Once upon a time, not that long ago, there were two things that one could expect to find in almost every household, no matter how remote or struggling. At least one musical instrument—most likely a piano—and at least one family member who could play it competently enough to read repertoire, accompany songs, and enliven an evening with friends or family. The reason is quite simple. Before recordings became ubiquitous, if anybody wanted to listen to music, their best, if not their only option was to play it themselves.
The same goes for, say, literary works. You could not hope of accessing those stories without having to read—and imagine—them by yourself.
Actually that applied to just about anything: making your own clothes and cooking your own meals, despite the time and effort involved, were still the most efficient and inexpensive ways of clothing and feeding your family.
Then progress came and saw to that.
Ready-made clothes and ready-to-eat meals are now everywhere, and quite affordable. Movies and audiobooks can bring you every literary masterpiece in the world, in your preferred language, at your own convenience, and you don’t even need to know how to read. And of course practically all music is recorded; you only have to press a button to listen to any music you like, and not much more to make any music you want, let alone make a career out of that.
We see such advances as progress because they place within our immediate reach the result of a specific activity (a pair of pants, an apron), while dispensing us of the said activity, of investing the time, effort and skill it requires (sewing). They detach the outcome from the process.
And what’s interesting is that making such activities dispensable did not make them disappear at all. Of course they’re not as widespread as they once were. But they are practiced mostly by people who thoroughly enjoy them—since those who don’t now have the option of avoiding them. As a result all those activities, those processes, have received a lot of care and attention lately; and they have blossomed, diversified and gotten more sophisticated. From mere necessities, they have become hobbies, specialties in themselves.
So today if you devote time and effort to cooking, sewing or music sight reading, it is most likely out of personal interest. Because you are a serious food, clothes or music enthusiast. Maybe even a specialist.
For decades now the microprocessor has made it possible for anyone to play any kind of game, by themselves or with others, at will, without having to read and study rules. And this progress did not cause the disappearance of rulebooks. On the contrary, the studying of rules has become a voluntary activity, a hobby, a specialty—a delicacy.
The artisan method for making our own fun.
Granted, a video game and a board game are two completely different experiences. But so are a vacuum-packed meal and a meal cooked with friends or family; or reading Tolkien and watching Peter Jackson’s trilogy; or the blues we listen to and the one we play ourselves.
Board games, with their constraints, have simply become an option among many others. And that is why I have such a hard time making sense of a few trends I have noticed.
First, board game players who complain loudly and constantly about having to study a rule set before they can play. Who blindly follow any shortcut just to skip a bit of rule-reading. And who so reliably flock towards the new games having the thinnest rulebooks.
Second, the posturing of some board game publishers who are talking about rules as a barrier to entry, an obstacle to fun that must be taken down, a harmful remnant of a bygone era. And who are so proud to produce litanies of bland, cosy but shallow little games that have been diluted down to utter meaninglessness. That they present as the bleeding edge of “modern” game design just because they’re games practically devoid of rules.
Eliminating rules, or the rule-learning phase, from games is not, cannot be a progress anymore, since this progress has already been achieved: Anyone can sit down in front of a screen and play thousands upon thousands of games without having to read a single rule.
As for the reading, interpreting, applying, explaining and criticizing of game rules, they are very much our pleasure. Our hobby. Our specialty.
Sorry, what is the problem again?