Review: Going Cardboard, the Board Game Documentary

Going Cardboard, a new documentary by Lorien Green, is the first and only film to provide a window into the fascinating world of designer board games.  A multitude of interviews with industry insiders and avid players is the foundation of this intriguing feature.

Many viewers will have heard about the modern board game renaissance though articles in traditional media or online, but Going Cardboard provides a comprehensive picture of how games (and the game playing community and game industry) have changed in the last 10+ years, largely driven by the "German invasion" of games like The Settlers of Catan.  Many interviewees have something to say about Settlers, and state why it's superior to more old-fashioned games like Monopoly  (where you spend most of the game waiting for your turn or might get eliminated early on and have to wait hours for your friends to finish.)  I had to laugh when one gamer referred to Settlers as "cardboard crack" - I played it weekly for years.

The film sidesteps two potential pitfalls of its genre; one is that the film will consist solely of talking heads.  There are a lot of talky shots, to be sure, but they are broken up by location shots at conventions such as The Gathering of Friends (an event organized by game designer Alan Moon) and the "Superbowl" of tabletop game events, the Essen Fair in Germany.  Essen regularly boasts 150,000 attendees, which is stunning.  The film gains a plot arc through following the story of a game designer who makes a deal with a game publisher, only to have to wait years and... well, I will let you find out what happens.  This subnarrative gives us something to care about besides the (interesting) subject material.

The other possible trap a film like this could fall into is that the adherents depicted could come off as the butt of a sort of joke.  I recently screened another film called Tilt! which documents  another subset of geek culture, the pinball community. In it, several of the interviewees came off as socially-crippled weirdos, and the film did not shy away from that, but rather embraced it.  I guess this is either a kind of cinema verite or just a desire to inject some flavor into the document.  As with other documentaries such as Spellbound or Word Freaks, there is a fine line to walk when dealing with quirky individuals, so as not to appear to be making fun of them.   In any case, the subjects of Going Cardboard seem well-adjusted and thoughtful despite - or perhaps because of - their passion.

One aspect is largely missing from the film, although no fault of the director.  Where are the women?  Only a few of the film's dozens of interview subjects are female, and I believe all of them are players (many interviewed alongside their husbands who they met at game events).  The most memorable female participant is the collector who knows where to go in her house to locate any of her over 11,000 games.  I would have loved to have seen more female opinions in the film, but it seems the industry is largely male, for whatever reason.  This perhaps could have been mitigated by more of a focus on the new breed of designer party games (Say Anything, etc) which focus on interaction, humor and socialization instead of strategy, deliberation and point scoring.

In total, Going Cardboard is an excellent introduction to the culture of designer games, and a lot of fun for those who are already a part of it.  Don't miss the plethora of bonus features, which includes advice on game design, an animated timeline showing the evolution of American and European games over the last 90 years, a song about Settlers, and much more.

Learn more and purchase the film at: