Recently I have seen a larger-than-usual number of tweets and blog posts about ethics in board game reviews. (And it's not like this topic doesn't come up all the time anyway.) Meeple Like Us published a particularly good post on the ethical problems with paid reviews in October, and that post also links to a Thoughtful Gamer podcast that I thought covered the topic very well.
I have started to think about ethics a lot as I begin to publish more board game reviews on this site and to add videos to my YouTube channel. I do this as a hobby, and for now I review games that I have either bought or borrowed. But if I could do it full time, I would—and that would mean somehow getting paid for the work.
I already know that all I will ever accept from a publisher is a free review copy. Once actual money has changed hands, everything is different, no matter how objective you think you are. There will always be that urge to be polite, to pull punches, especially if you want to get paid again down the line.
I am also not sold on the concept of paid Kickstarter previews. Even if you clearly label what you're doing, the line between "preview" and "review" is very thin. You are being paid to create marketing materials that may not look all that different from your normal board game videos. Plus, you have less control of your content if it's commissioned by someone else. I frequently see paid Kickstarter previews (according to the videos themselves) listed as "reviews" on campaign pages. That honestly makes my skin crawl.
Of course, I may never be in a position to make tough choices. My blog is small. And as many of us have noticed and discussed lately, board game coverage is overwhelmingly positive. While I would consider the written reviews I have published so far on this site to be pretty positive, I have also given most games three stars (out of a possible five).
Granted, I use the Goodreads rating scale—a 3/5 means "I like it." That's good, right? You cannot possibly be head over heels for every game you play. But we also live in a world where gamers get upset if a highly anticipated video game title gets a 7/10 on IGN.
I'm also always going to be honest when a game is just okay. In fact, I did this with the only review copy I have ever received—a copy of Quest: Awakening of Melior. It was just okay, and I said so. But when I chose to film my opinion and put it on YouTube, part of me thought, "Well, that was probably the last review copy I'll ever get."
Ultimately, I am focused on what matters the most to me as a board game blogger: I want Beyond Solitaire to cater to the people I write content for—and that means people who want to play and discuss good games.
If you're my reader and you spend your precious free time on my blog, know this: My loyalty is to you, and I won't forget it.
The Kickstarter campaign for The 7th Continent is coming to a dramatic close, and its second-to-last stretch goal has been revealed: An app-in-development that will allow some augmented reality exploration of the Continent. The response has been mixed.
Some gamers feel that the game is tarnished now, partially through the integration of an app when games should be analog, and partially because the addition of an app will make a portion of the game unplayable if and when that app is no longer supported.
I'm going to come out and say, however, that I think the addition of a few augmented reality cards is cool—we're talking a small add-on to the game (only 5 additional cards) that you won't even use unless you organically discover the "all-seeing eye" item organically while playing the game. The item will also have special rules that make it usable even without an app. That makes the entire tech integration part of this optional, so that the analog-committed can continue to enjoy their games in their preferred way.
To me, the fact that you won't even know how to download the app without the right card adds to the adventure and will keep me playing the game longer in search of interesting surprises. I missed the first Kickstarter, but I backed this round of The 7th Continent because I was promised that I would do things I have never seen or done in a game before. As far as I'm concerned, this app represents Serious Poulp continuing to deliver on that promise.
I am always curious to see discussions of how tech is integrated into board gaming, because I think our arguments about it are actually arguments about who we are as board gamers. Are we open to technology? Are we totally committed to analog play? And what do our answers to those questions say about us?
As someone who also loves video games and who plays a lot of app versions of board games, I think I am already primed for more gaming apps. I am open to what The 7th Continent is trying to do. That said, I will not be happy if down the line I need a separate app for every board game I want to play. Technology that does something cool in the service of a game, that makes sense within the game world, is something I can go for. But I also don't want to download a bunch of extraneous junk and clog up my phone. We'll see how board games continue to develop in the coming years!
This summer is a time of transition for me as I prepare to move to a new city and teach at a new school. But the students I work with are always in a state of flux as they evolve into their best selves. I am lucky because I get to watch the process for a while, at least until they graduate.
One of my favorite seniors this year, Aquilah, was a student I have known and taught for three years. It's been a privilege to watch her grow. As this school year came to an end, we had plenty of stuff to reminisce about: "Dr. D, do you remember the time I ate all of that candy back in Math I and I went soooo crazy?" (Yes, yes I do.) But what amazed me most was how many of our memories are anchored by board games.
Aquilah was not one of my game club regulars. I taught her how to play Jaipur during finals week a couple of years ago because she was done testing and had gotten bored. I figured we would play a few rounds, but then she'd move on once testing was over and she could use her phone again. Instead, she surprised me: The following year, when we had lunch at the same time, she would drop by for another round of "our game." I had never thought of Jaipur that way before, but then I realized that she was right. Of all of the games of Jaipur I have played, the majority of them have been with Aquilah.
During her last finals week of high school, Aquilah showed up even after she was finished with her classes and didn't technically have to be there. Why? So she could play Jaipur with me. So we played... and played, and played. Even better, she killed me in our final game, and I couldn't have been prouder.
Board games may be "just for fun," but they have the power to create and deepen relationships. No matter who plays it with me in the future, Jaipur will always have a special place in my heart as "our game." It will always be able to transport me to another time and place, to when I was a new teacher navigating my first job and becoming attached to my first batch of students. I hope that the games we played conjure happy memories for my students, as well.
Aquilah has since moved to another state, where she'll be starting college in the fall. But I did manage to get her new mailing address, and I'll be heading to the post office later today. What am I sending her? I'll give you three guesses. ;)
I am going to say this outright: I LOVE to play Magic: The Gathering. One of my grad school buddies and I used to unwind by playing round after round of it, trying out different decks and admiring each other's chosen strategies. I also appreciate Magic for the role that it plays in gaming culture. Game stores might sell a lot of board games, but Friday night Magic and regular set releases almost certainly keep the money coming in.
Now that I'm about to move, though, I think the time has come to offload most of my Magic cards. The sad fact is that I can't keep up with the game financially, especially since I have other, stronger gaming interests. I also love to invest in games that I can play solo. Magic sets are now rotating more quickly than ever before, meaning that cards quickly become outdated. There are always new cards and mechanics to focus on, especially if you want to walk into a game store and play with other people. The problem with a CCG (collectible card game) is that you have to really commit to it if you want to be at the top of your game.
If I actually work up the nerve to sell my Magic cards, I am going to miss them. They don't hit the table very often anymore, but I have strong positive memories attached to MtG. There is something very special about meeting up with your friends to test out your own unique deck, the one you built yourself. (I don't love duel decks because the fun of MtG for me is concocting my own.) I can get a little bit of that feeling from LCGs (living card games) like Lord of the Rings, and if I want to duel it out with cards, I can play Ashes or Summoner Wars. But it won't be quite the same.
Although I love my MtG cards, I want to be realistic about my actual gaming habits. I haven't played Magic regularly in a long time, and I don't foresee myself starting up again. So aside from a few choice decks, I think my MtG collection will stay behind when I move this summer.
Ave atque vale, MtG.
I haven't posted in a while, but it's for a good reason. I have accepted a new teaching position, and over the summer I will be moving from Durham, NC to Atlanta, GA. That will mean new classes, new students, new friends, and a new life. Right now, the future looks bright—especially because the cursory research I have done so far suggests that there are many board gamers in Atlanta!
My radio silence doesn't mean that I haven't continued to think and read about board games. Yesterday, Quantic Foundry posted an interesting piece that sums up data they have collected about why board gamers are motivated to play. Gamers reported their primary motivations for gaming, and the options included need to win, immersion, accessibility, social fun, discovery, etc. Nick Yee, the author, broke down these motivations by gender and by age, then presented seven overall takeaways from the data. They are pretty interesting.
What struck me the most is that the biggest differences in motivation are between people with different gender identifications: male, female, or non-binary. Although motivations were varied across the board (hee!), the data indicated that women more strongly prefer the social aspects of gaming. Only 6.3% of men listed "social fun" as their primary motivation for gaming, compared with a whopping 16.1% of women. Survey respondents who self-identified as non-binary had a strong interest in social fun (10.6%), but placed an even higher premium on immersion and the experience of "getting into" a game (14.7%).
Data is informative, but it's never clear to me what it really means. Self-reported motivations can only tell us so much. Men may seem to prioritize winning, but winning is also part of a social experience, even if they choose not to label it as such. Women were more overtly social as a group, but let it be noted that roughly the same percentages of women and men listed "need to win" as their primary motivation. Primary motivations are not sole motivations—there is a lot of complexity there.
One set of data can't do everything, but I would also have been very curious to see the motivations supplied by primarily solo gamers. It's easier to understand concepts like playing to win—and especially social fun—within the context of group play. Are avid solo gamers wired a bit differently? Or are our motivations roughly the same with or without people to play with?
A Google search for board games and literacy inevitably turns up information about overtly educational board games, specifically designed to teach reading skills to kids. I find this trend interesting, because my students never really like games when they are designed to be more educational than fun. Review games in class usually meet with a lukewarm reception, almost as if the material I'm trying to teach automatically taints the games with boringness. They are like little kids who know that mom is sneaking them extra veggies on pizza night.
That said, I can teach my students a lot—and learn quite a bit about them—by playing games. Students who are reluctant to read will try much harder when deciphering in-game text than they would on a standardized test. When we are playing games, students will ask more questions and take more risks. To them, there is no pressure because it's "just a game."
One of my favorite games to play with students when I want them to read is Sentinels of the Multiverse. The comic book theme attracts a lot of teenagers, plus the fact that it's a co-op game encourages good behavior. But in order to succeed, players must be able to read the text on a card, connect it with other cards in their deck or in the game at large, and find a way to effectively do battle against a common enemy. (Plus, if they like the game, I can direct them to the comics.) Other card games like Magic: The Gathering and even Dominion are interesting to play with students because their interpretations of card text tell you so much about what information they process and how they process it.
Although I haven't played old school RPGs or visual novels with my students, and will probably never have the time to, I suspect that these games naturally promote literacy because they are compelling. Several of my early vocabulary words were picked up from video games, and I can't be the only one. I believe that games, both analog and digital, have a lot of potential as tools for literacy... as long as that is not overtly what they are about.
This makes me wonder. I am a public high school teacher, and my lesson planning focuses on concrete objectives that my principal can immediately understand if he comes by for a walkthrough. I also teach at a Title 1, where there is extra pressure for teachers and students to "work bell-to-bell." But students only want to play games when they genuinely feel that they are getting to play, no strings attached. I'm still looking for that happy medium with games based on class material, where it truly feels like we are having fun.
I wanted to try a 10x10 in 2017 because I thought it would help me get to know some of my games more deeply and ultimately get more enjoyment out of them. We're now a month and a half into 2017, and I haven't made much progress.
Here is the original list of games I wanted to play this year (and I still want to!):
Runebound (3rd ed.)
Castles of Burgundy Card Game
Legendary: Alien Encounters
Race for the Galaxy
Valley of the Kings
Sentinels of the Multiverse
Terraforming Mars (still waiting on copies of that one to be available again)
Unfortunately, I've only managed about six plays of Castles of Burgundy, one of Sentinels, one of Valley of the Kings... and that's it. Because my students love it, I've probably played Splendor about eight times so far this year—more than any of the games I set aside because I wanted to play them for myself.
In all honesty, I haven't been playing as many games as I want to play at all recently—no board games, no video games. I'll have the occasional exuberant burst of playtime, then go weeks without playing much at all.
What concerns me most about this is that game time is me-time: When I'm not playing games a couple of times per week, that is a sure indicator that I'm not taking enough time out of my day for myself. I'm a teacher, so it's no great surprise that I'm slammed now that we have started a new semester with new classes. And my busy life extends beyond my school day. Still, how is it that I get home every night and it's all I can do to throw some dinner together and read in bed for maybe 30 min. before I crash?
I know I am not the only gamer who has this problem—it's probably more common than not. But it makes me sad. I need to figure out a way to step back a bit, rest up, and make time for fun again.
A lot of exciting stuff is happening for solo board gamers in the next few months! Expansions for old games, reprints of hard-to-find games, and some new adventures await us all.
Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective Expansion
Originally printed in the 1980s, Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective has been in need of an English-language expansion for years. I myself have longed for an expansion on this very blog! But now fans of the game are going to get their wish: Ten new cases, in English. Four of them are thematically linked and allow you to chase Jack the Ripper and solve one of the greatest murder mysteries of all time. I truly cannot wait. I had been kind of dragging my feet on the last two cases from Consulting Detective because I wasn't ready for the game to end. Now I can really sink my teeth into them because they'll be an appetizer for more cases to come!
New Releases from Chip Theory Games
Chip Theory Games is a game company run by two brothers who produce beautiful, high-quality games. They recently had a successful Kickstarter for a dice builder called Too Many Bones. I'm not sure about that one yet (at $125, it's an investment), but their most recent newsletter contained some other very exciting news.
First, there are going to be two Hoplomachus expansions that introduce the cities of Carthage and Machu Picchu. If you haven't played Hoplomachus yet, you are missing out. It's a fun gladiatorial combat game that can be played solo, vs., or co-op, and it's enjoyable no matter how you play it. Adding more cities to the mix means more interesting mechanics to toy with. Also, I can finally play out my Rome vs. Carthage fantasies on a neoprene hex mat.
In addition to expansions for Hoplomachus, Chip Theory Games is introducing a smaller solo or vs. game about lockpicking. It's called Triplock, and while there isn't too much information about it yet, it's visually very enticing. After all of the time I've spent picking locks in Skyrim and other video games, cackling all the while, I know that the lockpicking theme is totally going to do it for me. Plus, it'll be in a lower price range than most Chip Theory Games. Sign me up for this one.
Terraforming Mars Reprint
I'm sure I'm not the only one who didn't manage to get a copy of Terraforming Mars the first time around. The game sold like hotcakes, and based on the reviews, that's no surprise because it's excellent. As Stronghold Games has said both online and in podcast interviews, however, the second printing will be available at the end of January or in early February. Soon, new competitors will be able to join the terraforming fun!
So far, 2017 is shaping up to be an exciting year in gaming for me. And this is even before any big new games are out—sometimes all you need for a good time is a well-timed expansion. With so many other stressful things happening in the world right now, I'm glad to have some good stuff to look forward to.
Sometimes, board games come in boxes with inserts that suit them just fine. Some publishers even include little plastic baggies in their game boxes to make it easier to sort tokens and other small pieces. (This is great, because I used to have to raid the kitchen for sandwich bags.)
But if you've invested in an epic-size board game like Mage Knight, Robinson Crusoe, or Eldritch Horror, plastic baggies are quickly going to become a burden. You could spend an extra $20+ on a custom insert from Broken Token (and there is no denying those inserts are both functional and attractive), or you could do what I do: Raid the tackle box section of Wal-Mart. I usually end up with Plano boxes, which cost $2–4 apiece. The larger boxes I have purchased are in the 3600 size range.
At first it felt a little bit wrong to throw away the original inserts. Robinson Crusoe had a fun one that looked like the inside of a treasure chest. But I tossed it in favor of easy setup and well-organized game tokens. I don't even remember what the insert for Mage Knight looked like, which either means that it was unremarkable or that I have gotten over the guilt of tossing out things like that. Mage Knight was one of my bigger organization projects because it's such a heavy game that comes with so. much. stuff. But I'm satisfied with how it turned out! My current setup includes both the main game and a couple of the expansions.
Organizing my game tokens is not just about organization. When I get a new game and have to figure everything out for the first time, it can be a little bit overwhelming. I find that creating my own way of storing the game helps me work through the rules and to understand the game a bit better in general—you have to know a little bit about what you're doing if you want to organize something well. It's also a bit therapeutic, as the many of you who like to punch cardboard know already.
Organizing games according to my own system also makes it easier for me to set them up later, because I already "know my way around" and there is a logical place for everything. I also like being able to make room for expansions within the original boxes to the greatest extent possible. (Although my Sentinels of the Multiverse box has become absurdly heavy because of this tendency.)
If you love to play board games but you sometimes feel frustrated and disorganized, trust me, there are ways to handle this problem. Tackle boxes are great because they not only keep your pieces organized, but they can just be set alongside the game board and used throughout the game—no need to empty and then refill a bunch of plastic baggies to create token banks.
What board game organization schemes have you guys come up with? Leave me a comment—I'd be very interested to hear about how you make game setup and storage more efficient.
This year, I've made a stronger commitment to planning and getting organized, and I've invested in an Erin Condren planner. I've also been experimenting with stickers, stamps, and washi tape to make my week seem more beautiful and fun, even if I'm doing a whole lot of unpleasant stuff (it's testing season).
What, you might ask, does this have to do with playing board games? I've started planning in game time.
One of the most interesting things about looking over your planner is seeing what you were up to at any given point in your year. Your to-do lists send subtle messages about what you thought was important at the time you made them. Last year, I tended to let work take over my entire day, and it left me overextended and frustrated.
When you're busy, self-care is usually the first thing to go. Because I play a lot of solo games, it's especially easy to skip a play session. Outside pressures are high, and if I don't play, I'm not disappointing anybody but myself.
To help me solve the problem of work creep—where work slowly takes over all of your play time—I have begun to deliberately put gaming and other fun stuff in my planner. Just seeing an activity on my to-do list, the check box unchecked, compels me to complete it. Even if that activity is taking a nap. In other words, I'm using my own workaholic nature to force myself to relax and have fun. And so far, it's working!
We live in a world that glorifies work to the exclusion of almost everything else. But to be a more functional human being, I need to play. Scheduling game time in my planner helps me remember to take decent care of myself, even when I'm stressed.