Mary Russell

Setting aside the choo-choo games, the titles of mine that attract the most attention from a broader audience are the angry, ambitious, end-of-year releases – games that engage seriously with history, that have something to say, that function something like political art. This isn't always the last game we release – for example, This Guilty Land and The Vote were both the penultimate releases of that year, with the final slot reserved for a choo-choo game. But it's often the title that brings a wider, less groggy audience into our end-of-year sale.

Mary and I have taken to calling these our "prestige" games, as in, "Mary, I think the prestige game for 2021 is going to be Nicaea" or "Amabel, how's that prestige game about tobacco disinformation coming along, do you think it's gonna be ready for 2023?" So, our use of the term "prestige" is less because we're high-hatting it and more to do with identifying a particular slot in that year's release schedule.

Because these games are more ambitious, I put a lot more energy into them, spend a lot longer working on them, and so the development cycle of a prestige slot release tends to start a couple years prior. Late last year, around the time that we figured that the tobacco game will probably get the 2023 slot, it dawned on us that we don't really have a "prestige" game for 2022.

Our first instinct was to look at what game of mine scheduled for 2022 would most closely fit the bill. Like, maybe it wouldn't be something as ambitious or as angry or as political as we'd like, but it would be something that was ambitious, angry, and political enough to do the trick. But, to Mary's surprise as well as my own, there really isn't anything I've designed for 2022 that's even close to that.

Oh, I have a historical game – Siege of Mantua – that I think is going to be interesting and that I hope will sell oodles of copies. It's my first block game, and it's very much an operational cat-and-mouse chase with some fairly novel mechanisms. And it has something to say about how and why the campaigns in Italy in 1796 turned out the way they did, but that's not exactly something that's relevant or immediate, and certainly not to a more general audience.

And I have an angry, political one –Money Isn't Real. But that's an expansion to my extremely polarizing problem child For-Ex, and is literally just a small deck of cards. It's hardly the kind of thing you can throw in a box with a $50 MSRP.

What's left? Three boxed games, and a couple of other expansions – the sixth for Table Battles, and the first for The Grass Crown. The latter are both "historical" titles, and they perhaps have something to say about their historical subjects, but as simulations of kinetic conflict, I wouldn't call them "serious" games in the same fashion as the tobacco game. If the prestige games are me approaching game design as an "art", then the "let's recreate the Battle of Such-and-Such" games are me approaching it as a "craft" – as something that requires my skill, attention, and experience, but doesn't tax it. In fact the primary reason why I design these sorts of games is to recharge my creative and emotional batteries in-between the more draining "serious" projects. In that sense, they are "frivolous" designs.

But what of the other three boxed games? Well, they are even more frivolous than those expansions. Eyelet is a weird, light, abstract filler game with shoelaces. Kaiju Table Battles is a science fiction game about giant monsters knocking the snot out of each other, and has nothing more serious to communicate than "gee I really liked Godzilla and Gamera a lot when I was a kid". It is entirely an exercise in self-indulgence, in much the same way I designed "the dinosaur version" of Table Battles to indulge Mary. Speaking of which, it is to indulge Mary that the two of us are co-designing this year's new train game, Dinosaur Gauge, which is a pick-up-and-devour game about dino shipping magnates and dino industrialists and dino railroad tycoons and dino airline operators adapting to the shrinking of the Western Interior Seaway while manipulating the stomp market.

Mary has informed me numerous times that this is not frivolous but is in fact a very serious economic and historical simulation game, and since she knows more about dinosaurs than I do, I've no choice but to accept this is true. But other than that, well, this appears to be the year as a designer that I just kinda goof off a little. Or, since the bulk of the work on these projects was conducted in 2021, last year was.

And honestly, that feels about right? This whole "second puberty" thing is no joke, folks. It's exhilarating but also exhausting. Joyous but with lots of crying. I'd say it's a pain in the tucchus, but that wouldn't be accurate because it's not my tucchus that is tender all the time. Plus there's that whole boring "journey of self-discovery" thing.

Which is all to say, you know what, it's been a year and I've had a lot on my plate, so, yeah, I'm gonna distract myself by doing games about giant monsters and shoelaces. And what's really interesting to me about that is, if you had told me a couple years ago that I was gonna do games about giant monsters and shoelaces, I probably wouldn't have believed you. I don't think I would've been interested in those things as a designer. I don't think I could've conceived of me being interested in those things, of me being interested in something that didn't fall into the buckets of Serious History Game, Train Game, or Wargame.

Despite the fact that, once upon a time, I was interested in doing more "frivolous" games. The year before we started Hollandspiele, I had a science fiction game and a fantasy skirmish game released by other publishers. Both were embarrassing and demoralizing flops, and I figured that I just didn't have the "knack" to work in those spaces. Once I started doing more serious work, and once I started getting attention for it, I had even less inclination to revisit those designs even after the rights were returned to me.

But now? I feel like that's a valid and potentially fruitful direction for me to explore. While I think there is a lot of value in angry, political art – in games that expose systems of oppression, that allow us to hear the past echoing in the here and now – there is also value in games that just allow people to share time and space together, and to enjoy each other's company. Oddball abstracts played with shoelaces, giant monsters with breath weapons, perilous dungeons filled with traps and enemies.

I don't think "Tom" would have been able to do any of that. But Amabel? Yeah, Amabel might. She's not angry and sad all the time the way "he" was. There's still anger and there's still sadness – it was Amabel who finished The Vote, even if she hadn't found her name quite yet. Amabel whose religious trauma informed Nicaea, Amabel whose grief and rage will be streaked through next year's tobacco game. But it's also her gentleness that conceived of Eyelet, her shitposter's humor that will be on display in that For-Ex expansion, her giddiness that is indulged in Kaiju Table Battles, which is in some ways as ambitious as it is essentially frivolous.

I'm so much more than who I used to be, capable of so much more, and it all comes a lot more easily, more naturally. It's hard to communicate to people who haven't experienced dysphoria just how much mental bandwidth it takes, how it makes everything – even and perhaps especially the simplest things – impossibly difficult. Which also makes it hard to effectively describe its absence – the clarity of thought, the fullness of one's heart, the thrill of living freely, and the sudden surplus of energy and time that you're not wasting fighting your own brain. Energy and time that can be applied to new creative work, and in new and hopefully interesting directions.


  • Thanks for another great insightful post. The last paragraph is really beautiful. Out of curiosity, and since I don’t know the publication schedule of past years, nor found a ‘politics’ collection in the Collections tab, what have been the political art or prestige games published so far? I looked up Nicaea on BGG and it sounds very intriguing. I’d like to know about the other games in that vein. Thanks in advance.


  • Thanks for the insights – I love your games. Glad you are in a better place. Keep running the good race.

    Paul M.

  • Nice to read a happy report. Pleased to read you’re in a good mental state.

    I have faith the war-games will come….

    Jeff Miller

  • Amabel, you used the word “mechanisms” instead of “mechanics”.
    Bless you.


  • Love that description of the absence of dysphoria. Although I dearly love train games, I’m ok with the frivolous as well. I’ve been looking forward to Eyelet since the first description of it.


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