Board Games and Metal Coins, An Obsession

One of my favorite sub-hobbies within the hobby of board gaming is to upgrade my board games with “premium” components. Sleeving cards, replacing resources, laminating player sheets, upgrading filmsy boards, making custom bits and custom boxes to hold bits, building foamcore inserts, and building full custom boxes for card games (check out my tutorial on creating graphics-wrapped card boxes.)

But the one thing I’m absolutely obsessed with is metal coins.

You wouldn’t think that something as simple as coins could have much of an impact on a game. They don’t alter gameplay at all, they don’t have any specific impact on the rules or a game’s implementation. But the atmosphere they add – for my wife and I, anyway – is *immense*. It’s something that a lot of people who game with us comment on, too. So many board games rely on economic mechanics and employ some sort of money to make their world go ‘round (the table). So adding that “realistic” feel and sound to the coinage used in a game is just a fantastic boost to the environment, and one that now drives an upgrade obsession for me.

I could’ve simply bought one or two sets of coins and used them as generic coinage for many different games, but that’s not how my brain works. Instead, my wife and I have been picking up specific, thematically appropriate coin sets. I’d like to share the coins in my collection, the games I’ve added them to, and information about where every set can be obtained (if they’re still available).

About a year ago, Reddit user FlakyPieCrust put up this post about the various companies who make coinage, and it’s an awesome primer. There will be some overlap with this article, but my purpose here is to share pictures and hands-on impressions of the coins I actually own.

NOTE: This article will not be an entirely exhaustive list of available metal coins. I detail the coins I have experience with personally, or the ones I haven’t picked up and the reasons why, but there are definitely still games I don’t include here. This article covers a lot, but I’ve included a few notations for games that were mentioned by Reddit users after I posted the article there.

I have pictures throughout the post, but if you don’t want to read the whole thing and just want to look at pretty pictures, here’s a link to the Imgur photo gallery

Anyway, on with the show…

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GAMES THAT INCLUDE METAL COINS

Games that already come with metal coins are generally “deluxe” or “collector’s” editions, but they’re worth checking out. These are not the only games (I don’t think) that have metal coins, but they’re the only ones I own.


Small World Designer Edition

The one that started it all for us. I could wax poetic about all of the components in this set, but the icing on the very substantial cake is the coins included. I mean, look at them. They’re gorgeous. They’re thematic. They’re heavy, and detailed, and oh so clinkity clink. I loves them. They’re mine. My preciouses.

These were my first exposure to the idea of having metal coins for a board game, and the ones that started me down this dark path. Obviously, these coins are difficult to obtain. The Small World DE was expensive to start (we paid $320 via Kickstarter), but now it goes for anywhere from $800 to $1500. It was definitely worth the $320 we paid… I’m not sure it’s worth what it goes for on eBay.


Tokaido Collector’s Edition

These are nice coins. Nothing too fancy, but they’re heavy, substantial, and pretty enough to supplement the beautiful artwork and theme of Tokaido. As of this posting, the Tokaido CE is still pretty readily available for about $100 and, in my opinion, worth it for the extras included. Also there’s a Deluxe Accessory Pack available for people who already own the standard edition of Tokaido, which includes the metal coins without having to buy the full CE.


Orleans Deluxe Edition

We snapped up a second-hand copy of the Orleans DE partially for the wood tokens, but also for the metal coins. These are almost identical to the Tuscany coins, except… I’m not sure what metal they’re made of, but they have a different sound to them than most of the others. Maybe a little tinny. They’re still metal, so they still clink, they’re just… strange. And I completely understand that you really just don’t give a shit. But I’m weird. And it doesn’t matter, because they’re otherwise fantastic.


Black Fleet

This one surprised me. Black Fleet is just a light, fun, pick-up-and-deliver game, but the components are absolutely great. The molded ships are awesome, and it came stock with these metal coins. They’re not as chunky as some of the others I’ll list, but that’s neither here nor there: The game costs the same as most others in its range, and it still came with metal coins! Kudos to Space Cowboys for that.


Brass Deluxe Edition

Okay, so here’s the one game I don’t own, but I have experience with the coins. They’re very nice. I’m not as big a fan of Brass as others, which is why I haven’t bought it yet, but there seem to be a bunch of the Eagle & Gryphon Deluxe Editions floating around game stores now. Here’s the rub: The box isn’t marked as a Deluxe Edition in any way, so you have no idea whether the copy you’re buying has the coins and double-sided board. Most stores will mark them as such, but I’ve read stories of people being surprised by it when they buy it. Weird. The coins can, however, be purchased ala carte on Amazon or the Eagle & Gryphon website.


Seafall

This one could’ve been listed in this section or the next, but as of this posting the pre-order bonus for Seafall is still in effect (check it out here). If you pre-order, they will include a set of upgraded metal coins for free. Which seems very worth it, because they plan to charge $40 for that same set of coins by itself after the pre-order window closes. That may seem expensive, but Plaid Hat Games is stating that it’ll be “over 100” coins, which actually puts this set into the bottom-end price range.

Obviously I don’t have any personal experience with these coins, yet, but I wanted to include this link since it’s appropriate for the post (and I put it in this section because I have already pre-ordered it, so technically I own it). If they look as good as the pictures on that pre-order page, I don’t think I’ll be disappointed in them. I’ll also note that the coins are relatively generic in design, so one could easily use these coins for a wide variety of games.


Other Games That Include Metal Coins

Dominion: Empires/Guilds/Prosperity/Seaside
Puerto Rico Anniversary Edition
Raiders of the North Sea
Die Speicherstadt: Kaispeicher
Vault Wars
Xia: Legends of a Drift System

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BESPOKE COINS

What do I mean by “bespoke”? I mean coins that are designed very specifically for a single board game, and built to mimic the design of whatever chipboard coins were originally included.


Viticulture/Tuscany

These are fantastic, large, weighty coins and worth the MSRP if you can find them for that price. When I originally wrote this post, these coins were becoming rather scarce. Due to popular demand, however, it looks like Stonemaier Games is re-minting these coins and selling them again. It looks like you have to pre-order them to get them, though, so you should get on that. Here’s a link to the pre-order campaign.


Scythe

Obviously I don’t actually have my copy of Scythe yet, but it will be coming with the metal coins in the picture above. It’s a Stonemaier game, so they ought to be identical in size, weight, and finish to the Viticulture/Tuscany coins. That link above will allow you to pre-order the Scythe coins in addition to the Tuscany ones.


Puerto Rico

These are fantastic, chunky, pewter coins, minted to look just like the cardboard coins in the game. I found these via random searching from this seller on eBay. They’re a great addition for anyone who loves Puerto Rico, and at $15.49 for 60 coins, they’re some of the cheapest I’ve found. A no-brainer, in my opinion.

There are metal coins included in the Puerto Rico Anniversary Edition that I listed in the previous section, but that version of the game is prohibitively expensive now and, in my opinion, these coins are actually better than the ones included with that edition.


Lords of Waterdeep

These coins are awesome. But holy hell are they expensive. You can get a set from The Broken Token for $55. For 60 coins, that’s only just under $1 each, which is really steep. But, Lords of Waterdeep is one of my all-time favorite games, so we knuckled under and got a set.

Now, however, Fantasy Coin, LLC makes a set of LoW coins that are equal in quality, and less than half the price. If you get two of this set, you get the same number and style of coinage for only $28. Ordering from Fantasy Coin can be a bit strange, depending on your timing, and I’ll go into more detail about that later.


7 Wonders

These are also distributed via The Broken Token, and cost the same as the Lords of Waterdeep coins. Again, buckled and bought some (this time I supplemented the cost with poker winnings, so that’s cool) because, frankly, they’re just awesome. They look great, they’re heavy and large, they’re (obviously) perfectly thematic. But wow. Very money. So dollar. Much spendy.


Other Bespoke Coins

Coins for Carson City
Coins for Caylus
Coins for Hegemonic (listed as “Futuristic Metal Coins”)

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FANTASY COIN, LLC

I received my first coins from Fantasy Coin recently, and I’m absolutely blown away by them. They’re thick, heavy, chunky coins with great designs and awesome finishes, and they’re surprisingly inexpensive for what you get.

Here’s the rub: You have to catch them at the right time. They do sell out of the sets they make, and then you have to wait until their next Kickstarter campaign for them to re-stock. Between KS campaigns you may find a lot of coins out-of-stock on their website. But it gets even stranger during their KS campaigns.

During their Kickstarter campaigns, you can contribute via KS to get the coins you want. Between the time the campaign ends and they fulfill orders, you can pre-order the sets via their website, but it’s a little confusing because pretty much everything on the site is listed as “Out of Stock”. This is what we did for our coins because we missed their KS, but it’s a really, really strange business model. Now that the campaign is over and backers have been fulfilled, the extras they minted are available for sale.

The beauty of their system, if you’re willing to wait quite a while to receive your pre-order, is that their prices are pretty fantastic. When we pre-ordered, we ordered enough coin sets to have our order discounted to $10/set, which meant the price was about 33₵ per coin. Which is absurdly low, actually, for the quality. Even now, outside the KS or pre-order window, their coins run $16.99 per set of 30, which is still a pretty ding-dang good deal. Anyway, take a look at some of our sets…


Caverna

These are Fantasy Coin’s “Dwarven” set. They’re beautiful.


Five Tribes

I was originally looking into getting a generic Arabic set for Five Tribes, but couldn’t find one in my price range. I think I did okay, though. These are a mixture of the “Serpent” set in silver and the “Elemental – Air” set in gold, and I thought they were great stand-ins for the Djinn.


Lords of Xidit

I love this game, and getting coins for it was not only difficult, but wildly unnecessary. It took a lot of searching through several companies’ offerings to find coins that I thought were thematic enough to warrant a purchase, and now that I have these side-by-side with the game, I think I made the right choice. These are Fantasy Coin’s “Paladin” set.


Yedo

Yedo is probably one of my all-time favorite worker-placement games. It’s an all-around gorgeous game, and deserved some nice coins to go along with it. These are Fantasy Coin’s “Feudal Japan” set.

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ARTANA

I picked up my first set of Artana coins from eBay after their first Kickstarter, and I was really pleased with them. Artana focuses more on pseudo-historical sets, but does have some more fantasy oriented ones as well. Their coins are really nice, if a bit smaller and lighter than the ones by Fantasy Coin. As far as I can tell, their coins are only available via Kickstarter (which they label “The Best Damn Gaming Coins Ever”), or via Backerkit pre-orders during their KS campaigns.


Akrotiri

The beauty of Artana’s pseudo-historical designs is that they go really well with pseudo-historical games. Have a game set in ancient Greece? Grab some of their “Ancient Greek” themed coins. And, come on, how much more thematic for Akrotiri can you get than those coins with the dolphins on ’em? Geez, they look like they were made just for this game.


Archipelago

These are technically part of Artana’s “Pirate Ship” theme, but I selected coins that were less pirate-y and more just nautical. I think they go really well.


Castles of Mad King Ludwig

Here’s the one set that’s not technically appropriate, thematically. The theme set is called “Early English Kings”, and I’m using them for a game set in mid-1800’s Bavaria but… you know, whatever.


Concordia

Same situation as Akrotiri, but in this case these are from Artana’s “Ancient Rome” line. Note: These Roman coins from Minion Games actually look closer to the coins included with Concordia, and are also an excellent choice for the price. We just wanted something a little more stylized, so we went with Artana’s coins.


Troyes

Game set in the Middle Ages? Artana’s “Middle Ages” theme has you covered. These might not be perfectly thematic since they’re a bit more Anglo Saxon than French, but no one’s ever going to care. It wasn’t until after I posted this article that someone pointed out these coins designed for Caylus that are a near-perfect thematic match for Troyes. I’m now contemplating buying these, and shifting the Artana coins to another game.


The Voyages of Marco Polo

These are the coins I originally picked up on eBay. These are part of Artana’s “Renaissance” theme.

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OTHER RANDOM SOURCES


Le Havre

For Le Havre, I just absolutely could not find good fake coins. So, I just picked up real ones. These are actual aluminum 1- and 5-Franc coins from WWII era France. Technically not the right time period, but who cares! They’re great! They need to be cleaned, though.


Libertalia

There is absolutely no shortage of “Pirate Dubloon” style coins available in both metal and plastic. They’re probably the most prolific style you can get. I picked up these coins from Amazon, and they’re awesome, and relatively cheap. About the same size as a quarter and they come in four different finishes.

Of note, these are the same coins Eagle & Gryphon Games sells for Empires: Age of Discovery, but they can be obtained cheaper and in larger quantities via the above Amazon link.


Suburbia/Panamax


Since these games both have a modern-day theme, I just used pachinko slot tokens I picked up off eBay. They’re almost identical in size and weight to quarters, and they look just fine for both games. Plus, anything’s better than those lame plastic coins that come with Panamax (yick). I also use these coins with The Gallerist, but they’re basically just a stand-in until I find something more appropriate.

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HONORABLE MENTION


Lord$ of Vega$

While not technically coins, these mini poker chips definitely fit the overall theme of the post. Unfortunately, these particular chips aren’t available anymore. Most of the ones you can find now are these ridged chips by Koplow Games. The Koplow chips aren’t terrible, but the ones I have are thicker, heavier, and feel more like real poker chips.


Patchwork

Buttons, duh. Buttons are pretty much ubiquitous. The real problem is getting buttons in small quantities with the same style. For some reasons, the most common way buttons are available is in giant packages of randomized styles, even when you’re trying to buy buttons of the same color. I mean, who needs that? You’d think if someone needs a bunch of blue buttons, they’d need a bunch of the same blue button. Maybe? I dunno. Anyway, you can either buy multiple packs of small quantities (like 2 to 10) at your local fabric or craft store, or you can get them in fucking ginormous batches on Amazon like this and this. The per-button cost on Amazon is obviously significantly cheaper, but who the hell needs 500 buttons?

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DISHONORABLE MENTION


Tokaido

I know, I already mentioned the Collector’s Edition, but before I had a copy of the CE, I bought these coins for my regular edition. They’re absolute garbage. They’re thin and flimsy and tiny (smaller than a dime!) and they don’t sound so great or feel particularly better than cardboard. And, to cap it off, they’re Chinese, not Japanese.

But, I paid $2.47 for 40 of them, shipped. So, I guess you get what you pay for.

If I were to order coins for a non-CE copy of Tokaido now, I’d either get the Deluxe Accessory Pack for their branded thematic coins, or Fantasy Coin’s Feudal Japan coins, like the ones we bought for Yedo.

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COINS I DON’T OWN (AND WHY)

There are a few manufacturers of coins that I don’t have any experience with. I’ll be honest, though, the main reason I don’t is because of their prices. I was willing to spend the extra bucks for game-specific coins for LoW and 7 Wonders, because the theming made it (sort of) worth the extra cost (I’ll be honest: I own and love those coins, but probably wouldn’t pay that price again. Maybe. I think?). Most of the coins below cost nearly the same (75₵-$1 per coin), but aren’t specifically themed for a board game.

In a lot of cases, getting enough coins for a board game involves getting multiple “sets” – as the manufacturers define them – so you don’t run short during play. With these manufacturers, multiple sets just end up being too damned spendy. That being said, the coins they make do look fantastic. The designs are really good, but they’ll need to come down in price before I’d be willing to buy some.


Legendary Metal Coins

The designs here are really great. I had contemplated getting a set of their Arabic theme for Five Tribes, but I couldn’t justify the cost. Even in bulk, at their cheapest offering, they’re still 70₵ per coin. Most games, in my experience, require 50-60 coins to ensure you don’t run out at higher player counts, and that rounds out to about $35-$48 for a set (depending on how you acquire them). That’s a little above my top end; half-again to double what I paid for the coins from Fantasy Coin and Artana.


Campaign Coins

Campaign Coins are really beautiful, and have the most “high fantasy” feel of any I’ve found. I actually considered getting sets from them for Lords of Xidit, simply because they match better thematically. However, at their cheapest, they’re about identical in price to the Legendary coins, so just out of my range.


Minion Games

Minion Games doesn’t have a wide variety, and they’ve got an odd mix of coinage. They only sell three different themes of coins, two of which are far too expensive, ranging from 70₵ to 90₵ per coin. Their third set, the “Roman” theme, though, is a fantastic deal at $17.99 (on sale) for 55 coins (I link to these coins above in my description for Concordia).


Never Stop Tops & Coins

Again, gorgeous, but expensive. :/ Not quite as expensive as some of the others here, but still just outside what I would consider affordable.


Shire Post Mint

Shirepost’s coins aren’t really viable for this kind of application. They primarily do licensed coins (Lord of the Rings, Kingkiller Chronicle, A Song of Ice and Fire, etc.), and they’re not built for bulk orders. They’re designed to be a novelty, and are wildly expensive, coming in at well in excess of $1 per coin. So, they’re cool, but not really worth it for board gaming.


Rare Elements Foundry

Rare Elements Foundry is one of the first companies that I ever encountered making metal fantasy coins. Unfortunately, they are ungodly expensive for the most part. Their coins run around $22-$25 for a set of 10, pushing them up to and even beyond Shirepost’s prices. Their coins are very beautiful, but not feasible in quantity. That being said, they do now offer this 100-piece generic fantasy set for $25, and that’s a price you can’t really beat.

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CONCLUSION

Of all the metal coins I’ve bought and still intend to buy, I think the best deals – the ones that balance quality and price better than any other – are Fantasy Coin, LLC and Artana. Acquiring them can be a little wonky because of their Kickstarter-based release model, but if you’re into coins and don’t want to spend a mint (ha), they’re the best options. Some of the individual coin sets (like the coins for Brass and Minion Games’ Roman coins) are also worth a look at the price, but Fantasy Coin and Artana just have a great range at fantastic quality for decent prices.

Coins are one of my all-time favorite game upgrades. They’re definitely not for everyone, especially for the price, but they’ve become nearly a compulsion for me. Luckily, almost every game I own that involves coins has been upgraded at this point, so I’m not as tempted by them at the moment. I love seeing the looks on players’ faces when we break out a game from our shelf and dump a pile of metal coins on the table alongside the game. Everyone that plays with them comments about how awesome they are, and I agree.

Thanks for reading, everyone, and happy gaming.

My Zen Place

If you follow me on social media at all, you know how into tabletop gaming I am. For those of you who don’t… Well… uh… I’m really into tabletop gaming. Over the years I’ve been a gamer, I’ve noticed a confluence of different aspects of my personality that have led me to being a sort of specific type of gamer. Today, I’m talking about how my collector’s mentality has affected my board-gaming hobby.

I grew up collecting things. Comics, trading cards, POGs, what have you. I’ve always been meticulous about caring for my collectibles. Comics are always bagged and boarded (and HOLY SHIT don’t ever open one far enough to cause stress lines around the staples), trading cards always in sleeves or binders, stored carefully away from any potential damage. As I’ve grown into board gaming, I’ve found my collector’s mentality not just creeping around the edges of the hobby, but taking it over full-force.

sleeving_01See, I can’t just buy a board game and play it as-is – especially if it includes cards of any type. Thoughts of drink spillage or Cheeto-fingers grubbing up the components… I just… I can’t even. The concept of “mint condition” is so deeply embedded in my psyche that I get the same ragey hind-brain reaction to someone gunking up a game component as I used to when I’d see someone bend a Magic card or break the spine of a book. Though there’s not much I can do to protect a standard game board or punch-out components, if there’s something I can laminate I probably will, and every single card in every single game goes into a sleeve. EVERY ONE.

If you’re not familiar, sleeves are simply small plastic pockets made to fit snugly around gaming cards to keep them protected from the elements. Originally they were made out of thin polypropylene – exactly like comic book bags – to protect baseball cards. When Magic: The Gathering popularized the concept of playing a game with trading cards, sleeve technology changed to offer better protection not just from dirt or moisture, but from the rigors of constant shuffling.

An Aside About Shuffling: In addition to sleeving every card I own, I even now play poker and other standard card games with high-quality plastic playing cards. I can’t stomach the thought of shuffling bare paper cards in a normal riffle shuffle anymore. They’ll wear out! Shuffling will warp them over time! They could get marked! DEAR GOD WHAT IF ONE GETS CREASED YOU FUCKING ANIMALS no it’s fine I’m fine

sleeving_03So, I sleeve all my cards. For many gamers, the downside of this is the actual act of putting decks of cards into individual sleeves. It’s not so bad when you’re thinking of a standard deck of cards. 52 cards? Meh. Even a standard M:TG deck is 60, so that’s okay. But what happens when a game has hundreds?

I played a ton of M:TG in high school and college, and the M.O. for most TCG players is to have a good storage solution for the bulk of your collection, and keep a few decks that are regularly played in sleeves. So, a Magic collector might have thousands of cards, but they’re not sleeving every single one of them.

That’s not really the case with board games. Each board game is its own, individual thing that has to be ready to go every time you pull it off the shelf. So, if you own a ton of games, you can’t just keep a certain subset of cards sleeved. If you (*I*) are going to sleeve any of them, you (*I*) have to sleeve them all, and the number of cards that come in a board game ranges from “almost none” to “Vegas casino”.

sleeving_02For example, we just picked up a copy of a card/board game called Trains and its expansion Trains: Rising Sun. Between the two boxes, there are over 1,000 cards. One thousand. Games like Dominion might have 300-500 cards in a box and 10+ expansions. That’s a damned lot of cards to sleeve. At last count, I have over 130 games on my shelves, plus expansions, and I’ve sleeved every single card.

And, you know what? I find the activity supremely relaxing. There’s just something about it… It’s not just the repetitive monotony, it’s the peace of mind. As compulsive as I am about the condition of my games, when I’m sleeving cards there’s a part of my psyche that realizes I’m doing my part to ensure that I don’t have to stress over those components anymore. I put on a podcast or a TV show and sit down at my desk or on my couch with a pile of cards and sleeves and just go.

The task itself is almost meditative. Time just floats on by, and before I know it I’m packing up a nice, protected, aggravatingly slippery deck of cards into a new game box, and making that game available for play (I mean I wouldn’t let people play it before the cards are sleeved what kind of monster do you take me for). I’ve even, more often than I’d care to admit, taken to cutting down some of the off-sized sleeves so they fit the cards better, and even this has become relaxation time for me.

I’m sure there are a lot of people out there who would say that sleeving this many cards from this many games isn’t worth the money. It does, on average, add $3-$15 to the cost of a game (or, in the case of a game like Trains, more like $30). For me, just knowing that my games are armored against the terrors that gamers can inflict is worth Every. Solitary. Ducat. Knowing that 15 years from now, these cards will be just as playable and nice as they are now. Combine that knowledge with the zen-like trance I achieve while actually carrying out the task?

You can’t put a price on that.

It Is, After All, Just A Board Game

Today, while putzing around on Reddit r/BoardGames, the game Five Tribes came up as their “Game of the Week”. Five Tribes is a very fun tactical board game set in an Arabic-themed fantasy world around the time of the 1001 Arabian Nights.

There is a minor controversy (read: not actually a controversy at all) surrounding this game. If you’ve ever watched Wil Wheaton’s Tabletop, they did an episode on Five Tribes that addresses the issue: the original version of the game included Slave cards that were part of the game’s marketplace, and were used as a currency resource.

Thematically, the Slave cards fit the game alright, but many (rightly) found them distasteful. In subsequent printings of the game, Days of Wonder replaced the Slave cards with cards depicting Fakirs, lightly altering the cards place in the game’s theme without altering the game mechanics in any way. Overall, a positive change.

AND YET…

There is a vocal contingent in the board gaming “community” who are distraught by the change. Their argument – much the same as anyone who has ever used the term “politically correct” as a pejorative – is that the slaves were thematically appropriate and that Days of Wonder shouldn’t have “caved” to “pressure” by “sanitizing” the game.

As happens whenever the game is brought up in internet forums, this argument arose again in the r/BoardGames Five Tribes thread. I very nearly embroiled myself in an argument over the issue, but decided that my sanity and good mood weren’t worth the effort. I still have opinions jangling around in here, though, so here goes:

Within the context of the game, Slave cards are another type of resource or currency. They are acquired in a market alongside things like silk, papyrus, spices, and ivory. There are three ways they can be used in the game:

1) They can be “spent” to boost the power of Builders, earning a higher score for building. Thematically, the assumption is that the builders use slave labor for larger constructions.
2) They can be “spent” in conjunction with Elders to summon Djinn. Thematically, the assumption is that the slave is being sacrificed as part of the summoning process/ritual.
3) They can be “spent” to boost the effective range of Assassins. Thematically… well, fuck, I honestly have no idea how that fits thematically.

Fakirs, historically, are religious ascetics who, through their devotion to their religion, earn both power and authority directly from God. In a fantastical or mythological setting (like the one depicted in Five Tribes), they are powerful mystics whose devotion earns them God-granted supernatural abilities. Their inclusion in Five Tribes over Slaves alters the theme somewhat, but in a positive way.

Now, instead of using slave labor, Builders are calling upon Fakirs to augment their abilities to create even more grandiose architecture. Instead of sacrificing slaves to summon Djinn, Elders now enlist the help of the mystical Fakirs to use their powers to summon and control the Djinn. And instead of… doing whatever the fuck it is assassins might do with slaves, Fakirs lend their powers to augment the efficacy of assassins. This last one might be problematic for some people, but history and fantasy are full of religious assassins who believed themselves to be doing the work of God, and who were supported by both worshipers and clergy, so the idea of a Fakir helping an assassin isn’t too big a stretch.

So… yyyeaahhh… While Slaves may be thematically appropriate, they’re wildly insensitive and inappropriate in far more ways than solely the game’s theme. On top of that, their inclusion was off-putting to so many potential buyers that it was having a direct effect on the sales of what is otherwise an absolutely fantastic board game.

What’s worse, though, is seeing members of the board game “community” vehemently arguing that their removal was some kind of slight that ruined the game, and that their inclusion was a necessary component. Days of Wonder has no plans to reintroduce the Slave cards in future Five Tribes expansions, which one Redditor deemed “shameful”. Somehow, that’s more shameful than including a slaves-as-currency mechanic in the first place, or more shameful than wailing to the heavens that you don’t get to play with slaves in your game.

I guess.

Or something.

The Slave cards were an uncomfortable blight on an otherwise light fantasy theme. Their replacement has exactly zero effect on the game’s mechanics and, in fact, has a wildly positive effect on the popularity of an absolutely fantastic game. Vehemently arguing for the inclusion of Slaves is, quite frankly, GROSS, and makes you look like a nasty excuse for a human being. The arguments for thematic appropriateness of both Slaves and Fakirs weigh – at least for me – equally, so wouldn’t you rather be on the side arguing for positive inclusion rather than racial and cultural insensitivity?

It is, after all, just a fucking board game.

My Playstation Life

To adequately express the beginnings of my gaming hobby, I’d like to tell you about the first television I ever gamed on. It was the early 80’s, and my family had a Curtis Mathis console television. A floor-standing unit in a dark wood enclosure, with a flat top upon which sat other components. The whole thing was roughly three feet tall and slightly wider than that. It had actual click-dials on the front and a whopping 25-inch screen.

When I first started gaming, that top sported a potted plant and a pair of Rabbit Ears. Over the years a number of different components would occupy that space; everything from a turntable to a VHS deck to DVD players. Every console I owned as a kid was eventually hooked up to that TV, but it started with a Commodore Vic-20 in 1982, upon which the most commonly played games were Gorf and Radar Rat Race. It was fucking fantastic.

Throughout the 80’s, I was exposed to a wide variety of gaming systems, but my gaming was dominated by Commodore. My mother used our varying Commodore computers for work applications, but our Vic-20, Commodore 64, and Commodore 128 turned out to be absolutely fantastic gaming machines. At one point, I had over 500 games for our 64, all on 5 ¼ floppy disks. It was a pretty glorious time.

I got my first actual console gaming system – a Nintendo Entertainment System – in 1987. Having been a Commodore devotee (and only in single-digit ages), I was blithely oblivious to the rise of Atari and the industry crash. But the rise of the IBM PC was killing Commodore, so I was extremely happy to see dedicated gaming machines becoming a thing. Through the 80’s and 90’s I owned all manner of machines from an SNES, a GameBoy, a Game Gear, a ColecoVision, and even an Action Max, all of which my parents had bought (ostensibly) for me (even though my mom would steal my GameBoy to play Tetris).

I graduated high-school in the summer of ’95, and hadn’t yet decided where I was going to college. So, I was living at home and working at the local TV station (KTVZ21 in Bend, Oregon), and had – for probably the only time in my life – a ton of disposable income. I watched the chatter over the next couple of months about Sony entering the console gaming market with a system that used (gasp!) CD ROM’s instead of cartridges, and had this kinda funky-shaped control pad. When I saw some of the screenshots for games, I was in.

On launch day, I rushed out of work and into the local Fred Meyer about five minutes before they closed, and managed to grab the first gaming console I ever bought with my own money: A Playstation. I was SO FUCKING EXCITED. I rushed home, tore it open, and got it all hooked up to that very same Curtis Mathis TV. I grabbed the weird controller (no analog sticks on this one, yet), and it felt *perfect* in my hands. I emptied the box looking for the pack-in game…only to realize, too late, that there wasn’t one.

My first night with the first console I could call my own, and I was stuck with only Playstation Picks demo disc to play on it. I spent a good chunk of that first night replaying the demos for ESPN Extreme Games, Jumping Flash, and WipEout (I ignored Battle Arena Toshinden after one play). I watched all the videos on the disk of games like Destruction Derby, Ridge Racer, Warhawk, and Kileak, and went to bed having buried all of my original excitement in a heap of disappointment.

And yet, even with that kind of first impression, Sony had me hooked for life.

That Playstation survived my move from Bend to Seattle for college, the rise and fall of my first long-term relationship, and even an apartment fire. Over those years, games like WipEout, Rayman, Tenchu, Chrono Cross, the Oddworld games, the Street Fighter Alpha series, Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver, the Twisted Metal games, and Tony Hawk solidified gaming as an inextricable part of my life. Oh, and Soul Blade… I mustn’t forget how, for about a six month period, every Saturday afternoon became a SoulBlade party at my apartment, with between 4 and 12 people in attendance. Those were some good times, amongst which the relationship with my now wife of 16 years began.

It was a surprise to no one that the PS2 was the first consumer product I pre-ordered, and the first for which I waited in line. I entered the line at our local GameStop at 11am for a midnight launch, and I was about 100 people back. And all of these were people with pre-orders, with a separate line for those without. By the time the doors opened, the line was 4-5 people abreast and snaked across an entire floor of Bellevue Square Mall, out the door, and into the parking garage. There was a Babbage’s in the same mall with a similar line.

The PS2 amped up everything that had made me love my PS1. Even with a relatively weak launch lineup (I played a LOT of Frequency and Smuggler’s Run in those early days), it went on to have one of the greatest game libraries in the history of console gaming. It’s a library that’s still playable to this day, with games that stand the test of time better than I ever thought they would.

I had friends, at this time, who were huge fans of the Xbox. No matter how many times I played game on it, I just couldn’t bring myself to love it the way I loved my PS2. I had some great times at Halo LAN parties, but the system could just never compare to the experiences I had with some of my now-favorite game franchises like Jak & Daxter and Ratchet & Clank. If the PS1 was really what solidified me as a gamer, it was the PS2 that made me a true Playstation fan. I never owned nor cared about the Dreamcast, and Nintendo had become an afterthought.

Which is why it came as exactly zero surprise to anyone when my wife and I decided to get in line for the launch of the Playstation 3. Being such a huge Playstation fan was a tiny bit awkward at this point, since I was working for Nintendo at the time. Taking vacation days for the launch of a competitor’s console may not have been the smartest move, but I didn’t really care. This is where my fandom tipped from hardcore to a tiny bit insane. I got off work on a Tuesday night, picked up my wife, and headed to the local Best Buy, where a line had already formed for the 12:01 Friday morning launch. We brought a pavilion to keep the rains off and had an air mattress in the bed of my pickup to sleep in. Yeah, that’s right: we camped in line for two and a half days in the rain and wind for our launch PS3’s.

Through all of that, I honestly tried to get into other consoles. I’ve owned an N64, and Xbox, a GameCube, a Wii and an Xbox 360. None of them ever stuck. The worst was the 360, which we bought for relatively cheap about three years after launch, and it just… sat. I played a bit of Halo on it, and then never touched it again.

Even through nine years working at Nintendo, through the entire lifespan of the Wii, I was still a hardcore Playstation fan. Everything from their console and controller design to their video capabilities to their first-party game properties just drew me in and held on tight. Now, I’ve got a household with three backward-compatible PS3’s, a PS4, a PSP Go (yeah, I’m the guy that bought one), and two PSVitas.

Today, as Japan celebrates 20 years of Playstation, I look back at the 19 years I’ve had them in my life and realized just how huge an impact they’ve had on me as a gamer. Some of my fondest nostalgia still resides in the Nintendo of the 80’s and early 90’s, but as much as I loves me some Mega Man and Super Mario World, there is no gaming company that has influenced me nearly as much as Sony. Well over half my life has been spent gaming on Playstation hardware, and I can’t imagine gaming with anyone else, anymore.

Happy birthday, Playstation. Here’s to another 20 years of awesome.

Reader Perception And Quality Control

I recently read a couple of posts on Chuck Wendig’s blog over at TerribleMinds regarding a self-published author’s responsibility for the quality of the work they publish. For your reading pleasure, the whole discussion started with this post on John Scalzi’s blog HERE, where he drew an analogy between the writerly life to that of a baseball player. Wendig furthered the discussion HERE and HERE.

The gist of Wendig’s point is that, while self-publishing is easy and has destroyed the barrier to entry in the publishing industry, each author who self-publishes now holds the responsibility to do right by their readers. He posits that authors should act as their own gatekeepers, and that the moment an author asks someone to pay for something they’ve written they have a responsibility to the reader – their customers – to present a professional and complete product.

I won’t further that particular discussion except to say that I couldn’t agree with him more. While I was reading through these threads another dynamic was brought into sharp focus: readers’ tendencies with regards to association of quality. Here’s what I mean:

For a moment, let’s take self-publishing out of the picture and rewind to the days where traditional publishing was just called “publishing”. If a reader suffered through a bad book – be it poorly written or unprofessionally executed – that reader associated the lack of quality with the author. Rarely (and this is demonstrated in some of the responses to Wendig’s posts, and echoed all over the internet) did a reader associate poor quality with a particular publisher or the industry as a whole. The inverse was also true: read a good book, follow the author. I can’t remember a time that I’ve ever read a fantastic novel and thought to myself “Man, that publisher really knows what they’re doing.”

Fast forward to the modern era. That dynamic I mentioned still exists with traditional publishers. While the idea of self-publishing has brought publishers in general more into the limelight, readers still don’t tend to associate good or bad quality of traditional books with the publisher or the publishing industry – the quality association still falls squarely on the author. The same cannot be said of self-published work.

When a reader buys a self-published novel and it turns out to be fantastic, that author now has a new fan. The reader associates the quality of the novel directly with the author and that association is more pertinent without a publishing house acting as middle-man. But when a reader gets ahold of a bad self-published book – again, be it poorly written, edited, and/or produced – the mentality no longer defaults to “I’m not going to buy any more of that author’s work.”, it tends to be “Fuck this self-published crap.” The onus of quality now rests on an entire segment of the industry, full of individuals who have nothing to do with one another, the best of which now get dragged down by players whose attitude is simply to dump a block of text onto Amazon without a thought to its quality.

I think that mentality originates from the idea that the traditional publishing industry, with its gatekeepers in place, has developed a reputation for at least upholding a minimum standard of quality. Readers intuitively know that – for the most part – when they pick up a book at Barnes & Noble they can expect it to have run through several editorial passes and have been proofread a few times. Please note that by “quality” I am simply referring to editorial professionalism, not the quality of the actual stories being told.

Of course, the same cannot be said of self-published work. While the barrier to entry has been razed to the ground, so has the expectation of professionalism. Without “gatekeepers” in place, no one is held to any kind of standard at all, which allows any overzealous author to take advantage of the system – of readers – to collect money for sub-par work rather than hone their craft prior to charging for it. Which is exactly Wendig’s point: Without that ingrained expectation of quality that the industry took decades to build in the minds of readers, the responsibility now rests solely on self-published authors’ shoulders to not foist snake-oil onto their customers.

I am never going to be the person to say that a writer shouldn’t be allowed to self-publish (and neither is Wendig, so please don’t assume that as my point). In fact, the ease of self-publishing is likely going to be the reason my book sees the light of day. While I don’t necessarily think that “gatekeepers” – the traditionally difficult standards of entry set by agents, acquisitions editors, and publishers – are healthy in an environment that is beginning to value creator’s rights more than it ever has, I think that publishers will morph their role into that of curators of content rather than locking all the doors and holding all the keys, and in a scenario where self-publishing digitally becomes simple and ubiquitous, it might be time for service providers and device manufacturers to take an active role in building up the quality of self-published work.

In the late ‘70’s and early ‘80’s, the emergence of the home video game console experienced a similar issue. Atari created a console that was (comparatively) easy to program for and had almost no barriers to making games for it. Everyone from the big guys like Namco and Activision, down to programming teams of 2 guys in a basement, started making games. The result was an explosion of garbage – sometimes in the form of games that literally did not function. All of a sudden, there was a huge glut of expensive, quasi-functional trash, and no legitimate way to tell the good from the bad. Consumer confidence tanked, Atari went bankrupt, and the video game industry as a whole crashed – hard – and almost didn’t recover until a little Japanese company called Nintendo joined the fray in 1985.

Nintendo set a new standard for video game console manufacturers by providing a system that was easy to use and affordable for consumers, but simultaneously holding their publishers to a standard of quality by running every game through a battery of tests before it could be manufactured for Nintendo’s console. That system is still in place today at all the major console manufacturers, where all of them have a certification department that runs a series of tests on every single game to make sure that it adheres to a set of guidelines for usability and functionality.

These certification departments don’t judge the subjective quality of a game (if they did, we’d be blessed to never see another Petz or Babiez game again) instead simply making sure that a game functions properly, uses the correct terminology, and won’t break the console or hamper the user experience. And, in the face of a huge self-publishing boom in the video game industry, these certification departments aren’t going away – they’re adapting to the boom and working to help small video game developers publish games that never before would’ve seen the light of day.

The same model could be applied to self-published books. A company like Amazon could have a certification department full of proofreaders and copy editors whose jobs were nothing more than to comb over manuscripts and hold them to a certain level of production quality. Like the cert departments at Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo, they would not comment on the quality of the stories, and they certainly wouldn’t act in a true editorial capacity (just like the cert departments don’t act as bug-testing facilities), but they would be able to identify the mechanical problems with a manuscript and have the power to reject one until it passes muster.

Granted, this would require an investment of people and funds from companies like B&N and Amazon who – at the moment – have exactly zero motivation to do so. Quality isn’t their concern, and they make their 30-70% off of every book sold whether it’s crap or not, so it behooves them to promote high quantity with a low barrier to entry.

Atari once thought the same thing.

We may never see something like that come to pass unless Amazon gets a rude awakening like Atari did, which is unlikely to happen in the modern publishing climate (at least not anytime soon). This, I think, is why publishers as curators will become the next wave of business in the publishing industry. The model that immediately jumps to mind is Image Comics.

Creator-owned comics were mostly unheard-of up until the early ‘90’s. Comic book creators, fed up with the Big 2 paying them a pittance for their work and taking their creations away from them, were looking for a new way to do business. Image Comics was formed with what was, at the time, a revolutionary idea: Let the creators keep the rights to their work. Image acts in a publishing capacity insomuch as they provide editorial support, access to printing and distribution, and a unified logo under which readers can assume a certain level of quality.

Image does, to some degree, act as gatekeepers just like Marvel and DC do, but the trade-off for creators is that they retain the rights to their creations. One of the primary drives, for authors, behind the self-publishing movement is creative control and the preservation of their rights. Image has been successful in this practice, which has been followed by other companies like Boom! Studios and MonkeyBrain, and the model seems ripe for introduction into the publishing industry.

It’s unlikely that any of the major publishers like Tor or Random Penguin would ever concede rights to new properties to their authors. The industry seems ready, however, for publishers to act less like gatekeepers and more, as I said earlier, like curators of content, sifting through the morass of self-published books to offer a middle-ground solution for authors who want to couple the benefits of unified brand clout with the flexibility of creator-ownership.

The publisher can develop a brand identity unheard of in traditional publishing, where mainstream readers can go to find works they like based not solely on the author’s brand, but also the publisher. The author retains the rights to his or her work, and can build a brand of their own with the support of a larger entity. Readers would have a way to parse creator-owned work more than just by author, finding a stable or series of stables of curated content that fits their reading tastes. It seems like a win-win-win proposal, but I’m also not a business major.

I don’t think traditional publishing is going away. Nor do I think that self-publishing is steering the industry toward some inevitable implosion. I do, however, think that new business models will emerge that incorporate the best of both worlds, and maybe with a little bit of quality control on the service-providers’ ends, we could see a more balanced renaissance in the publishing industry that serves the business, the creators, and the consumers alike.

For now, though, all a fledgling author like me can do is ride out the storm, and try desperately not to suck.

Thoughts On The Pokerstars Caribbean Adventure 2014

Poker TV, in general, is pretty much crap. While I enjoy watching the WSOP broadcasts and I used to enjoy the WPT, they are – as every poker player tries to make clear – not an accurate representation of the game. A lot gets edited out and plays that seem weird in a 2-hour show make total sense if you can see the 7 hours of play that led up to it.

One of my vices, right now, are the European Poker Tour live-streams. I don’t watch a lot of them because, being held in Europe, their timeline doesn’t usually match my sleep schedule. The one event I try to watch each year, though, is the Pokerstars Caribbean Adventure, a large tournament held annually at the Atlantis Resort & Casino in the Bahamas. Several years ago, when Pokerstars partnered with the EPT, this became an EPT event despite not being anywhere near Europe.

The live streams, for the most part, are played without showing the hole cards. The featured tables have the capability, but they don’t start broadcasting with hole cards until the final table, which they play on a 1-hour delay so that it doesn’t affect play (much). Even without hole cards the broadcasts are engrossing, mostly because they are entirely uncut. You get to see every move a player makes, and you get a real sense for the flow of a major multi-table tournament. That didn’t work out quite the way I’d have liked for this year’s PCA, though.

Poker tournaments are unpredictable, and players will bust at the strangest times. In this particular case, Day 5 of the tournament was playing down from 20 players to the final table of 8. The day ended up being very short, with the 9th place player busting less than 5 hours into the day.

What did this mean for the final table? It meant that every player at the table was super deep-stacked, with the average stack having almost 100 big blinds, and even the shortest stack sitting on almost 40. While that made for some awesome deep-stack poker when it was 8- and 7-handed, it also made for an insanely long final table and one of the most boring heads-up competitions I’ve ever seen.

I started watching the live stream at around 11:15am on Monday morning. The final table wrapped up at around 2:45am Tuesday. The 3-handed and heads-up battles lasted hours, and the tournament wound up with a really unfortunate end.

Before I talk about the ending, though, I wanted to touch on something that – as a “poker enthusiast” – I found really interesting. When the tournament got down to 3-handed between Mike McDonald, Isaac Baron, and Dominik Panka, the players stopped the tournament to make a deal. This is pretty standard in large tournaments – the top few payouts are extremely weighted toward first place, and the players like to flatten that out and limit their liability a bit.

Since this was a live-stream and not an edited show, they actually filmed and showed the entire process of the deal. The players discussed their chip-stacks and worked with the tournament directors to flatten the payouts, and the tournament directors actually adjusted the direct payouts so that the players wouldn’t have to come to some sort of under-the-table agreement. Rather than over a million dollars separating 1st and 3rd place, things rounded out to all 3 players getting over a million with only 350,000-ish separating 1st and 3rd. In addition, they set aside 100k to “play for”, that would go solely to the winner along with the title.

As boring as it may sound, I was fascinated by the discussion between the players as they worked out the math using a method called Independent Chip Modeling (or ICM) as a guide. Seeing the tournament directors getting involved was awesome, too, because it’s so much safer for the players when there’s an external entity doling out the money instead of forcing them to rely on and trust each others’ individual judgment to make sure they get paid. This is one of the downsides to the WSOP, in my opinion: They do not endorse or support deal-making, even though it’s an integral part of the larger game, and players have gotten screwed in the past when they’ve attempted to make off-the-books deals with less than trustworthy players.

But I digress. I thought it was cool.

What wasn’t cool was one of the most boring heads-up battles I’ve ever watched. While there were a few interesting hands it was all very straightforward, with McDonald in the lead for what seemed like an eon. Even worse, though, was that after 14 hours of final table coverage, the final half hour of the tournament came due to a fatigue-induced implosion by the tournament favorite, Mike McDonald.

I was rooting for McDonald the whole way. I like the guy. He’s super smart, he’s one of the best No-Limit Hold ‘Em players of the last ten years, and he was well on his way to becoming the first ever 2-time EPT champion. He had small-balled the living crap out of Panka for a couple of hours, maintaining anywhere from a 3-2 to a 2-1 chip lead over him at almost all times. It was when he had a 2-1 chip lead that his slide began, and he sloughed off the tournament on two very suspect hands.

The first hand was 3-betting Panka with KJo. Panka had pocket 9’s and 4-bet shoved. After thinkin for less than a minute, McDonald made a senseless call of Panka’s shove. The 9’s held up and the chip stacks reversed, giving Panka a chip lead that he never relinquished.

I mostly think that McDonald just wanted the tournament over, and was willing to flip for it. I have a feeling that in the back of his mind he had the thought that, under most circumstances, even if he lost the hand he had enough of a skill advantage over Panka that he could battle his way back from a 2-1 chip deficit by using the same small-ball tactics he’d been punishing the guy with all night, but he figured he could end an already long night – where he was obviously fading fast – if he won a simple race.

Unfortunately, a combination of fatigue on McDonald’s part and solid big-stack play on Panka’s part just seemed to wear him down. When Panka raised with A2o after having built a 4-1 chip lead, McDonald completely imploded, making an impatient bluff-shove with 7-4 suited. It was a move that McDonald just didn’t need to make, but you could tell he was exhausted. Panka flopped a meaningless 2, and the board gave McDonald a glimmer of hope when he turned a 7, but an Ace on the river sealed the deal for Panka.

It’s a shame. And a real disappointment for someone who’d watched 14 hours of poker that day and seen McDonald smoothly transition from table domination to chipstack conservation to soul-reading hero calls, proving why he was the favorite right up until a massive deterioration in the last hour of play.

As much a fan as I am of watching these tournaments live, this one gave me pause about watching the next one all the way through. I’m not sure I can stomach seeing that much awesome poker get tossed aside by fatigue and impatience again.

The End of a Small Era

Today marks the end of a small era in my life: the publication of the final episode of the After The Fact podcast.

2009 was a really rough year for me. Amongst a terrible work/life balance, personal issues with people at my job, and general life stresses, we had taken in my terminally ill father to live with us so we could care for him. For part of that time we were also letting my brother – whom I do not generally get along with – stay with us. The last few months of that year were the most stressful of my life. My job sucked and my creative life was nonexistent. My brother and I had a terrible falling out. All of this was putting strain on my marriage. And then my father passed away on Christmas Day.

I was not in the best mental space of my life. The next few weeks were just a haze of trying to figure out how to put one foot in front of the other. I was desperate to find something to concentrate on to take my mind off of all the bullshit.

That same year I’d had an idea to do a podcast about classic video games, a subject I was (and still am) fairly passionate about. I have some pretty pointed opinions about older games – especially about the effect of nostalgia on coloring our opinions of a game’s actual quality – and I wanted to talk about that very topic. It had only been a passing notion until the beginning of 2010, when I decided to do whatever I needed to do to make it a reality.

At the beginning, it was a distraction; something to keep my mind occupied so that I wouldn’t just fall into despair. It was a proof of concept for cheap, homemade podcasting that could compete in quality with the high-end shows from 1up and IGN and Destructoid. It was really hard. And, for something that I was doing as a hobby, surprisingly rewarding.

The show never had a hell of a lot of fans. There were a few dedicated followers that loved the show as much as we loved to make it, but I don’t think our real human downloads ever broke 600 for any episode. But it didn’t matter, because we were more interested in the discussions than whether or not we had a huge fanbase. We just loved doing the show. I, especially, took solace in my time preparing, producing, hosting, and publishing After The Fact. It not only allowed me time to heal from quite possibly the worst year of my life, but rekindled a creative spark within me that had been dormant for a long time.

Over time, the show became more and more difficult to maintain. Gaming podcasts by gaming journalists are easier, because it’s those journalists day-job to learn, know, write, and talk about games. The podcasts they do are practically just recordings of their day-to-day work conversations. Our prep for After The Fact was more difficult only because it was layering another time-consuming hobby into lives that were already basically full.

While I never got “burned out” on the show, in the traditional sense, the burden of its production had become taxing after a while. When it all started it was a distraction, but we had pushed so hard for it to become quality entertainment that I very quickly grew to love the show and every minute I was on it. But as I switched to a more intense job and my wife’s work ramped up, and then we expanded into more podcasts on Geekerific.com, it became harder and harder to maintain the quality bar we’d set for ourselves. So we decided to end the show on in high note.

And I think we’ve succeeded. In the middle of 2012 we had a meeting about what the final 10 episodes of the show would look like. Our list of games we wanted to cover expanded to 15 – ending the show at episode 80 rather than the initially-planned 75 – and those last 15 shows turned out to be some of the most solid in our run. And some of the most interesting, for me, because they contained some of the most fun games in the show’s four-year run.

And now, it’s over. I just posted the finished, final episode to the web, and that small-but-important era of my life comes to a close. I’m extremely happy with the quality of the show we produced over the last four years, and I’m glad we decided to end the show before it fell apart on its own. But as I posted the final episode I couldn’t help but look back at the terrible time in my life that stood as the impetus for its creation, and everything the show has grown to mean for me over its span.

The show helped me through a difficult time, re-sparked my creative fire, solidified some of my best friendships, introduced me to some new experiences, taught me a ton of new skills, and was some of the most fun I’ve ever had. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t very sad to see it go, but now it’s time to move on to new things. I’ve already started the “next phase” of my life, and I’m looking forward to seeing where it takes me.

On Leaving Things Behind

On Thursday of last week, I finished the second draft of my first novel. This weekend I sent it off to a proofreader, and once the proofread pass is finished I’ll send it off to beta readers. I’m unbelievably stoked and absolutely fucking terrified.

I find myself, this Monday morning, reflecting on all of the things going on in my life now that I’m looking forward to beginning my second novel. If you’ve read my blog you know that my obligations and hobbies are pretty much split between writing, podcasting, video games, comic books, and poker. There was once a time where the biggest output of effort (aside from my marriage, of course) was a live-action roleplaying game called Amtgard.

I attended my first LARP in my sophomore year of high school in 1992. It was the Yakima, WA chapter of a national game called New England Roleplaying Organization, or NERO for short. For people who don’t LARP, the hobby is vilified as quite possibly the nerdiest endeavor one could partake in. It is seen as being populated by closeted dorks with no social skills who are outcasts even amongst their own hobbies.

For me this couldn’t have been further from the truth. When I began playing NERO I was about as introverted and awkward as a nerd could get. Playing that LARP – and several others since – was truly what drove me out of that shell, out of my comfort zone. LARPing forced me to get out of my house and interact with other, like-minded people, and I credit it with being the catalyst that completely changed my personality.

cal_1Once I moved away from home to go to college, I wasn’t able to attend NERO anymore, and I missed it. For almost two years I wasn’t part of any live-action games at all. When I met my ex-girlfriend, she had been part of Amtgard, a LARP that started in El Paso, Texas in 1983, for several years already. It wasn’t the same as NERO – being much less roleplay oriented and more geared toward live combat games – but it was something.

I began playing Amtgard in 1996. I played consistently for eleven years until “retiring” from the game in 2007. Over the course of that time I founded a chapter that is still running strong to this day, founded one of the longest-running recurring campout events in the Pacific Northwest, and was a fixture of the game in this area the entire time I was part of it. It is a humongous part of my history, and a formative piece of my life.

Toward the end of my time in the game, my mood began to sour. As with any major hobby, there are people who take it too seriously, and whose lives become so wrapped up in it that they know no other form of personal gratification. For them, the game is no longer a hobby – it becomes their entire self-worth. It was those people – while few, very loud – who began leaching the fun out of the game for me. I was there to gather with friends, play a game that I enjoyed, and have a good time. They were there to advance their reputations by any and all means necessary.

In 2006, I ran my last major event in Amtgard before retiring from the game. 90% of the event was extremely successful, in the face of some bad apples striving to ruin it. In the closing minutes of the event, that group decided to vandalize a state park structure as a parting shot toward me on their way out of the event. With my mood already soured toward the game as a whole, dealing with the fallout from this action was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I lasted less than a year in the game before finally calling it quits.

Amtgard was a huge part of my life. It was my dominant hobby and the foundation of my entire social circle. I knew that leaving it behind was necessary, but it crushed me at the time. It was like leaving my family behind. It hurt. A lot.

cal_2Over the next several years, my attentions were diverted from the game I’d left behind. My parents both passed away about 2½ years apart right after leaving the game, I was hired into a job I’d been striving to get for quite some time, I began writing more regularly, and I started a podcast. I filled the void with a lot of things I realized I’d been missing over the years, pouring my efforts into creative pursuits that I’d been setting aside in favor of the game.

Looking back, I realize that I may have actually hamstrung my real life in the late ‘90’s by being too active in my hobby. I loved Amtgard for what it gave me – hell, I can directly attribute it to meeting my wife – but, in retrospect, I allowed my career pursuits and even my last few quarters at college suffer in favor of putting my time and energy into the game. And I only realized that fully once I found out what my life was like without it.

There have been several times over the last 5 years that I’ve thought seriously about going back and becoming a regular again. I can never seem to find the time now, though; those extra minutes and hours now being filled with the things that are fulfilling me domestically and creatively. But I still have those urges… To hang out with the old crew, to get drunk around a campfire telling stories, to hit people with foam-padded sticks, to continue my journey toward awards and honors within the game – namely the Knighthood I never attained.

Never has that pull been stronger than in the last few weeks. I was reminiscing with a few friends who were also long-time Amtgarders, while also trying to explain the game to some people who were not familiar with it. It was like a flashback to the innumerable times I recruited a new player into the group that I was running at the time, or explained the game to onlookers while we were playing out in the park. The nostalgia ran high, and I felt the undeniable pull to go play again.

And I had a ton of fun doing so. I went out to the park and reminded myself how old and slow I’d become, how sedentary my lifestyle is without it. It’s an extremely physical game and I wasn’t up to it, but I pushed myself anyway and had a blast. I capped off the night by hanging out with a whole group of other long-time Amtgarders, some of whom I hadn’t seen since my exit in 2007.

I was hyped again. All the long-dormant neurons were firing, pulling me back toward the game that I’d once loved and lost. I thought about fighting more, making new garb, and going to campouts. I thought of all the fun I used to have… and all of these thoughts immediately led into all the anger at everything wrong with the game as a whole.

See, Amtgard isn’t just a fighting sport, it’s also got a huge element of in-game and interpersonal politics. The interpersonal politics are inherent in any large group activity. Friendships bloom and die, rivalries grow and fester, relationships burn bright and flame out. The in-game politics – each group is run by elected officials – are more prevalent, and tend to bleed into and poison the interpersonal ones. Again, this isn’t a new thing for any group (just look at the recent trials and tribulations of the SFWA). I found, during my time in the game, that the game’s politics hold an unreasonable sway in many players’ lives and that they dictated the course of too many friendships and rivalries.

Over the last two weeks, I’ve realized that none of that has changed. The game is still the same game it was when I started playing 17 years ago. The politics still dominate and the drama still runs high. Many of the older players are still playing, and new players are entering the fold all the time, but the game never seems to advance or recover from the things that spoiled my enjoyment of it.

Every time I return I’ve been greeted by varying numbers of older players who politely grill me about whether I’m coming back full time and what they can do to draw me back in. Every time this has happened I’ve wondered why they’re pushing so hard. I mean, I won’t deny that I may have had some influence on the game in my time, but no one cared when I left. I didn’t burn out… I faded away.

And then it hit me: it’s desperation. The old guard in the game are – just like in real life – longing for times past, when things were “better”, and desperate to commiserate with people who know of the glory days. I saw the same thing amongst the “old timers” when I first joined the game, and now I see it from their point of view – only I’m on the outside looking in. I see a game that is struggling with the exact same problems it had when I was a noob, just under a different regime. I realize that Amtgard has never changed – but I have.

So now, although I’m not facing the same decision that I had to make in 2007, I’m facing the next tier of that same process. I don’t believe I have even the time to devote to being just an Amtgard player. When I left it, so many years ago, I replaced it. There is no longer an Amtgard-shaped hole in my life. Although nostalgia will pull at that wound, it’s been stitched up, healed, and well scarred over.

I now sit, scratching at that scar, wondering if I ever completely left the game like I wanted to. Like I needed to. Amtgard was a part of me all through my twenties. But I’m not in my twenties anymore, and with a five-year separation from the game, I can’t say it has a place in my thirties. I think, maybe, it’s time for me not just to leave the game, but to leave it behind.

My WSOP Experience

On Memorial Day I left for a road trip that lasted nine days. Before leaving, I made big claims about writing blog posts or doing a video blog of the trip, and all of that fell apart in the face of long drives, other obligations, and, well… Vegas. I wrote a few notes while I was gone, though, so I’m going to try to piece together the trip in a few blog posts now that I’m back.

This post is for all the poker players out there. There’s a lot of talk of poker play, so there’s also a lot of poker jargon.

The trip centered around my shot at playing in the World Series of Poker. For those of you not familiar, the WSOP is the largest and most famous poker tournament series in the world, comprising almost 60 events across just about every poker game imaginable. Buy-ins range from $1,000 for the smallest events, to $10,000 for the Main Event, to as much as $50,000 for the Player’s Championship and $111,111 for the Big One for One Drop charity event.

wsop_receipts

I played in two smaller events, a $1,000 No-Limit Hold ‘Em event and the $1,500 “Millionaire Maker”, a No-Limit Hold ‘Em tourney where the WSOP was guaranteeing at least $1,000,000 for first place regardless of the number of entrants.

I’ll get this out of the way right at the start: my performance in the series was… less than stellar. I busted in level 6 of the 1k event and level 5 of the Millionaire Maker. Oddly enough, even though I lasted over an hour longer in the 1k, I feel much better about my play in the Millionaire Maker. I guess I’m doing a good job of not being “results oriented”.

The WSOP takes place every year at the Rio, a giant slightly-off-strip casino. The casino floor in the Rio isn’t anything special – it’s just like every other large casino in Vegas – but it’s the convention space they use for the WSOP that make it spectacular. Several large ballrooms are taken over and filled with poker tables, and the atmosphere is absolutely awesome. The main room used for the larger events is called the Amazon Room, and I (unfortunately) never got to play in there. My events both took place in Brasilia, a slightly smaller but still spectacular space that held over 100 poker tables. Most of the events we were playing 9-handed, so the room had over 1,000 players at any given time.

There was a shuttle directly from my hotel to the Rio every day, which drops off on the back-side of the Rio casino floor near the buffet. Coming into the Rio from this entrance, you’d never know that the largest poker tournament in the world was going on. No banners, almost no signs, and no indication of a major event. I had to wind my way through the casino floor until I found the hallway leading to the convention space before I even saw a sign indicating the event. Very strange.

I won’t spend any time talking about the registration line. It was a line. I registered on Wednesday night and my first event was at 11am the next day.

The 1k No-Limit Hold ‘Em events at the WSOP are, for lack of a more endearing term, newbie events. The structure of the WSOP events is very good, but the 1k events only start with 3,000 chips, so there’s not a lot of room to move. Early aggression and/or a good run of cards are necessary to stay in play. The rate at which players bust out in these tournaments was staggering to see. Day 1 started with around 160 tables. By the time I busted – about 6 hours in – over half of those tables were empty.

I started at a fairly weak table with several older, very passive players. For the first several levels I was able to chip myself up to about 6k before the first break (at the end of two 1-hour long levels), but then ran a small bluff into a player who’d flopped a set and dropped back down to 4.4k. I lost a few more hands and dropped to just over the 3k starting stack in level 4, but then doubled through another player when my pocket 7’s held up against his A-J.

My best play of the tourney was in level 4. Blinds were at 50/100 and I was on the button with K♠ 7♠. Two players limped and I limped behind, the small blind folded and the big blind checked. The flop came 4♣ 7♥ Q♣, giving me middle pair, and when everyone checked I bet 300 into a 450 pot. One of the early position limpers called, everyone else folded. With a preflop limp and a check call like this, I put him on suited connectors that either also hit the 7 or were calling with the flush draw, or a low to middle pair. I was sure he’d have bet out on the flop had he hit the Queen or a set, so the check-call looked like he was fishing.

The turn came the K♦, giving me a solid two pair. The other player checked to me and I bet out 650. He started to reach for chips and hesitated, then looked back at his cards and counted out a call. I was pretty positive that my two pair was good at this point. The river was the J♣, an absolutely terrible card for me that completes both the club flush draw and possible high straight draws. I could easily see this player having a hand like A♣ 7♣, so this river card slowed me down and I checked. And I watched.

The other guy immediately dumped a 1,000 chip bet into play without looking at his cards or waiting. I know math players out there will hate to hear me say this, but it just felt fucking fishy, like he’d decided on his line on the last street and just followed through without thought. Something about the way his demeanor changed told me that he probably hadn’t hit a flush and my read told me there’s no way he hit a straight. I thought that two pair might be a possibility, but I couldn’t put him on a two pair that beat mine. I stared at him for a couple of minutes and the combination of my read and my feeling about his demeanor told me I had him beat, so I called. He turned over pocket 5’s, and I took down over a 3k pot. I got a “Wow. Good call.” from another player at the table while I was raking my chips.

I hovered at around 7k for a bit, and then had a very lucky hand where I’d called a preflop raise on the button with K♣ Q♦ and the flop came 9♠ 10♥ J♠. The big blind open-shoved for about 3.2k, and another player in the hand tanked for about 4 minutes, then called all in for about 2.7k, and I snap called both of them (of course). The big blind had A♠ 2♠ for a flush draw, and the other guy had A♦ 9♥ for just bottom pair. I faded the flush draw and was up to almost 14k in chips.

At this point in the tourney, I probably could have floated all the way through day 1. Average chipstack at this point was still down around 6k, and the blinds had just gone up to 100/200, so I was sitting on 70 big blinds, which is monstrous for a tournament like this. I played a little bit of big stack poker in the 100/200 level, stealing the blinds a few times and keeping myself level.

Then my table broke and everything went to hell. When I first analyzed my play in this tourney, I was torn on whether my play at the new table was good. Upon reflection I know it was not. I made one very major mistake: I didn’t spend enough time figuring out my new table’s dynamic before making a couple of big moves that led to my elimination. The first was overplaying middle pair and a flush draw when I had A♦ J♦ and flopped K♦ J♣ 4♦. I put far too many chips into the pot against a player who had flopped a King and turned a Queen for two pair, and I never hit my flush. That hand drained me of over 5,500 chips and left me with just over 7k.

My last hand of the tournament was just a dumb call. I’d spent three laps getting garbage hands until I was dealt pocket 9’s in the big blind. Blinds were 100/200 with a 25 ante, and 5 players limped before me, including the small blind. I raised to 1,100 and everyone folded around to the small blind, who re-raised me all-in. I thought about it for a while and somehow convinced myself to call, and he turned over pocket Jacks. I didn’t hit, and I was out of my first WSOP tourney.

My play after my table broke was pretty much atrocious. I had the opportunity and breathing room to just wait it out and get a better read on my table, and float into day two with a healthy chipstack to start the 200/400 level, and I pissed it all away. Not my finest moment, and it’s one that’ll bother me for a long time to come.

The following Saturday I played in the Millionaire Maker. I wish I had some stories to tell about that one, but my only story is a complete and utter lack of cards. When I got pocket pairs I was forced to fold. When I got pocket Aces once I got no callers, and none of my other hands hit. I just couldn’t put anything together at all until I was forced to go all-in with A♠ Q♠. Luckily I got called by Q-J offsuit and my hand held up, doubling me up to about 3k. I hovered for a little while longer but was bleeding, and was down to 2600 during the 100/200 level. 5 players limped before me, I looked down at A-Q suited again and shoved all-in, and the first limper called me with pocket Queens. To put the nail in the coffin he spiked the case Queen on the flop, taking away even my Ace as an out.

Even after busting both of my WSOP tourneys, I still think it was a stellar experience. The atmosphere around the tournament rooms was electric, and I really had fun playing in them. It might be my only chance to ever play in the WSOP and I can’t say I’m not disappointed in my performance, but it was worth it for the experience of playing in the crown jewel of poker tournaments. If I ever get the chance, I’d definitely play in it again, but for now I’ll have to treat this as my one shot that didn’t quite get there.

WSOP Road Trip: Day 1

I’ll start this off with an apology: If this post isn’t up to snuff, it’s because I drove 500 miles on roughly 3 1/2 hours of sleep. And I’m still up. I know I said I’d be doing a video blog of this trip, but I’m not sure whether that’s going to come together, so I’ll stick with normal blog posts for now.

Today marked the beginning of my road trip to the World Series Of Poker in Las Vegas. This will be the first – and I’m treating it as the only – year I’ll be able to play in any WSOP events. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me and I’m extremely blessed that I get to take advantage of it.

Blessed insomuch as I’m married to the most amazing woman who ever walked the earth, and who’s been extremely supportive of my trip to the WSOP to try my hand at my first major poker tournament(s). Without her, I would never be able to do this, and I can’t possibly thank her enough.

The first leg of the journey was a drive from Seattle to Boise. It’s a drive I’ve done probably a dozen times in my life, and it never gets better. This is, however, the first time I’ve done the drive alone, and the entire trip was in varying degrees of rain. I’m not gonna lie: it was a pretty shitty drive.

The road from Seattle to Ellensburg isn’t so bad, but eastern Washington is a big yellow-brown blasted wasteland. There’s a brief respite in northeastern Oregon, and then right back to brown, flat roads. I’ve never been a fan of this drive, but it’s a necessary evil.

I’ve never spent any time in Boise, and this is no exception. I’m only spending about 4 hours here awake, but I have to say that I’m pleasantly surprised by the downtown area. It’s well kept and clean, and it looks like it’s being well developed with a lot of small businesses, boutique shops, and good food. It’s nicer than I expected.

It also helps that I got to have dinner with Jordan, a friend of mine from my Nintendo testing days. I haven’t seen Jordan in several years, so I was glad to have the opportunity to hang out for a bit. Good friends, good beer, and good food are a great way to cap off an otherwise kind of crappy driving day, and I have Jordan to thank:

jordan

Tomorrow, I’m headed to Salt Lake City to meet a couple of people I only know on Twitter. I’ll fire up another post in the aftermath of that meeting.