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 Cardboard of the Rings where they abandoned their typical Lord of the Rings 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 don’t really remember how I got into Board Gaming – 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), 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”
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. The sheer range of games available in terms of theme, style, player-count, weight and length is incredible, and there really does seem to be something for everybody. Obviously, this blog has always been focused primarily on Lord of the Rings, but there are also really solid games out there tied to Game of Thrones, Marvel Comics, DC Comics, Battlestar Galactica, Firefly or any one of a load of others I can’t think of right now.
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 “The Land of Bow and Helm,” where Turin and Beleg live as outlaws harassing Morgoth’s orcs, 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: Cardboard of the Rings 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. Although I never sat down and codified things, Dor Cuarthol was essentially a place for me to
- Raise obscure thematic points, hopefully in some depth
- Share fun ideas for Custom Cards
- Launch ill-conceived projects that I would never have the man-hours to complete.
Of these, the first two were easy- I began with one of many attempts to re-create the Ride of the Rohirrim in card-game form, and followed it up with an extended rant about the misuse of the “Noldor” and “Silvan” traits in the game, and questioning the lack of Sindar or Teleri.
The larger projects side of things, was a bit more hit-and-miss. I took an idea suggested in a throw-away line elsewhere (I think it was a blog, which then got picked up by Cardboard of the Rings) and created an entire custom quest where characters used Hit-Points instead of Willpower, Attack or Defence. I managed to do a reasonable amount of play-testing, and ultimately came out with something I’m fairly happy with.
On the other hand, schemes like the Difficulty Rating project, never really worked out. I still maintain that this was a good concept, but it was never going to become a worthwhile resource as a one-man show: it needed a crowd-source type of approach for the sheer number of ratings received to cancel out the difference between individual preferences on play-style. Coupled with the need to play each quest 12 times (limited card-pool, generic modern deck, and customised deck, with each of the four player-counts, this just never quite got there. I’d like to dust this off again soon, but I can’t promise anything.
A Few Blogs More
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. I did a few comparison pieces on here, looking at LotR LCG side-by-side with the Pathfinder ACG, but it still wasn’t quite what I was looking for. 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: Fistful of Meeples carried the odd general musing, but often found itself focused on Pathfinder ACG, Dice Masters, Game of Thrones (LCG) or Marvel Legendary. Posting links on specialist Facebook groups and the like, I managed to get some traffic, but most of the responses / discussion stayed on the other sites.
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” – it also sheds the cold, harsh light of day on the custom content I tend to throw together on here, most of which arrives on screen without any playtesting at all.
On a good run, I’d say that roughly every other article I publish here will contain some kind of custom content, and I also did a bit of work on the original First Age expansion from “Tales from the Cards” – it’s a fairly safe bet that nothing I post on here will ever have been play-tested anywhere near as thoroughly as Ian’s output, and I’d suspect that he doesn’t have the resources to play-test as thoroughly as a company manufacturing games for a living.
Moving to something that looks like a real job, first up was games-demonstration. I work on a casual contract for a major Games Distributor, 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, and resisting the urge to request a game just 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 or 2 which are 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.
Some of the concepts have been fairly clearly mapped out for a while: locations around Hobbiton to be explored, whilst looking for the family spoons. With heavy penalties for using non-Hobbit characters (something like +1 threat each time a non-Hobbit enters play, maybe coupled with a Fireworks objective that a player controlling Gandalf can use to bring threat down again), the quest would probably involve some hide tests to avoid the Sackville-Bagginses, and the danger of the quest suddenly acquiring the “Battle” keyword via a Treachery representing happy hour at the Green Dragon. Lastly a show-down with Lobellia, which would probably be a willpower-based combat.
Whilst I’ve done a fair amount at the conceptual level, actual card stats, ratios, or anything approaching play-testing are currently stuck at zero. As a result, the chance of the quest appearing by a week Monday, or even “at all” look ever slimmer.
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…