The Truth about Board Gaming

So board games have entered into a “golden age.”

Perhaps you’ve noticed. Perhaps one of your friends has insisted to play “Settlers of Catan,” “Cards against Humanity,” or something even odder.

Seem strange, right? In the age of smartphones and apps and Facebook games riddled with predatory microtransactions, cardboard and dice are somehow blooming.

But maybe that’s it. Maybe some romantic notion of anti-technology, a mighty blowback against the very everyday institutions that divide, as much as they unite, us people.

Well, no. It’s a nice thought. But that’s not quite it.

My family played a fair amount of games together as a family. My older brother always beat me at strategy games, like Stratego or Chess, being four full years my senior. I started Magic: the Gathering when I was seven, but my brother was the only person to play against and I lost constantly. My family owned the standard “roll and move” games, like Monopoly and Life, as well as Careers. My father was fond of Risk, but play of it was uncommon. More so were the many games of Racko or Chronology Jr. My mother loved Aggregation, though a family joke was generated that she cheated do to her prodigious ability to roll the all-powerful 6’s. We also had Quinto, a very enjoyable Scrabble-but-with-numbers. On our many family camping trips, we’d play Zilch.

In middle school, I discovered D&D and began my lifelong obsession with pen and paper story and gaming. I kept playing Magic as a minor distraction and felt somewhat vindicated from my years against my brother by never losing at the hands of my peers. When I got to college, I encountered more “gamey” board games, like Axis and Allies or Risk 2210 A.D. I was always excited to take part, but more as an intellectual competition against my friends and less for any deep enjoyment of the game.

There is one type of video gaming I have enjoyed more than any other: it’s called “couch co-op,” which is to say sitting in the same room as your friends and then either competing against them or teaming up to progress through the game. It seems odd to me now to need to specify this, but when I was young, internet multiplayer was immensely rare. Now it’s a household staple. And while the possibilities of MMOs and online teamplay initially excited and fascinated me, they’ve long grown banal. I never gloated and strutted so haughtily or howled in bloody defeat and screamed for revenge as loudly as I did when I was gripping a sweaty controller side-by-side with the people I loved.

But I can tell you now, I am thoroughly consumed by board gaming. It has utterly eclipsed my interest in video games, which usually sat as second to pen and paper as my nerdy preoccupations.

So how? Why?

Well. It was the internet.

Wil Wheaton’s Youtube show Tabletop, reviews by Quintin Smith and Paul Dean of Shut Up & Sit Down, and the Dice Tower of Tom Vasel suddenly exploded across my browser in recent years as I watched slack-jawed in utter disbelief. Passion for the industry, love for ideas and systems, and the ingenuity of the physical objects that were board games dominated seemingly everything. There was no question at all. This was magicial in a way I had never realized. Why didn’t I know it was this goddamned incredible?

Board gaming has long simply been a very niche industry. Printings from the gaming companies that produced them were physically limited. People could only purchase these games from small, specialized shops. There was little migration from other hobbies. The only advertising for them were the goofy TV commercials largely indistinguishable from ones selling children’s cereal.

But the fuel for this veritable forest fire comes in two forms: information and access, two things the internets happens to do better than any tool in human history.

“Internet!” you can shout at practically any reflective surface in your house. “Tell what the good board games are.” Only to follow up with a: “Internet! Get me those board games!” And in a flash, they’re at your front stoop. What could be easier?

These days I have a little over 50 board games stacked up in my linen closet. They’re all shapes and sizes and genres. I rabidly research them all before purchase. Some retail for around $100, so you gotta be careful. I’ve only spent as much as $60 once or twice. And the only ones I really regret buying are some on the cheaper end.

I’ve always been something of a “nerd evangelist.” I’ll rave about media in the form of music, movies, TV, anime, video games, novels, or comic books I love and convince other people to experience it to: Neil Gaiman, Deltron 3030, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, etc. Now I’m part of board gaming, and looking to spread the passion of their magic there, too (Top Five? Probably Cosmic Encounter, Tales of Arabian Nights, Descent: Journeys in the Dark [Second Edition], Pandemic, and Love Letter).

My name is Graham Gentz. And I goddamn love board games. If you just humor me a little bit, I’ll even teach you some of them. And I promise, at the very least, you won’t be bored in the slightest.

After all, there’s a golden age out there.

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Just Start It

You ever wanna just write and you don’t write? You sit and stare at a computer screen, or let tab after tab multiply at the head of your browser. I really think the “Open in a new tab” option is the worst and best, and then worst again, thing that’s ever happened to internet browsing and procrastination everywhere.

Thank good shit for deadlines.

I loved Hunter S as a kid when I first discovered this literary, counterculture rebel. The 1990’s were a hard and confusing for me a kid, hating popular culture in every form. Bad sitcoms, terrible movies, and boy bands. Fucking god, what was with boy bands.

But when I found Hunter at an age when I was too young to really understand him, his ferocious staccato word choice had such teeth and venom. His ideas about truth in fiction and 1st person narrative spat in the face of everything I understood. And I stood up and screamed for more.

As a man, too, he seemed a figure alone. He hated rules and deadlines and most constraints. But I think for me, the constant pressure of a hard two hours to get 700 of the best words I had made them that much better. You couldn’t agonize or self-edit internally. You’d drown in your own spittle first. And not school deadlines. Turning some buzzingly lettered essay before 11:59pm was never satisfying. Maybe in retrospect, you would peek back at the wordy monster vomited up by desperate synapses when you got to see whatever arbitrary grade it received. Maybe then you could take a little random pride in how it “wasn’t too bad, all things considered.”

No, it was the pressure of professional writing and its tantalizing publication that got me there. I feel my overall experience was a bit hampered by largely writing theater criticism or reviews or whatever the most appropriate terms are. Sure, I got to write the odd column or be more creative in certain pieces. Mostly I feel like I got Albuquerque theater people to dislike me real good, with maybe a few who I liked what I was doing.

But sometimes you get stuck, right? Creatively bankrupt is a bit harsh, but I feel a pretty common experience is sitting and staring at a blank paper or canvas or screen. I had to teach myself not to do that. And I did this by learning to start, even if I didn’t know where I’d finish or where the next step would be. That, my friends, is what editing is for. Once you have the pieces, you can pass them around, really making the connections you want. And knowing that you’re at the top of hill, staring down in fear at the precipitous slope below, is where the battle can only begin. Knowing you really can start running and that gravity won’t make you crash immediately on your face is as freeing as anything else. You CAN make it. You have it in you. Once you get the pace thought by thought, you start coasting– comfortably, even. Inertia is the most powerful creative force you can possibly have.

But if you don’t start, you’ll be at the tippy, static top, staring at a blinking cursor.

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My dream last night

I dreamt I was shrunk to about 2 feet tall or so. But also made invisible. I was played by Christian Bale. I went on a quest to write the wrongs. I was being supported physically by woman, sort of like an exoskeleton. I still had my sword, which was normal sized. I found arrows and a quiver in a pile of junk, but an old douchey co-worker who was the only one who could see me for some reason kept calling it a “KAR-RON” and insisted it was the proper pronunciation. It ended up being an extremely cumbersome amount of things to carry.

Before I was Christian Bale, I was me in a more or so high school drama setting. We were performing a satirical musical. Tino played God and Szeman played Jesus Christ, his son. God sent Jesus down during the time of the dinosaurs. The director was some snooty Hollywood bigshot. We were writing the play as we went along. I offered to help. I discussed how silly the Jesus death scene could be, with people mobbing him and “going all Brutus on him.” There were two-dimensional paper people from “South Park” there as well, so I suggested that “Stan could become the new hero.”

Before that, I was involved in some kind of mafia plot. Lots of killing and retribution killing. I was played by Michael Pitt. I had a premonition my flapper girlfriend was going to be killed, so I tried to reach an accord with the rival mob boss– *I* had to die.

So later on the dream, when I was in the play, I had a date planner with today’s date of the Saturday rehearsal saying “2-5 pm, Death” since I had to die publically where the rival mob boss would be able to know it’d happened. The snooty Hollywood director mostly blew me off, but the plan was that I had to actually die, but then I’d be defibrillated back to consciousness.

Backstage, as I was trying to write funny bits for the script, a girl from the show sat near me and we shared my blue and red cape like a blanket and she explained she’d tried to play a board game during her break but was too nervous. She called it something weird, but I imagined the box for a second trying to visualize it and thought it was “Exploding Kittens: the Card Game” or the “Simon’s Cat Card Game” which isn’t out yet. As I was trying to write more of the script, a stagehand came and yelled at me for working on personal things instead of the script before I could explain I was.

That’s about when I got shrank. I began to see it a screenplay for a movie, a kind of Hero’s Journey thing. This allowed me to meta visualize what had happened to me: the big evil villain, who was probably some sort of king, had sent his wizard viser to kill him, but instead he’d shrunk me. When the king asked the wizard if I was dead, the viser answered, “He’s been taken care of,” in reference to my shrinking. Then a voice popped into my head saying that “wasn’t it a cliche that the villain thinks the hero is dead due to a shoddy job by an assassin halfway through the plot? Plus the miscommunication of the instructions.” I resolved to fix the plot so such blaring cliches weren’t present. But I was still a shrunk Christian Bale with a woman partner exoskeleton with too much gear.

I went around a corner to the front of the theater to see two aliens talking in the manner of a “Shadows of the Empire” cutscene. One green female alien said in a floating text box “Oh no… Melchior finally did it…” when the alarm woke me up.

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Needing Therapy

1
Hi. So how’s it going?

2
I don’t know. I’m sad? I feel ugly. Small. Scared. Yeah, definitely scared.

1
Scared of what?

2
I don’t know. Is it failure? That seems kinda normal. Or something, given better context, I could stand above from and see the outside of it. Where the fog clears and I understand the real dimensions of it.

1
Ow.

2
Yeah. Seems kinda stupid, right?

1
I’m not so certain.

2
Why not?

1
It is normal to struggle. To hate and clash and wail against our confines of life. It’s just being alive. I remember something about coming into life crying as you’re born just because of the violence pain of being alive. Life is pain. Life is suffering.

2
Yes. One of those darker philosophies. The ugly, internal looking ones.

1
And out. Life. The world.

2
Yeah, I suppose. I never quite figured out how the existentialism-nihilism dichotomy was supposed to work for me. Existentialism is about hope. Life being hope. That’s nice. But then you inevitably fail and then feel worse. Being alive and doing nothing, feeling guilty about it all the while. Nihilism is supposed to free you of that burden. The meaning just isn’t there. The universe is chaotic and ugly, but then can also be beautiful. If you have the hope to make it yourself.

1
And then you swing back to existentialism.

2
Right. Yeah. I don’t know, I just have too many questions I don’t have answers to.

1
That doesn’t sound that bad. That’s okay, too, right.

2
Yeah, it should be. Life IS big and ugly and weird and chaotic and just NOT. NORMAL. You know? I don’t know what I’ve learned about ANYthing. I’m at the end of something, not the beginning. That’s what it seems. Just because I don’t know what to do next. What to step to. I can’t even pour myself into a stupid job. Make money. But I have to, I should. I need. Soon, definitely. I can’t just jerk off and get fat and waste money and MY time. I just haven’t made plans. Cause I’m scared.

1
Because you’re scared.

2
I feel fat. Ugly.

1
You keep saying “ugly.”

2
Yeah. It’s weird. It’s not REALLY in a physical sense. I had my own battle with self image ages ago, mostly as a teenager. Came out the other side okay. It’s mostly about A. finding a mate, and then B. being just LIKED by people. Your peers and such. Us and our weird little social islands that we are, desperately needing those other islands to see us as good.

1
But now you’re ugly.

2
Agh, it’s a self confidence thing. Yeah, I feel fat and weird. But I COULD be fatter. That part’s funny. I think it’s more a symbol of feeling out of control. My body isn’t in my control. My life feels that way too.

1
So then take control. Henry Rollins’ thoughts on exercise.

2
Right. But then I get scared again. I collapse inward.

1
Can you breakthrough somehow? I mean. You know rationally that it’s what you have to do.

2
Yeah. I think that’s the thing. The rational versus the. Emotional? The gut feeling that I hate and that seems to hate me. Telling me to take it easy and not try and not take risks.

1
It doesn’t sound like you.

2
No! No, it doesn’t does it. It’s that cloud thing again, outside of it, I can look at it and say, “Well, that’s just ridiculous.” But I keep getting sucked in. Sucked under.

1
So, exercise? And make things. And have specific goals. And make money.

2
Yeah. Yeah, that’s all good. Externalize my problems, so they don’t get sucked into a black, silent nothing and pull me in with it.

1
Well, that’s what we’re doing here, right? Externalizing?

2
I hope so. No. Yes. Yes, that’s what we’re doing. I’m sorry, I’m getting weird and doubting again.

1
You don’t have to apologize.

2
Right. Yes, I know. Take a deep breath. Relax.

1
Relax. It’ll be okay.

2
It’ll be okay.

 

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Planetary Romance

I love planetary romance.

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No, not like that.

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Yeah. That’s more like it.

So why then?

Planetary romance is about daring high adventure set amongst exotism both interstellar and alien. What it is not, however, is anything remotely scientific. It gives it a noble dreaminess that hard-nosed sci-fi tends to not. There’s crossover with pulp action and Heroic Fantasy and Sword and Sorcery. But the little dash of foreign planets and mythical technology and genre blending gives it a unique kind of appeal. For straight fantasy fans, you have Tolkien-eque-High-Fantasy-D&D-Warcraft-Elves-and-Dwarves influences. But that seems so well traveled. But for the pulpier stuff, I always liked John Carter more than Conan. Some impossible Mars built from dreamy wonderment was just too charming to pass up.

So what to do with it. “Swords and Planets” has been described as a static genre with consciously borrows from itself. This seems to be true with so many sorts of fiction. How do you give the audience what they want in a way they don’t expect? Noir suffers from this as well, unfortunately. What it gets by on is just how dang cool it is.

Everybody always looks so awesome in it:

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But then how do you keep it fresh? “Chinatown” is just better written than anything like it. “Dark City” plunges straight into convention with a bit of genre-blending. “Insomnia,” I would argue, does the best at playing with expectations of the genre as a whole– by setting a neonoir north of the Arctic Circle, it goes against the tradition of noir always being set at night (again, see: “Dark City”) to match the bleak moral tone of the genre, but the disorientation and fatigue it provides the protagonist is both moral and physical.

Can I do something something similar with Planetary Romance?

Or pulp for that matter? Or do I just embrace the genre for what it is and assume that if it’s written by me, it’ll naturally start to mutate according to my own personal tastes.

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Basilika at Dawn

The fog broke over the sharp rises of the parapets of the city. Black stones absorbed the dawn’s heat and light like sponges. The sun hardly reached any surface below the capped roofs, so brass was employed in cardinal placement to catch the meager illumination.

The sun did not wake Basilika. The Dead City always murmured for those who would listen. Every surface seethed with secreted intent. The only question was how deeply to delve before knowing you could never really return.

The dark bricks twist in maddening ways as you wind towards the ground. Annexes from unknown eras web across the architecture. Breezeways interconnect from the city’s many towers beset with polypous additions from designers long gone. Each path splinters amongst countless others. Some have been walled off, whether for a purpose or not. There are many roads in Basilika. They all might lead somewhere, whether or not to a place you’d ever want to go.

Basilika is at dawn. But this means little to those that scuttle in the morass of its antiquity.

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Playing Pretend

I’ve been telling stories a long time.

When I was little, I imagined worlds to exist in. “Pretend.” Didn’t everyone?

I was captured by adventure. By heroics. By victory. By power and death and evil and life. I’d flip over my bed and land crouched on the floor, poised for action. I was a creature of battle and bliss, merely existing as a spirit of freedom.

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My room was constantly a mess. Not because I was particularly grungy, but because it was my canvass for storytelling. They were wastelands, junkyards, metropolises, battlegrounds, asteroid fields, even baseball diamonds.

My superhero toys liked to play baseball. The Thing batted cleanup.

Quite simply, I just loved playing with sticks. Mostly they were swords. Very occasionally guns. But swords were always more satisfying. More romantic.

Where’d I get these ideas from? Robin Hood? Peter Pan? Lego? I struggle to remember where I first got the idea to grab a fallen branch straight enough to capture my imagination and transform me utterly.

That is the nature of “Pretend.” Transformation. It wasn’t a stick. I wasn’t Graham, a human boy. I had utterly become something else.

As a tiny child– or as I like to say, “In The Time Before I Could Read,” I’d watch movies endlessly. I’d memorize all the lines, I’d rewind parts over and over. I’d delve into these worlds, breath in the characters and colors of it all.

But what I wanted was adventure. My own adventure.

I have to assume it was a movie the first time I saw a sword fight. The Disney “Robin Hood” seems the most conspicuous culprit. I don’t think I ever saw the famous 1938 Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone duel from “The Adventures of Robin Hood.” But it was paid homage to in “The Rocketeer,” which I watched endlessly.

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It was “Hook.” Oh, it had to have been. That Hero Shot of Robin Williams appearing to Hook fully for the first time. And the swordfight that followed. Robin flying around almost haphazardly fencing incidental pirates while occasionally actually getting face-to-face with Hook.

And his sword.

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Holy god, I loved Peter Pan’s sword in this movie. Was this the first time I ever truly fetishized a sword? How cool they looked. How cool it was to strike a blade against another. The crashing, clanking back-and-forth of two swords clashing.

What could be better?

I remember for my 4th Christmas, after my 4th birthday party which had been Peter Pan themed, my family traveled from Corvallis, Oregon to my grandmother’s house in faraway Albuquerque, New Mexico. It was the one-and-only time I’d spend on an airplane until I was 20, when I decided to fly off to have an adventure of my own.

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It was easily one of my most memorable Christmases. Christmas was one of my favorite holidays, and not just because you got free stuff. It was just fun. I liked the spirit of it. Music and lights and laughter and fires while it was dark and cold. My family had books we would read every year, breaking them out of boxes packed away til December. Books like “Polar Express.” I loved what it was about: imagination, wonderment, magic.

Though this Christmas, I received this:

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Kinda looks like shit now, doesn’t it? I remember most being excited about his sword. The sword! He had his sword! I have no memory of playing with the toy other than that Christmas, bouncing him up and down the big stairwell in my grandmother’s house. Did he get left behind? Did I lose him back home? He certainly didn’t survive move after move my family took over the years of my childhood.

We’d move state to state from Oregon to Kansas to upstate New York all within three years. We also took trips, camping and hiking and exploring the country. We never had a lot of money. But we spent a lot of time time together riding in the car.

On long trips my mother apparently would tell my older brother and I stories about two mice, named Fred and Oscar, who would go on adventures together. Although I have no memory of these stories. What I do remember, however, is my grandfather purchasing my family’s first ever computer from the Best Buy in Topeka, Kansas, some 50-odd miles away from where we lived. My mother took two weeks of classes from the local community center and was suddenly armed mightily with knowledge of the Windows 3.1 operating system.

It seemed to be called “Windows” for a good reason. There were always so many of them open at once, like piles of fallen gunmetal leaves. My brother and I would play DOS games through some overly complicated framing program called KidDesk:

I remember it being ugly and bold, with plenty of primary colors and fat icons. Mostly I think we played “The Castle of–“, or alternatively “The Island of”, “–Dr. Brain.”

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That’s the stuff.

But what most shocked and overjoyed me about the presence of the new computer and my mother’s expertise was her promise that she could print and make my own books.

So I suppose I went with a subject I was familiar with:

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I was 5. I’d pace back and forth and dictate aloud to my mother, then would produce for each page in MS Paint choppy illustrations composed of black straight lines, ovals, and rectangles sometimes filled in with color in places.

Telling the story seemed easy. I was just playing Pretend.