Reflections on the strangely exclusive and competitive relationship between game enthusiasm and game design
In my three years of designing board games, I have discovered an unexpected quirk in the constituency of the game design end of the hobby: there are not nearly as many board game enthusiasts as I had expected to see here. In fact, it seems almost as if a majority of designers actually do not play board games regularly (at least in my limited experience) – or if they do, it might be a small number of games with high repetition of plays.
I suppose it makes some sense that the two aspects of gaming – enthusiasm and design – might functionally be somewhat mutually exclusive. Designing, after all, is an intensive largely individual pursuit, and it demands a different kind of attention; it requires high detail, repetition, perseverance, dedication, time, and an at times masochistic drive for analysis, critical reflection, and feedback. It requires a high investment of time and energy for what might appear to be a small return (a small change in the rules or a minor alteration in appearance, for example), and it mandates a narrowing of focus into an increasingly smaller target.
Being a board game enthusiast, however, requires a different kind of brain space. For one, many enthusiasts play many different games and are constantly learning new rules and researching new games to play, rather than focusing on one design. Their pursuit is inherently social, whereas design is very singular – even in the play testing phase – as much of the effort on the part of the designer is to attempt to get what is in their heads out into a playable form and there can sometimes be very little information that is open for others to access.
Although the desire to try new things is part of both sides of the hobby, designers (necessarily) channel that energy into a limited scope related to a small number of projects (or changes within those projects), whereas board games spread out that energy amongst learning new games. There might be a similar quantitative investiture of time and energy as there is in game design, but playing many games is qualitatively different enough from an intense focus on one game that it does not necessarily feel like it’s the same level of input required for both enthusiasm and design.
Perhaps the relationship between board games and game design is somewhat analogous to how some actors and/or writers do not watch many movies or television shows, since they’re so busy making them. Or like the difference between being a creator and a critic – or a consumer, for that matter: when your hobby becomes “work” (so to speak), your relationship to it is necessarily different.