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.




Small Independent Film “Big Hero 6” Wins Oscar

Did you know 6 corporations control 90% of the media in America?

In 1983, there were 50. Now, they’ve been “consolidated,” i.e., bigger companies keep buying and growing into the dystopian cyberpunk future which is already here.

Disney is one of those six. They own ABC, ESPN, Pixar, Miramax, and, on December 31, 2009, the Walt Disney Company purchased Marvel Entertainment for $4 billion.

The main way this changed American media was the shaping of the thunderously lucrative “Marvel Cinematic Universe,” or the Mega Franchise of Marvel Superhero Movies. And “Big Hero 6” is probably the most creative use of Disney’s ownership of Everything Marvel.

“Big Hero 6” was originally a 90’s comic series failure. I’m a huge comic book nerd and even I hadn’t heard of it before—essentially the artistic dregs of the Marvel’s comic history. But since Disney just owns basically all creative properties ever now, it provides an opportunity to deconstruct and reinvent.

And the movie is just fun. And not “fun” in an “action-movie-turn-off-your-brain-and-enjoy-yourself” kind of way. It’s bright and creative and colorful and even dotted with some powerful emotional moments.

Immediately the most striking part of the movie is the setting itself: the city in which the action is set is “San Fransokyo,” a sort of alternate reality mash-up of San Francisco and Tokyo. Everything from the Golden Gate Bridge being composed of pagodas to clearly San Francisco streets being lined with kanji signs and blooming cherry blossoms, the sense of place is a huge delight.

Largely, the story takes a lot of cues from a classical “boy and his dog” set-up. Immediate easy comparisons can be made with “Terminator 2”, i.e., The Last Good Movie James Cameron Ever Made.

Hero protagonist Hiro Hamada is a 14-year-old robotics genius who befriends Baymax, a big, puffy, deadpan, inflatable healthcare robot. His robot friend is just good, happy fun. He is an excellent clown, providing nigh constant comic relief with impeccable comic timing, and even when he becomes totally badass and battle-ready, he is still remarkably hilarious.

Hiro eventually makes friends with other young students—approximately six in total– all passionate about robotics and science.

Mostly, the writing is exceptional—not just “for a kid’s movie”, but across all cinema. Dialogue is sharp and amusing, and even sometimes poignant and deep. Lines and themes are seeded early and referenced in subtle ways with different emotional contexts. It is just plain clever.

“Big Hero 6” is easily my favorite film I’ve seen since “Snowpiercer.”

It is not perfect, however. Without delving too dangerously into spoiler territory, the development of the villain plot and backstory is sloppy at best. Considered how clean and intelligent most of the film’s other central themes are, it’s wholly disappointing and a bit shocking the ball was dropped so hard on a few of the most important questions to be answered.

Additionally, the six big heroes are remarkably progressive in regards to gender and race, such as the high representation of Asians and with only one white hero who is not even the standard alpha male (he’s more a goofy stoner who gets a dinosaur suit that breaths fire). Still, one of the women still gets to be far too standardly “girly”, with her super abilities involving throwing pink balls that literally come out of a purse.

They almost got it right.

Still, my complaints are overall quite minor. I was riveted and involved and laughed honestly many times. And even if Disney itself is a member of the “Big Conglomerate 6”, they are still apparently capable of making something creative and new.

Stay cynical, my friends.