On February 9th 2021 one of my favorite board game designers, Phil Eklund, was banned from Board Game Geek, permanently. Eklund for reference designed High Frontier, the Bios Series and the PAX series that I have written about previously. Given that BGG is such a centralized hub for the hobby, this was pretty disappointing news. When you start to get into the hobby you discover this fantastic community on the site, and while it can be a bit confusing to navigate at times this is more than made up for by interactions with designers themselves. Got a rules question? There’s a chance the designer will pipe in and give you a definitive answer right there on the site. They often respond to reviews and other questions and directly engage with their audience. I remember early in my board gaming days I wrote a pretty negative review and the designer reached out to me privately to understand where I was coming from. I was blown away, and also considered maybe toning down any future negativity because heck, the people involved may be reading my review.
Eklund was active on the forums in the same way. Often helpful and always interested in engaging with the people who play and write about his games. But while there is no better place to discuss board games on the internet, other kinds of discussion are not as welcome, and for good reason. You see, while Phil Eklund designs some of the most fascinating games on the market, he is also a bit like a crazy Libertarian uncle. His view on the world today in addition to the science and history his games are about is often challenging. So for a while he could be found on the forums for his upcoming game Bios Mesofauna arguing about whether climate change was man made. In the original edition of Pax Pamir he wrote a now infamous essay about the advantages of English colonialism and occupation of India vs being a border state like Afghanistan. And in his final blaze of glory on the site he was arguing about the importance of mechanics in his games that capture historical events where women were captured and forcibly integrated into other tribes. Most of the discussion, if it can be called that, has been deleted from the site entirely. So like the big bang the exact spark point is hard to find, but while it is interesting to tackle challenging subjects like this in a game, being insensitive in any way to the fact that this gameplay mechanic essentially depicts rape is not ok.
Board Game Geek is not the only place Phil has come under fire. Eklund game rulebooks are well known for being 25% footnotes about the various scientific and historical reasons for how the game works. This is fascinating in a way, but presenting all of it as fact when some of it is definitely subjective is not so great. His publisher Ion Games has pledged to peer review his footnotes.
Both of these actions have caused a lot of Eklund defenders to come out of the woodwork, claiming this is all a violation of free speech. But the reality is, neither BGG nor his rulebooks are truly open platforms where anything is open for debate and discussion. BGG for their part have been trying to broaden what has in the past been an incredibly insular hobby. There is a reason why I can count my women gaming friends on one hand, and having a public debate about these sorts of topics is not about to broaden that audience. The moderators on the site have deferred to having a safe space vs. a completely open platform, and that makes a lot of sense. And for the publisher’s part, they want to keep the focus on the games themselves vs the footnotes. It is not in their interest to alienate players before they even play the game.
We live in challenging times where opinions and views about the world are more public than ever before and shared in more places than ever before because of all of the platforms that exist to share that opinion. And maybe that’s a good thing, with sunlight being the best disinfectant after all. But it certainly makes it difficult when someone you admire turns out to be shitty. I feel for all of my Harry Potter fanatic friends who have to wrestle with the fact that the author of their favorite books may have views that are radically different from their own worldview. And here I can relate as I look at a shelf full of Eklund games and wonder how to reconcile things. It is even more personal because Eklund is the only board game designer I ever interviewed for the blog, and I found him goofy and charming and brilliant in a way that mirrored his games.
The conclusion that I’ve ultimately come to is that I will continue to play his games. Eklund’s designs are ultimately sandboxes where there is history and science driving the rules of the game. Just like his libertarian ideals they are wide open systems where the interplay of rules creates a narrative and chance can change how history or science plays out vs the real world. I do not agree with his world views about many things, and I don’t plan to engage him in a debate about any of them on Facebook anytime soon. But in the space of the games, there is nothing else out there like his designs. To boycott or abandon those games because of the designer’s flawed views would be a loss. And given the publisher is taking these concerns seriously, I am not overly concerned with financially supporting the games either. It comes down to a separation of art and artist and ultimately Eklund’s designs have expanded my horizons and made me ask more questions. I cannot view that as a bad thing.
I remember a story about someone meeting Alton Brown and being disappointed. They said never meet your heroes, and I can see how that would be tragic if you admired his public persona and then realized he wasn’t who you thought he was. But does that make his cookbooks suck? At some point if he made the best recipe for cornbread and that was what you took away from his contribution to the world, then maybe that’s ok. Then again, you can find a good cornbread recipe on the back of the Jiffy box in the grocery store.
Eklund’s voice on a major board game website has been silenced, and while that will prevent the toxicity that has driven people out of the hobby, it is a loss in terms of the direct connection from designer to player. I respect BGG’s decision to make sure the dialog on the site is about games first and foremost. The games then will have to stand on their own. They are flawed, challenging, confusing but ultimately fascinating and open for the player to experience and decide for themselves.