Mary Russell

I had a dream about a week ago that I found deeply unsettling. 

This isn't a new phenomenon, necessarily. My childhood was full of disturbing dreams, mostly centered on a painting that hung in the bedroom I shared with my brother - a painting of a mother with her child that was supposedly innocuous, but for me (and my brother) radiated a distinct level of unbridled malevolence. I couldn't stand to look at it. In the dreams, this mother had an army of creatures that consisted only of bald heads and hands, with wrists where their necks should be. When I'd wake up from these dreams, I would get out of bed and go into the living room, and sleep on the couch, away from the painting's sideways gaze. But when I woke up in the morning, I wasn't on the couch, but back in my bed. This more than anything convinced me that the woman in the painting was alive, and for months I was terrified. Eventually I found out that my father would find me on the couch when he got up in the morning, and before leaving for work, had carried me back to bed.

Not this painting. "Madonna and Child" by Giovanni Battista Salvi (Il Sassoferrato).

As I got older, I got less imaginative, in the sense that I don't spend my waking moments as an adult terrified of women who live in paintings. So anyway. I had a dream about a week ago in which Hollandspiele needed to acquire a large warehouse for some business-related reason. In the dream, to dream-Tom, this made perfect sense, and I felt that he knew exactly why a warehouse was needed, but no one in the dream ever saw fit to explain it to me. Mary bought a warehouse without consulting me. That's not like Mary at all. It's not like me, either, but between the two of us, I'm the one who would be more likely to do something boneheaded like that. We drove over to the warehouse that she had bought, and found that it was occupied by squatters. Like, a lot of squatters. Dozens of them, all sprawled out in different rooms of this massive, labyrinthine complex.

Apparently the squatters weren't there when the warehouse was inspected presale. We called the police, but for reasons that only made sense in the dream, the police locked us in the warehouse and said that we couldn't leave until we either convinced all the squatters to leave, or until we decided to sell the warehouse to the squatters for one dollar, cutting our losses. And so we went from room to room telling the squatters that they had to leave, because we needed the warehouse for our board games. Many of the squatters were actually quite knowledgeable about modern board games - there were no refrains of "what, like Monopoly?" here - but they weren't impressed with our games, which it turns out we were carrying with us. None of them wanted to leave, and some of them started threatening us.

At that point, we just wanted to leave, and would readily agree to give them the warehouse for a dollar, just so we could get out of there intact. But we couldn't seem to find the exit, and every time we tried to retrace our steps, we found ourselves somewhere new. All of the squatters at this point had become violent, and they refused to let us alone. Even though we told them that we were just leaving, to never mind it, to keep the warehouse, they kept chasing us. That's where the dream ended.

And, you know, in retrospect, years later, I can pick apart each of my earlier anxiety dreams to get some vague idea of "what it meant". The woman in the painting probably has something to do with my own mother, with whom I've always had a very antagonistic relationship.

But this dream, I knew what that was about immediately upon waking, because it's something I've actually been thinking about for several weeks now, something I've actually touched on in one or two of these blog-things before, and that's a general anxiety about Hollandspiele getting too big. We make niche games for a niche audience, for people who will meet us halfway, who tolerate (or even prefer!) paper maps, who "click" with our peculiar approach to game design and to publishing. And we've been working to grow that audience, and certainly want to keep doing so, to keep winning converts. And every time one of our games is really popular, and does really well, it's extremely gratifying.

Well, almost every time. Because then I remember For-Ex. That's a game that sold very well, but there was a not-insignificant number of people who were unhappy with their purchase. And leading up to the game's release, we had an inkling that that might be the case. There was a lot of buzz and anticipation around the game, much more than we had been anticipating, and much more than we thought that such a weird and idiosyncratic game could sustain. We spent considerable effort trying to dampen people's expectations, going as far as to say "you probably don't want this game", but that just made people want it more. We've always seen ourselves as a company that would stay small and scrappy, and that's a conscious choice. The worst part about the For-Experience was the sense that the matter was out of our control.

And part of that anxiety flaring up has to do with the fact that, after having designed nearly forty games, for the first time I'm about to see one of my games attain mass distribution - Rio Grande's reprint of Northern Pacific later this month - to be followed sometime next year by Capstone's reprint of Irish Gauge. I'm very excited about both, and the money certainly doesn't hurt, and I'd expect that at least some of those people who enjoy those games will take a peek at what Hollandspiele has on offer, and as a result we'll be able to grow our audience. And, again, that's something we very much want to do. But part of me worries that it'll be For-Ex all over again.

Probably I've nothing to worry about. And in my darker moments, I wonder how much of this is my discomfort with being in the spotlight. It's weird: as anyone who listens to our podcasts is aware, I like to talk. I like meeting people. And it's very gratifying, very vindicating, to hear that people like the games we publish and the games that I design. At the same time, I often get very uneasy when I receive compliments; I don't quite know what to do with them. A con we attended this year had initially asked us to serve as their guests of honor, and while we appreciated the gesture, the very idea of it made us nervous and apprehensive. Someone recently reached out to me about being on a panel discussion at another convention, alongside two very extroverted guys, and I just couldn't imagine that going well.

Probably this is because one of the deepest sources of anxiety for me - but one that strangely, as near as I can tell, never manifested itself in an anxiety dream - is being misunderstood by people. One of the primary causes of friction between Mary and myself is that I don't always do words very well, and she's the one who understands me the best, the one who is the world's leading expert on Tom-ese. I think part of the difficulty I had finding an audience for my creative endeavors before board games is because I was (and still am) operating on such an idiosyncratic wavelength. The idea of explaining myself and my games to people who aren't on that wavelength, who might even be somewhat hostile toward the very unusual place that I'm coming from? Yeah, that's terrifying.


  • Tom, I had the same feeling about receiving compliments as you have. Someone told me “just say ‘thank you’.” So I followed her advice, and it worked. When someone compliments me, I just say ‘thank you’. I can say that, and it is an appropriate response, and I don’t have to stress over what to say.

    Every so often the person is being sarcastic when they compliment me, and I don’t realize they’re being sarcastic, so when I calmly say ‘thank you’, they look surprised. And I don’t suppose that’s bad either.

    Eric Brosius

  • Funny, I thought your dream was about proofreading.

    Scott Muldoon

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