An occasional column in which Lou Harry gets his game on with film-related tabletop titles (or, in this case, tabletop title-related films).
When it comes to board game buying, it’s easy to think, “Why am I paying $40 for a box of cardboard and plastic?”
The scattershot documentary Gamemaster at least partly provides an answer.
At its best, the film directed by Charles Mruz explores the uphill challenges of game designers trying to break into the $3 billion industry. It shares the economic realities of producing games; that game you just purchased may only be dropping 50 cents into the bank account of its primary creator. It gives a pretty clear reason why so many such games are manufactured in China. It states how difficult it is to write a rulebook, and it points out how a game’s artwork and name can do more damage than weak gameplay.
Speaking of rules, Gamemaster doesn’t quite follow its own. It promises, at the start, that it will take us on a journey with four aspiring designers. But it doesn’t quite do that. Yes, we do meet a handful of game creators, some with more experience than others and all trying to get attention for their latest products. But most of that is in hindsight. It’s problematic when the awards scene late in a documentary has nothing to do with the people we’ve semi-followed over the course of the film.
The designers included do give some sense of the range of the tabletop gaming world. There’s a guy pushing his Flash Gordon-esque Rayguns and Rocketships, another who believes the reason his Thug Life game didn’t meet its Kickstarter goal is because its price point was too high, and a Pakistani woman who wants to change the world via her Arranged! game where players try to avoid a matchmaker forcing them into arranged marriages.
The film has clearly been made by those who love gaming and know the industry, As such, Gamemaster fails to anchor the hobby for the uninitiated. Where do these games fit into a world dominated by mass market titles such as Monopoly, Risk and Scrabble? You won’t find that context here. What goes into the actual design of the games? The filmmakers share little of the actual creation of the games.
We do visit the two largest gaming conventions — the Internationale Spieltage SPIEL (aka Essen Game Fair) in Germany and Gen Con in Indianapolis, where the makers of Exploding Kittens make clear that half the game is getting attention. Wisdom is shared by some of the top designers in the business (including Blood Rage and Rising Son creator Eric Lang, who you really should be following on Twitter @eric_lang.) And we at least hear about some minor drama: The guy behind Trekking the National Parks has differences of opinion with the parents who share the family business. The Thug Life dude hits the wall with his first Kickstarter and has to rethink his ambitions while dodging pushback against his urban combat game. And the Arranged! creator’s visa is running out.
More revealing anecdotes, though, such as the telling tale of how a card game called Bomb Squad evolved into the Exploding Kittens phenomenon, would help this one rise above fan service.
Still, it’s worth checking out if you’ve dabbled in such breakthrough games as Ticket to Ride and Settlers of Catan and want to get a greater sense of what the deal is behind the games that populate an increasing number of game stores and are now taking up more shelf space at Barnes & Noble and Target.
Gamemaster is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.