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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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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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.

Write As If No One’s Reading

There’s that platitude that tells us to dance like no one’s watching.

I write as if no one’s reading.

This is not to say that I write without consequence or responsibility. On the contrary, integrity as a writer is the single most important thing to me. It means that my thoughts or voice can be trusted. If not, you really have nothing.

What I mean is that there is only one person by whom my writing can be held to a standard: me.

Mostly, though, I’m still surprised anyone ever gives a shit about what I write. I am continually surprised anyone ever reads anything I write. From my perspective, it would be easy to simply ignore it. And now I think I’ve been doing it long enough now that I can talk about it in a larger sense.

I try to write about bad acting, not ‘bad actors,’ if there is something that needs to be addressed. Acting is an intensely personal craft, in part due to its emotional and public nature. That makes people sensitive. I’m an actor, too. You never forget that.

At the same time, I feel that my written critiques ultimately fall back to integrity.

Actors usually know if they’re in an awful play. Most of the time, people know when they’ve seen an awful play. Usually, it’s people active and passionate about theatre — and local theatre — that get upset when quality is lacking. The audience members want more because they believe in what they’re seeing.

So if I see a play that suffers, for one reason or another, it is my job to write about it. If that blow doesn’t come, I think that it’s far worse than softening the impact. If I’m suddenly not writing truthfully, then it’ll be obvious and everyone suffers for it. This doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t be sensitive. And it’s up to all of us to judge.

The only time I ever hear feedback is when people are upset about something I’ve written. Of course this only happens if I’m negative about a show. Sometimes anonymous counter critics flare to life on the Daily Lobo website. It’s gratifying to see the misspelled comments of people foaming at the mouth hiding behind internet aliases. At this point it’s not a conversation, it’s angry peasants with pitchforks and torches banging at the gate.

Certainly, no one ever writes when I’m positive about a show, or if they agree with me.

I get asked sometimes what it means to be a reviewer. I get asked what the role of the reviewers is in theatre. Honestly, I never think about these things. They don’t make me a better writer or a better thinker. I try to write with integrity and it never occurs to me someone else other than me might care. I like having conversations about shows and theatre. I am very rarely given the opportunity to talk openly.

Kevin Elder, formerly of Tricklock, once emailed me after I reviewed one of their shows to very nicely tell me I was completely wrong about what I had written. It was great. Alan Hudson, one of the classiest men I have ever had the pleasure of knowing, has often approached me over the years to talk about something I have written, good or bad.

Largely, I get ignored. But I don’t mind.

Because I express my opinion publicly, doesn’t mean I think my point of view is paramount or unshakable. Exactly the opposite. I am continually fascinated by things I do not know. I toss my hat into the ring hoping someone will pick it up and toss it back. I’m hungry, practically desperate to see new things, to realize new perspectives that I never could or would have thought of.

When I throw my chips into the center of the room, I’m laying my cards flat. With the best 700 words I can muster. I’m saying:

“Well, that’s it for me. So. What you got?”

 

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How I Learned to Handle My Problems…. In the RING.

At my age, out of the blue, I’ve developed a completely new interest: one without irony and with utter devotion.

I love professional wrestling.

Okay, so hear me out. Trust me, I was skeptical too. It wasn’t long ago that my friend, Jacob, turned to me while we worked on our comic book and said, “Hey man. We should really get a wrestling game.”

My eyes nearly rolled out of my head.

“I’m not getting a wrestling game, Jacob.”

But Jacob went on, telling me you could make your own wrestlers, describing the systems mindbogglingly robust custom character creator: hundreds of ways to morph and change their face and body. You could create their own entrances into the ring, customizing that as well. He had once made Don Schrader, albeit a bit orange. He told me about his wrestler named “Screaming Mr. Jones,” a bugged-eyed freak with tiny legs and elongated arms who came out running around in excited circles, pumping his arms up and down.

Ninety percent of the game’s enjoyment, it seemed, was in delving into the sheer, overwhelming possibilities and letting the hilarity and creativity explode in top form. The final ten percent was making your creations fight using the most absurd, cartoonish violence possible, shoving each other off the tops of ladders or beating each other with tables.

“You had me at ‘make your wrestlers,’” I told him.

Thus began what has become the single most enjoyable video game experience I’ve had in years. I’ve been determined to share it with everyone I know, having them make their own contribution to a growing pantheon of utter absurdity.

It now includes, but is not limited to, a giant baby, a soccer mom, and the Jewish Golem, as well as a series of mad creations with no real inspiration but pure silly madness.

In the short time I’ve been sharing, six different people have laughed so hard they’ve cried.

I’ve been counting.

But then something else strange happened. At first, I scoffed at the loading screen marked with real wrestlers, all foreign to me.

“Who’s this douchebag?” I’d sneer at their smug expressions and detestable tattoos. But then I started to get curious. Who were these douchebags, really?

Jacob began to talk excitedly about how there were “Heels” and “Faces” in the stories presented in pro wrestling. Heels were the bad guys: when they came into the arena, they’d take the mic and grandstand haughtily, encouraging the audience to boo them.

The funniest Heel I found was a guy who called his character Chris Harvard. The actor had actually gone to Harvard, so when he found himself on the wrestling circuit and needed a wrestling gimmick, he’d stomp around the ring before the match, condescending to the audience about his Ivy League superiority and the general stupidity of the crowd.

After the crowd is thoroughly riled, the Face — the hero of it all — would come in to wrestle them, to defeat them in grandiose ritualized combat.

Everything was grand, operatic. The stories being told, the archetypes, the acts of physicality; I began to pore over videos of people jumping off of things and crashing onto tables, chairs, each other, and it all clicked.

Who cared if it was faked? Do people complain that movies are faked?

Pro wrestlers are actors, performers. They shout and stomp and then throw each other around. Movie violence isn’t real, but still, you can get worked up or excited, screaming at an action movie as Bruce Lee decimates everyone in sight.

If you can enjoy Kung Fu movies, you can love pro wrestling.

There’s something so endearing about the constant pageantry and celebration of performance or how everyone is decked out in skimpy, brightly-colored tights, like the ‘80s never ended. It’s almost vaudevillian.

Go look up videos of pro wrestlers out of character. They’re the nicest, sweetest, funniest people in the world. It makes sense: You can’t spend your whole life doing something so ridiculous and not have a sense of humor about it.

It almost makes sense that WWE is shown on the SyFy channel: the stories of pro wrestling happen in an alternate dimension where this form of combat is the predominant and accepted method of conflict resolution.

There’s something so simple and lovely about giving yourself over to the ritual of it all, from the hero and villain and their rivalries that can, for whatever reason, only happen in the ring.

My name is Graham Gentz, and I have Wrestlemania.

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West Coast Wanderings: Final Entry

I had a plan for a while.

My trip ended suddenly and terribly. My blog lay fallow. I couldn’t post something else, I told myself, until I told the final story: the end of more than just a floating trip up and down Route 1. I had pealed back years of my life in see what was underneath. I felt naked and frightened by the ants I saw rushing their larvae away to be hidden somewhere else to fester another day.

By my own reckoning, I had to finish that story. And it was a hard one to tell, let alone think about. But I think I’m ready for it.

There was an inherent lie in my post.

I wrote as if I was alone. Which, in a manner of speaking, was true. But since my apprehension was so amorphous, I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Let alone externalize it.

I put her in my pictures, subtly. There she is, walking in the frame:

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There she is again, leading the way, up into the horrific light of a city I didn’t recognize:

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This was a relationship which defined years of my life and thousands of miles of literal road. Intrigue, discord, mental illness, cosmic import, isolation, Dreams, adventure, a marriage proposal. It was all there. After the most recent year of an on-again-off-again long distance, the poor communication was really coming to a head. Like I had always feared, being over a thousand miles away couldn’t be overcome by cute texts or daily phone calls. I had broken under the weight of despair and ended it once. I had tried to do it again, not due to unhappiness, but because her acceptance in the Stanford Ph.D. program was the most important thing in either of our lives. She saw it as finality. I saw it as the next step of our shared lives. It didn’t change what I felt, or what I wanted. But it didn’t go anywhere good.

She’d come back to Albuquerque for her birthday as well as Christmas, and I couldn’t’ve been more excited to see her, but for her, it was too painful, too difficult. “So close, and yet, so far” was the appropriate platitude as I wretched about in emotional pain, screaming “why” to no one, feeling vaguely worthless, among many other things. After torrential emails back and forth between us, it seemed like we’d shaken it all hard enough to finally dislodge all the unspoken dust and grime. We understood each other. Suddenly, we talked everyday. It seemed perfect.

Spring Break approached. She texted me late one night asking me if I had plans. I had already visited her at school and explored the surrounding area six months before– before everything started to blow. I told her I’d love to visit her again, but I was apprehensive about it.

<You want to come visit me? That’s wonderful!> read her texted surprise.

<Of course.> I replied.

Lengthy, crafted texts began: I articulated my fears that it would be weird, that all her anxieties about us and me would cause more harm than good. How intimate were we “allowed” to be? A full nine days seemed like a long time with so many uncertainties.

It won’t be weird, she assured me. It won’t be weird.

I was not convinced. I asked again if she was sure. That all my instincts and experience with her pointed to things unsaid and more creepingly volatile than anything else.

It won’t be weird, she repeated. It won’t be weird.

So I relented. I did want to see her so badly. Plus, adventure. It’s all I really ever want.

But upon arrival, immediately it felt wrong. Not enough for me to be conscious of it. I was so happy to be back, to see her, to explore. But her anxieties were bad, secondary symptoms worse than before. She talked about her excitement and stability, but also the stress and pressure of being a Stanford Ph.D. student. And it wasn’t like I hadn’t seen her suffer and writhe in the disquiet of her meds and their bodily consequences. Just support her, love her, focus on the best things from my angle. Let her know I understood. That it was all that was needed.

Things steadily got worse. Yosemite was terrible. San Fran was worse. Not just because I was so in my head and spending my time being hypersensitive to all the overwhelming sensory information. Maybe that was the result from it all. An ugly gloom was hovering over everything we did or said, and I knew it was there. I just didn’t know what it was.

So as we drove home from San Fran that St. Patrick’s Night, I finally broke and asked what was really going on.

“I don’t think I want to be with you anymore. And it’s stressing me out.”

Ah. Right.

The next two days were, to use a coined phrase, really fucking bizarre. We would talk long and hard about how awful and weird the situation was. I was so stiff and soft-spoken, my rage so far beyond screaming at the top of my lungs that it entered into something new.

Why had she allowed me to spend hundreds of dollars I didn’t really have and fly a thousand miles just to twist the knife in person? Especially after I’d asked again and again if it was going be weird.

“I didn’t want it be weird,” she said. “I guess I didn’t think about it. I’m sorry.”

Conversations drifts about, but only to places dark and ugly. My brutal directness snapped hard on the words I needed to express the sickly sensation deepening in my body. She hated it. There were more “why” discussions. She said some pretty awful things I am having trouble forgetting. Things not meant to be insulting or hurtful, but repugnant and honest all the time. Somehow in the twisting flow of the hours gone, I managed to say at one point how happy and proud I was that she was getting her Ph.D. at Stanford and that I supported her no matter what.

“Well. Thank you. Though I feel awful since I haven’t done the same for you.”

Then, after the hours long talks of crushing emotions and dark revelations of things unsaid, we would have sex. Weird, passionate, desperate sex. It didn’t seem to bother her. Maybe she wasn’t thinking about it. But the foul emptiness and emotional rankness that filled me during and after only spread. And it kept happening. She’d act relatively normal during the day, half-pretending it was alright. I’d say little, my head swimming with it all. There’d be lulls before we’d talk seriously again. More creepy revelations. More dark sex. Again and again.

Why were we still doing this?

I numbly stared over her nakedness in silent shock and horror. The last night I spent there, we had sex for the last time. I remember, deadened, in a single, intimate moment, bringing her to climax and watching her body quake with ecstasy. I remember her laying back, and giving a small, private smile.

“You always did know how to touch me,” she cooed softly.

My mind swam with images and memories and experiences we’d shared. And the exhale of a moment, there and then, with us together, her words echoing like thunder. She’d always had a huge problem with her memory, a combination of her illness and drugs. Details, conversations, anything, everything. All I could think at that very moment was that she would never remember this. And that it would haunt me forever.

I always said that she would just forget me completely one day.

She hated it when I said it.

The next day, I left. I changed my ticket to the first plane out and took it. As she drove me to the airport in utter silence, the numbness was gone, replaced with bubbling rage. My mind raced with all the things I wanted to scream until the car shook. But I didn’t. And in fact, I began to think about what I wanted my last thing ever to be to her. Cutting anger didn’t seem to do it. No. Honesty. Love. That was what I wanted for my legacy.

I got out of the car with my bag over my shoulder. I bent down into the cabin.

“I hope you find what you need to be happy,” I said, and meant it.

She averted her eyes, and mumbled something awkwardly that I couldn’t hear. I don’t know what it was.

I still don’t know.

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