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Book Review: The Civilized Guide to Tabletop Gaming

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As I’ve grown into the hobby the last few years I’ve been both impressed and dismayed by its size and inflation.  Conventions are rising in number and size.  Dedicated web sites proliferate.  And we need a freighter to fit every new release of a given year.  Indeed it’s impossible to keep track of all the blogs, vlogs, podcasts and new titles, but easy to get lost in a forum thread about the difference between Eurogame and Ameritrash.  And most games are largely forgotten a few months after they’re released.

But in reality the hobby is relatively small.  Sure it’s making some inroads.  Recently Settlers of Catan got some clicks thanks to Kristen Bell.  Wil Wheaton’s Tabletop and the Geek & Sundry folks (of which the author is one) have expanded our hobby’s exposure amongst their followers and some outliers.  There’s been others.  But board gamers remain a niche group engaging in an obscure activity that most non-gamers either largely stereotype, find confusing or thought was in the realm of children.  On the flip side, and maybe as some sort of “defense mechanism” against this image, we on the inside largely speak in language making what we do seem even more foreign to the uninitiated.  Or worse, we exclude non-gamers from engaging in our hobby, either willfully or unintentionally.

Teri Litorco’s observations emerge out of that milieu in her comprehensive The Civilized Guide to Tabletop Gaming: Rules Every Gamer Must Live By (Adams Media, 2016).  From discussing technical matters like gaming mechanics and finding the right game store, to more philosophical topics like how to behave in a game group and how to enhance the experience of the people you play with, Litorco’s prose is one part introduction to a new world, and one part ambassadorial training manual.

Litorco’s gaming chops lean more toward war gaming and miniatures, though that’s certainly not her only involvement in the hobby, which is extensive.  In addition to Geek & Sundry blogging and vlogging, she runs a Star Trek twitter chat, writes game reviews for Miniature Market and has been involved in other gaming projects such as the Board Dames podcast.  She certainly brings a lot of knowledge and experience to the subject.

The book starts inauspiciously for veterans as it’s clearly addressed to beginners, exalting the virtues of the local brick and mortar store and broadly covering basic game styles, types and mechanisms – and subsequently building a collection around them based on your group and what you have access to.  Unfortunately, the FLGS is very relevant to some and completely irrelevant to just as many more – even if a good one exists nearby.  The tips about how to treat your local store if you do use it judiciously are important – and sadly necessary to impart on many hardcore gamers.  And while you have to start somewhere, the gaming categorization is extremely superficial, the merest of starting points for plebes.

But things change direction abruptly as Litorco then addresses specifically experienced gamers on a topic that needs way more attention than it attracts: how to teach a game.  Articulating what you understand about the rules in a succinct way to get others to understand it can be incredibly difficult.  The author offers several tips from creating your own reference aids, to playing with an open hand, to introducing a game’s concepts in increments, to making sure you pick the right stinking title for your particular group in the first place!  The chapter is one of the book’s more practical collection of tips and strongly dials into the Guide’s theme of becoming an ambassador for the hobby.

There are several chapters, and parts of others, dealing nebulously with social etiquette and proper behaviours surrounding our obsession.  Indeed nearly half the book tackles this tricky issue from some angle.  After all, gaming is an intimate social activity requiring us to actually “share the same space, oxygen and experiences” with other people.  As the author continues, “the culture of gaming is very much about community.”  Whether in the context of playing with close friends, complete strangers, a regular game group, at conventions, with family or just talking about games online, Litorco addresses the expectations you should have of others – as well as what others expect of you.

While she could easily dwell on the negative slant made famous by Wil Wheaton – and she does reference it frequently – I appreciate that she begins, and often repeats, from the more positive approach that our goal should first, foremost and alway be to have fun.  So much so, for example, that she is a champion of the principle that if you can’t remember a rule, find one confusing or *gasp* get it wrong, just keep going.  If an extended rules conundrum or argument stresses players out and hijacks the fun, then it’s not worth it!  Never forget that shared camaraderie is central to every gaming session and game night – even when a situation, someone’s behavior or your own frustration threatens to unravel things.  You may not be able to control how others are contributing, but you can control yourself.  And a little awareness and thought goes a long way to helping the cause.

While all of this is written in a manner of giving advice, in the end it’s hard to judge it’s effectiveness.  Unfortunately, most human beings were either taught good manners or naturally have them.  If you aren’t by the time you reach adulthood – and/or can’t fake it – you likely won’t grow polite overnight.  Yes, we all can, and do, improve.  But these chapters still largely feel like preaching to the choir.  If you agree with the author, you’re likely a games ambassador already – or ready to become one.  If Litorco’s words rub you the wrong way, you likely believe everyone else is the problem.  Or more likely the type of individual not reading this book, or wanting to, in the first place.

Through it all, Litorco draws upon her deep well of anecdotal experience.  Indeed, one chapter’s every topic is seemingly “the result of a gaming night horror story.”  That particular section deals with the delicate dynamics of a game session.  While addressed broadly, they are nonetheless issues veterans should be aware of.  Some of these are as simple as what constitutes a dice roll.  That surprised me as it seems rather self-explanatory.  But if I were to step out of my own gaming bubble, other things could be a shock, as well.  Then there are trickier situations like whether or not to allow “do-overs” and, if so, in what situation(s).  Personalities are different and often clash over minor matters.  Things like setting ground rules, avoiding gossip and determining how to address poor behaviour (extremely difficult to do) will help avoid disruptions from killing the fun.  Of course, she does admit that not all problems can be solved.  In those cases, sometimes quitting that environment is the ultimate answer.

At times, Litorco draws on this vast episodic experience to bounce from more generalized advice to realistically practical tips.  Her suggestions regarding how to host a game night (including a chapter on organizing a roleplaying group, with roleplaying tips that seem a little out of place from the rest of the book) hammers home her thesis about making the experience for your gaming partners fun and memorable.  Then for the veterans there is a much needed section on what to expect at a convention, how to prepare for it and how to take full advantage of what it has to offer.  Going beyond the First Commandment, “Thou shalt use good hygiene,” the author encourages goers to step out of their comfort zones, meet new people (wonderfully phrased “ditch the clique”), be wary of what you photograph and be mindful and courteous of other participants in events.  She even includes a convention survival kit to get you through these often grueling, multi-day experiences.

Finally the guide touches on another aspect that I would have welcomed even more insight into – gaming with family.  Before this section, Litorco actually compares gaming groups to families, even going so far as to use marital terminology to describe some of its ins and outs.  Here she talks the literal family.  For many gamers their hobby and family are intricately intertwined and inseparable.  That’s a beautiful sight to behold!  Other gamers’ kinfolk show little to no interest in it.  I actually experience both: my kids are my primary gaming group, while my wife engages in it no more than the occasional party game – at larger family gatherings.

The chapter addresses all three relationships, because gaming and the family can be a delicate affair.  Does your significant other merely indulge you by playing games, but cares little for them?  How do you leave the competition at the table so it doesn’t affect your relationship elsewhere?  Afraid of pushing the hobby on your kids too much and crushing their budding interest before it has a chance to flower?  And what about extended family get togethers?  They can be awkward, or worse.  As Litorco observes, “atop the standard competition, you may be layering years of relationship baggage, generational and cultural expectations.”  Games can breakthrough relational barriers or exacerbate them.  She offers some wise words, both specific and generic, to aid gamers in standing at that intersection of hobby and personal life, with guidance on combining the two or knowing when to just keep them separate.  Because that’s okay, too.

Teri Litorco’s The Civilized Guide to Tabletop Gaming is a big picture treatise on a diverse, small market hobby.  Drawing on her personal experience, she mixes both generalized advice and practical tips in a casual, conversational manner.  Those new to the hobby will find it enlightening.  Indeed it makes a nice gift to newcomers, or those interested in exactly whatever it is you do!  Experienced gamers will find worthwhile nuggets, too.  Even if large parts of it will be familiar ground, they’ll certainly relate to more than one of her charming, witty and/or troubling anecdotal accounts.  Throughout it all, she illustrates how wonderful and ugly the hobby can be, with suggestions tested in the field and straight from her heart to ensure that you maximize the fun.  And gamers of all stripes can benefit from that.

 

Adams Media provided a review copy of The Civilized Guide to Tabletop Gaming for this review.

I have lots of kids. Board games help me connect with them, while still retaining my sanity...relatively speaking.

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