Reviewed: Il Grillo canta sempre al tramonto by Beppe Grillo

Anyone for cricket?

Il Grillo canta sempre al tramonto
Beppe Grillo, Dario Fo and Gianroberto Casaleggio
Chiarelettere, 208pp, €13.90

Italy has been a land of political vanguardism. It was in the 15th and 16th centuries, as republican city states achieved a precarious but briefly vigorous existence. One of these, Florence, produced the founding genius of political science, Niccolò Machiavelli, who sought to make rulers realise that the state was not their possession but a public trust.

It was again in the vanguard in the 20th century: Benito Mussolini spun fascism out of radical socialism in the early 1920s. At about the same time, Christian democracy was first essayed in the form of the Italian People’s Party, founded in 1919 with the reluctant blessing of the Vatican by the anti-fascist priest Don Luigi Sturzo; after the war, Alcide De Gasperi revived it in the form of the Christian Democratic Party. In the 1960s, the Italian Communist Party evolved a socialdemocratic- tending “Euro-communism” that strongly influenced Mikhail Gorbachev, the last ruler of the Soviet Union.

Today, Beppe Grillo has established a movement that is the first web-based political grouping to make a breakthrough in serious electoral politics. Grillo’s Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S) – the Five Star Movement – won the highest number of votes in Italy for a single party in the February elections (coalitions of the right and left blocs produced higher tallies when counted together).

Grillo sees the internet as the medium through which the world is changing: “Thanks to the net, we have at our disposal a vast quantity of ideas and we can bring thousands of intellects to bear on one particular issue.” To which the playwright and Nobel laureate Dario Fo replies: “What is grander than a revolution?”

The exchange is part of a conversation, which also includes Grillo’s close associate and web genius Gianroberto Casaleggio, recently published in Italy as Il Grillo canta sempre al tramonto (“The cricket always sings at dusk” – the title is a pun on Grillo’s name, which means “cricket” in Italian). One of a sudden splurge of books on Grillo, Il Grillo canta reveals most about a politics that has passed from the web to the streets and finally to parliament and that now holds Italian politics to a kind of ransom. To understand the Grillo phenomenon is – for all its many “onlyin- Italy” features – to get some sort of handle on where politics everywhere in the developed world is going.

Grillo, who is 64, has been one of Italy’s most popular comics for more than 30 years. From the early 1980s, he developed a line in satire that was increasingly critical of the Church, celebrities and, most of all, politicians. With the help of Casaleggio, a long-time web entrepreneur, he has melded together a stage act, a political critique, a blog and citizens’ activism into a movement that presents itself as the direction in which politics must go. There’s something in this of Marx’s idealistic view that, under communism, the state would wither away and citizens would govern themselves. This isn’t necessarily a preserve of the left: in the UK, the Conservative MP Douglas Carswell has written: “The web . . . makes collective action and intelligence, free from any directing authority, possible on a size and scale that was previously impossible.”

Grillo, Casaleggio and Fo are explicit: remove governments, parties and, above all, leaders and the web will allow for self-government. “For the M5S,” Casaleggio claims, “‘leader’ is a word of the past, dirty, devious: ‘leader’ of what?” “In cities,” Grillo says, “we’re used to police and traffic lights, while there’s another way of moving about, which is not to have rules.” Grillo mentions New Delhi and Bombay, where, he says, traffic rules are worked out in the absence – or in the ignoring – of controls. Casaleggio invokes Periclean Athens, where: “Democracy was founded on the idea of community, common thought and shared values . . . Maybe the web can help to rediscover that inspiration which allows equality among intelligent beings. And for that, you don’t need a leader, a charismatic boss to whom you must turn.”

Yet, as many Italian commentators have noted, Grillo often acts like a boss. Fo encouraged his superstar status (and ego) by lauding the swim he made from the mainland to Sicily across the Strait of Messina (a little over three kilometres) in October last year to publicise the movement’s campaign in Sicily, saying that it showed “courage and determination . . . a new way of presenting yourself to people”. Grillo presents the new in old-fashioned celebrity clothes, trading on his fame and on that of those the media promote: when the movement recently chose who it wanted as its presidential candidate to replace Giorgio Napolitano, it voted for Milena Gabanelli, an investigative journalist who presents a sharp-edged programme on the state broadcaster Rai’s third channel.

As the M5S climbed in the opinion polls last year, Grillo issued stern prohibitions to its election candidates not to talk to the news media and in particular not to appear on the political talk shows that proliferate on Italian TV. Grillo writes: “We don’t want [the representatives of M5S] to appear on talk shows . . . We want talk shows to be abolished. Since I put out that fatwa, many people have begun to agree with us. The talk show is dead . . .”

Everything in politics must change or be destroyed – the personnel, the parties, even the language. Casaleggio mentions a talk he had with Romano Prodi, twice head of a centre- left governing coalition, who told him, referring to Grillo, “Comedy is comedy and politics is politics.” No, replied Casaleggio: people don’t see politics that way – they mix it all together and increasingly see politicians through the lens of satire and ridicule.

For the past two months, Grillo and Casaleggio have, through the exertion of strong control over their elected deputies and senators, all newcomers to national politics, refused to make a deal with the left coalition that narrowly won the plurality of votes. Its former leader, Pier Luigi Bersani, who announced his resignation on 20 April, sought desperately to get some sort of agreement that would have allowed him the necessary dominance of upper and lower houses. Grillo’s refusal to negotiate has often been couched in the most contemptuous terms: Bersani, buffeted by critics and competition in his party, was made to look weak. Grillo’s obstructionism has now forced the left to form a “grand coalition” with the right bloc, which includes Silvio Berlusconi’s People of Freedom Party. This will allow the M5S leader to argue that the old parties have closed ranks against the future.

Grillo is a ranter, a tyrannical leader who denies leadership, one who lumps the good, the bad and the utterly corrupt in Italian public life into one nightmarish mass that must be abolished – as if societies were morality plays in which victory over the devil issues in the Kingdom of God. Yet he works a thick seam of disenchantment. There is disenchantment across Europe now. Soon, crickets will be singing everywhere.

John Lloyd is a contributing editor of the Financial Times

Beppe Grillo in Rome in April. Credit: Eyevine/Contrasto.
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