I first came across Owen Duffy’s writing in the Guardian, a column called the Board Hoard showing off the latest in tabletop game design to the masses. Since then I have followed him on Twitter, his own blog, and his articles in places such as Tabletop Gaming Magazine.
Owen is bringing a book to Kickstarter highlighting the best in Tabletop game design from the year. He has a whole host of talent behind this project and was nice enough to take some time out of his busy schedule to answer some questions about the book.
You’ve gotten together the great and the good of Tabletop games writing for this new project. How long has this been brewing and what has been the biggest problem in putting the book together?
I’ve had the vague idea of working on a book for a while now, but it really all came together in my head one day when I was in the big Waterstones store in Glasgow. They have a good selection of games there, and it struck me that a nice, hardcover guidebook might be really appealing to people if it was positioned next to all the copies of Catan and Pandemic.
You have similar books for all kinds of other subjects: beer guides, whisky guides, travel guides, books about different genres of movies and music. Even video games have these nice, polished, lavishly presented books for fans to enjoy. It seemed a bit odd that there wasn’t an equivalent for board games.
In terms of the biggest challenge, that’s probably been working my way around the whole process of print production. I’m not totally new to it; I used to do similar stuff for a magazine publisher. But there are so many things to consider when you’re making a book: the size, the page count, the paper stock, the logistics of how you actually get it into readers’ hands. It’s been a real learning process, but we’re working with a fantastic printer, which is a huge help.
Some of the promo shots of the boardgames look absolutely stunning. Do you have particular photographers involved or are those shots being supplied by the writers?
Thank you! All of the photography so far has actually been by me. I’m a bit of a camera geek, and last year I went to college to study portrait and product photography. I’ve converted one half of our living room into a studio, which my wife is absolutely thrilled about.
I love the process of setting up shots of games. I put a lot of thought into how to present them in ways that convey how they feel to play rather than just what’s in the box. Sometimes that means doing things at odd angles to give a sense of dynamism to static components, or arranging things in ways that aren’t actual depictions of gameplay but show a scene with a bit of drama.
There are a lot of challenges involved. Games tend to use a lot of reflective materials, so there can be a lot of glare to eliminate. Then there are really nitty-gritty things, like going in with Photoshop and getting rid of tiny tears on the cardboard and things like that. It’s about trying to show games in their best light and bringing out their character and their appeal, whether that’s action-packed space battles or shuffling resource cubes around a map of Europe.
Some might say that producing a collection in a physical form like this is a bit old fashioned. What made you choose a book format and do you think it would achieve the same impact if it took the form of a website or similar?
I think gamers particularly appreciate the appeal of nice physical objects. There’s a reason why we’d rather play with hands of cards and clusters of meeples than pixels on a computer screen, right? Personally I still buy physical copies of novels, and I prefer to read books in print rather than on a tablet or a Kindle.
But aside from that, I think that having a product with an annual print deadline gives us a very interesting perspective on the hobby. There are so many games coming out, the hype cycle is so intense, and it means that games sometimes get a couple of weeks’ real coverage before they drop off the radar to make way for the next big release.
We’re taking a step back from that, and by taking a view of the year as a whole I think we get a sense of context. We’re a bit less concerned with the buzz being generated than with how well a game stands up against everything else that’s being released over the course of the year.
I don’t want to sound like some kind of luddite. I obsessively check Board Game Geek as much as the next person, and we will be making the book available in digital formats. However, I do think there’s room for print games media, and I do think it brings something new to the discussion around games. I think Tabletop Gaming Magazine, which I also write for, is a great example of that.
The last couple of years have seen an explosion in bloggers, podcasters and YouTube channels with games criticism in mind. Do you think that Tabletop Games journalism is in a good place right now? Who are you favourite content producers?
I love so much of what people are putting out online. Shut Up & Sit Down have always done really insightful stuff. Even when I disagree with their opinions, they always make interesting points and present them in very engaging, intelligent ways. Elaine and Efka at No Pun Included are really entertaining, too.
Obviously the folks I’m working with on the book are among my favourite games writers. Matt Thrower’s work has a real sense of character. Teri Litorco writes really clearly and conversationally. Richard Jansen-Parkes is one of the best RPG writers I’ve ever encountered.
Then there are folks like Calvin Wong, Sam Desatoff and Charlie Theel, whose work I always enjoy. I’m worried about all the folks I’m missing out, but we could be here for a while if I try to name them all.
As for the state of games criticism, I think it’s at a very interesting point. There are ethical considerations, which I think are going to become more important as more money comes into the industry.
There are a few folks in the industry that I get along with very well personally, but they know that if they release a bad game, I’m not going to pull any punches. If you look at the video game industry for comparison, there’s some real petty stuff with companies denying access to critical reviewers, or trying to side-step journalists by working with pliable “influencers” on social media. It’s really nasty and cynical, and I very much hope that it’s not something we’re going to see in the tabletop industry.
Do you think there is anyway to address the problems you find in computer game criticism before they occur in Tabletop?
I think the fact that it’s a relatively small community – compared to video games, at least – helps a lot. If anything questionable does happen, like a YouTube creator not being up-front about their relationship with a publisher, then word gets around very quickly.
And for the most part, publishers aren’t averse to fair criticism. The people running these companies are game geeks themselves, and even the PR folks working for them aren’t doing the kind of intensive, fanatical image control that sometimes happens in other industries. Hopefully that will continue to be the case as the hobby grows.
What is your favourite article in the book?
It’s difficult to say at the moment! We’re going to be playing new releases right up until we go to print, so the lineup of featured games will change as more stuff comes out. I really like our piece on Fog of Love, though. It’s such a great game that just bulldozes so many of the conventions of the hobby, and I’m particularly pleased with our interview with its designer, Jacob Jaskov. I actually think our designer interviews are one of the book’s strongest points – it’s fascinating getting inside creators’ heads and getting the stories behind the games.
You have a whole host of interviews lined up for the book. Who you were most excited to talk to out of the existing list and do you have anyone you really want to include that hasn’t signed up yet?
I’d love to have a chat with Richard Garfield. He’s the one guy I’ve never managed to pin down. I imagine he’s done so many interviews about Magic that he’s just thoroughly sick of talking to journos.
Beyond big, established names, I really enjoy talking to folks who might not be as well-known, but who have innovative ideas and interesting personal stories to tell. There’s new design talent popping up constantly, and it can be really fascinating hearing about their influences and motivations.
What game published this year from a UK publisher has you most excited?
I don’t even think I can answer this one at the moment! I’m looking forward to the UK Games Expo, because it’s a chance to see some stuff from UK publishers who aren’t necessarily at events like Essen. I think Britain has lagged behind the US and Europe a little bit in recent years just because so many of the big publishers aren’t based here, but I definitely see signs of a resurgence and it’s exciting to see UK designers getting their ideas out into the world.