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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Albuquerque is where ambition goes to die

Albuquerque is where ambition goes to die.

If you haven’t seen it in full force, you’ve seen hints of it.

“The Land of Mañana” speaks to the basic human weaknesses in it all– lackadaisical and whimsy seeps in and takes deep root as a motif of easy living. Stand at home. Smoke weed. Don’t care about anything. No need to follow through with promises or effort. Somebody else would have have flaked anyhow. Work just enough. The easier, the best. Lulled into a sense of entitlement and lethargy by low costs of living and an environment thick with people just the same.

It’s commonplace complacency.

So where does it begin? The question of causation, the chicken-and-egg logic, is never far from my mind. Does the inactivity come from living here? Or do you move here to become inactive?

I’ve often visualized Albuquerque as the basin at the bottom of Route 66 where things and people tumble steadily into simply by relaxing and following the soft gravity. UNM is the cheap and central Mecca of New Mexico– all the smaller towns of the state filter their children into a great anarchy of apathy under the guise of education. The uncaring beast accepts them easily, letting them flounder while six or seven years pass without notice. Once it’s over, the pomp and purposelessness of their education fades, leaving the squandered despondents to sit and forget in the laps of their lives and if nothing had truly happened. Many can’t even bring themselves to finish the middling tasks, becoming a new generation and legacy of American dropouts.

Our river valley lets others tumble into its depths. Low-cost living keeps even the most exorbitant ceilings low for those who migrate to the city with their Texas or California wealth. Even as the city’s poverty or disenfranchised collect and amass at places for mental illness or the APD to clear them out, so too does the conspicuous conception in the Heights or North Valley by people who just don’t care anymore.

Artistry seems effected by this. A small music scene, fueled by the few bands that come together and separate with the only such regularity that can be counted on. Gazing over the bios of community theatre actors reveal expensive or prestigious educations but yielding performances only worthy of the desert lull that sprouts like the coarse weeds after a monsoon. The embarrassment of the UNM Film Program spits out students versed in pretentious theory and distended egos in what effectively amounts as a degree in watching movies.

Maybe you were born here. Maybe you’ve made it here by mistake. Maybe you’re so new, you just don’t know the mistake you’ve made yet. Maybe you tried your hand at one art or another in bigger, more romantic places, only to ultimately slip back down to our basin. Albuquerque is like a safety net, one of low expectations and the comfort of universal indifference. If you return, don’t expect fanfare — only an assurance against effort. You know, “Happiness.”

The path of least resistance is one of inertia. It’s paralysis through indecision, it’s death come early, it doesn’t have to be this way.

If any part of you still cares, harness that. Get out. Get out while you can.

 

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The Harvard Rats

While his friends assured me his name was Chris, “Slade” was a man of carefully constructed parts.

“Slade?” I repeated as I shook his hand, wondering if I had gotten it right.

‘Slade,’ confirmed the thick beard, thick flannel, thick black-rimmed glasses and thin smile.

Outside Winning Coffee Co,, the unmatched bastion of the Harvard Rat, Slade was one of many unique individuals who looked just like him. Yellow and light-blue boxes of American Spirits were some of the only color to dot the peripheral view and conversation. “You realize, of course,” said the Evolved Emo Chick who sat across from Slade, very pleased with herself, “that most people react to his name like that.”

“I just didn’t hear him.”

“Yes, Slade has quiet speech,” she said.

Evolved Emo looked like she had barely survived an internal battle with outward identity and adolescence. Her hair was straight and black and mostly covered her glasses, which were identical to Slade’s. Her thick makeup was two or three shades paler than her arms and legs, giving her a sickly quality.

“Are you coming to the show tonight?” asked the third and meekest member of their crew. He didn’t have a beard, though it looked like he was trying. He had an ugly black hoodie on even in the blazing heat, perhaps balanced in some way I didn’t understand by his bike shorts.

He was helping himself to Evolved Emo’s cigarettes and she shot him a nasty look that he either missed or ignored.

“Is it going to be any good?” I asked.

“Local bands,” Evolved Emo said. “You know.”

I shook my head and watched her flick her cigarette and beam with anticipation.

“Well. Squish. Quill Pens. The Grind.” She looked at me intensely. “Fisters?”

The other two nodded knowingly at each name. I thought I saw a brief flash of fear from the little one who avoided Slade’s eye contact and toyed nervously with his long, clumpy hair.

“Are they new?” I asked.

They laughed.

“No way,” giggled Evolved Emo. “They’ve all been around for ages.”

“Well, it’ll be The Grind’s first house show,” Slade piped in.

“Well, sure,” she said. “But. I wouldn’t call them… new exactly.”

There was a silent battle of wits going on in the following empty seconds. Each considered what they knew or thought they knew about the bands and what the other might say.

The little one broke the tension himself.

“I don’t think people understand,” he said to me at last.

“Understand what?”

“Music,” he said. “What’s good. Why it’s good. It’s the last thing people expect, you know? It’s so much more than what people find out, you know? If it’s first, you gotta be there, you know?”

He waited.

“Am I supposed to know?” I asked.

This made him happier than anything else I said so far.

“No! Nobody does! That’s why it’s so great.”

“What if I did know?”

“It wouldn’t be the same,” Slade said.

“Why not? Why does it matter?”

“It gets too mainstream,” said Evolved Emo. “It’s all so fake.
Give me back my American Spirits.”

The little one handed them back and mumbled a small apology which she ignored.

“So the worst thing in the world is to be fake?”

“Well, not ever,” she said. “But yeah, it’s bad. It makes you mainstream, you know?”

“Well, you guys have had epiphanies before, right?” I asked.
“All the time, man,” replied Slade.

“So what happens if it turns out you’re what you hate? I find it to be the case that people hate defensively what they fear about themselves. Liars always think they’re being lied to. Thieves always think they’re being stolen from.”

I looked around to the blank stares. Somehow I wasn’t getting through.

“…You know?” I said.

This elicited nods from the round.

“Definitely, man,” Slade said.

Was there self-awareness here? From the fashion and the music and the outlook that all could be observed from the outside, was the bubble being observed from the inside?

These were conscious choices made with care. It’s hard and expensive work they did to look as bad as they do. None of it was an accident.

“So what is fake to you?” I asked. Evolved Emo was the first to react.

“Are you calling us mainstream?” she said suspiciously.

“No. I’m not calling you anything. I’m asking you to tell me about this relationship you have with ‘the outside.’ Everything you’re not and reject. It’s fake, right. So what makes it fake?”

“They lie to you,” Slade came in. “It’s just a big lie. They ask you be part of this big whole. But, yeah, it’s just fake. Can I bum another Spirit?”

“Get your own,” she spat.

“People can live in a lie a long time.” I said. “‘Never underestimate the power of denial.’”

I watched them consider this.

“You know.” I added.

They were being careful. The stigma of their lifestyle was certainly something they were aware of. Luckily there were places for them to go and find more music and opinions to reflect and absorb.

“It’s easy to be the deceiver when you know you have that power or even that that power exists.” I said. “You can make yourself anything you want. Do you accept that? Can you accept others that do the same?”

“We don’t have to!” said Slade evenly. “We see the real lies.
Everybody lies to everybody. Even themselves.”

“But do you have to?” I asked.

“Well, we don’t,” said Evolved Emo.

What was it that drove this need to be new and unique? I’ve always maintained that identity and insecurity were the two driving forces for the human social existence. You want to be special — to have a soul. When you sell your soul to gain a soul, what kind of paradoxical place to find yourself in? Are you there yet?

“Where’s it gonna be?” I asked. “The show?”

“Gold Street,” they all said in messy unison.

“Right.” I said, gathering to leave. “See you there.”

It was more or less what I expected. The house was not difficult to find. It boomed with light and sound of partying and muffled bass. The populous was a sea of people I had never met but faces that I had already seen pasted again and again.

It was a collection of unified oddity, but still I stuck out. In the mass of nonconformity, wouldn’t the best way to reach the ideal be by not being part of the larger group at all? Wouldn’t that make you the ultimate in the indie state? Or is that the sickest form of contradiction?

But I truly was the oddity. No raybans, no scarf, my pants fit me normally. I saw looks of confusion and horror as I pushed along the crowds that were looking for free beer.

No less than five minutes into the party, a single girl was drunk enough to approach me.

“Hi!” she grinned. “You’re new!”

“Naw.” I said. “I’ve been around for ages.”

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