In a way, I find it difficult to write review of these films about the board game industry. Having spent most of my life in the hobby, I know it well so I can speak from an informed point of view. I certainly know some of the people involved and have attended events where they are filmed (our own Strategicon conventions here in Southern California, BGG.con, the Gathering of Friends, Spiel in Essen, etc.) so there’s an odd little connection to the subjects at hand. Plus, some of them don’t seem to be aimed at me; they are more introductory or targeted to an audience who is new to the hobby or just trying to get some insight into what our little world is like. Those documentaries serve a good purpose and I’m glad they exist.
In general, the documentary films (these geek culture ones are sometimes called ‘geekumentaries’) that appeal to me the most are those that don’t tell the story of a world in a reverential way. I like them, as they say, ‘warts and all.’ I want the films to be real in their depiction of the world inside a hobby or subculture even when it means we’ll laugh at the people a bit.
Maybe the inspiration comes from Trekkies, the geekumentary done in 1997 by Roger Nygard. I love the film so much because it is funny and it wasn’t afraid to show its participants in the direct light. I’m not a Trekkie and never was but this film gave me insight into the cult, made me laugh, and also told some stories that affected me. The film is so entertaining, I’m pretty sure I’ve seen it thrice (not common for me). Not so the sequel, which seems to have been made by someone else (it wasn’t) who wanted to dignify the subculture rather than telling real stories. I saw a similarly respectful geekumentary about Lord of the Rings fans that made it sound like these folks were leading incredibly fulfilling and worthwhile lives because they spent all this time thinking about fantasy worlds and dressing up like hobbits. I fell asleep watching it (and it wasn’t very late that night).
Maybe some people want to watch these films to get reassurance that their subculture/hobby/cult is the best, justifies their lack of success in other aspects of life or whatever but that’s not why I watch them. As I expect of any kind of art, I want to be educated in a way that isn’t just factual. I’m seeking an experience to learn more about the human condition. That’s what I love about great books, art, film, popular music, and television.
There are other good examples. The Dungeon Masters was successful in this way; the lives of the subjects were laid bare. Their hobby took a toll on what else they could do in life and yet they allowed the filmmakers to tell their stories. The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters is a rare geekumentary that achieves nirvana through a real-life plot, villains and heroes, and wonderful performances of the cast being their own crazy selves. Some of the same people have appeared in other documentaries on the subject that fell short because the filmmakers just didn’t find the human drama in the story that Seth Gordon did. The Monopoly film from a few years back did a pretty good job of this, too, although my friend Ken Koury will tell you that he is NOT the villain of the story; he’s the hero. Either way, it’s a solid yarn that draws you in. A quick mention of Monster Camp is in order as well. While LARPing has a generally high laugh-at-the-freaks factor, the film depicts the challenges these folks experience in a real way.
It’s with this high standard (and 600-word introduction) that I finally come to the film I watched last night, The Next Great American Game. Created by Douglas Morse, TNGAG tells the story of a Graphic Design professor, Randall Hoyt, trying to get his board game published. Now, I know dozens and dozens of budding designers as a result of being part of play testing groups and conventions and I thought I was sitting down to watch the struggle that I hear about all the time. I know so many talented designers who were longtime experts at games, started building games in their spare time, and eventually began the hunt for a publisher, working all the angles they could based on their long experience in the hobby.
TNGAG is not about one of those people. Instead, it’s about a guy from New Hampshire who just made a game about something that apparently interested him (um, driving in traffic) and played it with his small group of friends for about five years before packing up and heading to the biggest game convention in the US (GenCon) to pitch it to publishers. He keeps saying he’s not a designer and even expresses frustration playing eurogames (“too much thinking!”). As I watched, I could only giggle at how he did just about everything a novice game designer isn’t supposed to do: refused good feedback, failed to know his market, and showed clearly to everyone he encountered that he was waytooclose to his game (which sounds pretty lousy from a eurogamer’s perspective, despite a gorgeous prototype). Some of the publishers he seeks out are nice to him, some of them are more forthright. This part of his odyssey is perhaps funnier to me because he’s turning down advice from people that I know personally and can confirm that he should be taking notes instead of having these wacky freakouts about how they just don’t get him and the fact that he’s clearly created “The Next Great American Game” (he keeps saying that, generating a bigger laugh each time). Keep in mind that, for him, that’s a description of another Monopoly, not another Ticket to Ride or Qwirkle or Kingdom Builder. He’s thinking mass-market, $5-a-box on Black Friday stuff, not a euro that gaming snobs like me would respect (and play).
As the film progresses, you learn more about our hero, including some details about his personal life that temper the chuckles a bit. We also learn about another successful game-like product he’s created that shows a bit of why he has such confidence in his obviously under-developed game. The journey he takes as the film progresses is enjoyable to watch as he accepts more of what people suggest and starts to learn what it is going to take to actually sell his game. I won’t spoil the full progress and details of the film but I was thoroughly engrossed in his journey and recommend it for people who want to see a depiction of a human being struggling to get something done that he thinks will be easy because he worked so hard at it, only to find out the world isn’t so simple. There many times when Morse captures poignant moments that look to be spontaneous and I hope they really were. There’s some snarky fun for those who know the industry a bit. Mostly, though, it’s just a satisfying human story that I was happy to take in.
Oddly and perhaps pointing to my suspicion that Morse set out to make a different movie, the extras have a bunch of interviews with terrific game designers. Who in our hobby wouldn’t enjoy listening to Reiner Knizia, Klaus Teuber, and Alan Moon talk about games? You have something wrong with you if you don’t get drawn into Matt Leacock and Eric Lang (two of the nicest designers I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting) sheepishly interviewing each other and then finding gold in each other’s comments. I couldn’t stop smiling while watching the snippet on Antoine Bauza, another masterful designer who is an interesting interview because he’s such an expressive, smart, and interesting guy. The extras are a terrific bonus even if they feel like they are leftovers from another project. Honestly, I didn’t follow the campaign for the Kickstarter on “Adventures on the Tabletop” much. If your Kickstarter has long updates, I rarely read them unless I’m wondering where the $&#*$ my game has gone missing (a lot of that right now with the Port of Los Angeles shipping issues). Yes, I realize the hypocrisy of noting that almost 1,500 words into my rather gonzo review of The Next Great American Game. Regardless, I’m unclear as to whether a separate film called Adventures on the Tabletop that is more like those survey kind of films will be showing up in an update at some point with insight into actual game design techniques and not whatever Randall has been doing for five years. The extras (juicy and watchable as they are) suggest to me that the answer is no since Morse seems to have focused on this quirkier, more intriguing story. Thank goodness he did because TNGAG is a small wonder.
The Next Great American Game is available from the BGG store and I recommend you pick it up. Watch the preview below and then go buy it, buddy.