Movie Buzz: The Next Great American Game

Thanks to Douglas Morse for providing the screener of this film.

I wasn’t planning on doing a post today – I’m supposed to be on vacation here!  But I got an offer to watch a screener of a new documentary about board games, so here’s my first ever full-fledged movie review.

image provided by Douglas Morse
image provided by Douglas Morse

The Next Great American Game is a documentary that was funded on Kickstarter back in June of 2013.  At the time, it was called Adventures on the Tabletop.  It was directed by Douglas Morse, and follows the trials and tribulations of Randall Hoyt, a game designer trying to pitch his prototype for a game called Turnpike to various publishers.  From what I can gather, it was originally conceived to be a documentary about the design process, but once Morse hooked up with Hoyt, it morphed into something different.  Here’s the trailer:

PLOT SYNOPSIS (skip this section if you don’t want spoilers):

The film begins at GenCon, I’m assuming in 2013.  There are no time stamps for the various conventions, so you don’t know exactly the scope of time – if you don’t know that GenCon is in August and Origins is in June, then you won’t know how long the journey is in this movie.  Anyway, we start by meeting Hoyt as he’s assembling some prototypes for what he calls The Next Great American Game, Turnpike, a game about being caught in a traffic jam.  We never really get a clear picture of how to play the game, but there are snippets here and there – a shot of the rules, a few images of people playing, and lots of comments from publishers.

Randall is very ambitious to start out with.  It’s his first attempt at pitching, and doesn’t know quite what to expect.  He’s brought down to earth quickly as he is shot down by Steve Jackson and Minion Games.  He is pretty frustrated after the first day, but does eventually giving copies of the prototype to Game Salute and USAopoly.

As the movie progresses, we find out a little more about Randall, including that he suffers from bipolar disorder.  He’s managing it, and we never really see a big breakdown, but we do get the sense that it’s a constant struggle.  And the endless frustrations with pitching the game don’t stop at CHITAG (the Chicago Toy and Game Fair, held annually in November).  However, we can see that Randall is getting more used to the procedure, and actually setting up appointments with people.  He even is able to give a copy to Smirk & Dagger, who likes the game initially.

There’s a turning point of sorts in the movie when Randall sits down with Mike Grey, former head of acquisitions for Hasbro.  Mike gives some advice that Randall really takes to heart, particularly about how the most important skill of a designer is to listen.  Meanwhile, we are also introduced to another game Randall has designed called Talk and Listen, which he made for an architectural firm.  It’s a three-dice game that is meant as an icebreaker, and the firm loves it.

We roll on to New York Toy Fair, and Randall continues to get advice about his game.  He’s starting to realize that no one particularly wants to play a game about a traffic jam, so he starts floating an idea of altering the theme slightly, from a straight traffic jam to one including wizards, called Road Mage.  It seems to go over well, and though by the end of the movie he’s still looking, you get the sense that he’s headed in the right direction.  Meanwhile, Talk and Listen (which was referred to by Mike Fitzgerald as “pure gold”) is on its second printing.

On to the actual review portion, and I think I’m going to break this up into my reactions as a moviegoer and my reactions as a gamer.

AS A MOVIE WATCHER (no more spoilers):

As I’ve said, I’m not really a professional movie critic.  In fact, my biggest qualification for this review is that I listen to Filmspotting.  Which is probably like saying that I stayed in a Holiday Inn Express last night.  But still, I always enjoy hearing about the documentaries they watch.  It’s interesting to hear their thoughts on the art form.  In a lot of ways, making a documentary is tougher than making a fictional film.  In fiction, you can do whatever you want, but documentaries have to find the story in what actually happened.

The film is structured as a series of interviews, cutting between Hoyt’s thoughts on the process and seeing what publishers actually have to say to him.  There are a few interviews conducted by the filmmaker to give some other insight, but the film mostly centers on Hoyt.  And it’s interesting to see his evolution in how he takes criticism and how he’s willing to look at his game.  In the beginning, he’s very much determined that this is The Next Great American Game, and is frustrated that others don’t think so.  By the end, he’s still determined to make his game The Next Great American Game, but he has accepted that it probably still needs some work to get there.

By the way, he calls it The Next Great American Game a LOT.  He’s even told by one publisher that that’s not a good tagline, and he should probably stop.  And at one point, in an interview, he asks the question, “Is it The Next Great American Game?”  After a long pause, he grins at the camera and says, “Why not?”  His determination is very visible, and you can see in the picture at the top of this page that he is very intent on making you understand how he feels (I think he is actually saying in that moment “This is The Next Great American Game!”).

This movie is mostly a character study to see Randall’s growth and what he’s discovering about himself in the process, and also what he needs to be.  It’s well laid out, and engaging – there were times that my attention wandered, but I mostly was able to follow the arc.  As I mentioned earlier, there were no date stamps, and not very many references to where in the world they were.  From an outsider’s point of view, that probably would have been good to do.

The other thing the movie explores is Randall’s battles with bipolar disorder.  It’s not overwhelming to the story, but it is ever-present and frames a lot of what we know about him.  There are a few reflections on Randall’s part, and it’s interesting to kind of hear his perspective of how it affects his life.

Overall, I did like the movie, and I think it did what it set out to do.  I haven’t gotten a chance to watch through all the bonus designer interviews included, but those are there, and offer some good insight into the design process.

AS A GAMER:

The first question I had, which never really got answered in this movie, was how does this game work.  Randall mostly describes it in broad terms, and you get some ideas of how it works through things that publishers say.  It was interesting to see the pitch process, and Randall got to speak to a number of different people about his game.  Reactions were mixed, and that in itself is telling about how different companies operate.  In general, everyone seemed to agree that the game wasn’t quite ready, but there were varying degrees of enthusiasm about it, ranging from political answers to honest criticism and helpful feedback.

Part of the movie is Randall’s response to criticism, and it’s something that we all can learn from.  In the beginning, he is being disdainful of people who don’t like his game, and doesn’t want to hear anyone tell him it’s anything other than The Next Great American Game.  But he gradually begins to understand that, just because you like it doesn’t mean that others will, and you really have to hear what others are trying to tell you.  Randall is told again and again that his theme is not something that people want, and he remains resistant to change throughout.  He does come up with an idea of an alteration in the end, but he remains steadfast that Turnpike is The Next Great American Game.  This stubbornness is something that I think everyone can relate to, and I think it’s a good illustration of how open you need to be in order to make something the best it can be.

For casual game players, or even non-gamers, I don’t know that this movie will be all that interesting.  There’s really not a whole lot that relates to games and playing, it’s more of an exploration of one aspect of the game publishing business – pitching.  You do see flashes of a number of different games, but the hobby itself is not really on display.  If you are interested in the business end of publishing, or more accurately, in the process of showing a prototype, then there’s a lot of good stuff here.

SO, IS IT BUZZWORTHY?

I think so.  There are a lot of good themes here, between the design, pitching, and bipolar aspects.  It’s one I would recommend to gamers and people interested in how the game industry works.  Thanks to Douglas Morse for letting me view the screener, and thanks to you for reading!

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