Ridere, ludere, hoc est vivere.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Hearing Women Tell It: A Review of "Girls on Games"

At a time when the board game community has become gradually aware of the unique experiences of women in the hobby, the gently feminist Girls on Games, an anthology on gender perspective in gaming particularly and in geekdom more generally, successfully Kickstarted in 2014 with over 900 backers.  Elisa Teague - designer of games, events, costumes, and props - compiled 15 essays by women and a foreword (by a man) and herself wrote six more plus an afterword.  She also interleaved “Share My Story Spotlight” anecdotes by two women, three men, and a girl, plus a poem – or perhaps a song lyric – by “The Doubleclicks.”  And to read and hear women tell it, despite a consistently optimistic tone throughout their essays, they experience some ugly behavior in our gaming hobby  – from condescension, to scorn, to challenges to their bona fides as game lovers.  After reading of these experiences, frankly, I don’t know how they put up with it. 

I suppose not all women do put up with it.  We hear from the passionate gamer women who share their stories with an enduring hope to make future experiences better, more welcoming, more inclusive, more accepting, and less judgmental.  We don’t, on the other hand, hear much first-hand or in social media from the women who gave up after the first confrontation, who were intrigued by Catan among friends but were put off by their first unwelcome visit to a game store and so turned their backs on gaming as a hobby thereafter.  In this discourse, those voices are silent.

Is it an exaggeration to say that if the gaming community were aware of the women who have walked away, we would mourn them – or at least mourn the opportunity to share games with them and to grow the hobby that much further?  Every one of us brings something to the hobby.  Some of us design, some publish, some review and constructively criticize, some volunteer, some write, some podcast, but most of us simply play.  We all bring something to the table – except for those of us who don’t feel welcome at the table and stop coming altogether.  Those self-ostracized bring nothing, and we miss what they might have brought.

I should mention that this anthology’s fascinating perspective and insight suffer, regrettably, as a roughly hewn text in need of professional attention from both an editor and a formatter.  In the Kickstarter reward edition on my Kindle, the atrociously laid-out Table of Contents – with each page number appearing at the end of a ridiculous string of periods – did not get the same convenient, nicely hyperlinked treatment that the end notes did.  Headers and footers appear in the middle of pages of text.  I lost count of spelling and grammatical errors.  Page breaks do not separate chapters, which instead begin in the middle of a page.  A series of Dork Tower comic strips interleaved among the chapters appear too small on the screen to read and do not respond to magnification attempts.  Many paragraphs intended to lead with an over-sized capital letter instead appear as simply a word with its first letter separated from the rest of the word by two spaces.  These formatting and editorial issues make the book read like a first draft and distract from the collection’s otherwise compelling thesis.

Kristin Looney
Source: Looney Labs
And yet, for all of those distractions, a compelling thesis it has indeed.  As I read Kristin Looney’s “Life Without Boxes,” I found myself mindful of my own prejudices.  When I met Andrew Looney at UnPub 5 in Baltimore, I assumed that he ran Looney Labs – even though I’d seen Kristin Looney identified as Chief Executive Officer (CEO) on the company website.  I took her to be actually his business manager and attributed the quirky application of the “CEO” title to the offbeat, unconventional personality of Looney Labs.  Kristin Looney’s account of her gaming and business life, however, makes clear that it is Andrew that has a creative role in her company and not she that has a business role in his.  Looney Labs is successful in no small measure because Kristin Looney remained true to herself and brought her full knowledge and talent to bear, rather than accept the boxes into which people sought to put her as a woman in business. 

Source: Girls on Games
Several of the essays recount frequent male accusations of some women as “fake geek girls,” a notion foreign to me.  I have no familiarity with this concept.  Perhaps I play among well-behaved gamers.  Perhaps it comes up more frequently in comic and video game conventions than at board game conventions.  Or perhaps I have something of a blind eye to the misbehavior around me, as one male admits in his “Share My Story Spotlight” to having heard but not noticed a woman being hit on at his own game table.

The women contributors consistently describe having to prove themselves qualified to participate in the gaming community, whether as creators, businesspeople, or even players.  In numerous random encounters, men dismissed women’s gaming experience or challenged their “geek credentials” by quizzing them as if their commitment to the hobby were on trial and men were the gatekeepers.  These challenges undermine – perhaps deliberately – women’s confidence and sense of acceptance in a community that ostensibly enjoys games with such like-minded fellow hobbyists. 

Women feel targeted by these credibility challenges, but they may not realize that male gamers – particularly wargamers, in my opinion – cred-check each other continually in a kind of knowledge one-upmanship.  The most egregious example I can recall was at a War of 1812 re-enactment event, where one uniformed expert insisted that someone had pronounced “huzzah” incorrectly. The self-identified expert informed everyone in earshot of the correct 19th-century celebratory exclamation.  His elucidation of an obscure historical fact served a tacit but painfully obvious effort to establish a position in a geek knowledge pecking order.  Male geeks test each other in their command of obscura the same way that boys race to see who is fastest or arm-wrestle to prove superior strength.  Wargame geeks read avidly, remember voluminously, and expound proudly, sometimes obnoxiously and ostentatiously, for the sake of credibility and superiority among their peers.  

Trin Garritano
Source: PodcastThing.com
Trin Garritano’s “The Greatest Game of ‘I’ve Never’” best illustrates the inherent one-upmanship among male hobbyists by turning the practice on its head.  She recounts an almost accidental conversation with a male stranger at a convention that turned into comparing notes on which canon video games they had not played – as if to say, “See, I’m an outsider just like you,” only to illuminate the point that no minimum gamer qualification checklist exists to enjoy the hobby and participate in the community.

Elisa Teague
Source: Facebook.com
Still, given the need for a sense of superiority in a climate of a geek hierarchy that challenges the male’s validity as a gamer, a woman represents a target of opportunity against which a male may compare himself and elevate his geek standing.  Teague personally undermined one such effort that she recounts in “The Cred-check: Set Up to Fail,” when a CVS clerk challenged her on the Firefly t-shirt she was wearing on the way to Gen Con.  She put the fellow in his place, and arguably, he asked for it, inasmuch as every such challenge carries a risk of failure and inferior standing against the opportunity to demonstrate superiority.  He thought he was picking on a weakling but instead woke up a tiger.  The cred-check backfired, and he had it coming.  Guys understand – or should understand – that issuing a challenge risks losing.  Women that beat men at this game should understand that they do not need to feel badly for them.

Except, that is, for the fact that the whole social construct of geek hierarchy undermines the hobby in the first place.  “The Desiderata” warns us against comparing ourselves to others, lest we become both vain and bitter, because there will always be those greater and lesser than we.  We male geeks risk vanity and bitterness in seeking validation through mutual comparison, but the male beast by nature seeks to challenge others to prove ourselves.  To fulfill our potential as intelligent, morally aware, enlightened beings, however, we need to transcend our primal tendency to push ourselves up by pushing others down and instead protect the dignity of every member of the community that would join us in our mutually enjoyable hobby, male and female alike.  Games, after all, constitute a fundamentally social activity.  We compete not to test ourselves against each other but to enjoy the company and the competition.  We embrace a social contract in the rules of the game and in entering the magic circle that envelopes our experience and structures our personal interactions. 

This reviewer backed Teague’s Kickstarter project to fund publication of Girls on Games.  This review addresses the .mobi-formatted ebook reward copy from that crowd-funding campaign. 

Friday, August 12, 2016

Fifth annual-ish "What to pack for a vacation"

This summer we're headed to the North Carolina Outer Banks for a week at a beach house.  We just threw together a list of games to bring based partly on recent acquisitions, partly on old favorites, and partly on family stand-byes that we think we can get the normally reluctant sons to play.  Here's this year's packing list:
- Splendor
- Jaipur
- Dead of Winter
- Evolution: Climate
- Last Spike
- New Bedford
- Bang! Halo
- Survive: Escape from Atlantis
- Munchkin

- Qwirkle Cubes
- Pie Factory
- Diner
- Incan Gold
- PowerMage 54
- Love Letter
- Loot Letter
Past years' vacation packing lists:
2015 Bermuda cruise
2014 southwest Virginia
2011 West Virginia mountains

Friday, July 22, 2016

Can one house rule make an old game new again?

Replacing the dryer with one that was two inches wider led to having to move a shelf unit.  Which meant unloading all the old games from the shelves.  Which meant going through all the old games and deciding which to keep and which to dispose of.  Which meant rediscovering games that perhaps deserved a second look.  Which led to trying a 20-year-old game that I'd picked up at a PrezCon auction thinking my wife would like it but never actually played - 221B Baker Street: Sherlock Holmes and the Time Machine (designer Jay Moriarity, publisher John N. Hansen Co).

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Kramer and Kiesling recommendations

A couple of weeks ago I tweeted my realization that I have no games in my collection that are designed by Wolfgang Kramer nor Michael Kiesling, arguably two of the biggest designer names of our time.  They collaborated to design such high-flyers as Tikal, Torres, and Maharaja.  Kramer also designed El Grande, Princes of Florence, and Colosseum.  So I solicited recommendations from Twitter followers, and here are the titles that came up:

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Perspectives on Origins 2016 - Friday 17 June

Continued from Part 1, Thursday 16 June

East India Company
My primary purpose at Origins was to pitch "East India Company" to publishers.  At noon on Friday, my first appointment went well, but the publisher had issues with some of the liberties I'd taken with history in terms of which commodities were produced at which colonies.  I'd certainly made some "convenient assignments" in the interest of making the math work in the gameplay, but he seemed to think I'd gone too far and ought to revisit the historical basis of the game.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Perspectives on Origins 2016 - Thursday 16 Jun

Keith Ferguson and I drove to the Origins Game Fair in Columbus, Ohio, on Thursday 16 June.  Most of what I recorded at Origins manifested in the medium of tweets.  What follows are a few highlights, and as the opportunity arises, I may elaborate on some of them.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Dice, Dexterity, and Tactics: A One-play Review of "Barrage Battle"

The application of dexterity to combat resolution in modern game design appears to be an emerging phenomenon, the Western-themed Flick 'em Up the most notable example.  Raechel Mykytiuk and Matthew Kuehn bring a new innovation by blending dexterity with the card-character skirmish format of such games as Up Front and Summoner Wars in the fantasy-themed combat game Barrage Battle, currently on Kickstarter with a funding date of Friday June 24. 

Friday, April 29, 2016

Gaming in a hospital room - revisited

A little over four years ago, I wrote a couple of posts on what works and what doesn't when playing games in a hospital room or waiting room.  We find ourselves in a similar situation this week, although the medical circumstances are decidedly more serious.  All the same, it is helpful to revisit the principles that make for a good pasttime under such trying circumstances - portability, compactness, simplicity, humor, interruptibility, and brevity.  What follows is an amalgamation of highlights from the two posts.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Games for a one-armed mother-in-law

My mother-in-law was in a rather severe car accident a few weeks ago.  She is home from the hospital and recovering from surgery to her elbow, arm, and hand.  We plan to visit soon, but we are faced with a dilemma:  What three-player games are appropriate when one player can't easily hold a hand of cards and really only has use of one hand?

Friday, April 15, 2016

UnPub 6: Adjustments to "East India Company"

"East India Company" demo at PrezCon 2016:
(l. to r.) Darrell Louder, T.C. Petty III, Paul O.,
Matthew O'Malley, Jessica Wade
Photo by Chris Kirkman
I had demonstrated "East India Company" to a publisher at PrezCon last February, and came away realizing that the action cards I had added since UnPub 5 last year still needed some balancing.  I was also dissatisfied by the amount of down-time I observed (although the players hadn't complained about it).  In anticipation of UnPub 6, I made three significant changes:

Friday, March 18, 2016

Ninja Countdown: A one-play review of San Ni Ichi

In the quintessential neo-tradition of first-time game designer/publishers, Ironmark Games has successfully crowd-funded and released debut designer Mike Sette's rather fascinating little trick-taking game with a Ninja martial arts theme.  San, Ni, Ichi, whose title translates from Japanese as "Three, Two, One," features simultaneous card play with a rock-paper-scissors resolution mechanic.

Friday, March 4, 2016

PrezCon 2016: Pillars of the Earth final

(c) Mayfair Games
Used by permission

I ran the tournament for Pillars of the Earth (designers Michael Rieneck and Stefan Stadler, artists Michael Menzel, Anke Pohl, and Thilo Rick; publisher Mayfair) at PrezCon again this year.  This worker placement game is based thematically on the Ken Follett novel of the same name.  Players compete to contribute the most to the construction of Kingsbridge Cathedral.  They have at their disposal a team of unskilled workers for collecting sand, wood, and stone, and for working in the wool mill for money.  Players can pay or recruit a team of up to five skilled craftsmen to use those raw materials to contribute to the cathedral's construction.  Metal is also available but more difficult to come by.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

2015 Holiday Gift Meta-guide

Plenty of people have plenty of gift ideas for the holidays, so rather than compile my own list to add to the rest, I've assembled my second annual collection of holiday gift guides with recommendations from all over the blogosphere.  At the end, I'll highlight the most frequently recommended games from all these lists.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Controversial themes

This week I happened across an old State of Games podcast in which Chris Kirkman, Nat Levan, and the Dice Hate Me crew discussed the potential backlash from Nat's whaling-themed game, New Bedford.  The discussion addressed why people might have difficulty with a game based on hunting and killing whales.  For my part, I'm very fond of the game, and I think its historical setting and the chit-pull mechanic that models the depletion of the whale population lend the proper respect to the topic.  In short, it's not a controversial theme for me.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Boardgames in the Backyard 2015

Today is probably the last pleasant day in northern Virginia for a while - perhaps our final opportunity for a boardgame in the backyard this year.  Here's a reflection on games we played out back this season.

19 June - Mr. Jack, a terrific deductive duel

Friday, October 9, 2015

Bachelor weekend

My wife is at a writers' conference in North Carolina this weekend, which means it's just us guys in my house - my 19- and 14-year-old sons and me.  I'm thinking Friday night is Star Wars X-wing, with the 19-year-old as Boba Fett in the Slave I against the 14-year-old and me flying X-wing and Z-95s against him.  Two against one, but we're not afraid.  [Update:  We did indeed play X-wing, although I flew a Y-wing rather than Z-95s.  There was no escape for Boba Fett this time, as a proton torpedo from my pursuing Y-wing delivered the fatal blow, even as he deployed a mine in my path.]

Friday, September 25, 2015

Kickstarters that should have funded

The proliferation of boardgames on Kickstarter is no secret.  In preparing the Dice Tower News Kickstarter report, week in and week out, I find countless boardgames and card games that don't fund.  Many fail to fund for understandable reasons - many never coming close - but from time to time a campaign that seems to have everything going for it somehow falls short of the mark, goes unfunded, and has to return to the drawing board.  I thought it would be interesting to reflect on a few of those "projects that should have funded" as cautionary tales that remind us that nothing on Kickstarter is a sure thing - and perhaps to begin to understand why.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Fourth annual-ish "What to pack for a vacation"

Each summer I'm in charge of deciding which boardgames to take on family summer vacation.  The last time I looked at this question was August last year.  This year we are going on our first cruise, so packing space is a premium (and perhaps table space as well). My first thought for games that are easy to pack are card games, and then I brainstormed a few other ideas.  I shopped the list around my family and dropped the ones they weren't interested in.  We settled on the following:

Friday, August 14, 2015

WBC 2015

Keith Ferguson and I drove up to Lancaster, Pennsylvania last Thursday for our annual pilgrimage to the World Boardgaming Championships.

Friday, July 24, 2015

UnPub 5 Saturday - playtesting other prototypes

[Apparently I'd written this entry last February after UnPub 5 but never posted it.  Then this evening I accidentally published it.  For better or for worse, here it is.]

After two playtest sessions of "East India Company," it was time for me to make the rounds at UnPub 5.  The great thing about a convention like UnPub is the people you meet.  I spent a good part of the weekend chatting with Bruce and Mike of The Party Gamecast and playing a few games with them, including Red 7 and Marcus Ross's Discount Salmon (which was fun though not my style of card game).  I had the opportunity to talk with Chris Kirkman of Dice Hate Me Games, Andy Looney of Looney Labs, Luke Peterschmidt of Fun to 11 Games, Mike Lee of Panda Game Manufacturing, and Diamonds designer Mike Fitzgerald.  That is what a convention experience is all about.  But I also played some games: