We signed At All Costs!: The Great War in the East in early 2017. At that point, we hadn't really found our niche or our audience, and were figuring that large and somewhat detailed games would be our bread and butter. Being that At All Costs! was the long-awaited sequel to a reasonably popular card-driven game, it seemed like it would be right up our alley. By the time we brought it to market nearly four years later, we had a clearer idea of who we were and what we were about, and it was pretty clear that At All Costs! was a bit of an outlier. To the point where if the designer had pitched us on it in 2020 or 2019 or even 2018, we would have passed on it.
But I'm glad we signed it. It's not because the game was a huge hit; it wasn't. It's impossible to play solitaire, depending on bluff and deception, which usually doesn't translate into the strongest sales. On top of that, it had the misfortune of being released weeks before the entire world went into lockdown. And while I think the game is very compelling, and fraught with delicious moments of card angst, that's not the reason either. No; the reason is that, however briefly, it brought into our orbit the game's designer, who we would come to know as Crow.
The thing I remember about them most acutely is their enthusiasm. Perhaps more than any designer I've encountered, Crow was excited about their game. An email from Crow was never perfunctory, never only informational, but bursting from the seams with an infectious, impatient energy. They were passionate about games, and about politics. I remember in the wake of Charlottesville, Crow emailed us to let us know how horrified they were by those events, and how committed they were to opposing white supremacy and fascism. They ended the email letting us know that if we felt differently, they wanted to cancel the contract – for a game over which they had labored for years, and had despaired of ever finding a publisher for.
I hope folks know Mary and I well enough by this point that it won't shock you to know that we were on precisely the same page as Crow. But I admired the heck out of their willingness to put it on the line, to take that risk. I think to some degree it helped me, like a lot of things that summer, to finally commit to following through on This Guilty Land.
Crow turned over At All Costs! to us in the summer of 2018, which we intended for a late 2019 release. This would give us time not only to make sure all the t's were crossed and i's dotted – and with a ruleset spanning two rulebooks, our longest ever, there were an awful lot of t's and i's – but also to experiment with different materials and processes to produce the game's distinctive wooden army pieces.
2019 however proved to be a difficult year for us, as we spent the first half caring for our beloved cat, Claws, who died that summer, and Monster, who is still with us. This delayed release of the game until early 2020. Crow understood; during this same period, they were providing similar care for their elderly cat, Fritz. As a general rule, I've found that people who love cats are good people.
About a year before the game's release, they reached out to tell us their name was Crow, coming out as non-binary and genderfluid. As with all things, they approached this discovery with giddy enthusiasm. They asked that we use their former name in the game credits. Of course we did as they asked, and that's why, when the game was published, that name appears on the box.
Like I said, long before we released the game, we knew it wasn't necessarily "on-brand" for us. We mentioned this to Crow, letting them know that while we were excited about the game, that we might not be the right company to bring it to market in a way that would ensure its success; if they wanted us to release the rights back to them, we could do that. But Crow liked us as people, and said they couldn't imagine ever taking it elsewhere.
It was very touching, and so we resolved to do our best, and to hope for the best. We certainly weren't expecting the release to coincide with the onset of a global pandemic – all but ensuring that even those who bought the game would have a hard time tabling it. That was upsetting, less because of any impact it had on our bottom line – the beauty of our business model is that it really doesn't – but because we wanted the game to do well for Crow, who had poured so many years and so much enthusiasm into the thing. We all commiserated about it, and hoped that on the other side of the pandemic, people would be able to play the game, and it would find an audience.
Whether or not that will happen remains to be seen, of course. But Crow won't see it. In late October, they reached out to let us know that they had just been diagnosed with terminal cancer, and that it was their "fervent desire" that all rights to At All Costs! pass to us upon their death. Two weeks later, just shy of their sixty-first birthday, they died.
As you may have gathered, we were fond of Crow, and they seemed fond enough of us, and so their sudden passing hit us pretty hard. It was a particular gut-punch for me. That same year, I finally figured out that I was a trans woman. One of the many things that had held me back from realizing, accepting, and acting upon the truth about myself was the superstitious notion that I was going to die before I turned thirty-eight (my father was thirty-eight when he died). That birthday was fast approaching when I finally pieced together the clues to the world's easiest and most obvious mystery, and with it came a sense that, well, I was too old to transition anyway. After that birthday, I moved forward, but only hesitantly and by half-measures.
Crow came out to us when they were fifty-nine, and less than two years later, they were gone. I don't know when they came out to themselves, and so I don’t know how long they spent living authentically; from what they told us, I suspect it wasn't longer than two years. I don't know what life was like for them before coming out, if they suffered from dysphoria like I did. But I know the profound joy of discovering the truth about yourself. I know the ecstatic giddiness of feeling, at long last, like you belong in your own skin. I know the serene, sublime comfort of knowing that you're not alone after all, and that the bewildering things you've felt have also been felt and are being felt by others.
The knowledge that Crow likely knew this happiness for only two years – that they had just figured themselves out, had just started living as themselves, and then they were gone –was heartbreaking. It wrung me out. And the knowledge that they did at last find this happiness, even after all those years – that one is never too old, and it is never too late – was conversely a source of comfort. Over the next few months, I thought about this a lot, thought about Crow a lot, and consequently I started pursuing my own happiness more confidently.
I had come out publicly in early October, and had intended to share my good news with Crow in the letter that would accompany their next royalty check. To tell them how happy I was that they had found themselves, and how happy I was to have done the same. But a month later, they were gone. I never wrote that letter, never told them who I was. I wish I had.