Let the Wookie Win: 30 Years of Role-Playing Star Wars

As the youngest of three geek brothers, I was aware of role-playing games before I was literate. I can fondly remember my pleas to be allowed to play Dungeons & Dragons falling on deaf, adolescent ears and so I would try to figure out manuals based on their pictures. Even once I could read, trying to parse just how the different Star Frontiers species were mechanically distinct or how to use the point buy system in Toon to accurately reflect my current animated favourites proved a daunting challenge. Friends would run rudimentary games or dungeons for me and and I for them but it wasn’t until I was in late middle-school and my middle brother returned from several years working in Kyrghizstan that I finally had a patient tutor to sit with me and truly work out how to play a game and that game was Star Wars.

Specifically, it was the original 1980s West End Games version of Star Wars before the license would be swapped around like so much unrefined Coaxium between Wizards of the Coast/Hasbro and Fantasy Flight/Asmodee/Embracer Group AB. West End Games also provided young Leeman with both Torg and Paranoia which prompted a lot of curiosity but Star Wars was a known quantity and so the one I was most willing to puzzle out and bring to the table. The original Star Wars had a simple dice pool mechanic with target numbers so there wasn’t too much to struggle with and soon I was running games for friends at sleepovers or between classes. My friend Jackson had a long-running Quixotic Jedi Boink LaVache who was a frequent hero of these adventures but character creation was very simple, particularly with the easily photocopiable pages of pre-generated heroes from which to choose so more often than not, we just ran one-offs.

I made a ton of mistakes and picked up no shortage of bad GMing habits that no doubt I haven’t completely rid myself of but it was a joyous apprenticeship and I’m grateful to my brother for patiently explaining the problems of rail-roading and to all my friends who put up with me crashing their ships into anything I could think of menacing them with unlimited waves of stormtroopers.

I got to college right as West End was starting to fall apart and Wizards was on the ascendancy and the 3rd edition of Dungeons and Dragons would hoover up much of my limited spare change that previously I would have spent on floppy Star Wars books. It was then with great excitement and perhaps limited foresight that I rejoiced at Star Wars being smashed together with D&D to produce the d20 system that I would play over the next decade. Gone were my simple handfuls of d6s and in their place were pages of rules, too many skills, feats for days, and the opportunity to purchase more and more sourcebooks.

Once I got to grad school, I quickly found a critical mass of gamers and soon introduced the idea of running a pre-clone wars game using the d20 system. This would prove to be the only campaign I would GM start to finish. It was a hot mess that saw me burgling from Silent Hill, Eternal Darkness, and even raiding my brothers’ old Star Frontiers books. It was a wild and raucous time and I miss having the free-time and communal living situation to facilitate such an expedition.

I would continue to play d20 Star Wars off and on but eventually editions began to shift and Saga came out. I poked at it but by then I was working in retail and trying to make more conscientious spending choices and it didn’t quite sit well with me so I stuck it out with my old game. When Fantasy Flight came out with their own system I hadn’t picked up my books in a good long while having fallen back into the D&D gravity well where I would orbit for many years.

As a quick aside, a few years ago I had the opportunity to interview Bill Slavicsek for my Ask Lovecraft After Dark interview series. He worked for West End Games and Wizards of the Coast and worked on both of their iterations of the Star Wars RPG plus more and it was an absolute dream come true to get to talk with him about his work. If nothing else, I hope you’ll give it a listen.

Fast forward to earlier this year and my local forever GM reminding me of my offer to run a Star Wars game so he would have a chance to play amid GMing multiple campaigns. This was an on and off-again discussion and a few years back I had made baby steps towards running something by purchasing a pdf of the Scum and Villainy game. It looked fun but inertia won out and I never moved forward with the idea until this year. Lugging out all my various editions, I slammed them down in front of prospective players and we debated what we wanted to do. D20 was the closest to Dungeons and Dragons but the prospect of navigating the rules gave pause. West End offered the simplest gaming experience but ultimately folks were tempted by funkiness of Scum and Villainy so here we are.

We’re only a few sessions in and navigating some of the unfamiliar bumps and peculiarities of the system but it’s so far been a blast and reskinning it for Star Wars has been fairly straightforward given how much of Star Wars was in the game’s DNA. I have no idea how long we’ll stick it out but I’m glad to be back in the captain’s chair, flying my players through all sorts of ridiculous adventure. We’ll see where the Force leads us.

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King’s Dilemma

In November of 2020, frustrated by COVID isolation and inspired by the siren song of Shut Up and Sit Down, I purchased King’s Dilemma as an aspirational motivator and in July of 2021 after vaccines were distributed, I got together with two other dads from my pod and we started to play. We finished our game in January of 2024 and it was one of the greatest gaming experiences of my life.

Since this is a legacy game, I’m going to break this article up into two different sections. The first will be a general one about the game with my vague thoughts and opinions so as not to spoil any of the mysteries and surprises. The second part will be my deeper dive into what happened in our specific game so please, if you think for even a moment that you might one day want to play and have a completely untrammeled experience, stop before the break.

King’s Dilemma essentially allows players to step into the roles of a king’s privy council or Landsraad if you’re feeling Dune-y. The king is not played but instead referred to by the various cards that determine what happens in any given game. At the end of each game, the king has either died or abdicated in favor of a worthy successor who is chosen from the family of the winning player so dynastic control of the realm bounces around but the decisions are made by these noble houses with the king largely ornamental.

The setting for King’s Dilemma is a brand-new low-fantasy realm with a decent amount of history and specificity for the various countries as well as the regions and domains within the main kingdom – . The tone and aesthetic is generic medieval going into Renaissance European with powers split between church, merchants, military, scholars, and the nobles themselves. Each noble house has a very unique history which gives them long-term goals for the players to try to achieve and story-based goals that can be unlocked as the games go on.

In any individual game, the players will be making decisions about the kingdom which will impact five aspects – Defense/Military Strength, Wealth, Morale/Faith, Health, and Knowledge. They have their noble house which (traditionally) they stick with for the entire campaign which has certain goals printed on it. Perhaps they want to make sure that the army does exceedingly well in this game or that the economy is tanked. Achieving these goals can unlock unique special abilities as well as end-game points to determine the winner of the overall legacy game. In addition to these consistent goals, every player will choose how their particular noble wants the kingdom to be run this game and those are determined by cards such as Extremist, Opulent, Moderate, etc. These goals are achieved by moving the various aspects up and down a slider that makes up most of the board. If the army is doing well, you move the tower token up. If wealth is doing poorly, you move the gem token down, etc. At the end of each game, players look where the tokens have ended up and earn points based on what their goals were. They can also get points from amassing personal wealth and power. Whoever has the most points (usually) wins and their dynasty picks the king who will reign in the next game.

Round by round, one player will be the Leader and another (or sometimes the same player) will be Moderator. The Leader draws from the deck of cards that determines what is the current issue facing the kingdom. Perhaps there is demand for an expensive joust, or a merchant wants to be able to import slaves, or scholars request funding an expedition into mysterious desert ruins. The card indicates how the decision might impact the various aspects of the kingdom but it doesn’t say everything so players have to debate, threaten, bribe, and decide how they want to vote. You vote by choosing either Aye, Nay, or Pass. If you vote Aye or Nay you have to back up your vote with power tokens representing your sway and political capital. Voting goes around until with opportunities to keep adding power until finally the vote is called and whichever has the most power behind it wins with the Moderator breaking ties. The spent power all gets dumped into a pool on the board. In addition, whoever invested the most power behind a winning decision becomes the new Leader for the next round. If a player chooses to Pass, they get a little money and then they can either Pass and become Moderator or Pass and scoop up the spent power on the board. Multiple people can pass and split the pool.

However the vote went, the card is flipped over and the Leader reads what impact the decision made on the kingdom which will usually be to slide the aspects up and/or down but can also unlock some of the legacy aspects of the game, namely stickers and envelopes. Stickers represent lasting issues that impact various aspects – a lingering plague harming health, a new academy boosting knowledge, etc and they also are a way that players can earn and lose points. Every sticker gets signed by the Leader who was in charge when it was unlocked and gets credit for either the benefit it imparts or the blame for unleashing the horrors on the kingdom. Stickers accrue over time and can eventually be replaced by newer stickers as the kingdom moves on and changes over time.

Envelopes are where new cards come from and also determine the course of the game. If the council decides to go to war rather than seek peace, then you open the war envelope and the peace one sits unused for the rest of the campaign. In addition to unlocking new decisions for the council to vote on, they can also unlock story and event cards which have unique impacts on the game, sometimes in absolutely astonishing ways that upend the entire balance of things. Some of those will be discussed in the spoilers section.

Once all the impacts of the vote has been determined, players check to see if the king’s death or abdication has been triggered and if not, play continues with the Leader drawing the next card. If either enough cards have been drawn that the king dies or if the balance of the kingdom gets pulled in too high or low a direction and the king abdicates then the game is over, players score their points, and determine the winner. Based on who won and how the game ended, end-game points are also scored and various noble house goals can be checked to show legacy progress.

King’s Dilemma is a truly fantastic game for a number of reasons that I want to get into before going into some of the specifics of our game. First off, it blends strategy, storytelling, and roleplaying in a deft way. You can feel yourself being torn in certain decisions because the mechanics of the game pull you in one direction but the desire to see what happens if you vote a certain way can pull you in another. Every decision feels weighty and important and knowing that what you decide could still be impacting you for the rest of the campaign gives those decisions a real heft. The setting, the play-styles of the different noble houses, and the goal cards also lend themselves to roleplaying. Perhaps in the last game you were a goody-two shoes trying to keep the kingdom from falling apart but this game you’re a sinister Mordred who wants to watch it all burn. The arguments and debates can lead to quick alliances or grudges as you bring up terrible decisions made by the player four games ago. That leads to the amazing way this game plays with memory. Because every individual game is a new generation, the haziness of why things were decided makes sense in-fiction because it wasn’t your current noble who made those decisions, it was their grandfather or great-grandmother. That slight distancing is so freeing as far as being able to just play in this world and feel the richness as the story unfolds.

I absolutely recommend this game. We played with just three of us which was about all our schedule allowed but if I hadn’t already pre-ordered the sequel Queen’s Dilemma, I’d seriously consider buying a fresh copy to try to play with four or more players and try out different noble houses because to see what all else this game has to offer. 10/10 game. Finishing the campaign was as satisfying as ending a long-running RPG campaign. I hope you’ll look it up and consider trying it with your crew.


Seriously, walk away right now if you think you might ever want to play this game with a black and open mind.

Okay, for the rest of you all let me start by saying that I am not good at this game and lost it about as hard as you can lose. If you look at the scoring sheet above, you will see I consistently came in last or in the middle and by the end of the campaign I was so thoroughly defeated that not only was my current noble killed but my family was hunted down and wiped out. It was brutal and unforgiving and I loved it.

I did not know what to expect from the tone of King’s Dilemma and was unprepared for just how dark it got early on and how things got worse from there. Now, in fairness to me, we actually had a somewhat cheerful start to our game with a decision made to unite two kingdoms in marriage and so things were pretty chipper and lovey-dovey although that was plagued by all sorts of decisions about how religiously tolerant our kingdom would be or rather, wouldn’t be. Already I was starting to see dynamics form among the three of us playing that would be present right until the very end.

I was playing a house obsessed with knowledge and pushing the boundaries of understanding, Jack was a belligerent house that got rewarded for going against the majority decision, and Jon was house moneybags. As we played, while we might have made decisions based on the goal cards we drew, that underlying dynamic was always at work. Jack would vote for aggression, I would try to bankrupt the country to fund bizarre expeditions and research, and Jon… Jon discovered the power of passing to the point that his seeming inactivity became a running gag but in truth, it was a powerful tactic and Jon won the game handily a number of times.

After the blissful early game of love and tolerance, we soon got slammed with plague, wars, more plague, and eventually were living in fear from a cabal of psychic terrorists. We discovered a love of jousting and exploring islands but we also didn’t understand the central bank minigame which possibly contributed to our kingdom’s financial woes. Right towards the end, we got lamentably drunk and couldn’t navigate our way out of labyrinth which cursed the royal bloodline but actually that was what Jack wanted all along so maybe I should have watched more carefully who was pouring the drinks.

In the endgame, we were all faced with the decision to either try and protect the king and the status quo or let it all burn to the ground. I stood by the king, Jack joined the traitors, and Jon… Jon raided the treasury and gleefully watched us destroy ourselves. Well, more accurately, he watched Jack destroy me and my bloodline. It was pitch perfect. We went out of the game the same way we had gone into it. I cannot recommend it enough and I cannot wait until Queen’s Dilemma arrives and we get to jump back into this bonkers, delightful game series.

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2023 in Board Games

This year has seen plumbing woes, illness, emergency pet surgery, and the like but! in the words of Mrs. Peacock, I have been determined to enjoy myself and in that spirit I documented all the different board games I played this year and will now bring you the end result. Most of these are ones my son Martin and I played and you’ll read both of our opinions plus those of various other players as they pop up. This list is in order of when I first played it with another person this year and to give you a sense of how much we play, by the end of January we had played the first 22 games on this list at least once (although not always to completion) and some many many many times. This list also does not include solo plays or tinkering to learn the mechanics or just setting it up to look at it or it would be much much longer. Maybe next year.

Let me know your thoughts!

1:Space Marine Adventures – Labyrinth of the Necrons

A Christmas gift for Martin from his uncle Van. Players work cooperatively to maneuver The Emperor’s Finest through cramped hallways while Necrons keep beaming aboard and generally being in their way. Short and simple with lots of replay potential as you mix and match the different marines with their different abilities and special cards.

Martin’s opinion: “it’s fine. I hate the monsters.”

2:Disney Happiest Day – Magic Kingdom

Spinners, balloons, and a board that changes from day to night! Cute and simple searching game where you roam around the park trying to find various rides and locations that match the cards you draw before the clock runs out.

Martin’s opinion: “I like it!”

3:It’s a Small World!

Another simple search game where you’re moving your boat through the titular ride while trying to find figures that match your card. Game should be played with a lazy susan as you’ll often need to see different parts of the board at different times and there are literal walls in the way.

Martin’s opinion: “I just like it.”

4:Elf – Journey From the North Pole

A competitive path building game where players zig-zag Will Ferrell around trying to hit certain locations to earn points while avoiding the locations that will earn other players points. Cute and quick if deceptively cut throat.

Amanda’s opinion: “too messy.”

Martin’s opinion: “don’t skip my turn!”

5:EVO – The Last Gasp of the Dinosaurs

This cute game of moving dinosaurs around, making dino babies, and evolving them is deceptively warm and fuzzy but in reality is cruel and cutthroat. Every turn you roll to see how climate changes which impacts where your dinosaurs can safely live. There’s a mutation auction that lets you try to make your dinos more adaptable but you’ll still look on in horror as other players roll in and eat your dinos or you’re forced to lay an egg in a lethally cold space with no hope for survival.

Martin’s opinion: “it’s just fun”

6:Summer Camp

Part deck-builder, part race, all wholesomeness. Players cycle through their decks, move along three different tracks trying to earn merit badges and score points to have a better summer camp experience than your feckless peers. Pretty cute.

Martin’s opinion: “wait how do you win?”

7:Star Wars Talisman

It’s the Reese’s peanut butter cups of board games! If you like both ingredients, then it’s right up your ally! Outer Rim is still a better game that still keeps a lot of fun Talismanic qualities but this is much simpler and kid/spouse friendly.

Martin’s opinion: “it’s fine. I don’t know what’s fun about it.”

Amanda’s opinion: “there’s more than two girls!”

Rachel’s opinion: “I get to be Rey”

8:Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood Early Reading Game

Make simple words or match vowels with the cast of Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood and earn prizes! The box also comes with cards to play a matching game.

Martin’s opinion: “i wanna play!”

9:Space Station Phoenix

Holy poop this might have just blasted to the top of my very competitive fiddliest game ranking. players are intergalactic… real estate developers who burn through their dwindling reserve of space gems to operate a fleet of ships that gather resources, build space station components, shuttle aliens about, abduct….I mean hire humans, and dismantle their very ships to get more metal to build more real estate to house more aliens and humans all while greedily eyeing the ever shifting diplomacy track to see if you are owed kickbacks.

Martin’s opinion: “it’s good. Is it my turn?”

10:Empires of the North

Chibi Vikings, Celts, and Inuit scrabble for islands in this city builder and resource management game where players take turns building, harvesting, raiding, and setting sail in order to build the cutest and mightiest arctic empire.

Martin’s opinion: “I think it’s fine, Dad.”

11:Disney Villains Clue

It’s Clue with Disney villains! Ursula in the Cave of Wonders with the Magic Mirror! Benoit Blanc would still disapprove.

Amanda’s opinion: “it’s mine and it’s fun and it’s secretive!”

Martin’s opinion: “I just like the game.”

12:Ticket to Ride

Traaaaaaains! Filling up maps with happy train cars trying to complete routes and score points while blocking your friends and loved ones from doing so. Classic game. No complaints.

Eleanor’s opinion: “I just like playing games. It’s all about strategy.”

Robin’s opinion: “”I like it when the cards make sense.”


It’s Pictionary with cubes and pictograms! Desperately search for the combination of images that will get your friends and neighbors to read your mind. We appreciate that while the rules as written call for a competitive game, the creators noted that people might just want to casually all play and guess cooperatively which is the only way I have ever played.

Martin’s opinion: “I’m trying to think, Dad!”

14:The Wizard of Oz Trivia Game

Dear lord I remember more of this movie than I thought.

Amanda’s opinion: “i like it because I get to answer questions!”

15:It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown

It’s a race around the board to costume up, collect candy, and avoid rocks before returning to Linus to wrestle with theological disappointment and I guess win?

Martin’s opinion: “I just like games a lot.”


These Jim Henson games are stressful as butt. This one is a cooperative game where you run around the titular labyrinth, drawing cards that all do terrible things to you while you desperately hunt for the one card you need to get into the Goblin City where your battered and bruised heroes have to face yet more harrowing challenges before going up against the Goblin King himself all while racing against the clock before Toby is lost forever.

Martin’s opinion: “I like turning the clock”


A simple tile laying game where you’re creating routes for your dragon (or uh Luigi happy meal toy) to fly around while avoiding colliding into one another or flying off the edge of the map. The last dragon standing is the winner! Very calm and serene game that plays quickly. Often pulled out as a warm up/cool down game.

Martin’s opinion: “if I do that, that would kill me.”


When your kid loves organs and surgery videos, this becomes inevitable.

Martin’s opinion: I like the buzz!

19:The Magic Labyrinth

While this game has a startling absence of Goblin Kings it makes up for it with magnets and hidden walls. Move your pokey apprentices around trying to avoid unseen collisions and collect the various tokens you pull from a mysterious cloth bag before your friends!

Martin’s opinion: “What I’m trapped!”

20:Fallout Shelter

For a board game based on an app game based on a video game, this worker placement game is pretty clever. Run around collecting resources to either attract more dwellers, hunt for items in the wasteland, build more rooms in your vault, or fight off the many monsters and raiders trying to take over your vault all while trying to earn more happiness so you can become the Overseer and win!

Martin’s opinion: “i like getting happinesses!”


Clever tile laying game of trying to outmaneuver your friends and make pretty patterns of betrayal and deceit. Pretty good!

Martin’s opinion: “this game is called Blokus?”

22:Talisman (fantasy flight version)

Updated version of my childhood favourite with less racist art but significantly less ridiculousness. Not a good game by any stretch but maybe an amazing game. Essentially analog World of Warcraft.

Martin’s opinion: “l wanted to be the troll!”


This cute game of forest critters scrambling around a giant tree collecting the cutest resources to build farms and post offices and attract other forest critters to build up your happy little village

Martin’s options: “i like getting all the berries and stuff to build stuff.”


Classic, simple, brutal, meeples. Everything you need in a game.

Martin’s opinion: “I just like it. Where’s the die?”

25:Boss Monster

A game of 8 bit nostalgia as you build your murder house to attract and mangle meddling heroes. Not a brilliant game but the graphics are very cute and it goes quickly.

Martin’s opinion: “I like fighting the heroes”

26:Cosmic Encounters

Taking all the brutal galactic colonialism and diplomatic knife fighting of Twilight Imperium but distilling it down to a 20 minute game. Wacky. Unbalanced. Completely silly and yet not arbitrary. Compelling and fun. Yes Martin is having his rathtar toy be our third player.

Martin’s opinion: “i just like it.”


Quick and deadly puzzle of moving bugs and trying to trap your opponent’s queen bee. We’re missing a beetle but still making it work.

Martin’s opinion: “it’s good. Let’s play.”

28:Lords of Waterdeep

Shut Up And Sit Down described this game as “aggressively mediocre” which while apt, does not deter me from playing this game. There’s something so satisfying about treating fighters and clerics as disposable resources. Due to a certain someone’s lack of reading skills, we’re foregoing intrigue cards.”

Martin’s opinion: “it’s good. I like it.”


Boom! Splash! A classic for a reason.

Martin’s opinion: “I don’t want to play anymore.”

30:Hogwart’s Battle

A cooperative deck-builder where players work together to blast the bad guys while acquiring new spells, allies, and helpful items to cycle through their decks to better blast bad guys before time runs out. Not a full campaign game, the game has seven separate boxes of cards to make the game more and more complex with every game. Pretty good.

Martin’s opinion: “it’s good”

Amanda’s opinion: “fun fun funny fun fun!”

Rachel’s opinion: “I am quite enjoying it”

31:Ticket to Ride Europe

I prefer it to the original although with Martin we ignore fiddly tunnel rules and destination cards and focus on the trains. The pieces are very fun to clack into place and the colours pop delightfully. All in all a fun classic.

Martin’s opinion: “I like it” 

32:Star Wars Outer Rim with the Unfinished Business expansion

This game is way longer and busier than it needs to be but I have such a warm spot for it in my heart. It’s essentially Star Wars Talisman (not to be confused with the actual Star Wars Talisman) where you fly around, flipping cards, hunting bounties, delivering sketchy merchandise, collecting gear and crew and better ships, and generally being a galactic nuisance. It’s ridiculous and unnecessary but so much fun.

Martin’s opinion: “I like getting the money”

33:Ark Nova

Big Terraforming Mars energy only it’s a zoo! There’s a lot of upfront complexity with multiple scoring tracks and a wack-load of icons you have to decipher but actual turn by turn gameplay is quick and easy. Build your zoo, put animals in your zoo, send your meeples off on quests to secure partnerships with other zoos and universities, repeat! The end game scoring system might be breaking my brain a little but otherwise, I’m enjoying my initial pokes and playthroughs.

Martin’s opinion: “I like making animals”

34:Tales of the Arabian Nights

I haven’t played this game in far too long. It’s so ridiculous and so fun. A multiplayer choose your own adventure with just enough orientalism to be awkward but not completely unbearable.

Alison’s opinion: this is bananas and I’m loving it!
Jonathan’s opinion: it’s so wonderfully story-centric it’s not gameifying which for me is freeing!
Rachel’s opinion (not playing): oh I like this game!

35:Chutes and Ladders

Calvinism the board game.

Martin’s opinion: “ehhh it’s good.”


Shapes! Colours! Brutal positioning and blocking! (Peppa pig not included)

Martin’s opinion: “meh, it’s good”

37:King’s Dilemma

So I unabashedly love this game and so when the Kenyon tableting club asked me to run a game for their one shot rpg night, i cheated and modified this legacy campaign board game to fit the bill and it was an absolute success. I essentially acted as a GM and guided the new players through two games and they seemed to really enjoy it. They banned slavery and abstract art! They weaponized wasps and approved novel medical techniques! They bribed each other shamelessly and regularly! Such a great game of voting and politicking. Cannot recommend enough.

38:Organ Attack

“I maked these!” A cute and brutal game of attacking your friends’ organs. Martin has given me cancer, tonsil stones, and love. Pretty good.

Martin’s opinion: “it’s good”

39:Star Wars The Deckbuilding Game

This game is much better than it has any right to be as an obvious IP cash grab and yet! Plays quickly and uses the theme remarkably well. Possibly one of my best recent game purchases.

Martin’s opinion: “it’s…. Good. I like blowing up Daddy’s planets”

40:Quest Kids

Fairly basic game of flipping over cards to either power up, fight enemies, or collect treasure. Not a whole lot of game but kids enjoy it enough.

Martin’s opinion: “I’m doing my Gravity Falls face”


Classic game of bourgeois indoctrination and acquisitiveness with a janky spinner. Its greatest impact is that when anything mawkish or sentimental happens, my brothers and I will shout “Life!” at each other.

Amanda’s opinion: I really like how it’s about money

42:Monster Crunch!

Simple game of playing numbered cards in ascending order to represent eating cereal or drinking milk to combine cards. Different monsters have different powers.

Martin’s opinion: it’s good

Amanda’s opinion: I liked it because it’s silly. It’s monster Uno

43: Terraforming Mars

I love this game y’all. There’s just so much theme and fun packed into this bonkers maelstrom of cubes and cards. We used Prelude, Venus, and Colonies which added just little dollops of variety without being overwhelming. I fulfilled my standard goal of sending an interstellar colony ship out to the stars while Brian Cannon actually did most of the work of making Mars wetter, hotter, and greener while sneaking ants into my labs to eat my tardigrades.

Brian’s opinion: I came here to nuke Mars and eat tardigrades and I’m all out of nukes

44: Black Orchestra

This surprisingly tasteful game about killing Hitler is a fast game of lurking around Europe, catching trains, trying not to draw attention and eventually work up the nerve and wherewithal to take out the fuhrer. We were incredibly lucky and Sam managed to blow up his train en route to a Nuremberg rally and so we won with incredible speed

45: 7 Wonders

Man alive it’s been a minute since I’ve played this but it’s so much fun. I got pretty handedly trounced but enjoyed it nevertheless. This game introduced me to the idea of sharing a hand of cards with your neighbors and also only directly interacting with the folks on your immediate left and right which is such a great twist on normal gameplay. My standard plan of arranging my economy so I can build the Palace in the final round paid off and I got a full wonder so I won the completely worthless emotional victory.

46: Twilight Imperium

Pew pew! Kaboom! Meow! I finally get to play with humans! Thanks to my brother and nephew for indulging an old man’s dream

47: Joust For Fun

Playing cards to whack your friends and impress fans. Nice mind reading game with cute art and friendly violence!

48: Tranquility

Martin’s newest game is a tricky cooperative game of silently putting down cards in numeric order. Very pretty and meditative but has the potential to be hard af

Martin’s opinion: good.

49: Risk Junior

Very simple game of bouncing around a board and shooting dice out of your cannons. Does not accurately teach where Kamchatka is.

Martin’s opinion: it was brilliant! I won!

50: Cascadia

Quick and clever game of building ecosystems and populating them with fussy animals that poop out points based on their various whims and desires. A potentially meditative game with a very satisfying tableau at the end.

Martin’s opinion: I had all the birds

51: Splendor

Fast moving game of acquiring satisfyingly heavy and clacky gems and trading them for mines and caravans and real estate to attract constipated looking nobles to your establishment to hopefully poop out some points.

Martin’s opinion: it’s good. Can we play Waterdeep now?

52: Ex Libris

Build a library! Send minions on errands! Please the Mayor! Fiddly game but so satisfying to fill up your shelves and snag books from friends. I was a mummy this game!

53: Runebound

What if Talisman was excessively fiddlier? Not a question anyone was asking but the answer isn’t terrible. Fun and busy with some truly unnecessarily complicated combat and movement rules but it makes up for it by getting to dramatically read aloud cards like “sky full of wasps!” or “like animals before a storm!”

54: Disney Cookie Swap Game

Sweet little game of making matches and swapping cookies with a shared middle board. Requires some memory and strategizing.

Martin’s opinion: it’s good.

55: Dixit, Disney Edition

Dreamlike game of hints and misdirection, now with more Mouse o’clock! Teaches kids the importance of being vague.

Amanda’s opinion: it’s Disney and it’s fun!

56: Citadels

Devilishly cutthroat game of building civic infrastructure. So much murder. So much fun.

57. Dixit

This game really is a fantastic variation on the Balderdash & Apples to Apples family of casual psychology and sideways deception. Dixit’s genius of only granting points to the clue giver when they generate enough ambiguity that some get it right and some get it wrong is a masterful mechanic. Combined with the dreamlike art of the game, the whole game really does cast a spell on everyone while playing it.

58: Reiner Knizia’s Kingdoms

Quick and thoughtful game of plonking down mines and farms and monsters around your castles to secure the best view while snarling up the view of your friends. Classy fun.

59: Groo

A quick and easy city and army builder where you treat the titular Groo as a terrible hot potato, bouncing him back and forth between municipalities as he wrecks infrastructure and personnel with good intentions. Martin’s opinion: it’s good

60: Charlie Brown Trim the Tree Game

A decent cooperative game of adding ornaments to a spindly tree until it collapses under the weight of all the holiday cheer. A fitting metaphor for getting through the holiday season intact.

61: Grave Robbers From Outer Space

Dracula eats a robot! Teenage werewolves maul the creepy innkeeper! The bookish girl with glasses gets cleavage and a flamethrower! It’s been way too long since I’ve played this amazing game.

62: Clue

This game becomes much more difficult with kindergartners who struggle with reading and secrecy. Still pretty good.

63: Dice Throne

63rd board game of 20A fun back and forth dueling game of rolling dice and spending cards to try to whittle down your opponent’s hit points. Fast and furious!

64: Castle Panic

Work together with your friends to fend off wave after wave of monsters in a colorful anxiety generator. Pretty good.

65: Deadly Dowagers

Marry sensibly, manage your estates, avoid scandal, murder your spouse, collect the inheritance, repeat as needed until you attract the amorous attentions of the Duke and win! A fast and delightful game to play with family!

66: Welcome To

Draw cards! Build homes! Erect fences! Municipal planning! Mild kickbacks! I’ve been wanting to play this for a while and I’m glad I got the chance this trip!

67: Nightmare Before Christmas Merry Madness

Frenetic game of flinging presents at each other and into Sandy Claws’ bag. Fast and/or furious simultaneous dice tossing. Martin’s a fan

68: Earth

Fiddly but fun gardening game! Collect all the fungi! Summon a hurricane! Make a bison happy! Very pretty game with excellently tactile pieces.

69: War of Whispers

It’s a war game where the actual war is secondary to the secret machinations and behind the scenes schemes of the secret societies, cultists and other nefarious groups whose loyalties to the warring houses are flexible and up for grabs. Nice.

70: Disney Chronology

Stressing your Disney knowledge to pinpoint just when various movies and shows occurred in relation to each other.

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A Whole Bushel of Apples

Tim Powers’ 1987 novel of fantastical pirate adventure has had an outsized influence on me despite my only having read it this past month. This is largely to do with Secret of Monkey Island and other films, books, and games that were directly inspired by or shamelessly burgled from On Stranger Tides. The book is quite the ride and having blasted through it, I see why it took on such a legendary status. However I want to use my stage to talk very specifically about this book and that is its portrayal of women, particularly how for much of the book they are reduced to something consumable.

Readers coming to this book familiar with Anne Bonny, Elaine Marley, Elizabeth Swann, or Morgan Adams might be forgiven for expecting to see a similar heroine on display but Powers instead gives us women who are largely passive and while they may inspire the actions of the hero and villains, rarely make decisions for themselves. Beyond that and perhaps of more visceral discomfort is what they inspire, particularly in the villains.

Elizabeth Hurwood is the woman we spend most time with and who gets both more dialogue and agency albeit her most direct and consequential action is saved for the epilogue. Throughout the majority of the book she is unwillingly dragged across the Caribbean by her troubled father Benjamin Hurwood and his unctuous accomplice Leo Friend (who, by the way, if we’re gonna get a real movie adaptation of this book, needs to be played by Josh Gad because come on).

Hurwood, we discover, needs her for an unholy ritual to annihilate her mind and soul and cram the unwilling soul of her deceased mother into her body. Friend has the rather unsubtle plan to just ravage her although it’s not enough to violate her physically (which she is fortunately spared from) but instead wants to become so powerful a sorcerer that he can bend her will and reality to make her crave him of her own volition. Friend, we also come to learn is motivated by a disturbing Oedipal lust which we are forced to witness in various ways before he is, to our relief, blown up in a magic duel.

Elizabeth also comes to the attention of Blackbeard who, very late in the book, reveals that magic has a gendered component and to take full advantage of it, a practitioner needs to be married so as to access feminine magic. To this end, Blackbeard reveals that he’s had a series of marriages that have consumed many women and at the end, needs Elizabeth as his bride since she is the only woman whose blood mingled at the Fountain of Youth. This culminates in the aforementioned epilogue where finally Elizabeth takes direct action and marries Jack Shandy right then and there, amplifying his own magical prowess and denying Blackbeard his nuptial goal.

The trope of the “attractive lamp” is a useful one for thinking of stories that reduce women to objects that the more active male characters trade around, fight over, and obsess about but in On Stranger Tides, women and particularly Elizabeth are not merely desired as ornamentation but to be wholly consumed and used up except by our hero. It creates for a disturbing story and ups the stakes but should not go without pause or consideration about how these stories reduce women down not just to objects but dehumanizes them even further. We can contrast it with the Hannibal series which likewise is about the consumption of others but takes an equal opportunity approach and in a perversion of aesthetics, elevates the act of consumption to art and worship. We are not given such illusions of dignity in On Stranger Tides but instead invited to roll around in the muck and sit with there with our discomfort, like the frequently mentioned toy soldier unable to get back to the store window.

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One of the benefits of living in a college town is having an active gaming club to which I am occasionally invited. This has been the case with their one shot nights where they ask game masters to pick a game to run one session in order to meet new players or introduce folks to games they might never have heard of or are curious about but unable to commit to a full campaign. For an avid RPG collector whose appetite is bigger than his capacity to play, it’s a great chance to bust out games and give them a whirl and this is exactly what happened with Spire.

Spire is a 2018 game by Christopher Taylor and Grant Howitt published by Rowan, Rook and Decard that has players depicting drow freedom fighters/terrorists whose mile high tower city has been conquered by high elves who subjugate their people through humiliation, servitude, and exploitation. The game makes no bones about the tragic nature of this fight and that any gains the players achieve will come at great cost, either personally or collectively. On the surface this may seem like a dour bummer of a game but like with all things in Spire, the surface is deceiving.

Mechanically this game borrows heavily from Powered by the Apocalypse games with classes coming in playbooks of various powers and abilities and dice rolls usually leading to mixed successes that offer nuanced resolutions instead of clearcut successes or outright failures. Dice pools are assembled based on character skills and domains. Where you choose to carry out your adventures can have just as much an impact as how. Consequences are also spread out between various stats rather than simple hit points. In Spire you can take a blow to your reputation or pocketbook as easily as to your body or sanity and this gives a game master options for how they want to threaten their players and provide them with challenges beyond just trying to beat them into unconsciousness.

The world of Spire is weird. Delightfully so. The city is towering and Babel-esque, filled not just with elves of various hues but humans, gnolls, giant corvids, goblinoid… things, psychic mantis cultists, and even weirder denizens. The whole structure sits atop the pulsating and demonic Heart which provides the setting for Spire’s sister RPG of the same name that swaps out urban heists and political revolution for more familiar if not completely traditional dungeon delving. Algae vats, fungal farms/cemeteries, belching factories, entrepreneurial temples, street theatres, dockside taverns, and a geometrically impossible subway system all jostle and tangle together and provide no shortage of backdrops for the intrigues, assassinations, subversions, or whatever else the players deem necessary to bring about the downfall of their hated enemies and the freedom of their people. Also there’s an entire appendix dedicated to goats.

The secret wonder of Spire is that it is a genuinely funny game. It’s not obvious at first glance but as you read through the setting or look at the different powers players can wield, it becomes very apparent that there is a dark humour that slinks through the game like veins in a rich and pungent cheese. That tension between the dire reality of trying to create political change when society is stacked against you with the humour that can be found in every nook makes this a truly fantastic game.

The core book is more than enough to play but there are a number of additional materials folks can acquire, including a useful GM screen which comes with a conspiracy kit and a deck of NPCs and locations to have at hand as needed. The Magister’s Guide offers up a buffet table of optional rules and enhancements to take or leave. I am particularly fond of the Liberty stat which acts as a communal “hit point” for society at large that goes up and down as players upset the status quo and has impacts on how freely they can move around and carry out their dark deeds.

When I introduced it to the gaming club, I was nervous and apprehensive about how it would be received but within minutes of passing out the character sheets and hearing the genuine joyful laughter and gasps of horror, I knew I had a winner and I look forward to spreading the dark message of Spire with other gamers.

Support my reviewable gaming collection here!

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This accurately depicts our feelings

If you were to suck out my brain, render it into a slurry, analyze its contents, and then use that information to put together a TV show most likely to hit every single one of my pleasure centers, it would look a lot like Andor. I love Star Wars, depictions of soulless bureaucracy, and stories about people sacrificing everything they are and love for a cause that may or may not be fruitless. And yet, like the precision of stormtroopers, the actual reality falls short of the promise.

I enjoyed Andor but I did not love it. It was an engaging intellectual experience showing how the Empire functions behind the scenes and giving us an expanded look at the fractious, questionable nature of the Rebellion but it was missing something of the joy and wonder which is at the heart of Star Wars. That’s not necessarily a bad thing! We have lots of stories of plucky rebels and conflicted Jedi having all sorts of fun adventures and there’s space for a more serious look at how this Galaxy far far away functions.

Despite its tight storytelling and fantastic production values, something is fundamentally missing and it can be summed up by Michael in the Good Place:

Andor has family and it has community and it has comrades in arms but there are few to no depictions of friendship. We don’t see vulnerability and affection and comfort, just mutual ground down exhaustion, ideological solidarity, or respectful paranoia. That absence colours the whole show and gives it a very unique tone but it’s not one that often draws me to Star Wars.

A through line in most of the movies and shows is that the galaxy-spanning conflict and stakes are all grounded in the immediate connections of our characters. Luke wants to rescue Han and redeem Vader, Mando wants to find a safe home for Grogu, Hera wants to keep her crew together while finding “quality time” with Kanan. The consistent message of Andor is that the personal is subservient to The Cause and while that message does get pushed back against and tested at times, it’s still more present than The Reason Is Friends.

In The Pale Moonlight

I think a fair comparison is Deep Space Nine. DS9 took the utopian qualities of Star Trek and questioned and problematized them. We saw black markets operating in the shadows, the Federation’s spy network undermining their nobility and ideals, our heroes lying and murdering to do what Must Be Done. Even then though, DS9 was always grounded in the messy relationships of the ensemble which gave us emotional safety net amidst the cynicism. That net is absent in Andor.

I am curious about where Andor goes and what sort of stories it will tell but even as its most target of audiences, I can happily wait.

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Pretty game!

The hills are alive with the sound of Discourse! As of this writing, the gaming community is in a tizzy over the leaked changes to Dungeons and Dragons’ Open Gaming License and as such there is a great deal of interest in alternate games. I had not intended to participate in said Discourse but as chance would have it, I received the RPG Symbaroum for Christmas and I think it’s worth listing as a suitable alternative for folks who want to play something familiar but not too familiar but not too unfamiliar.

The setting is one of dark fantasy and delving into sinister woods and ancient ruins on behalf of questionable forces back in “civilized” lands. Characters can be brave knights, cunning barbarians, compassionate witches, zealot priests, goblin pickpockets, tragic changelings, etc all jostling with the various fractions trying to tame, exploit, or protect the deep wilderness and its many secrets. The monsters and challenges as written all have a grim, Slavic aesthetic with deadly plants, giant abominations, feral trolls, undead horrors, and the like. What points of light in the darkness are either outright traps or hiding perilous secrets.

Symbaroum is both a game and a game setting so there is nice synchronized theming but one could easily lift the core rules and apply them to a homemade world. Its core mechanic has players only rolling with the GM responding and pushing threats. You’re looking to roll low on a single d20 with other dice used for damage. Characters have 8 attributes ranging from 5 to 15 and when taking an action attempt to roll under the relevant attribute with modifiers either adding or subtracting from the target number to adjust difficulty. Characters start with 3 to 5 abilities (plus any traits based on their species or heritage) that determine the fun things they can do like cast spells, dual wield, command underlings, etc. There are three “archetypes” which stand in for classes – Fighter, Rogue, and Mystic – and each one comes with suggested attribute ranks and abilities but they are only guidelines and there are no mechanic differences between choosing one of these three.

Magic is potent but risks accumulating Corruption which is a game-defining mechanic. The deeper characters delve or the more secrets they uncover, the more Corruption they take on. Like sanity loss in Call of Cthulhu or Dark Side Points in Star Wars, gaining corruption can be profitable in the short term but risks altering your character, giving them unseemly qualities, and ultimately transforming them into an unplayable mess that fellow players suddenly will find themselves contending with.

Symbaroum will appeal to folks wanting a Skyrim-esque game of exploring an ancient, lived-in, and dangerous world with factions vying for their assistance and allegiance. It’s a tidy complete package with gorgeous art, clean design, and a lot of room for expanding out but provides a complete experience with just the core book. If you want something that scratches the D&D itch but with some edge, simpler rules, and a nice amount of specificity, I think you’ll enjoy it.

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Wrapping up 2022

The Kesslers In a Civilized Moment

This has been quite the year! Rachel taught her first Old English Class, Leeman ended his ten year run of Ask Lovecraft, and we even managed to get to Toronto and Disney while we were at it. In the meantime, we successfully refrained from eating our darling children even when they absolutely deserved it so all in all, I think we can call it a success.

Folks who miss our regular banter can still find it on occasion over on tiktok where the Nerdy Priest and Mayor Lovecraft find time to collaborate and interrupt each other as is their wont. Leeman’s radio show The Mayor is also fulfilling his podcasting-need to be heard and loved by multitudes. As our covid-smoothed brains allow us to read more and engage with pop culture in something approaching an intelligible manner, we hope to share with you all of our various discoveries and the profound wisdom we obviously bring to The Discourse.

Some end of year recommendations!

Leeman has discovered the Murderbot Diaries and fallen head over heels. Severance also quickly became his favourite TV show since… ever? He also got the chance to run a one shot of the dark steampunk game of colonialism and tragedy that is the Spire rpg and heartily recommends both.

Rachel has plunged face-first into the new Willow series on Disney+ and finds it a creepy yet fun-loving break from the more dour and serious epic fantasy offerings. Book-wise she has been enjoying Babel and The City of Brass trilogy and gives both big thumbs up.

Keep watching this spot for more updates in 2023!

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On To the Next Adventure

my very patient priest

Ten years ago when I first started filming Ask Lovecraft, I briefly recruited Rachel to do camera work which she very graciously did for the first few episodes until my fussy artistic nature and burdensome filming schedule proved incompatible with her lifestyle of having a real job. Over the decade since she has been a stalwart and patient support without which this show would not have been possible. I have had a lot of creative projects and endeavours over the years but this by far surpasses all of them in scale and that’s due to having Rachel’s encouragement at every step. With regular production of the show ending, it was only fitting to bring her back to film the finale. I am beyond grateful for all she has done and so excited for what comes next.

For now you can find her wisdom over on tiktok.

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Saying Goodbye

Mike Griffin captured a touching moment between old friends

In June of 2012, I awkwardly stood in front of a bed sheet with a flip-cam and filmed the first episode of Ask Lovecraft, a project born out of the success of a stage play I had performed in called Monstrous Invisible by Stephen Near and a subsequent guest spot on a now-defunct media review show by my friend Darla Burrow. In nearly ten years, Ask Lovecraft has brought me into contact with an entire world of authors, artists, filmmakers, game designers, and fabricators of the weird and fanciful while unlocking doors I didn’t even know were there. I’ve performed in Portland, Providence, San Pedro, Santa Fe, and even Guelph. I’ve met heroes and been humbled by opportunities I never envisioned.

And now I’m looking to pack up the suit in the closet, fold up the tripod, and let what has been a decade-long labour of love finally rest come this June. For a while, I darkly joked about doing this project until I was 46, the same age Lovecraft died but that mostly would have been a joke for one so instead I settled on the even decade. It’s neat and clean and requires little explanation for most.

For those unsatisfied by that reason, allow me to offer a few more. Ever since adding a second child to parent full time and getting involved in local politics, I became keenly aware that my energy and focus was limited. In September of 2019, I went from my mind-boggling three episodes a week schedule down to the more manageable one which allowed me to keep things spinning for another three years. Another reasons was finding the limits of my niche. This project has always been something of a boutique situation that inspires remarkable devotion among a few but never spilled out onto the larger scene. Adding Patreon allowed me to justify the time and costs the show took and I’ve appreciated the voluntary subscriptions but the cost-return balance has shifted with time and frankly, to keep charging folks, I feel I would need to provide more than they currently receive and I’d rather free up those dollars to go to other artists and creators.

As something of an eldritch sign of where things might go, over the last few weeks and well past when I made this decision, I began to garner a lot of attention over on TikTok with my tales of strange Ohio lore known as Always Has Been. I have no idea what this might turn into or where it will go but it’s been quite the exciting ride and I’m very curious.

This has been a remarkable decade and I can never adequately convey the gratitude I have for everyone who was watched, shared, donated, or sent a kind word. The show isn’t going completely dark. I hope to provide the same weekly delights up until our finale in June and then after that, I imagine there will still be occasional interviews, special episodes, and taped live shows to share. Please feel free to follow me on twitter or keep up to date with my website.

Thank you all again. I am beyond grateful for the support you have given to me and my family over the years. I’m excited for what’s next.

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