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Labors of Love

If games are labors of love, critics are insensitive haters.


Or is it going too far? Let's find out.


I started the day thinking we were a bit off at Solitaire Times: the whole world of board gaming is buzzing about Wyrmspan, and at Solitaire Times, we only announced it on the side, in the obscurity of the Lounge. So, I wanted to talk a bit more about it.

The problem is, I have not much relevant to say. I never played Wingspan, although I did gift it once, since it looked very nice and very clever. It's a game I respect, about a theme I am absolutely sympathetic with, from a publisher I feel all but respect toward, if only because they keep their games in print and therefore don't play on your FOMO. And I like dragons! So, Wyrmspan is something that was met with a mild smile on my face. Not something I wanted to check further, but something that I will enjoy seeing on the shelves of a board game store, and if our own Stonemaier expert gets it one day, I will be delighted scrolling over his post and looking at the pretty pictures while understand only half what the game is about because it doesn't have XP, tile-laying, or pattern-making.


Even the nail of the finger holding the card is thematic


But then I made the mistake of subscribing to the BGG page of the game, and I read a few of the threads there. One was called "Thank you for all the hate", and sometimes was complaining about people who complain about Wyrmspan, and swore he would get every single expansion and GeekUp Bits just because. Interesting. The other was more problematic. It was a thread about the marketing of the game. And suddenly, I was interested. Marketing is something we should all be at least mildly interested in, if only because we are so constantly exposed to it.


Marketing is about influencing people's behavior to get their attention, their money, and even better, if you are truly good at it, their dedication. And Jamey Stegmaier is very good at marketing. So much so that we are still considering his insights on how to crowdfund a game successfully as the ultimate reference on the matter even though they had been written years ago when Kickstarter was a very different ecology as it is now. Interestingly, his book emphasizes "community building", and says that crowdfunding is about the "crowd", not the "funding". In short, get the former, and the latter is for granted.


Therefore, part of its marketing is about turning interested hobbyists into fans of the brand. As someone who is utterly anti-conformist and non-aligned, things are starting to get itchy.



So, what was the thread about? Well, the poster said that he would prefer an innovative design rather than a derivative one, basically. Personally, I like derivative things (I especially enjoy seeing how small tweaks may affect a design, as you understand better how a mechanic works in the series of its variations than in the witnessing of its effects), but, why not, someone is allowed to state their wish after all. What interested me the most in that post is that the author said they felt triggered to write it because Wyrmspan was being explicitly marketed as markedly different from Wingpsan.


Indeed, from Stegmaier's blog:

Wyrmspan is a new, standalone game designed by Connie Vogelmann (Apiary). It will be familiar to those who know Wingspan, but it is not a dragon-themed reskin of Wingspan. [...] We created this game with the goal of bringing joy to people (fans of Wingspan and beyond), plain and simple.

I appreciate the little end remark which is pure marketing and presents the publisher as utterly disinterested: making money is not a concern at all. (And I don't criticize when it is: I expect publishers to strive to achieve financial success! But I don't quite like the crowd-pleasing hypocrisy.)


So far, nothing very interesting. But then two people came up in the thread to defend the sheer originality of Wyrmspan: Connie Vogelmann's proud husband, and Jamie Stegmaier himself. Vogelmann's husband stated that the OP was wrong in calling Wyrmspan a re-skin because the rules were not identical. Well, thank you for the terminological reminder, let's call it a re-theme then, just like Dragonfire is a re-theme of Shadowrun: Crossfire. Slightly different designs, and different lines of expansions even, but one is derivative of the other, and the primary change everyone will notice is theme. (I did go with the Dragon one, unsurprisingly.)



I know there is no reason to share this cover, but pictures make pretty. And, well, it's a post about dragons reskins. Rethemes. Redesigns. Reimplementations. Stuff.


Where my frowning grew into concern was when Jamey Stegmaier showed up and wrote the following:

Overall, we put a lot of time, love, effort, and resources into making something that we hope will bring joy to people (among them, Wingspan fans who have for years asked for versions of the game with different creatures). As a gamer and consumer myself, I'm cautious to dismiss anything without actually researching it, watching reviews, and hopefully playing it, as I know that any designer, artist, and publisher put an immense amount of work into anything they make.

This echoes a comment from his blog post quoted earlier:

I didn’t waste (much) time or energy on nonsense. With any announcement comes a mix of excitement, curiosity, criticism…and nonsense. Comments about “just a reskin,” “cash grab”, and text I can’t even quote out of respect for all the hard work that the designer, artist, and graphic designer put into the project simply have no helpful response.


Why is this problematic? Five reasons.


First of all, it brings the discussion onto a personal level. You are not discussing a random game with board gamer buddies, you are discussing with the designer's husband who is daring you to keep criticizing his wife, in a very old-fashioned way. It turns inoffensive comments into ad hominem attacks. Not good.


Second, it frames critics as insensitive haters. The game is a labor of love, the result of years of care, hard work, and heartful efforts, and you are dismissing it casually with a forum post? Why so much hate?


Third, by distinguishing "critic" and "nonsense", without giving any criterion for it, Jamey Stegmaier gives himself the privilege of deciding what is a legitimate criticism of his product, and what is not.


Fourth, the underlying objective of such statements is to bind further the community of fans. Because fans want more, they always want more, and whatever exhausts, criticizes, doubts, or puts a dent in the creators' mojo, is a threat to this very desire. The exact result of such a statement is to put a target on the critics for the fans to turn against them, rather than looking at them with the indifference they deserve. You think I'm reading too far into it? Well, in Stegmaier's post, "dismiss" and "bring joy" are stylistically contrasted for a reason. And you just have to go see one of these threads to count the absurd amount of replies that just repeats the publisher's credo.


Fifth, it undermines the legitimacy of criticism. Stegmaier is not speaking against a professional critic who just blames the game with no better clue about it than I have myself. He is speaking against a random BGG user who posted a "gut impression" (presented as such) in a public discussion forum. This is the place for random comments and to express one's doubts and apprehensions. And you should not have to research before having that right. People who just publish tons of excited and enthusiastic posts devoid of any actual content are never asked to research the game before raving.



I'll elaborate on point 2 before leaving you. In the cultural world, the perspective of the creator, and that of the buyer, are irreconcilable. As a buyer, you face thousands of products - and that's what they are: products. You have to choose and dismiss a lot of things, very quickly. You may make judgments on first impressions, and in fact, you have to. It turns out our brain is very apt to do just that. You can't make informed criticisms of every single product before ruling it out. And as social beings, it's normal that we feel compelled to share our random and hasty verdicts with peers, in a friendly and non-committal atmosphere.


Of course, for the creator, this particular game you dismiss is their "baby". That's true for a writer, a filmmaker, a game designer, etc. And as such their perspective is utterly different from yours. But they should understand that their "baby" is but one title in a flood of releases. By asking you to share their perspective and abandon yours, they ask you to set their product apart from all others. And even though Stegmaier's pretends he is adopting our perspective ("As a gamer and consumer myself, I'm cautious to dismiss anything without actually researching it, watching reviews, and hopefully playing it."), what he suggests is just untenable. Unless you work in the industry and need to devote a lot of time to know the market well, of course.


Stonemaier Games have been very skilled at making us believe that their games are above the fray. And this is not through sheer marketing: they also make very sound productions, with thorough design development, obvious attention to detail, and a rate of release that is slow enough for their games not to outshine one another. But this is no reason to force us into considering their games as more a labor of love than any other, as anything else but a product that you are free to dismiss on a whim. If you start considering products as labors of love, then you are endorsing a special kind of dystopia where your participation in cultural goods consumerism is an act of generosity that is granted to you by those that provide these goods. What can I say to that?



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Thank you for interesting thoughts. Your conclusion hits close to "commodity fetishism", an idea that Marx claimed to be thoroughly baked into capitalism. It creates and, indeed, requires social relations among things and material relations among people. That's an essential part of the dystopia that we've had for a good long while now.

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Zerbique
Zerbique
Jan 11
Replying to

Marx visibly had insightful views about lots of things but I am really not familiar with his ideas/writings. Economy is certainly one of the missing items in the small heap of knowledge scraps that litter my brain!


But in that case, does it really apply? Stegmaier highlights that what makes critics toward Wyrmspan inadequate, hurtful, and illegitimate is precisely the work that was put into it. It's a sincere question, I don't understand any of it very clearly.

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Zerbique
Zerbique
Jan 09

I wrote how depicting the game as a "labor of love" designed with the "goal of bringing joy" was a way for Stegmaier to induce two reactions in the fans:

a) people who criticize a labor of love are insensitive, and therefore, critics are always called "haters"

b) people who criticize the game are actually criticizing the very idea of others having fun.


This is a great way to portray criticism as an act of adversity, and to bring out two results:

a) criticism is shut down because it elicits vivid reactions of disapproval

b) any social group that coalesces against another group (largely fantasized as it may be) increases its binding, so it's good for community formation.


Case in…




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Zerbique
Zerbique
Jan 09
Replying to

Wow, I don't even need to make them up:


I see the Stonemaier Gospel has been heard!

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It's interesting to me how vociferous the debate has become about this game (Wyrmspan) vs the previous one. It seemed to me that there might be some sort of parallel between what has happened here and what happened 15 years ago when Ticket to Ride: Europe was released. I did go and look in the BGG forums and, yes, of course there were those saying that the original was much better and that they would probably never need to own or play this version. But what I could not find was anyone implying that the publisher was simply trying to "make a quick buck". Perhaps, if they had, we would have seen them too come onto the forums in ord…


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Zerbique
Zerbique
Jan 08
Replying to

I'm not saying Stonemaier Games want to make a "quick buck". I'm not sure there is anything in my post that points to that.


As I tried to make clear, I have respect for their company, and for Jamey Stegmaier as a publisher. They prefer to publish a few high-quality titles (well, most of the time... there have been some misfires, but that's OK), rather than flooding the market. It's very much commendable. I have nothing against Wyrmspan and I'm surprised my post could be said "vociferous" about it. I explicitly told that the news of it was made with a genuine appreciation on my part. And since I don't care for the kind of games Wingspan/Wyrmspan is, I really…


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Excellent post. You put a lot of thought into it and made me think about what you wrote.

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JW
JW
Jan 06

While it would be silly as co-owner of this website to comment on your arguments (of course I agree, well said) (or I would have deleted the post 😜), I do have a question for you concerning Solitaire Times. You're right, we only announced Wyrmspan in the Lounge so far. To be honest, we don't have a "retail news editor" at the moment, but this has always been our policy: short announcements after press releases in the Lounge, full (researched) news posts only when a game actually hits retail. Do you think we should publish short announcements in the news section in the future? Just curious.

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Derek
Derek
Jan 08
Replying to

I'm with Z here. Don't fix what isn't broken. 🙂

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