The Hideout: why board games matter

Rab Florence on reinventing the rulebook every time you play.

In Umberto Eco's brilliant Foucault's Pendulum, we watch as characters play with global conspiracy theory and occultism as a satirical, intellectual game. This game leads the characters down a dark path, but we understand completely why that path is worth following. Games are important. They are important when we're children, and then we forget how important they are for a while as we chase adult pleasures. Then we recognise that those too were games, of a sort, and having won and lost and won and lost we return to more obvious and literal games. Ones we can play on our TVs and place on our tables. Ones that hurt less when we fail.

Increasingly, for people of my generation, the games we are playing are on tables. When I started playing board games regularly about five years ago, it seemed that no-one else in the country was doing it. I'd just finished an exhausting and stressful TV show that saw me reviewing one or more video games every episode, and those video games had all merged into one violent, brown, ugly whole. I was completely and utterly numbed by them. I'd had enough. I wanted to play a different kind of game. After hunting down all the great board games of my youth (Space Hulk, HeroQuest, Warhammer Quest) I flung myself into an online community to find out what board games were out there right now. There was no flesh and blood person I could speak to about board games at that point. I had to type words at strangers in Baltimore or Ontario or Berlin. I had to seek out little points of light, distant illuminated tables, wherever I could find them. The scene, over here in the UK at least, was as good as dead.

But that's all changed. And I think I know why.

The saviour of video games, over the last few years, has been the growth of the indie sector. Those little points of digital light have grown and massed into something bright and warming. We see innovation on a weekly basis. There's always something new, and usually that something new has something new within it. These games, from tiny teams of creators, even make us question what games are. While the big-budget blockbusters remain risk-averse and repetitive, the indie sector zigs and zags and experiments with the form.

When you've played computer and video games for 30 years, as I have, the indie sector's vigour is an essential thing. It keeps us from getting jaded. It's starting to steal headlines too, simply because quality is difficult to ignore. There are no big marketing budgets or PR flim-flam in indie gaming – it's just become embarrassing for major gaming news sources to not talk about what's happening. The indie sector never really went away, but these days it feels like it's “in”, like it's maybe the only part of the industry that genuinely matters. Only ten years ago we would talk about how the “bedroom coder” was a thing of the past. We were wrong. We just hadn't tired enough of the living room entertainment yet to start checking in all those bedrooms. Just like in MTV Cribs, the bedroom is where the magic happens.

It's the magic of innovation that leads us to board games. I've spoken many times before about the emotional benefits of board games. Spending time with people you love, playing at a table, communicating? That's all essential stuff in this age of social networking. But I think the main reason why so many video gamers have started board gaming is that it feels like board games are part of the whole indie movement. Look, almost every board game is an indie game. Most board games are created by one person, and that one person is trying to come up with new ideas, or new spins on old ones. When you have a question about some element of the game, you can often just ask the designer. He'll be on Twitter or something, probably, and will be happy to have you pestering him about a rule clarification. The creator is a human being, not some corporate machine. The indie sector, in video gaming and board gaming, is full of people who are doing what they do for the love of play. Are they making fortunes? No. They're just people like us, who know that games are important. They're the types who understand characters like Eco's imperilled Foucault's Pendulum trio. They would follow that path with them, with us, because hey, this is fun. Games are worth it, whatever the cost.

For children, it's never just about “Will we play today?” It's about “What will we play today?” It's about being stimulated intellectually, and revelling in the creativity of the games they invent. Children rarely play the same game two days in a row. They don't spend entire summers as the same bald, grunting space marine, shooting his way through waves of endlessly re-spawning enemies. They don't spend every single day fighting over who gets to be the main nameless soldier dude in that helicopter full of nameless soldier dudes who are about to land in that nameless Middle Eastern country again. They tweak their games up, change them and introduce new mechanics. It might seem odd to say that your 6-year-olds are creating new game mechanics when they're out in your back garden, but it's true. The minute they ask for a password to the secret hideout, a new mechanic is in the rulebook.

And that's just the thing. Board games, and indie video games, are always changing the password to the hideout. And it's exactly why you should want in.

Archipelago, one of many hugely inventive board games released in the last five years. Photograph: Ludically

Robert Florence is a writer and comedian, and the co-creator of Consolvania and the BBC's Burnistoun. He writes a weekly column on board gaming for Rock, Paper, Shotgun.

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The world has entered a new Cold War – what went wrong?

Peter Conradi’s Who Lost Russia? How the World Entered a New Cold War traces the accumulation of distrust between the West and Russia.

In March 1992 an alarmist “secret” memo written by Richard Nixon found its way on to the front page of the New York Times. “The hot-button issue of the 1950s was, ‘Who lost China?’ If Yeltsin goes down, the question ‘Who lost Russia?’ will be an infinitely more devastating issue in the 1990s,” the former US president wrote.

Nixon’s point was well made. At that time, Boris Yeltsin, who had acted as the wrecking ball of the Soviet Union, was desperately struggling to hold the splintering new Russian Federation together. An empire, a political system, an ideology and a planned economy had all been shattered in a matter of weeks. Western diplomats in Moscow feared that millions of starving people might flood out of the former Soviet Union and that the country’s vast nuclear arsenal might be left unguarded. Yet the West seemed incapable of rising to the scale of the historic challenge, providing only meagre – and often misguided – support to Yeltsin. Between 1993 and 1999, US aid to Russia amounted to no more than $2.50 per person. The Marshall Plan II it was not.

Even so, and rather remarkably, Russia was not “lost” during the 1990s. Yeltsin succeeded in stumbling through the decade, creating at least some semblance of a democracy and a market economy. Truly it was a case of “Armageddon averted”, as the historian Stephen Kotkin put it.

It seems hard to remember now, but for many Russians 1991 was a moment of liberation for them as much as it was for those in the Soviet Union’s other 14 republics. The Westernising strand of Russian thought briefly flourished. “Democratic Russia should and will be just as natural an ally of the democratic nations of the West as the totalitarian Soviet Union was a natural opponent of the West,” the country’s first foreign minister, Andrei Kozyrev, proclaimed.

When Vladimir Putin emerged on the political scene in Moscow in 1999 he, too, made much of his Westernising outlook. When my editor and I went to interview him as prime minister, there was a portrait of Tsar Peter the Great, who had founded Putin’s home city of St Petersburg as Russia’s window on the West, hanging proudly on his office wall. President Putin, as he soon became, was strongly supportive of Washington following al-Qaeda’s attacks on the United States in 2001. “In the name of Russia, I want to say to the American people – we are with you,” he declared. Russian generals instructed their US counterparts in the lessons they had learned from their doomed intervention in Afghanistan.

Yet the sediment of distrust between the West and Russia accumulated steadily. The expansion of Nato to former countries of the Warsaw Pact, the bombing of Serbia, the invasion of Iraq and the West’s support for the “colour” revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine had all antagonised Moscow. But Putin’s increasing authoritarianism, hyperactive espionage and propaganda activities abroad drove the West away, as did his interventionism in Georgia and Ukraine.

Given the arc of Russian history, it was not surprising that the pendulum swung back so decisively towards the country’s Slavophiles. As a veteran foreign reporter for the Sunday Times and former Moscow correspondent, Peter Conradi is a cool-headed and even-handed guide to the past 25 years of Western-Russian relations. So much of what is written about Russia today is warped by polemics, displaying either an absurd naivety about the nature of Putin’s regime or a near-phobic hostility towards the country. It is refreshing to read so well-written and dispassionate an account – even if Conradi breaks little new ground.

The book concludes with the election of Donald Trump and the possibility of a new rapprochement between Washington and Moscow. Trump and Putin are indulging in a bizarre, if not grotesque, bromance. But as both men adhere to a zero-sum view of the world, it seems unlikely that their flirtation will lead to consummation.

For his part, Conradi does not hold out much hope for a fundamental realignment in Russia’s outlook. “Looking back another 25 years from now, it will doubtless be the Westward-looking Russia of the Yeltsin years that is seen as the aberration and the assertive, self-assured Putin era that is the norm,” he writes.

But the author gives the final word to the US diplomat George Kennan, a perpetual source of wisdom on all things Russian. “Of one thing we may be sure: no great and enduring change in the spirit and practice of Russia will ever come about primarily through foreign inspiration or advice,” Kennan wrote in 1951. “To be genuine, to be enduring, and to be worth the hopeful welcome of other peoples such a change would have to flow from the initiatives and efforts of the Russians themselves.”

Perhaps it is fanciful to believe that Russia has ever been “lost” to the West, because it has never been fully “won”.

John Thornhill is a former Moscow bureau chief for the Financial Times

Peter Conradi appears at the Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the NS, on 23 April. cambridgeliteraryfestival.com

Who Lost Russia? How the World Entered a New Cold War by Peter Conradi is published by One World (384pp, £18.99​)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times