Voices in Board Gaming: Interview with Talia Rosen

About Today’s Guest: This is the second interview in our “Voices in Board Gaming” series here on The Opinionated Gamers.  We’re starting the series with a couple of writers from this site.  Longtime readers will be familiar with today’s guest, Talia Rosen, who is one of the most-read writers in the history of this site.  Talia first started writing as NYC Gamer, then DC Gamer.  When I was getting into this hobby, Talia was one of the insightful voices that I loved reading, and I think many of the best articles to ever appear on OG are her work.  She took a sort-of break from gaming in the past few years, but she recently returned.  Below we talk about how Talia got into gaming, blogging over the years, and what’s changed on the game scene.
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(1)  When did you get into the hobby?  What’s kept you in it?

I was always the kid trying to get family and friends to play board games with me growing up — games like Monopoly, Risk, Life, and Clue.  My dad also taught me Diplomacy as a child, which was another formative gaming experience. And of course I was friends with another kid in town mostly because he owned Fireball Island and its oft-overlooked cousin Crash Canyon…

I’ve just always loved strategy games.  They bring me such joy and engagement. In the mid-1990s, I got very much into Magic: The Gathering, which led me to a weekly club.  That’s where someone brought Settlers of Catan and I fell in love with German-style games. I ran out and picked up this ancient copy of Settlers shortly thereafter at the local comic book store.

From there, I studiously worked my way through almost all of the Spiel des Jahres winners before eventually falling in love with epic, narrative games like War of the Ring, Through the Ages, and Twilight Struggle.  I’ve stuck with the hobby for 20+ years because it’s simply my favorite way to spend time with friends and family.

(2)  You were one of the most prolific written bloggers for many years, first as NYC Gamer, then as DC gamer, as well as on the former Boardgame News.  You’re also a BGG admin, and one of the earliest contributors to The Opinionated Gamers. And that’s just the surface of how involved you’ve been! But you took a break from writing for a few years around 2015-2017.  So what were your gaming experiences in recent years? Did you or do you follow gaming news much?

I experienced some cult-of-the-new burnout for a few years there.  I had been going to a couple conventions per year, always with a list of 50+ new games that I just had to try out.  I was eager to read about and try all of the new games from all of the big designers and publishers, and eager to find hidden gems among the more obscure or first-time designers and publishers.  It led to spending a lot of time on new games that I didn’t like as much, and not spending enough time playing old favorites like Stephensons Rocket or Lowenherz. I also had a child in 2015 and had some health issues to work through, so all of that led to a major dip in my gaming and in my awareness of gaming news.

As discussed in detail here, I recently attended my first board game convention in 4 years.  It was great to jump back in, but it did highlight for me how out of the loop I had been.  And, I think, how out of the loop I will gladly continue to be, for the sake of spending more time on old favorites.  I am now the person that generally shows up to a game group with a couple games from the 1990s (whereas 10 years ago I would always show up with the newest freshly imported games).

(3) Now, the big question: What have been the biggest changes you’ve noticed since hopping back in recently?  A related question: How has the hobby changed since you first joined all those years ago?

The biggest changes are: (1) the impossibility of keeping up with all of the games coming out; (2) the consolidation among publishers; and (3) the massive explosion in crowdfunded games.

From 2005 to 2010, you could read just about everything posted on BoardGameGeek, and you could play all of the new releases coming out of Essen each year.  That is just not possible any more.

In addition, while there are so many more games coming out, the number of established publishers that have been consolidated is remarkable.  I never would have expected giants like Days of Wonder and Fantasy Flight to be bought out. The publishers have also gotten much more sophisticated about their target demographics and brand consistency (which I think DoW really pioneered).

Pre-orders have gotten huge, and I remember a time (before Caylus) when pre-orders were unheard of.  The “fear of missing out” drives a lot of pre-orders and crowdfunding, which unfortunately has lead to a decline in development and refinement, with underdeveloped and rushed games being one of the results.  On the other hand, we’ve also gotten some brilliant new independent games that may never have otherwise seen the light of day 10 or 15 years ago (such as Scythe and Root).

(4)  What are your favorite games from recent years?  

As debated with Larry Levy all those years ago, I love cooperative games.  So Spirit Island is definitely one of my favorite recent releases.  I love the way that the theme is so closely integrated with the mechanisms; I love the artwork and presentation of the game; I love the immense variability of the spirits; and I love the way that the game flows with the intensifying nature of the colonists’ exploring, building, and ravaging.  I’ve taught the game many times now, and I get a big kick out of seeing how much joy it generally brings to people around the table with me.

I have also greatly enjoyed Decrypto, The Mind, Penny Papers, Root, and Scythe.  Decrypto feels like everything I wanted Codenames to be. The Mind is just a brilliant, captivating, and intuitive activity.  Penny Papers is a clever and highly replayable roll-and-write. Root is the most adorable war game that you’ll ever see, and reminds me of the old 1979 Dune with its incredible faction divergence.  Scythe has gorgeous artwork and components, along with wonderfully simple decisions each turn that build into a larger tapestry over the course of the game (not unlike 2009’s wonderful Hansa Teutonica).

And then there’s Android: Netrunner — the game that I have played more than any other in the past few years.  The only game for which I attend tournaments, and the game that I have spent more time thinking about (even when not playing) than any other.

(5)  You wrote one of my all-time favorite articles here on The Opinionated Gamers, called “The Grails”.  I definitely grail hunt, but most of my grails kind of disappointed me when I got them.  I saw in your article that I wasn’t alone. Are you still grail hunting? If so, what’s on the list?  And any reflections years later on grail hunting?

Wow, I’d completely forgotten about that article.  I have definitely gotten out of the grail hunting business.  It was a passion project of mine for many years, given my quest to play anything and everything (especially rare and obscure games).  I’m much more interested these days in playing my favorite games at least 50 or 100 times because I get such reliable pleasure out of them — whereas new, grail, or overly complex games (think Vinhos) can often end up being a waste of precious gaming time.  Having a child in 2015 has made it more important than ever to make good use of my gaming time, which means sometimes saying no to learning a new game that doesn’t look like it will be my cup of tea. I used to want to try new games, even if I was pretty sure that I wouldn’t like them, just because I wanted to have tried everything.  Friedemann Friese actually suggested to me that I stop trying his new games because he did not think that I would like them… and that was very sensible advice from a great game designer whose games do not generally appeal to my personal tastes.

(6)  You’ve written recently about jumping back into game conventions and hanging games as art on your walls, but what’s next for you to write about after all these years of gaming with such a large archive of material already covered?

I’m always on the lookout for interesting new game-related topics to write about.  I don’t particularly like writing traditional reviews or session reports, so I’m usually looking for broader topics to discuss — like player count, awards, year-in-review, and particular mechanisms (like The Attia Family Tree).

I did recently hit 10,000 games played since I started tracking in 2005, so I will probably do a post digging into that data and reflecting on my experiences.  This is not unlike my 2008 article about “Quantifying your Fun.”  I do really love to quantify my fun!  I’ve also been wanting to do a Faction-by-Faction article about Summoner Wars for a while (in which I am working on ranking and discussing the 32 factions), and a follow-up to Netrunner Diaries that will look at what it’s like to have now played the game over 1,500 times (far surpassing my next most played game of Crokinole at 221 plays, and even surpassing the many hours spent on my 77 plays of Through the Ages).

After that, only time will tell.  I have strong opinions about a lot of game-related topics, so it’s only a matter of time before one congeals into an article.  Perhaps I’ll think of something interesting to say about my recent sale of over 50 games from my collection (including Gloomhaven) or my newfound obsession with Root…

(7)  What’s left on your gamer bucket list?  

Essen.

Oh, I guess I should say more.  I’ve always wanted to go to the Spiel game fair in Essen, Germany to commune with almost 200,000 other gamers.  Visiting Essen has been a dream of mine for almost 20 years, even though my interest in the cult-of-the-new is waning and U.S. importing has become much easier in that time.

I’ve checked off BGG.CON, The Gathering, and Fantasy Flight World Championships from the list, as well as visiting game stores in Tokyo, so I think Essen is the biggest thing left by far.  Except perhaps someday designing a game…

(8)  Another tough question: what are your top 10 games?  (Or feel free to make a longer list of favorites!)

I wrote an article about the impossibility of this question back in 2012 called “Best for any Crowd.”  My favorite game depends on two variables: (a) the number of players at the table; and (b) the amount of time available.  My goal in owning 300+ games is to have the perfect game for any number of players and any amount of time, so as to avoid trying to wedge the wrong game into any particular situation and creating a suboptimal gaming experience.

I also tackled this subject in 2007 with a chart in “Picking the Perfect Game,” and specifically the daunting six-player challenge in 2011 with “Six is a Crowd.”

I often tell people that my favorite games are: Netrunner, War of the Ring, Through the Ages, Twilight Struggle, and Antiquity.  But that’s due in large part to the fact that two-player gaming dominates my time and I like all of those games best with just two players.  If I have three people, I will definitely go for San Marco, Stephensons Rocket, Hansa Teutonica, Dominant Species, or Java. If I’ve got four people at the table, I will probably push for Imperial, Galaxy Trucker, Root, Nexus Ops, Kreta, or Survive.  If there are five of us playing, then I’m all for El Grande, Princes of Florence, Die Macher, Battlestar Galactica, Wallenstein, or Santiago. If there are six of us, then I will advocate strongly for splitting into two groups of three. There are enough great games that I’d rather not play one with a less-than-ideal player count.

I would also generally prefer to play one longer game rather than several shorter games, which is why games like War of the Ring, Dominant Species, and Die Macher are on the list above.  I really enjoy the narrative arc and memorable nature of longer games.

(9)  What advice would you give a new gamer, meaning somebody who has played a few modern games but is just getting into it?  

Try games that you’re unsure about again.  The first play is often not a reliable indicator.  Some of my favorite games of all-time are ones that I did not enjoy the first time.  For more on this phenomenon, definitely check out my “April Showers” column.

If at all possible, try to learn games from people that have played before.  It will make the experience so much more enjoyable. Don’t feel like you need to try everything though.  It’s okay to not like racing games or deck-building games (or games that do both — I’m looking at you Lewis & Clark), or what have you and to just pass on those for the most part.  Here are some games you can avoid… if your tastes happen to be like mine.

There’s a great Latin phrase — de gustibus non disputandum est (about taste, there is no arguing) — which is a wonderful reminder that we will all enjoy different board games and that’s okay.  The key is to find games that you can enjoy with your friends and to find friends with whom you can enjoy your favorite games.

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