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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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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