Thursday, March 24, 2016

Geek Gaps: An Exhaustive List

When I was growing up, it wasn't cool to be a nerd or a geek. (I recognize that there is a long-standing tradition of separating geeks and nerds and that the process of differentiating between the two is part of the enjoyment of being one or the other, but for the purposes of this conversation, I am going to use the terms interchangeably, as any difference between the two is mostly semantic; plus, I get to be more alliterative this way). As a kid, I had thick, big glasses, I was into Star Trek and Star Wars, I played video games and I did not play sports, and I was really intelligent, so you can figure out fairly quickly into which stratum of middle school society I fell into. Or, I could just tell you that I was a star on our school's team in The Great Spelling Bee in Grade 6, and that's all the information you would need.

Even my pursuits of inherently non-nerdy enterprises, like being a fan of professional sports, tended toward the nerdier side like statistics and trivia and some following of metrics. For example, I remember playing through several full seasons of the Super Nintendo game NHL Stanley Cup and recording the final stats for each team for each season. In a parallel universe, there's a version of me that created some advanced metric for hockey, started a website that gained some traction, and now is that universe's Nate Silver who presents at the Sloan conference every year.

Because the Internet

Then the internet happened, and things changed for us nerds and geeks. The internet gave us a voice and place to meet and, perhaps most importantly, to gather fodder for our meaningless debates. It didn't happen all at once, mind you; it happened a little bit at a time, and with a lot of help from mainstream media. Buffy the Vampire Slayer became a hit, likely in large part because Sarah Michelle Gellar and David Boreanaz were two of the more attractive young stars on TV, which then gave Joss Whedon carte blanche to go on being creatively nerdy, all the way to directing one of the biggest nerd successes of all time in The Avengers. The Matrix was one of the biggest movies of a generation, and its pseudo-philosophical religiosity masked what was at its core arguably one of the nerdiest possible premises of any movie ever. Radiohead for a brief time was the biggest band in the world. Harry Potter happened.

Yes, by the time the world had avoided certain destruction at the electronic tentacles of Y2K, it was a free-for-all for nerds, and geek culture became not only accepted, but even culturally dominant. X-Men made superhero movies cool. The Lord of the Rings became commercially successful and critically acclaimed and won an Academy Award for Best Picture. Even hip-hop started embracing figures who embraced a significantly nerdier spirit, such as Macklemore x Ryan Lewis, Childish Gambino, Kendrick Lamar, and, of course, the pinnacle of the fusion of modern hip-hop and nerd pride:

Sure, we had a few losses along the way: the Star Wars prequels were terrible (or so I hear - I only saw The Phantom Menace); there were reports of some inferior sequels to The Matrix; Star Trek's descent into suckitude lasted for the better part of the aughts; and there was the injustice of the pre-emptive cancellation of Firefly. But thankfully, we had a few patron saints who were able to gain traction in the marketplace and restore geekdom to its proper place: Joss Whedon resurrected Mal and company in an unprecedented act of largesse from a major studio; and J. J. Abrams rebooted both of the hoary old Star franchises with lens flares and septuagenarian cameos. And now, we live in a world in which Mad Max: Fury Road gets a Best Picture nomination and leads the pack with six awards, so I think we can pretty much say that nerds are our new cultural overlords.

Nerd pride

I am (obviously) a huge fan of nerd culture and a perpetrator thereof. I am glad (at least in some respects) that superhero movies dominate the multiplexes and small screen, and that some of the biggest shows on TV - even the traditional multi-cam sitcoms like The Big Bang Theory- proudly and unironically embrace nerds. I thoroughly enjoy that the internet has made heroes of people like Felicia Day, Wil Wheaton, Joss Whedon, John Green, Chuck Klosterman, Dan Harmon, Nate Silver, Bill Simmons (who helped nerds reclaim their place in sports), and many more. I greatly appreciate that there was a reality TV show - King of the Nerds - that embraced nerd culture for three seasons before it was summarily canceled.

I proudly let my nerd flag fly, but I have some significant and unfortunate gaps in my pursuit of mastery of geekdom. I know it's not really possible to master all things nerdy, but at the very least I feel the need to acknowledge the spots in which I do have need of some work. And, as any nerd worth his sodium chloride will attest, one of the best parts of being a nerd is making lists, so guess what I have spent altogether too much time doing over the past couple of days.

I have referred to some of these gaps in the past, but I thought it would be useful to collate them all in one place and to make an authoritative list of the gaps in my nerd culture in the areas of different media: books, movies, television, video games, and board games. Feel free to read on, but be warned: if you think my normal posts are nerdy, this post is exponentially nerdier. (There's a conclusion at the end that will function as a summary "tl;dr" - "too long; didn't read" - so you can also feel free to scan ahead until that point and see how things ended up.)


Science fiction has always been one of my favourite genres, so I have a very strong history in reading through the genre, including one of my favourite classes in university in which we read through thirteen classic novels in a thirteen week semester. Shortly after that experience, I compiled a list of classic science fiction works from various sources, including a few internet lists and Nebula and Hugo award winners, in an attempt to make a more authoritative list of the science fiction books that I should have read. I have managed to chip away at that list over the years, but I still have a few more novels left to read than I would like to admit. There are a dozen novels that won both the Hugo and the Nebula that I have not yet read:

  • Left Hand of Darkness (Ursula K. Leguin, 1970)
  • Ringworld (Larry Niven, 1971)
  • The Dispossessed (Ursula K. Leguin, 1974)
  • Dreamsnake (Vonda McIntyre, 1978)
  • Fountains of Paradise (Arthur C. Clarke, 1979)
  • Startide Rising (David Brin, 1983)
  • Doomsday Book (Connie Willis, 1992)
  • Forever Peace (Joe Haldeman. 1998)
  • American Gods (Neil Gaiman, 2002)
  • Paladin of Souls (Lois McMaster Bujold, 2004)
  • The Windup Girl (Paolo Bacigalupi, 2009)
  • Blackout/All Clear (Connie Willis, 2010)

There are, of course, many other classic SF books that I have not yet read in addition to those dozen, so here are some of the most outstanding gaps in my bibliography:

  • The Foundation series (Isaac Asimov, 1942-1993)
  • I, Robot (Isaac Asimov, 1950)
  • Have Space Suit - Will Travel (Robert A. Heinlein, 1958)
  • Stand on Zanzibar (John Brunner, 1969)
  • The Wanderer (Fritz Leiber, 1965)
  • The Uplift War (David Brin, 1988)
  • Red Mars; Green Mars; Blue Mars (Kim Stanley Robinson, 1993 / 1994 / 1997)
  • Iron Council (China Miéville, 2005)

Although I acknowledge that several of the novels in my gaps - as well as many others in more contemporary SF - have a distinctly fantastical element to them, I'm not a huge fantasy fan. I love The Lord of the Rings, but that is more of an SF book than a fantasy in many ways (or so I argued for my term paper in that university SF class). Despite the general overlap of the two genres, I tend not to pursue the fantasy side of the shelf, so most current fantasy series also exist as significant gaps for me. That said, there are a couple of novels and/or series that I might check out at some point, including Patrick Rothfuss' The Name of the Wind and Stephen King's The Dark Tower. And no, I do not think that I will end up reading George R.R. Martin's Game of Thrones series (more on that in the television section).


I manage to keep up fairly well with nerdy movies, as there are only five to ten new entries that are really necessary to see each year, many of which happen to also double as primary films in the zeitgeist. Still, there are a few odd gaps in my filmography, and with a little help from our friends Google and IMDB, I was able to come up with a list of thirty movies that have somehow eluded me thus far. This is by no means an authoritative list - this compilation on IMDB is far more exhaustive - but it does give me a good starting point for doing some catching up.

  • The Abyss (1989)
  • Army of Darkness (1992)
  • Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1978)
  • Contact (1997)
  • The Dark Crystal (1982)
  • Donnie Darko (2001)
  • Dune (1984)
  • Escape from New York (1981) and Escape from L.A. (1996)
  • Gattaca (1997)
  • The Goonies (1985)
  • The Last Starfighter (1984)
  • Legend (1985)
  • Logan's Run (1976)
  • Mad Max (1979), The Road Warrior (1981), and Beyond Thunderdome (1985)
  • Metropolis (1927)
  • Minority Report (2002)
  • Never Let Me Go (2010)
  • Revenge of the Nerds (1984)
  • The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
  • Solaris (1972)
  • Solaris (2002)
  • Spaceballs (1987)
  • Time Bandits (1981)
  • Total Recall (1990)
  • Tron (1982) and Tron: Legacy (2010)
  • Willow (1988)


TV is easily my most significant area of gaps in terms of nerd culture. I think it's partially because of the amount of time that must be invested into a TV show in order to make it worthwhile, but I think it's in part because it is not that difficult to know the general direction of a show even without watching it. I have watched a lot of nerdy TV over the years, but I still have a few gaps despite my devotion to science fiction and general nerdiness.

Let's take a few moments to talk about the glut of superhero shows on television right now. I enjoy superheroes as much or more than the average person, but there are too many of them: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.; Agent Carter; Arrow; The Flash; Gotham; Heroes Reborn; and Supergirl are all on this year - and that's not counting the Marvel shows on Netflix - Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and the upcoming series Luke CageIron Fist, and The Defenders. I will admit that I'm slightly interested in FX's upcoming Legion, but that's primarily due to the involvement of Fargo's Noah Hawley, who has definitely proven himself with his first two seasons in the north midwest.

Although I did watch the first seasons of DD and JJ on Netflix, I have no intention of continuing with those series, as I just did not see the payoff being equal to the input of time. I'll wait until something really interesting comes along before devoting more attention to superheroes on the small screen.I know a lot of people thought that Jessica Jones filled that niche, but I thought it ended up becoming a little too superhero gimmicky near the end. At any rate, not watching these shows frees me up to pursue other nerdy television projects; I included them here as an aside to justify their non-inclusion on my larger list.

It is convenient right now that I don't have any ongoing nerdy shows that are taking my attention; in fact, the only show I'm watching in this oeuvre is Doctor Who, which will not return for its tenth series for awhile. I have a few on my radar to check out - namely The Man in the High Castle, the space opera The Expanse, the mini-series Childhood's End, and Orphan Black - but the absence of any dominant show at this point makes this a great time to fill in some of these gaps. I will finish some of these shows, but there are a few on this list that I include for the justification of why I probably (or definitely) will not pursue finishing them. At any rate, here is my list of main nerdy TV gaps, in chronological order of when the shows aired:

Classic Doctor Who - I have a friend who is methodically watching all of the old Who episodes and blogging about them, but I imagine the furthest I might go is to pick the highlights of his observations and then watch a few episodes here and there.

Star Trek: The Original Series - This is easily the most embarrassing gap on this list, since I was a Trekkie when I was a kid, but I am trying to rectify it. I am working my way through Season 2, but I still have two-thirds of this show to go; I gotta say, though, that it's slow going, but that Trek does make great background noise.

The Prisoner - At only seventeen episodes, this is probably the easiest one to knock off this list. It's more esoteric than the others, but it's unexpectedly foundational for a lot of shows that succeeded it, so I should probably watch it.

Monty Python's Flying Circus - The second most embarrassing admission on this list, but one that's easy to fix.

Blackadder - It's not science fiction, but this historical comedy definitely has a lot of crossover nerd appeal. I'll take care of this one after Python.

Max Headroom - This '80s cult favourite is another very short entry that it just seems like something that I should have seen. And hey, Matt Frewer!

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine - The absence of this show from my repertoire is odd, as I was a big Trekkie at the time it started. I think we didn't have cable for a year or two, or I just never got into it for some reason, but it is legitimately odd that I did not watch this show, especially when they started bringing over characters from Next Gen to the cast.

Babylon 5 - I have heard from fans of DS9 that B5 is the even better '90s space station TV series, but I doubt I'll have time for both. I might get to DS9 someday; I doubt I'll get to Babylon 5.

Star Trek: Voyager - This is another odd exception for me, as most of it aired while I was in high school and my first year of university, a period when I had more disposable time than any other period in my life. I think I can chalk this one up mostly to a lack of availability before DVDs and the internet were commonplace. I do remember watching the premiere and not really being interested, so maybe that had something to do with it, but it could also be that the show took a couple of seasons.

Star Trek: Enterprise - Another strange Star Trek gap in my repertoire, and arguably proof that I was not a Trekkie so much as I was a fan of The Next Generation. This one came while I was in school and also when I avoided TV due to some personal convictions, and I doubt that I will get around to watching it; there are, after all, three other Star Trek series (and the new one coming in 2017!) that will take priority over it in the queue. Then again, if any of them ever appeared on Netflix...

Battlestar Galactica - I very strongly considered watching the series for much of the time that it was on; at one point I even owned the entire series thanks to some nifty thrifting, but I sold it after I realized that I could just as easily spend that money on something like board games. There's a chance that this would be my next big project, but I think it would have to take mutual interest from my wife to make that happen. I was disincentivized to watch it after the reaction to the finale, but I should probably make it happen at some point.

Lost - I had taken a few years away from TV in the early aughts largely due to school and some personal conviction, but I had started to come back ever so slightly by the time Lost premiered in 2004. I was in university at the time, which was, oddly, a time when I did not watch much TV; I just had too much going on with classes and extra-curricular and life in general. But throughout its first two years, Lost was near the top of my list of shows to check out; it had, after all, concluded two critically acclaimed seasons and had already won an Emmy and captured the general zeitgeist and was right in that window of "I could catch up on this now and keep watching it for awhile". But then came Hiro, the cheerleader, HRG, and the rest of the Heroes, which became the nerdy show to watch (at least until the writer's strike halfway through Season 2 ended any leftover momentum the show might have had despite a very weak early second season). Between Heroes and the other shows taking my attention, I never got to the Island, and by the time I could have, it was too late.

Fringe - It seems that my limit is usually one nerdy show at a timed (mostly non-intentionally, but still a factor), so not watching Fringe was more of a by-product of watching Chuck. Fringe is only 100 episodes, so it's possible that I might get around to it, but for now it's on this list.

Game of Thrones - I have written before about why I'm not a Thronie, but I'll reiterate it here in brief. I thought about watching it when the show first premiered - even until the end of the second season - but I hit a point at which I decided that I'm not going to watch it. I'm sure it's fascinating and all, but I'm not a huge fantasy guy, and I have read too many stories about problematic issues of violence toward women to make me want to watch it.

The Walking Dead - Look, I enjoyed World War Z - the book first, and then the movie - and I appreciate movies like 28 Days LaterShaun of the Dead and Zombieland. But this whole ongoing zombie apocalypse obsession baffles me, and I don't get how people immerse themselves in it so entirely.

Video Games

I have been playing video games for almost three decades (!) since the early days of the NES. I started on the Intellivision with classics like Night Stalker, Lock 'N Chase, and Astrosmash. I fondly remember exploring the overworld of The Legend of Zelda and making painstakingly detailed maps on graph paper with my dad when I was seven or eight. I have had every home Nintendo console, and I spent a lot of time in my twenties collecting retro games (many of which I have now been able to sell with a higher return to fund my board gaming in my thirties). But despite my lifelong pursuit of video games, I still have a few inexplicable gaps in my repertoire over the years.

1. Anything XBox and Playstation - If it was released on a non-Nintendo platform after 2000, it's a gap for me. Sure, I'm familiar enough with the tropes and basic concept of the paragons of the games of the new millennium, but I'm not intimately acquainted with the characters and stories of so many of the most popular nerd series of the past several years. HaloFalloutMass EffectGears of WarBioshockElder Scrolls - missed out on them all. There's an argument to be made that I should try to catch up on at least some of those titles, but I'll be honest: it's not going to happen, and I'm okay with that.

2. Pokémon - Pikachu and company are in the midst of celebrating their 20th anniversary this year, and I continue to be bewildered by the popularity of these little monsters. Let me elaborate: it's not that I do not understand why they are popular - after all, noted nerd hero Malcolm Gladwell included his observations about their "stickiness" in The Tipping Point - it's just that they have absolutely no appeal to me. I was thirteen when Pokémon Red, Blue, and Yellow were released, so I think I was just a couple of years past the point at which they would have really drawn me in, which is evidenced by the number of friends I have in their late twenties for whom Pokémon was a huge influence. And honestly, I don't feel much need to catch up on them now.

3. Role-playing games - I was a child of the '80s, which meant that my mother's parenting was significantly influenced by some of the trends of the time, one of which was the fearmongering of Reagan-era American Evangelicals about the evils of Dungeons and Dragons. Though I concede that my mom had some meaningful points and that there was some validity to elements of her argument, it remains that anything fantastical that involved magic and role-playing elements was not allowed in my house, so I have some distinct gaps in my gaming repertoire over the years and I do not typically have much desire to pursue those genres now because I did not play them then.

Sure, I have played every Legend of Zelda game and Super Mario RPG - one of my all-time favourites - but there are myriad games that I did not play, including games from series such as Dragon Warrior, Final Fantasy, Secret of Mana, Golden Sun, and Fire Emblem, among many others. I'm trying to make up some of those gaps by playing through games like Earthbound and Chrono Trigger, which are admittedly far less fantastical than their counterparts, but I doubt that I will ever truly embrace the fullness of video game RPGs.

4. Real-Time Simulations (RTS) and MMORPGs - I was a console gamer, so I did not end up playing a lot of these kinds of games, since they did not make a lot of appearances outside of PC gaming in the early years. I'm aware of WarcraftStarCraftAge of Empires, and many more - I just never played them. I played a few multiplayer rounds of Empires: Dawn of the Modern World over the years, but I usually lost in fantastic fashion mostly because I could not figure out how to make everything work. In the same way, I never got into Massive Multiplayer Online RPGs, many of which emerged from early RTS games.

5. Civilization (and other 4X games) - I have started learning how to play 4X board games, but I never played them in video game form. The idea of sprawling empires and technology trees and combat systems still remains somewhat confusing to me, but I am gaining some familiarity with the conventions of the genre.

Tabletop Games

I have only been intentionally pursuing board games as a hobby for five years, so I do have several significant gaps in my tabletop gaming. I alluded to several items in this list my post about my experience playing Twilight Imperium a few weeks ago, but I thought that it might be useful to expand on those brief mentions with some further comments here.

1. Magic: The Gathering - MTG was one of the earliest examples of the new nerdy wave of board gaming in the mid-90s, and it has inarguably been one of the most influential games of the last two decades of gaming, to the point that even the term "tap" (meaning "to incline a card 90 degrees to indicate that it has been played") has been trademarked and cannot be used in other rulebooks. I have never played it or any of its ilk that involve card collecting and/or deck construction, and I don't see that I would, other than perhaps to become more familiar with its basic gameplay and strategy. A game like Magic requires such singular focus to succeed because of the breadth and depth of its content that it seems unlikely that I would be able to find the time to play it adequately.

2. Dead of Winter and zombie games - Dead of Winter is by far the most popular of the recent zombie craze of board games (Number 22 on BGG), but it is far from the only one, as it seems like every other month that there is a new zombie game with miniatures on Kickstarter, with no signs of abating. As I mentioned earlier, I'm not a huge zombie fan; I can appreciate it, but I just don't quite get how ubiquitous it is (kind of like the whole Cthulhu thing - it has just taken over board gaming in the past decade). I'm sure I will play Dead of Winter at some point, but I have not made zombie games a huge priority.

3. Miniatures - This is one part of the tabletop world that I just do not get at all, as miniatures are an entirely different world from tabletop games. I have friends who are into Warhammer 40,000 or one of the other popular miniature games, and I can see why it appeals to them; it just holds no appeal for me. The time, cost, and energy input are incredibly high, and you have to spend a lot of time on your minis in order to justify any of those inputs. Definitely not for me.

4. RPGs - Since role-playing video games were out when I was a kid, tabletop RPGs were definitely out. I do think it would be interesting to try to play one of the hybrid RPG/Euro tabletop games, but I doubt I will ever get into RPGs as a game format. They require a lot of time and continuity, neither of which I tend to have; for now, I'll have to content myself with rewatching that Season 2 episode of Community for my Dungeons and Dragons

5. Fantasy games and dungeon crawlers - As I have mentioned before, I'm not much of a fantasy guy in any form of media, and board games are no different. I do own Lords of Waterdeep, which has a fantasy setting within the Dungeons and Dragons world, but it is a fantasy game in presentation only; at its core, it is a tried and true worker placement game, and it does not really fit the mold of fantasy games. There are a whole series of board games set in the D and D world, as well as many others with various assortments of ogres, trolls, wyverns, witches, warlocks, and the myriad other fantastical races available, but I have not played many (well, barely any) of them. There's a whole linguistic and thematic subset of terms and information to master here, and although I'm somewhat aware of the mechanical and thematic conventions of the genre, I doubt I will ever really pursue this branch of gaming.

Reflections and Realizations

Well, that certainly was exhaustive - and you're probably almost as exhausted after reading this post as I was in compiling it. As I mentioned earlier, I have had hints of a lot of this post in posts in previous years (sometimes with carryovers of the same lists), so a lot of my work was spent in collating and collecting different thoughts into this one post. As I was going through this process, I ended up with a few realizations and reflections on my nerdiness and on this entire enterprise.

You might assume that I felt a lot of guilt or shame as I discovered more and more gaps in my nerdiness, and that this has destroyed any nerd street cred I may have once had. Although I was initially feeling some of that reticence in even sharing these lists for those reasons, I realized that I don't have much of which I should be ashamed. (There are, of course, a couple of glaring omissions, but I admitted those at the time I discussed them.)

I am proud of my current nerdiness, and I have mostly come to peace with at least some of the gaps that exist. I wrote a lot of this post by way of explanation, rather than justification, and I am comfortable with most of my level of nerdiness, gaps and all. And I do not necessarily feel the need to have to fill them on my own, as I have friends who fill almost each one of these gaps. Thanks to the internet, I have connections with masters of each of these areas - science fiction and fantasy literature, movies, certain TV shows, video games, and board games - and ways to access and interact with their geeky exploits, many of which outstrip my own.

A Gateway into Geekery

I also recognize that I am somewhat of a gateway into geekery for a lot of my friends and community, particularly the people who are less inclined to this end of the pop culture spectrum. Though I cannot speak authoritatively into every nerdy area (as my gaps would attest), I would consider myself to be significantly advanced in the spectrum as a whole, and I can help point people in the right direction. To return to Gladwell's The Tipping Point, I tend not to be a maven (with knowledge) or salesman (who can convince others), but rather a connector, who builds a network and whose main skill set is helping people connect with those around them. There are, of course, many areas in which I do have extensive knowledge and in which I am functionally a maven, but I prefer my role as connector.

It's not a dissimilar position to what I do within the context of the church - though I am not a theologian or a missiologist or a pastor myself, I know enough of the whole picture to help guide people into at least a beginning understanding of some of the finer points of each of those areas. I may not have the specific depths of each of those areas, but I know enough of the breadth and have enough depth in enough areas to justify having a meaningful voice in the conversation. I acknowledge those gaps as well, and if anything, having those gaps makes me a stronger person, as I have to rely on those around me to fill in those gaps.

An Inci-Dental Conclusion

Perhaps the best analogy I have considered is my missing tooth. I had one of my back right molars pulled about two and a half years ago because it was causing me increasing amounts of pain. My dentist gave me a couple of options for filling in the gap, including getting a flipper denture or getting an implant. I vacillated on the options, largely because of possible cost, and I ended up deciding not to get either, mostly because (I thought) my coverage had run out and I did not want to pay that much money for something mostly cosmetic.

And now, I've just become used to having that gap in my mouth; it doesn't really affect my smile or my chewing ability, and although there is a possibility that I may have some slight effect on the neighbouring teeth, it's not really enough to worry about. It's likely that at some point someday that I will find a way to have that gap filled, but it's not a huge priority either in terms of time or finances.

In the same way, I have become used to many of these geek gaps. Sure, there are a few that I bemoan and lament and am actively trying to fill, but I'm mostly just aware that the gaps are there and that there's not a lot of damage being done. I'm content to let those gaps stay there and to work around them for now, and I'm sure I'll get to them at some point sooner or later. They don't really affect me much, and I'm happy with who I am.

tl;dr I'm a nerd, I have a lot of gaps in my experience of nerd culture, and I'm okay with that because I have friends who can fill in those gaps and because the existence of those gaps doesn't really affect me too much.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Favourite filler games

A true board gamer is prepared for all possibilities: your game took shorter than you expected; there is a change in expected personnel at a games night, like someone cancelled at the last minute, an extra player showed up, or someone is running late; or even that you have an unexpected wait of half an hour in line. The solution to all of these situations - other than our omnipresent smart phones - is having an accessible and meaningful selection of "filler games" - games that are quick, fun, easy to teach and to transport. They range from small microgames of a few cards to games with surprising complexity, but they all should meet most of several basic requirements:

1. Able to be played quickly (say, over a 30 minute lunch break);
2. Simple enough to teach and learn that new players can enjoy it immediately (within five minutes), play it again with little review, and feel like they can master some kind of strategy;
3. Easily portable and/or packable;
4. Relatively inexpensive ($25 or under) with a high enjoyment-to-cost ratio;
5. Interesting and deep enough to warrant and demand further and repeated plays.

Requirements 3 (portability) and 4 (cost) are somewhat debatable in some contexts, as many of the entries I have included do not fit one or the other (or both) of those two requirements - particularly in the dexterity category - but I have still included them as a general guideline.

A significant portion of my board game collection consists of  games that could be considered to be "filler games" of some form or another. For a lot of my early years of board gaming, I played a lot of these kinds of games because they were easily portable (I did, after all, move a lot over my university years), easy to teach, and - perhaps most importantly when I was a student - cheap. Now, I often end up playing many of them between larger games, at the end of a more weighty game, or just in the circumstance that it's the best fit for the number and style of players present.

In the past couple of years, I have acquired a number of filler games, largely through Kickstarter, as I find it much easier to pledge a lower amount of money for a smaller game (with a correspondingly lower shipping rate, of course). I have ended up thinking about filler games a lot lately for a couple of reasons: one of my favourite games - The Castles of Burgundy - is in the process of being translated into two different filler games, one with cards and one with dice (which is interesting, since dice were the core mechanism in the original game); and two, I have resumed working again on my own filler game, Pot o' Gold, with the second round of play testing set to commence very soon.

There are many different styles and levels of filler games, and any online board game review site has its own commentary on "the best filler games". (Here are links to some of my favourites: Clever Move GamesI Slay The DragonBoard Game QuestNonsensical Gamers; and GFB Robot.) So, then, I suppose it only makes sense that I throw my hat in the proverbial ring and create my own list of Favourite Fillers. I have included my personal Favourite Filler Games at the end of this post, but I wanted to do a bit more than that, so I went through my collection, my wish list, my list of games to play, lists of games I should consider playing, and my list of games I have played to make a more authoritative and definitive list for myself of filler games.

I decided to pattern it somewhat on my post about my favourite games of 2015 by breaking my rather lengthy compiled list into categories and then deciding from there. For each category, I have listed my current favourite and runner-up (all of which are in my collection currently), as well as the other games in my collection, the games on my wish list (which are assumed to have been played unless otherwise indicated), other games I have played in that category, the games that I want to play, games I might play at some point (ie. other possible entries in that grouping), as well as something about which I am excited in the future (usually a game being released), in addition to a short reflection on each category.


Current favourite: Codenames
Runner-up: Anomia

For much of my life, these types of games were my go-to, as they were the choice of my family growing up. As a result, you typically do not want to face off against me in any games that involve manipulation of information. Although they are often contained in larger boxes, they still tend to be fillers, as they are incredibly easy to learn and to play, which is part of what makes them so ubiquitous. I own a number of them for this very reason, and they do provide a refreshing break from the usual strategic fare.

In my collection: Apples to Apples; Dixit; Geek Out!; Knee Jerk; Snake Oil; Things; True Colors
On my wish list: Wits and Wagers
Also played: (among many others) Buzzword; Cinelinx; Mad Gab; Outburst; Scattergories; Taboo
Want to play: Cash N Gun$; Concept; Knee Jerk; Word on the Street
Looking forward to: Knit Wit

Social Deduction

Current favourite: Spyfall
Runner-up: Eggs and Empires

Social deduction games have been all the rage over the past few years, and it seems like there are always new entries popping up all the time. I really enjoy these kinds of games, to a point; I think that point depends entirely on the personnel involved in the game, and whether there is player elimination involved. Bang! was big in my circles for a long time, but I finally got rid of my copy because I almost always was eliminated first, and that's a big disincentive for me. I'm mostly happy with my current collection, though it's always possible that one or two new ones might sneak into my repertoire.

In my collection: Antidote; Coup with Reformation; Love Letter; The Resistance (with expansions)
On my wish list: Love Letter: Batman
Also played: Bang!; Ultimate Werewolf
Want to play: Mascarade; The Resistance: Avalon
Might play: Cockroach Poker; Saboteur; Saboteur 2
Looking forward to: Secret Hitler

Tricks and Trumps

Current favourite: Rook
Runner-up: Kaiser

First of all, I thoroughly enjoy that some of you are seeing that heading as "tricks and drumpfs" thanks to John Oliver's video of a month ago. Second, anyone outside of Saskatchewan might be wondering what Kaiser is other than a type of bun or a dude in Germany during World War I. At any rate, there are many variations on these kinds of games that involve taking tricks and calling trumps; the Opinionated Gamers are currently running an interesting series on some of the most significant entries into this genre. These are fillers because they can be played as much or as little as desired, and they usually require little time for instruction. I have a surprising number on my "want to play" and "might play" list, but that's likely because they tend to be so easy to learn and play.

Also in my collection: Canasta Caliente; Corsari; Five Crowns; Wizard; Xactika
On my wish list: Haggis
Also played: Hearts and probably more I can't think of right now.
Want to play: The Game: Spiel...; Gang of Four; Haggis; Insidious Sevens; Karma; Tichu
Might play: Chronicle; Koi Pond; Lords of Scotland
Looking forward to: Playing more Rook, since it's my wife's favourite game.


Current favourite: Dutch Blitz
Runner-up: Deluxe Pit

You might notice that this is by far the shortest list in this post and that I just don't have many of these games in my repertoire or my collection. I just don't tend to gravitate toward them, and I tend not to own them. That said, I can see that I need to expand my knowledge of this genre, especially for playing with kids.

Also in my collection: N/A
On my wish list: N/A
Also played: Pass the Pigs
Want to play: N/A
Might play: Animal Upon Animal; Caveman Curling; Click Clack Lumberjack; Elk Fest; Flick 'Em Up; Flower Fall; Jungle Speed
Looking forward to: Trying more of these types of games in the future.


Current favourite: Red7
Runner-up: Chrononauts

This is an admittedly broad conglomeration of a number of types of games that all loosely fit into the mold of "take an action and then something happens". They range from fairly simplistic to somewhat complex for what they are (Chrononauts), but they tend to be able to be reduced to that relatively straightforward formula.

Also in my collection: 6 Nimmt!; Early American Chrononauts; Fluxx; Get Bit!; Mille Bornes; Monty Python Fluxx; No Thanks!; Parade; Quiddler; Set; Tsuro
On my wish list: Batman Fluxx
Also played: Bang! The Dice Game; Dig Down Dwarf; Epic Spell Wars...; Guillotine; Monopoly Deal; Phase 10; Scrabble Slam!; Sequence; Skip Bo; Spite and Malice; That's Life!; Trainmaker; Uno; Zombie Dice
Want to play: Hey, That's My Fish!; Oh My Goods!; Seven 7s
Might play: Can't Stop; Carcassonne: The Dice Game; Deep Sea Adventure; Escape! The Curse of the Temple; Incan Gold; Swamped; We Didn't Playtest This At All
Looking forward to: OctoDice

2 Player

Current favourite: Patchwork
Runner-up: Battle Line

I was fascinated when I recently counted the number of 2P-only games in my collection and I found out that around 10% of my collection consisted of games (and expansions) for only two players. I think I'm going to back off on that number a bit and trade a few away, but a number of these games are keepers within my collection. Note that I have also included some 2P games in the "complex" section later on, so this list is only the 2P games that are much more like true fillers.

Also in my collection: Blokus Duo; Eminent Domain: Microcosm; Hive; Hive Pocket; Jaipur; Lost Cities; Star Realms
On my wish list: N/A
Also played: N/A
Want to play: ...and then...we held hands; Balloon Cup; Morels; Tides of Time
Might play: Fjords
Looking forward to: Finding a copy of Balloon Cup in a thrift store sometime...


Current favourite: Splendor
Runner-up: Kingdom Builder

This is perhaps unsurprisingly the biggest section in my collection as well as my plays, but it makes sense, as these games are all very accessible, which makes them easy to play, while providing at least some modicum of strategy as well. Most of these games are a lot of fun, and many of my favourites fall into this category.

Also in my collection: Blokus; Bohnanza; Burgoo; Coin Age; Coloretto; Fidelitas; Forbidden Island; Fuzzy Tiger; Hanabi; King of Tokyo; Mine! All Mine!; Paperback; Sushi Go!; Tokaido; Temporum; This Town Ain't Big Enough for the 2-4 of Us
On my wish list: Between Two Cities; Biblios; Flip City; Gravwell; Isle of Trains; Machi Koro (Deluxe); Medieval Academy; Yardmaster
Also played: Bomb Squad; Camel Up; Evil Baby Orphanage; Family Business; Gloom; Isle of Skye; Loot; Lucca Citta; Master of Rules; Smash Up; Split; Timeline
Want to play: Biblios Dice; Burgoo; Coin Age; Cosmic Run; For Sale; Ingenious; Lanterns: The Harvest Festival; Mine! All Mine!; Wasabi!
Might play: Bomb Squad Academy; Las Vegas; Liar's Dice; Yardmaster Express
Looking forward to: Fresco: The Card Game; Thief's Market


Current favourite: Fleet
Runner-up: Citadels

"Strategic" is an admittedly poor moniker for a group of games, but it seemed appropriate enough for this group that still fit all of the criteria of "filler" but that provide significantly more strategic play than the family group of games. They take a little more input to learn, teach, and play, but they arguably have more payoff when you do if you like these sorts of games (which I do, of course).

Also in my collection: Fleet Wharfside; Friday (a solo game!); Harbour; Pandemic: Contagion; Tiny Epic Galaxies
On my wish list: Artifacts, Inc.; Blueprints; Great Heartland Hauling Co.
Also played: Barons; Dominion; Tiny Epic Kingdoms
Want to play: Arboretum; Eight Minute Empire / Legends; The Grizzled; Jump Gate; Nations: The Dice Game; Roll Through the Ages: The Bronze Age; Roll Through the Ages: The Iron Age; Tiny Epic Defenders; Tiny Epic Western; Traders of Osaka; Vault Wars; Xenon Profiteer
Might play: Pocket Imperium
Looking forward to: Castles of Burgundy: The Card Game


Current favourite: 7 Wonders
Runner-up: Race for the Galaxy

The last two groups are not really fillers by nature, but they can fill that function once you are familiar with how they play. They are significantly strategic and require much more input to learn and to play than even the strategic fillers, and their inherent complexity is largely what limits their classification as true filler games. With that said, several of these games are among my all time favourites both in desire to play and number of plays, and I continue to find myself gravitating toward these kinds of games more than almost any other kind, period.

Also in my collection: Eminent Domain; Glory to Rome; Innovation; Mottainai; San Juan
On my wish list: Impulse; Valley of the Kings
Also played: Arctic Scavengers
Want to play: Race for the Galaxy: Xeno Invasion
Looking forward to: Innovation Deluxe; Villages of Valeria

2P Complex

Current favourite: 7 Wonders: Duel
Runner-up: N/A

I chose to separate the two-player only complex games partially because there were enough to create another category and also because I found it interesting that most of the games I own in this category are on my list of games to sell or trade. As I have reflected on it, I think that it is likely because the input required to learn these games is not likely commensurate with the output of strategic enjoyment, and that I would almost always rather play other games with two players, including many of the games in the complex filler category.

Also in my collection: Le Havre: The Inland Port; Hera and Zeus; Province; Roma and Arena: Roma II; The Settlers of Catan: The Card Game
On my wish list: Agricola: All Creatures Big and Small
Also played: N/A
Want to play: Hera and Zeus; Province
Might play: Akrotiri; Jambo
Looking forward to: Finally playing Province

Conclusion: making peace with filler gaming

In case you were not counting (not that I expected anyone other than me to do so), that was a summary of 220 different games that could be considered fillers, of which I have played about two-thirds (139), with 81 yet to play - and I'm certain I left out a lot of filler games. The reason I went through my collection so exhaustively was partially because I was curious about how many games I own and/or have played are actually fillers, and I was both surprised and not surprised at my final count: 85 of 131 games in my collection (not counting expansions) are fillers of some sort. It should not come as a shock, then, that I am looking at trading away a number of these games, as there are conceivably more filler games in my collection than I can reasonably play on a semi-regular basis.

I have also realized through this activity just how much I really enjoy filler games. At first, I was a little sheepish at just how much fillers have dominated my experience, but then I began to see it as a positive. I have oriented my collection much more toward games with an easy entry point - even my more strategic games tend to be not as complex for learning and playing - and I have consciously gravitated toward games with a good cost-to-enjoyment ratio, which fillers tend to feature much more prominently. It is quite refreshing to be able to have a full game experience in a short amount of time, and that is perhaps part of the reason that I end up playing and owning many of these kinds of games. Fillers are a lot of fun, and I'm proud to feature many fillers in my collection.

Here are a few lists collated from the games listed in this post - the "tl;dr" section.

Top ten fillers to buy: Between Two Cities; Biblios; Blueprints; The Castles of Burgundy: The Card Game; Flip City; For Sale; Gravwell; The Great Heartland Hauling Co.; Machi Koro (Deluxe); Medieval Academy

Top ten fillers to try: Biblios Dice; Concept; For Sale; The Grizzled; Haggis; Hey, That's My Fish!; Jump Gate; Lanterns: The Harvest Festival; Morels; The Resistance: Avalon

Top ten strategic / complex fillers: 7 Wonders; 7 Wonders: Duel; Citadels; Eminent Domain; Fleet; Glory to Rome; Innovation; Race for the Galaxy; San Juan; Splendor

Five runners-up: Between Two Cities; Biblios; Harbour; Paperback; Tiny Epic Galaxies

And, to conclude, here are my top twenty (non-complex) filler games right now: Anomia; Bohnanza; Citadels; Codenames; Coloretto; Eggs and Empires; Fleet; Hanabi; Hive; Jaipur; King of Tokyo; Kingdom Builder; Lost Cities; Patchwork; Rook; Splendor; Spyfall; Star Realms; Sushi Go!; and Tokaido.

Friday, March 18, 2016

I Will Follow: Ranking U2's album openers

One of my favourite St. Patrick's Day traditions (along with wearing my sweater, listening to Thin Lizzy's "Whiskey in the Jar", and enjoying a Guinness) is to listen to U2 all day; granted, that could be true on many days other than the 17th, but I digress. I pulled out their best of compilation U218 Singles, and I was struck by a few things as I listened to the album. One, attempting to reduce U2's career (up to 2006) to sixteen songs (with two new tracks included) is a presumptively reductive enterprise; two, five of the eleven studio albums that had been released at that time were represented by either zero or one songs; and three, a quarter of the included tracks were featured as lead tracks on their respective albums.

I am writing this at a time when a lead track is almost an entirely foreign concept due to the shift from albums to songs through personal digital music collection; albums are still a thing - even for the iGeneration - but the concept of an album is not the same as it once was. At any rate, that was not the only time that U2 dealt with a shift in the way that people listened to albums, as it was arguably not until their seventh album - 1991's Achtung Baby - that the standard for listening shifted fully from LPs to CDs. That means, essentially, that for their first six albums, there were double the amount of de facto "lead tracks" - one for each side of the LP (or four in total in the case of the double LP Rattle and Hum). It amounts to little more than a side note here and a way to mention the absolute brilliance of "The Fly", the song that U2 has described as "the sound of us chopping down The Joshua Tree" and that serves as the lead track of Side 2 of Achtung Baby, which is I think in competition with Side 1 of The Joshua Tree for the best set of songs on a U2 album.

As a result of this thought process about lead tracks and U2, I am deciding to rank each of the tracks that U2 has used to begin each of their thirteen studio albums from my least to most favourite. The guiding question here is which song I would prefer to listen to out of all of the thirteen available, and I am confident in the list I have crafted. Although my personal preference is my primary method of ranking, I have also attempted to consider the song's musical, lyrical, and thematic explorations, its context within the album, and even its context within the greater U2 canon as factors in compiling my list; I have included those observations as as way to explain my ranking for each track.

13. A Sort of Homecoming (The Unforgettable Fire, 1984) - This was the one song that I didn't actually remember as leading off the album it came from as well as the one tune that I cannot remember. I had assumed that "Pride (in the Name of Love)" opened the album, as it is by far the most iconic song from that era of U2 and it also opened The Best of 1980-1990 album, but I was wrong. "A Sort of Homecoming" is a pleasant enough beginning bookend to the album, but it is by no means memorable, and it really only functions as an extended intro to "Pride" and a thematic and sonic counterpart to album closer "MLK".

12. Zooropa (Zooropa, 1993) - Zooropa is a significantly understated album, and so is its eponymous lead track. Its intent is more to paint an ethereal soundscape for the rest of the album, which itself mostly meanders until "The Wanderer" its musically distinctive and thematically appropriate conclusion with Johnny Cash on vocals. There are a couple of great parts of the song, such as when Bono invokes familiar advertising jingles and untranslated German phrases in jarring juxtaposition, but it mostly fades away into a distant memory of a mostly forgotten album.

11. Discotheque (Pop, 1997) - Pop is one of the U2 albums that could be considered to be a "failure" of sorts; despite initial commercial success, the album is one of the worst-selling of U2's catalog (along with October), and few of the songs, including opener "Discotheque", are routinely featured in U2's concerts now. I enjoy the song well enough, but it doesn't quite work: it takes too long to get into the meat of the track, and it's a little underwhelming even when it finally hits its groove. Part of the problem, however, is not so much the song itself as it is this version of the song; U2 has since released half a dozen remixes of the track, any of which is better than the original and would have provided a better introduction to the album. The song, and to a large extent the album, have not aged well, although they are definitely better when the band has repurposed them into stripped-back versions in subsequent performances.

10. Helter Skelter (Rattle and Hum, 1989) - "This is a song Charles Manson stole from The Beatles. We're stealing it back." Subtlety has never been Bono's strong suit, but this was over the top, even for him. U2 was perhaps a tad ambitious in their attempt to discover everything about music in America and to recontextualize some classic songs (including some of their own), and they have definitely received their fair share of criticism for their efforts with the entire Rattle and Hum album and movie, both at the time and since. I tend to think that they needed to go through this process to get past where they were in their late twenties (!) and that a lot of the criticism is more of a bandwagon backlash against U2, but even I have to admit that the idea of the song is a little much, even if the song itself is actually a lot of fun and a perfectly serviceable cover of a classic track.

9. No Line on the Horizon (No Line on the Horizon, 2009) - In the tradition of Zooropa, Horizon's opening track is more of an attempt to establish mood and character for the album; also like Zooropa, this is a more understated album in many ways, although this album feels different because it was not following in the immediate footsteps of an impressive creative accomplishment, as Zooropa was conceived and recorded in the midst of the bombast and spectacle of the ZooTV tour supporting Achtung Baby. "No Line" does introduce the themes and conceit of the album well, but I'm usually just waiting for it to finish so I can get to "Magnificent", so this ranking seems about right.

8. Zoo Station (Achtung Baby, 1991) - I was surprised to find that the lead track from my favourite U2 album - 1991's Achtung Baby - ranked this low on my list."Zoo Station" is a great track in and of itself, but I do not feel that I really understood its brilliance until I saw it live (quite unexpectedly) on the Vertigo Tour in 2005. I had always seen it as little more than an introduction to Achtung Baby's killer second track "Even Better than the Real Thing", but it does have a life and identity of its own. That said, I think that "Real Thing" is the better opener of the two, and I'm glad that the show I saw in Seattle on the U2 360 tour started with that track. Nevertheless, you should give another listen to "Zoo Station" - consider its position here an indication of the greatness of the remaining tracks rather than a sign of a bad track in and of itself.

7. I Will Follow (Boy, 1980) - "I Will Follow" is the first track off of the band's first full album, Boy, and it still holds up over three-and-a-half decades later. It's decidedly more immature than anything else the band has released, though it should be noted that they were teenagers when they wrote it. It is a very simple song, but it is nevertheless effective and a piece of perfect pop punk. All the pieces of U2 are here, and they work together well even at such a young age.

6. Gloria (October, 1981) - Though the rest of the band's early October album is mostly forgettable, "Gloria" is a standout track, and one that I would rank among the best "forgotten gems" of U2's catalog (a compilation of which could easily form another post, and might yet someday). I still remember my reaction at the Vertigo Tour show in Vancouver when the band finished their opening run of four songs ("City of Blinding Lights", "Beautiful Day", "Vertigo", and "Elevation" - wow, what a quartet!), paused for a moment, and then started into the opening chords of "Gloria", at which point I lost my mind; the headline of the Vancouver Province the next day echoed my sentiments: "Oh my God! They played Gloria!" It's almost painfully earnest in its zeal and simplicity, but it's so genuine and fascinating both as a piece of that period of their lives, but also as a sign of the art that was to come in the future. As a side note, I find it interesting that the band picked this track to open their live 1983 concert recording Under a Blood Red Sky over the much more iconic "Sunday Bloody Sunday", although "Sunday" opened up Side 2 of the record, which to me shows that it is worthy of attention as a great album opener.

5. Sunday Bloody Sunday (War, 1983) - I bet you can hear that opening drum riff now: "dudda-dudda-dud, dud, dud, dudda-dud, dud, dudda-dud, dud, dudda-dudda-dud, dud, dud, dudda-dud, dud, dudda-dud, dud", immediately before Edge's jangling guitar and Bono's pained intonations join in. It is arguably the most instantly iconic song U2 has ever written, and the fact that it remains as culturally poignant now as it did over thirty years ago is testament to just how incredible this song really is. I particularly enjoy using it when I teach the story "The Sniper", especially because I almost invariably have students who comment that they will now start listening to U2, who they had previously thought of as that band that sold out to Apple. Speaking of which...

4. The Miracle (of Joey Ramone) (Songs of Innocence, 2014) - I know that this song has a mostly negative association after the band infiltrated everyone's iTunes and seemed like corporate shills for Apple, but take a step back for a moment and consider the song on its own. It has everything you want in a U2 song - especially a lead track: anthemic sing-along vocals, an iconic rhythm, a killer guitar riff, an understated though necessary underlying bass line, and one of the best choruses the band has ever written. Plus, it just flat-out rocks: this is the work of artists who are masters of their craft, and it's hard to believe that after so many albums and being in their mid-50s that they can still generate a song like this, a full decade after they released...

3. Vertigo (How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, 2004) - "Some, two, three, fourteen"? Bono's intentional mangling of Spanish aside (or perhaps as inspired by alcohol by Bono's own admission), "Vertigo" is, dare I say, a modern rock classic. It is the essence of U2 distilled and produced to the hilt for three minutes and eleven seconds, and it is arguably the best "rock song" the band has ever written. Bono, at the time overexuberantly promoting the song, called "Vertigo" the "first song off our first album", and it is easy to see why - it has the braggadocio of a band that believes that this is the best song they have written, but it simultaneously contains the zeal of an artist desperately trying to prove themselves to their audience. I suppose it makes sense, as U2 was really trying to prove that their return to form with their previous album, All That You Can't Leave Behind, was not a fluke, and that they were still relevant for the next generation. They did, they are, and this oddball combination of religious allusion, rock cliches, and one of the band's hookiest choruses will live on for a long time - even if the rest of the album was not nearly as stellar.

2. Beautiful Day (All That You Can't Leave Behind, 2000) - I don't think we have U2 today if we didn't have "Beautiful Day" when we did; U2 needed a triumphant anthem to announce the end of their experimental electronic phase in the 1990s, and "Day" was exactly the song for which our hearts ached at the turn of the millennium. It is thunderous and yearning while also being humble and understated, thus demonstrating the continuing contradiction of the band. It contains what is arguably the best bridge the band had written ("see the world in green and blue..."), and it has become an anthem for Millennial non-ironic positivity in a post 9/11 world, as demonstrated in the best Super Bowl halftime show of all time.

1. Where the Streets Have No Name (The Joshua Tree, 1987) - No one should be surprised at this selection, as this is my all-time favourite U2 song: I used it at my wedding, I imagine that it will be used at my funeral, and I have cried, rejoiced, and felt the Spirit move in its midst more times than I can count over the past fifteen years. It is a song that famously almost wasn't, as producer Brian Eno apparently had to be physically restrained from entirely erasing the masters after the band just could not get it to work. And, to be honest, it probably should not work: it has too long of an instrumental introduction; its subject is vague and non-specific; and it arguably does not reach the emotional apex that a pop song usually needs to reach in order to succeed. That said, each of those things have always been a strength of the song, and they have enabled U2 to make this one of the most transcendent songs of the modern pop era and of my life.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

It's a-me, Mario: ranking the Mario franchises

Today is March 10, also known as "Mario Day" because of how the date resembles the name of the mustachioed saviour of the Mushroom Kingdom when it is written out (MAR10). The day is also the start of a fun week streak of days that includes Pi Day, the Ides of March, Free Ice Cream Cone Day at Dairy Queen, and St. Patrick's Day, as well as the first round of March Madness; what a great month. Mario has been an iconic cultural figure for three and a half decades, and he is inarguably one of the most recognizable mascots on the planet. He has also been a constant presence in my own life, back to when I first encountered his frustratingly limited jump skills in the original Super Mario Bros. when I was a young child.

I cannot begin to estimate the number of hours I have spent with Mario in my lifetime, except to say that it must be in the thousands when I consider all of the games I have played with this popular plumber. Not only has he been featured in over two hundred games - just look at this list on Wikipedia - but by my count, there are almost as many individuated franchises with Mario and/or characters who originated in the series as there are games in other popular Nintendo franchises (Metroid has twelve, The Legend of Zelda has twenty, and Kirby has twenty-four, for three notable examples).

The sheer scope of the number of Mario games made even the process of considering an angle for this post daunting. Just under two years ago, shortly after I finished playing through Super Mario 3D World, I encountered a similar conundrum when I thought about writing a post ranking all of the power-ups in the main Mario series. I ended up ranking the Mario platform games by their power-ups, rather than exhaustively attempting to rank the power-ups themselves; for the record, I think my ranking holds up fairly well, except I would have ranked the original Super Mario Bros. a few spots higher and Super Mario 3D World a couple of spots lower.

There are so many ways I could go with this post that to narrow it down to one particular angle seemed to be too reductive initially, but I ended up deciding to rank the different Mario series in order to determine which of the iterations of Mario had the greatest appeal for me. My division of games in a series might seem a little arbitrary, but I considered games in the same spirit and with similar gameplay to be a series. There were some very easy delineations, but also some that were more nuanced (such as dividing the Mario sports into several series or the "Super Mario" series into separate franchises). And, of course, an endeavour like this has to begin with a preemptive explanation of the guidelines of the process, as well as the myriad caveats and exclusions to the discussion.

Guidelines for ranking and inclusion

The fundamental question I am attempting to answer here is "if I had to pick only one Mario series to play for the rest of my life, which would I choose?", with the intent that I would choose a higher-ranked series over any ranked below it. There could, of course, be exceptions for certain games within a series, but I'm considering the series as a whole. I didn't create a rubric for comparing the different series, but I considered criteria such as replayability, innovation, play control, and fun in creating my ranking. I'm not surprised at my rankings, but I was somewhat surprised to see how certain styles of series grouped together naturally.

Exclusions from the list:
  • Games or series that include Mario as a featured character but that do not feature his signature move set and/or character traits, including: Donkey Kong, Mario vs. Donkey Kong, Dance Dance Revolution: Mario Mix, and Nintendo Land.
  • Games or series in which Mario is reduced to a cameo. This includes many sports and puzzle games in which Mario appears - especially in the early days of the NES - but it continues up to somewhat current releases.
  • Spinoffs featuring characters from the Marioverse, such as Luigi, Wario, Peach, Yoshi, or Toad.
  • Educational and/or other non-typical games such as Mario Paint, Mario is Missing!, Mario's Time Machine, and, of course, the immortal Hotel Mario for the Philips CD-i.
  • Super Smash Bros. I know that the SSB games feature Mario and his compatriots prominently and their success is paramount to the franchise, but they are not Mario games, per se.
  • Dr. Mario. I know that the Doc is one of Mario's more iconic avatars - even to the point of being included as a separate character in the most recent Super Smash Bros. for Wii U and 3DS - but it does not feature Mario as more than a cameo.
  • Rereleases or repackages of earlier games such as the Super Mario Advance series. This is more pertinent to the game totals in parentheses than it is to the list itself, but I still thought it merited mentioning.

The rankings

10. Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games (5 games, 2007-2016): I barely included this series, as it barely features the characteristics of Mario and his friends other than using their likeness to sell competitive party-style Olympic sports games every two years. The big draw here, of course, was the initial crossover with long-time Sega rival Sonic the Hedgehog before he came to Super Smash Bros. Brawl, but the games still amount to little more than mini-games that could have starred any characters. That said, this series is still far superior to Izzy's Quest for the Olympic Rings, so there's that. (On a related side note, I think I have to devote a future post to exploring terrible 8-bit and 16-bit platform games featuring third party mascots at some point in the near future.)

9. Mario Sports (6 games, 2005-2011): It should come as little surprise that one of the lowest ranking franchises on this list is the glut of Mario sports titles from the Gamecube and Wii era, including: two soccer games ("Mario Strikers") in 2005 and 2007; two baseball games in 2005 and 2008; a basketball game released for the DS in 2006; and Mario Sports Mix, a catch-all including basketball, hockey, volleyball, and dodgeball, in 2011. There was also a cancelled volleyball/wrestling hybrid called Super Mario Spikers, the description of which makes me think that Nintendo made the right choice in not pursuing its release. These games are interesting mostly as a side note in the Mario ludography, and it's unclear if Nintendo is ever planning to return to the heyday of Mario sports titles.

8. Mario Golf (4 games, 1999-2014): I know that golf is also a sport, but these titles are different enough from the other sports titles for me to treat the Mario Golf series as its own franchise. I enjoyed the first Mario Golf game on Nintendo 64, but I have not played one since then. The series has also been oddly absent from the last two console generations (Wii and Wii U); maybe Nintendo thought that golf on Wii Sports was enough to satisfy golfers for the Wii, but that still does not explain the lack of a Mario Golf game for the Wii U. Well, it seems to me like this series is primed for a Mario Kart-style revival with a huge roster of golfers and old courses included.

7. Mario and Luigi (5 games, 2003-2016): The Mario and Luigi series is the spiritual successor to both Super Mario RPG and Paper Mario, but it has become its own entity. The games are entertaining action adventures with an RPG-style combat element, and all of the entries have been released on Nintendo's handheld systems. I have not played many games in the series, but I played all the way through Bowser's Inside Story several years ago, and I really enjoyed it.

I also recently played through the initial third or so of the 2014 release Dream Team and then sold the game. I don't know that there was much of a difference in the gameplay between the two titles even though they were released almost a decade apart. I think that my recent disinterest in the series is due more to my general lack of time to play games and the lack of interest in putting in the time for the eventual minimal payoff of completing the game. Dream Team had a fun story, but there was absolutely no challenge whatsoever in the game, and I had many other games that I wanted to play instead. That probably sums up why the Mario and Luigi series is my lowest-ranked non-sports Mario franchise.

6. Mario Tennis (6 games, 1995-2015): I played only one game in this series - Mario Tennis for the Nintendo 64 - but it was good enough to notch it up a spot or two on the list despite the lackluster reviews of the recent Ultra Smash for the Wii U. The N64 Mario Tennis had a great championship mode, interesting differences in modes of play, and a great roster of characters, including my two favourites from that game, Shy Guy and Waluigi (in his original appearance).

5. Mario Party (13 games, 1998-2015): Mario Party, the multiplayer celebration of mini-games, is the most board-game-like series I can think of in almost all of videogamedom, so I bet you're wondering why I, a fanatic board gamer, placed it this low in my list. I debated putting Mario Party both higher and lower, but I settled here, between the two active RPG series, for one main reason: despite the replayability factor of these games, I didn't really replay them. Although I have owned several games in the series (1 and 2 for the N64, 5 and 7 for the Gamecube, and 8 for the Wii), I have sold them all away largely because I realized that they would be worth more to me for the cash I got than for the actual amount I would play them. It's not that I didn't enjoy them; it's just that I knew that I would not pull them out to play when I have other multiplayer options that I would prefer (like Nintendo Land, Mario Kart 8, or Super Smash Bros., among others). 

With that said, I'm far from out on Mario Party as an idea; it's just that the two more recent releases have not been as strong, and I don't do a lot of that kind of multiplayer gaming right now anyway. But here's what Nintendo should do if they want to make all of the money with Mario Party for the NX: make it like Mario Kart 8 with high replayability, variation, and customizability. Include all of the characters from the series (24 from the Party games, but pulling in even more from fifty or so different playable characters that have been featured in various series). Feature all of the items and rule adaptations as unlockables (like the vehicle parts in Kart). Remake boards from previous Mario Party games and release some with the new game and some as DLC. How have they not done this yet? Nintendo, shut up and take my coins!

4. Paper Mario (6 games, 2000-2016): Paper Mario is easily the most unique series on this list, and it has changed significantly over the past decade and a half from an RPG action adventure style game on the first two entries to a more interactive episodic action game for the last two pre-2016 releases. I have played and enjoyed all four pre-2016 releases, but I have never replayed a game in the series. There is some legitimately fun gameplay here, as well as some great character development and comedic interactions, but there's also a decent amount of slog through various levels and "pick up and deliver" quests to bog down even an engaged gamer. I am, however, really interested in the new Wii U game Paper Mario: Color Splash, but I wouldn't be surprised if I played it, enjoyed it, and then never played it again, which is not the case with the series ranked above it.

3. Super Mario Bros. / Land / World / New Super Mario Bros. (14 games, 1985-2015): I could have divided this group into three separate series - Super Mario Bros./World, Super Mario Land, and New Super Mario Bros. but I decided to lump them all together. They incorporate similar gameplay - Mario makes his way through (usually eight) worlds of levels, each of which usually feature some kind of distinctive setting (ice, fire, underground, big enemies, desert, etc.) that in turn influences the levels within. The clincher in grouping these three decades of games together, however, was Super Mario Maker, the recent sandbox game that incorporates most of those styles into one game and that allows you to design your own levels in one of the formats and play levels that others have designed - like this one that asks an important question.

Considering how many classic moments are featured throughout these games, it might be surprising to see this group rank so low (if you consider third to be low). There are at least three all-time classic platformers in the bunch (Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Bros. 3, and Super Mario World), and even the New Super Mario Bros. series have given a lot of good memories to the overall series, but you will soon see why it ranked only third for me. Consider this ranking not to be about how not good these games are, but just how good the remaining games are.

2. Mario Kart (8 games, 1992-2014): Mario Kart has arguably been the most dependable franchise for Nintendo for over twenty years, as every console since the Super Nintendo other than the Game Boy (Color) and the Virtual Boy has had an iteration of Mario Kart (though there was one planned for the latter). Each console entry has improved on the previous generation, though Mario Kart 64 might still be my favourite for track selection and battle mode. The most recent entry, Mario Kart 8 for the Wii U, was very close to perfect, especially with the extra DLC: the track selection was incredible, the play control was very responsive, and the graphics were astonishing. There were, however, a couple of downsides, including about four other characters they should have included and a weak battle mode.

Much like with Mario Party, there are ways that I would suggest that Nintendo could improve with the next Mario Kart for NX. They could use the visual and gameplay style from MK8, but keep converting more retro tracks into the new gameplay. By my count, there have been 145 different tracks total in the series, with 48 of those (25 new and 23 repeats) being featured in Mario Kart 8, leaving 97 left to convert. I'm not sure how many of those 97 have been featured in earlier editions, but I do know that if Nintendo started releasing them in packs of 8 tracks each for $5 or $10 a pack that they could make a lot of money. Until then, I may just have to content myself with playing the originals - and I still have that goal of playing every new track in order in one day; I figure that it should take ten to twelve hours including breaks at roughly fifteen minutes per Cup and an hour per game.

1. Mario 3D (6 games, 1996-2013): The completely not surprising number one entry to this list, this might feature the best line-up of any game series ever: Super Mario 64 for the Nintendo 64; Super Mario Sunshine for the Gamecube; Super Mario Galaxy and 2 for the Wii; Super Mario 3D Land for the 3DS; and Super Mario 3D World for the Wii U. I cannot understate how completely mind-blowing Super Mario 64 was when it released two decades ago; the idea of Mario, the plucky platform plumber, making the smooth transition to a fully functional (though pixelated) 3D environment was unthinkable - at least until Nintendo did it with one of the greatest games ever. 64 still holds up twenty years and three generations later, and there is not a 3D platform game that does not owe a deep debt to Mario's adventures in the paintings in Peach's Castle.

After the delightful diversion of Sunshine - which I think is still underrated and highly innovative - the Big N did it again just over a decade later with Super Mario Galaxy (and its even better sequel) by completely revolutionizing graphics, gameplay, and control while still creating a quintessential Mario game. The first time I played through Super Mario Galaxy was in one extended sitting in which a friend and I alternated levels until we got to Bowser - but I knew I would have to go back and replay a lot of the levels to explore all of the secrets - which I did, at least until it came to going through every level a second time to get the more challenging second set of 120 stars. Galaxy 2 introduced even more power-ups and Yoshi to the world and made it better in almost every conceivable way.

But five years have lapsed since our last venture into the cosmos. 3D Land and 3D World were enjoyable enough additions to the series with flashes of the level of inspiration of their predecessors, but they were mostly accompanied by a feeling of "I'm glad to be playing Mario, but it's still not Galaxy 3/Universe". Still, there are reasons to hope: Super Mario Maker has shown that Nintendo is still committed to the series, and Shigeru Miyamoto himself - still guiding the process - has continued to insist that there is a next level for Mario. And after about another decade, it seems like we're primed for Nintendo to something completely revolutionary yet again on the NX. And now that someone has successfully rendered Mario in Unreal Engine 4, there are some real possibilities.

But wait: a new challenger approaches! We have a surprise twist - a tie for first!

1. (tie) Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars (1 game, 1996): This 1996 collaboration between Nintendo and Square Enix stands as the final entry in the great run of SNES RPGs, a list of which there are at least a half-dozen entries into the conversation of "greatest games of all time". I believe that the crowning achievement is Super Mario RPG, which ranks as one of my favourite games of all-time. I have played through the game every few years since its release, and I still enjoy it every time. I love the characters, old and new, hero and villain, playable and NPC: Mallow; Bowser as a reluctant hero; Peach as a killer with a frying pan; Geno; Croco; Boshi; Booster; Toadofsky; Frogfucius; Belome; Punchinello; the Axem Rangers; Smithy; and, of course, Culex.

I know that it might be considered a stretch to consider one game a series, particularly when Paper Mario was considered under the original title of Super Mario RPG 2, but this game is entirely singular from every other Mario game in its appearance, play, and appeal. It speaks to the enduring popularity of the game that Geno, who was only featured in this one game, was almost included as a playable character in the Nintendo flagship franchise Super Smash Bros. twenty years later (and is likely to be included in the future). I want to see a true sequel to Super Mario RPG more than any other game I can imagine, but only if it's worth the wait. I can only hope that the fact that Final Fantasy's Cloud was in Super Smash Bros. and that Nintendo and Square Enix are reported to be working together on projects on the NX is that there is even a slight possibility that we could return to this particular version of the world beyond the Mushroom Kingdom.

There you have it: my celebration of MAR10 Day 2016. In writing this post, I have made myself want to return to some of the simple gameplay of the series, so I imagine that I will spend some time revisiting some of these games over the next few weeks in light of this discussion. But my main hope is that by this time next year that I will be able to write about a fantastic new entry to the series on the Nintendo NX when it (likely) launches in time for the holiday season in 2016. Go, go, Mario! 

Monday, March 07, 2016

Ludological literacy

I had a game-changing experience (pun intended) recently when I finally (re-)played Twilight Imperium (Third Edition). TI3, as it is known, is an epic "4X" game of space conquest; the "X"s come from the concept of "explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate". Games of this genre tend to be very involved, and TI3 is no different, as the game is a full-day affair; even the set-up takes as long as many games might take on their own, and our game was still incomplete after six rounds and well over nine hours. The game involves nine different game mechanics (as listed on BGG), each of which has its own inherent complexities and strategies. There is resource management, inter-player negotiation, fleet development and dice-based combat, phase order selection, a technology tree, variable player powers, and a lot of random cards that can interfere with any and all of those aspects - and then there are expansions on top of it all.

It was my first time playing TI3 in eight years to the day (it was for the same friend's birthday both times), but this time went a lot smoother for me than my previous play. (In my previous play, I was the Emirates of Hacan, but this time I played as the L1Z1X Mindnet - a warlike equivalent of the Borg from Star Trek - for anyone who knows the game.) When I first played it back in 2007, I had no idea what I was getting into, and I barely grasped how the game worked, much less how to have any sort of strategy whatsoever. This time, I spent well over an hour reading through all of the rule books ahead of time, and I had a fairly good sense of the flow of the game as I began playing.

I was the only new player in a game with three seasoned veterans, so I had lost by halfway through the game after being ambushed by a card and then a surprise attack (well, it surprised me, at any rate), but at least I was able to process why I lost and what choices I could have made to improve on that play as we were playing the game, in addition to adapting some strategy to accommodate to the circumstances to be able to enjoy the last half of the game.

I came away feeling very tired from the entire experience, but it was (mostly) in a good way, as it was mostly just the exhaustion from having had to think so much and pay attention to so many things.  A first play is always challenging, and this game has so many ins and outs and what-have-yous that it is tiring just trying to keep track of everything that is going on. I had gotten frustrated with my obliteration by mid-game, but I was able to recover somewhat and end up only two Victory Points behind second place with 3 VP; it might not sound like much, but the winner had 8 VP on a 10 VP scale, so 3 is quite significant. Moreover, I felt like I had enough of a grasp of the basic flow and feel of the game that I could improve in a future play, particularly if that were to be within the next half-year or so (which is reasonable, given the scope and length of the game and how much it takes to play it) - and I would try it again.

The fact that I could even begin to consider strategizing in a game of this scope retrospectively impressed me, as I have had very little experience with 4X games or games with these kinds of mechanics either in video game or board game form throughout my lifetime. I didn't play Civilization or Age of Empires growing up, and in terms of board games, I have now played TI3 one and a half times, Eclipse twice, and Terra Mystica (which I know isn't a true 4X game, but it has a lot of similarities to the genre in style and scope) once, for a total of four recorded plays. That's not a lot of experience, but it's enough to start getting an idea of what I could and even should do when playing these kinds of games in the future.

Consider my experience playing another new game, Gold West, only a few days previous to my epic TI3 session. Gold West is much (much) simpler game that takes under an hour to play and only involves one or two mechanics (area control and a mancala mechanic for gaining and spending resources) and a few ways to score point. I managed to win the game, but even more significant to me than my victory (which, don't get me wrong, I still enjoyed) was that I felt like I really understood the game almost from the first play. I had a very strong sense of what would be good plays and how the game would flow, and I was confident that I had played as well as I could regardless of the end result.

Developing "ludological literacy"

As I reflected on these experiences, I began to realize how much "ludological literacy" - a basic familiarity with different types of games - that I have developed over the past few years. It makes sense that I should have developed this basic literacy, considering how much time and effort I have invested into board games over the past five years. Since December 2010, when I started recording my plays, I have recorded 1075 plays across 271 unique games, including six games that I have played at least 25 times, 27 games I have played at least ten times, and another fifteen games I have played at least five times; that, of course, is not counting the two decades of games that I played before I started tracking.

As one might expect with those stats in mind, I end up playing a lot of new games in my tabletop travels; since December 2014, I have averaged slightly more than two plays of new games (or expansions) per week, probably at an equal rate of learning from someone else's teaching and having to learn on my own from the rules and then learning as I teach. I have necessarily had to develop a literacy in learning new games as I outlined and codified in "The practice of playing new games", the final section of a post about my "Want to Play" games in June 2015. But as I have reflected further with these recent experiences, I have realized that there are certain truths about the development of ludological literacy that I have learned and that I wanted to outline here using my experience both as a gamer and as a high school English teacher. But before I can get into some of the specific facets of literacy in the realm of board gaming, there are a few fundamental points to understand about literacy development.

Fundamental concepts of literacy

A. Though there are benchmarks and standards at various levels, literacy tends to be a highly individuated process. Sure, parents and teachers generally start with phonics and phonetics and the alphabet and then move up to larger morphological and syntactic units when teaching kids to read, but there are so many ways in which reading does not progress in exactly that way, and there is certainly not any kind of blueprint as to how everyone progresses. Some learn to read quickly, others are slower and more methodical, and still others don't read at all until they do. Sometimes it is linear and predictable; sometimes it is much more idiosyncratic. At any rate, there are some standards that can (and usually must) be applied, but there is also a high variation at each level.

B. Literacy and fluency are not the same. I actually debated whether to call this post and concept "ludological fluency" or "ludological literacy", and it made me consider the differentiation between the two. In its simplest iteration, "literacy" is understanding what something means, whereas "fluency" is the ability to use your understanding of that meaning to a desired effect; perhaps it is the difference between merely understanding what happens in a novel rather than being able to analyze it, or then even to create your own novel using that understanding. It is, of course, more nuanced than that, but that's the core difference. For example, I am somewhat literate in French - though I would struggle to read a novel en francais, I could probably make my way through simpler stories - but I am nowhere near fluent. I opted for "literacy" in this case partly because of the alliteration, but also because I think that literacy is a much more achievable goal than fluency (which I will discuss later).

C. There are many levels of literacy, ranging from incredibly basic to much more sophisticated. We use a standard of "Grade 12 English" as our mark for literacy, but there are significant variations therein. I am not attempting to craft a scope and sequence for board game literacy, so I am using the term "literacy" to imply the basic functioning of familiarity with playing games. For the purposes of this analogy, I'm assuming that the foundational game literacy required to then engage with this discussion is roughly equivalent to middle school reading literacy. That would include basic terminology and concepts like winning and losing, playing cooperatively or competitively, players, taking a turn, and actions, among other basic concepts.

Five areas of ludological literacy

1. Basic genres and styles - One of the goals of literacy, particularly in middle years once basic literacy has been established, is to begin to expose emerging readers to a variety of genres and styles of writing. This includes formats such as novels, short stories, poems, newspaper articles, and much more in addition to the variety of genres such as science fiction, mystery, true crime, horror, romance, among dozens of others. In the same way, once gamers have a basic understanding of how to play games, it is important that they learn how to play all kinds of games from various genres and styles: fillers; Euros; card games; party games; cooperatives; war games; space combat; and many more. As in literature, there are some genre or style-specific standards that will be developed with further exposure to certain types of games, but the first piece of ludological literacy is in understanding that how those genres and styles exist and might intermix.

2. The canon - Within any genre there is an established canon of texts that have been accepted as meaningful, significant, important, or otherwise exceptional examplars of the genre. (Though I recognize that there is a different attitude emerging toward the literary canon over the past few decades, particularly in terms of inclusion of voices of women or non-European culture, I am not here to argue about the validity or lack thereof of the existing canon; I am merely making a point about its existence.) Whereas there are two millennia of texts in the English canon and no hope of reading them all, there are only a few decades in the canon of modern gaming, and there is much more consensus about the games that should be included in this canon (including this interesting presentation about "100 games you need to know how to play" from noted game designer Mike Selinker). There is, of course, a lot of variation even within the accepted board game canon, but there are still likely no more than a couple of hundred games that are really "necessary" to know - or at least of which there is a need to be aware - in order to understand the canon of board games.

3. Mechanics - Beyond the understandings of genre and style and the canon is the concept of game mechanics. This is perhaps comparable to understanding the basic grammar and syntax of sentences and paragraphs in writing, as it refers more to the way in which things are communicated and/or transmitted to and by the players. Although mechanics can often be associated with certain styles, there is a growing group of core game mechanics for gamers to understand in order to be more literate. The most recent prominent examples are worker placement (in the past decade since Caylus), deckbuilding (since Dominion in 2008), and cooperative play (really since Pandemic in 2008); there are, of course, earlier proto-examples for each of those mechanics, but I am using the dates when they became mainstream. Understanding how games implement different mechanics and how those mechanics are altered or combined goes a long way to helping gamers be literate.

4. The language of gaming - In emerging literacy, we begin to teach students how to analyze texts and how to use language specific to the discipline. This includes improving vocabulary as well as learning analytical concepts related to plot, character, conflict, genre, poetic devices, and much more, and the language continues to grow in depth, breadth, and complexity as students progress through the levels. In gaming, there are many terms and concepts that go far beyond the genre or mechanics, and a gamer needs to learn how to wield the language of gaming. There are, of course, various levels of linguistic manipulation possible, but the core concept is that gamers should develop a certain shorthand understanding of the kind of language used in games, in rule books, and in the discussion of games. This glossary is a start, but it's missing many terms, including two of my favourites: OP, or "overpowered", for when something is worth too much; and "AP", or "analysis paralysis", when a player takes too long to make a decision.

5. Self-determination of taste and/or identity - Perhaps one of the marks of a truly literate reader is that she can begin to self-determine what kinds of genres, styles, and formats appeal most to her and to make choices for how to proceed as a reader. In many respects, this is the ultimate goal of K-12 education - that graduates can be self-determined in how they proceed in their future. I think that the mark of a truly literate gamer is their ability to seek out new games based on their tastes and to consider how new games might fit into their existing repertoire. It could be argued that this is the mark of fluency, but I think it marks the transition from literate to fluent.

Developing Fluency

Beyond basic functional literacy, I think there are a few indicators of steps that gamers can take that indicate fluency. Of course, as with literacy, there are many levels and variations within the broader scope of fluency, but there are a few hallmarks that I believe demonstrate ludological fluency.

1. Learning new games - There is an art to reading rule books and learning how to play new games. Rule books - particularly those translated from German - tend to have a certain technical nature to them, and they can be difficult to decode at times. Rule videos and tutorials online are helpful, but there is still a skill of learning how to visualize how a game will work from the written word, and it takes more than basic literacy to do so.

2. Teaching games - Teaching new games is certainly related to learning new games and decoding rule books, but there is a fluency to be developed in learning how to guide others through playing new games. It might be the most challenging skill to acquire, actually, as it not only involves understanding how a game works, but also how to help others to know how it works and how to help them get past any blockages they might have as the game progresses, especially if they are not ludologically literate themselves.

3. Evaluating games - If basic ludological literacy is the equivalent of being able to read a book, to understand it, and perhaps to accomplish some analysis, this step in ludological fluency is the equivalent of the ability to evaluate and synthesize your game play across genres, styles, and mechanics. A literate gamer might be able to play a game and state very basically whether they like it or not; a fluent gamer would likely be able to compare the gameplay to other games and to evaluate its effectiveness on a broader level.

4. Familiarization with the world of board gaming - It is one thing to be familiar with some of the games and mechanics and even the terminology; it's another to be familiar with designers, podcasts, websites, and the world of the hobby beyond the table itself. The difference is much like the difference between reading a book and considering a book in the context of an author's bibliography and current literary trends and criticism.

5. Designing games - Perhaps the last stage of ludological fluency is being able to design a game yourself, as to do it well requires at least some growth in all of the other stages of literacy and fluency. It demands a high level of awareness of the hobby, including genres, styles, mechanics, trends, and other games, but it goes beyond even fluency. The art of writing a comprehensible rule book is more convoluted than reading one, and being able to teach a game when it has mostly been in your head can be a challenge. Even the level of evaluation and synthesis necessary to make the decisions needed to improve your game is greater than the levels needed to process other games. Game design is an entirely new level of gaming, and it perhaps even indicates the level beyond fluency: mastery.

Reflecting on my own ludological literacy and fluency

The final step in this dissemination of information is to apply it to my own experience as a gamer, which I outlined recently in my board game biography. I would say that, in my case, I have been foundationally ludologically literate for a long time - probably since I was a child - but if I had to put a date on my established literacy as outlined here, it would be the summer of 2006 when I wrote this short post calling myself a Board Game Geek. Since that point, I have built up my ludological literacy both circumstantially and systematically, and I would say that it took about five years before I consider myself to be fluent in gaming - roughly in late 2011.

It is probably not a surprise, then, that my first idea for a game came in early 2012 - even though it has taken a few more years to finish my project, and that 2012 also marks the time when I really started to write about being a gamer. In the time since then, I would consider myself to have pursued mastery, and I would now consider myself to be a "master gamer". (I would be interested to determine how close I am to the 10,000 hour mark for playing games and thinking about games to see if that label actually fits, but I'm going to use it regardless.) Of course, that does not mean that I always win, or that I do not have areas in which I can improve, but it does mean that I am fully confident in all areas of ludological fluency, as evidence by my recent (and future) forays into game design.

That said, much like there are genres or authors of literature with which my familiarity is limited, there are several genres in which I could stand to develop further specific ludological literacy, including the aforementioned 4X games, dungeon crawlers, role-playing games, miniatures, and war games. But as I learned through my TI3 experience, as a master gamer, I can take my various experiences in ludological literacy and fluency and apply them broadly enough to compensate for any holes that exist. Like any master teacher, I am always looking for experiences to grow and learn in my craft and to incorporate new understandings into my vocation, and that is perhaps one of the best parts of being a board gamer: there are always new games to explore, ways to expand my collection, to exploit the huge world of games, and to extol the wonders of board gaming.


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