as a full-time marketer and freelance film critic. Finally, board games serve as a perfect synthesis of my creative and analytical selves, marrying these disparate elements of my personality into one cohesive experience.
Thanks to the new documentary Gamemaster, board game fans have a film that can appreciate both the art and the economics of this billion-dollar industry. I had an opportunity to talk with director Charles Mruz before his Gen Con panel, “Making the Documentary Gamemaster,” which takes place this weekend during the conference’s online experience. In our interview, we discussed his film’s complexity and his willingness to confront some of the challenges of the board game industry head-on.
Balancing Entry-Level and Expert
One of the truisms of the board game community is that good games are good games, regardless of their complexity or popularity. Scroll through the BoardGameGeek list of the Top 100 games and you are as likely to find Azul – a tile drafting game available for purchase at any Target – as you are to find a behemoth like Twilight Imperium. Unlike other fandoms, it is not expected that you will “outgrow” the games that helped introduce you to the industry. Your only limit is your shelf space.
This can make board games (as a medium) more accessible than other communities, a fact that plays in favor of Gamemaster’s outside-in approach to the industry. In choosing to bounce between the experience of a group of amateur designers and the insights of respected board game designers and influencers, Mruz and his team made a conscious decision to craft a story that anyone could enjoy, even if your last board game experiences were with a childhood copy of Clue. “You don’t have to like wine to enjoy the movie Somm,” Mruz explains, referring to Jason Wise’s 2012 documentary about a four would-be Master Sommeliers. “You could have never had a drop in your life, and it’s an enjoyable film because it’s about trying to have a goal.”
Surprisingly, though, this outside-in approach allows Gamemaster to resonate especially well with experienced players. Take the film’s breakdown of the record-breaking success of Exploding Kittens. Elan Lee’s game made headlines in 2015 when it raised $8.7 million on Kickstarter; this was a game-changing (cough) amount of money that effectively restructured how board game publishers approached the distribution of their titles. Framing Gamemaster around a party game may seem like a surface-level reading of the industry, but Mruz uses the familiarity of the title – a game that many people have read about or even played – as a way of asking big questions about crowdfunding and financing.
“At the very, very beginning, I knew I wanted to get Exploding Kittens,” Mruz explains. “They were the first thing to say, hey look, board games on Kickstarter is a real thing.” And the influence of Kickstarter is one of the most important elements of the movie. It opens the door to the economics of the board game industry and serves as a reminder that the margins for any board game, no matter how successful, are a matter of life-and-death for their publishers. Mruz recalls a conversation he had with an executive at Kickstarter, who compared the board game industry to an independent record label. “They always had to choose whether or not they want to reprint an old record that might be popular again or that people seem to want,” he recalls, “or print something new. And if you make the wrong decision, you could be out of business.”
Telling the Right Board Game Stories
But Gamemaster’s deep dive into the economics of the board game industry are only half the story. The structural elements of the documentary serve to complement the human stories at the film’s core. Mruz and his team followed the four aspiring game designers over a two-year period, inadvertently providing the film with a series of balanced vignettes that highlight each stage of the publishing process. One designer self-publishes and struggles to stay afloat; another fails to raise the necessary funds during a Kickstarter campaign. Still another goes the more traditional route, traveling to board game conventions and meeting directly with publishers to discuss the viability of his design.
Given how well these stories balance struggles and successes in the board game industry, it is surprising to learn that Gamemaster was working with a limited pool of designers. Mruz only spoke to eight designers – give or take – before settling on his principals, a winnowing process that was made easy by many designers’ inability to turn their projects into a compelling narrative. “Whenever I approached a designer, I asked them a couple of questions,” Mruz recalls. “On the list was, ‘Tell me about your game. Why did you make it?’ You’d be surprised at how many people don’t have an answer.”
The diversity of these designers – “Arranged!” creator Nashra Balagamwala is from Pakistan while “Thug Life” designer Jason Serrato grew up a young Hispanic male in a dangerous part of Los Angeles – also serves as a nice counterpoint to the predominantly white spaces they navigate. “When we started making the documentary,” Mruz recalls, “we got into the spaces and it became abundantly clear that the primary demographic was overwhelmingly white males.” During the documentary, Serrato speaks most pointedly to this experience, recalling the frustrating feeling of opening a new board game box and finding only white-skinned miniatures to choose from. “As amazing as the gaming renaissance has been, I have never been more aware of not being a white person.”
The inequality of the board game space – or what Kickstarter’s Luke Crane refers to as a “puzzling diversity problem” in one segment – is no small cutaway in the film. Gamemaster identifies a handful of problems that have contributed to a homogenous culture. From the demographics of board game designers to the prohibitive price points of many well-respected tabletop games, the challenges of the board game reflect that of many other entertainment industries. If board games have an advantage, though, it is that every game session is an opportunity to break through those barriers. “It’s not like other people aren’t welcome,” Mruz notes. “The beauty of a board game is you need another person to play it.”
Telling Tabletop Stories
If there is one clear message in Gamemaster – one narrative arc that rises above the historical and cultural details – it is that board games represent an opportunity for people to tell unique and compelling stories. Each of the designers in Gamemaster creates a board game that represents their experiences or the experiences of their loved ones. In doing this, the designers create an opportunity for others to walk a mile in their shoes, from the streets of Los Angeles to the backroads of our national parks.
This means that, in the constant debate between mechanics and theme, Mruz’s preference seems clear. “I’ve had the good fortune of being exposed to a lot more board games,” the director concludes, “sometimes being taught how to play them by the creator, which is a thrill. And what I look for now is what is at the heart of the experience that they’re trying to give us.” Gamemaster shows how designers can use board games to break down cultural stigmas. It also shows how designers can give shape to entire universes that, until now, have only lived in their heads. You don’t need to understand the principles of game design to be swept up in their journeys as storytellers.
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