I want every movie I see to be a great movie. That sounds Pollyanna-ish, but it’s true, if only for selfish reasons: I don’t want to be annoyed, or disappointed, or feel like I just wasted the last few hours of my life staring at something utterly forgettable. And I especially root for those scrappy little movies — made for under $50,000 with a devoted Kickstarter campaign on a topic that would otherwise be ignored — to succeed and shine a light on what is possible with film and why you don’t need big budgets or swarms of CGI programmers. Thus it brings me no joy to write that Going Cardboard, a no-budget documentary on the rise in popularity of German-style board games, is a poorly assembled movie that fails to properly engage audiences due to its many shortcomings, both technical and narrative.
Director Lorien Green sets out to examine the growing interest in games such as Settlers of Catan, Dominion, and Ticket to Ride — board games played by all ages that involve strategy, creativity, and a bit of luck. Green interviews many of the games’ publishers and designers, as well as some prominent online figures in the gaming community, charting the proliferation of these board games and their ties to the Spiel Des Jahres (the prestigious German “game of the year” award that game makers vie for). The enthusiasm of the gamers is palpable as they excitedly talk about discovering these games. Bringing the viewer to the biggest game convention, in Essen, Germany, which draws hundreds of thousands of attendees, Green establishes the enormous scope of the popularity of these games.
That a giant international community has formed around a medium that has no advertising or featured prominence in pop culture is a fascinating subject. The problem for the movie arises in its execution, as the film is a narrative mess without any coherence. It appears for a moment that the documentary will be a look at the chronological evolution of gaming through the lens of past /Spiel Des Jahres winners — but that construct is quickly abandoned. Moreover, there is a haphazard nature to storytelling. For example, one of the subplots — if a movie without a main narrative can said to have branching plots — is about the tribulations of an independent game designer getting his board game published. But the entirety of this story is told through only a handful of scenes that amount to little more than asides.
This scattershot storytelling is only exacerbated by the shoddy camera- and sound-work. This movie wasn’t made for much, and I didn’t expect to be visually dazzled by a movie about a fairly stationary past time, but the camera positioning and poor lighting make for a bland aesthetic that does nothing to improve how the information is conveyed. Lines are dropped and the highly variant sound quality of the interviews adds to the overall discomfort.
Green has a fascinating subject that is not discussed outside of Internet forums; access to domain experts and excitable fans who are very eager to share their enthusiasm and proselytize about the transformative power of gaming; and many possibilities for engaging narratives based around the history of gaming, the community that supports it, or even the process of bringing a game to market — or even all three! There is an abundance of potential material in this topic, and the problem lies in the fact that Green tries to give them all their due. In attempting that, feat she ends up hobbling her own film.
Towards the end, two of Green’s interview subjects discuss how they are constantly trying to design their own game:
Every month or so, we have hundreds of games that we got about 80% of the way to being a game and then there’s that critical moment where you have all the concepts and everything’s together but you need, like, the Link. And we never… get the Link.
She’s an enthusiastic devotee of the gaming world, but Green is missing her own crucial Link from fandom to filmmaker.