Friday, May 15, 2009

Are Any Modern Games Destined to be Classics?

In his latest podcast, Mark Johnson and guest Greg Pettit tackle the question of whether any of the modern games we play - by which they mean Eurogames - are destined to be classics in the way that Chess and Scrabble are. On his blog, Chris Norwood contributed his thoughts on the subject.

What is a Classic?

Greg proposes five criteria for a game to be a "classic":
  • replayability
  • availability (easy to find or make)
  • accessibility (easy to start playing)
  • adaptability (components or rules can be tailored for different groups or cultures)
  • relevance (strikes a chord in a culture, or teaches something useful)
Mark adds that he expects to find a classic game available in a hotel room drawer, the way you sometimes find Chess or Scrabble sets.

They try to compare classic in games to classic in movies or books, in the hopes that classic-ness can be transferred between media; but they couldn't really define classic in movies or books, other than that it "stands the test of time".

Their list of classics includes "old classics" such as Chess and Backgammon, and "modern classics" such as Monopoly and Scrabble. Actually, their list of existing classic games preceded the discussion; they tried to define "classic" so that it encompassed these games.

My Thoughts

Games are evolutionary. Chess today is not like Chess in the 12th century, even if it's still called Chess. Backgammon can trace ancestry back to Senet over 400 years. Can a particular instance of a game be a classic? Or is it the entire game family?

Games occur in movements. Trivial Pursuit started a wave of other trivia games. Since Trivial Pursuit lost a lot of market share to these other games, does that make it not a classic? Or could we simply consider the trivia game movement itself a classic? Later in the podcast, Greg and Mark posit "some version of" a war game surviving, without necessarily implying that any specific war game will survive. Can the war games movement be a classic, if no war game is?

Standing the test of time is also difficult to judge. A game can be popular for several hundred years and still die out. Does that stop it from being a classic? Is the first game in a genre or movement a classic, or the currently most popular game, or the best-selling game, or the "best" game?

Chess, for instance, may not "survive the test of time". Tric Trac was played for hundreds of years; Senet for thousands. These games were eventually replaced by the incrementally better (?) game of Backgammon. Does that mean that they were not (or are not) classics? Who is to say that Chess will still be around in two hundred years? Or Monopoly? I'm sure some version of a Chess-like game will be around, as will some version of a roll and move game with purchased property spaces. Today's Monopoly is now with cities from around the world and electronic banking. Tomorrow's may fold in additional Eurogame mechanics.

What about variants? Is a game and its variants one game, or are the variants evolutions of the game design? Can a variant be considered a classic without considering the base game?

Comparing games, which are evolutionary, to movies or literature, which are standalone immutable works, is not apt, thought movies and books also exist within movements. With rare exception, a movie is a movie, and that's it. Movies don't get adapted and reworked into new, similar, but slightly different movies (again, with rare but growing exception). Other movies are made in the same genre or style, or with the same plot. But you don't add an actor or cut out some dialog and release a movie again, unless you're the director. The same goes for books. On the other hand, that is the heart of every new game: similar to a previous game with incremental changes.

In the last hundred years or so, most new games are protected by IP claims. Copyright law currently lets others adapt the mechanics of the game and release an incrementally changed game, but for how long? A greater number of patent claims on games also hampers new designers, who risk the possibility of trampling on someone's IP.

Classic Modern Games

Mark and Greg's idea of classic preclude some definitions of classic. Seminal works are not classics, to them. Only a popular game that stands the test of time is a classic, not a genre-changer. Most importantly, they assert that popularity has a lot to do with being a classic. I don't believe that this is the case. Since that's a big gulf between us, it should be no surprise that I disagree with nearly every conclusion they come to as to what modern games could be considered "classic".

Going only by their definition, a game must be ubiquitous and popular in fifty years time for the game to be considered a classic. "Popular" is the problematic word here: what is popular depends greatly on what is marketed. By their own definition, regular Monopoly will no longer be a classic, since World Monopoly is currently outselling it, unless they are considering all variants of the game to be the same game.

They also ignore older modern games, such as Acquire, presumably because they are already considered classics. For some reason they diss Diplomacy, although if Acquire is a classic, Diplomacy is all the more so.

In my estimation, Settlers of Catan has a good chance of being played fifty years from now; it's taken fifteen years to even start breaking into the mainstream markets. Its popularity is only going to grow. The same holds for some of the other gateway games, such as Ticket to Ride. I will add Blokus, LCR (sad to say), Set, and Boggle (unless Boggle is old enough to be a classic already).

Hive, Carcassonne, Puerto Rico, and others will probably survive as game mechanics in more accessible games. Some games like Tigris and Euphrates will survive intact within hobby niches, surely. I think we're in a golden age of game design; lots of trash games being made, sure, but many of these games are actually better than we realize.

Magic the Gathering? I don't know, but some card game with deck-building will be played. Same for party games, poker games, mini games, role playing games, and war games (Diplomacy is already a classic, as I mentioned). Many proprietary games will run into a problem when their publishing company dies, however, taking the IP rights with them. Where will Monopoly be when Hasbro goes belly up?


Gerald McD said...

Where will Monopoly be when Hasbro goes belly up? Well, I'm sure someone will buy that cash cow and keep milking it, perhaps forever.

Good comments by you. I haven't yet heard what I consider a convincing definition of "classic games," or any other type of entertainment (books, movies, automobiles, etc.) Although many folks can agree about certain movies and books as "classic," many others disagree with the list. I believe the identification of "classic" is strictly in the eye of the beholder (like beauty or truth).

Gregarius said...

Obviously, we had difficulty coming up with a definition of "classic." I think Gerald McD is correct when he says it is subjective.

I find it interesting that you "disagreed with our conclusions" but named Settlers as destined to be a classic just like we did. Honestly, I don't think we even reached any real conclusions; we just voiced some opinions and opened up the conversation. I'm thrilled it has elicited so much discussion!

And one last thing in our defense: we didn't "diss" Diplomacy. I (and probably Mark as well) simply forgot about it. I agree with you completely that it deserves to be considered a modern classic.

Anyway, great post! I really enjoyed reading your thoughts on the subject.