James Edward Gray: @JEG2
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00:16 – Welcome to “Paneldome!” …we mean, “Greater Than Code!”
01:58 – Backgrounds and Superpowers
04:44 – Examples of Accessibility Challenges in Board Games
07:00 – Games and Challenges
11:49 – The Power of House Rules
14:41 – German-style/Eurogames vs American Games
16:45 – Video Games; Real-time vs Turn Based Games
19:35 – Tabletop Role-Playing Games (RPGs)
Dungeons and Dragons (D&D)
22:45 – Cooperative Games vs Competitive Games
22:45 – Bluffing Games, The Autism Spectrum, and Player Elimination
35:14 – The Cost of Board Games: Time and Money
43:02 – The History of Monopoly; Leftist Board Games
45:56 – Resources
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JAMEY: Hi, I’m Jamey Hampton and welcome to ‘Paneldome!’ the show where six panelists enter, have a conversation and then hopefully, six panelists also leave. I’d like to introduce Rein Henrichs, my fellow panelist.
REIN: Oh. Hi, Jamey. I didn’t see you there. Actually, I think the title of the show is Greater Than Code but we’ll let that one slide and I am happy to introduce Sam Livingston-Gray.
SAM: Thank you, Rein. I am pleased to be here and happy to introduce my friend, Coraline Ada Ehmke.
CORALINE: Hi, everybody. We have two guest on the show today. First up is James Gray. James plays games and hopes that he’s going to be allowed on the podcast today. He’s been a moderate to heavy role player plus video and board gamer for over 30 years. He plays mostly everything. He also recently won the game of Western Trail, 131 to 84 but he warned us that if we say that on the air, his wife may leave him. Oh, shit. I’m sorry, James. We should have read that in advance.
SAM: No do overs.
JAMES: Right, yeah. No problem. I’m sure Mandy loves me enough to fix it in post.
JAMEY: And I’d like to introduce our other guest, Mischa Lewis-Norelle. Mischa has the compassionate heart of a Midwesterner, the resilient legs of Northwesterner and the parched throats of a Southern Californian. When not hosting board game nights, coding in his job in Santa Barbara or trying to figure this life stuff out, he has hastily showing jokes into bios for podcast introductions, much to the chagrin of everyone listening.
CORALINE: I’m definitely chagrined right now.
MISCHA: I could tell. I could see in your face. It’s okay.
SAM: Oh, the humanity.
CORALINE: We’d like to get to know our panelists before we get into the meat of the discussion. Mischa, what’s your superpower?
MISCHA: That’s a really hard question. Perhaps, appropriately for this conversation, my super power is building community. I really love getting people together around things that they like doing together and then having that continue over time.
CORALINE: James was too humble to point this out but James is a pillar of the development community and one of the kindest people I know. I don’t know if you want to take the easy way out, James and say your superpowers is kindness.
JAMES: Tempting. Actually, I’m on this episode because I’m trying to develop a new superpower. I’ve been working a lot recently on talking about my disability and things like that. When Sam asked me to be on the show to talk about the accessibility of board games, I thought this is a great opportunity to practice.
SAM: For our listeners who don’t know you, what is your disability, James?
JAMES: It’s complicated, Sam. I have one of the muscular dystrophies. It’s called [inaudible] disease or spinal muscular atrophy type 1 but the MDA has changed over time how they referred to diseases. Back when I was diagnosed, it meant something very different than it means today. It’s complex but the general description is that I’m confined to an electric wheelchair, I have a protein deficiency basically that makes the majority of my muscles weaker over time.
CORALINE: And James, you recently built a house that you were lovingly refer to as Castle Grayskull?
JAMES: Yes, that’s right. I did. I made a totally accessible dream house with huge doors and no stairs anywhere, even out of the garage and things like that. You can find me roaming around my castle in most days.
CORALINE: Nice. And Mischa I’m curious, what is your interest in accessibility in board games? Where does that come from?
MISCHA: One of those spur of the moment conversations, I was actually talking to Hilary Stohs-Krause, who after she gave a really excellent talk at RailsConf, we ended up talking about board games and she mentioned that some of the friends in her group had trouble playing some of the board games because of different accessibility issues with the game design. That kind of started me down this rabbit hole over the next couple of months. I just ended up reading a bunch of different blogs about it and looking for different products that are related to it. Sometime soon, I’m hoping to get to be a part of building additions to games to help make it more accessible as well.
JAMES: That’s really awesome. How about a super basic example that first run that pops in your head a way that a game might be challenging for someone?
MISCHA: One of the perhaps most visible to most people because a lot of people are aware of this condition, a decent percentage of the American population has red/green color blindness and yet the basic colors for a lot of pieces are red, green, blue and yellow. It means that two of the sets of pieces are oftentimes indistinctionable because they have the same shape and only differ by that color. That’s a super basic example.
Another example would be a lot of games involved dealing with a lot of small parts and putting them very precisely onto a board so if someone has trouble with that kind of muscular position, as I’m sure you know that sometimes playing those games becomes a lot more challenging, things like rolling die and things like that. If the play space isn’t designed properly, it can end up not being a feasible thing so the game ends up taking a lot longer and being a lot less fun for people that it might otherwise [inaudible].
JAMES: Once upon a time, I didn’t have any trouble rolling dice. Now, I do and have pretty much let go of that. But I have a six-year old which turns out to be the best dice-rolling mechanism you can come by. Yeah, problem solved.
SAM: Yeah, James I was actually wondering, do you use a laser pointer to designate where you want stuff to go?
JAMES: I am embarrassed to admit that that’s a genius idea, Sam. Maybe I’m using that in the future but I have not done that in the past. It’s a great idea.
CORALINE: Normally, your laser pointer activities involve contacting alien civilizations but also has more practical use as we’ve just heard.
REIN: And playing with cats.
JAMES: Playing with my cats which is what I was going to add. Super good idea, yes.
JAMEY: I’m worried that the cats would then want to play the game, which sounds dangerous.
JAMES: Yeah, that would be awful. If you’re pointing to somebody’s [inaudible], and you’re like, “This point is [inaudible],” and the cat flings across the room —
REIN: Oh, no, what happened to your tile?
SAM: Chaos monkey is [inaudible] games.
CORALINE: James, I’m curious about what games you play often and some of the challenges that you face with those games.
JAMES: I played games for, I don’t know like 25 years, without ever realizing that my disability was maybe affecting some of them in certain ways because when it’s just the way you are, you don’t apply a lot of external bot to it or things like that. But then recently, a trending gaming has been, in my experience, some of the ones I’ve been playing, doing with real time elements. Coraline, I think you actually mentioned a game with real time elements before the show.
CORALINE: Yeah, Escape From the Temple, I believe it was.
JAMES: Right, and can you explain the overall flow of the game?
CORALINE: Sure. It is a fast and furious dice-rolling game. There are no turns, everyone is playing simultaneously. You’re rolling as many dice as possible to move from room to room and to collect jewels and eventually to escape the temple. You’re laying down tiles as you go, unlocking tiles to expand the maze and the game actually has a 10-minute time limit enforced by a soundtrack that you play at the same time as the game. Not the friendliest game at all for people with motor difficulties.
SAM: That sounds exhausting and I could probably gave up with that.
JAMES: Everybody is kind of acting on their own there and independently. Am I right about that?
CORALINE: Yeah. The only time that there’s cooperation really is coordinating who’s going to what room and if you get a skull on one of your dice, that locks that die and if you get completely locked out, someone has to come into the same room and see you and roll furiously to unlock your dice.
JAMES: Right. A game like that is pretty much a no-go for me because as I mentioned earlier, if I need to roll dice or something, my solution would just be to ask my six-year old to roll for me because she loves it. But then, I would be stopping her from rolling her own dice at a time-critical scenario or something like that. This seems to be a trending games recently, really popular game last year, I believe was called Millennium Blades and it’s an amazing game.
It’s a card-collecting game about card-collecting games, which is just super. It’s a blast. If you ever play anything like Magic the Gathering or anything, it has so many strategies and you would enjoy. But it has a real-time component to it and trading off the market and stuff like that. Someone may put a card for sale on the market and then you can buy back card off the market. This is a case where me winning on my fellow players will affect a response to someone else like if we’re both trying to get the same card on the market or something like that. I think that’s really have been one of the ones I enjoyed but where [inaudible], I have not found a good way to adapt to and may be possible by changing the rules or adapting obviously but I’m not sure.
MISCHA: James, I have a follow up question. Talking about the game that Coraline mentioned, sounds like it’s fast and furious game. If anyone remember, but there was a game, one of the standard board games from the 90s that had this half dome, the see through plastic dome and all the dice were put inside of the dome and you can press it and it would roll them for you. Something like that could actually help make fast and furious dice-rolling games more feasible.
JAMES: That’s a good question and I do remember seeing that mechanism in commercials. That particular one might not be of much help to me but surely, I could use a dice-rolling program on an iPhone or whatever. There would definitely be ways to get around that. But then you have — [inaudible]. There you go. There’s the name. Good job, Jamey.
I give you the dice-rolling phone or whatever but then you have the issue of rolling and also moving your piece in response to that roll and stuff like that. Some games, I basically like as it is. Is this game close and I could make a little modification here and there? Or is this game the central mechanic of it, probably outside of my Venn diagram of capabilities. I think that’s a bigger hurdle.
SAM: Speaking of modifications, James as we were discussing this over email, you brought up the power of house rules. What are some of the ones that you’ve come up with?
JAMES: Yeah. Some games are very easy to adapt and sometimes, we do it I guess without recognizing we’re doing it. One of my long time games since I was in high school — this is forever ago, dinosaur times — is RoboRally. Has anyone played RoboRally?
MISCHA: I adore RoboRally.
JAMES: Yes, I love this game. In RoboRally, your robots moving around a factory floor, you play cards to program your robots to next five moves and everyone programs first and then it turns on and they all happen at once so pandemonium ensues as robots are pushed around, sharp with razors that they never saw it coming. Its crazy great. I love that game.
RoboRally rules indicate that you should start a timer when people are programming their cards. There’s a little timer included in the box or hourglass timer. We have never done that ever. Never used a timer. Actually, it would be brutal to new players, in my opinion because one of the tricky bits of RoboRally is understanding how the conveyor belt on the factory floor affect you as you’re moving and when you’re new, you care to this adjustment period where you’re getting the hang of it. If you have a timer, that’s really going to put a heavy penalty on you. We’ve just never played with a timer. We’ll politely rip each other a little bit when you’ve been programming for a long time or something but beyond that, we don’t use any kind of time pressure.
That simple house rule has taken that game from something I couldn’t do to something I’ve done for over 20 years. I would just say while there are games like Coraline discussed earlier where I think pretty much the premise of the game is pretty far out of what I’m capable of. Simple rules can make big changes.
SAM: Just out of curiosity, does that adaptation mean that your six-year old can play RoboRally or is that still in her future?
JAMES: We haven’t tried that one specifically yet. I’m not sure if she’s quite there yet. Although I will say just like two weeks ago, I think she played Small World with us for the first time and she thought that was a blast and did quite well. She got second place by a couple of points. She loves Small World so she’s getting it right. She plays the bigger games.
REIN: In addition to house rules to modify games, are there categories of games that you find generally to be more accessible. One of the big categories of games is German-style or Eurogames versus American games. Eurogames often have less luck, more strategy, less conflict, more trade negotiation. They often involve things like building a tile or array of components in front of you like cards or tiles or things like that. Examples would be Ticket to Ride, Puerto Rico, and Settlers of Catan is something most people have played. Anyway, is that a style of game that you find generally more accessible or there are issues with that one as well?
JAMES: I love the Euro-style games. My wife and I, we will sit down and play one for an afternoon. You mentioned when you introduce me that we played Great Western Trail this last weekend, which took us three hours just sitting there, building things up and that is our idea of a great way to spend time together. I play a ton of those and I think you’re right that aspect of everybody working out the ideal strategy for them, it doesn’t bother people if my slowness or something gets in the way a little bit. It fits better in that model, whereas if you have a fast and furious card game where everybody’s throwing a card every few seconds or something, it would be much more distracting to have me tossing cards in that situation.
Also, something that has a large hand of cards, I can’t really hold a large hand of cards anymore or things like that. For sure, there are definitely games that are better than that. But good news is the strategy games have always been my favorite, far and away. I’m a tournament chess player from way back so that’s my cup of tea and I’ve always leaning to that way. It works out but that’s the case.
On the video game side, it’s maybe I’m more pronounced, where often video games require pretty quick reactions for certain things and you have things like the Civilizations or the Masters of Orion. They are much more slower and strategic and I do love those games but they can take days to play literally. I think the one I play right now that on the edge of my capabilities is Don’t Starve Together, which is a rogue-like game where you’re gathering food and trying to keep yourself from getting too cold or hot or all of those things. There are sometimes attacks by big monsters.
I said rogue-like and rogue-like means a very punishing game where you die all the time and that’s just expected and you learn from those experiences and try it again. I have learned to beat monsters in that game but I have a system to it. Deerclops is one of the big scary monster that comes for you in the winter and I will put him to sleep, drop gunpowder in his feet while he’s sleeping, light the gunpowder on fire, back off, you’ll kill him that way. I have a system for how I kill them, even though my reaction times aren’t as good as most people.
CORALINE: I think Rogue, the original and its derivatives, all the other rogue-likes probably represent the kind of video game that people with disabilities can most easily play because all of the actions and all of the movements are triggered by a keystroke. If you’re able to activate a key by whatever means, you normally press keys on your keyboard, you move and then you see more of the dungeon and you might see a monster but nothing’s happening real time. Everything is precipitated on you initiating the next move.
REIN: And there are cases where you might want to spend minutes considering a single key press so it can be a very slow game at times.
SAM: It’s interesting to consider how much of that might have been due to technical limitations. I don’t know when Rogue came about but I can see it being played on a teletype where you got to wait and print the whole screen and then send your input.
JAMES: That category of games we’re discussing now is often called turn-based games, where for each action, you get the monsters or bad guys or whatever, get one action as well. Those are the kinds of games where I do very well because when it’s my turn, I can take as long as I want.
JAMEY: To build on this just slightly more, how would you categorize tabletop role-playing game such as Dungeons and Dragons in this hierarchy of accessibility?
MISCHA: That’s a really interesting one. It probably depends on the role-playing game. It’s interesting because even a tabletop role-playing game, you can spend across the entire spectrum. Some involved moving little models across a giant table, which requires being able to move around the table things like that but others are really focused on the storytelling. In that case, it’s almost exclusively just what you say that drives the narrative forward and drives the game forward. I would imagine that those ones where people who are able to communicate with everyone else in the group pretty easily, are those would be a lot easier to play but that’s just my perception.
CORALINE: I went to a D&D game and I had an interesting situation. I like doing maps in Photoshop and I will spend, literally days crafting a map. What I do is I have a giant monitor that I never put on a stand and I lay that down flat in the middle of the table and everyone has their miniatures. We play 4th edition D&D. There’s a grid that I overlay on the map and then people position themselves because 4th edition is very tactical. There’s a lot of tactics to combat.
I had an interesting situation where one of my players moved away, about halfway through the campaign and we actually allow him to play remotely via Skype so I have a little tripod that I put my iPhone on. That way, he can see the board and then from Skype, he can see the other participants but we really had to work to make it such that he could tell us where he wanted his miniature placed on the board. It’s not certainly the same as a person with disability playing the game but it was one of those similar kind of obstacle that we had to overcome.
JAMEY: It’s interesting to me to hear Coraline talk about her D&D just like, Mischa as you say, it’s very different than my D&D game. We don’t normally have maps and mentors because sometimes we’ll go half a dozen sessions without having any combat. I could do an entire day session without having to roll any dice at all. That’s just talking.
CORALINE: Yeah, I think that’s [inaudible] refer to as ‘Theater of the Mind.’ While the origins of Dungeons and Dragons actually was a miniature large scale war game but the Dungeons and Dragons that many of us grew up with in 80s and 90s was all theater of the mind.
MISCHA: Yeah. Another thing that this conversation kind of highlight is role-playing games traditionally have a dungeon master and that person is essentially helping to build the game. With enough planning, I think role-playing games can give you a lot of freedom to solve for any potential accessibility issues that your group might have, before you even start playing. I think there’s a lot of freedom there that is really cool.
REIN: This actually brings up something I want to talk about, which is cooperative versus competitive games. Don’t Starve Together is a good example of a cooperative game where you’re cooperating as a group against, essentially the environment. Then people think that Dungeons and Dragons is about party competing with a dungeon master but really, you’re cooperating with them to build a good experience for everyone. Can we maybe talk about how that axis of competitive and cooperative plays into disability and other things that we care about?
JAMES: I’m so glad you brought up cooperative games. I want to say that I think being a long time gamer and living in a place where there are gaming communities but they’re not huge and well-known. I think my number one trick for introducing people to games is to show them a cooperative game. They always come in and they say something like, “My husband and I play Risk but we get really competitive and we didn’t enjoy it or whatever,” and I’m like, “Here, let me show you this game. It’s you and me together against the board.” It’s just a mind-blowing experience. From a gaming standpoint, let alone accessibility issues, if you have not played a cooperative game, you need to do so ASAP.
REIN: One of the problems with introducing people to competitive games is that new players usually lose and that’s not a fun experience.
JAMES: Right. One of the great things about cooperative games is the ramp up is much better because you’re all in this together, you’re having this experience, you’re trying to overcome this puzzle or a problem and you’re talking it out. If you’re new, you get to see how the more experienced players like, “If we do this, then we could follow up with that and we’ll have that under control,” and you get exposed to that and you feel like you’re a part of this, at least I do, I should speak for myself. I feel like I’m a part of this thing that’s going on, even when I haven’t got the hang of it yet so yeah, super great about cooperatives.
Then of course, from an accessibility standpoint, they’re quite good. I mentioned I play a ton of Don’t Starve Together. I play that with my wife. She plays the fighter-type character, which she enjoys. The particular weaknesses that I have, I’m the base-builder. That’s my specialty. I sit in the base and build the entire base and she’ll ask me, “What resources do you need?” I need this and that and she’ll run out into the world and go kill a bunch of things and do challenging stuff and then bring the resources back. It works very well for offloading those aspects that are harder for you.
REIN: I like that she is the provider in this situation.
JAMES: Oh, yeah.
JAMEY: It’s kind of romantic in a way.
JAMEY: This is kind of slightly different accessibility issue but for me, I have anxiety issues and sometimes competitive games can be very stressful for me because I don’t like to get very competitive. You can play competitive games like intensely competitive, in theory but depending on who you’re playing with, sometimes you can’t and that’s really hard for me when I don’t want to be intensely competitive and people that I’m playing with make it into more of the competition than I’m comfortable with. Cooperative games are also really good for that kind of stress levels, in my opinion.
SAM: Yeah. Well, we’re talking about turn-based versus real-time earlier and I don’t have anxiety diagnosis but I don’t like playing the real-time games. I don’t find them relaxing and I’m playing a game because I want to have fun so I generally stick to the turn-based strategy ones as well for similar reasons.
MISCHA: It’s interesting because I noticed something very similar early on. When I was buying a lot of board games, they tended to be German-style and then perhaps slightly more competitive. But I started to notice that I was enjoying the competitive ones less because I was also getting very tense for a long amount of time, which wasn’t pleasant so I’ve almost exclusively been buying cooperative games in the last year or two.
One of the things that I want to mention on the cooperative aspect is there’s a really cool game out there. It’s called Space Cadets. It’s a cooperative game where everyone is playing different members of the… What do you called the command part of the ship? I should know this term.
REIN: The bridge?
MISCHA: Oh, the bridge. There we go, yes. You got your weapons officer and you’ve got your captain and all that and what’s cool about it is each role has a completely different mini-game that they’re playing but they all need to coordinate the outcomes of their mini-games to be able to propel the ship forward. Unfortunately, from accessibility standpoint, that game is in real-time but I think what would be a really cool thing for game designers to explore is how the cooperative games, where there’s different mechanics for each player and some mechanics that might be more accessible for one group of people and some that are more accessible for another group of people. But everyone, regardless of accessibility and even of what they enjoy in the game, can find some part of the game that they can play.
JAMES: I love that idea and just to kind of run with it for a second. There are games that need that definition today. Just off the top of my head, we were talking earlier about role-playing games and how they often involve a dungeon master. The dungeon master has a much higher level of requirements in what they have to do and manipulate and control, than someone who’s just casually playing. That kind of meets your definition there. But also, to get more into a game, Deception: Murder in Hong Kong is a social game, where there’s different roles involves in the game. You’d have a forensics scientist who has to manipulate a lot of tiles and place pieces on them to give clues about what’s happened. But the other people in the game do not have to manipulate tiles in that way so their particular role is less physically taxing but I love that as an idea.
SAM: One of the things that I was thinking about as we were talking that there’s a whole genre of games that I don’t find particularly comfortable. They’re bluffing games. One example is Mascarade, which is spelled M-A-S-C-A-R-A-D-E. It’s a fun party game because you can get a dozen people into it but it involves picking up a card and either claiming that you have a particular identity or claiming an identity that you don’t have. Then you can be challenged on it or not.
That one I found like just about at the edge of my comfort zone and there are a whole other games that I’ve looked at and I have to lie the whole time and I’m not good at it. I find those uncomfortable and I wonder what those might be like for people on the autism spectrum as well who might have even more difficulty modeling what states other people are in?
JAMES: I like it as applied. I obviously don’t know what it would be like from the autism spectrum but I do have two things I want to say to that. One, we recently invited someone on the autism spectrum into our D&D group and it was very fascinating to watch them play. The first time when they came, their hand was shaking visibly and I could tell that it was difficult for them. The stimulation was getting to them and stuff but as the game got rolling and they found their place and everything was rolling along smoothly, they seemed to get noticeably more comfortable and fit in well. I was encouraged by that. I think to some extent, what I’m trying to say is maybe some of those difficulties can be overcome.
Also another thing I want to say in regard to bluffing games, I have found the thing to bluffing games is to lie in your teeth about something you could care less about. I’ll use the game Sheriff of Nottingham. You place goods in a bag for inspection, getting into the city and there are legal goods and illegal goods and you end up having to tell the sheriff what you put in the bag and the sheriff has the choice of kicking you at your word or challenging you in opening the bag to see what you’ve actually put in there. I’ll introduce and spin a good yarn about how these apples are for my sick sister and just lie completely but just make it not matter at all.
REIN: With bluffing games, there’s another concept in board games which is player elimination and I find that the bluffing games and other board games that I enjoy the most are ones that don’t have player elimination because it’s never fun to be playing Werewolf and to die the first night and be out of the game for the next hour.
MISCHA: Yeah, that’s really unpleasant. Under those games I have tried to fix it a little bit. Werewolf now has a version called One Night Werewolf, where if you are eliminated, you’re only out for maybe a minute, rather than an hour. You’re still engaged in the actual game and then as soon as you get eliminated, it’s like, “I’ll just sit here until the next game.”
REIN: And there are games like Resistance, which is basically Werewolf without player elimination, where they’ve restructured it so that everyone gets to play for the entire game. I will say that I’ve played so much Avalon, which is a risk and resistance with some of my friends that they bought me a Merlin figurine, which I put on display every time I’m Merlin, which is every game we play, as far as they know.
JAMES: Player elimination is a troubling mechanic, I think through games as a whole. Why is it fun to have somebody knocked out and sit there and watch? I have enjoyed watching games. I try to come to terms with this. In Sentinels of the Multiverse — another good cooperate superhero card game — when you die and you flip your card over and you’re this inspiration to the players that are still going on. On your turn, you can trigger one effect that is basically inspiring other players. It’s a fabulous mechanic and a great way to deal with player elimination.
REIN: And actually, Eurogames generally tend to not feature player elimination.
SAM: Yeah, there’s Cthulhu Mythos game that tends to eliminate players. As long as you’re not fighting the big nasty at the end. If your player dies, you basically get a new character and start over, which sometimes can be fun. Sometimes at the end of the game, you’re like, “I’m totally underpowered because I have no items,” but it’s another way of addressing that.
REIN: Actually, cooperative games can be the worst sometimes for player elimination because the game designers still feel like someone needs to lose.
JAMES: Right. That’s a good point. I remember a cooperative game that had player elimination and we played it a couple of times and I was like, “There are better cooperative games.” I reminded of Small World. I feel like that’s almost the ideal situation. Small World does not have player elimination. In there, you take a race and ability combo, you run them to the point where they’re utterly worthless and then you just throw that race into the decline and grab a new one. I’d say, it’s just like starting over and it’s great. It plays so well.
MISCHA: On the RPG side, there’s a lesser-known RPG called Goblin Quest. You play much for goblins but it’s cooperative. It’s RPG and it’s all conversation-based but they have a great ultimate rule set called Sean Bean Quest, where instead of playing a bunch of goblins, you played a bunch of Sean Beans. Every time that a Sean Bean dies, one of your Sean Beans dies, that person then inhabits eight different Sean Bean from a different movie so there are ways to solve that.
JAMES: This is the most amazing game description I have ever heard.
MISCHA: I will send you a link to a podcast episode where some of my favorite board game reviewers play Sean Bean quest. It is choice.
JAMEY: I’m in.
REIN: That sounds amazing.
SAM: I’m just sitting here listening to you all talk about various games that you’ve played and we probably brought up two dozen already on this show and I’m thinking how do you afford all these games both financially and taking the time to play them?
MISCHA: That is a really good point. One thing that is not talked about when it comes to accessibility is cost. The fact you brought up both time and money is also really important. A lot of games that are well-reviewed cost $80, $100, $150 in some cases and for a lot of people, that isn’t accessible. They don’t have that disposable income available. There’s a really great piece that just came out by the same people who did the Sean Bean Quest play through actually about a week ago, where they got from their audience a list of games that worth $10 or less and most of them were free. It was a list of 15 games or something like that. There’s a really cool space for expensive games because as a matter of fact, building a comprehensive board game selection is really expensive prior to a certain access to money that a lot of people don’t have.
SAM: I’ve seen pictures, James of your gaming room and it is impressive.
JAMES: Yeah, it’s pretty bad sign if you have to custom build the gaming room to hold your game collection, right?
CORALINE: You say bad sign, I say good sign.
JAMES: It’s a good point and there’s also games like Pandemic Legacy or Gloomhaven, I believe or similar, which are like campaigns. It’s like a board game but more along a role-playing axis where you go through the campaign, play the game through once and at that point, you’ve actually got the experience out of the game and probably would not be likely to play it again. You can draw up big dollars for a game that you’re only going to play through one time. That’s definitely unfortunate, yet at the same time, I have to say that Pandemic Legacy is amazing and has been top on BoardGameGeek for a long time.
SAM: Well, if it takes you a couple of months to play through, maybe that makes it worthwhile. But still, there’s still a financial barrier there.
JAMES: For sure.
CORALINE: And you can’t share the game with other people once you’ve finished it in the case of Pandemic Legacy. If you’re playing it correctly, you’re actually destroying game materials.
JAMEY: Another thing to think about with those type of games is the group of people you’re playing with. This is more like a time issue but in games like Pandemic Legacy, you have to decide who’s going to play, then they have to play every time, which means that the same group of people has always been available, which is the same for tabletop role-playing games, like we’re talking about earlier. We’ve been talking a little bit about money but on the time side, like playing Dungeons and Dragons, it could be very cheap. You can do it cheap or you can do it expensive, depending on what kind of material is you want to buy but it takes an incredible amount of time to plan out and to play, session are very long. I’ve been playing in the same campaign since I was 16. You switch out people —
CORALINE: Wow, a year.
JAMEY: A whole year. It’s like a huge commitment to join a group like that when that’s the dynamic.
JAMES: I do want to say really quickly that overall, the game industry, especially the reviewers have really helped the game industry to an extremely high standard on components and they get dinged heavily if their components are not amazing. I think that is severely driving the cost of games up as now all games have very elaborate wooden pieces or spinners to keep track of life points and things like that and that’s really driving the cost up. But I will say that in my particular group, we’ve played several games but what you would call cheap. I had a real blast with them. Just [inaudible] player, a couple [inaudible]. I see Sam and I are on the same page because I was thinking back to a company called Cheapass Games and they have made some really great games like ‘Before I Kill You, Mr Bond.’ It’s been many years. I [inaudible] remembered but anything cheapass —
SAM: There was one of that zombies on a train.
JAMES: Yes. There are zombies making fast food. I can’t remember what it was called but it was amazing. Anything made by Cheapass Games — role-playing games can be particularly bad with their cost like, “Just buy three books. They’re only $70 each. No problem.” But there are really fun role-playing games that are considerably cheaper. There are free role-playing games. I don’t have a ton of experience with them but Fiasco is a low-cost role-playing game.
CORALINE: Oh, that’s a great game.
JAMES: That’s very fun and you can often download modules for it online. That’s great. Also, don’t forget the value of a deck of cards. Games like Euchre and Pinochle and things like that. They’re timeless and still great. I do think there are good ways to do gaming on a budget. Maybe, you just have to look a little bit but there are resources for that.
JAMEY: I feel like, there’s also a trend recently of some card games that are open sourcing their cards that you can print out your own.
JAMES: Yes. That’s a good point.
REIN: I actually wanted to mention that there are almost open source gaming licenses. Pathfinder is a tabletop role-playing game that has what it calls the Open Gaming License. It makes it possible for you to reproduce parts of their content enough to play your own game without having to buy their materials. Another interesting thing is that game designs are not copyrightable. Now, some games need a bunch of equipment — accoutrements — to play but some don’t. There are games like Spyfall, which is a bluffing game and all Spyfall requires is a list of locations and for each location, a list of occupations. That’s it. Then once you know the game mechanic, you can make up your own and play it.
JAMES: Rein, since I know you’re a Resistance aficionado, didn’t that game come out of like an open scenario and was only boxed later, I believe.
REIN: I think the history is that people are like, “We’re going to steal Werewolf and do our own thing with it.”
JAMES: Got you!
MISCHA: It worth mentioning that Werewolf itself is a branded re-package of Mafia, a popular free-to-play game because you [inaudible] friends and [inaudible].
JAMES: Now, if you have to buy friends, that gets expensive.
CORALINE: Or six-year olds.
JAMES: Or six-year olds, yes.
JAMEY: I grew up on Mafia when I was a camp counselor. That was like the go-to camp game because you didn’t need anything. We would tell these elaborate stories. That was kind of my introduction in a way like Dungeons and Dragons and stuff like that because we would come up with these elaborate stories for like exactly why you’re in this Mafia situation. It was super fun because you’d have all these people coming up with this different set.
REIN: Resistance was a deliberate attempt to make a Mafia without player elimination.
CORALINE: As a public service announcement, I do want to point out that the Greater Than Code podcast does not officially endorse child trafficking.
JAMES: It’s important.
MISCHA: How about unofficially?
CORALINE: Buying friends is perfectly legitimate. We’re all Americans here.
JAMES: Yeah, that was fine.
REIN: Can I mention something because that’s a segue for a topic I’ve been wanting to bring out but haven’t found a way through yet.
JAMEY: That’s the segue?
SAM: Oh, I got to hear this.
REIN: Did you know the monopoly is a communist game? Monopoly was originally called The Landlord Game and it was a game designed to demonstrate how ridiculous capitalism is. And there are also other interesting games from a leftist tradition. In 1909, there was a game released by the women’s suffrage movement called Suffrage-something. They made a game out of the name ‘suffrage’ and it was a board game where you had two sides with pieces and one side was the suffragettes and you were fighting the other side. There’s an entire tradition of leftist board games. There was a game that came out in the late 70s called Class Struggle.
JAMES: That’s amazing.
REIN: It was actually popular. It actually achieved some mainstream popularity.
SAM: Yeah, I know that I have always hated Monopoly. It’s a classic positive feedback loop where once you win, you continue to win.
REIN: Monopoly has a completely dominating strategy and you just play that strategy and you win and there’s nothing anyone else can do, unless they play the strategy and get luckier.
MISCHA: It’s interesting. I was raised a Quaker and [inaudible] The Landlord Game was a Quaker so I was pretty familiar with this early on. But the game actually had two sets of rules. One was supposed to be a capital set of rules and one that was supposed to be a socialist or communist set of rules. The whole point was to teach people, “Oh, look at how much the capitalist rules suck and how miserable everyone is,” and then Parker Brothers was like, “This looks great. I guess we’ll make one with just the capitalist rules.”
JAMES: So it kind of works, right? Because anybody has played Monopoly. It has [inaudible] that beat down. It’s built into the game, for sure.
REIN: I found more info on that game. It was called Suffragetto and the suffragettes have a home base of Albert Hall and the police are the opponents, of course and they start around the House of Commons.
JAMES: That’s awesome.
REIN: Sonic, the Hedgehog was originally supposed to be a game about environmental sustainability.
JAMES: That’s cool.
SAM: But then capitalism happened to it?
REIN: You can see that with the whole killing the animal’s thing.
CORALINE: And there’s this whole contingent of Sonic deniers.
SAM: Too real.
JAMES: Where do you find these cool details about games?
REIN: I Google them immediately before the podcast. I actually knew about the history of Monopoly and I am an excellent Googler because that’s mostly my job.
JAMES: That’s awesome.
MISCHA: So, you’re a software engineer?
SAM: Way to bring it back to tech.
JAMEY: We talked a lot about the metrics of accessibility and some games. We’ve talked specifically about a few games that are accessible but can we talk about some resources to find out about other games and about the accessibility of existing games that we know?
MISCHA: Sure. When I first got excited about this, I discovered a website called MeepleLikeUs.co.uk. They have a bunch of resources. They do standard reviews of board games then they do these accessibility teardowns where they look at the game from a bunch of different lenses and rate the different accessibilities. They’ve also created this master list which is a publicly-accessible Google sheet that just has every game that they’ve done a teardown of, then the grade in each area of accessibility. They’ve touched on all the versions of accessibility that we’ve talked about, including socio-economic and space. I would highly recommend that you check them out.
Another really cool resource for those who are visually-impaired is 64 Ounce Games. They actually make game modifications like sleeves and things like that, that you can buy as a set for a popular game. Predominantly, they’re targeted towards people who are partially or completely blind but it will be things like railcard covers and things like that so that people who can’t see can still play the game. It’s really, really cool work. It’s just two people out of Texas.
Then the third one is MaxiAids and they’ve also got some resources for games that are designed for people with visual impairments. A lot of versions of popular games with really large text and things like that. This is more towards partial blindness and nearsightedness. But again, a bunch of versions of games that you can buy that are a lot easier to seek.
JAMES: I want to just throw, one other thought out there is price of resource. That’s been particularly helpful to me. You know, everyone has their own limitations and you know what they are better than anyone else in the world. While all the things Mischa just recommended are great jumping off points, you should also validate. To do that, I do the blind thing of Dice Tower reviews. They showed the components of the game. They show the mechanics of the game and play and explain them. I just sit there and watch them explain the game and I’m like, “I could do that,” or, “No, I couldn’t.”
The reason I think that’s important is for example, Meeple Like Us, I just heard is rated Hanabi as a poor game for color blind people but I have actually played that game with a color blind player and they mentioned it. As soon as we started playing, they were like, “I’m color blind,” and we said, “We should play something different,” and they’re like, “No, no. The symbols are different. Just tell me what’s what,” and we did and the player played flawlessly after that. I’m not saying that means that Hanabi is a good game for color blind people. I’m just saying that obviously, some people are okay with it and able to function with it. It pays to watch the reviews and see if it meets your needs or not.
MISCHA: Another thing is like you mentioned, your experience is best and BoardGameGeek is a great place for starting threads where you can share your experiences with games and help other people who might have similar needs to be able to get more resources about what games they should be looking at, including things like linking to the reviews and such.
JAMES: A warning though, if you are a tech person listening to this podcast and you’re about to go to the website of BoardGameGeek for the first time, you’re going to have an experience where you see a pretty horrible interface. It’s actually gotten considerably better in the last two years, which is shocking because it still atrocious.
MISCHA: And it also does bring up the point that BoardGameGeek.com itself might not be super accessible. There’s that to consider.
REIN: I wanted to mention a couple of things. One of them was BoardGameGeek but I, especially want to highlight that each game and they covers many thousands of games, has a collection of strategy forums but also were rules-lawyering forum, where you can go and arbitrate your rules. Also, there are discussions about house rules in various parts of the forms as well, where people have said, “Here is how we prefer to play the game,” and list the house rules.”
The other one is Wil Wheaton hosted a YouTube series called TableTop, where he plays various board games with a group of YouTube celebrities essentially. It’s interesting because you get to see how the game plays in a group and what sort of interactions it promotes. For me, a large part of why I play games is to have fun interactions so it’s nice to be able to see the games being played and see how they play out.
JAMES: Plus one to TableTop. It’s awesome.
SAM: At the end of every show, we like to close out with reflections and Jamey had a great suggestion today, which was that in addition to our reflections, we should mention a board game that we particularly like. I’ll start that off. I have had the game Repello for a couple years now and I still really enjoy it. It turns out to be a really programmer-friendly game. It’s got a couple of clever mechanics that people who work in tech, seemed to do really well with. I’ll just leave it at that. It’s a fun game. It’s fairly quick to play and definitely, one of my favorites. As for reflections, I don’t have much other than perhaps six-year olds, speaking of which, I see a six-year old on the screen right now, are an incredibly valuable and national resource.
CORALINE: One of my favorite games is Tales of the Arabian Nights. It’s a storytelling game with a really interesting mechanic. At the beginning of the game, you are assigned a quest and you spend the game trying to fulfill your quest and you also set your own conditions for victory in the game and those are kept secret from other players. What I like about it is the storytelling aspect. You get to a place, you draw a card and there’s a series of tables, you consult which leads you into the storybook and then at the storybook, it explains the scenario that you find yourself in. Sometimes, you have choices to make. Sometimes, what happens is based on skills that you have acquired.
But the storybook is really thick and generally speaking, you don’t run across the same scenario twice, at least in the year or two that I’ve been playing the game. It’s very age-accessible. There are very few mechanical considerations and there’s only one dice for all [inaudible] in your turn. I think from an accessibility standpoint, it’s probably a good game and definitely very, very fun.
REIN: I’m going to mention two games. One for nostalgic reasons, Dungeons and Dragons 2nd edition, which is a game that I have spent many hundreds, if not thousands of hours on. It was weird if the rules were bad and now they’re much better but I still have a soft place in my heart for those weird rules. I like TAKO. What is that? One of the games that I’m enjoying playing now, I think was mentioned earlier is Lords of Waterdeep, which is a Eurogame based on worker placement and it has a hidden win condition, I think. You also mentioned that Jamey and it’s a fun, probably top 10 Eurogame for me.
JAMES: I’m sure it’s ‘Tay-ko’ not Tako but —
REIN: Fight me.
JAMES: Let’s see. I’ll just risk our favorite game at the reflections. I’ve been swiping boards over here and thinking, that’s like picking my favorite kid which had cheated my way out and by only having one kid so —
CORALINE: — The six-year old.
JAMES: Yeah, the six-year old, right.
JAMEY: I’m sorry to make this such a stressful situation.
JAMES: It is very hard. I’m going to not mention anything I’ve mentioned before because you’ve been listening carefully and you know what I like but I will, instead choose role-playing game. I’m going to say, Exalted. If you have not heard of Exalted, everybody in the world plays D&D, which is just a really poor version of Exalted in my opinion —
REIN: Once again, fight me.
JAMES: Right. Rein is getting after me but Exalted is like an anime, swords and sorcery game. One of my absolutely favorite elements of it is if you describe what you’re doing and add a bunch of flair, then the game gives you extra dice to accomplish what you’re trying and a ‘Get out of jail free card’ against the game master unexpectedly killing you. It used to be a White Wolf game. White Wolf, I think went under and was purchased by some company and I can’t remember the name of right now but I’m sure, if you Google Exalted role-playing game, it’s in 3rd edition now. It’s a great game.
REIN: Oh, can I just say that a house rule we’ve had for a long time in most of my D&D groups is the dungeon master is allowed to award positive rolls for good role-play?
CORALINE: We actually do spiffs in my game. I bought these little glass pebbles and I will award them for good role-playing. Then at the end of the game, all the players vote on who did the best role-playing and that person inherits the spiff for the next game. The spiff allows you to re-roll a bad roll.
JAMES: Oh, that is amazing and that idea, I promise you, initiated in Exalted.
REIN: I just want to tell a quick story. While I was playing a game, they had this rule and one of the players spent a good two or three minutes describing the way that they rouge, bolting around, ended various things and resulted in a completely impossible thing that they were trying to do. When the DM listen to all of this and thought about it and said, “You scored a crit.”
CORALINE: Jamey, what are some of your favorite games?
JAMEY: My favorite game is probably the Betrayal at House on the Hill, which is very similar to the game in many ways that Coraline was describing. It’s a story based where the ending of the story is different every time. It’s a Lovecraftian horror game, which is like an appealing genre for me. But it’s also very fun for me because it’s both a competitive and a cooperative game. It starts out cooperative for the first half and then once you enter into this second half story mode, you’ll end up competing against each other in various ways. It picks someone to be the traitor and that person is doing something different than the rest of the team. There’s kind of like, “Go into that other room while we discuss our playbook,” and you have your own playbook, which makes it really interesting and fun. But it doesn’t get as competitive as some other games do in my opinion because it’s so random like you don’t know who’s going to be the traitor until it happens and it doesn’t really allow for that kind of, “Oh, I’m better than you.” It’s just everybody is at the mercy of this Lovecraftian fate. [inaudible] about it.
JAMES: That’s awesome.
MISCHA: I think probably my favorite game that I didn’t already mention is Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective. First of all, it’s cooperative, which is fantastic. It’s great from a bunch of different accessibility perspectives because you need to have one person in your group that can read the booklet but other than that, it’s all just working through a puzzle. The premise is that you are members of a street gang that Sherlock works with to solve crimes and there’s 10 crimes in —
CORALINE: The Baker Street Irregulars?
MISCHA: Yes, exactly. Thank you. The Baker Street Irregulars. In this game, you’re given a mystery to solve and you’re given a map of London and a couple of newspapers. After that, it’s just deciding where you want to go. There’s no time or anything like that. You can choose to go to the crime scene, you’ll learn some stuff, you can choose to go and visit the house of one of the people mentioned in some conversation or another. At the end of it, you’re all working together, trying to solve this as quickly as possible. At the end, you go a knock on the door and talk to Sherlock Holmes. Your score is based on how quickly you could solve the mystery, meaning how few places you could go to, to solve it compared to what Sherlock needed to do to solve it. You will always lose because it’s Sherlock Holmes but it’s a really fun evening. It’s a good two to three-hour game of trying to solve an interesting puzzle in a cool city. It’s very thematic and very, very fun.
CORALINE: I would like to remind people that if you enjoyed this conversation and other conversations that we have on this podcast, you can support us directly through our Patreon, that’s Patreon.com/GreaterThanCode. All Patrons get access to outtakes from the show, which tend to be very, very fascinating. We call them truth bombs. You can pledge at any level and get access to our Slack community, where you can continue the conversation with other Patrons and with the hosts and with our guests as well. If you like us, prove it. Go to Patreon.com and put your money where your mouth is. Thank you so much to Mischa and James. It’s been a delight having you both on the show and we will talk to you all in a couple of weeks, with Episode 44. Thank you.
This episode was brought to you by the panelists and Patrons of >Code. To pledge your support and to join our awesome Slack community, visit patreon.com/greaterthancode. Managed and produced by @therubyrep of DevReps, LLC.