The Golden Age of Board Games

“The Golden Age of Science Fiction is twelve.”

It’s a well-known quote popularized by David Hartwell in his essay of the same name. But, Hartwell never meant to say that we experience an age of wonder in our adolescence that cannot be replicated in adulthood. Instead, he claimed that the greatest wonder in science fiction comes when an individual is first introduced to it. The 1940s was not the true golden age of science-fiction, nor the 1960s, nor the 1980s; instead it was when each fan became a member of that culture.

When a reader is first introduced to science fiction, he enters a world of legends. He hears stories of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation, rumors of a Rendezvous with Rama, perhaps even whisperings of Gene Wolfe’s multilayered Book of the New Sun. They become larger than life, and so they take on mythic proportions. When a reader finally consumes Asimov, Clarke, or Wolfe he is not just consuming the actual tales — those words that they wrote — but he also is consuming every thing he has ever been told about them, and every image he has ever conjured up in his mind to tell those tales that he had not yet read.

So it is with board games as well.

I have enjoyed a Golden Age of gaming not once, but three times.

When I first discovered roleplaying games through the blue Dungeons & Dragons book, I began to seek out those legends that had come before. I searched out Greyhawk and Blackmoor, the two original supplements to the game. I tracked down back issues of Dragon magazine. Later I would sit in my childhood bedroom with a TSR catalog, wondering over such strange games as DungeonSaga, and They’ve Invaded Pleasantville.

A decade or more later I enjoyed a new interest in small-press American board games, and I often haunted convention flea markets and regularly visited game stores which sold used games. Divine RightArkham HorrorThe Riddle of The Ring, and The Source of the Nile had taken on mythic qualities and thus they entered my collection during that time.

And so it was a third time when I discovered Eurogames, four years ago now. Reiner Knizia, Klaus Teuber, and Wolfgang Kramer were the names spoken of in hushed, reverent tones. I pined for Ra, dreamed of Taj Mahal, and wished for TikalEl Grande had already taken on such a legendary quality by the time I first played it that I was awash in its possibilities, awed by its magnificence.

My Golden Age of roleplaying games was 10, my Golden Age of American board games was 20, and my Golden Age of Eurogames was 30.

Now the mysteries have been uncovered. The legends have faced the harsh light of truth. There are few secrets left for me to uncover in the world of Eurogames, other than that which has not yet been published: the games still being developed and playtested by designers across the world.

My Golden Age has faded and become silver.

Other write of this and they call it “burn out”. They ask, “Is it just me, or are this year’s games not as good as last’s?”. They fondly say, “Do you remember 2000? That was the best year for games.” Or maybe it was 1998 or 1995. Or 1975.

No reality can ever stand up to the dream. We are chasing after phantoms that will forever elude us. The Golden Age is behind us, always behind us, unless we move ever onward to new and different things: new genres, new entertainments.

But there is another option as well. If we look beyond the façade and see the truth we may find enjoyment there as well. It can not live up to the dream. Nothing could. But do you prefer dream or reality?

When I turn 40 perhaps I will have moved on to a new Golden Age. A new dream. Perhaps I will be chasing a new phantom. I can’t see the future. However, in the world of board games I have found a strong core of enjoyment. I have found a true gold shining beneath golden dreams. So perhaps I will remain Eurogaming instead. I am certain that I will never again know that secret thrill that I felt the first time I heard of Puerto Rico, the first time I played El Grande, but that was a thrill born of phantasms, not facts.

Enjoy what you have, not what might be.

Author’s Note: I turned 40 four months ago. I have found new things to seek out, as I’m now forever looking for gaming history as part of my (never-ending?) work on Designers & Dragons. But I’m still roleplaying and Eurogaming as well. —SA, 7/20/12

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