Picture of Snakes & Lattes in Canada

Picture of Snakes & Lattes in Canada

There’s something about the board game hobby that solicits compulsive acquisition. Many of us are able to tame those impulses through sheer force of will or financial necessity, but for the rest, learning about, commenting on, obsessing over, and ultimately acquiring board games is more than just a hobby.

Small World caught my eye

Small World caught my eye

Falling Through the Ice

My introduction to board games happened only a few years ago. I was already interested in roleplaying and comic books, and was a regular at The Source Comics & Games in Roseville, MN (highly recommended if you find yourself in the Twin Cities). Despite the floor space that board games occupied in that amazing store, I hardly noticed as I perused comic book back issues and the latest Pathfinder sourcebooks. I remember at one point Small World caught my eye for its whimsical fantasy art, but one look at the price tag and I was right back to the comic book bargain bin. I was sure those big pricey boxes just weren’t for me.

Like so many before me, it took just one great board game experience to open the floodgates. One of my good friends, someone I met though comic books and roleplaying incidentally, invited me over for an evening of board games. We played Dominion and Tales of the Arabian Nights, and I was utterly mesmerized by the clever designs and interesting decisions. It’s funny that neither of these games are really my cup of tea today, but at the time, I was truly spellbound.

Shortly thereafter, I moved away from Minnesota and found myself in a new city: Portland, OR. For some strange, wonderful reason, that evening of deckbuilding and storytelling stayed with me. Wanting to meet fellow geeks like me, I signed up for a local board gaming meet-up group and quickly got deeper and deeper into the hobby. Hours perusing BoardGameGeek lead to me to discover The Dice Tower and it’s wonderful network. I watched countless reviews and top 10 lists, obsessively consumed podcasts and articles, and began filling online retailer shopping carts with a dazzling array of games (Dominion and Tales of the Arabian Nights among them).

Paralyzed by the Cold

I definitely overextended myself in those early days. My collection grew more quickly than my discipline to make informed decisions about what sorts of games I really liked. It was all about theme then, and plastic bits. Some of those early purchases are still in my collection today, but the vast majority never even got a chance at my gaming table.

On top of pining after new games, I had discovered a hard truth: there were some really good games that came out long before I had even a passing interest in the hobby, and that some of those games were *gasp* sold out! Never to be reprinted again. I was devastated; my compulsive need to acquire could not abide something so tempting being so desperately out of reach. Game like Merchant of Venus and Fury of Dracula were the sort of theme-rich experiences I craved, but even on the secondary market, they were just too difficult or costly to attain.

My list of grail games grew long and longer: Endeavor, Age of Discovery III, Fief, Starcraft, War of the Ring: The Collector’s Edition, Kremlin, Dune, Glory to Rome: Black Box edition, and so many others. Occasionally I would get lucky and find one of these enigmatic lost treasures through a geeklist auction or a local seller, but more often than not, I was left to dream and lament my limited funds.

Fury of Dracula is being reprinted by FFG

Fury of Dracula is being reprinted by FFG

Swimming for the Surface

At the height of my frustration, I remember an episode The Dice Tower podcast in which Tom Vasel emphatically encouraged the board game community to be patient when it comes to difficult-to-find games. Whether they were out-of-print, temporarily sold out, awaiting domestic distribution, or missed Kickstarters, there were mountains of other available board games that deserved our attention. He was completely right, of course, and the last several months have really proven him out. For example:

It’s incredible how much previous editions of some of these games commanded on the secondary market, only to be replaced with, in many cases, superior versions. As Tom implied in that wise podcast segment: patience is a virtue.

Breathing the Air

Patience is exactly what helped me overcome my compulsive acquisition. I began making more considerate decisions about the games I order, and awaiting sales so that I could pay less even if that meant trying out the new hotness a few months later. I parted with a lot of the games in my collection that just weren’t good fits for myself or my game group (again, Dominion and Tales of the Arabian Nights among them), and began removing games from the grail list knowing that the cream of that crop would see life again in one form or another.

It’s not that I did something other gamers didn’t. In fact the bell curve of my board gaming addiction is very reminiscent of the stories I hear from my fellow game group collectors. They ramped up quickly only to learn that quality meant more than quantity, and that being part of this hobby isn’t a competition. I still get excited and place the occasional preorder, but I’ve gotten much closer to finding a balance and if you think you compulsive acquisition is out of control, you can too.

Image found at: http://mothersofbrothers.com/crossing-the-streams/

Image found at: http://mothersofbrothers.com/crossing-the-streams/

Crossing the Streams

As fellow renaissance geeks, I’m certain that there are many among you who dabble in all sorts of tangentially related gaming activities that don’t necessarily involve quad-fold boards, colorful chits, and endless decks of cards. Video games, sports, trivia nights…any excuse to get together and have a good time is completely valid and makes us well-rounded social creatures.

Many of you also roleplay, an activity that is as near and dear to board games as peanut butter is to jelly. There are many reasons that the Venn diagram between these two hobbies overlap to such an extent. Many board games and roleplaying games have similar thematic and media influences. There’s also a collectible aspect to each that extends the life and replayability indefinitely. Both hobbies are also by definition social, and rather than offering a freeform experience that might turn off extroverts like myself, board games and roleplaying games provide a structured platform for social engagement and helps ensure that all participants have related interests.

There’s more to the overlap than just people sitting at a table chucking dice. Board games and roleplaying games evolved from a common ancestor: war games. Much like modern board game mechanisms, roleplaying spun out of an attempt to simulate many aspects of warfare. Roleplaying’s forefathers simply zoomed in on the action, designing experiences that simulated the struggle between one combatant and another. From one-versus-one, few-versus-few was the natural next step and thus was born the adventuring party that we’ve come to know and love.

As board games and roleplaying games developed alongside each other, each influenced the other. Today we can see roleplaying games like Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 3rd Edition that actually includes cards and chits like a traditional board games. In the other direction, we see the proliferation of so-called dungeon crawl board games like Imperial Assault and the Wrath of Ashardalon series replicating some very common roleplaying elements: advancement, persistence, cooperation, tactical gameplay, and even the acquisition of wealth. Incidentally the publishers for both of these games, Fantasy Flight Games and Wizards of the Coast produce roleplaying games as well. The connection between these gaming styles is undeniable

So why should board gamers take the next step and dive into the crunchy world of Dungeons & Dragons, Shadowrun, Star Wars: Edge of the Empire, and other lesser-known roleplaying games? The best answer, the only answer that matters really, is that they’re fun. Really fun! Roleplaying games are a platform for creative storytellers to weave grand epics and see those story beats come to life. They allow individuals to imagine strange worlds, evoke unique characters with interesting personalities, and work cooperatively with others to solve problems and discover hidden bits of story. As evocative as a theme can be in a board game, roleplaying games bring us even closer to living out our imaginations.

Getting Past the Gate

From an outsider’s perspective, roleplaying can seem extremely intimidating. Likely your friendly local gaming store has at least a few shelves of thick tomes full of complex rulesets and impenetrably detailed lore. Alongside those expensive books are miniatures, paints, gridded mats, weird dice in crazy configurations, and all the other trappings of the roleplaying hobby. It’s intense and can be more demanding on your wallet than board games.
war of rings figures

That’s a completely reasonable perspective, but I say ignore all that. Like board games, your investment can be as little as a $15 deck of Fluxx (not recommended) to a $2000 near-mint copy of War of the Ring: Collector’s Edition on eBay (also not recommended) and everything in between. You don’t have to go all in; in fact you can spend zero dollars on roleplaying and still have an amazing experience that will leave you wanting more. I’ll go into how to get started in another Playing Roles article, but suffice to say, price should not be a barrier to this incredible hobby.

The other element of roleplaying that intimidates many of the uninitiated is the perceived requirement to really get into it. Pop culture tells us that real roleplayers adopt their character’s personas like method actors. Accents, costumes, make-up, foam weapons, mock combats in parks populated by normal people- that’s a lot of geek to take on for someone who just thinks it might be cool to play as a Jedi for a couple hours on a Saturday afternoon. Well forget about all of that affectation. The only thing you need to roleplay is yourself, an imagination, and some basic social skills.

Roleplaying is really just a game of improv with some additional rules bolted on. It’s no different than charades or even the act of storytelling. It’s not hard and it doesn’t require an appearance on Inside the Actor’s Studio to do well. Chances are you’ve already done a little roleplaying and didn’t even know it. Have a favorite role in Pandemic that you’re drawn to? Have you acted like a pompous jerk while playing the sheriff in Sheriff of Nottingham? Have you felt a bit of a sting when one of your survivors dies in Dead of Winter? At some level, that’s roleplaying. Just like telling your significant other about the crazy day you had at work and getting an appalled reaction. You did it! Now how would you have told that story if you were a Cleric of Palor and facing down the zombie king was your day at work?

Entering the Arena

On more than one occasion, I’ve heard roleplaying referred to as “poker for nerds”. There’s even a Dungeons & Dragons podcast called Nerd Poker hosted by comedian Brian Posehn.

nerd poker
This comparison to poker is referring to the commonality of weekly poker nights that perfectly normal individuals have all the time. They’re playing cards, telling jokes, talking about the latest episode of The Walking Dead, complaining about work…everything you would expect from adults engaging in an organized social activity. Roleplaying is no different, just swap out “playing cards” with “fending off a goblin ambush”. Which one sounds more fun to you?

I encourage anyone with an interest in roleplaying to check it out. Look for meetup groups in your area, or pick up a rules-light game like Fiasco and try it out with your friends and family. Roleplaying is an extremely rewarding pastime with a ton of variety and a very welcoming community. They can played with kids and adults, geeks and civilians, and for as long or as short as you like. Just be friendly, be open, and don’t touch anyone else’s dice. That’s a crime punishable by death!

*The statements made in Contrarian Corner do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Dice Tower or Dice Tower News. These are my opinions, in the grand tradition of gamers arguing about the hobby, and are just as likely to be brilliant and insightful as they are misguided and wrongheaded. Reader discretion is advised.

Winter of Discontent

The 2014 Golden Geek Awards were recently announced, and while I thought a lot of the nominees and winners were great choices (for the most part- I’ll save that for another Contrarian Corner), I was SHOCKED that Dead of Winter won for most innovative game. It wasn’t just nominated, it won! For innovation. Dead of Winter. Yes, that Dead of Winter. The game that owes practically every design element to Battlestar Galactica. Innovative. Innovative?!


Now before I dive into this unbelievable failure of board game award-giving, I have a bit of a confession to make. I like Dead of Winter. I have Dead of Winter. I helped playtest it while Plaid Hat Games was developing the game, and while it’s true that playing the same game over and over did burn me out at the time, I respect it for being a challenging cooperative experience with a fun traitor mechanic and evocative theme. It’s a fine example of Amerithrash (I get $1 from Tom every time I say that), but in terms of innovation, I put it right above SpongeBob Monopoly.

Merriam-Webster defines innovative as “introducing or using new ideas or methods” and “having new ideas about how something can be done”. In board games, we know that innovation is more of a continuum than a binary state. Game design stands on the shoulders of previous designs, developing ideas found in other games or other systems of play to achieve something novel. Some games are very innovative, others less so, and outside of straight theft there’s nothing wrong with being on the lower end of the innovation continuum. That said, just as NASA isn’t knocking down my door begging me to lead the next space mission, nor should Dead of Winter be winning awards for innovation. Please save your torches and pitchforks to the end.

Here Be Zombies

There’s no theme in board gaming that is less innovative than zombies. The overuse of this post-apocalyptic storytelling device in popular media is pervasive to the point of complete saturation. There are more zombie games than there were snakes on Samuel L. Jackson’s plane. There are more zombie games than Original Ray’s Pizza places in New York City. There may even be more zombie games than stars in the sky. (That’s just science.)

Crossroads Most Traveled

If Arthur is writing a Contrarian Corner piece about Dead of Winter and Mars was in retrograde, read the following…

Let’s get the Crossroads Cards out of the way immediately. They’re not new. They’re just not. At their core, Crossroads Cards are just situationally-activated event cards. If you’ve played Descent 2nd Edition, the Overlord player has a whole hand of these. They’re called Overlord Cards and they allow him/her to do nasty things to the heroes when they do certain things. How about Magic the Gathering? Many Interrupt spells have situational and/or conditional triggers as well.

But Crossroads Cards offer choices! Okay great. Tales of the Arabian Nights has an entire tome of situationally-activated events that offer choices, albeit nonsensical ones that might leave you confused and married to a ghost. Battlestar Galactica, with its “Admiral/President/CAG/current player chooses” flavor of Crisis cards, covers the same ground as well.

Everything Else

What’s left when you take away the theme and the Crossroads Cards is Battlestar Galactica with a different coat of paint and a slightly shorter play time. Hidden loyalties, a traitor (frakkin’ toasters!), crisis events that are fulfilled with the correct cards and sabotaged with the wrong ones, locations to move to and activate, a morale track that is lowered by character deaths, variable win/loss conditions depending on personal objectives…if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Dead of Winter and Battlestar Galactica need to get a room.

So how did it win? Like all contests, popularity and awareness are everything. Dead of Winter benefited from a ton of hype around those entirely unoriginal Crossroads Cards (which will apparently make appearances in future innovation-resistant games). Thanks to great marketing and earned media from our favorite voices in the hobby, Dead of Winter was nominated in no less than four Golden Geek Award categories, earning runner-up honors for two of those categories and winning the other two. Quite a sweep.

That’s it folks. Rant complete. Snarkiness aside, I congratulate Plaid Hat Games for their well-deserved success with Dead of Winter. They didn’t rewrite the book on cooperative games (obviously), but in the tradition of iterating on the stalwarts that came before, they did an excellent job of designing an experience that draws players in and has them telling stories days after the game ended. Is it innovative? No. Should the Golden Geek Award voters be ashamed of themselves? Probably not. Should the English release of Tragedy Looper have won that award (or Alchemists if you’re being pedantic about release dates)? Yes. Am I going to get off my soapbox now? …See you next time on Contrarian Corner!