Gilbey on Film: Situation critical

A genuine critic doesn't use tricks or tomfoolery.

In his introductory column last week, the Telegraph's new film reviewer, Robbie Collin (late of the late News of the World) set out his stall with a comforting introduction for the paper's readers, who are easily frightened and don't take kindly to shocks, especially if they haven't yet had their lunchtime medication. It was just as well that Collin's tone evoked jolly japes and matey cuddles, as the sight of a new face on the arts pages will have alarmed many after nearly a decade of film writing by the stimulating, unorthodox Sukhdev Sandhu.

(By the by: one of those to leave a comment on Collin's piece, under the handle "corgimajor," did the unspeakable and raised the subject of the outgoing critic, which is rather like pitching up at a chap's wedding and mentioning his bride's ex: "I was disappointed not to see an acknowledgement, in Robbie's introduction of himself, of the great work Sukhdev Sandhu has provided for this section of the Telegraph over the years. Could someone at least let me know...where I might find his work in the future?" At the time of writing, no one at the website has yet answered this reader's enquiry. The comment did, though, provide a reminder of the way in which readers are expected to simply adjust to new arrivals. To editors, we are but the children of divorces, waking up in the morning to find that Mummy has a new boyfriend.)

Before issuing a rather baffling warning about two species of Naughty Critic (those who write exclusively to impress other critics, and those who serve to flatter the stars or filmmakers) and insisting that he belongs to neither group, Collin laid out what he considered to be the requirements for anyone writing about movies. Such people should, he said, "watch films and then write about them in a way that is honest, well-informed and entertaining. We should tell you what a film is about, put it into context, explain what we think works and what doesn't, and do all this in a way that is pleasurable to read."

Well, yes. But put in those terms, it sounds at best like a set of instructions for the home assembly of a bookcase, and at worst like a nurse preparing you for a mildly invasive procedure which will nevertheless have lasting beneficial effects. What Collin describes are the rudiments, the skills that should get a writer past reception. When I think back to the critics who first inspired or thrilled me, the common ground is not that they met the Collin criteria, but that they did so much more besides, spinning off into unpredictable or far-flung areas of their subject, while always throwing illumination back onto it.

The first person who made me realise what could be possible in critical writing was Anne Billson, whose sparky, playful prose never fails to bring her subjects to life (even the half-dead ones: I remember laughing aloud in my school lunch-break at her short Time Out review of Wild Geese II). In the interests of transparency I should point out that she has since become a friend and colleague (as well as a predecessor, having served a stint as film critic on the NS) but my admiration for her was already cemented a good decade before we met.

I also got a big kick, obviously, out of the New Yorker's Pauline Kael, that liberating force of nature, and Victor Lewis-Smith, the then-television critic of the Evening Standard. (I recommend the latter's prickly collection of columns, Inside the Magic Rectangle). But if you put a gun to my head and asked me to name my favourite critics, I would say, "What are you doing? Put that gun away for goodness sake! I'm more than happy to tell you my favourite critics without the threat of injury or death." Then, after disqualifying my esteemed NS colleagues in the interest of neutrality, I would produce for you a roll-call that included the following:

Nancy Banks-Smith Sadly no longer writing about television in the Guardian (although she still contributes a splendid monthly Archers column), she is an embodiment of so many qualities to which a critic should aspire: her mixture of the frothy and the weighty, her ear for a delicious or telling phrase, her instinctive feel for articulating the shape and shading of whatever she is writing about, and her palpable love of her subject. If she's ever written an indulgent or wasteful sentence, I haven't read it. I wrote a fan letter to her many years ago, partly to balance out the karma of having written to a director on the same day complaining about his latest terrible film, but mostly because if you love anyone that much, it's only right to let them know.

Giles Smith The ceaselessly witty sports-on-TV critic at the Times. His columns are collected in Midnight in the Garden of Evel Knievel and We Need to Talk About Kevin Keegan. Here's a measure of how good his writing is: I read him whenever I can and I don't even like sport.

Adam Mars-Jones Former film critic at the Independent and the Times, and now a literary critic at the Observer. There's no one more thorough, or more capable of making the forensic funny, although Steven Poole's book reviews in the Guardian's Saturday Review supplement run a close and satisfying second.

Nigel Andrews Film critic at the Financial Times. It's not only that Nigel Andrews knows his onions (and everyone else's) or that he writes with an enviable mixture of deftness and muscularity; there's also fact that he has been writing professionally for around four decades, and still has the nimblest pen in film criticism.

Anthony Quinn. Film critic, the Independent. I go to Anthony Quinn for the crispness of his prose, the sophistication of his insights, the purity of his perspective (he didn't read anything about Avatar before reviewing it -- nothing at all!) and his passion for the underrated medium of solid storytelling.

Then there are writers who may not be moored to particular posts: Dennis Lim, whose star has not waned since he was waved off five years ago by short-sighted cost-cutters at the Village Voice; his former VV colleague Jessica Winter, now arts editor at Time magazine; David Heuser, who writes on film infrequently and for his own pleasure, but who produced one of the richest film essays I have read in the past few years (about Noah Baumbach's Greenberg: read it here) and who has done the impossible and made Inception sound interesting. I also want to recommend a brilliant site of critical writing by Chris O'Leary about David Bowie: Pushing Ahead of the Dame takes a fine-toothed comb to Bowie's work, dissecting each song in obsessive detail. It sounds tediously nerdy but doesn't read that way; O'Leary's weightless writing inflames rather than kills your interest in the music.

So what can we learn from this subjective list of favourites, other than that it helps to have "Smith" somewhere in your surname if you are going to be a better-than-average critic? Only that each conforms in his or her own way to the most pertinent piece of advice that any creative person could ever wish to receive. And no it isn't from Robbie Collin. It's Maupassant:

Talent... is a matter of looking at anything you want to express long enoughand closely enough to discover in it some aspect that nobody has yet seen or described. In everything there is an unexplored element because we are prone by habit to use our eyes only in combination with the memory of what others before us have thought about the thing we are looking at. The most insignificant thing contains some little unknown element. We must find it. To describe a fire burning or a tree on a plain let us stand in front of that fire and that tree until for us they no longer look like any other tree or any other fire.

It is in this way that we become original...

Whatever we want to convey, there is only one word to express it, one verb to animate it, one adjective to qualify it. We must therefore go on seeking that word, verb or adjective until we have discovered it, and never be satisfied with approximations, never fall back on tricks... or tomfoolery of language to dodge the difficulty.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

GRAHAM TURNER/GUARDIAN NEWS & MEDIA
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How board games became a billion-dollar business

A new generation of tabletop games escaped the family table – and fuelled a global industry.

In Birmingham not long ago, I watched a political catastrophe take place. A cabal of academics was clamouring for a liberal manifesto and an anti-capitalist government agenda. The working classes were demanding authoritarian rule with fewer socialist policies. And the ruling party, beset by infighting and resignations, was trying to persuade everyone that it had their interests at heart. It all felt disturbingly familiar – except that these politicians were brightly coloured cartoon drawings, their policies were drawn from a fat deck of cards and the people pulling the strings of government were a young family and a bunch of cheerful twentysomething men in T-shirts.

This was Statecraft, one of hundreds of board and card games on display at the UK Games Expo (UKGE) in Birmingham last summer. Now in its tenth year, UKGE is Britain’s biggest event in the increasingly crowded and profitable world of tabletop gaming and, with its milling crowds, loud music, packed stalls and extraordinary costumes (I spotted Judge Dredd, Deadpool, innumerable Doctors Who and more sorcerers than you could shake a staff at), it felt like a mixture of a trade show, a fan convention and a free-for-all party.

For anyone whose last experience of board games was rainy-day Monopoly and Cluedo, or who has doubts about the place of cardboard in an entertainment landscape dominated by screens, there was no better place to come for a Damascene conversion.

Statecraft’s creator, Peter Blenkharn, a gangly and eloquent 23-year-old with an impressive froth of beard, was in his element. “Our game also has one-party state scenarios,” he explained, brandishing a colourful deck of terrifying political events. “Sectarian violence. Hereditary establishments. An egalitarian society. Each one tweaks the mechanics and the mathematics of the game. There might be a housing crisis, a global pandemic, extremist rallies, a downturn in the economy, and with each you get a choice of how to react.”

Blenkharn is one of many new designers making careers out of the current boom in tabletop gaming. He founded his company, Inside the Box Board Games, with Matthew Usher, a friend from school and Oxford University, and raised £18,000 on the crowd-funding platform Kickstarter to make their chemistry-themed puzzle game, Molecular. It was manufactured in China and shipped to Blenkharn’s mother’s house, where his family helped to send copies to the game’s backers. Last year, a second Kickstarter campaign for Statecraft made more than twice as much money, prompting Blenkharn to go into the business full-time.

“Publishing your own games is definitely profitable,” Blenkharn told me. “The profit margins are enormous on medium runs, and there’s a huge amount of room for more indie publishers . . . People collect 20, 30 or 40 board games at £20 or £30 a time. You can play with a range of different people. And while video games have a fairly niche age range, as you can see . . .” – he gestured around at the milling crowds – “. . . these games appeal to everyone. The market is exploding.”

The figures appear to support this optimistic prognosis. Last August, the trade analysis magazine ICv2 estimated that the “hobby games” business in 2015 – that is, board and card games produced and sold for a dedicated “gamer” market, rather than toys – was worth $1.2bn in the US and Canada alone. On Kickstarter, where independent designers can gauge interest and take pledges to fund production, tabletop games made six times more money than video games in the first half of 2016.

One of the most startling of these Kickstarter success stories was Exploding Kittens, a simple, Uno-like game illustrated by the creator of a web comic called The Oatmeal. This unassuming deck of cards, crammed with daft cartoons and surreal humour, earned nearly $9m in the month of its crowd-funding campaign, making it the seventh most successful project in Kickstarter’s eight-year history; so far, the only products on the platform to raise more money have been four iterations of the Pebble smart watch, a travel jacket with a built-in neck pillow, a drinks cooler that ices and blends your drinks – and a reprint of another board game, the fantastical (and fantastically expensive) Kingdom Death Monster, which costs $200 for a basic copy and is taking pledges of up to $2,500. It has already raised more than $12m. The figures for other games are scarcely less impressive: a game based on the Dark Souls series of video games, for example, raised £4m in crowd-funding pledges last April.

Touring the aisles of the UKGE, I started to wonder if there was any subject about which someone hadn’t developed a board game. A family was deep in a new edition of Agricola, a German game that involves scratching a living from unforgiving 17th-century farmland. “I’m going to have trouble feeding my child this harvest,” I heard one of the players say. Nearby, two people were settling into Twilight Struggle, a tussle for ideological control set in the Cold War, in which the cards bear forbidding legends such as “Nuclear Subs”, “Kitchen Debates” and “We Will Bury You”.

I spotted three games about managing fast-food chains, one about preparing sushi, one about eating sushi, one about growing chillies and one about foraging mushrooms; I watched sessions of Snowdonia, about building railways in the Welsh mountains, and Mysterium, a Ukrainian game in which a ghost provides dream clues to a team of “psychic investigators” using abstract artwork. A game called Journalist (“‘Where is that promised article?’ roars your boss”) seemed a little close to home.

Spurred by the opportunities of crowd-funding and the market’s enthusiasm for new ideas, a legion of small and part-time designers are turning their hands to tabletop games. I met the Rev Michael Salmon, an Anglican vicar whose football-themed card game Kix, a tense battle between two players with hands of cards representing their teams, has echoes of the Eighties classic Top Trumps. Nearby was Gavin Birnbaum, a London-based driving instructor who designs a game every year and carves them individually from wood in his workshop; 2015’s limited edition from his company, Cubiko, was Fog of War, in which perfect little tanks crept around a board of wooden hexagons, zapping each other.

Perhaps the most impressive prior CV belonged to Commander Andrew Benford, who developed his hidden-movement game called They Come Unseen beneath the waves in the Seventies while serving on Royal Navy subs. Sold at UKGE in a snazzy cardboard version by the war games company Osprey, it had come a long way from the “heavily engineered board covered with thick Perspex and secured to an aluminium board” that the nuclear engineers prepared for the original. Benford, now retired, was already thinking about an expansion.

This surge in innovation has also made these interesting times for established creators. Reiner Knizia, one of the best-known names in board games, told me, “There are enormous changes in our times, in our world, and this is reflected in the games. It’s wonderful for a creative mind.” Knizia is a German mathematician who quit a career in finance to become a full-time designer in 1997. His interest in games began in his childhood, when he repurposed money from Monopoly sets to devise new trading games, and he now has more than 600 original games to his credit.

Knizia’s games are frequently remarkable for a single innovative twist. In Tigris and Euphrates, a competitive tile-laying game set in the Mesopotamian fertile crescent, players compete to win points in several different colours, but their final score is calculated not on their biggest pile but their smallest. His licensed game for the Lord of the Rings series developed a method for co-operative adventure – players collaborate to win the game, rather than playing against each other – that has become a separate genre in the 17 years since its release.

But Knizia is no doctrinaire purist. The design experiments he conducts from his studio in Richmond, London (“I have 80 drawers, and in each drawer I have a game, but no sane person can work on 80 products at the same time”), embrace new methods and unusual technologies – smartphones, ultraviolet lamps – in their pursuit of what he calls “a simple game that is not simplistic”. When I mentioned the assumption common in the Nineties that board games would be dead by the millennium, he raised an eyebrow. “That clearly wasn’t going to happen,” he said. “Just as if you said travelling would die out because you could see everything live on television. There are basic needs of human beings: to socialise with other people, to explore things, to be curious, to have fun. These categories will stay. It doesn’t mean that we have to have printed cardboard and figures to move around: we might lay out a screen and download the board on to the screen. The act of playing, and of what we do in the game, will stay,
because it is in our nature.”

This question of the appropriate shape for board games – and how they are to utilise or shun the glowing screens that follow us everywhere – is one that many game designers are asking. Later in the summer, I had the chance to play the second edition of a game called Mansions of Madness, a reworking of an infamously complex board game based on the work of the horror writer H P Lovecraft. In its original incarnation, players navigated a series of terrifying colonial mansions, encountering monsters and events that needed to be drawn from piles of pieces and decks of cards by a human opponent. Like many games that involve huge numbers of interacting decisions, the first edition was a horror of its own to manage: the set-up took an eternity and one false move or misapplied card could ruin an entire game. For the second edition, its publishers, Fantasy Flight Games, streamlined the process – by handing over responsibility for running the game to an app for smartphones and tablets.

“To some, I’m the great Satan for doing that,” Christian T Petersen, the CEO of Fantasy Flight, told me when we discussed the integration of apps and games. “There was a portion of the gaming community that resisted it for various reasons: some on the basis that they didn’t want a screen in their lives, some on the basis of interesting thought-experiments that if they were to bring their game out 50 years from now, would the software be relevant or even possible to play? Maybe it won’t. I don’t even know if some of these inks that we have will last 50 years.”

Also a designer, Petersen was vigorous in his defence of the possibilities of mixed-media board gaming. “We’re trying to use technology to make the interface of games more fun,” he said. “Too much integration and you’ll say, ‘Why am I playing a board game? I might as well be playing a computer game.’ Too little and you’ll say, ‘Why is it even here?’ But I believe there’s a place in the middle where you’re using software to enhance the relevance of what this can be as a board game. We’re still experimenting.”

Other experiments have gone in different directions. The program Tabletop Simulator, released in 2015, is a video game platform that represents tabletop games in a multiplayer 3D space. Players can create their own modules (there are hundreds available, many of them no doubt infringing the copyright of popular board games) and play them online together. A recent update even added support for VR headsets.

While designers debate the future of the medium, tabletop gaming has been creeping out of enthusiasts’ territory and into wider cultural life. In Bristol, one evening last summer, I stopped by the marvellously named Chance & Counters, which had recently opened on the shopping street of Christmas Steps. It is a board game café – like Draughts in east London, Thirsty Meeples in Oxford and Ludorati in Nottingham – where customers pay a cover charge (£4 per head, or £50 for a year’s “premium membership”) to play while eating or drinking. The tables have special rings to hold your pint away from the board; the staff read the rule books and teach you the games.

“When I was growing up,” explained Steve Cownie, one of the three owners of Chance & Counters, “board games were associated with family time: playing Monopoly at Christmas and shouting at each other. Now, it’s been repositioned as a way for young professionals, students, just about anyone, to spend time with each other. It’s a guided social interaction, where there’s a collective task or a collective competition.”

There is barely a smartphone in the place. “People aren’t sitting around checking Face­book,” agrees Cownie. “They’re looking each other in the eye, competing or co-operating. It’s amazing to see, really.”

A board games café is an odd social experience but a compelling one. Before taking our seats at Chance & Counters, my companion and I were ushered by a waiter towards a wall of games that ran down the side of the building, past tables of other people bent in rapt concentration or howling in riotous disagreement over rules. “Would you like something light?” he asked. “Something heavy? Something silly? Something strategic?” The rows of gleaming boxes stretched out before us. Somewhere in there, I knew, was exactly the game we wanted to play. 

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era