There is a perennial debate within the industry whether or not games have to be “fun”. This discussion swirls around the ability of art to convey the full spectrum of emotions. Conspire’s design revealed my position (and that of Cherry Picked Games), though there is certainly more to discuss. However, I find the tangent mentioned here far more interesting to dissect. Are tabletop games art? As much as I love the medium, I will stake the claim games are not art, but rather craft.
The definitions of art and craft are vague. To concretely pin down and definitively separate these two creative categories is a Sisyphean endeavor. However, we can establish easy benchmarks. A painting is art: the creator had a vision in mind and the emotional state to complete it. Photography, movies, and literature can all form the art baseline. A chair is a piece of craft: though it may be beautiful, the creator made it to fulfill a specific function. Carpentry and cooking belong in our craft category. Crafts have a consistent purpose to fulfill after their genesis, while art’s purpose is uniquely self-fulfilled.
So what is a tabletop game? Conspire is a book, complete with short stories and illustrations. Drink! is a deck of cards with colorful monsters in a cute box. These components have artistic merit. Jake Breish and Bennett Durfee are artists. You may be tempted to define game components as art (and may be correct in doing so). However, these pieces must also convey information. Drink! cards have rules, Conspire text informs play, and Catalyst iconography creates a consistent language. Pure artistic expression is sacrificed in the name of describing an experience.
This desired player experience is the purpose of a tabletop game. The Cherry Picked office contains hundreds of copies of Catalyst, Drink!, and Conspire. These are products destined for sale across the world. Their purchase is not the end goal. People opening the box and playing the game is the end goal.
There is a critical point to be made in describing play as the purpose of a game: tabletop games are designed to be played in a particular way. The rules and components are meant to be used by different groups in the same fashion. If two groups pick up Conspire and divergently interpret the rules, one of those groups will not have the experience we intended. They will not be playing Conspire. We, as the game designers, want everyone to be playing Conspire; the Conspire we designed, tested, and love. The game must serve as a tool in that endeavor.
Consider a theatrical play. The script defines the story, dialogue, and actions. The actors and director bring those words to life. The technical crew creates sets and props to visualize what is written. Much of the play is permanently set by the script; too much deviation simply makes the production a separate work. However, everyone adds their creativity where possible and makes the experience unique to that combination of performers and technicians. A tabletop game is similar to a play in this regard. The game is the same and will be played the same way in a broad context, but individual player groups adapt it to themselves. Drink! can be played passively by calling out things as you see them, or actively by goading others into doing the action on your card. Both are in the parameters of the experience we, the creators, defined, but how the players want to enjoy the game is up to them.
The craft of game making centers on this relation with the players. Developers must test their games with people to see how they interpret the rules and pieces. This interpretation must be consistent between groups. Every round of a game must start with the same base understanding of the system. Sacrifices must be made to the artistic integrity to ensure this. The rules must be parsable. The art and symbolism must inform these rules. The game must be absorbed by each group and played in the same fundamental way. No one wants to buy a set of dining chairs that does not match. It takes skill at your craft to make them match. It takes skill at the craft of game making to make a consistent experience thousands of miles from your rules explanation.
Any discussion of critical thinking on the internet attracts the question “why does this matter?” Why do we care if tabletop games are art or craft? It matters because it defines how creators and critics view their work. There is a lot of subjectivity around what is fun or enjoyable. Some games have a more niche appeal than others. That is not a negative mark on the game or the designer. The standard we should hold people to is that of a craftsperson. Is every copy of the game the same? Can everyone walk away with the same grasp of the rules? Who is able to play this game? If people do not play the same game, the game is flawed.
Let us say my friend and I go to a restaurant. We order the same dish and get two radically different plates. I would declare that cook is bad at their job, their craft. Consider games in the same category. If you have two copies of a game played side-by-side, and the same game is not happening, something is wrong. The game maker failed part of their craft. We should strive to produce the same, excellent experience every time; just as the same, perfect plate should leave the kitchen every time.