5 Engaging Documentaries on Board Games

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5 Engaging Documentaries on Board Games

The rise of geek culture has brought with it more widespread acceptance and enjoyment of the humble board game. Sure, this list comprises mainly documentaries on classics of historical (chess, go) and modern (Scrabble, Monopoly) significance, but as we hope Going Cardboard suggests, these titans of the board gaming world are joined every day by enthusiastically constructed new games that rightly gain adherents young and old. As we hope Paste’s coverage of the area makes clear—our list of the Best Board Games of 2017 being just the latest example—it’s an unprecedentedly rich era in board game design. Below are a few documentaries that capture the fervor and the fever that board games engender.

1. Under the Boardwalk: the Monopoly Story (2011)

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Oh, Monopoly. Is there any family game that more effectively destroys the happiness and good will present within the family unit? This 2011 film, narrated by Zachary Levi, hits pretty much all the expected (and desired) beats of a “in praise of” documentary—there is the origin and cultural and political ramifications of the game; there are the colorful characters, all vying to be crowned world champion; and there is the championship itself, held in 2009 in Las Vegas. Taken all together, Under the Boardwalk provides an ideal, if non-critical, visual primer for anyone interested in Parker Brothers’ (and now Habro’s) 80+ year-old game. —Michael Burgin


2. The Surrounding Game (2017)

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Lately, the board game go makes the news more because of the its role in the inevitable robot uprising, as AlphaGo defeats human “master” after human master. The recent documentary by Cole Pruitt, and Will Lockhart aims to be a bit more informative, and, in an approach that’s pretty much the template for films on this list, presents two intertwined narratives. The first is your basic history and explanation of the ancient game of go—its strategy, philosophyThe second follows the efforts of three Americans to become the first western professional players. Both narratives make for enjoyable exploration of the game and its fans. —Michael Burgin


3. Going Cardboard (2012)

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Chess and go may be the all-time giants when it comes to board games. Monopoly and Scrabble might be younger, but they are still time-tested games with nearly a century of soaking into the popular consciousness, but as we said in the intro, this is a rich time for board game development. Going Cardboard provides insight, perhaps a bit dated, into a quiet (to the average joe) German invasion when it comes to board gaming development. Settlers of Catan and Ticket to Ride are just two of the “recent” fruits of the German approach. Lorien Green’s film is barebones even by crowdfunding standards, and it shows, but the film also provides interviews with designers and publishers of games that may not be known in every household, and in doing so, presents an intriguing look behind the scenes of game development, and a reminder of the great passion that goes into great games from all sides. —Michael Burgin


4. Word Wars: Tiles and Tribulations on the Scrabble Circuit (2004)

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Modern “homage” apps like Words with Friends have brought Scrabble to the masses in a way that few established games will ever benefit from. But, of course, Alfred Mosher Butts’ little game had long before built up an ardent and competitive following before Facebook and mobile phones ruled the Earth. Directors Eric Chaikin and Julian Petrillo’s film follows four people in the run up to the 2002 National Scrabble Championships. While most of the documentaries on this list convey the joy of the game to the uninitiated, Word Wars doesn’t necessarily inspire and enlighten, as at least three of the four players it follows are kind of miserable people. Still, the film does provide a front row seat into how a game can become so much more for so many people. —Michael Burgin


5. Brooklyn Castle (2012)

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The subject of Brooklyn Castle sounds like the premise for a soppy, Oscar-baiting drama. At I.S. 138 in Brooklyn, New York, a competitive chess program has helped an extraordinary number of lower-income inner city students improve their standings in life. But this documentary is all real, which makes the triumphs and failures of these kids all the more affecting. Featuring a delightful roster of vibrant young people and a timely exploration of how budget cuts harm extracurricular programs, it may be the best school doc since Resolved. —Dan Schindel

[Ed. note: Not surprisingly, the world’s preeminent board game (or is it tied with go?) has the most documentaries devoted to it. In addition to Brooklyn Castle, there’s Bobby Fischer Against the World (2011), Game Over: Kasparov and the Machine (2003), Album 61 (2013)and two films about the current “Big Man on Board,” Magnus Carlsen—The Prince of Chess (2005) and Magnus (2016).]

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