It’s not possible to play games all the time, so sometimes I have to read books about games. Recently I’ve come across two that each present a different take on the world of gaming, and both I would recommend to the game enthusiast. The Elfish Gene is a personal memoir about growing up as a D&D player in the early years of the game, while Hobby Games: The 100 Best is a collection of essays about some of the more important board and card games out there.
In the Elfish Gene (2007) author Mark Barrowcliffe recalls the days of his youth in Coventry, England as a somewhat obsessed D&D player. Actually, really obsessed. To the point that it was pretty much his 24/7 existence for several years. At times very funny and at other times touching, the book does a really nice job of capturing the thrill of discovering the world’s greatest hobby and setting it against the awkward adolescence backdrop of being a youth in working class England. We learn about some of his characters, adventures, and even the shops he would game at. What I think that Barrowcliffe does best is somehow make the minutiae of RPGs not only seem like the most important thing in the world, but also accessible to someone that has not wasted away the hours of their youth in a dimly lit garage hoping to defeat a hydra or gelatinous cube. He includes enough references to the actual mechanics of D&D to keep the gaming audience happy (thoughts on the AC system, excitement over campaign settings, damage from various weapon types) but that’s not really the heart of the matter. Like any other memoir it is about a place and time, and Barrowcliffe paints a wonderful picture of his upbringing and what the hobby meant to him. Like many of us, he experience highs and lows through D&D (other games too, most notably Traveler and Empire of the Petal Throne) and learned a lot about himself through fantasy roleplaying. Corny and weird? Absolutely. But if you are reading this there is an excellent chance that you can relate. I’ve noticed that D&D and other games are becoming more popular. Maybe this is just a perception on my part, I suppose I could do some research to find if it is true, but I wonder if books like this will become more common. There certainly seems to be a market for it. I’d also like to add that he sticks to the subject matter, very few passages in the book do not relate directly to roleplaying, which is nice. There are a couple of humorous stories thrown in that deal with other issues, but there’s nothing wrong with that. If nothing else this book is worth it to read the story about how he learned to make fireballs using lighter fluid, balloons, and his DM’s bathroom.
I bought Hobby Games: The 100 Best (2007) thinking that it would be a ranking of the 100 best games ever made, but that’s not really what it is. The book is about 100 games, but they are listed in alphabetical order rather than in order of greatness. The essays are short (around three pages) and written by industry insiders and game creators, so it is not just the fan perspective that they are written from, but from what I guess would be considered the informed. The choices range from very obscure (such as Blood Bowl, I had never heard of it), to the routine (Settlers of Catan), and pretty much everything in between. As someone who spends a lot of time thinking about games it is very appealing to me to read what these industry folks think about what makes a game great. Some I agree with, others I do not. I even went out and bought a couple of these games based on what people wrote about them. I don’t think this book is for everyone, at times I wasn’t even sure that it was me, but if you are not interested in a certain game you can move on to the next one.
Solo games don’t interest me all that much, I like the social aspect of gaming far too much. It’s not the competitor in me that revels in gaming, but rather the same guy who likes to sit at a bar and chat someone up. But I can’t always do that. So these books are a nice way to enter into the world of gaming without actually having to go anywhere.