Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Fiction of the Filler

There's been a bit of debate on BoardGameGeek about whether a filler like Dominion should be ranked as highly as it is. There are a number of wild assumptions in that debate, such as:
  • Dominion is a filler
  • Fillers do not deserve to be rated highly
  • Proper games are long or heavy games
That's all crazy talk of course. BGG has a very strong bias towards heavy games - not ASL heavy, but Puerto Rico heavy. BGG's audience loves that sort of game, and people who love that sort of game are attracted to BGG, so it's self-reinforcing.

It's also reinforced by the point of view that if a game is light it's not a proper game. I know a couple of guys who like to play at least one meaty game per game session (and strangely, they all agree that it should be Power Grid.) I almost agree with them. I certainly like to play games that require some thought, and an evening of dexterity games and Bohnanza would underwhelm me. However I do see value in a lot of shorter games which require thought - Hey! That's My Fish! is a perfect example.

However games like H!TMF! get lumped in with games like For Sale! as "fillers", which is almost a derogatory term. What does "filler" mean, exactly? I was under the impression that it was supposed to mean "a game that you play to fill in time while waiting for other players", but I also recently saw it defined as "a game you play to relax between meaty games". That second definition is biased towards meaty games in the extreme... if you never play Power Grid is there no reason to play For Sale!?

The first definition is pretty weak as well. This is what happens at Critical Mass where I experience most of my multi-table gaming... four players complete a game of Reef Encounter. At the other table, phase 3 has just started in Power Grid so they won't be much longer, so when they're done the tables can cross-pollinate. The Reef Encounter people decide to play Ingenious as a filler. Two of the players haven't played Ingenious before so the rules need to be explained, then a great deal of thought is put into each move of Ingenious. The Power Grid people finish, and notice that the Ingenious game is only half over, so they start Through the Desert. And so the evening passes without anyone swapping tables at all.

Obviously, the Reef Encounter players may as well have just started Key Harvest instead of falling for the filler fiction - Ingenious is just as much of a game as any other, and it probably takes 45 minutes no matter how quick you imagine it might be.

The only games that PROPERLY work as fillers are games that can be abandoned in an instant. At Critical Mass I often set up one of these as people are arriving, with the intention that when people come in there's something to play, and they can peel off to other games when they get organised. Games that work in that way are Set, My Word!, Bamboleo and Ricochet Robots. Tsuro is almost as good because the games are over quickly, players can learn the game by watching, and it plays from 2 to 8, so when one game is finished some people can leave and others can join the next game. However almost anything else is not much use as a filler.

As for Dominion, it's a great game, but it doesn't perform many of the functions that I need from a filler. Some people may classify it as such, but they probably like Power Grid anyway.


Steerpike said...

I couldn't agree more. To me there is far too much group-think at BGG and that can be to the detriment of some very good games.

One observation that I would have is that the whole term 'filler' seems to suggest that everyone plays their games as part of a wider 'games night'.
Whilst I attend these bigger sessions, I also get involved in playing an hour here and an hour there with my family or random opportunities with friends.

I often grab 45 minutes, with my son, between my daughter's bed time and his. An hours quality time when we enjoy 'filler' games - but they aren't fillers to us.

BGG revolves around the idea of gaming as a hobby - whereas the (primary)intent of Eurogames are to provide games that can be played with the family any time, any place, anywhere.

Ken Lee said...

You have most definitely hit on one key flaw in the BGG community. There is a bias whereby a game's worth is not determined by how fun it is, but by its complexity and length.

But not too complex, and not too long though. It's gotta be just right. I seen comments that question the reason to play a 6-hour game once when one could play two 3-hour games.

Fillers get an even shorter end of the stick, seen as irrelavent unless it's accompanied by a bigger brother.