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SMALL BUT VITAL MOMENTS (by Tom Russell)

Mary Russell

More copies of Irish Gauge have sold than any of my other games. That’s an awful lot of choo-choos sprawled across an awful lot of verdant hexagons. With all those copies came a lot of videos, photos, reviews, customer comments, BGG ratings, rules questions, and variants – of course there are lots of variants, rassum-frassum – or, to put it another way, a lot of attention.

This isn’t something I’m necessarily used to. I make weird and sometimes very experimental games, often on obscure topics. These are niche games for a niche audience, produced and sold in an appropriately niche way, and so of necessity they don’t generate the kind of buzz that something as approachable as Irish Gauge does. The media attention and the chatter were nice in small doses but to be honest I mostly found it overwhelming. (One of my many character flaws is that I’m sometimes rather desperate for validation, but don’t really understand what to do with it once I get it; compliments often make me deeply uncomfortable.)

What I did find really comforting and honestly really moving was how often the game was getting played. My game gave people a reason and a way to share and enjoy their time together. It allowed them to create small but vital moments: the sly crinkle of a smile, the spontaneous boisterousness of a shared laugh, the “oh shoot” when something went awry.

In a way, that’s what these things are for; that’s why I make them. Oh, there are other reasons. Paying the bills is certainly one. Amusing myself is another. And I believe strongly in the potential for games to make arguments and to present models that might have some social or political importance. I make games that push against the boundaries of the form to push against the boundaries of the form. And all that matters to me.

But at the core, the game isn’t about the game at all, it’s about the people who play it. It’s not my game, but yours; those moments you spend together (or alone) with the game – those smiles and those laughs and those “oh shoots”, those memories – they’re yours. The game is perhaps beside the point.

And all the games I’ve designed have served that purpose, provided that framework and that space for you and yours to work that peculiar cardboard magic. I just don’t always get a chance to see it very often, toiling as I do in self-imposed obscurity. I’ll get a little glimpse now and then of some games, and more glimpses when a game is comparatively more popular. With Irish Gauge however I was seeing evidence of it on what seemed like a daily basis. It was deeply gratifying. It made me feel like my work had value.

I had a similar experience recently with one of my most divisive games, For-Ex. I’m not gonna dig into it again here, but the long and short of it is that unique among my designs, I have a very fraught relationship with For-Ex. There are days when I can’t even stand to look at it. It fills me with despair and frustration. That box doesn’t just contain a game about currency trading; it also contains my self-doubts and my self-loathing. In the weeks following its release, I spiraled hard, and sometimes it feels like those weeks are waiting for me in that box, should I ever be foolish enough to open it again. I think I’ve played it once since its release, and that was a long time ago.

So I felt some trepidation when I heard that Heavy Cardboard was doing a livestream of the game this past weekend. I wasn’t sure if I was going to watch it or not. Like I said, the very thought of the thing usually leaves a sour taste in my mouth. That weekend turned out to be pretty lousy for Mary and myself, and probably the last thing I needed was to cap it off with For-Ex feels.

But about twenty minutes after the stream started, I started fishing around for the link. Maybe I was trying to make myself miserable. I’ve done it before. Often when I’m feeling low, instead of trying to perk myself up, I revisit bad reviews, nasty emails, malicious comments, and personal attacks, or I hate-read TERF nonsense on twitter. It’s not healthy; I recognize that, and it’s something I’m trying to work on. It is something I literally was talking to my therapist about a few days before the For-Ex stream. So why am I doing this to myself?, I wondered as I joined the stream mid-teach.

Given my history with the game, I don’t think of For-Ex often, and given its mixed reception, I don’t tend to really think that people are actually playing it, let alone that those people might be enjoying it. Many don’t! I’ve heard from plenty of folks who have told me that they like the game, but that everyone they’ve ever played it with despises it. And truth be told I was more than a little worried that this would be the same case here. The game would unravel live on internet television; it’s a fragile game after all, deliberately and “hilariously” so – that last part being in scare quotes because for me, the joke stopped being funny about a week after we started taking orders. I was fully convinced that everyone on the stream would sour on the game. I was waiting, practically begging them to politely and awkwardly talk around what a piece of garbage it was, and implicitly, what a piece of garbage I was for designing it.

And, you know what? The stream was a delight. Sure, it ran a little long – I think if I was designing the game now, I’d have one fewer Dividend card – and I wish the thing wasn’t so fiddly. It’s a game I designed before any of my games had found a publisher, and there are bits of it that are a little creaky, parts of it that aren’t quite fully formed.

But, in a very real way, the game was beside the point. Because what the stream was full of were those sly smiles and that shared laughter. Four people enjoying one another’s company, sharing time if not necessarily space with each other, connecting. Making memories. “Do you remember that time when he almost went bankrupt on the first contract?”

And, watching, I shared in those smiles, in that laughter, in those memories. And if this game of all my games – the black sheep of the lot – can do that? Then surely the same is true of my other designs, no matter how niche they are. I’ve always known this, but watching them play For-Ex made that feeling more immediate and concrete, just as Irish Gauge had done.

To be clear, it isn’t really a celebratory feeling, “hurray I’m so great”, nor its mopey cousin, “I guess I’m not so bad.” It’s more a feeling of deep gratitude. Of being thankful that something I did gave others a way to share time and happiness. The game as ever was beside the point, and yet, it absolutely means the world to me that, given a choice, they chose to spend their time together with one of mine.

1 comment

  • Hey Tom,

    I hope this is not intrusive. You have shared very personal stuff here.
    Please know that you have an army of people that have your back.
    The doubters and haters, the real ones, not the ones that just don’t get that they and your game are simply a bad fit, the problem lies with them, not you.
    You seem to have the curse of the creative, the self-doubt that goes with the territory.
    It is reassuring to me, and I’m sure to many, that you have professional support.
    Keep fighting the good fight.
    And making great games.

    Pete

    Peter

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