Some musings on Board Games, Blogging, and Growing old.
In a few short weeks, I will reach the grand old age of 33, my coming-of-age as a Hobbit. Aside from various annual medical tests, and remembering to change the batteries in the smoke alarm, this felt like a time to take stock of life and reflect. Combined with a recent episode of a games Podcast where they abandoned their typical one-game focus to enthuse about their other favourite games, this put the idea into my head to offer a few musings on my gaming experiences, and life more generally.
– I owned things like Cluedo and Monopoly as a child, but never played them particularly often. I do remember a fair few afternoons of Scrabble at the pub as a Student, then coming into contact with some of the classic gateway drugs for my generation – Ticket to Ride, Carcassone, Settlers of Catan, probably around the time I got married.
It was also around this time that I got back into miniature wargaming – a lapsed teenage hobby, and fell in with a crowd who were experiencing an angry backlash against rules-lawyers and millimetre measures, venting their frustrations through Richard Borg’s Commands and Colours system, and introducing me to the world of Memoir ’44.
I don’t really remember how I first encountered Board Game Geek (a website I now visit several times a day, the first stop for information on any game), or when I first discovered the world of Fantasy Flight Games with their high-quality, high-complexity, highly addictive Living Card Game model, but over time these things all accumulated to the point where I was a fairly obsessive gamer, and anyone looking at my diary, my bookshelf or my Christmas list knew it. With Solo gaming being fairly low on my priority list, I subjected friends and family to a whole range of games with varying degrees of success, before settling down on a reasonably consistent core of regularly-played games, with lots of points being scored for “anything cooperative” and “anything Lord of the Rings”
Spreading the Word
For a man who generally regards enthusiasm as something to be handled from a safe distance, ideally with gloves, noise-cancelling headphones and a ten-foot barge-pole, I’m aware that I can be quite vocal on the subject of Board Games. Whilst my pontifications may not be appreciated by all (after a game of Articulate nearly ended in Patricide, we no longer really play games with my parents…) I do think that a.) this hobby has something for almost everyone in it and b.) a lot of people are put off by misconceptions. The chances are that, if you’re reading this, I’m already preaching to the converted, but just in case I’m going to offer a bit of a sales pitch…
It’s probably fair to say we live in the golden age of Board Gaming. There are more existing games available, and more games being made than at any point I can recall. There are solo games, two-player games, small group games, big group games – I think the biggest we own is a party game for a dozen distinct players, but there are enough team games out there that if you can’t find a game for the crowd you have assembled, that’s probably more people than I want to be in the same room as, anyway.
There are silly games out there, there are games which are really random and involve loads of luck, and there are games which are heavily strategic. There are games which take 5 minutes, and there are games which last hours, if not days. There are games in which reading the rules takes 5 minutes, and games in which reading the rules takes days (longer when you go online to get clarifications) The range of theme is incredible – many major works of fiction have games, many historical events. Whilst there are always people looking to make a quick buck off of whatever franchise comes out, there are even a growing number of games which are both based on a TV show AND really good fun to play. If you like Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, Marvel Comics, DC Comics, Battlestar Galactica, Firefly or any one of loads of others I can’t think of right now, there is a good game based on it. If you don’t like any of those things… well, I despair of your sanity, but I still bet there’s a game out there you’d like.
If you have spare time which isn’t consumed by your family or your job (sadly an ever-increasing number of the people I know don’t fit this category) and you don’t play games, I strongly encourage you to give it a try. If you see me regularly, ask me, and I’ll give you recommendation. If not, go to a local game-shop, and they’ll give you a recommendation [for Nottingham people – Chimera, on Beeston High Street, or The Dice Cup next to Victoria Bus Station]. Don’t go to Waterstones. They might have a good range, but they probably don’t have a clue what they’re selling.
It might seem like the array of things out there is bewildering – with so many to choose from how can you possibly decide? The great thing is, that this being the age of the internet, there are literally thousands of unqualified interfering folk like me out there, which means that most questions you have about a potential game purchase can probably be answered by the internet.
I started my first blog about 2 years ago. Dor Cuarthol, named for a place in Tolkien’s Silmarillion was a place where I would talk, notionally about all Lord of the Rings Games, and in practice, mostly about the LotR Living Card Game.
There were a few factors leading up to this: a podcast I listened to had been looking for new hosts, and I had considered throwing my hat in the ring, but being on the wrong continent made the timings of recordings impossible, so I decided against applying for the post. Still, I wanted to get more actively involved: find a platform to raise obscure thematic points, share fun ideas for Custom Cards, and generally launch ill-conceived projects that I would never have the man-hours to complete.
Time passed, and a year or so later, I realised that LotR LCG wasn’t dominating my game-time in the way it had been: there were other games I was getting into in a lot of detail, and had thoughts about. For these, a standard forum on a publisher’s website, or on BoardGameGeek didn’t feel like the right place to be expounding my thoughts. Hence, last summer, Fistful of Meeples was born.
Running two blogs at once was probably more work than I anticipated. I tend to play a small handful of games a lot, rather than just 1 or 2 plays of a very wide range, and as a result the content I could generate was somewhat sporadic: Regulars here at Fistful of Meeples will know that I post the odd general musing, but that the majority of content tends to be fairly focused on a few games, namely Pathfinder ACG, Dice Masters, Game of Thrones LCG, or Marvel Legendary. With content releases coming in fits and starts, and a trail of minor ailments preventing me from getting out to game nights regularly, the overall schedule has been decidedly hit and miss.
Posting links on specialist Facebook groups and the like, I have managed to get some traffic coming through here, but most of the responses / discussion stayed on the other sites. Often this didn’t particularly matter, as I try to write articles which stand on their own, but there have been times when I wanted to get a discussion started and got nowhere…
When I’m not playing, or writing about BoardGames, I spend most of my weekdays (and soon my evenings and some Saturdays, sadly) in a fairly mundane office-job. Like most jobs, it has occasional flashes of enjoyment as you manage to accomplish something / help someone, interspersed with long periods of tedium.
It’s been quite pleasing then, in the last few months as I’ve started another couple of part-time jobs on the side, which have impacted on my gaming somewhat.
Before the paid work came, I managed to get involved in doing playtesting for one of my favourite games (whilst I haven’t actually had to sign an NDA, I’m still not supposed to reveal details publicly, so I won’t say which game).
This was a very interesting experience for me – obviously the fan-boy side of me was very excited by the sneak-preview aspect of things, and it was fascinating getting to try out new elements and ideas at the conceptual stage, along with the chance to have a limited element of dialogue with the developers.
That said, play-testing comes with a warning: the lead designers telling us loudly not to expect it to be fun. There’s a lot of repetition. A lot of things which don’t work / aren’t enjoyable, and it’s the job of the play-tester to find that out. It’s also an incredible amount of cutting, printing, copying etc, which I definitely didn’t expect.
On balance, I’m glad I’ve done play-testing. It’s given me a real appreciation of the work that goes on behind the scenes, and hopefully a more realistic sense of the finite nature of a playtest. It’s nice to look at something and be able to think “I helped make that a little bit better”
Moving to something that looks like a real job, first up was games-demonstration. I work on a casual contract for a major Games Distributer, demonstrating their games to the general public – I won’t mention their name as, they have no official awareness of these blogs, and they certainly don’t endorse my writing, but if you know much about the Board Games Industry in the UK, you probably know who they are.
So far, most of the work I’ve done for them has been “store demos:” taking Dobble and something like Countdown (exactly like the TV show, including the music on the timer, excluding Rachel Riley) or Would I Lie To You (almost nothing like the TV show, this is Call My Bluff with a more current IP pasted over the top) and waving it at passers-by for 8 hours. Far more interesting (I hope) are the upcoming Conference Demos, where they send a team to Game, Comic or Sci-Fi Conventions, or even to Music Festivals, where we get to target audiences with more of a pre-existing interest in games, and play some more substantial offerings – aside from minimum wage and expenses, this job has the advantage of getting you supplied with demo copies of the games (although as noted, so far it’s been a lot of TV-based stuff that wouldn’t be top of my list of things to acquire), as well as getting into the conventions and the like to see games which I might not otherwise have the opportunity to play. It’s also a chance to make people realise that there are some great games out there, and good practice at explaining games to people.
The second, and most recent job was game-blogging. Essentially taking what I was already doing, and doing it for someone else. I got into this by responding to a note on a mailing list, and found myself part of a small team who were being given copies of games by an online retailer, in order to write reviews of them.
This seems like a good deal all-round. The retailer can direct undecided shoppers to a detailed explanation and evaluation of the game, the customer can make a more informed decision, and I get a free copy of a game in exchange for a bit of writing. Aside from ensuring that we get enough games played in a short burst of time, the only real challenge is guessing from online descriptions which games are likely to go down well with our group (which largely boils down to whether my wife likes it). It’s been really interesting getting an insight into games which I was previously unaware of, or even a game I had previously ignored because it retails for £80!
The Gamer at work and play
The practical up-shot of these new jobs comes in a few different ways. First of all, it means I’m playing a bigger variety of games – so far, I’ve only received 3 different games to review, and have played them 4, 10 and 3 times respectively, but it does make an impact. Spending time on the new games, inevitably means spending less time on more established games, which means that some of the in-depth pieces on Dice Masters or Lord of the Rings become harder to write.
On a practical level, I only have 1 set of shelves devoted to BoardGames, plus a nearby bookcase which is being gradually colonised. If I keep acquiring 2 new games a month, I’m going to have to be a lot stricter with myself in moving along some of the old games which don’t get played as much anymore. I had already started tracking all the games I play (I have a bit of a thing for spreadsheets), and there was already a possibility of selling or trading for games which went too long without being played: that threat grows considerably as the pressure on the shelves increases.
As I mentioned at the start, I will shortly be coming of age as a Hobbit. I had long planned to mark the occasion by offering a custom-designed scenario for Lord of the Rings, representing Bilbo’s birthday party (I have now caught up with Frodo at the start of the books). With development beyond the concept stage currently sitting at “zero” the likelihood of this quest ever appearing looks slim. Whether this constitutes a curtailing of larger projects, or simply a more realistic outlook to projects that would never have been completed is slightly up for debate.
I still enjoy gaming. And now that I have both a job that pays me TO play board games, and a job that pays me IN board games, am now indeed in the fortunate position that my job is also my hobby. Sadly British Gas, Severn Trent Water and Sainsbury’s have all responded negatively to my offers to take payment in board games, so I’ll continue to stick at the office-job for now. I’m still waiting for a response from the landlord…