Q&A with Dan Thurot

This is an archive of the live Q&A with Dan Thurot hosted on the Tabletop Mentorship Program Discord channel after the release of Dan's talk, "How to Trick a Board Game Critic Into Loving Your Game." It has been edited for clarity.

Grace Kendall: Hi Dan! Thanks for doing this Q&A! To get the ball rolling, can you tell us a bit about yourself and what you do?

Dan Thurot: Thank you for having me, Grace! My name is Dan. I work as a historian specializing in Late Antiquity, the transition of the Roman Empire, and Early Christianity. I'm also very fortunate to spend a lot of time with my two daughters. More relevantly to everyone's interests, I'm sure, I also work as a board game critic and reviewer. I write a site called Space-Biff!, as well as writing for a few other places on occasion, such as Ars Technica and Senet Magazine.

Mike Belsole: Hi Dan! Thanks for being here. I'm curious to get your take on how the reviewing landscape has changed since you started?

Dan Thurot: Great question! The easiest answer is that it's become more saturated. When I started, there were only a few places writing about board games, and certainly not quite as many YouTubers and streamers. It's a hard space to break into unless you have a hook. I imagine this is somewhat similar to how it might feel as a board game designer. Just a decade ago, Kickstarter was still this very exciting, new thing, and the people using it were generally smaller designers who needed the boost. Now it's so ubiquitous that it's hard to pick through.

The happier answer is that board games have never been taken more seriously. I don't mean that in a dour sense. Quite the opposite. A board game is largely considered worthwhile of serious examination. What is fun, how we have fun, what's appropriate and what's questionable — these are questions that are asked all the time. Ten years ago, the big question was pretty much, "Is this game worth money?" Which is a very boring question. Now we have all sorts of evaluation going on, from a wide range of dynamic voices. That's as exciting as it can be intimidating.

Guy Segal: Hi Dan, thank you for taking the time to do this! I’d love to hear your thoughts about how you see the role and purpose of the board game critic, as opposed to a reviewer.

Dan Thurot: Thanks, Guy! That's a big question, isn't it? A while back I asked my readers and social media followers what they thought the difference was. We got a huge range of answers. Sometimes I think we belabor the difference as an "excuse" to create the sort of thing we want to create. So if I write something and people say, "Oh, this isn't a review," I can be haughty and say, "Well, that's because it isn't a review, it's critique." And vice versa.

But since I'm a linguistic descriptivist, there's something behind the words "review" and "critique" beyond merely defining our responsibility. I'm never sure which definitions are most appropriate. But my personal favorites are that a "review" is something you read before playing or purchasing a game, while a "critique" is something you read after playing it. One is meant to inform, perhaps as a buyer's guide, the other is meant to elucidate, enlighten, express, or teach.

What does this mean in board games? I think we're still grappling with this. Are games disposable things, meant to be sold and discarded? Do they deserve critique at all? To some degree, that depends on the game and the goals behind its design. If a game is designed to sell like hotcakes on Kickstarter, then its function is principally commercial. If it's meant to teach us something about ourselves, about our culture, the answer might be more.

Dan Arndt: Thanks for doing this! I've looked at your work since I started doing reviews, and I'm wondering how you approach doing written review content when much of the current media content for BGs is visual/video?

Dan Thurot: Thanks for the question, Dan! I wish I had a better answer than just saying that I do what I want, and I don't want to be a video personality. I don't get as much out of a video as I do out of writing. That's different for other people, and there's nothing wrong with that. But I think concerns that we're moving into a "post-literate" society are overblown. We're more literate right now, today, this very hour, than humanity has ever been before. More people are reading and comprehending ideas. (Or, well, maybe getting the gist. Which is pretty dang good, too!)

Oddly, being a writer has become a niche of its own. People often mention that they're grateful to have written reviews. So it works out. I have no complaints.

Jason Brisson: Hi Dan. Thanks for being here today! What are your thoughts on the growing trend of content driven games sacrificing replayability to explore narrative in new ways (Time Stories, Escape!, etc...)?

Dan Thurot: Good question, Jason! I'll open with a snarky response: whenever I see somebody wringing hands over replayability, I hope they're shooting to play a game twenty times. We treat games disposably, as we do much of our media. I like that there's a counter-trend now, where people are doing 10x10s, 1x100s, etc., in order to encourage playing what we have and appreciating these things, rather than just buying them, playing them once or twice, and then disposing of them.

But here's my more serious response: I love it. I love that we're exploring what "play" can mean when the game isn't meant to be mastered. I think there are concerns there beyond the game itself — production, pollution, waste, and so forth. As a plaything, it's exciting to experience something that's meant to be experienced once, because that's the height of an expressionistic piece of art: what is the response this thing engenders? But at the same time, I hope that designers and publishers look for ways to help that process be as sustainable as possible. Can the game be re-assembled somehow? Was it made responsibly? That sort of thing.

Conan Daly: Hi Dan! I've recently started following Space-Biff and really like your intellectual approach to reviews! I'm really interested in how much your background and training as a historian informs your reviews of games with historical themes, and do you feel that the treatment of historical subjects in board games has changed over your time reviewing (or before, if you like)?

Dan Thurot: Thanks, Conan! One of the best pieces of advice I ever received was that I shouldn't pursue training to become a writer. Everybody can be a writer. Instead, a professor encouraged me to train in something writer-adjacent. I chose history.

I'm glad I did, because it frames nearly everything I do or think. In board game writing, I'm always thinking as a historian on two levels. First, this game doesn't exist in a vacuum. It has a pedigree. Its designer has an oeuvre, a history of things played and designed, and that informs the game. Further, the game is a sentence in a longer discussion. A new deck-building game owes everything to Dominion, and likely to other inspirations as well, and, if it does its job well, could become the basis for yet another game in the future. That's history.

The second level is when a game contains history or makes an argument about history. In those cases, being a historian is more obviously useful. Games are doing great history right now, whereas even ten, fifteen years ago, games were mostly simulating battles and making non-deliberate arguments. There are exceptions! But for the most part, nowadays you see games making very deliberate arguments, trying to sway their audience's thinking, and so forth. That's thrilling. A historian can now seriously consider those arguments on their merits rather than "reading them in" to games.

Brian Nygaard Oh wow space biff!

Dan Thurot: Brian! Yes, that is correct, I am Space-Biff! Sometimes people call me Biff, which was never my intention. Honestly, Space-Biff! was a placeholder, but then it stuck. Oops.

Shereen: No questions here but thankful for your talk and this great insight Dan!

Dan Thurot: Thanks, Shereen!

Kenny Michael-Otton: This is more of a personal taste question: what do you think of games that are deceptively deep/heavy; that is, games whose artwork or theme make them appear to be lighter than they actually are? I'm thinking of a game like Root, for instance

Dan Thurot: One of the things I like about Root might be slightly atypical: its deceptive lightness tricks its players into learning Foucaultian biopolitics.

Okay, so let's use normal words. Wehrle's Root was inspired by the COIN Series, about asymmetrical modern conflicts. This shouldn't be mistaken as him copying; it was true inspiration, and the game he made stands on its own.

But it's informed by that. Playing Root, one is exposed to the idea that a small force can project real power despite not having a big standing army. It helps redefine the way we think about power; that power expands itself like a web, in every direction, rather than being this vertical thing that always descends from the king to the lords to the peasants.

This is something we can internalize and use in our everyday lives! Once you make the leap to recognizing that power is dynamic, the value of grassroots activism, protest, calling your representatives, whatever — those things can matter.

That's one answer. More broadly, I hope that designers are careful when leveraging their complexity/simplicity. Hopefully somebody doesn't go into Root expecting, say, Kodama. That would be a shock!

For example, this past summer I took part in a handful of protests. Despite being very politically active, I had never bothered to go out and pound the pavement to stand in front of the state capitol building and protest. That's a step a game helped me do. Because I've been playing those asymmetrical games, I was more persuaded that mass actions undertaken by individual citizens can be persuasive to the forces of power, even if only in fragmentary form.

Kenny Michael-Otton And on a more history related side, how do you feel about games that attempt to, in a historical way, capture highly controversial topics? For instance, there are games in which you can take on the role of the Third Reich. I also think to games like Labyrinth where one player takes on the role of the Taliban. And, I'm certain, at some point people will make games based on Donald Trump or COVID-19, which are both supercharged topics. Certainly games, particularly historical ones for myself, do make me more interested in learning and participating in certain things.

Dan Thurot: Great question, Kenny. Everybody's tolerances are going to be different. I often think about literature or film, where we see functionally every topic covered. But in board games, that's slightly more loaded. For example, to use Wehrle again, his recent KS campaign for John Company drew heat. Because it's a colonial game, right? And we all know (or should know) that colonialism isn't as simple as it was taught to us in school, and that post-slavery and post-subaltern identities are still deeply informed by those events. And further, that everyone's identity is informed by it, no matter one's ancestry.

But games like that have been used persuasively. I have a close friend who's a colonial apologist. He's always talking about how subaltern populations suffered, but they got railroads and parliamentary law and so forth out of being colonized. As someone who doesn't read history, who isn't a historian, this is all received information: primary education, his culture, his defensiveness of his identity, his religion, etc.

Board games have shifted the needle for him. He now talks and thinks more critically about colonialism. And that's 100% because of the COIN Series and games like John Company. He will say thinks almost offhandedly, like, "I can see why this company didn't do any good for anybody." That's an enormous shift of thinking! Even a paradigmatic shift! And it comes from interacting with the models, ideas, and relationships of power that board games excel at portraying.

As I noted up-front, everybody has different tolerances. If a game is too hard to absorb, I hope we'll show the self-care necessary to know our own limits. But these things can be powerful illustrations of very serious topics — and they deserve to be examined as such.

Another great example comes from Patrick Rael, professor at Bowdoin College, who uses New Media, including board games, to teach the history of the Atlantic Slave Trade. These games express "models" and relationships very well, where a book or a film or a lecture might struggle to get the point across.

Games aren't meant to supplant these other media in education. But in a supplementary role (or in a role where they're the best you're getting), they can have a tremendous effect.

Kenny Michael-Otton: Certainly making someone an active participant in a game attempting to capture what occurred in history is a great way to expose them to concepts!

Dan Thurot: Someone asked if historical games had changed since I began writing about them. The answer is yes! Very much so. There have always been historical games meant as education. H.G. Wells famously made what seems to have been one of the first miniatures game basically as a way to not only teach war, but to have wars. Which was a rather optimistic notion.

But we're seeing more designers awaken to that. That games can be used to express all sorts of things. Not only war — perish that thought! But also to express emotions, relationships, hopes, goals.

Jason Brisson: Do you think Cole and Leder Games choice of art direction and setting in Root being ostensibly friendly battling woodland creatures helped you as a player uncover that insight? In other words, if a game overtly addressed critical theory in its setting would that benefit or hinder the transmission of a politically transformative theme/emotional experience?

Dan Thurot: Absolutely. The contrast with the COIN System is useful. Because somebody might balk at the idea of playing as the Taliban in A Distant Plain, but being the Woodland Alliance or the Lizard Cult in Root still touches on these ideas of, well, massacre, religion, brainwashing, tools of state, but makes it more palatable. You don't have to be an extremist. You're mice and foxes and rabbits teaming up to beat cats.

Jason Brisson: Definitely will take that into consideration for future games.

Dan Thurot: Perhaps a corollary would be, does that art also conceal those insights? Also yes. That's possible. And one can question where that line is placed. Is Root a friendly adventure or a serious examination of what Foucault was writing about?

Both! And hopefully that's one of the roles of critique — to help players contextualize their experiences.

Kenny Michael-Otton: On that note about palatability, how do you feel about games that, once again, that ask players to take on the role of, for example, politicians supporting highly controversial agendas? 

There is a game called SHASN, which was a smaller area control game that was released recently from a first time publisher. As a fan of politics, I backed it, and while I think the game itself is solidly "okay", I do find the major mechanism interesting. In it, you are asked a question; for example, do you think that we should open our borders to more immigrants? Depending on your answer, you get a certain benefit.

However, there are other cards (which have been explicitly marked "Triggering") such as "Do you believe marital rape should be allowed?". 

What do you think about games that mechanically encourage players to be awful thematically? Do you think that the "removal" from the modern context is important?

Dan Thurot: Shasn is a fascinating example, because you're exactly correct — the game itself is fine, but it's elevated by its willingness to confront some pretty difficult material head-on, and then place it into this very different context. The tonal shift is jarring, and I'm convinced that's deliberate. Because that's the case in politics, isn't it? We're told, "Oh, it's just politics," but for somebody whose identity is bound up in certain legislation, such as trans legislation, or certain forms of marriage, that isn't "just politics." It's your life, at a bone-deep level.

Personally, I think we're only scratching the surface of what games can accomplish. Part of that is recognizing that those topics can and should be portrayed — but that doing so is always going to attract criticism, and rightfully, because there's no one "right" method. Sensitivity is key; so is properly advertising the game so that people know what they're getting into. Amabel Russell, a trans woman, designed a game called This Guilty Land, about the abolition of slavery in the USA. The cover is a famous image of a whipped slave's back. It's distressing, it isn't sold prominently at conventions or put on display — but it's there for those who are willing to engage with it. But that lack of display visibility was a conscious decision on Amabel's part to minimize any triggering events. That's sensitivity in action!

So, no, I don't think every game needs to remove players from the modern context. But every designer should understand the risks of portrayal. Even Root, for example, could be considered minimizing of its subject matter.

Grace Kendall: Thank you so much for sharing all of these thoughts, Dan! It was wonderful to have you here. That's a wrap for today's Q&A - we appreciate everyone sharing their questions and ideas!

Kenny Michael-Otton: Thanks Dan!

Jason Brisson: Thanks Dan!

Dan Thurot: Thank you all for having me! And great questions, all!