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HOW BOARD GAMES SAVED MY LIFE (by Tom Russell)

Note: I recently partook in a "how did you get into board games?" thread over at BGG, and Mary and I decided that a post might be of sufficient interest to warrant republication on the Hollandspiele blog. And so, here we are.

When I was a kid, I loved to play chess and Othello/Reversi, despite the fact that I was terrible at both, and I remember playing Risk at my grandfather's house. And we had Monopoly, Uno, etc. So, fairly typical childhood exposure to board games.

How I got into modern games... it's kind of a long, but hopefully mildly interesting, story. The background to this story is that I've always been someone with a creative impulse; I've always wanted to write and create, whether it was fiction, comic books, puppetry, movies, video games. (I remember between the ages of six and ten "designing" video games on paper, basically sketching out generic, Mega Man-esque side-scrolling levels the way you'd see them laid out in a strategy guide or an issue of Nintendo Power. When I was done with one, I'd get right to work on the sequel; I think in the course of the month I had created six games in a single franchise.)

When I was eighteen, my father died of lung cancer. I saw it happen-- saw him vomiting blood, faeces, and tissue all over himself in the last fatal minutes of his life. He was thirty-eight years old. And somehow, I got it into my head that because he was thirty-eight when he died, that I wouldn't live to be older than thirty-eight. It's a nonsense idea, a superstition that I'm too smart to put stock in, but it's something that stuck with me for a long time. Even today, I still feel it creeping around in the back of my brain.

So, there I was, eighteen years old, with at most twenty years left on this Earth (or so it seemed), which began a weird sort of mid-life crisis while I was still finishing high school. That urge to create, to do something with my life, to leave something behind, became more than my focus or my drive. It became my life-- every single waking moment of it.

And so I threw myself into creative acts. Into writing reams of prose. Into writing and directing feature films, first on my own, and then, after I met and married Mary, as part of a partnership. I taught myself how to use Game Maker and designed computer games (the best of which, by-the-by, is called Side Saddle 2 and is still freely available). I composed music. I drew comics. I even ran for political office, and then made a webseries about what a terrible idea that was. I hardly slept; I was a sort of a workaholic.

The only problem is that I wasn't getting paid. Nothing that I put out into the world ever seemed to get anywhere. Really, none of it ever seemed to connect with an audience. I was, largely, creating all this in a vacuum. Meanwhile, people I knew and went to school with were succeeding - one of the folks I went to high school with writes Transformers comics today, and another just started writing for Marvel; one guy started working for Paramount; I became very friendly with a couple of filmmakers in the so-called "mumblecore" set, while I couldn't get any of our films into a single festival. Yeah, I was jealous a bit, but it was less about that they were succeeding - I was happy for them, most of the time anyway - and more about how I wasn't among them, and about the fear that I never would be, that I didn't deserve to be.

The weight of my failure only multiplied as the years progressed. As I became twenty, then twenty-five, then twenty-eight (only ten years left!!), this pressure I put on myself became more and more overwhelming. I became bitter, and angry, and more than a little depressed. On top of this, our personal financial situation was becoming worse and worse. Mary lost her job, and mine wasn't pulling in nearly enough cash to pay for everything, and that included her medical care. Watching someone you love getting sicker and sicker, watching the debts pile up, trying and trying but unable to find a decent job in Michigan's economy, spending ten years trying to make your life count and coming up with nothing to show for it-- well, it wasn't a good place to be. It was poisonous; radioactive. It was killing me.

 

And then, in fact, I did almost die. Six years ago, I had an infected wisdom tooth. The infection spread to my throat and my chest. Apparently if I didn't get on antibiotics when I did, it could have spread to my heart, which would have been bad news to say the least. I don't know how close the thing was, but it was close enough. For whatever reason, it made a definite if not entirely fatal crack in that spell of "gotta make it count, you won't live to be thirty-nine, what are you doing with your life, you failure".

Once that tooth came out, I just unclenched, and breathed, and tried to just enjoy life, and to enjoy the people around me. I tried to become a better husband, a better coworker, and a better friend. We didn't used to really take time to just stop and hang out with people and to be good company-- I couldn't, when I was dedicating every waking moment to making things and screaming at myself because no one was paying attention to the things I made. After that tooth, though, I became a much happier and better person.

But I still felt restless, of course, because that creative urge was still there, even if it wasn't dominating my life the way it was before. And I worried that this change brought on by my kinda-sorta near-death experience would be temporary, that sooner or later I'd be back to being a stressed-out, angry little man crushed by the weight of his own failure (or something equally melodramatic). It became clear to me that my whole life I had been searching for that Something, for that thing that I was good at, for the creative medium that would, at long last, let me connect with people. And I felt that I didn't find that thing, I would revert back to type, so to speak.

So, what happens is that we have a friend who is in trouble, some pretty serious emotional turmoil, who had just spent the night in a mental hospital. Heavy stuff. And she wants to just go to Ann Arbor and hang out for the day and window-shop. Now, part of me hates walking around and looking at stuff I can't afford, and prior to The Tooth, part of me would still do it-- I wasn't a monster-- but I'd feel like it was a complete waste of a precious and rare Sunday when I could actually get something useful done. After the tooth, though, I'm in no hurry, and so Mary and I are able to just hang out with our friend and enjoy her company, which seemed to cheer her up tremendously.

And while we're walking around Ann Arbor, I am, for the first time in a long time, open to it. I take a genuine interest in all the stuff around me, even if I can't buy it. And we head into the comics/toys/general geek emporium that is Vault of Midnight. It doesn't hold a candle to my local comic book store, Green Brain Comics, but like I said, I'm open to it, and decide to pop down to the basement to look at the back issues, see if I can fill some of the gaping holes in my New Mutants collection.

Image of prototype with individual sea hexes; the final version contained frame pieces.

And that's when I saw it: The Settlers of Catan. Not just Catan, but that specific edition of Catan with all the 3D painted pieces. Now, this isn't a case of Catan being my gateway game; I didn't actually play the game until two or three years later, and I actually don't like it very much-- as a midwesterner, I'm skeptical of any locality with a 17% crime rate. But the fact that this thing existed, that there was a board game out that was so popular that adults would pay that much money for a special, tricked-out, luxury edition.

It wasn't the only board game there, and I was fascinated by the wealth of topics, the experience described by the back cover ad copy, and, yes, by the fact that the designer's name was on the box. That they were treated like an author, and that some designers had a following-- this Knizia guy sure had a lot of games!

I didn't buy anything-- other than a New Mutants back issue-- but I felt like I had stumbled onto some strange, secret world. I filed it away as Mary, me, and our friend went off to dinner (where I tried a bison burger, and threw up so virulently that the whole meal was free which, hurray for saving money, but I'd rather not have gotten violently ill?).

A couple of days later, I'm at work and I'm hitting the "random page" button on Wikipedia, which for a time was my favorite way to find out about new things. And a page comes up on the 18xx game series. And I was like, "what the heck is this?" There was a link to a video by some guy named Scott Nicholson. We watched it when I got home, and Mary and I found him to be pretty engaging and decided to watch some of his other videos. And there we found out more about some of the other games we had seen at Vault of Midnight.

And so then we decided to try a couple of the games-- I think the first one was Carcassonne, which underwhelmed us until we got two of the expansions that were recommended in one of Joel Eddy's videos. And as I started playing the games, I started thinking, you know what, maybe this is something that I can do. And after a year or so of floundering about, it turned out that, yes, this was something I had a knack for. And in fact the things that prevented my fiction, movies, etc. from connecting with an audience are the very things that are strengths in board game design.

More than that-- it turned out that this was one of the two things I was put on this Earth to do, the other being to love my wife. With board games, the things I make have at long last found some kind of audience, however small. I've been able to connect, to communicate, to engage. Folks seem to like a lot of what I do, which is gratifying, and even when they don't, I'm glad to hear what they thought of it, and that they took the time to put their thoughts down into words. I feel like I'm a part of a real community and hobby.

I feel like what I'm doing matters. Like I matter.

I wish I had found out about board games before I was twenty-eight. It would have saved me about ten years of misery and stress. But because I was so hung-up on making every second count, and being some kind of creative genius or whatever the hell young stupid me thought he was doing, I don't think I could have found out about it. I wouldn't have been open to what was around me if I walked through that Vault of Midnight in my old state of mind. I wouldn't have cared about board games, because they weren't the Very Important Creative Things I was dedicating my life to-- they would have been a distraction, and before that Tooth, I had no time for distractions.

To put it another way, the person I needed to be in order to be receptive to board games wasn't the person that I was. I do wish I could send a message to the young me, and let him know that it was going to be hard, but it was going to be okay in the end. Heck, I wish I could send a message to me from six years ago, the me that was bedazzled by this world of board games, and wondering if he could ever fit into it, receiving his first rejections, and tell him that yes, this was the thing we had been looking for, and not only have we had eighteen games come out in the last four years from six different publishers-- most of them train games and wargames, of all things, which would have really been news to the budding Eurogamer designer working in 2010-- but that we're publishing games now ourselves.

So, that's how I got into board games; that's how board games profoundly changed who I was; that's how board games, and everyone who plays them, saved my life.

Thank you all.



 

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2 comments

  • Thanks for sharing this Tom. Count me among your fans.

    BIll K

  • Seems that wisdom tooth lived up to its name… So glad that you arrived at the place you are now, and so appreciating what you do – together with Mary – with Hollandspiele. Thanks!

    Geert

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