Mary Russell

Thursday morning my plane landed at Dallas Love Field. I called Mary when I touched down and asked after the cats. Monster didn't put up much of a fuss about her pill; she's been on thyroid medication for over a year now. Claws, on the other hand, just recently started taking three different kinds of medication for his heart. Even with the three of them crammed into a single larger gel capsule, it's a struggle to get it into him and to get him to swallow. Even then, he's found a way to hold the pill in his mouth while he swallows so he can spit it back out. He is wily and stubborn, and one of the things Mary's been dreading about me going was the prospect of playing what is an already difficult and frustrating co-op game in solitaire mode. He wasn't too bad that first morning, but he made up for it over the course of the three and a half days I was in Dallas.

Travis Hill picked me up at the airport. On the way to the donut shop for breakfast (I got a small pie, which uncharacteristically for me was filled with blueberries) we chatted about some of the things going on in our lives recently. As he recently mentioned on the Low Player Count podcast, he and his wife have been staying with her family while trying to sell their old house and build a new one, and things are a bit in flux. This segued into a discussion of property values and municipal finance, and it is with some amusement now that looking back at last year's set of Trains and Chit blog-things that I discovered that I had also explained Michigan's tax structure to Marcus when he picked up Mary and me from the airport last year. It's almost like I'm an adult.

Because it would be several hours before I could check in at the hotel, Travis asked if there was anything I wanted to do in Dallas. I thought about it for a moment and said, well, I don't want to impose, but isn't there a museum or something at the former book depository? "Yes, there is," says Travis, and he started to tip-tap at his phone to bring up the relevant details.

"I have no idea if it's free," I said, "or if it costs anything or how much."

Travis slid his finger up the screen. "Eighteen dollars."

"Eighteen? Per person?"

"Per person."

"Eighteen! Well, never mind."

We went for a walk instead, and spent some time talking about the experimental role-playing games Travis has been working on. He mentioned that he found the form very freeing, that the sort of pressures and expectations that come with trying to do a board game just weren't present, and that the role-playing games seemed to be a better fit for the kinds of experiences and dynamics he wanted to explore. I mentioned that the great thing about RPGs is that the people who play them are more likely to approach them in the spirit in which they are offered; you're not likely to get some kind of alpha gamer or math-head complaining about optimal play in experimental storytelling games. He stumbled into the RPG space somewhat unintentionally and without preconceptions. Discussing two of his games - both of which are solitaire LARPs - I was struck by how much they centered and reclaimed for grown-ups the concept of play and imagination. And even though they were solo games, they were still very much about engaging with the world around you and the people in it, about connecting yourself to something larger.

Travis radiated enthusiasm, and I recognized a lot of my own experiences in his. "It's wonderful when you fall into something, isn't it?" I said. Here followed a brief reflection on the improbable and wholly accidental journey that took me from someone who aspired to do perfectly normal mid-weight euro games to some kind of weirdo doing aggressively idiosyncratic and flagrantly uncommercial games. "The wargames sold, so, you know, I guess I'm a wargame designer now, and then the weird stuff sold better, so I guess my games are weird now."

We arrived at the venue - Marcus Butterly's house - in the early afternoon. Marcus was working in the kitchen, preparing pizza dough for proofing so that we could have pizza on Saturday night. While he was engaged with that, Travis and I played our first game of the con, Passtally.

This is a game I was somewhat familiar with, having seen a video playthrough on the YouTube channel Not Your Average Chit. It's an intensely mean two-player abstract route building game from Japan which is supposed to be republished in a more widely-available edition later this year. I greatly admire the economy of the thing, how much it does with so few pieces and rules, and how much of the game consists of staring at its pretty, pretty board and wondering what the heck I was going to do.

Around this time we heard from Mark von Minden, who was to be flying in from Denver. Unfortunately there was ice on the wing, and his flight was cancelled. He tried to find another flight, but signs were not encouraging. Ultimately, he was unable to join us, which was a shame. This also meant that Matt Clark, flying in from Minnesota, would be bereft of a ride, so Travis went to pick him up and I tagged along. Being that we were both Midwesterners, I of course asked him about the weather, which had recently brightened up in Michigan but had apparently very much not done so in his snowy neck of the woods.

All of us were more bummed out about the weather in Denver, however, which as I mentioned reduced even further an already smaller group of attendees. I will say that one benefit of the smaller gathering is that I got to talk more often with those people who did attend. For example, I didn't really get to talk to Matt very much the first time around, but here I got to remedy that, and I think I got a better sense of his personality. He was often very funny, sometimes quite savagely so, but there was an underlying sweetness and generosity of spirit that I found quite charming. I don't think we got to play very many games together previously, but this year, we were often at the same table.

I played more games in general this time around. Last year, there were often multiple games running concurrently, and because those games finished at different times, folks that planned to play this game or that one together weren't able to get the stars to align. As a consequence, I played many more games this year than I did last year.

One of those games was Pax Porfiriana. This was my first time playing any of the Pax games and my first time playing anything designed (in this case, co-designed) by Phil Eklund. I know of his work, and am friendly with a number of folks who hold it in high regard, but the reputation for dense rulebooks and, uh, idiosyncratic scholarship had always kept me away from them. Travis and Matt both felt that if I was going to play just one Eklund game, that this would be the one to play.

The economy in the game was not particularly austere; for most of the game I was sitting on piles of cash. The problem was knowing what to do with it all. I could throw it around when I needed to, buying and playing the cards I needed to keep things in the Pax regime and to prevent a bear market, both things which made it easier for me to keep on making that money. But I couldn't ever seem to actually get any of the four different kinds of points that could actually win me the game when a topple came up.

That aspect of the game I found really fascinating - trying to match the flavor of the VP with the regime that VP counts toward at the exact moment when the topple occurs. It reminded me - no surprise there - of the two victory conditions in Cole Wehrle's An Infamous Traffic, and how players might shift their emphasis from one to the other depending on their positioning. It's a dynamic I think I might want to explore in my own work.

Around the time that Pax game was wrapping up, Bob Davis showed up, completing what would be the essential quintet of this year's Trains and Chit. Others would drop in for a spell on Friday and Sunday, but Marcus, Matt, Bob, Travis, and myself would be the five constants. Among the folks who sadly couldn't make it was C. Scott Kippen. A few weeks before the con, Scott ordered a copy of our Brave Little Belgium and asked me to give it away at the con. Before the five of us went to the Bankhead Brewery for burgers to officially open the festivities, I pulled up the Chwazi program on my phone and Bob won the game.

Then it was off to the brewery. The fellas got drinks, while this teetotaler contented himself with water. In between bites of burgers, we played Panzer Zug for the second year in a row. Also for the second year in a row, Matt won the game, making him the official North American Panzer Zug Champion. All we have to do now is send him to WBC so he can flex his die-rolling and card-slapping-down muscles against the sharks on the international circuit.

I said last year that I was glad to have played the game but felt no need to ever play it again, but I've kinda come around on it. Not because I think it's any kind of great strategic game, or that it oozes any kind of narrative. It is still entirely too long and too dumb, but its length and its dumbness are also its most important strengths.

Oddly enough, it would be one of the few train games and one of the few historical wargames we would play at this four day weekend dedicated to the playing of train games and wargames. Mostly our time was spent playing deeply weird, offbeat, and often fiddly games, many of which, like Panzer Zug, were probably too long and yet, like Panzer Zug, that length was an integral part of the experience.

More on some of that next time.


  • Hear, hear for Travis and his thoughts about RPGs.
    Peter Perla said (I’m paraphrasing but I think he would agree) that all games are constructed narratives using players as actors. The narrative formed by play of the game forms images in stories in players’ minds; the brain learns through stories and action.
    Alpha-gamers and math-heads aren’t learning much in the way they approach games, I have little time for them and kind of feel sorry for them (when they aren’t interrupting everyone else).

    Brian Train

  • Well, you know, because they are cats…..


  • Sounds like great fun!

    I have had much the same issues with my cats swallowing their pills. The only thing that I have found that works every time is to cover the pill completely in grated cheese (cheddar works the best for me). I smash the cheese in my hand so it is tight around the pill. My cats never spit that out!

    Hmmm … How come wargame talk always devolves in to talk about cats?

    Ryan Heilman

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