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Interviews by an Optimist # 14 - Mike Siggins
Mike says this about himself...
“Unlike many gamers who seem to have been playing Scrabble in the playpen, I came relatively late to games. There were all the usual card and boardgame favorites at Christmas, but there was no tradition of year round gaming in my family. And there still isn't, which makes me wonder from where I got the taste. My first proper boardgames were played at about ten years old, with my schoolmates. Long, often contentious, games of Moviemaker, Masterpiece, Monopoly, North Sea Oil, Subbuteo and Buccaneer and subsequently more games of Seastrike, Risk and Escape from Colditz than any man should have to endure. Meanwhile, from the age of thirteen, through my scale modeling interests, I had been drawn into the world of historical figure gaming and painting which I have stayed with, on and off, ever since (www.czapska.com).
In the Seventies four major events occurred that would shape my gaming destiny: my mate's brother told him that Diplomacy was the best game ever invented and we should try it (we did, and he was badly mistaken); D&D was released (and we were hooked); I bought a copy of Football Strategy (and promptly became a lifelong sports gamer); and I discovered Charles Vasey's excellent Perfidious Albion magazine. I have never been the same since. We played D&D exclusively for a couple of years, then Traveller, Bushido, Chivalry & Sorcery and the many spin offs, with me creating huge campaigns and adventures that eventually fizzled out. Although it has proved difficult to recapture those heady roleplaying days, they remain among the best games I have ever played.
In 1978, or thereabouts, I got tired of painting figures and roleplaying and decided to try boardgames again. As the non-fantasy British industry was decidedly low key, my wallet turned to the expensive American imports from SPI and Avalon Hill. Weekly visits to the shop of AH's UK agent usually resulted in the purchase of a White Dwarf and concern as to how I would ever afford these games. Russian Campaign cost an insurmountable £6! After scrimping and finding a Saturday job, the first game I bought was SPI's Outreach, which nearly put me off games for good. But this was quickly followed by Jutland, Victory in the Pacific, Squad Leader and the infamous Warlord. We then entered something of a golden age, which kept us happy through hours of Cosmic Encounter, Junta, Acquire, etc. till we all started work, and my collection started to bloom. By the early eighties, I was starting to show signs of frenetic game buying. Then there was the calm of the great sports game era (literally hundreds of games of Statis Pro Baseball, Football and Pennant Race) but by 1988, with the German games starting to appear and lots of spare cash, I was into the mega-acquisitive phase of my gaming existence. At the peak, my game collection hit around 1,300 games, 300 RPG modules and 200 books. It also filled much of the house and lowered the loft by an inch.
I have been writing about games since the early 1980's. I started out writing about adventure games for computer magazines, and then more seriously in 1985 started reviewing for Ellis Simpson's Sensation!, Mike Clifford's Major League and Charles Vasey's Perfidious Albion – all three editors are good friends to this day. At the same time, Inside Pitch was born. This represents the personal element of my writing, but it has always been inextricably linked with the reviews – much to some people's annoyance. Then, one normal day in 1988, at a small British games convention, I was introduced to a game called Sechs Tage Rennen. This classic was peddled by Brian Walker, who was to become editor of Games International, both my boss and nemesis! From that point I never looked back, and I still cherish the feeling that this German Game, the very first of hundreds, imparted. Even now, it is hard to quantify the impact of the European game titles and but for them I might still be playing long, turgid stuff like Civilization.
And so in 1989, the German game invasion was really rolling. A handful of us were tapping the back catalogue, playing three times a week, shipping parcels worldwide, going to Essen every year, and paying regular visits to Just Games in London and Games Unlimited in Kingston. I was also running The Rules Bank (rule translations and variants) which at its peak was sending out 50 envelopes a week for these games with German, French or even Polish rules. But despite this rabid enthusiasm I had all but tired of writing for Games International, so I decided to start my own magazine, Sumo. The aim was to provide in depth coverage and analysis of the German Games and anything else that came up to scratch. The infamous Issue Zero was launched at Essen that year, and from an initial base of less than 20 gamers, most of whom I knew personally, it grew over time to nearly 600 international subscribers, with a readership far higher than that. Sumo ran for nine years, publishing 44 issues and over a million words, many of which were simultaneously published on Ken Tidwell's pioneering Game Cabinet. I served as Editorial Board Member for Games & Puzzles and on the Daily Telegraph Game of the Year Panel. After that, I became boardgames editor at G3 magazine for two years; and then, in 2000, I took a break.
Why? Because I was working 25 hours a day in a high tech dotcom startup, plus two other jobs, but mainly because I was sitting there one day and the game I was playing was simply not fun. Not because it was poor, but because the act of playing games had completely lost its appeal. Even the social element held no joy. I was downcast and jaded, I knew that, but I didn't know how badly. I had also lost confidence in my ability to call a game – for that I will blame Magic and Settlers and the endless backlash, often vicious, from gamers who couldn't quite understand that my opinion was just as valid as theirs. I sold all but 50 games, but astutely held onto my sports game collection. But the root of all this confusion and pain would doubtless be based on reviewing games without a break for the preceding fifteen years, sometimes as many as two a week, and seeing rather too many average or far worse games pass over the tablecloth. To an extent one makes a rod for one's own back through reviewing and buying so many games. I never wanted to hit another deadline. The break was intended to be for a month. It lasted almost five years.
In the last six months I have returned to games with a new found enthusiasm (and there is even a back catalogue again, and of course BoardGameGeek). My tastes are now pretty much honed down to heavier German games, traditional card games, sports games, the odd war game and computer games. But anything new, innovative, flavoursome and exciting is fine by me. Plus, I'm still plugging manfully away at some of my own designs – my first professional game was published last year. I buy the occasional RPG for ideas or source material, and I'm smitten with tile placing and card game systems, but loathe any collecting aspect with a vengeance. My main gaming interests remain innovative mechanics, chaotic systems and, primarily, thematic and narrative atmosphere.
On a personal note, I'm 43, live in Cambridge, England and am a former corporate treasurer. I am now self-employed, and work as a writer and consultant in the fields of the internet, graphic design and historical motorsport. Most of my time is currently spent working on a historical narrative generator (www.narragen.com). I also design, develop and test games for several companies and offer a development and graphics/production service to game designers (www.aethereal.com). My non-gaming interests are history, cinema, books, baseball, computer graphics, scale modeling, railways, sumo, cycling, kite flying and Japanese gardens. I'm an active member of Sustrans (a cycle paths charity), Greenpeace and the Pendon Museum Trust; and I serve as a jury member on the International Gamers Awards panel.
Tom: You mentioned on a thread at Consimworld that you hoped that Greg, Rick, and I wouldn't end up like you. Can you give people tips so that they might avoid game burnout?
Mike: I wish I knew about a vaccine to prevent or ameliorate burnout, but I don't. On the upside, a bit like the 'flu, I believe we won't all suffer. In my case the cure was to step right back from board games, and mentally put them in the past. In that way I find I can forget the bad stuff, and eventually remember what I enjoyed. I have done this before with other hobbies, and it has worked well enough. What was different and unexpected here was the length of time it took for the enthusiasm to recover. My place of refuge, for those that care, was miniatures gaming. It was the painting (relaxation) and the rules
(mechanics) that allowed me to return.
Here is Dr. von Sig's analysis of Burnout.
Cause. Too many games, for too long. I think you can play games almost without limit, subject to the occasional feeling of ennui. It is playing, buying and reviewing them that causes this problem. And doing this three times a week. More accurately, it is the NEED to review (whatever the driver for that need). I think if I had been writing the odd review here and there, without pressure, I might not have needed the break. One gets into a cycle. The magazine or website, or the ego or devotion to the hobby, demands content. Content depends on buying and playing games, several times. You need money, time, a table, familial consent, fellow gamers, pizza, crisps and pop to achieve this. Then you write. More time and, eventually, pressure. If you are unfortunate, there is a deadline involved. And another job. In the end, you sometimes get paid, but often not. Payment actually compounds the loss of hobby (amateur) status, as does reliance on the income.
Symptoms. Pressure to arrange frequent game sessions. Feeling that one's hobby is no longer enjoyable, and now strangely resembles work. Games begin to associate with pain, not fun. Games and reviews start to haunt you. It becomes difficult to see the good in a middling game. All of your friends are gamers, and they are going off you because you are always negative. Your family starts to worry. Writing ceases to be an easy job and starts to bite back. You stop buying games, and play borrowed games. You procrastinate. You stop going to cons. You get your first writer's block. You never want to see another game. You hate writing and the torment of the self-critic. In severe cases, you sell all or some of your games (and re-buy them later), swear you will never write another word, and move to Chad.
Side Effects. Stress. Angst. Lack of money. Lack of free storage. Lack of time. Loss of games. Loss of friends.
Treatment. Varies by patient. Total or partial withdrawal from games, and bed rest. Selective purchases only after playing and enjoying borrowed games. Limit patient to one session per month, to be taken before or after food.
Prognosis. Depends on the patient. A deep love of games should rise again, in time.
Tom: Was there a defining moment that caused you to take a "break" from board games, and one that caused you to start playing them again?
Mike: There was, but it would only be a "final straw on the camel's back". Otherwise, it was a combination of boredom, being jaded and being fed up with the politics that went along with reviewing. It was while playing Carolus Magnus (nothing wrong with the game, in fact I quite like it) that it must have typified all the same sensations as the previous hundreds of German Games. Sometimes these games are brilliant, but quite often there is very little there - either ludically or thematically. I was simply playing too many of the 'also rans'.
The return was odd. While I played virtually no games for five years, I was designing, on and off; so this took on a sort of 'isolationist' quality. Was I designing games that were already out there? Or which would be outdated? And of course friends told me about the best games - Puerto Rico, for instance.
After about four years I started playing games 'socially'. That is, if my friends were having a game session and I wanted to see the friends, I would play the games. No involvement, just going through the motions. The game that brought me back was Jenseits von Theben, a release at Essen 2004. Here was a game that had clever enough gameplay, and one of the strongest themes I have seen ever. I thought it was a superb design, and it brought back all the enthusiasm. Ironically, that limited edition game cannot be bought for love nor money!
Tom: Since you've been back, have any games really stood out to you as impressive feats of the last five years?
Mike: Actually, no. As an outsider it has been very interesting listening to friends talk about games. With a very few exceptions, they have been struggling to come up with "good year" verdicts. So for me, it was an ideal period to be "out". Even so, I have a decent number of games I want to try (which is how I use my BGG Wishlist - I would love to have a "to play" list as well).
My guess would be there have been a lot of good games, but none to rival the quality of, say, Tigris & Euphrates or Lord of the Rings. I can list lots; but while I would play them tomorrow, none of these examples are greats - Goa, Industria, St Petersburg, Attika, La Citta, Coloretto, etc. There have also been clever ones (Kogge, Railroad Dice, Warchon, Evo), the Kosmos Two Players must be explored, Roads & Boats must be shunned, and the wargame scene has come out with some winners too in the shape of Liberty, Hammer of the Scots and Monty's Gamble.
The obvious exceptions are Puerto Rico, Wallenstein and Carcassonne. And perhaps Princes of Florence. The former I didn't enjoy when I first played it, as I felt it dry and disappointing; but I will play again. Whatever, it has grabbed the headlines, and gamers' hearts and minds. When three or four old gaming buddies tell you it is the best game EVER, you listen. Carcassonne I have little time for. I felt it was just a cut down El Caballero – quicker, leaner but less satisfying - so hardly worth a second play. But again, like Ticket to Ride, we have a game that is so-so but sits nicely in that introductory slot - the gateway game, as I see they are now called. That's good. Wallenstein? Very pleased, but surprised, at the reception. I, like many others, am always looking for that crossover game - the well themed, strategic Euro that can also wear the wargame hat. There is much that is excellent in Wallenstein, and the tower and order matrix are inspired. But it is a bit static, feels like a mid-game only, and in every game I have played the leader gets horribly scragged. Princes of Florence I really enjoyed, but interaction was not its strong suit.
I will single out one other anomaly. Martin Wallace has done some really good stuff in the last few years and in some respects can now claim to be up there with the top designers. We all know that he learned his trade at the gamer's expense, but Liberte, Struggle of Empire and even the stagy Princes of the Renaissance are top notch titles. Innovative, a nod to theming, well produced, and very playable. Add in Ancient Empires and Way Out West, and you are starting to build a decent body of work. Runebound I have yet to try, and the others we will draw a veil over. One missing, I can hear you say. A biggie, too. Age of Steam does nothing for me. It has distilled all the railway flavour out of a clever system and is two steps of evolution too far. I don't even own it, and I love railway games. Again though, like PR, I can see why it appeals to so many.
I also think the really very recent stuff has been outstanding. War of the Ring, Jenseits von Theben, Viking Fury, Reef Encounter, Wings of War and Friedrich to name but six. And although I frown upon ‘proto-excitement’, I am nevertheless looking forward to Twilight Imperium III, Doom, Blue Moon, Revolution and Im Schatten des Kaisers.
Tom: You are perhaps most well-known for Sumo magazine. Can you give us some more in depth about that experience?
Mike: Well, it pretty much was enjoyable from start to almost the finish. Okay, I could live without the admin and the endless trips to the post office. And envelope stuffing. But generally I had a great time and I think I ended up with a fantastic, loyal readership. Up to 10% of them even contributed. It had some faults, like being a bit irregular (!), and apparently the lack of an index caused people to pull their hair out. Others found the typeface too small. Lots of people objected to the personal chat. And one chap wanted it on A4 years after it went A5. I was also blamed for: airmail prices to the States, prices of German Games, not liking Settlers, being elitist, being a clique, and, once, for stock market fluctuations in Mongolia. One publisher who had a positive review was annoyed anyway. One subber claimed to be in awe, so we had him sectioned.
But overall, I think people liked it. They definitely liked the letters. They liked the hugeness of the average issue. And the fact, unlike the Geek, they could read it in the bath. They liked the lack of computer games. They liked lists. They liked Mike Clifford. And generally it was popular because it was honest, interesting and there was nothing like it. Others reviewed the German games, but there was a mad level of enthusiasm in and for Sumo, like a bunch of 600 like-minded gamers meeting for a chat. It must have been responsible for much of the growth in German gamers in the early nineties, but who knows? We also coined lots of cool phrases that one day I will sue BGG for using. We also invented the 5&10 lists, which you Yanks just couldn't leave well enough alone. Plus, let us not forget, we were all hugely talented!
For nine years we covered just about every game we could get our hands on, money permitting. And we covered them in depth, or in brief for the turkeys. Sometimes we covered the turkeys in depth to see where we might have done it better. Every now and then I would 'discover' an obscure game, or a sports game, or a gamekit and review it because I truly loved it. Sometimes people would agree (Svea Rike, Full Metal Planete, Take It Easy), other times they would scream (Liftoff, Safe Return Doubtful). The successful formula was, I think, because we had a mix of views. I wrote the majority, but Mike C was always there, Charles Vasey, Stuart Dagger, Dave Farquhar, Alan How - all people with strong opinions. I think it was this balance, combined with printing every single reader response, however embarrassing or damning, that gave people a feel for us and for the games. Just like Geeklists. Once the readers identified with the reviewer, they could buy with a degree of confidence. One reader hated everything I liked, so his choices were dead easy.
Famously, I did an Essen report (or three) every year. At the end, these mega-reports were mailed to the GameCabinet on the Sunday following Essen and we were FIRST. Now, Rick Thornquist lets us know what Reiner had for breakfast, as he is eating it. We did a lot of stuff on design (especially chaos), of which I was very proud, and I started the Game Design challenge which was a flop because it had one entry. But that one entry was Keywood, so that's alright then. I tried to mount a crusade against Spiel des Jahres and its commercial structure, but no one could bring themselves to care. Once I
took Martin Wallace to task because of my principles, and there was an unseemly squabble. But I regret nothing, I tried to call them as I saw them, and everyone is allowed an opinion.
The legacy? A lot of links on BGG to Sumo reviews. But ask any hundred Geeks, and perhaps only one will have heard of Sumo. That's Settlers, Carcassonne, the US market, and the Internet for you. And timing.
Tom: Why did you want to mount a crusade against the Spiel des Jahres?
Mike: Hardly worth recounting. A lot of people set great store by the SdJ awards, and still do. I am not sure how many know that the jury runs as a profit centre, the members are paid expenses, and they charge for the placing of the poppel logo on nominated games. I tracked down their accounts to Switzerland. My question was whether a jury operating under such conditions (i.e. potentially the more a game sold, the more money they might make) could make the right decision on the best game. I also queried whether this would be why larger companies regularly won. They twist this around by saying the best game IS the one that sells the most, because it makes gaming more popular. They also claim that they are responsible for the growth and size of the German game market. You can guess my response to that! As I said, not one comment in Sumo, either way, so probably no-one cared.
Tom: Have you thought about starting something up like Sumo today - perhaps on the internet? Is there a need for a good gaming magazine?
Mike: Each reader would need to answer that, but yes, I feel there is a niche for analysis, not necessarily timely, and my more obscure gaming interests! Accordingly, I have thought about a combined paper/web magazine for the last year. Unfortunately my domestic life hasn't permitted a launch issue. Nothing is definite at this stage, but I am very optimistic. What is certain is that it will not be Sumo (that is, as big) and I will produce it when I have enough content. Nor will I be trying for comprehensive coverage or news - that is done more than well elsewhere. For that reason I will have to come up with some clever way of marketing it!
Tom: Where would you recommend a serious strategic gamer go to for good information online or in print?
Mike: What is the media kit for a hardcore Eurogamer? Very good question. Daily visits to BGG, and in my case ConsimWorld - there is enough there to make membership well worth it. One has to be picky with both. The signal to noise ratio is pretty bad, and a few newbies, some opinion nazis, and all the normatives get me down. But one digs around, and occasionally the Geeklist or thread par excellence surfaces. I also very much like Greg A's Games Journal which is classy, but thin and underachieving. I feel I want to help it climb up onto the next level, where it could shine; but I don't know how. I felt the same about The Game Report until it went annual.
If I were remotely interested in every single developmental map tweak I would read the remarkable Gamewire, but I'm SO not. Until a game is on my shelf, I am not really moved since what is moving me ahead of time is the theme; and then I often end up disappointed. In fairness, Rick does offer other content, and I find myself there once in a while.
Because I enjoy a lot of crossover titles (cards, RPG, minis, PC games, etc.) I also occasionally read websites like RPGNet, which have some timely and decent reviews - I have a lot of time for Shannon Appelcline.
I also read some blogs, mainly Milton Soong's, Rick Heli’s and Chris Farrell's, all of which are excellent value. Chris and Rick usually (not always) come out with opinions spookily close to my own so they are regulars when I am checking my concerns. That is important as, when reading the Geek or Consim, one sometimes wonders if people played the same game...
In a way the most exciting web sites for me should be The Board Game Designers Forum or ProtoSpiel, but as with most 'organised clubs', they have very little to say or offer. Nice idea, but without much utility unless you can meet face to face.
The big gap for me would be the mail list groups. Spielfreaks is still the biggie, I believe. I don't belong to it, but many of the most rabid Eurogamers do. I find much to my concern a) I am no longer sufficiently rabid; b) there is just too much information about (I don't care about Mr.Keen’s session report on Bohnanza Vol. 17, telling me that Cathy was late because her SUV is playing up, that Biff once again failed to score any points, and that Archie endured no less than six agonising decisions in ten minutes – so an ambulance was called. No, really, I don't care. Review it and you might have my attention); and c) I think they are often just a little teensy bit up their own bottoms. I shall never get invited back now. How will I survive?
I like quality paper magazines but they are, well, pretty rare beasts. Of course, one should subscribe to Counter, simply because it is the journal of record for the hobby. Very few games escape review by Alan, Stuart and their team. Or you can just read the reviews, which quickly make their way to the web. In the UK, Games International has resurfaced after almost two decades, but I can't honestly recommend it. Of course the gaming cognoscenti (seven of them at the last count) await the Return of Sumo. I see them like that knight in Indiana Jones III who has been waiting. A. Long. Time.
It is also a long time since I called myself a wargamer, but I am still involved on the design and testing side and know a fair number of the people involved in this much shrunken branch of the hobby. I suppose I would consider myself reasonably in touch now. The pickings are quite thin here. Essentially the hobby runs off of a couple of websites: ConsimWorld and Grognards. As time has gone on, BGG is starting to play a role. The fact there is already a feud running shows that the 'rivals' have noticed each other! They should just work together as they each offer USPs. Magazines are pretty much a non event. You can still get S&T, and the latest rival is called Against the Odds, which is promising and has some cool graphics. There are lots of small circulation reviews and house magazines, but I don't read any of them and suspect they cater very well to their own specialist audience and not much else. Those I do read are excellent. My favourites are Gary Graber's Panzerschreck, Perfidious Albion (home of chaotic history, books and games design) and Vae Victis, the unmatched magazine from France which has a game in each issue and is simply gorgeous. I also get Wargames Illustrated, largely because I write for it! You can find links for almost all these resources at my miniatures site, www.czapska.com.
Tom: Mike, I really appreciate the very in-depth answers you've given in this interview. Any final words for our readers?
Mike: The word you are looking for is verbose!
Just to say that I enjoyed the interview, the questions were good, and it would be cool to visit some other areas. I look forward to many more visits to the Geek. Thanks, Tom.
- Tom Vasel
"Real men play board games."