SXSW Review – ‘The Hobby’ Celebrates Board Games

SXSW Review – ‘The Hobby’ Celebrates Board Games
Candice Harris in The Hobby | Credit: Jesse McCracken

Games are fun to play, but not everyone approaches them with the same mindset. What can be a mandatory family activity or a great way to relax for some can be the most serious of activities for those who devote extraordinary amounts of time to learning rules and honing their skills in board game play. The Hobby offers an entertaining introduction to the world that encompasses people obsessed with a hobby, an ironic term for those who feel very strongly about the significance of this leisure activity in their lives.

It’s not just one game or one person at the center of The Hobby, but rather the way that some devote every waking moment to mastering their capabilities and to becoming the best at competitive board games. Conventions and expositions are featured which debut highly anticipated new games and untested ideas alike, with eager attendees present to soak up knowledge about how to best develop strategies for victory. Audiences will surely know some of the more mainstream games, like Settlers of Catan and Ticket to Ride, while others remain much more under-the-radar and may even gain popularity from being showcased in this film.

At no point does this documentary seek to make fun of its subjects, nor does it try to glamorize them. They are well aware that they devote a sizable percentage of their lives to something that, for most, might be perceived as a casual interest or a way to blow off steam. These people are allowed to be and to show themselves, both in interview footage as they excitedly recount their favorite games and gameplay experiences to the camera and as they sit focused in the middle of a neck-and-neck game hoping to emerge victorious. 

Viewers who consider themselves to be board game enthusiasts will likely enjoy this film, though the focus stays more on the players than the games themselves. The film humorously opens on a historian who shows an ancient board used to play games before he expresses his extreme distaste for all board games, and he’s the only note of negativity throughout the film whose pessimism is quickly disproven and outweighed by the sheer passion and delight exhibited by the players who gain great joy from bragging about their gaming accomplishments and just getting to play.

The spirit of the community experience of play is another bright spot of this lighthearted documentary, and it’s nice to see friendships made across the table between opponents who are determined to win at all costs. What’s most affirming, however, is seeing the sheer love one husband espouses for his wife as he watches her playing Ticket to Ride, calculating the moves she needs to make in order to successfully complete one of her drawn route tickets, and showering her with nothing but overwhelmingly positive energy when she fails to win. It’s affirming to know just playing the game can be rewarding even without notching a victory.

Whether The Hobby will recruit more people to the world of competitive board game play remains a question, though that’s not meant to be the purpose of this film. It manages to effectively show people in their natural habit and allow them to show the world who they are in an unapologetic and celebratory way. There certainly exist more niche and unusual pursuits, and the way in which this film treats its subjects with dignity and a reverence for their commitment is inspiring. In addition to being a fun ride, this film also serves as an informative look at a community that exists just outside the mainstream, open to accepting new devotees on the condition that they express the same level of reverence and respect for the art of the hobby.

Grade: B+

Check out more of Abe Friedtanzer’s articles.

The Hobby makes its world premiere in the Documentary Spotlight section at the 2024 SXSW Film and TV Festival.

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