Say it loud – Talking about talking about Wingspan

Birds

It’s as simple as saying some words.

I’m drawing cards from a deck, and telling people what I’ve pulled, and I’m saying ‘Carolina Chickadee, Painted Bunting, Juniper Titmouse’.

The words pour from my mouth, spill into the room: all rhythm and contrast and bouncing consonants.

‘Loggerhead Shrike, Bewick’s Wren, Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher’

Say them out loud. Don’t just read. Listen to the different sounds, how they feel as they roll around your tongue and fly out into the world.

It’s well documented that I believe that boardgames are made by people. You can’t turn a pile of cardboard into a game without people to play it with. It’s also worth noting, that people, in many ways, are made by language.

Not everyone can speak, but everyone needs a way to communicate. We’ve built a whole wealth of world on the ability to transmit ideas. Most of the time, we do that by the movement of letters into words, and words into sentences.

Speaking is a delightful, deeply human process. We use these incredibly specific muscles to generate a stream of noises that follow just the right pattern to communicate an idea. Each word is built on centuries of language evolution, and the teaching and culture that has given us a way to share ideas and concepts and learn from each other. We understand the things we say.

We hear them. They bring images to mind.

‘Violet-Green Swallow,  Horned Lark, Ruby-Crowned Kinglet.’

Speaking is such a simple joy. Just enjoying the poetry of sound. The strange delight of a set of syllables you’ve never heard before. Conjuring something new into existence.

Wingspan is a game about birds. It’s lovely. There’s beautiful pictures, and a solid engine building game at its core.

My greatest joy this year has been announcing the names of birds as I play them (with the little factoids at the bottom of each card, if you’re lucky), activate them, or just bring them out for display in the middle of the table.

‘Steller’s Jay, Belted Kingfisher, Northern Shoveler.’

It’s just the names of birds. Just the odd labels we’ve given to beautiful tiny creatures that fly and dance and peck for food. And it’s so much fun.

Spirit Island actually has something similar. It’s powers all have magnificently poetic names, instantly evocative of some deep and ancient knowledge.

‘Grant hatred a ravenous form, Wrap in wings of sunlight, Flow like water, reach like air.’

When you’re playing games with people, it’s really delightful to hear their voices. To hear them say things you’ve never heard them say before. Boardgames are littered with moments where you explain your move, or this turn’s worry, and realise you’ve said something that couldn’t possibly make sense in any other context.

I love it when games give you word fuel. Give you syllables to wrap lips around and sentences to dance with. Playful speaking is a joy. Singing ‘American Robin’ to the tune of ‘American Woman’ until your housemate creases into tiny folded pieces is priceless.

We sit at the table to find joy in each other. So it’s good when we’re given something wonderful to listen to.

Say it loud.

‘Bobolink, Clarke’s Grebe, Prothonotary Warbler.’

 

 

 

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Storied boards – Faking history with the War of the Ring

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It’s easy to hate on games tied to other media. There’s a history of very bad games based on films, TV and books. There’s thin paste ups of already extant games (every media franchise has a Monopoly, some have a Risk, a few get a Carcassonne or a Catan) or just very bad, very thin, slightly glossy affairs.

But there’s a wealth of opportunity in taking a familiar story and letting you live it out on your table with cardboard and plastic. Novels, film and television are beautiful story telling crafts, they make so many different worlds, galaxies and universes feel real that I think it’s a shame not to take advantage of that.

So, on Boxing day me and my housemate sat down to retell the story of Lord of the Rings.

This is a beast of a game. A full fat war game, with cards to represent events from the books, and a set of extra rules to represent the dual quests of the fellowship: to rouse the nations of Middle Earth to war whilst sneaking round the back door to destroy the infamous ring.

You’re playing two games at once. Games that intersect in unusual and hard to grasp ways. Once you’ve understood the framework, you get to do something incredible.

You get to tell your own version of that fantasy.

We got to see a bemused Strider wander off aimlessly, immediately after the fellowship formed, a bit before the implications of the rules had settled in. He eventually made it to Gondor and put up a brave fight, but not in Minas Tirith. That storied city entered stasis during an over-extended siege that forgot to come to a head until the war was already lost.

We got to see Saruman flood Isengard with Uruk Hai. An overly efficient Wormtongue turned Helm’s deep from a grand battle into a miserable scuffle. Rohan fell hard and early.

The Elves were elsewhere, going furiously wild. They laid waste to Mirkwood, and very nearly made a home in Moria. They laid siege to ancient city, which was relieved at the last possible moment, just one orc left standing, by previously distracted Uruk Hai.

All of this should’ve provided excellent cover for Frodo and Sam, but they spent a bit too long wandering aimlessly around the midlands of Middle Earth, too knackered to take the fight to the Shadow.

Chaos prevailed, and so too did evil. Sauron’s armies laid waste to the butchy nations of Gondor and Rohan, before the ring bearers could stump up a threat to the golden circle.

This probably wouldn’t have made quite as good a book.

It’s a wonky story with some inexplicable motivations and lots of ‘not much happened because we didn’t have the right dice’. But that’s not the point. As with role playing, it doesn’t matter if the story is perfect, as long as the story is ours.

Ownership of that drama. The feeling that you’ve taken familiar icons, colours and images and made your own story from them? That’s priceless.

It’s delightful. It’s yours.

It’s the joy of fan fiction, without having to come up with ideas yourself. It’s turning familiar tales into emergent toolboxes. It’s living through your own version of a story you know inside out, and that’s invaluable.

Games shine when they let you dive into a story, and that should be easier when the stories already been told. It just requires the designer to use the narrative as more than just set dressing. You can’t tell a story with a few licensed photos and the right logo on the box.

This War of the Ring was complicated and occasionally bewildering, but it was also very ours.

We’re hoping to do it again next year. Completely differently.

I can’t wait.

Big moves and hidden motives – Twilight Imperium and big secrets

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There’s a game with a bigger box and a bigger reputation than just about any other. A day long space opera in a cavernous box, Twilight Imperium is something of a legend. It’s been around for four editions, and made the name of the one of the most successful publishers in the business. It’s sat on my shelf now, impossible to miss, even tucked as it is between all the other epic space operas.

It’s a strange beast, and an adorable one. Refined and expanded over the years, it is still famous as being the big event game that everyone wants to try. As someone who has spent a lot of time trying to persuade people to play big long heavy wargames, I’m in awe of Twilight Imperium’s ability to grab imaginations.

The latest edition has a galaxy full of aliens, and the rules to take six players on an epic journey through hexagonal space. With four players it’ll fit into the usable part of a day, and the latest edition is a masterclass in streamlining, making it easier than ever before to pour alien civilisations across your table. It’s still a convoluted beast, but it’s more straightforward than it’s ever been before.

It’s a strange creature though. It invites being read as a war game, with hundreds of plastic space ships glomming across the board and telling a stop and start story of territorial expansion. But it doesn’t incentivise random violence and landgrabs as much as you’d expect. Winning a battle only wins you points if it’s the right sort of battle, one you’ve got the right card for, or one for the very middle of the map, the brutal core of the galaxy, Mecatol Rex.

This deftly pushes you towards a game that’s much more about negotiation, story telling, secret plots, and strange motivations. Despite all the plastic and cardboard covering your table, this is a game about talking and looking each other in the eye. Holding your heart in your throat as you attempt something bold, ridiculous and unexpected.

It’s better than anything else I’ve played at that. It deserves praise for making something so vast feel so human.

In my last game, I was the space cats, playing against some ghosts, some clones, and a university. I remember coming so desperately close to winning by sneaking an invasion force right into the very heart of the university campus. A few tentative border skirmishes had made us rivals, but they didn’t see my bold maneuevere coming. I had been plotting for an hour, getting more and more stressed by the whole affair.

The invasion force gor through, annihilating the orbiting fleets. All I had to do was land one troop onto the planet, just a single planetary cannon stood in my way. I had three chances. The odds were miles in my favour.

Dice were rolled, and it all fell apart. The troops couldn’t land, and that cannon was a hero. Legends would be written. Songs would be sung.

The next turn, the university won the game instead. I missed my window. Half an hour ago the universities had quietly manipulated a vote that ‘nobody cared about’ in a way that meant they could walk directly into their final point. Everything had been about hidden motivations, hidden moves.

There’s so many layers to a game, to human interaction.

Twilight Imperium has three sides to it.

There’s the board, and the rules that dictate what that board means. Then there’s what’s going on above the table: the negotiations and trash talk and agreements and alliances that take place. But the ominous heart, beating underneath both, is secrets. Secret abilities and secret missions.

These secrets are such a small part of the game on the surface, but they give everything a depth and heft. Secrets are the drives that lead people to trick each other, give people enough scope to lie, to pretend, to role play. To make them want to arrange the universe just so, invisibly perfect for that coup de grace.

I think there’s something special there. Something about those undercurrents that completely changes the way the game plays, and the sense of drama it holds.

Drama is about conflicting motivations. Conflict comes from people wanting different things. But interesting conflict comes from those needs being just a bit concealed, a bit trickier to understand than a surface reading can allow.

Twilight Imperium is a shining example of how to make sure people want things in interesting ways. There’s a beautiful genius in those rules, those cards, those particular routes to victories. They turn a wargame into a diplomacy game, in subtle, simple and fascinating ways.

I can’t wait to get out into that galaxy again. And find out what secrets it hides.

 

 

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Hope and Desperation – Spirit Island and the nick of time

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I’m not often excited by co-op games, but when I like one, I tend to love it.

Spirit Island is an anti-colonial game where you play mystical spirits protecting a beautiful island and its inhabitants from awful, ruinous and relentless invaders. It sits proudly in my collection next to a load of games that I wish weren’t so good I still play them despite their awful politics.

It has drawn comparisons to my absolute darling, Mage Knight, and I think that’s fair. Spirit Island shares that game’s intense bouts of card staring, and the huge incredible power curve. You start the game struggling to move a piece around, and by the end, if things have gone right, effortlessly hurling avalanches, tsunamis and terrible towering demi gods at your enemies.

Spirit Island seems to be perfectly balanced to make you feel like a god. Specifically, one that has just got out of bed and can’t help you right now, but a coffee and a croissant and we’ll see what we can force majeure up.

The game often consists of doing just enough to survive for the first third, coming close to death in the second third, and then clobbering everyone in a ludicrously over the top finale.

If that sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the three act structure, a staple of film theory. Certain beats and climaxes and conflicts that help keep film watchers hooked.

It’s incredible that such a structure could be recreated in a fluid and complicated board game. I think Spirit Island nails it. Maybe I’m just used to fitting narratives to that frame, but it works.

It leads to some beautiful feelings and emotions. The opening of Spirit Island is pretty hesitant. The invaders are present, and swelling in number, and as you adapt to new found powers, you start thinking about what they mean in practice (trial and error and ‘oooh, this might be fun’). You win a few small victories, while the enemy spills over the land.

You get stronger, but things feel out of control. You get bigger, but so do they. You think you’re one step ahead, and then you fall two steps back. The invaders are predictable up to a certain horizon, but there’s always a way things can get worse.

And then it happens. The glorious, awful moment. The darkest night of the soul.

You look at the board, and you realise you’re doomed.

You have all these toys to play with, new powers, enough energy to play several cards a turn. You rotate your options to see quite how you can fit them together, but it isn’t enough.

You look to the other spirits of the island, and you share a fearful look.

‘If we can’t do something about this here, we’ve lost it.’

It might be an overpowered stronghold that already has blight, the pollution brought by the invaders (and some particularly unpleasant spirit powers) that multiplies into sudden death above a certain threshold. If it takes one more hit, it’ll start the cascade that ends the game.

‘Wait a second…maybe I can…’

It just takes one person figuring one thing out, and it can start a flood of hope. One idea bounces off another, and you’ve got a desperate, last minute plan.

Spirit Island’s response to the perennial co-op problem of ‘quarterbacking’, where one player dictates what everyone else does, is to bury so much possibility in the unique cards your spirit starts with, and the deck you can draw from during the game. It’s impossible to play more than your own hand at once.

It makes the game truly co-operative, with people having to trust each other when they say ‘don’t worry, I’ve got this coast locked down, but I need you help moving these’, or ‘just someone get some defence for these Dahan before we lose this whole region’. You can’t discuss what you need at the level of cards and actions, you have to ask for results. You have to trust each other, talk to each other and find the synergies between you through practice and communication.

This makes pulling something out of the bag all the more joyful.

The night is always darkest before the dawn. The incompleteness of what you can see of other people’s actions means that that bold play? It’s hard to know if it’ll quite work how you expect. Timing is everything, and many a plan has been brought down by the realisation that ‘no, sorry, that’s a slow power.’

When it works, it’s the sweetest feeling, like Indy grabbing his hat from under a descending stone slab. Just in the nick of time.

You were within one blight of losing everything, but you come together, you work together. You blast your newfound powers this way and that. You pull cities apart and scare explorers out of their awful colonies.

You made it.

Desperate times needed desperate measures. And you measured up.

It’s precisely as corny as that line. It’s the fist pump at the peak of an action movie. It’s remembering that you’re superheroes, and together you can do anything. It’s the Avengers standing in a circle for a 3D-bait panning shot.

What a wonderful feeling to bring to a game table.

This is the best part of co-operative games, to me. That feeling of success against overwhelming odds. The feeling of having done it together.

I say I don’t like co-op games, but actually I just think too few of them deliver the feeling of camaraderie, togetherness and hope that Spirit Island does. When you feel that dance between your own hand and the resources of your team, when you feel like someone else might just have the puzzle piece you’re missing. When you win by communicating, by covering for, and by sharing hope.

That’s games at their best.

 

 

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Sales pitch (with a B) – My anxiety about deciding what to play

SalesBitch-01

I’ve got a problem.

I want everyone at the table to have a good time. It’s really important to me that people have fun with the game we choose, and enjoy themselves.

That is not a problem. That’s what we should all be aiming for.

But I have a tendency to course correct before we’ve even started.

At the beginning of a games night, we have to work out what we’re going to play. If we’re at my house, we have a few hundred options. If I’ve packed to bring games over, I’ve probably brought twice as many as we need, and I might not be the only one that’s brought games.

We have to make a decision.

Considering boardgames are built out of interesting decisions, it’s odd how bad boardgamers are at deciding what to play.

And I’m one of the worst.

Sometimes I’ll try to push the decision onto others, so that if it all goes wrong, I don’t feel too responsible.

When we’re deciding, it’s fairly common that someone has to pitch a game. Give a concise explanation of what the game is, and what it’ll be like to play.

Considering I’m here trying to make money out of explaining what’s great about games to people, I am incongruently bad at this.

Even that isn’t my actual problem.

My problem is that when I’m pitching, I always end up pitching the faults of the game, not it’s successes.

  • ‘This game is great, but it might take three hours.’
  • ‘This game is wonderful, but it’s quite hard to teach.’
  • ‘This game is amazing, but if one person doesn’t get it, it all falls apart.’
  • ‘This game is brilliant, but it can feel a bit random.’

This means that apart from those rare, perfect games, it’s hard to make anything hit the table.

It’s a brutal second guessing. I turn that fear of people not having a good time into a patronising urge to protect people. I’m so worried about making sure the game goes well, that I rule out a load of games as ‘too fiddly’ or ‘too much hassle’. I love games that are a fiddly hassle and a load of other people do to. I’m so scared of watching people be bewildered or scared or, worst of all, bored.

When you’re presenting a game to play, you need to be honest – but you need to know that it’s impossible to predict what people will love and what people won’t.

It’s good to mention if a game has a problematic theme, or might go on a very long time, or involves bluffing or betrayal or the potential for particularly ignominious failure. The things that certain people really can’t get along with, and for very good reason.

But never forget the upside.

A long game can be intense. A complicated game can get your brain crunching. A hard to teach game might have more of those lightbulb moments. A random game might be dramatic. A game vulnerable to one player not getting in the spirit probably has a busload of player interaction once it gets started.

It’s easy to get so evangelical about games that you want to do everything to make every moment wonderful, every second perfect. Every game should be a shining beacon of what’s great about the game, and games in general. Every game should be a poetic and dramatic dance.

Games are rockier than that. They are flawed and imperfect, like humans.

This is because, as I’ve said so often before, board games are made of humans.

Don’t let flaws dominate. Look after the people you’re playing with, and let them know it’s okay if they change their mind or if it’s too much. Don’t second guess: remember how many times you’ve been entirely bewildered by a game, and come out loving it.

I’m not saying you should bring Twilight Struggle to a new gamer, or Twilight Imperium to a lunch break game session. There’s definitely games to avoid and situations to watch out for. But remember to sell the delights of a game, not just the problems.

It’s the delights that’ll make people delighted.

And that’s what matters.

 

 

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Silly Bickers – Teamwork, not-teamwork and being between two castles

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One of the great joys of certain games is working together. Co-operative or team based games run on the idea that you’ll enjoy working with your friends towards a common goal, even if that goal is just beating a different bundle of friends.

Within that, there’s something really delightful. Maybe it’s only certain friendships, certain situations, that it makes sense for but I think games can make it shine, and that qualifies it for a spot here.

Bickering.

There’s a particular type of playful argument that a game can fuel. Two people poke each other and wind each other into very special knots. In competitive games, it sits at the level of trash talking: bolshy confidence and aggy put-downs. When you’re working with someone it changes tone: you’re trying to help each other, but you might get a little bit heated, a little sharp.

Maybe it’s dangerous to glamorise the sort of arguments you can have with those you’re close to, but I think there’s a kind of snark and bicker and troll that works beautifully in a safe, cosy gaming environment.

Between two castles of King Ludwig* is the sort of game that absolutely gets that.

It’s not actually co-operative, but it’s core is that you’re working together with each of your neighbours. Between you and your neighbour on either side, you build ridiculous castles, winning on the basis of your least fancy château. You need to work together with two different people, but not let one of them get too far ahead, in case they’re winning elsewhere.

It’s a slightly fiddly scheme, but it leads to some delightful arguments. A common source of bickering is as simple as ‘which of your neighbours will you confer with first’. The defiant silence as someone refuses to talk to you until they’ve consulted another (who has decided to talk to someone else instead) is hilarious. Realising someone’s already picked the exact plan that you were about to talk them out of, even more so.

The game is really smartly put together in general. It’s based on two sibling-games, Between two cities and Castles of King Ludwig. Between two cities fell flat with me, with scoring rules just fiddly enough to be hard to teach, and just boring enough to not be worth the effort. By stealing some of the principles of the other King Ludwig (bonuses and adjacency bonuses of various sorts) the game is easier to teach, and the decisions are more chunky and exciting. It’s a smart hybrid.

It’s incredibly attentive to usability. Each tile explains itself clearly and accurately. It has a fancy plastic inlay that contains all the pieces so elegantly that the second time we played, we were playing the game within thirty seconds of taking the box lid off. It’s smart design, and something I’d love to see happen more.

All of which is wonderful because it means that the game doesn’t ever get in your way. Within seconds you can start choosing your first tiles and having your first arguments.

The game normally starts and ends pretty friendly. The competitive element is clear, but doesn’t really kick in until scoring (although we may be missing some more ruthless tactics that’ll come with familiarity). You’re mostly trying to do your best with the people you’re sat with. You build something together, and only later remember you were fighting.

The connection with your neighbours keeps the table intense. Everyone can stay frustrated and excited enough to bicker and pester and reassure and moan. There’s a lot of emotion in those little cardboard sitting rooms. With a game this smooth, you really are just sitting with the folks you love, doing an activity that’s a fight and an argument and a cuddle and a cahoot, all in one.

Which is games! This is what I love! Being at a table and doing silly things, and not just any silly things, but silly things with people.

Some games are wonderful because they grip you and confuse you and snare you and thrill you. Some games are wonderful because they get out of your way, and let you be thrilled by the people around you.

Or pissed off. That works too.

 

 

 

*I’ve removed the word ‘mad’ because it can be ableist, and I think it’s doubly problematic here, assigned to a queer historical figure. Most of the accusations and claims appear to be based on his spending and borrowing, but I’m think I’m all for any queer guy who tries to bankrupt the royal families of Europe in order to put more swans on more castles.

 

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Take me to the man parade – Queering cardboard and the Gay Western Trail

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One of the simple joys of boardgames is that whatever the board and rules say, you  shape your own version of the story.

Sometimes that’s as simple as playing a game unique to you, different decisions, different outcomes. Sometimes, you choose to add a bit of your own back story.

And sometimes, you’ve just got to make it gay.

Great Western Trail is a potentially po-faced cowboy story about going back and forth to Kansas City, herding cows, building buildings, and making a train move along a track. It’s a bit of a bastard to teach: there’s a lot of intersecting fairly abstract mechanics. They form a joyfully frustrating puzzle, but it can leave you behind on your first game.

That abstraction though? That’s ripe for story telling.

The first time I was teaching it to a new group, I forgot the name of the queue of manly faces from which you can buy carpenters, cowboys and engineers to help you on your journey.

So I called it the man parade.

The game has literally no women in it. It only has three men, but those three men are EVERYWHERE. Normally, I’d criticise this lack of diversity. In fact, I still do.

But maybe it’s okay when I play it, because everyone is gay as possible.

The Man Parade became this glorious, disco laden night club. You go cruising at different times of the night: the people that start early are cheaper because they’re obviously a bit eager, the ones at the end of the game/night are cheaper because at that point everyone’s desperate. The three men? They got names (or at least stereotypes): ‘Tops’, ‘Leather Daddies’ and ‘Brokeback types’.

There’s no weight to any of this. We weren’t examining queer representation and struggle, we weren’t really reinventing the game, we were just pasting a layer of stories over it. Stories that meant something to us, and made the game funnier, more filled with laughs. Stories that let three very different queer folk bond over their shared language, history and experience. Complaining about a top shortage in the man parade was common.

Society tells us the default story is straight and normative. It tells us all those men were straight, despite the complete absence of women. We’re just supposed to assume there’s an invisible layer of women behind the scenes. Not relevant to proceedings.

I don’t think the designer intended that, but it’s the default narrative. That’s how normativity works.

In boardgames the stories are often paper thin, cardboard at best. You can queer that stuff so easily. You can change the default. You can represent what you want.

That thinness doesn’t excuse the publishers, designers and artists for poor representation, but it gives you room to paint over it all. Make the table yours. Make the table inclusive. Make the table diverse.

If life gives you lemons, paint that shit gold.

If games give you cowboys? Make sure they’re gay.

Tell your own stories.

 

 

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Unfolding cardboard worlds