262 – The Last Tale

It's not my card, I know, but sometimes I like to pretend.

Early last year I asked on Twitter if anyone needed a freelancer for unpaid writing work.

Unpaid freelance is, of course, the worst kind of freelance. Writers, their voices lost in a sea of similarly unpaid freelancers, generally get little recognition from it; if anything the people hiring them get even less. Quality articles don’t just happen; anyone who can string a few words together considers himself a writer, and the Internet is full of websites providing content for content’s sake, with no specific voice setting them apart from others of their kind. Taking anyone who asks for a job on board won’t help distinguish a website so much as bloat it, make it generic, weigh it down.

A couple sites asked if I’d write for them, so I did. One asked for specific reviews, sending me a game to plough through and write about. Not wanting to seem like a game-thieving wastrel I played the game extensively, taking copious notes and screenshots and delivering two overly long articles at the end–overlong articles being my speciality, as I’m sure you’ve noticed. I received some editorial notes with regard to the clarity of my writing and for the first time I realised, if I was writing for someone other than myself I’d have to abandon verbal trickery in favour of legibility. I’d grown so used to living in my own head I’d forgotten other people can’t hear my voice as I do: they can only read the words I put in front of them.

The other site was far more relaxed about my writing, letting me write whatever I wanted to about whichever games I chose. Time passed. I uploaded articles to both sites and as I’d done before, started writing pieces for myself: an irregular series of columns I called ‘100 Minutes With’ which eschewed traditional game review focus in favour of highlighting how it felt to play a game–something I still consider the most important factor of any review. We’ve all played games that look like shit, that have dismal voice acting, that were made by a first time indie developer without the experience, budget and design team of a large ‘AAA’ project that we’ve had an absolute whale of a time with. We remember games not in terms of whether they’re objectively good–as a review score would have you believe–but in terms of our favourite moments, the places we’ve been, the things we’ve done, the characters we’ve met.

The feelings we’ve felt.

When viewed in such terms, games become a part of our lives as much as holidays or jobs or loved ones or anything. When friends play our favourite games for the first time, we envy them. “I wish I could play them afresh,” we say, and those first game experiences, used and lost to time become nostalgic mirror fragments reflecting the past–or happy memories, depending on just how melancholic you are.

Being terribly melancholic, I wrote an article about Fighting Fantasy gamebooks, which as a kid in simpler times had influenced both my style of writing and my view of the world. Michael Fox, owner of the Little Metal Dog Show website was kind enough to post it; he also invited me onto his podcast where I talked–endlessly, it seemed–about the tabletop games of my youth. I am, to date, the only person to appear on the Little Metal Dog Show who’s monologued about hating board games for half an hour.

But I changed my mind, in time. I bought and played two games at the start of this year: Forbidden Island and Dominion, games that were mentioned on the Little Metal Dog Show, that had mechanics so intriguing and different to the games of my youth I had to play them, if only to give board games a second chance.

And I loved them: simply, I loved them.

I picked up a couple more games, played them, enthused about them, and in February of 2011 Michael Fox asked if I wanted to write more for his website as part of the team. Again, I wouldn’t be paid, but with the possibility of a few free promos down the line, and being a newly devoted convert to the Church of Tabletop Gaming, how could I refuse? I signed on the dotted line and prepared the first edition of my new weekly gaming column, which I called Tales from the Fireside.

(Oh, and a little Campfire trivia here: I also suggested the title Michael plumped for when naming his podcast and website, so if you’ve ever thought The Little Metal Dog Show was a particularly good or rubbish name, I’m the one to blame for it)

And here we are, seven months later. Today, Michael has posted what will be the last Tales from the Fireside column for the Little Metal Dog Show and I have left him and Chris–the end of the show Q&A master–to fend for themselves. They might replace me. They might not. I don’t know–whatever they do now, it’s entirely up to them.

It’s strange, having finished with the column to once again feel so . . . melancholic? Nostalgic? I don’t think either of those words is quite correct.

I wanted Tales to mean something. When asked about their work, one of the things the tabletop game writers I admire say is that although they like and appreciate the old hands in board game journalism–the Tom Vasels, the Scott Nicholsons–they cover games in a very traditional way. Beyond these leading lights there aren’t many writers or presenters who convey both the excitement of playing a game and the enthusiasm that drives people to play it.

To this day there aren’t many people who can do this, though I suspect a year from now board game journalism–for want of a better phrase–will be very different territory. For the most part board gamers have been happy with facts and figures rather than feelings and flights of fantasy, but as more of us video gamers cross the divide the balance of power’s shifting. Video games have always been flashy and exciting, and fostered writers who strived to be just as flashy in their reviews. I don’t remember much about my time spent reading Your Sinclair but I remember the silliness, how I knew the writers by name, how even though Sinclair User and Crash! had better cover tapes Your Sinclair was my magazine, because Your Sinclair was fun.

Picking reviews or videos at random, you wouldn’t know board games were supposed to be fun. Dry descriptions of game mechanics are enough to put any would-be gamer off, so when comedy writer–and former video game enthusiast–Robert Florence made Downtime Town it struck the board game scene with the megaton splash of a fat kid bombing a paddling pool.

Unlike the amiable board game shows that had proceeded it, Downtime Town was fiercely passionate. Rob’s Dixit review was a watershed moment for board gaming: it’s the one review you as a gamer should show those you love to make them understand what your hobby is all about. He painted Dixit as a game of creativity, subtlety, bluffing and human interaction, in which you imbue the cards you play with–well, it would be pretentious for me to say ‘a part of your soul’, but that’s exactly what Rob does: he shows the camera a card, tells us it describes himself, and lets us make our own minds up from there. It’s beautiful. It’s brilliant. It shows that no matter how big or small the box a board game comes in, its most important components are the people playing it.

All in a review for a card game, cast out into the wind.

From there, Rob wrote Cardboard Children for Rock Paper Shotgun–and this is where I stepped in, following suit with my trademark blend of–well, you’re reading this, you know what I do.

When Rob left the site to concentrate on other projects Quintin ‘Quinns’ Smith filled the void admirably–some might say a little too well–continuing on from his already infamous review of Space Alert (a multiplayer game that unfolds in realtime to a CD soundtrack, which involves a lot of shouting at your fellow players to shut the fucking airlock) with a series of immensely readable and similarly passionate columns. Like me, Quinns was a newbie at this, and not a Heroquest and Warhammer fan of old. If I had to divide the two of them I’d say Quinns was by far the better writer, but Rob was the more passionate. They’re both good; I like them both.

Also during this tumultuous gaming year, Quinns left Rock Paper Shotgun and started Shut Up & Sit Down, a show–and blog–about board games, which he writes and presents with another video game journo, Paul Dean.

And it’s great. It’s brilliant. Again, it’s the kind of thing you could show to a non-gamer to convince them to play–which, much as I love the bloke, isn’t something you could say of any of Scott Nicholson’s videos.

And this has all happened in a year or two. Downtime Town, The Little Metal Dog Show, Cardboard Children, Not Cardboard Children and Shut Up & Sit Down.

So where does Tales from the Fireside fit into all of this?

While writing Tales I’ve tried on many hats. Some have been silly; some have been sensible. One–the hat worn while writing a two part article in which I played Pokémon against an imaginary Chaos demon–was so preposteous even Princess Beatrice thought it was a bit too much. Of all the columns I’ve written, that’s the one I wish I’d returned to the milliner’s. Playing Pokémon against Gordon Bloodthirster was one thing–a multi-thousand word play-by-play account was quite another.

Of course, a few weeks later Cardboard Children featured an imaginary James Purefoy taking the piss out of gaming for an entire article–which made me feel a little better about my own folly.

I suppose it’s too late to talk about what I was trying to do with Tales from the Fireside–if I haven’t made it clear by now then I’ve failed. Instead, I’ll talk about the nice surprises that resulted from it, like people thinking of me as a font of gaming knowledge when all I really am is a guy with access to Board Game Geek, and the positive reactions from the designers of games I’ve reviewed–those alone have made it all worth while.

This last column is, I think, quite a clever one. The central thrust of it was salvaged from a ‘lost’ column entitled ‘Ones and Zeros’ that examined the relationship between board games and video games before getting bogged down in an unpublishable explanation of Dominion’s mechanics. The more Tales columns you’ve read–and especially if you’ve listened to my first early appearance on The Little Metal Dog Show as not Campfire, not yet, but a listener called Daniel who just won’t shut up–the more you’ll get out of it. Not that this is incentive for you to go back and read all those columns–but if you do it’s probably best you miss the two part Pokémon one, yeah?

It’s weird to be so emotional about the passing of a column–an ending I dictated–but with my life in turmoil this is the first of many endings still to come this year. I’m severing ties I’ve built over a lifetime; in actual fact I’m breaking chains that have restrained me for so long, that I’ve struggled to free myself from, against which I’ve finally won. Though I’d hardly say Tales from the Fireside has weighed me down I shall miss the weekly brainstorming sessions, scurrying to play a game at the weekend, dividing myself in twain for multiplayer games never meant to be played solo.

Patrice, Gordon and everyone else are behind me. Ahead is only the future, uncertain as the future always is.

Roll a six.

To start again? To move off the starting block once more? To finish a game that’s frustrated me for so long? Perhaps. But within those six dots is reinvention, a new life waiting to happen.

I have a phrase in my head: Epic Tales from the Fireside. I don’t know if it means anything yet, but with a whole new game about to begin I have plenty of time to find out.

If you’ve ever read one of my columns, I thank you. Seriously: you have no idea how much it means to me, a guy who wrote for decades but never showed a word to anyone until last year.

And if I might be so bold as to ask for one more favour from you . . .

Years from now–when everyone’s gone board game crazy–when people look back on these early journalistic times and see Rob and Quinns and Paul leading the way, if I do nothing else between now and then please remember in the midst of it all stood a single small, flickering light around which stories were told. Crackling in the silence, warm in the night: a campfire, burning.

Thank you for reading.

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