Talia Rosen: The Tyranny of the Kitchen Sink

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.

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13 Responses to Talia Rosen: The Tyranny of the Kitchen Sink

  1. toucanas says:

    I think your comments are spot on, Talia. These days, games are decked with multiple layers of decisions that don’t really have much bearing on the game. Complexity for the sake of complexity. There might be a twist here or a dash of novelty there, but by and large, they are all bloat.

    For some stinking reason, I still feel the urge to try these games. Perhaps even purchase occasionally with much regret. I need to make peace with the classics that I own and pull them off the shelves instead without more distraction.

  2. Bryan Grubaugh says:

    On one hand I find myself agreeing with the sentiment, but then turning right around and disagreeing with some of the examples given.

    My complaint centers around mechanics and how they are used in a game. Instead of “On your turn, choose between X” you end up with multiple phases, with multiple steps, and multiple mechanics. If a mechanic exists, it’s probably shoehorned in.

    Games like Caverna and A Feast for Odin are simply about knowing the action spaces. Yes, there are many of them, but the entire game is knowing the action spaces. And the way A Feast for Odin forces you to use multiple workers for betters spaces just adds to the crunchy decisions.

    I find this to be in the same vein as the trend of adding a lot of fancy minatures and crazy bits to games that might not need them.

  3. gamingleet says:

    I also find that I largely agree. I do not mind games with so many layers, but rather that the layers all feel to me disparate and mechanical. At a particular level the interactions are understood as vaguely thematic, but I don’t find that they flow from a broad sense of the sorts of undertakings I am engaging with as a player.
    I am glad for the players who like these games that they are getting more options, but they aren’t for me.

  4. huzonfirst says:

    Complexity, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Most of us want games which are at least somewhat involved, but, at some point, the level of complexity becomes too great and turns into a negative. For me, that level is crossed in the games of Vital Lacerda, in which every player action spawns numerous side actions, many of them seemingly arbitrary and non-thematic. Other players have different thresholds, because all of us are different.

    But very often, that level corresponds to the types of games our brains are comfortable working with, as opposed to any objective definition of complexity. I’ve gamed with Talia for many years, so I know this is the case with her. For example, she loves Splotter games and they are indeed great titles. But they’re also highly complex and their designs include the kitchen sink and a few other household items as well. If you adore a game like Food Chain Magnate but find Carnegie overwrought, I would say that comes down to taste and which concepts you can grasp, rather than any allergy toward complexity in general.

    I love Trajan, Bora Bora, Caverna, Fields of Arle, Feast of Odin, and Carnegie–in fact, the last of those is my favorite post-COVID game. I also love Notre Dame, Year of the Dragon, and most of the 1990’s games Talia cites. There are definitely games out there which are too complex for my tastes (or my brain), and some which feel as though they are complex for the sake of being complex, but overall, I like the recent trend toward more involved titles. Carnegie, in particular, is not like those Rosenberg games Talia mentions, in that each turn, you only have four options available to you. It is indeed complex, but it only took me a couple of games to grasp the concepts and now I’m very much enjoying it (I’m in the midst of an online game of it at this very moment).

    So I say bring on the kitchen sink in game design and let us all decide which titles work for us and which take it a step too far. Talia starts by talking about food, so I’ll point out that Chicken Pad Thai is an extremely complex dish, including dozens of ingredients. But it’s highly refined and is absolutely delicious. Sometimes, that’s what I want and sometimes a simple classic like Mac and Cheese suits my mood. But complex is great…until it isn’t!

    • Craig Massey says:

      Chicken Pad Thai is a complex dish with complex flavors, but it is not complicated. We continue to conflate those two terms. I want complex in my games, but I find myself more and more eschewing complicated when it comes to what hits the game table.

  5. Nathan Michael says:

    I’m very surprised that there’s so much fanfare for Carnegie. it has a fatal design flaw in that most games are won by grabbing two very specific tiles either one of them will win you the game two of them will definitely secure you the game. . I was just telling someone I blame all the glut that he’s put in this game that has prevented him from making a very tight design that wouldn’t have such a flaw

  6. Jacob Lee says:

    Great article! Not many game articles include the nice historical bit you mentioned about the kitchen sink. I think I was subconsciously aware of this burgeoning, unchecked ideas in a game first in Caverna. I don’t remember how big of a name Uwe was before Agricola, but his name towered above most others after it and I just had to get whatever his next project was. However, Caverna felt unfocused and I did not enjoy it nearly as much as Agricola or any of the games in my collection. Most recently, after playing Ecos: First Continent with multiple players versus two players I realized about myself that I don’t like a myriad of decisions in a game which is what the two player version offers. A few tough decisions presented at a time is what my brain craves. I just played Lions of Lydia last night and that was very satisfying for me because it was the right amount of “thinkiness” and I bet the game was much more complex in the early stages before being streamlined to what it is now.

    I would love to read a future article that interviews the mentioned designers to find out if what you suggested at the beginning is, in fact, true? Do big name designers have free reign and their publishers are not stepping in as much? It would be surprising for them to admit that because I would suddenly hesitate before buying their next game.

    • huzonfirst says:

      Jacob, with regards to how much influence designers and publishers have over a game’s final product, I think it varies. Obviously, if a publisher decides to buy a design, they must like its concept, so to that extent, you’re getting something of their preferences. But some games get a lot of development and some get hardly any.

      Talia cites the Lookout games, but for the time period she’s discussing, Rosenberg was one of its co-owners, so he pretty much decided how his games turned out. That was true for Agricola as well as for Caverna and those other games. Like many designers, Uwe goes through phases in his games, so for a while, he featured massive numbers of action spaces (although, to be fair, by the end of Agricola, there are about 30 action spaces, so it’s hardly an austere design). These days, most of his games are simpler, so it’s probably more about what kinds of games he feels like designing at that point in time.

      As for Feld, his Alea designs were developed by Stefan Brueck, who isn’t shy about implementing changes. I did play an early prototype of Year of the Dragon and mechanically, it was much the same as the final product (although the game was originally set in Elizabethan England!). Brueck was also the developer for Feld’s far more involved Bora Bora. So the amount of complexity probably comes down to the needs of each game.

      Now a lot of the newer games come from one-person publishers, where the owner/designer pretty much makes all the critical decisions. A lot of these are Kickstarter games. Without a developer, there’s obviously the danger of having a designer’s vision run amuk. I think you’ve seen some of that in recent titles.

      But I suspect much of this comes from gaming trends, as Talia mentions. For hobby games, there’s been a long running tendency towards greater complexity. The games of the 00’s were more involved than those of the 90’s and the teens gave us yet more complicated titles. At the same time, there’s been a push toward more approachable and easier to learn titles. I can understand Talia’s frustration, as those competing trends mean that there may not be as many games in the happy medium she seeks. But with so many games being released each year, there are almost always enough designs of different types to satisfy gamers of all kinds. We may shake our heads at which games get the highest ratings, but at least we can mollify ourselves with the ones produced that do suit our tastes.

      • Jacob Lee says:

        I can count on you, Larry, to provide some interesting industry info. What you mentioned about Kickstarter is exactly why I stopped backing them for the longest time. It was fun at first, but after twelve games that I didn’t end up keeping I was done. I started again this past year, but more reputable projects only.

  7. Some great thoughts and I vacillate between pro and anti kitchen sinks. I think the big part is if the kitchen sinks are disparate or more closely interwoven. As my primary example, in my first game of Trajan I felt I was losing ground to the other players so picked the only things no one else was specializing in. It wasn’t until the end of the game and the points were scored that I found out that, rather than coming in the back of the pack, I had won the game. In this case I felt like there were too many “pockets” of points that just weren’t linked together in an easily “groked” way.

    I also 100% support Talia’s comments on Rowling. Any time I see a set of the books on a shelf I like to point out what happens when authors get too big for their britches…

  8. Tom Feiler says:

    I feel like I could have written this article (well, I mean it matches my feelings on the last 10-15 years of what seems to be popular – I am not a good enough writer to say it so well!). There’s a well-worn quote from Antoine de Saint-Exupery that goes something like “A designer has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” I think of this often when I see much of the BGG hotness in recent years. There’s still plenty of exciting and new ideas coming out every year of course, but these overwrought monsters are by and large not for me.

  9. Excellent article! This is exactly why I’m much more interested in playing games from the 1995-2005 era than those that came later.

  10. Craig Massey says:

    Fantastic article Talia! And not just because I agree with your thesis. I think you are spot on in your analysis. I think designers today would do well to heed the words of Coco Chanel and remember two things. First, “simplicity is the keynote of all true elegance.” Second, “before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off.” Leave a mechanism or two on the cutting room floor. The game will be better for it.

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