Fire the Canon

A couple of weeks ago, I posted an article on a ‘Cult of the Old’ in board and card game commentary; a consideration of how the generalized voice of board game commentary is less fanatical in its worship of the new than that of, say, popular music or films.

Partly, I argued, this has to do with the availability of the new (that following newly released music is cheaper and easier than following newly released board and card games).

However, perhaps it’s also, in part, because the board games sphere does not yet understand its own past. Whether within his or her tastes or not, only the most desperate of provocateurs would refute the status awarded to say, Elvis Presley or The Beatles. By consequence, a review of a Beatles album today would feel a little redundant (though reissues are reviewed, it tends to be that they are evaluated on the likes of sound-quality and packaging, rather than the music in itself). The influence of Presley and The Beatles is irrefutable, their innovation almost as incontestable; in the extent to which each contributed to the nature of popular music, they must be considered masters of the form. They are at the core of a canon: professing to know about popular music without a decent familiarity with The Beatles comes off as absurd (though this is not to say that liking their music should be considered obligatory).

What about the canon of board games? A likely answer, is that modern board and card games as a whole are too young as cultural items to have a canon.  Though games like Go and Chess are perhaps the oldest cultural items to still hold widespread appeal, much of the development in modern board games has taken place within the last twenty or so years. If The Settlers of Catan is the nearest there is to a board game which represents modern design to a (slightly) wider audience, the fact so many regular players are uncomfortable with it representing their hobby suggests its canonicity is not entirely fixed.

Nevertheless it’s an interesting exercise to consider which games could, and perhaps should, come to constitute the core of an emergent canon. It’s also potentially useful to consider. While we may be used to the canon of Western literature representing an object of criticism and contestation – disparaged for its predominance of middle and upper class white men, it is clearly valuable for new readers to have an idea of which works are most widely esteemed to be great.

As Harold Bloom puts it, canonicity – with respect to literature – is granted to works a culture deems are ‘are most essential for study by the young.’ This status, he feels, should be earnt by the works which represent the highest aesthetic achievements. There’s much to be debated in each idea. But still, what are the most monumental achievements in board games?

Reference to sales figures would make Monopoly and Scrabble the canon of board games. However, neither is undoubtedly an achievement in an aesthetic sense (though Scrabble,  at least, could be considered a valuable study tool for the young, if not a worthy object of study in itself).

Perhaps the Spiel des Jahres award is more fertile territory for investigation. Among the four criteria for earning the award is that a game concept be original and playable (the quality of the games components, its rulebook and packaging are also considered). For convenience, I have posted a list of the winning games to date, and their designers. I, for one, found it interesting to consider how the list stands as a recent history of board games, as a possible canon.

Spiel des Jahres Winners:

2011: Qwirkle (Susan McKinley Ross)

2010: Dixit (Jean-Louis Roubira)

2009: Dominion (Donald X. Vaccarino)

2008: Keltis (Reiner Knizia)

2007: Zooloretto (Michael Schacht)

2006: Thurn Und Taxis (Andreas Seyfarth, Karen Seyfarth)

2005: Niagara (Thomas Liesching)

2004: Ticket to Ride (Alan R. Moon)

2003: Alhambra (Dirk Henn)

2002: Villa Paletti (Bill Payne)

2001: Carcassonne (Klaus-Jürgen Wrede)

2000: Torres (Wolfgang Kramer, Michael Kiesling)

1999: Tikal (Wolfgang Kramer, Michael Kiesling)

1998: Elfenland (Alan R. Moon)

1997: Mississippi Queen (Werner Hodel)

1996: El Grande Wolfgang Kramer, Richard Ulrich)

1995: The Settlers of Catan (Klaus Teuber)

1994: Manhattan (Andreas Seyfarth)

1993: Liar’s Dice (Richard Borg)

1992: Um Reifenbreite (Rob Bontenbal)

1991: Drunter und Drüber (Klaus Teuber)

1990: Hoity Toity (Klaus Teuber)

1989: Café International (Rudi Hoffmann)

1988: Barbarossa (Klaus Teuber)

1987: Auf Achse (Wolfgang Kramer)

1986: Top Secret Spies (Wolfgang Kramer)

1985: Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective (Raymond Edwards, Suzanne Goldberg, Gary Grady)

1984: Railway Rivals (David Watts)

1983: Scotland Yard (Werner Schlegel, Dorothy Garrels, Fritz Ifland, Manfred Burggraf, Werner Scheerer, Wolf Hoermann)

1982: Enchanted Forest (Alex Randolph, Michel Matschoss)

1981: Focus (Sid Sackson)

1980: Rummikub (Ephraim Hertzano)

1979: Hare and Tortoise (David Parlett)

It’s fair to say, a number of these games have failed to enjoy widespread lasting popularity. Just as the Academy Awards are a poor indicator of a film’s residual impact (Amadeus and Driving Miss Daisy, to take two of a great number of possible examples, can hardly be considered members of cinema’s canon), to some extent the same is true here. But, as a sketch of the enriching possibilities of board games, the list is credible. Though more accessible games are favoured by the judges (a fact tacitly recognized with the introduction of the Kennerspiel des Jahres, awarded to more challenging games), Carcassonne, Ticket to Ride and Zooloretto have all been fantastic experiences for me personally. Each is a rich imaginative stimulant, and each, I feel, is an aesthetic achievement in both a broad and a narrow sense.

How does this compare with the Board Game Geek Top 100? A list centred upon more demanding, intricate games, it’s notable how little overlap there is with the list of Spiel des Jahres winners; only Dominion, El GrandeCarcassonne, The Settlers of Catan and Ticket to Ride appear in both lists.

Perhaps, though, those five games are a good starting point for defining a canon. Each is, in one respect or another, a grand achievement. It’s hard to imagine that these games, particularly the latter three, will not still be widely enjoyed many years from now. And each, I think, can stand both as a tool for study (i.e. learning through play), and as an object for study in itself. If the canon is in large part a tool to orient the unfamiliar, I feel this list, though short, is entirely more helpful than the often elitist Board Game Geek Top 100 as a whole.

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3 thoughts on “Fire the Canon

  1. Pingback: How Board Game Commentary Can Improve | Painted Wooden Cubes

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