On July 10, 1911, the Winnipeg Tribune in Manitoba reportedly published one of the earliest known uses of the phrase “everything but the kitchen sink.” To describe a less-than-enjoyable meal, the newspaper provided this description:
“First of all we had caviar. It was the real imported article, and it tasted not unlike bird shot pickled in hair oil. With the aid of a white dinner wine (also imported), I was able to wash down the first course without much of a struggle. The next course was more difficult. It was a thick, sour soup, and I am sure that it had everything in it but the kitchen sink.”
This is strikingly similar to how it feels to play Carnegie by Xavier Georges and Quined Games.
Today, Merriam-Webster defines “kitchen-sink” as “being or made up of a hodgepodge of disparate elements or ingredients,” which is a perfect description of Carnegie and of a much broader trend in the board game industry. Xavier is far from the first renowned designer to fall into this unfortunate trap.
Stefan Feld paved the way with Trajan in 2011 (i.e., the “WarioWare” of board gaming) and Bora Bora in 2013. These cumbersome creatures after having created multiple thoughtfully streamlined games a few years before in 2007 (Notre Dame and In the Year of the Dragon). Those 2007 releases were masterclasses in cleverly concise design that packed an incredible punch into two finely honed games. Each decision was tense, difficult, and meaningful in a readily understandable way. Uwe Rosenberg followed in Feld’s disappointing footsteps with Caverna in 2013, Fields of Arle in 2014, and Feast for Odin in 2016.
The trend of designers seeing some success with cohesive, tailored designs and then jumping off the deep end with sprawling, unwieldy creations is long, storied, and immensely regrettable. I’ve long been a fan of Xavier George’s Tournay (2011) and Ginkgopolis (2012), both of which were reminiscent of finely-tuned 1990s classics with a fresh, contemporary implementation. Both of those games gave the players a manageable decision space to explore with a variety of viable paths, along with incessantly engaging gameplay. For instance, Tournay gives the players a few options to pick from on each turn, keeping things interesting by making multiple options appealing and keeping things engaging by ensuring those decisions are immediately meaningful and impactful on the game state. Carnegie is an albatross of another feather, laden with complexity layered upon complexity for no gain.
Each of these designers seems to have emerged from their designing infancy into a world where they are swimming in ever more ideas. But rather than winnow and sculpt, they’ve shifted to piling every possible idea into each game, ever more ingredients into their point salads. Bigger is not always better. Case in point, Carnegie is convoluted without having any real coherent thrust. Carnegie is more byzantine than Martin Wallace’s Byzantium.
This is not unlike what happened to authors like George R.R. Martin, J.K. Rowling, and Patrick Rothfuss. Their editors kept them in check initially so that they started off making novels that were reasonably streamlined with manageable complexity and decent pacing. The abomination that was A Feast for Crows in 2005 bucked that trend as Martin’s unwieldy freedom ran unchecked. Or just compare the 870 pages of 2004’s The Order of the Phoenix with the 435 pages in 1999’s Prisoner of Azkaban. It’s not just the page length though, it’s the ratio of wheat to chaff, the meandering tangents, and the increasingly tedious asides. The editors clearly lost power following these authors’ initial success, resulting in kitchen-sink novels run amok.
Similarly, the game developers have lost control. I’m confident that Alea helped keep Notre Dame and Year of the Dragon in check. I’m sure that Lookout kept Agricola from having as innumerable action spaces as its successors. But the balance of power has shifted. Household names Feld and Rosenberg are calling the shots, and they’re surely not going to leave any of their brilliant ideas on the cutting room floor.
Now it seems that a new name has joined them – Xavier Georges. Then again, Carnegie seems to be all the rage. I’m obviously out of step with the hivemind. The overwrought designs must be selling well because they keep getting published. And the BoardGameGeek rankings love A Feast for Odin and Caverna. Or is it just that Rosenberg detractors have stopped trying and rating his games altogether?
I expect Carnegie to do incredibly well in the coming months, driving Xavier to create increasingly more kitchen-sink designs in the years to come. Games with more actions, more buildings, more intertwining mechanisms… more, more, more. It is ever thus. Do you want a game with almost 20 different buildings to choose from all at once from the start (rather than the 3 at any one time in Le Havre or the 4 in your hand in Ginkgopolis)? Do you want a game where each action intertwines with those buildings in convoluted ways depending on each player’s placement of 15 workers and 30 discs, along with your income level, donation payments, transportation upgrades, and more? Do you want a game with stilted pacing stemming from an abundance of unrelated ideas being grafted to each other? If so, then Carnegie is for you… but please do get off my lawn.
It seems that I am an outmoded dinosaur of the 1990s, but luckily my copies of El Grande, Tigris & Euphrates, Extrablatt, Kreta, Ra, Lowenherz, San Marco, and La Citta — along with their spiritual successors Notre Dame and Ginkgopolis — all still work. And even better, most new designers seem to start by creating a couple great thoughtfully streamlined games before they unleash their full indulgent morass upon the world. So here’s to more and more new designers getting published, and here’s to developers and publishers maintaining the power to temper designers’ sprawling visions. I recognize that cutting design ideas, like cutting words from a novel, is absolutely the hardest — and most essential — part.
Carnegie tasted not unlike bird shot pickled in hair oil. I was able to wash down my first play without too much of a struggle. The next play was more difficult. The game revealed itself as a thick, sour soup with a side of point salad. It truly has everything in it but the kitchen sink.