It struck me recently, while listening to a board gaming podcast, that there is a significant difference between the modern board game hobby and a hobby that I’ve had for most of my life, playing tabletop role-playing games. I suppose I had known it for a long time but I had never really recognized it, although I think it is an important and significant divergence between the two otherwise similar hobbies.
That difference is, board games tend to focus on buying new games constantly, while RPGs focus on playing the same system almost exclusively for a long time.
I find this significant because, at least in the board game arena, games come out every year by the hundreds and pretty much every podcast spends all of it’s time talking about what you should buy next. It’s all BUY BUY BUY! They even have a term for it, “cult of the new” where people get as many new games as possible, even if they have little, if any, time to play them. It’s always looking forward to what’s coming down the pike, with the often unstated belief that newer is always better.
However, with RPGs, that’s never really been a problem, at least not in my experience. Maybe that’s because RPGs have never really been produced in the same kind of quantities as modern board games. Groups would find a single system, or a small handful of systems, that they enjoyed and would play those systems almost exclusively, often for years on end. I remember back in the day, we played a campaign using the Mekton system for several years straight, very rarely even taking a break, except when important people couldn’t play that night and we might play a board game instead. One of my groups played my Other Suns variant for at least 3-4 years straight, never playing anything else as far as I can recall.
Keep in mind, I’m not considering expansions for either type of game, I’ve bought plenty of expansions for board games as well as expansions for RPGs. However, my board game cabinet has hundreds of games while I’ve probably played less than a dozen RPGs in my life seriously. If I really had the time to spend on a single RPG, I could probably limit myself to just one or two systems for the rest of my life. There really isn’t a reason to keep bringing different things to the table like you do with board games.
Yes, I know that people get much more invested in an RPG than they do with a board game. Most board games are a zero-sum game, you take it out, you play it, you put it away and what happens during the game really has no lasting impact. While there are a couple of board games that have ongoing scenarios that take place over an extended period of time, that’s the exception, not the norm. Lots of people play extended campaigns in RPGs, where the same characters play in multiple sessions toward a singular goal. Since these campaigns can go on over many weeks, even years, you’re not going to switch out the system in the middle of the game. For board games that may take a few minutes to a few hours, it’s easy to play multiple games during the same night.
I don’t think there is an answer to “which kind of game is better” because it all comes down to personal preference. RPGs are more intellect-intensive, they require active participation, not only by the players but by the GM who has to run the game and create the world. I know that as a player and often as a GM, that’s not always what I want. Sometimes I just want to have some mindless fun around a table with some friends and not have it mean anything at the end of the night. But by the same token, I want games to matter sometimes. I want a game to be epic and memorable. I want to be talking about it years down the road by everyone who had the luck to be around that table. It’s hard to pick one as the best option because you have different wants and desires at different times.
That said though, one of the things I hate the most about modern board gaming is the constant push to BUY BUY BUY all the time. I never feel like I’ve played the games I have enough and there are people who act like if you play the same game more than twice, you’re doing something wrong. I’d much rather play a game a dozen times, more for the really good ones, until it’s soundly beaten. Then, I’ll still pull it out for new players if it’s really fun. The idea of buying a game, barely breaking in the pieces and then putting it away to gather dust on the shelf is absurd to me.
So what do people think? Am I right in my assessment of the two gaming styles? Let me know!