Producing Fun episode 23: Dan Thurot - Game Critic

Producing Fun episode 23: Dan Thurot - Game Critic

Producing Fun is a podcast about making tabletop games from a product perspective.

Dan Thurot, writer of Space-Biff!, is one of my favourite reviewers and may be the most respected critic in games. In this episode, we dive into the economic function of the game reviewer, the nature of game criticism vs review and Dan’s unique historical perspective on games.


The Space-Biff! Space-Cast!:

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Full Transcription

James 0:00
Hi I'm James, and this is producing fun, a podcast about making games from a product perspective.

Welcome to Producing fun. My guest this week is the legendary Board Game Critic Dan Thurot, writer of Space-Biff. When it comes to writing about board games, it's difficult for me to pick a favourite writer. One of the most rewarding things about my deep dive into the landscape of game reviewing several years back was discovering people who can really write, even if a lot of them compared to the big names in board game YouTube, at least, are really under the radar. But if someone at gunpoint forced me to pick a favourite, unmoved by my genuine pleas that I really do like them all for different reasons, it would be Dan. Dan's writings are considered, careful, but imaginative. And he nearly always has a unique perspective. As he says himself, he doesn't just approach games through the lens of gameplay experience, as crucial as that is, but from a wider cultural perspective as well, considering how games fit into our wider experience of the world, what they can say about historical events, and about society in general. Indeed, when I learned in this interview, that Dan's day job is a professor of history, a lot about his interests fell into place. But what really makes his work special to me is that it goes beyond the merely thoughtful review. From broader essays on the role of history in games, to a deep analysis of Root through the lens of French postmodern philosopher Foucault, it's safe to say that Dan's thinking about games is very deep, and very wide. And while that kind of thing may not be everyone's cup of tea, I for one am Always glad that someone like Dan is taking games seriously like this. Beyond Dan's personal biography, this episode focuses mostly on the role of criticism in games, and the place of different kinds of game review in the market. Personally, I found it fascinating. And if you're interested in the wider context game reviewers operate in and the forces acting upon them, this episode is for you. We join just as Dan and I have moved on from a surprisingly lengthy chat about homelessness in his home state of Utah. I've just followed it up by asking him a nice, easy question. What is the economic function of a board game reviewer?

Dan Thurot 2:37
Oh, boy. Well, okay, that's really two questions, isn't it?

James 2:41
Hmm. It's at least two questions.

Dan Thurot 2:44
Yeah, it's at least two questions. And I think we can break it down very broadly, into what types of reviewer are we talking about, because there's the commercial reviewer, which we would say is like a consumer guide. And then a critical reviewer, or critic, however you want to say it, it doesn't really matter to me, which I think the focus is a little bit more on the culture. And I think these both play a role in the economics, but they might be at times a slightly opposed role. And it creates a an interesting ecosystem. You know, I wonder if you could make a board game modelling that ecosystem? Well, anyway, one of the things that, so here's how I would delineate them. So a Consumer Reviewer. This is somebody who would go out and say, You know what, Kingdom death monster. This is a phenomenal game. It's got all these nice miniatures, it's got some really good AI, you're going to, there's nothing like it, you're never going to play a game like it, it will spawn imitators, but they won't have the multimillion dollar budget. So they aren't going to be quite like this. Unfortunately, now, you'd have to ask yourself, Is this worth $450? And here's my answer that this is worth it for this level of pledge but not worth it for this level of pledge. And I'm simplifying it a little bit, but there's always that element, where you know, you'll read reviews where their function is to tell you sort of the the dollar per pound, or to put it to put it in, in English English. The pound per kilo gramme, I don't know. The, to put it into to put it into that parse-ability for consumers. Is this game worth your money? And, and I, and contrary to some people's expectations, I've discovered I do not think this is bad. I don't think this is bad at all. When I want to see a movie, I absolutely read a commercial review. You know, is this movie worth seeing in theatres, where it has a high price. Is it worth getting on DVD? Is it worth getting from the library or streaming? I will absolutely, is it worth not seeing at all, because it's just not even worth the two hours? Right? That's a commercial review. And that plays a very important role in the ecosystem and economics of the of the hobby in the industry. Because the reality is, is that people are consumers, and where you fall on that is going to be, is going to be very hard to parse. And so it's useful to have people who are analysing that for you, right. I think it's a little bit I, where my complaint comes in is that we put in an enormous amount of weight on that side of the critical spectrum. And I'll get to that in a second. But the the consumer review is valuable. I think one of the things that a consumer review can do is help avoid bloat, that as game prices are creeping up. These are the people who are writing things that say, Well, you know, what, the latest Fantasy Flight product? Yes, it's beautiful, and it's big, and it has a million components. But is it worth that $150 price tag? Well, maybe not? Do you really need more plastic? Maybe not? Do are you doing? Are you even going to play this game more than, you know, one and a half times? Maybe not? That has a lot of value. And I hope that that was one of the ways that has value is it helps push prices down toward a more consumer friendly range? Because everyone, myself included, I'm more likely to be interested in a game that looks great and costs $40 than a game that looks great and costs $150?

James 6:41
Yeah, it makes total sense. Who do you think? Okay, so this is difficult for you to name specific names. But what sort of places do you think you read commercial reviews? Or you see commercial review content on board games? Because the thing I'm really thinking is, I feel like that describes the sort of platonic ideal of how that would work really well.

Dan Thurot 7:05

James 7:06
And yet, actually, when I review stuff I review, I actually had very few people talk about the relationship specifically, between price as on the nose as that at least. And the value of again, even though they might be talking in terms that are perhaps more classically commercially structured they're talking about the components definitely are much more like, Oh, he's the most there might even be a delineated section of a rich text review that talks about the components and assesses them as like a unique elements that builds up the game, which would be obviously very different to your style. But I don't hear much about price. Am I just reading the wrong reading, looking at the wrong?

Dan Thurot 7:45
No, I don't think so. I think that the way that we talk about price, it manifests in a few very specific ways. And one of the ways is that usually you won't get a review, for example, that comes out and says, this game is worth $30, but not $40. Right? You'll never see that. Or if you do, it's so niche, that it's effectively useless. Right? Because dollars are worth different amounts to different people, you might make more money than I do. So your $40 and my $30, you know, you know, maybe that's equivalent to us. Who knows,

James 8:20
they can't say the real price of this game, according to our sophisticated algorithm with was $37.86. Right? There that that doesn't need that doesn't exist.

Dan Thurot 8:31
Yeah. So the first way that I think that when we talk about price, how do we do it? The first way is that we do note extremes. And you'll even see very well regarded places like shut up and sit down doing this. Like if they if they talk about a very expensive game. They will note it. And I don't think that's wrong, right? That that's appropriate, especially for a very expensive game, because they are consumer focused, they are interested in giving you consumer based reviews. Now, they're still not going to be silly about it. But they're going to point out if a game is just exorbitant. The other the other side is that one of the ways that we will often talk about games in a consumer standpoint is that we go the opposite direction, we'll be more lenient on games that are cheap, or small. So for example, like if a game is a print and play, even from one of these new companies like postmark games, I think it's called where they're doing, which I haven't played any of their games, but I'm fascinated in that model. Where where you know what you were, you're gonna pay, I don't know what it is $15 And you get in perpetuity, you get to just print off your own maps, and we'll make new maps for you. And you just get those downloads. That's not notable because of the game it in of itself, right? That's notable because of the economic model of it. So a commercial reviewer is probably pointing out the extremes whether something is prohibitively expensive. or whether they're going a little more lenient on a game, because it's affordable, because it's small, because it's travelable, because it's something you can carry with you or put into, you know, a quiver or whatever. There are a lot of ways that we can create consumer reviews that aren't saying like, this is worth n dollars, but not n plus $5.

James 10:19
Yeah, yeah.

Dan Thurot 10:20
Another way is the focus on components. That is inherently a consumer based review. Because you're putting front and centre the idea of the game as product, as opposed to game as culture. So you're saying like, Okay, I'm going to sit here and I'm going to do what I would call a template review, right? Where you're like, Okay, here's like how complex the rules are. Here's an image of the components and how nice they are. And then kind of at the bottom, you have the final thoughts. That's very much a commercial review. I it's so much a commercial review that it's actually not that far off from the kind of review, you might read about a car or a washing machine, where those often have bulleted reviews where they're like, Okay, well, here's how the car handles. Now we're going to review like the potential add ons. Now we're going to talk about the seat warmers. Now we're going to talk about kind of the appeal and family usability of the car. Now, here's our final thoughts, your what you're doing is you're taking the game and you're reducing it into its components as a consumer product, as opposed to looking at it more holistically and saying, What does this say about culture? It's a difference between if I wrote a car about sorry, if I wrote a review about like, an old Studebaker car, you know, as a product, versus writing about it as an icon of culture, those are going to produce very separate reviews. And the consumer review is going to talk about like mileage, and how it handles, you know, things like that,

James 11:47
which of course, would be awful, presumably for the Studebaker.

Dan Thurot 11:50
Yeah by today's standard's right?

James 11:53
Yeah. Exactly.

Dan Thurot 11:54
I know a priest who restores Studebakers. And I don't think he rides them very much just just tinkers with them.

James 12:01
Well, that's the value of being a cultural icon. I guess you don't have to ride it very much.

Dan Thurot 12:04
Yeah right. Yeah, so that's one of the other ways that I think we talk about we talk about price without talking about price, is that focus. And now this isn't to say that, like a critical review can't talk about, Wow, this game is expensive, because that does have an impact on the culture, doesn't it? The more expensive a game, the more you could call it elite, the game will be it will be prohibitive to the vast, vast majority of people, which in a way is a negative hit on that games culture, because how often do super expensive games break into the wider culture? Well, sometimes Gloom Haven? They do, they can. But usually the way that they can do it gloom Haven is, I mean, gloom Haven does so much so well. And it does a lot to save its price, even though it's big and expensive. And, and Isaac has done some very smart stuff like releasing cheaper versions and a digital version. I mean there is there are ways for those often to break into culture, as opposed to something like Kingdom death, which in a way exists in culture as a rumour.

James 13:18
Yes, yes. It's a game that that you've read a lot about. You've heard a lot about, you know that there are this absurd number of Kickstarter backers that it has. Right. And yet you've never met it? Certainly, I mean, you probably have, but certainly from but but broadly, in my experience, I don't I don't think I know a single owner of that game, or anyone I know who's ever played it personally.

Dan Thurot 13:44
Right. And I think I know, two, and which is not many, like I know a lot of people who play board games, and I think I know two. And one of them was real. He bought it to flip it. And so.

James 13:57
So really just that's just pure games as financial speculation anyway for him.

Dan Thurot 14:01
Right. And there are plenty of people who play that game. So So does that make sense? Where I would?

James 14:08
I think it's a very interesting delineation. And I really like your comparison to cars. Because I think what's so interesting about the car, I would say, compared to films where I was finding it harder to place it exactly on the spectrum, is that the naturally utilitarian nature of a car is that it is very, is that you can describe it in terms, specifically of features. And it'd be very high value, very high value in features alone. So I want to know how comfortable broadly and it is, I want to know how good the aircon is I want to know these things, this list of things that can be sort of productized quite quite effectively. And what I think are so fascinating about game reviews is in my experience is that they don't quite as easily, straightforwardly fit that mould. So when I read a review of a game that just says something like well, the miniatures, for example, I might say about Magnate or you get a lot miniatures for your money actually you get a lot of miniatures Somebody maybe that's that's a feature, they would say they would say, it does this, it has these components. I'm like, That's brilliant. I'm glad you're glad you approve of that, and you think it's good value. But at the same time, it doesn't, doesn't really tell you anything about the experience of playing it. And that's not to say, by the way, obviously, I'm caricaturing a hypothetical example here. I can't think of a single review of mangate I've read that didn't try to say something about the experience, rather than just list list what was in the box. But, but I think it's nonetheless interesting that when those elements take a lot of, for me, anyway, a huge amount of of the forefront of the spotlight. It's then so interesting, that the the experiential piece, which to me is sort of a single most important piece, even as a consumer is not as relevant. And I guess is this where the crossover and I guess before you move into your, I'm assuming definition, more of the critical, where there's a kind of a bit of a bridge here, maybe between these two things?

Dan Thurot 16:03
Yeah, I actually do think that both of these review types are on a sliding scale of experientialality. Right? They're both talking about their own experience, where where I think consumed commercial reviews do tend to try to, they make overtures at being objective. And, you know, we talk a lot about like objectivity and subjectivity when we talked about critical stuff. And the reality is, you can't, you can't do it. But there are ways that you kind of can't like, showing us pictures of a game. You're right, objectively, that's the game. That's a way in which we can be objective, right. And so a commercial review does tend toward what we would call objective without ever reaching it. Because they're still going to tell you a little bit about the actual experience and experiences themselves will be subjective, in general, and this is all a sliding scale, right? You can probably find commercial reviews that are deeply experiential, and critical reviews that aren't. But in general, I tend to think of it as kind of an alligator, you know, it's bigger on one end than the other. And so, like, a critical review, I think, tends to be a little more experiential. But I think even on the far end of that, if you're getting really deep into culture, then the personal experience can become secondary. I mean, I've read some wonderful pieces, like for example, on Catan, talking about like, Catan, the birth of colonialism in games and, and all of that, and that's deeply non experiential. It's not telling you what it's like to trade, you know, wood for sheep. Or to have a bunch of bad rolls, like you play a game where you roll nothing but boxcar so that the poor player who was really dumb and built his first city on a brick with a 12, like, he kept getting brick and you built on all the sevens and you never got any resources that you can use. There are definitely critical reviews that are not experiential. But yeah, I would consider that a bridge is that all reviews are going to at least likely touch upon experience in some way. Like, I would hope that whoever was writing this piece on Catan had played Catan. Just so they know what's going on. But so I would think that a critical reviewer or a cultural reviewer, at least at least in my experience, I am interested in what the game feels like to play. But I'm also interested in and I'm not always doing this, nobody is I'm also interested in, in what arguments are the game making? What in what ways is it intersecting with culture? What is it modelling? Does the game want you to feel something? Feelings can also be a part of culture? Now, what is this game doing? Not only is what are the actions it's making you take on its way to that doing? So that's how I would describe the critical review. And in my experience, those critical reviews, I mean, they might mention, they might mention price, they might show you the miniatures, they might comment on that. But in general, that that like anything on a scale, that's that's a little more diminished, they're more interested in those. I call it holistic, but maybe that's me tooting my own horn, considering the game as a as a cultural artefact as opposed to a purely commercial one. But honestly, we regard almost everything commercially in our culture. So I don't mind going the other way. A little bit sometimes.

James 19:39
Yeah, interesting. Well, what proportion again, I think it's much better probably to give me an approximation of this rather than name specific names unless you feel comfortable doing so. What, what specific problems you think of what we see as board games are broadly critical rather than commercial. You're talking about the majority. But is it something that would you say This really characterises quite a small corner of, of games, or

Dan Thurot 20:05
I do I do I think I think I don't know about a percentage. My gut reaction is like 2%.

James 20:14
Oh, wow. Yeah, that's that's not many at all.

Dan Thurot 20:16
And I'm not saying that of like every person who would consider themselves a professional reviewer, that sort of everyone is a reviewer, you're a reviewer, even if you never write down a review, you give recommendations, right? You discuss games, you talk to friends, just by dint of you choosing to bring certain games to a game night over other games, you're a reviewer, because you're exhibiting preferences and making those preferences go out into the world and impact other people's preferences. That's all in a sense review. And so, every reviewers are a dime a dozen. We're all reviewers, we're not special. of the people who are actually writing down reviews, you know, Board Game Geek, just mentioning stuff on social media saying this game was really good. Most of that tends to be commercial. It's in the business of making recommendations. So I would say like, 2% of people are interested in the cultural, but I think it's catching on. And here's the reason I think that that's the case. Like, just to give a shout out, I won't say anything negative. A channel like No pun intended, is that what they're called?

James 21:32
No pun included,

Dan Thurot 21:33
No pun included. I always just want to call them NPI.

James 21:36

Dan Thurot 21:37
like, they're a radio channel or something, the National, whatever. So no pun included. I've been watching these video essays that they're doing now, like on blood on the Clock Tower, or on colonialism in games. And and I think that you go back and you watch some of their older work, and there was always a commercial bent to it. But now they're moving more and more toward the cultural critical perspective. The same is happening in a number of other fields, I received a lovely note, from one of the reviewers at Meeple mountain, Meeple mountain tends to have a they have a big group of reviewers, and many of them are commercial, because they're a big review site. But this note, mentioned that this particular reviewer was trying more and more to focus on, you know, what are the games saying? What are these games doing under the hood? What sort of arguments are they putting into the world. And this reviewer had only recently discovered my work, and had been doing that cultural work, even before reading any of my work, but the reason he sent the notice he had read some of my stuff, and wrote me saying like, this is exciting that I've read a few of your pieces on writing critical work. And it's it's exactly you said what I'm trying to do. And so I'm excited about this. And so I don't think it's any one person who's doing it. But I think as a whole, we are seeing the ecology start to shift a little bit in that direction. It's it's a niche that people are recognising they can occupy. I also think that commercialism is inherently hollow. And people are realising they want to talk more about why do we see certain games? Why do certain games succeed where others fail, as opposed to just should you play this game? And as I said before, it's always a spectrum. So I'm not saying everything was commercial and is becoming critical. But I think we're seeing that previously, the cultural side of the review sphere had been a little underserved. And more and more people are feeling that and moving that direction.

James 23:49
Interesting. It's very interesting that you see that because actually, I think that's actually a good example, particularly the NPI video essays, as you say. And if you're starting to see more of this kind of content, essentially, you mentioned Meeple Mountain as well, because I feel like they've always had a partial to doing a few things that are a little bit different. I remember one of my favourite humour articles they ever did, was it said, I think the headline was just Kickstarter to include playtesting as a stretch goal. Which I just enjoyed,

Dan Thurot 24:19
that's brilliant

James 24:19
enjoyed the piece tremendously. Muah, Chef's kiss, it's gorgeous. That was absolutely, absolutely excellent. So it's kind of glad to hear that actually, some of the writers are wanting to broaden out even more into more into wire more widely into culture beyond just sort of humour content about the about the sort of the hobby. That's very cool. Well, I'm also to think about the role that the critical consumer relationship reviewers have to each other because something that I had sort of noticed a bit was that after you had previewed magnate, a lot of other reviewers got a bit more interested because they thought, Oh, well, it's sort of worthy of more interest because this person who's very well known for their kind of critical coverage is engaging with it. And that implies it has worth. And so I sort of wonder, again, this is why I come back to that question about the economic role of how people fit into this, which, by the way we may be more or less comfortable with, but I think it's something that we doesn't get talked about very much, because I think everyone fears where this conversation can go, if you see what I mean, is, it's interesting that, you know, our critical reviews have always historically, I think, across different disciplines, had a certain degree of cachet and status about them. And I don't know if that's partly because of the ability to, at least among some, at least among some people, perhaps most of all, among other writers. So for example, I think Shut up and sit down mentioned that you had talked about magnate. And it was sort of interesting to think that they, I think they may have seen it previously another situation, but it was very interesting to think that they had noticed that because you had covered it, because obviously they look to your writing as something quite inspirational for them. Do you see what I mean?

Dan Thurot 26:13
I do conceptually. I don't, I don't tend to, like I don't count my numbers. For example, I hate knowing how many views something gets, like, for example, I made the terrible mistake of looking at my so you mentioned Foucault and the woodland, the series that I'm doing on Root and how it's influenced by the work of Michel Foucault. And it's, it's not like the numbers are, are bad, but they're not as good as you know, like writing about some hot thing, and just knowing that made me frustrated and discouraged. And

James 26:56
can I would I be able to guess that probably, I'm gonna make a wild stab in the dark here, that your review of ark Nova had quite a lot more traffic than for example, that piece about Foucault and Root.

Dan Thurot 27:11
Yes. And and, and to me, that's wild. Because there's, there has to have been like 2000 reviews of ark Nova. You know. I don't think I had anything novel to say about ark Nova. Just because it's had such wide dissemination, everybody's played ark Nova, who's going to say something about ark Nova. So when I, even when I reached out to clay, from Capstone games, and I said, Hey, clay, I know, I am the last person in the world to even know that ark Nova exists. I have heard, I had heard the title, I thought it was about spaceships. And

James 27:52
I did too, when I first heard it as well, to be completely honest.

Dan Thurot 27:54
Yeah, I thought it was like about making a space Ark, to save animals and humanity or something, which, you know, that's a cool idea. But it just hadn't hadn't caught my interest. And so when I found out it was about trying to make a conservation a zoo, I was going, Oh, that's cool. I would like to try it. Also, it's been out for like two years. And so I wrote to clay and I said, Hey, Clay, you know, he and he often will send me games. And I said, Look, I'm just curious if you have any extra copies of ark nova. And maybe you want me to take a look at one of them. But I totally get it if you do not. Because I doubt anyone's going to read it. At this point. I doubt anyone's going to care. And he said, You know, I have a ding and dent copy that I can send you said, Okay, that's great. Yeah, I'll take a ding and dent copy, he sent me a copy with this huge ding on a corner or wrinkle across the box. And I couldn't have been more grateful. Because, you know, like I said, I think at the time, there were like, 2000 reviews on BoardGameGeek. And I played it and wrote about it. And of course, instantly had just 1000s of hits and I'm going, but why?

James 29:02
Thinking there's so much other content.

Dan Thurot 29:04
Yeah, well, why why do you think But why aren't you reading the stuff that's interesting. You know, like, I'm not saying I phoned it in, you know, I tried to write a good review. Of course,

James 29:14
I found your genuinely your comparison of terraforming Mars, and how that related to theme actually very interesting, because obviously, as a publisher, I'm always I feel sometimes greedily mining reviews to learn more about why games work. Like I feel like that's my primary interest. So I did find that quite that that and I didn't, I hadn't read that so much elsewhere, because I think people are genuinely less interested in that, that kind of aspect. As you said about the you mentioned, it's been nice to see people moving in the direction of why is it that things work? And obviously, as a publisher, at least I don't know how many other publishers are like this because we actually I don't think I've talked to any other publishers about this subject at all. Maybe I should. About that's probably why I find so much of your stuff very interesting is because it makes me go. Oh, yeah, it's not. It's not what's going on in that one. I'm just, stroke beard,

Dan Thurot 30:07
well it's a fascinating game for that reason, right? Like, everything it does, has been done by other games.

James 30:15

Dan Thurot 30:16
And in some cases better. But it takes those it takes those ideas and combines them in just such a fascinating way that it's kind of like a best Hits album, of different of different bands, you know, where you can, you can get it and you can listen to all their best hits and not have to listen to the crappy parts of the album.

James 30:34
And compilation albums are hugely successful, aren't they? They are among the highest selling album.

Dan Thurot 30:38
Yeah. And so it kind of plays that way. But all of this is just a long way of saying, it makes me deeply uncomfortable when I hear that, like, Shut up and sit down has, in any way been influenced by me, because I don't like to pay attention to that. I just don't like to think about it. Because I'm writing for me. I'm trying to explain to myself, like, like, here's an example recently, somebody sent me their game. And they asked, Well, what do you think of it? Before I had written about it? I said, Well, I don't know, because I haven't written about it yet. To me, that's the process of becoming, is sitting down and writing the review. Which is one reason I hate play testing. You know, people, I'm I'm often asked by designers who are familiar with my work if I could play test their game, and I sit down and play it. And they say, Well, what did you think? And I said, Well, I had a, I had a good time. You know, we were like laughing. And, you know, I made a joke. And you laughed, and you said some jokes. And I laughed, and we moved some pieces around. And that was a perfectly good time. And, you know, I and it isn't until I sit down and try to explain explain the things I was feeling by writing that I'm really going to understand it.

James 31:47
It's as if then maybe we're expecting you to sort of stop, pause for a second look off into the middle distance, and then sort of just come out with a sort of rather wonderful pronouncement on the particular nature of the experience, maybe make an allusion to some classic poetry, and how it relates to it. And then and then and then was actually like, naturally, why on earth would you be able to suddenly produce something like that?

Dan Thurot 32:14
This game is like, Yeats in his middle years? Yeah, it's I, I'm not much of a talker, to be honest, which is why I find podcasts a little baffling. I feel like I just get on here and stammer a bit and but I'm so I. So does being a more cultural reviewer carry cachet? I don't know.

James 32:39
And then to some extent, you don't you don't want to know, right? Because the problem then becomes this awful thing of the response to all of this. That I guess is the fear that it begins to change what you do, right?

Dan Thurot 32:54
It does to an extent and like I don't want you know, if if my writing influences somebody, I'm happy that that happened. I don't mind you know, and I don't even mind hearing about it a little bit. But I don't want it to become about the influencing. Like, I despise the idea like Mike Barnes, who's also a talented reviewer. He likes to get my goat by calling me an influencer internet. Oh, wow. And he knows that that just drives me nuts. I hate that term. Same with content. I don't think of myself as writing content

James 33:34
You're a content creator, don't like that either.

Dan Thurot 33:36
Yeah. I don't like that idea. I

James 33:38
will I put the episode up for this. We absolutely shouldn't say Dan Ferro, content creator

Dan Thurot 33:44
Yeah, content creator. It's just the worst.

James 33:52
Oh, if only the audience could see your facial expression of that.

Dan Thurot 33:57
Take a, have that screenshot, you might

James 34:02
We'll make that the episode cover?

Dan Thurot 34:03
Yeah. Make that go on iTunes. Yeah. And part of that is because I don't like the commercialism of it.

James 34:10

Dan Thurot 34:12
I, I would much rather write something that gets nobody to buy the game that gets everybody thinking about the game.

James 34:19
That makes sense. Yeah.

Dan Thurot 34:21
You know, and that, to me, that's a little bit about Foucault and the woodland and other series that I write about games at that level. Even though some of them are a little pretentious, you know, I probably mined Root as much as it's going to be mined. But to me, that's that's the beauty of a game is that it can model tricky things in a simplistic way, in a way that streamlines complex ideas that it can model emotions, that it can get people around the table talking about relatively complex things. I have a friend who's who is a little bit I don't want to say anything rude, just kind of buys into simple history. And it's through playing games like John company that he's sort of donned into this world where he can think critically about colonialism and and about global trade and about maybe there are some problems with some of the philosophies that he had just accepted, outright and easily, that he had some of the narratives he had been told his whole life, maybe there were some footnotes to those narratives. And maybe they shouldn't have been footnotes. I love that games can do that. And they can do it in a relatively safe space. That isn't to say that all games are equivalently safe. A game like John company, people should know what they're getting into. Don't spring that on someone. But I love that games can do that. And I want to talk about that. And that doesn't have to necessarily be about colonialism that can be about a wide range of topics, even about why are some games, why did they feel good if they're a party game? Like what is it doing that works? What part of our brain is it tickling? It can it can touch all aspects of our life? That's what I want to talk to you about. And sometimes there's weird pushback to that. There's a there's a there's a fellow from Ireland who really hates my Foucault in the woodland articles, and is always like, why don't you write about Kant's blah, blah, blah, for for Bonanza or something? Yeah.

James 34:38
Kant's categorical imperative as it applies to Bonanza, yeah. UnIronically, I'm at least intrigued.

Dan Thurot 36:44
Yeah. And I'm going, behold the coffee bean. And it's just such an irony to me that throughout all of, you know, so my, my original field of study was bioethics. And very philosophical. And it was, it was interesting to me that in philosophy, philosophers and philosophy professors are always bemoaning that everything in society is philosophy. But nobody pays attention to philosophy. And then you go out and you write an article about like, Okay, this game is about philosophy. And then the philosophers are like, God, this is bubkis, pooping their pants over it, which I think is just so philosophical. Get mad at Christopher Nolan, because he made, you know, some philosophy and a movie or something. So that's what I want to do. That's the stuff I like writing about. And I don't want to be an influencer. I do hope to be a good influence.

James 37:45

Dan Thurot 37:46
in my own small way, but not let's not be an influencer. I want to also be influenced, I want to I want to see I want this to be a conversation.

James 37:55
And is that something that so I guess then to you, particularly, seeing more of that critical flowering of more stuff in the board game industry is usually positive, because it means you get to read and more of those kinds of ideas in a way that aren't just the more commercial reviews yourself.

Dan Thurot 38:10
Yeah, you know, one idea that I've had, and I keep wondering if I should take the plunge now, or just keep waiting, is doing like a quarterly or a monthly newsletter, I don't know if it would be on my site or elsewhere, where it would just be a roundup of like the best critical writing about board games from that month or that quarter. Just to just to highlight that there, there are good conversations going on. It's just that many of them are outside the usual scope of the commercial interests of board games. And I think that would be fascinating. And it wouldn't all be like weird niche stuff from like the Wargaming Lab of, you know, Rand or whatever it would, although of course, that stuff could be included. I think things like NPI doing. Their essays could absolutely be included. I think that people are hungry, maybe not every person gets hungry, but I think a lot of people are hungry to see more of a questing criticism a criticism that maybe asks more questions than it answers or doesn't really give a fig where, whether you buy a game

James 39:29
yeah, I can I can see that completely. That there is something very very attractive about that. Michael of Meeple like us certainly used to do in his roundups every month would sometimes used to keep a list of interesting links from board games, many of which were the slightly more interesting, critical pieces where he where he was able to find them. And I remember I loved that that list. That was something I used to check all the time because

Dan Thurot 39:51
So who was that that did that?

James 39:52
Michael of, don't know if you've heard of Meeple like us, I don't know.

Dan Thurot 39:55
Oh, yeah,

James 39:56
at the moment, but yeah, for the board game accessibility people and I think cuz that was very interesting having that curated list that occasionally, you'd asked me to contribute to and ask some of his readers to contribute to throw in things they thought were kind of really interesting things they'd read. So I think that's a great idea. I think, personally capturing some of that critical writing on board games. I have no doubt you obviously have the number of reviews you produce already. You've got a lot to do, but I do, I would certainly hugely support that.

Dan Thurot 40:24
Well, it would be interesting, I don't I I'm, I'm hesitant, because I am lazy. And I don't know if I want to, but I mean, setting up something like a tip line, basically, you know, please email me about any interesting critical work you see, Please promote your own work to me. You know, don't send me your review of, you know, the latest, I don't know, cool, Mini or not game. That's not to say they can't do good work before I get any hate mail. It's just, they usually don't,

James 40:59
yes, unless I guess there's something very interesting cultural to say about Zombicide, for example, and how it fits into our conceptions of the zombie. And why have zombies become so popular? There are sort of interesting things you could think about there about, I'm why the acting zombies and the particular ways in which how you your what your job is in the game, and how you act through the game against the zombies, there might be something more interesting about that. Possibly.

Dan Thurot 41:23
There is and you know, it's just so it just makes me sad that this metaphor of, of death by consumerism has itself become death by consumerism. I, oh, man, zombies are just so tedious. They have become tedious. Is that does that mean anybody wants to read about me getting depressed that a zombies have become tedious? I doubt it. So I probably won't write that.

James 41:49
Leave that for someone else to do? Oh, I can I can offer finding a new angle on that one? That's really interesting. Well, I think that I think that's that that itself is kind of fascinating that sort of, in some extent, in your ideal world, as you said, you don't you don't want to be an influencer, you don't want to be the person who's out there, pushing people in any way towards acquiring certain kinds of stuff. So actually, in many ways, sort of, ideally, for you to operate in that cultural sphere. Actually, it's not like you want to be part of a commercial ecosystem at all right.

Dan Thurot 42:26
You know I think there's really no escaping it. And to some degree, I'm a hypocrite because I do write the occasional Kickstarter preview. I mean, I did one, I did one on magnate, for example. And usually the reason I write those is, I turn down a lot. Even games that are sent to me, I turn down a lot, because I don't think it's worth selling. But sometimes I will play a game that's usually an independent game. It's saying something perceptive enough that I do want it to sell a little more. I have no interest in selling, you know, I don't know, pick a big company. Fantasy Flight, Fantasy Flight? I don't know. Something under the Asmodee umbrella. If they send me something, I'm not necessarily interested in selling it. But so for example, I've written a lot of previews for like Cole Wherle's work. And that's because I want his work to succeed. Because it itself is an act of criticism. So I mean, John company is, that's a critical essay in board game form. You play that and it informs you about problems that you never would have dreamed the company had had, the East India Company had had, unless you'd read books on it, and but not here, here it is in a game, you're going to gain an appreciation for how half of the world's total commerce could pass through one company and still not generate profit.

James 43:56
Yes. Oh, I mean, these data companies. Absolutely. It's a fascinating subject. And as you said, Exactly. extraordinary, extraordinary. How could it still not be profitable.

Dan Thurot 44:06
Right. So so it has to get bailouts, half of the world's trade. And it's and it needs bailouts. How is that happening? Here is a game as a critical essay on that. So sometimes I will write just because I want more people to engage with with certain games, or your game. What? Why does a housing bubble happen? Why does the housing crash happen? There's something perceptive and useful in playing this game and looking at Oh, well, maybe big, maybe big corporations that just buy these things to sell them and have no investment in the in the neighbourhoods and in the cities that they're in maybe this has something to do with it. And so I do promote games on occasion. Even tacitly like I don't say go and buy this Kickstarter, it's really cool. So yeah, I but on the whole I don't really want to influence People to buy things I hope. Sometimes I influence people to not buy things, save some money. We're all. We're all in this together. But yeah, I hope to be a good influence on the way we talk about games. I don't know if I am. I hope so

James 45:17
I think it was a very positive influence. I find your writing quite inspirational in the sense of, I really, I think, Oh, this is a really unusually interesting take on that. And I think it's, what I like is that, I think most of all, I like that your work person, I think you take games seriously. And there's always a strange thing in board games, I feel like, I'm quite serious in how I present in board games. And so people, and I think I want to talk about Naylor games, I realise all the things I want to say about it are quite serious things. But I think that's partly because I felt like games should be taken more seriously. And the idea that they can be something like that, again, could be an essay, like your John and company is beautiful, of that game is a is an essay on this subject. And it does do something unique, because because it's an interactive medium, and you kind of act through it, that one act in the game that you're taking moving pieces around, taking an action is actually incredibly rich, in terms of relative to just say, reading a book, where all the sort of structuring is done up front for you about how meaning is going to be communicated. And instead, you get to act the meaning. That's, that's super cool.

Dan Thurot 46:35
Yeah, it actualizes the meaning in a way. And and if the model is built in such a way that it can incentivize players to take actions that they would normally consider horrifying, or that they would consider brave or any other, you know, courageous, whatever action you're trying to incentivize if you can create the model in such a way that you are showing players an experience outside of themselves, and showing them something true about human action, about human nature, about cultures, about companies about history, I find that very valuable. And it doesn't need to be this big grand thing necessarily. I think even a game like apples to apples does it? Right?

James 47:17

Dan Thurot 47:18
That humans we love silly comparisons, we are always comparing. So okay, here's a game that you are trying to make the silliest comparison possible. And in a way that maybe someone else would make a comparison and it becomes how do we as humans not only make comparisons, but how do we assess the way other humans make comparisons, and you're actualizing that in a way that I think is very informative about a human condition. That doesn't mean that in writing about it needs to be dour. I think we often learn best when learning is enjoyable and airy. So I hope I'm not influencing people to write like, boring essays.

James 47:55
Well, absolutely, you don't want, Yeah, I think that's the thing, isn't it? We don't want necessarily writing that's the sort of deliberately academic as a way of sort of, get what's the right way to phrase it, it's almost like it's using that as a way to garner itself or garnish itself with authority. It's like, well, let's write something that's like, it's very dry and serious, because then we know that we know it's good. Whereas actually, as you said, there's a great joy in writing that is fun and enjoyable and amusing, and has humour and in part is Messam message often better,

Dan Thurot 48:29
actually began writing space-Biff in part as an antidote. Because in my personal life, I, so I work in history, and so I do plenty of dry writing, about historical subjects, and I wanted to write with contractions and jokes, and, you know, write about things with a sense of life, as opposed to, you know, academia, I have a great appreciation for academia and the way that that needs to be written. But outside of that sphere, it's a suit of armour. And, you know, we put on that suit of armour in academia, for the sake of things like clarity, getting rid of miscommunication, enabling peer review, but really outside of that setting it the problem with that suit of armour, even in that setting is that it can make one very brittle. And maybe you're not, you're not, you're not very good for a hug. Right here, you're in this big cold suit of armour. And, and it can be very hard to communicate outside of that setting, when writing in that suit of armour. And so I think there's a lot of value in writing about games in a cultural way, or talking about games in a cultural way, without concealing yourself behind that shield. By putting yourself out there and being vibrant and being excited or being upset and not having to shield it behind according to you know, in the view of this author, no, you just say I, you feel something. It's okay for you to feel something. It's okay for you to think a game is garbage or that you think it's the best thing ever. It is okay to be ebullient it is okay to be disappointed. You can express things with emotions that you can't express academically,

James 50:12
you're allowed to have an opinion that requires no citation.

Dan Thurot 50:15

James 50:15
right for support. Yeah.

Dan Thurot 50:17
And that's actually one reason why some of my essays, I do not want citations in them. The citation may be a hyperlink. I don't want a bunch of footnotes. So I've written pieces like, on I wrote one on, I miss named it, it's my bad greenwashing history. It should have been grey washing history, because it was about it was about a couple of games by Martin Wallace, a study in Emerald in Australia, in which he casts certain people as aliens from HP Lovecraft Cthulhu Mythos.

James 50:54
Oh, yes, I remember this.

Dan Thurot 50:57
And it was a it was a big essay. And it was hard to write. And it very easily could have been academic. But I didn't want people to feel like they have to go read footnotes. I just wanted you to be in the place and feel what I was hoping you would feel being with me, as the writer. And I think there's value in that

James 51:16
completely. I completely agree, I think is tremendous is much more enjoyable to write to read as well, ultimately?

Dan Thurot 51:22
Well, I hope so.

James 51:23
well absolutely. I mean, I don't think we people don't generally seek out academic treatises for entertainment, unless they're very, very interested that very specific subject matter, and want to dive very deep into it. That's the only reason people will do that, generally. So that's, what do you do? And you said, your work in history is something you can say any more about? Because I'm, I don't think this is I didn't realise, you know, outside of your reviewing, I don't think realise what your what your job is.

Dan Thurot 51:47
So I'm right now I'm kind of between jobs, because when my I have a, I have a daughter, I have two daughters, but one of them is three years old. And when she was born, I went on sabbatical. Because my wife is in health care. And she works. You really can't work part time in health care. And so she works full time. She's very big into her career. And it was a lot easier, you know, an academic career. Who cares if you take a break? And so, unfortunately, during COVID, they did want me to come and do some online classes, because some of the older peers who had tenure decided to retire early rather than learn new things.

James 52:27
Yes, I mentioned that's question a question. perennial issue in academia. Yeah,

Dan Thurot 52:30
so I so I am a professor of history. And I usually teach my period is called Late Antiquity, which is a more recent periodization. The very easy way to explain it is that most people conceptualise it there's the classical era, you know, big empires, Rome. And then there's the mediaeval era. Oh, now we're small kingdoms and castles. But but really, there's about 1000 years in between that. And late antiquity is the study of how do we go from one to the other?

James 53:01
Oh, interesting. So you would include what might what is often called, or historically often called the Dark Ages? For example?

Dan Thurot 53:09

James 53:10
that that period of time, so all the way from kind of late Hellenic Greece, I guess, and that so that was something I think about your interest in that the game was thinking of you've written a fairly, maybe written about it a couple of times acts of the apostles,

Dan Thurot 53:22
oh yeah, the acts of the evangelists,

James 53:25
and I think about your knowledge of, there's that very interesting game about this. What about the Council of Nicaea, as well, and I think about all of these

Dan Thurot 53:32
amabel, Holland's Nicaea, yeah, and those, and those all fall into that period. So one of the a lot of my specialty is in the development of early Christianity. Christianity has a tremendous impact on that transition. for better and for worse, I'm really interested I've written quite a bit and studied quite a bit on how does the development of heterodoxy and orthodoxy? How does Christianity go from oppressed to oppressor? I'm interested in that sort of history. So that's usually what I teach. There aren't all that many board games in that time period. We've had a few exemplars lately. So that's really where my interests lie. Sometimes, I don't know as much you know, about later things I know a lot less about the Renaissance. American history I think is just boring. So that's what I that's my career.

James 54:29
Interesting. Interesting. I mean, that makes a tremendous amount of sense in terms of if I think about lots of people writing the sorts of subject matters you're interested in. And I think it's an interesting period because it's it's not a period that people know very much about so there are loads loads of parts of it I find fast and because I'm with a completely this, the story of Christianity, particularly from its early days to the the let's call maybe, I guess we call it the early Middle. ages, I think is I think is absolutely fascinating. I've always been richly interested in Byzantium this like fascinating kind of continuation of the Roman Empire. But but but not at the same time how it changed and how it evolves in its own particular direction that it took. So, so yeah, I can, I think it's a fascinating period. And I was I feel like, the Renaissance is also a fascinating period. But it's a much more widely studied period that I think a lot of people know a bit more about.

Dan Thurot 55:30
More people know about that. I mean, a lot of my a lot of my work does include things like translation, we look at a lot of very old Jewish documents, or early Christian documents, and what is this trying to teach us about the culture that its authors were working in? Things like that. And it's such an exciting period, too, it's transformed just in the last century, because of advances in archaeology. We're learning all sorts of things, a lot of Iranian discoveries, you know, we always, we keep finding all these cylinders and Stell A's, that are teaching us so much about how were people living? What were their laws, like, What were their? What was their day like? So it's a very exciting period to be working in. But it is very dry.

James 56:18
I can imagine that it will, I can imagine, especially because of the, to some extent, what a history must be, on some level, to some extent, because you can't, if you're trying to piece together, kind of a lost world. There isn't as much immediate room, I guess, in that in that job, for the kind of emotion we're talking about when it comes to getting to write what you do in board games.

Dan Thurot 56:44
Yeah. And there's kind of this, you know, I mentioned this irony with philosophers. The same thing happens with historians, where historians tend to be very dry and very precise. And then you'll have an author come along, like Barbara Tuchman, or, Oh, what's his name, who wrote the anarchy, Dalrymple? Who they write kind of like an accessible popular history? And historians are like, how dare they

James 57:10
How dare they make people interested in it?

Dan Thurot 57:14
Yeah. And the rest of the time historic historical professors were like, Why does no one like history?

James 57:21
Such a surprise?

Dan Thurot 57:23
And well, it's? Well, it's because it's kind of boring sometimes. And you get grumpy at the people who make it exciting. That's that's a problem.

James 57:33
Oh, fascinating. Fascinating. It looks like we're running out of time, unfortunately. It sounds like because to be honest, this is this is one of those conversations where I feel like we could just keep talking about this for hours. And I would I would love to just talk, to be honest, for an hour about sort of the the development of early Christianity. I could, I could absolutely talk about that. But I feel like the listeners to producing fun will say, James, I'm not so sure this is on topic.

Dan Thurot 58:02
Fair Enough, yes.

James 58:06
Is there anything else that we should be looking out from you? I mean, literally, during this conversation, we've been talking about something positive back of the mind for a while about a kind of collection of kind of critical writings from around the internet. Is there anything else that we should be on the lookout for coming from space-biff anytime soon?

Dan Thurot 58:22
I don't know, I, you know, I kind of fly by the seat of my pants most of the time. I've got some cool ideas coming up. I don't know if I'm, I'm always wary of saying them for fear that I won't do them. And then people will be disappointed in me. But But no, I just I hope that people, check it out. Come come and read and come and comment. And let's have a conversation. Let's talk about board games.

James 58:47

Dan Thurot 58:48
I love board games.

James 58:49
Well, you know what? I could tell that.

Dan Thurot 58:53
Well, good. Glad I got that. Of all my weak communication, I'm glad I got that at least across

James 59:01
I think you I think you got that across fairly convincingly. I would say

Dan Thurot 59:07
Well that's good. You know, board games are wonderful, aren't they? We, as humans, one of the things that I love about us is just how much we play. That we like to enter that illusory mind space, right? That we're going to we're going to come into this circle and we're going to follow rules. How silly how silly, and we're going to make new rules and we're going to follow them. And in the process, we're going to do something pretty incredible.

James 59:37
Yeah, yeah. Absolutely. Our capacity for that and, and to be able to enter a space where those rules become the structure of the world in a very meaningful way. So instantaneously, is quite, it's quite extraordinary. Actually, by that, as you said as process that we'd ever thought this well it's just some cardboard What the hell is this?

Dan Thurot 1:00:02
You get invested in it. Yeah, it becomes you for a moment. You get mad about it. That's, that's exciting.

James 1:00:09
And it's very cool as well. One of things that I think is, is this, this, to me is the deep, deep fundamental inclusivity of games is that this is true for basically everybody as well. So it doesn't matter whether it's someone who's terribly invested in an enormously complex economic Euro game, or whether someone who is just a group of people sat around playing a very simple card game can be equally invested. And totally part of it is it is like magic. And certainly the reason why I love working in this space, because being able to the thought that one gets to craft that magic. Oh, that's just such an it's such an awesome thing to get to do. Well, Dan, thank you so much for talking to me today. This has been really, really interesting. And yeah, it's been so great having on the show.

Dan Thurot 1:01:03
Well, thank you so much, James.

James 1:01:14
Producing fun is produced by Naylor Games, if you enjoyed the show, follow us on Spotify, Stitcher, or other major podcasting platforms. Remember, producing fun is also a product and it thrives on feedback. So please leave a review wherever possible, or simply send me your feedback directly. You can message me on Twitter at Naylor James and write me an email James at Naylor Until next time.

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