Mary Russell


Mary and I were at the grocery store earlier today to get a round loaf of nice Italian bread for grilled cheese sandwiches (mayo on the bread instead of butter, with extra-sharp pinconning, a local delicacy). Mary had the woman working in the bakery slice the bread for us, and the woman recognized me from the time I had worked for the city library. I recognized the sound of her voice - she had a heavy Polish accent. She also remembered me from the time I ran for mayor while wearing a fuzzy yellow bathrobe and comparing municipal finance to the arcade game Burger Time, which I'm actually not a huge fan of being reminded of. The lady hadn't seen me at the library in several years, and asked me if I had stopped working there.

I explained that I had left for another job about five years ago, and very recently had quit that job to work full time on board games. 


"Board games," I said, miming 1. e4 on an invisible chess set in case that helped.

The woman went off to the cutting machine with the loaf, and a moment later returned with it, handing it to Mary. "My husband plays games all the time. His favorite is," and here she said something that sounded a lot like War-hand, but that can't be right. "So you develop new video games?"

"Board games," I said again. "With pieces."

"Like a jigsaw?"

I lied and said "Kinda", then went on to explain that both puzzles and board games use physical pieces. She still wasn't quite getting it, and I felt somewhat stuck; I didn't want to say "like Monopoly", because I have a pretty strong aversion to using the m-word, but at the same time, I couldn't see how to come up with something that actually gave her the proper context.

Mary broke in: "Actually, they're wargames."

No, Mary! Not the w-word! I try to never use the w-word with normal people, because they tend to immediately think of it as being something sinister. Then in addition to trying to describe how a board game works, you're also trying to convince them that you're not some horrible, bloodthirsty monster.

But Mary had the right of it. She went on to explain that the players had a map in front of them, and they each had little pieces representing their men, and one player is Frederick the Great, or one is Napoleon and the other is Wellington.

"And people buy them?"

Yes, people buy them.

"Well, that sounds like a fun way to make a living."

And, yes, it is.


Not too many years ago - before Hollandspiele, but after I had gotten a few games out into the wild - a friend of a friend sent me an email. Diana was her name, and she worked for a non-profit that provided mentoring and scholarships for local high school students. One of the students wanted to be a board game designer, and had designed his first game,  intended to educate people about the Middle East. He didn't know what to do with it from there, and Diana had asked her friends online if anyone knew anything about board games, and our mutual friend had proffered my name. And, sure, I'd be happy to help. I agreed to meet with Diana and the student at a local cafe a few days hence. I spent some time in the interim trying to organize my thoughts, practicing answers to possible questions.

"You're putting a lot of thought and time into this," Mary remarked.

"I guess so," I said. "I want to be helpful. Best-case scenario, I'm able to provide him the kind of information I wish I had when I started out. Worst-case scenario? He shows up with a roll-and-move game called Mideastopoly."

So Saturday morning rolls around and Mary and I have breakfast at the cafe, and when Diana and the young game designer show up, I mosey on over to their table and introduced myself. The kid has this huge piece of poster-board folded up beside him. With admirable passion, he unfolds the board, and describes the workings of his educational game Mideastopoly, in which Community Chest cards were replaced by trivia questions about the history of the region, and instead of going directly to jail, you go to the Hague. I'm not kidding. That was the actual, exact name I had joked with Mary about a few days before.

I was worried that I was going to burst out laughing, that I'd have to control myself, but the kid was so completely in earnest about the whole thing, so confident, that it was more about having to hide the overwhelming dread. Because I knew when he was done, and he asked me how he would get this game published and distributed in stores across the world - and yes, he did ask me - that it would fall to me the unenviable task of breaking the poor kid's heart.

I explained that he couldn't, legally, just publish his own version of Monopoly; Hasbro would not let that stand. I touched on the USAopoly company, which did publish themed Monopoly variants, but would be unlikely to print a version that wasn't based on a sports team, movie, or TV show. I went on to explain that even if he was to print the game himself, and he somehow avoided getting sued, that I didn't think the market would be there for that game: a lot has changed in game design since Monopoly was designed about a hundred years ago, et cetera et cetera, you've probably heard or given some version of this speech before. I did mention that a game with an educational purpose could be successful, but you'd need to find a way to make it more than trivia questions; you'd need to find a way to deliver the experience through the gameplay.

It was, of course, exactly what he didn't want to hear, and he got more than a little indignant about it. Diana wasn't thrilled either. But I didn't want to lie to the kid - I'm not even sure how I could have lied to the kid - and couldn't really come up with an encouraging way to burst his bubble. I mean, how do you tell a bright young kid that he's out of his flipping gourd? When someone's head is that far up in the clouds, they not only don't, but can't have any sense of how the world works.

I know because I used to have my head that far in the clouds. I remember when I was twelve and wanted to break into American superhero comics, so I wrote Stan Lee a letter and offered to start writing a twelve issue Spider-Man miniseries "adapting" a storyline from the currently running animated series. I waited all summer for a response that I was sure would change my life forever, but which never came. I'm sure he never read the letter at all, which is just fine. But years later, older-but-wiser me still worries that at some point in my life I'll run into him, decades later, and introduce myself, and then he would say, "I know who you are, True Believer. You wrote me a letter in 1994 and it was the dumbest, most moronic comics-related thing that the nineties ever produced. Worse than the Clone Saga and Heroes Reborn! Excelsior, dipstick!" (Only he wouldn't say dipstick.)


My relatives are, for the most part, not "gamers". And so their context for what a board game is largely revolves around Monopoly, The Game of Life, Trivial Pursuit and other older mass market products.

We have, over the years, made some brief attempts to widen their horizons a bit, but the resistance was stiff and the results underwhelming. Obviously I'm not going to try to sell them on hex-and-counter wargames, and even medium-weight eurogames are far heavier than what they're accustomed to. One year for the Russell clan's annual Christmas gift-swap game - think of "White Elephant" or "Yankee Swap" - we brought a copy of Qwirkle, which we thought might be well-received given its simplicity and the surface similarities to Scrabble. The recipient loudly and repeatedly declared how stupid this "Quirky" game was, and tried to swap it for something else, for anything else, but got no takers. We pretty much stopped trying after that.

Once we started publishing board games full time, however, we started getting questions about our business and how it worked, and assurances that they were going to buy one of our games one of these days. They also know that the games have military themes, but I think they see the games as being something like Monopoly but with soldiers - something essentially frivolous. I think my grandfather, who recently turned ninety-six, disapproves of what we do, though he's proud enough of our seeming success. He fought in both World War II (Pacific theater, marines) and Korea (in the navy), and has said more than once that he doesn't understand how anyone would want to play a game about war, how anyone could have the stomach for it.

Whenever we're gathered together at some kind of family event, one of his daughters (so, one of my aunts) will suggest that I design a game "on the battle he was in" - Tarawa. (Those familiar with my designs know that that's not really my era.) My grandfather gets upset and agitated at the thought of it: "I don't know how you'd make a game of it. It's too bloody. There was too much blood."

Post-script: once my relatives got very excited about a new game they had bought and played. They didn't know if I had heard of it, but it was really good and I had to try it. What was the name? Cards Against Humanity. I smiled and said that I knew the game, and had played it, and it just wasn't for me. "You should do a game like that one," they said, and I nodded and said that I would think about it.


Many of our friends are gamers of some stripe or another.

Some of them mostly play tabletop RPGs. One of them, hearing that I was working on an RPG for Hollandspiele, offered to help "with the mechanics more than the chrome; I'm a pretty good mechanics guy and do a lot of homebrew". I didn't know how to tell him that I was a "pretty good mechanics guy" myself, that being more-or-less the entirety of my job.

Some of them are "into wargames", by which they mean Battlefleet Gothic, Warhammer 40K, and Blood Bowl. They have a bit more context into the kind of thing that I do - they understand a DRM well enough - but are still baffled by the hex grid and the cardboard chits and the NATO symbols. One of these fellows who is a closer friend than the others is majoring in medieval studies, and even he doesn't quite get the appeal of history-based gaming. That whole group also regards me as being something of a curiosity, as I'm the only gamer they know that isn't fueled by nicotine or alcohol, and doesn't have a story about the time he took acid and argued with the moon for six hours while shirtless in the middle of winter. Being that I am perhaps the only kid for whom the D.A.R.E. program ever worked, their experience is as incomprehensible to me as mine is to theirs.

Most of my IRL gamer friends are eurogamers, though, and while one or two has expressed some curiosity about wargames, most of them are quite happy with my explanation that the games we produce are probably a little too nerdy for them. If they persist, one look at a CRT and an explanation of how you calculate odds for the same will usually be enough to send them running in the other direction. Every once in a while, someone will just nod and stick around. Those are the keepers.

Perhaps I should be trying to evangelize, to convert eurogamers to my side of the hobby. But I know them and the kind of game experiences they're looking for, the kind of decisions they like to make, and the amount of time they want to spend with a single game. So-and-so takes five minutes choosing where to put three cubes in El Grande - there's no way I'm going to give them twenty or so counters to push around; they're gonna be miserable and bored the whole time.


Most of our games are wargames, of course, but every once in a while we do something that makes other gamers stop and throw a glance our way. An Infamous Traffic did this, Supply Lines to a lesser degree, and a game like For-Ex is more for them than for wargamers anyway. This is very gratifying for us both personally and professionally, but it comes with its own challenges.

A paper map might be fine for a wargame, more than fine even, but folks who weren't accustomed to that certainly balked at paying fifty bucks for a game like An Infamous Traffic that didn't have a mounted board. We got a number of emails from folks telling us how "unacceptable" and shady this was. They just have a different expectation as to what a game should be, as different, perhaps, as those people who mentally construct some medieval version of Monopoly when I tell them about The Grunwald Swords.

There are a lot of grognards who have a good laugh at the expense of our eurogaming cousins who find simple, introductory wargames to be unbearably heavy and dense, who talk about "really long" games that play in about three hours, who complain that a game on the 1939 invasion of Poland is unbalanced in favor of the Germans. And, yeah, I'll get a chuckle out of it now and then.

We recently announced a new game, This Guilty Land, about the legislative battle over slavery in the decades leading up to the American Civil War. We got a lot of comments on the cover, and a lot of folks, wargamers and euro-y types alike, commended us for taking on such a difficult and knotty subject. Like An Infamous Traffic or For-Ex, the reach of the cover reveal was amplified far beyond our usual corner of hex-and-counter wargamers.

There was one eurogamer - someone who probably never would have heard of us otherwise - who took one look at the cover and cast some rather odd aspirations on my reasons for designing the game, and our reasons for publishing it. He really couldn't believe that the game wasn't motivated by something sinister, no matter what I said to the contrary. And I guess I understand that to a degree; as a eurogamer, the idea of explicitly creating a game to explore and engage with historical events probably sounds like someone's trying too hard to justify its existence. Whereas this kind of thing is second nature (and of primary importance) to most wargamers.

I bowed out of the conversation, but later, twittering to someone else, he wondered why we didn't just change the theme.


  • Brian, yes I saw a photo that David posted on bgg. I’m very much looking forward to the game you come up with! I must admit that I found Days of Ire rather light on the history, but the more I play the game, the more I admire its design. David’s euro games – I bought Anachrony – are also rather good. Éljen a Magyar!

    Scott Moore

  • I don’t know that we should evangelise, we should just do what we do and love it. Those with an affinity to it will find it, those just with curiosity may be teased for a while, and perhaps a new category of games will develop, like say thoughtful- ameritrash, that keeps some satisfied. But conversion never really happens except in rare self-willed cases.
    The more we nurture what we do the more there is for browsers, or support for converts.
    Perhaps I am tilting windmills, yet there is a difference between raising a standard and going forth flag waving. One is needy the other is secure. Its all in the attitude.
    So, I would do a cross-over for the joy of seeing if it could be done, not in order to enlist cohorts.

    Jonathan Townsend (Agip)

  • Funny, that, Scott – I am working on a thematic sequel to Days of Ire with its designer, on the Soviet crackdown that swiftly followed the Revolution. It’s more of a wargame that the former, and less of a Euro, so it may furnish one more crossover point. I will say I’ve learned a lot working with the designer, who has played enough wargames to speak some of the language (and Tom’s right, you can get a wargamer to speak Euro but the opposite way is very hard). He has taught me a lot concerning alternate mechanics and different ways to inject this mysterious “fun” they talk about.

    Brian Train

  • I’ve helped to evangelize board wargames to a few eurogamers in recent months. A couple of them have become very keen on wargames. While the majority of eurogamers/Ameritrash gamers/general hobby boardgamers are not going to be interested in wargames for the reasons you’ve mentioned – they regard them as too complex and/or they don’t have an interest in the historic topics portrayed – there is a sizeable minority who are potential converts. This minority is probably several times larger than the current population of wargamers. so even if only a fraction of them can be persuaded to look into wargames, it could have a significant effect on our niche of the hobby. However, and this is important, you need to tailor their introduction to wargaming to suit their existing experience of board games. There is no point trying to evangelize to a fan of co-operative eurogames by showing them a complex hex-and-counter game from the 1970s. But you could start with, for example, Days of Ire: Budapest 1956 – a semi-cooperative war-themed game with some euro mechanics. If they like that, then they might be tempted by a modern wargame. Or could introduce a fan of deck builders to games like Hands in the Sea or Time of Crisis. Even a classic like Hannibal Rome vs. Carthage can be attractive to non-wargamers.

    Scott Moore

  • I know what you mean about the “w-word”, but as you say Mary has the right of it. If you treat your hobby with shame, it becomes shameful. But then my evangelizing days are mostly over.

    Scott Muldoon

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