Due to my family’s recent cross-country move, the opportunities for gaming have been slim lately. Between packing, driving, and unloading a moving van, becoming acquainted with a new city, starting work at a new dental practice, and leaving my gaming group, I’ve been thoroughly starved of that gaming goodness.
As I’ve had more time to reflect on gaming than actually experience it, I figured this is the perfect opportunity for me to reflect on my journey into the hobby of tabletop gaming. Call it a Board Gamer’s Odyssey, Autobiography, History, or whatever you please, but today we’ll be exploring many of the games and moments that made me into the designer, publisher, and gamer that I am today. What games were my favorites at certain times in my life, and why? Are they still among my favorites, or have they fallen out of favor? How have my preferences changed over time? Let’s do the Odyssey!
I owe my love of gaming to Grand Daddy Nintendo. In my home, we grew up with a Nintendo Entertainment System and Super Nintendo. I have fond memories of enjoying Super Mario Bros., Duck Hunt, Joe & Mac, Zombies ate my Neighbors, Bubsy, Donkey Kong Country, and getting wrecked every time I started The Legend of Zelda. I had no idea that there were things such as Nintendo Power or magazines that could guide me through the trickier titles like Zelda. I was simply a young lad with a love of play.
I still have mad respect for one babysitter who kept me entertained by cruising through the entirety of Super Mario Bros. 3 and beating the game in one sitting, something that I could only dream of at that young age. I don’t remember her name or what she even looks like, but she’ll always be that unicorn babysitter for me. It wasn’t until high school that I went back and beat all the classic Super Mario 2d games. High school was a nice renaissance of Super Nintendo games and beyond where I shared my console with the tennis team and we spent the nights at the hotel taking on various old-school games.
I also remember the Christmas long ago where our family got a Nintendo 64 and spent the day racing through the tracks of Mario Kart. It was probably the 64 that really cemented me as a Nintendo fan, and I didn’t need any further prodding after that in requesting games, handhelds, and systems for later birthday and Christmas presents. Over time, we acquired a Playstation 1-4, Xbox, Gamecube, Wii, Gameboys, Nintendo DS’s, and more, and while our family wasn’t allowed to play M-rated games, I still managed to borrow or sneak a few classics into the basement including Halo 1&2 and others.
My strongest gaming memories growing up include discovering the wonder of each new Super Mario game, falling in love with The Legend of Zelda titles, playing endless hours of Smash Bros with family and friends, and celebrating Halo-ween and New Halo’s Eve more than once in high school. Among my dozens and dozens of cousins, I was the one who beat down on everyone else with Fox in Smash Bros Melee. Among my highly skilled friends, I was the one who trolled everyone else with Duck Hunt’s exploding cans, Animal Crossing Villager’s deadly tree and bowling ball, Piranha Plant’s spiky ball, and Simon Belmont’s relentless projectiles in Smash Bros Ultimate, and I was good at it. Rather than loyally stick with a single “main” character, I have always loved to explore a wide variety of fighters and rotate through many of my best ones including King K. Rool, Inkling, Link, Samus, Min Min, Ridley, Piranha Plant, Simon Belmont, and more.
My group of high school friends were such hardcore gamers that one of them opted for an old school Super Mario Strikers tournament on Gamecube as his bachelor party feature activity. It was perhaps the loudest, funniest, and most competitive video game memory that I have. Yet our deep love for video games also resulted in somewhat of a collective aversion to board games. I played plenty of classic board and card games with other friends and family, but it was almost never with my closest group of friends.
My parents aren’t necessarily the type to initiate a family game night, but there are some that they would frequently play with us growing up. My mom, being a retired school teacher, always loved to break out Boggle and take us on with her spelling prowess… at least until us kids got old enough and smart enough to start beating her at her own game. My dad was usually down for a session of Catan or Pit, provided he had the time and energy for it. In my teenage years, our immediate and extended family got particularly hooked on the card game Play Nine thanks to its smooth flow and simplicity, but I eventually grew tired of it being a massive luck-fest with only one statistically optimal way to play. While my family will still try to break out Play Nine every now and then, I now perform the acrobatics necessary to dodge such a long, tedious gaming session that goes for nine repetitive rounds.
Another fond memory I have is of Killer Bunnies. This is the one game that I did get some of my close friends into, and a couple of us (myself included) amassed a complete collection of all the many packs and expansions during high school. Whenever a bunny was exiled to outer space, we took such mechanisms literally by suspending the bunny card high above the table within the confines of a chandelier. These wacky bunny hi-jinks culminated into an all day Northern Utah Killer Bunnies tournament which four of us signed up to compete in a quest to win the TWO HUNDRED DOLLAR grand prize gift card. We had a killer shot at that prize too, as three of us made it to the finals and colluded as a secret team with the agreement to help each other, sabotage everyone else and split the prize money. We ended up with 75% of the carrots, meaning we had a 75% chance of winning the game when the Magic Carrot was revealed, and yet we STILL LOST to another lucky son-of-a-gun. That tournament roughly a decade ago may have been the last time I ever played Killer Bunnies, yet I kept my collection for several more years before finally admitting that it’s high-luck to long-playtime ratio was no longer for me, and I sold it off.
Yet the first board game that I truly fell in love with would have to be 7 Wonders. 7 Wonders captured our hearts and spurned our hunger for strategy gaming thanks to its accessible rules, quick playtime, and mind-boggling replayability. This was also our first encounter with any strategic game that let everyone take their turn at the same time, and that revelation was glorious to me and my cousins, the ones I most frequently played this game with. The diverse decisions of whether to invest in resources, lunge for wonder development, gun for military, sneak for science, and more were the perfect gateway drug for me into this hobby. I have its designer, Antoine Bauza, to thank for really fanning the flames of my kindling love for tabletop gaming.
It was my love for 7 Wonders that drove me to acquire Bauza’s colorful Takenoko, relaxing Tokaido, and refreshing Hanabi. The zesty productions and/or novel mechanisms within these designs opened my eyes to the possibilities out there. Board games and card games didn’t have to be just that… a board or some cards. They could be towering bamboo pieces, panoramic vacation vistas, reversed hands of cards.
With bellies hungry for more, we went on to discover and play-to-death more games including King of Tokyo, Dominion, Dixit and beyond until one pivotal day when I sat at the kitchen table reading the rules to a new game in our small collection: Photosynthesis. I don’t believe the rulebook or this game had anything to do with what happened next, yet I remember it for the life-changing thought that entered my brain as Photosynthesis sat in front of me: “You know what would make for a cool game? A game with Sasquatch and a Yeti and other mythological creatures who are all competing to become the most legendary creature.” It was in that moment that Nick, the game designer, was born.
Out of that idea grew the game Creatures of Legendaria, an asymmetric, grid-based movement, Yahtzee-style dice game that was inspired by King of Tokyo and, oddly enough, Splatoon. Before I knew it, I was designing custom dice, concocting creature abilities, drawing board game maps, and plotting world domination with what was sure to be the next Monopoly or Catan. I had friends (or perhaps more accurately, victims) controlling a Basilisk or a Centaur or even old Nessy to claim territory, perform heroic or villainous deeds, avert angry mobsters, hoard treasure, and earn shrines to their glory. Man, just reminiscing this one still brings back all kinds of nostalgic feelings of epic creativity.
The problem is, when you’re new to a craft and buried deep in the creativity of it all, you are completely blind to all the mistakes you are making along the way. Mistakes such as lunging for asymmetric ability design before polishing the core gameplay. Pushing for good looking art and premium prototypes before solidifying your shifting components. Throwing the doors wide open for any player count before understanding the pacing and interactions at play. Saying yes to any and every game piece without considering the cost and fiddlyness of it all.
But in retrospect, it didn’t matter whether my first design was good or not. What mattered was that I had caught the bug for tabletop gaming. My eyes were opened wide to the wonderful world of board games, and my appetite was even wider.
I wanted—no, needed—to know about all of the great games I had been missing out on all these years. And who better to help me embrace this new culture than YouTube’s The Dice Tower and their hours upon hours upon hours of “Top 10” and “Top 50” and “Top 100” videos. Of course, that doesn’t mean I embraced every game they recommended. Suggestions like Concordia looked far too dull while others like Star Wars: Rebellion weren’t hipster enough for my tastes. My ears would perk up much more readily for games like Deception: Murder in Hong Kong, Five Tribes, Yamatai, Clank, Ghost Stories, Downforce, and the like. These were the types of games that rode the first wave of my insatiable hunger.
Of course, my environment was the other necessary ingredient in this equation. While I attended dental school in a dark, musty, hundred-year-old building in Columbus, Ohio, where we were lectured and labored to the brink of death, I desperately sought entertainment and activities to bring balance to my life. Fortunately, my wife and I lived in a townhome community packed to the gills with young grad-students and professional students who were just as poor and hungry for fun as us. From one night to the next, we quickly found ourselves inviting over a wide variety of couples and individuals to try out the latest addition to our collection or the latest prototype I had been cooking up.
I designed what I knew and loved, which is why King of Tokyo bred Creatures of Legendaria, Clank and Ticket to Ride bred Yeti Shreddy, and Takenoko and Majesty: For the Realm bred Garden Contest: Show Gnome Mercy. Ironically, all three of these game ideas were born amid the hectic finals week studying at the end of another semester of dental school. It was as if a high-stress schedule and some sub-conscious procrastinatory defense mechanisms brought out the productive creator within me.
I formulated these games, offered them up to contests or publishers, hit the brick wall of rejection, went back to the drawing board, reimagined the rules, rinsed and repeated. Yeti Shreddy had a particularly wild journey from energy efficiency board game all the way down to roll & write all the way back to sprawling deck-builder as I sought the best mechanisms to bring the idea and theme to life. The very first version of it was cranked out in under a week right before it found itself at a table in the playtesting hall of Gen Con.
Gen Con was an eye-opener, to say the least. I had no idea that the hobby was big enough to support its own yearly Disney World. With registration lines winding out the massive convention building and far down the streets. With thousands of hobbyists packed into rooms and halls like eager sardines in search of the next gaming fix. Tables upon tables, booths upon booths of games and ideas and creations lined the convention floor. I’m just proud that I was able to discover, fall in love with, and purchase Decrypto before it became the popular evergreen party game that it is today.
It wasn’t long after this first convention experience that I was riding the hotness wave and not even knowing it. Gorgeous abstract drafting games Azul and Sagrada were all the rage, both in the industry and in our home. Fresh new roll & writes Welcome To, Railroad Ink, and That’s Pretty Clever were more of our go-to favorites. But these small, bite-sized games weren’t the only glowing designs to catch my eye. Wingspan was teased out by Stonemaier Games. A production featuring pastel eggs, a cornucopia of bird drawings, and a bird food dice tower for crying out loud. I had to have it… and when I finally did, the production went on to exceed my expectations, and thus began the Stonemaier Craze in our home.
Viticulture and Scythe soon followed Wingspan into our collection. The richly thematic productions mesmerized all who joined in on our Stonemaier gaming sessions. After conquering the rulebook of Scythe, I was hungry and ready for even more meaty games. This is where I decided to take a swim in the deep waters of board gaming with the sprawling table-hog known as A Feast for Odin.
My fears of treading into such murky gaming territory were assuaged by Paul Dean’s Shut Up & Sit Down review of A Feast for Odin, where he revealed to me that the game was more a wide wading pool than a deep drownable well. Despite the endless tiny shapes and infinite action spaces and daunting rulebook size and inconceivable playtime, I could see the meaningful enjoyment of it all, and I was ready for the plunge.
A Feast for Odin wasn’t the first favorite that Shut Up & Sit Down introduced me to, but it was the heaviest. While their videos initially felt scatterbrained, long-winded, and aggressively peculiar, I began to realize that many of their recommendations where right on the money. With time, my appreciation for their British humor and wacky review style and strong gaming preferences grew.
Quinns’ infectious love for solid card games served to expand my own interests, and he’s the reason why I gave a shot to sneakily fantastic yet unattractive designs including Ethnos, Condottiere, and Jaipur. Despite my poor first impression of Pipeline, I couldn’t get Matt’s unbridled enthusiasm for oil out of my mind, and I eventually realized that such a richly adored game deserved a second chance at my table. And Tom’s appreciation for Cole Wehrle designs including Root, Pax Pamir, and most recently Oath have aided me in my quest to convert all gamers to Wehrle fans.
It’s these videos that served as my treasure map and navigation compass while I sought out the best games both old and new. Likewise, Shut Up & Sit Down’s podcast—featuring the above mentioned blokes and Ava Foxfort—has been a reliable source of gaming criticism and discussion during my journey into the depths of this hobby. But they certainly aren’t the only contributors who deserve my thanks.
Without the unabashed endorsement of So Very Wrong About Games, I may have never touched the wildly unique Cosmic Frog or talked myself into the dry looking masterpiece, Tigris & Euphrates. Thanks to Dan Thurot’s insightful pieces, I’ve had the pleasure of discovering more collection essentials including Babylonia, Scape Goat, and Sidereal Confluence. And it was No Pun Included who got me excited for the deliciously slim Irish Gauge.
And while I was finding critics who understood my needs and expanded my tastes, I was also encountering publishers and designers who consistently satisfied at our game nights. Capstone Games quickly won me over with their fearless embrace of thinky, cutthroat, interactive publications including The Estates, Stick ‘Em, and Watergate. Publishers Leder Games and Wehrlegig Games earned my trust with gorgeous, striking, and dynamic experiences including Root, Fort, and Pax Pamir. And designer Reiner Knizia flipped my perspective on dry Euros with his characteristically elegant gameplay with emergent interactions. It’s these types of reliable creators whose distinct styles have bestowed upon me such strong cravings that I can hardly resist each fresh concoction they pull out of the oven.
Speaking of Dr. Knizia, one especially noteworthy event in my board game odyssey is something I would label The Reinerssance. While many longtime fans have been applauding Reiner’s designs in recent years as a return to greatness, I’ve been busy soaking up and savoring the best of his entire portfolio, from cult-hit negotiation game Quo Vadis to modern masterpiece and spiritual sibling Yellow & Yangtze. He’s the only designer who owns two-and-a-half shelves worth of real-estate in my home, and nobody else even comes close. It’s taken me nearly thirty attempts to even find a design of his that I’m ok with purging from my collection. His work has had a profound influence on both my personal preferences and professional pursuits.
It’s through the lens of Knizia’s design philosophy that I’ve both narrowed my tastes in some areas and expanded it in others. It’s the streamlined, interactive tension of The Quest for El Dorado that made it difficult to go back to the more solitaire Dominion or more messy Clank. No doubt, his classic Through the Desert and Samurai prepared me to embrace and adore other deceptively simple Euros including Hansa Teutonica and Renature. Thanks to Reiner Knizia, I’ve discovered that what I love most about gaming is not the extravagant components or lush artwork, it’s not the novel mechanisms or potent themes, rather, it’s the communal challenges that matter most.
Puzzles become boring once the optimal solution is found. Shiny objects lose their luster when combined with enough familiarity. Yet the one thing that never gets old, never remains static, never ceases to entertain is the players sitting around the table with me. I’m not just referring to the faces that come and go from one gaming session to the next, although that is part of it. I’m talking about the interesting personalities, unpredictable brains, and evolving interactions that reveal themselves from one round to the next or from one design to another.
If a particular game earns itself a long-term spot on my shelf, the most likely reason is that it allows its players to engage with each other in interesting, memorable, and dynamic ways. This is the critical genetic trait that ensures a long, healthy lifespan in my collection. But beyond that, highly interactive gameplay is becoming more and more the gateway by which any title even enters into my collection.
If I can spot that a particular design is a completely heads down affair with a puzzly novelty that will run out steam after only a couple plays, then I’d much rather not bother with it at all. Yet at a deeper level, I still find less satisfaction even in a low-interaction game whose novelty hasn’t run out. So much of life is already spent in my own head—dreaming about my wishful desires, worried about my daily needs, circling around my own problems—that games which encourage me to get inside others’ minds, read their emotions, predict their plans, and influence their intentions are like endlessly refreshing vacations into the wider universe of my fellow human beings.
As I’ve slowly unraveled this truth within my person, I’ve noticed myself shed games from my collection that fail to provide these “social vacations” for me. Games like Wingspan, which I certainly admire for the all the creative passion that went into them, are games that no longer satisfy me. It’s not enough for me to scour my personal play area, concoct an efficient plan, and pull off some cool combos whenever my turn comes around in hopes that my decisions add up to a better score than yours. And the half-hearted conflicts of Scythe and Tapestry don’t do it for me either. While I’ve learned and gained much from Stonemaier’s designs, productions, and business practices, I’ve simply lost my appetite for their style of play.
The same can be said for other games I started out loving including the roll & write genre, Gugong, the sequels to Azul, Splendor, Crusaders, Calico, and Barenpark. Furthermore, there are plenty of popular hits that fell flat for me when I finally got to try them including Orleans, Altiplano, Santa Monica, Reef, Raiders of the North Sea, Terraforming Mars, Everdell, Rune Stones, Hadara, Lost Ruins of Arnak, and many more. None of these games are bad, they’re merely bad for me. There are of course exceptions to my strong biases such as the low-interaction polyomino legacy game My City, the solitaire thematic roll & write Super Skill Pinball, and more, but these are few and far between.
Besides saving money by avoiding misguided purchases, the main benefit of discovering, honing, and defining what does and doesn’t work for me is that my palate carries over into how I design and publish tabletop games. I’ve learned that box inserts need do more than simply hold your components… like successfully keep things organized during storage and be easy to place pieces into or fetch pieces out of. I’ve decided that luck works best when it enhances the tension, broadens the variety, and/or gives amateurs hope, and it works worst when it undermines calculated decisions or possesses a strong presence in a long game. I’ve witnessed that art needs to supplement the experience without detracting from clarity and functionality. I’ve found that aggressively mean mechanisms can be excellent ingredients in a board game if they are purposeful, expected, and strategic. I’ve discovered that the quality of a rulebook can make or break the gaming experience. I’ve determined that even more important than a design with a clever mechanism is a design with an engaging arc, meaningful downtime, and filling turns. I’ve realized that the setup, teach, and teardown of a game can mean all the difference between making it to the table and collecting dust on the shelf. And I’ve beheld that tension in board games is much like stress in life… without it, things can quickly feel dull and meaningless.
As I’ve made these small, important steps through life—from learning to play, to teaching and inviting others to play, to imagining new ways to play, to refining my preferences for play… I’ve slowly gained the confidence, experience, and drive that have made me into the gamer, designer, and publisher that I am today. I’m sure that many other hobbyists and creators can trace a similar arc as mine. Yet the fascinating part about it is that we are all originating from different sources and branching into unique directions through our individual tabletop gaming journeys.
We wouldn’t have the incredible Pax Pamir without Cole Wehrle’s love of history.
We wouldn’t have the legendary Ra without Reiner Knizia’s professional background in mathematics.
And we wouldn’t have Soda Smugglers, Pumafiosi, and Hot Lead without a couple dentists who love board games enough to start a publishing company called Bitewing Games, to reach out to Reiner Knizia and assemble three of his fresh designs, to mold these designs into a connected collection and thoughtful production with the help of their wildly imaginative colleague and friend, Paul Halkyon. All of the gaming experiences in my life have built up and coalesced into this moment… I both stumbled upon and intentionally created this opportunity to publish three 20-minute card games that delight and satisfy both the former, naive gamer and the modern, persnickety hobbyist in me.
This opportune moment of launching a Kickstarter campaign for a Reiner Knizia collection next month feels both like the culmination of a gamer’s odyssey and the blast-off of a creator’s journey. As long as our Bitewing Games rocket ship doesn’t fatally explode as it attempts to exit the atmosphere, we have big big plans for what lies beyond. This Criminal Capers Collection is only the beginning…
Article written by Nick Murray. Outside of practicing dentistry part-time, Nick has devoted his remaining work-time to collaborating with the world’s best designers, illustrators, and creators in producing classy board games that bite. He hopes you’ll join Bitewing Games in their quest to create and share experiences that, much like a bitewing x-ray, provide a unique perspective and refreshing interaction.