Welcome back to my dinner with board game designer, podcaster, and ferret enthusiast Gil Hova. Our burgers are devoured, our sides are dwindling down, and we are chatting about ROBOT COMBAT. Not the “SkyNet has become sentient” type of robot combat, but the classic sport of BattleBots.

Gil: I was going to be at the BattleBots filming in March. So, one of those evenings I was going to go and eat, do just what we did, and do it with you. But obviously that did not happen because of the pandemic.

For the unenlightened few, BattleBots is organized robot gladiatorial combat. Let that sink in. Revel in it.

DTD: We can still do that.

Gil: They only filmed in August with no public. The shoot was closed to the public. And so, I was unable to get my… I still haven’t seen heavyweight robots fight in person yet, which I’d love. Everybody tells me that I have to.

DTD: [laughs]

Gil: Because I’ve seen 3-pound bots fight each other, and those are amazing. You’re like, “3-pound bots? Like, how impressive can they be?” And then you see them tearing each other apart and making these incredible hits on each other. With a 250-pound bot, you feel the hits in your bones they are so hard.

DTD: Wow.

Gil: A bot bout really spins up really fast. Oh, it’s amazing, an amazing sound. So, I really, really want to experience that in person.

DTD: I haven’t. I was in the BattleBots frenzy when it was popular, what was it? 10-15 years ago.

Gil: On Comedy Central, Yep.

BattleBots first aired on Comedy Central for 5 seasons from 2000-2002. It was then on ABC for seasons 6 and 7 in 2015-2016. The Discovery Channel / Science Channel then picked up the show in 2018, and continued seasons 8-10.

DTD: Yep, and I watched it just obsessively, and then I kind of lost it as the popularity went down, but I’ve never seen them in person.

Gil: Yeah, they learned a lot from the Comedy Central days, because during Comedy Central, they had a lot of bots on the show, that ended up being pushing bots. And the matches were just these two boxes pushing each other back and forth, and it wasn’t exciting. So, nowadays a bot needs an active weapon.

DTD: Yeah.

Gil: This season has been quite contentious, because there have been two bots so far that have won despite not using their weapon at all. And the matches have not been as entertaining to watch, because you want them to use their weapon. And BattleBots is really pissed about it. They’re unhappy, they’ve written that they’re going to change the rules, and make sure that bots use their weapons next season.

DTD: Yeah, because back then there were a lot of weapons embedded in the arena. And one of the big things was, you know, something just big and indestructible, pushing you into, you know, the corner where a big hammer smashes you.

It was great. There were saws, flame throwers, huge mallets all around the outside edge of the arena. Waiting to smash unsuspecting robots.

Gil: Yep, those weapons are still there, but another thing that’s changed is the bots are better. Like, they’re really far, far stronger. Battery technology has gotten better. LiPo [lithium polymer] batteries are far more powerful than the batteries they had back in the day. Brushless motors are now far more powerful than the old brushed motors back in the day.

Lithium Polymer batteries are the new breed of lightweight, thin, powerful battery, most commonly found in cell phones and laptop computers. And yes, they sometimes blow up.

DTD: Oh yeah.

Gil: Most bots are not affected by the arena. They still have the arena hazards, but they’re not… They’re usually not as destructive as they used to be. And I think they’ve also made sure that each team presents the bot well. Like, there’s only one bot this year that is totally unpainted, and it’s just silver. And it looks really boring compared to all the others. There’s one that’s bright green. Here’s one that’s red. Here’s one that’s black. But black with a bright red component, so it stands out visually.

DTD: Nothing brings fandom like brand loyalty. You know, if you could recognize it at a glance…

Gil: Yeah, yeah. And you have teams that have a schtick.

DTD: [laughs]

Gil: You know they tell teams, “Don’t do the schtick so much that you forget to bring a good bot. But if you could bring the schtick, and something identifiable, and it works for your team, then do it. But don’t do it if it doesn’t come naturally, you know.

Learn from pro wresting, my little robotic warriors.

DTD: I’ve gotta look for this.

Gil: The new seasons is on now, and it’s very good. Other than a bunch of the controversies, this year’s been kind of contentious. But if you sign up for Discovery Plus, there’s a spinoff series there. They aired two out of six tournaments so far. It’s the stand-alone tournaments where they have a bunch of relatively new bots, going up against, in a bracket competition. And the winner of the bracket gets one match against an older bot. Not a Comedy Central bot, but something from, like… When the show came back, it came back on to ABC. So it spent I think 2 years at ABC before it moved to Discovery.

DTD: Yeah, OK.

Gil: So generally, a bot from the ABC / early Discovery days. And that’s, it’s called Bounty Hunters. And that series, it’s been really good so far. I’ve really enjoyed that. So that’s a nice way to get back into it.

DTD: I gotta take a look at that. That does sound fun.

Gil: Yeah, if you like the old series. I mean, it’s even better now.

DTD: I kind of remember the switch from Comedy Central on to ABC. I think I was watching it there, but I think I lost it before it made it to Discovery.

Gil: There was like a 10-year period in between. Like, it went off Comedy Central, and then it wasn’t televised for 10 years or so. Then it came back at ABC, and then it went right to Discovery. So, since you can tell, that’s something that’s been keeping me afloat and excited these days, is combat robotics.

DTD: [laughs] That’s pretty cool. My dad is interested in robotics, and he’ll bring up stuff that goes right over my head, and he gets excited about it. So, I get tangential news here and there.

Gil: Yeah, I have a friend who works for Meow Wolf these days, doing robotics.

DTD: Oh cool.

Gil: And she used to work at Universal [Studios]. She’s done a bunch of theme park work. She used to do a lot of stuff with animatronics, so… She has like 4 patents. She’s super brilliant.

DTD: Wow. That’s pretty awesome.

Gil: Yeah, it’s an interesting field.

DTD: Yeah, it’s a I don’t know enough to get into it. I know enough to be fascinated by it. So, tell me how you got involved in Ludology. This is something I’ve been interested in. The podcast is just fascinating to me.

Gil: Thank you! I feel so lucky that I get to be on that podcast. It means a lot to me. So, Geoff [Engelstein] lives like 45 minutes away from me, so we see each other at conventions all the time. Oh my God, I forgot to call him! I was supposed to call him on Sunday! Oh man, and it’s 10:00 o’clock now. Oh, my brain.

Man, this Geoff guy sounds great. Someone should interview him.

DTD: I’m sorry I distracted you.

Gil: No, no you undistracted me. Let me just… Let me shoot off an email. Let me just tell him.

DTD: Yeah, not a problem. I did one of these, over the Internet dinners, with Geoff a while ago. And it’s funny, we’ve got a… I grew up in New Jersey, and there’s a lot of crossovers between his stomping grounds and my old stomping grounds.

Gil: Yeah, yeah. OK, I just sent him an email.

DTD: No worries at all.

Gil: I feel so bad like Geoff is… I look up to him tremendously. I think he’s an absolutely amazing person. You know, someone with that kind of brain, who uses powers for good is someone I really, really respect.

Gil is too nice a guy. I should have brought Geoff in on a conference call.

DTD: He’s such a smart dude, and he’s got such good insight, and he’s done so many neat things.

Gil: In RPG terms, it’s not just that he’s a high intelligence, he is a high wisdom as well. That’s a hard combination to get, so I’m always impressed by it. And a high charisma, also. I mean, he’ll try to protest. He would say his charisma is not that high, but you know, he’s really, really charming. He’s a very charming person.

Agreed. Super charming.

DTD: Oh yeah. Yeah, I played some games with him at conventions, before I knew him at all. And I have to agree.

Gil: Yeah, yeah, so I really look up to him, and we did a few panels together, and I really enjoyed it. So obviously Geoff founded Ludology with Ryan Sturm. Brian obviously has a huge hand in what Ludology is today. Geoff has always been insistent that it’s never been just the Geoff Show. Like Ludology is the combination of all the people who have made it up. Well, that’s something that’s an important thing to keep in mind. So, Ryan had a big hand in making Ludology what it is today. But Ryan had to leave to work on his doctorate. So, Geoff brought in Mike Fitzgerald, who spent a couple of years on the show and he was fantastic. But after a couple of years, he felt like he was repeating himself and he said everything he needed to say. So, Geoff got ahold of me, which I think Geoff’s reasoning is #1: I was very analytical about game design and could talk about it from an academic point of view. And #2: I have audio chops, and I could make the podcast sound better. So that’s really what I’ve been doing, and the first thing Geoff told me when we talked on the phone in our planning meeting, was “You only have me until episode 200. Then I’m gone. I promised my family I would be leaving after episode 200.”

DTD: Yeah, I was sad when that happened, but…

Gil: Yeah, but I’m glad. I could tell that he wanted, he wanted to be working on other stuff, you know.

DTD: Sure.

Gil: He was on the show for like 5 years. That’s a long run, and his official position after hearing Emma [Larkins] and I takeover was – he claims he should have left sooner. Which is a very generous thing to say.

Emma Larkins has since announced that she will be leaving the podcast after episode 250, echoing Geoff Engelstein’s departure after episode 200.

DTD: You guys have great chemistry. I love listening to it, and just the depth of the podcast is something that’s always been, you know, the draw for me. Hearing all the weird things I don’t think about on my own.

Gil: Yeah. We never want to just stop with something like, “Well is this skill or…? This game is very lucky, so it doesn’t reward a lot of skill.” You know, stuff like that. We want to step a little deeper and be like, “Well, let’s take a look at that a little harder. Are luck and skill are really mutually exclusive?” Like I was playing Slay the Spire just now, and I think that’s a great example of a game that has a lot of skill and a lot of luck. They’re not mutually exclusive. You can have a lot of one, and a lot of the other.

DTD: Oh yeah, I love that stupid game.

Gil: Yeah, Poker, Magic the Gathering. These are all games that have significant amounts of bluff, but you’re not going to be a good player by being lucky.

DTD: Yeah.

Gil: So, I think that’s sort of the thing that we look at, is we’re not just… Whereas other podcasts are just going to say stuff like “skill versus luck”, we’re going to dig a little deeper and we’re going to look at, we’re going to look into why something is the way it is. And something Emma and I have really focused on, is we’re trying to look beyond board games, and look at “Well, how is this working in role playing games? How is this working in video games?” Especially in terms of story and narrative. There’s a lot of people talking about story in board games, and some people asking, “Well, can a game make you cry?” And I’m like, “Well, yes”. I mean Nordic LARPs do it all the time. Nordic LARPS have a debrief session, like they have a session where they actually help facilitate you leaving the game, and entering society, and minimizing possible bleed between you and your character. Bleed being when the emotions of you, the person, and the emotions of your characters start to mingle together. Happens sometimes with tabletop RPGs. And the potential is very high with LARP. So those debriefs are designed to kind of cut off bleed, and it’s sort of a moment where you say, “So this is the character. My name is this. I played this character. One thing that I had in common with the character was this, but one difference I had was this. This is what I’m going to take away from the experience.” And just this formalized way of, sort of stepping out of the world of the game.

A LARP is a live action role playing game, wherein players physically represent and play their characters.

DTD: Wow.

Gil: Those can be incredibly emotional experiences, those games.

DTD: I know everybody strives so much for investment, and losing yourself. I never thought about “too much” of that.

Gil: Yeah, you could have far too much. And that’s where consent comes in. That’s where safety and consents. You don’t want to ambush a player with a game like this. You don’t want to promise this like light recreational game, and suddenly they’re playing a game about the Holocaust. You don’t want to do that. That’s where safety tools come in.

DTD: Well, I know that I’ve hit the edge of that with things like This War of Mine, [Holding On: The Troubled Life of] Billy Kerr. You know, Billy Kerr, oh my God.

This War of Mine from Awaken Realms and designers Michał Oracz and Jakub Wiśniewski, is based on the video game of the same name, is a cooperative game that puts players in the middle of an urban war, not as soldiers, but as normal people trying to survive the horror.

Gil: Oh, so you mean, the Hub game?

Hub Games is the publisher of Holding On: The Troubled Life of Billy Kerr by designers Michael Fox and Rory O’Connor. In short, Billy Kerr is a terminal patient in the hospital, and the players need to balance caring for Billy’s health, and visiting with Billy, discovering about his somewhat unsavory past.

DTD: Oh, who did it…?

Gil: Uh, the something Life of Billy…

DTD: Yeah, the something life of Billy Kerr.

Gil: Is it Billy Kerr?

DTD: K E R R, I think.

Gil: OK! Yes, yes, yes. Sorry.

DTD: I’m probably just saying it wrong.

Gil: No, no. You’re fine, you’re fine.

DTD: Was it the Hidden Life or The Secret Life?

You can tell clearly that A) it was getting late, and that B) as an interviewer, I am almost always unprepared.

Gil: So, this has been a thing the past couple of months. These things… Yep, Holding On: The Troubled Life of Billy Kerr.

DTD: “Troubled Life”, yes.

Gil: Yeah, the Troubled Life, yes. And this is what’s been happening to me the past couple of months, is these things that normally are like right at the top of my brain, like I can’t get them. You know, at times it’s almost like aphasia. It’s really kind of creepy.

DTD: Yeah, well for me, I think it’s… Well, I’m old. And I hope that’s not it, but I think I’m out of practice. You know I’m not having very much social interaction. I’m not digging deep into those parts of my brain that store the weird information nobody cares about.

Gil: Yeah, yeah.

DTD: You know, my line was always “I’m a fount of useless knowledge”.

Gil: Yeah, and when that useful knowledge is not coming to you the way it used to, that’s scary. That can be really, really scary.

DTD: A little bit, but it comes with practice. So, I think just being holed up, at least for me, being holed up in a room or in a house for a couple months. It takes a little bit of lubrication and a little bit of practice to make it, make it work again.

Gil: Yeah. But we were talking about Billy Kerr and talking about safety tools.

DTD: And This War of Mine.

Gil: This War of Mine, things like that. I mean with This War of Mine you kind of have an idea of what’s going in but having an X-card nearby can be really useful. Now an X-card is not, it’s not a “save all”, you know. It’s not like “Oh, I have an X-card in my game. That means that nothing bad will ever happen”, you know? There’s still ways that things can go wrong with a safety tool, when it’s implemented. It’s a guard, it’s a tool, it’s protection, but nothing is foolproof.

For more discussion of safety tools in games, including X-Cards, check out part 3.

DTD: No, it’s more a way to warn, outside of that fourth wall, that you know “this is not comfortable. This is pushing me to the limit.”

Gil: Yeah, and doing it with a minimum of labor, which is interesting, also. It’s a way to do it, that you don’t have to stop the conversation, to be like “Oh wait, let’s make this about me for a moment.” It’s more about… It’s just a little tap, and that’s all people need to do. They know that, “Oh OK, there’s a problem here.”

DTD: Yeah, we’re in control of this world. We can do, we can do things.

Gil: Yeah. So, we were talking about Ludology, and we’re talking about… We got to this by talking about, I’m talking about how there are people on other podcasts, and even older Ludology episodes, talking about 10 games that make you cry. And I think the question is “Can a board game make you cry?” And then the further question is, “Can a board game make you cry in a way that’s not ‘somebody betrayed me / Diplomacy’, but more of ‘I am moved’ ”?

DTD: True emotional, not… someone didn’t turn on you, or frustration-cry, or anger.

Gil: Yeah, yeah, and those are interesting questions. That’s the kind of thing we like to explore. But, I think in order to explore those questions, we have to bring in people from outside board games. We’ve been talking to a lot of RPG designers this past year, and I think that has been really enlightening for me. In 2018, I think we had Jason Morningstar on, and that was one of my favorite interviews.

DTD: Oh, cool.

Gil: Yeah, he was a phenomenal guest. He was so much fun to talk to.

DTD: Is he the Fiasco guy?

Gil: Yep, he’s the Fiasco guy.

DTD: The brain worked for a brief moment.

I was so proud of myself for remembering that fact.

Gil: Yeah, he’s working on a game now about the early days of aviation, and he’s sharing a lot of his research and it’s so interesting and fascinating.

The game is tentatively called Early Birds.

DTD: Wow.

Gil: Seeing all these early aviators, and how short their lives were. And how reckless they were. And how they didn’t really care. Like these were really young people, in the true meaning of “young”. They felt like they were immortal, they felt like it wasn’t going to happen to them. Like really brave to the point of self-harm, you know?

DTD: Yeah, the phrase that we always threw around in a role playing game, or anything like that, was “With no regard for personal safety.” You know, “I run in with no regard for personal safety.”

Gil: Yeah.

DTD: Man. So, what’s a game that you’ve looked at played recently that really, you know, wowed you? That that really took you back, and made you think this is really pretty cool.

Gil: I mean, I wish I played more games these days. It’s been so hard since…

DTD: I know we’re kind of limited to the online stuff.

Gil: Yeah. I played The Crew. The TTS mod of The Crew and I loved that. I wish I could play that one again.

DTD: Yeah. I plowed through it with the family almost immediately, from Essen. So before even the English one came out.

The Crew is a cooperative trick taking game and winner of the 2020 Spiel des Jahres Kennerspiel award. If you have played a lot of traditional trick taking games, such as Hearts, Spades, Bridge, then The Crew makes you work those same lateral thinking brain exercises.

Gil: I wish I had that sort of access to a play group, because it would be amazing to do that.

DTD: I got really lucky in that my wife plays games. Not quite as much as me and my son, who is almost as fanatic about it as me. And they’re both, you know, stuck in a house with me and with nowhere to go. So, The Crew was amazing. They announced The Crew 2, which we have to see if they actually change things, or if it’s just a whole bunch of new missions.

Gil: Yeah, I’m sure that they’re going to put in a couple of new mechanisms to make things interesting. But yeah, that’s the game that probably most wowed me. But the sample size is very small.

DTD: Meaning that…

Gil: The amount of games I played was very small. Like, I didn’t play a lot of games. I really wanted to play Barrage, for example. I haven’t got to try that one yet.

DTD: Yeah, I haven’t gotten that to the table. I can’t get into the online formats too much. I’ve tried Tabletopia and TTS [Tabletop Simulator] and things like this, and I… There’s too much of a barrier there. I have a lot of trouble getting into it. And I have a lot of people bullying me to play things online, and I just can’t make that jump it seems.

Gil: It’s a different way of playing. I mean, you’re playing a video game that resembles a board game, so I can appreciate that. And there’s better video games that resemble board games, like Slay the Spire.

Call back!

DTD: Yeah, Yep.

Gil: Another one they just announced a board game version of.

DTD: Yeah, yeah, we’ll see how that is. I’m a little worried that it’s a tiny little company that announced it. Could go good. Could go bad.

Gil: Yeah, I’m surprised it’s not a bigger name. I mean, the guy who designed Slay the Spire is a very, very big Netrunner fan. So, it’s not like he doesn’t know tabletop. He knows tabletop pretty well. But all the same, I’m really curious to see how it’ll how it’ll go. What’s the name of the company that that that’s gonna do it?

Slay the Spire was designed by MegaCrit Games, and one of the developers, Anthony Giovannetti, is a self-professed Netrunner fan.

DTD: Contention Games.

Gil: I haven’t even heard of them.

DTD: They have one game. I’m acting all smart here, but I do a news podcast. So, I just recently hit the news, so I just remember it from prepping the news podcast.

Gil: Imperium: the Contention.

DTD: Yes. Always a good sign when your first game is also the name of your company.

Gil: That’s… I mean, they probably founded the company to release that game.

DTD: Yeah.

Gil: Have I seen this game before? I did consulting for a science fiction game. Someone based in New York City. But I don’t know if it was this one. Contention Games…

DTD: Yeah, I hadn’t heard about Contention Games and they have not publicly said who the actual designer is on the Slay the Spire board game, but I’m assuming it’s the one guy who does all of Contention Games’ stuff.

Gil: Yeah, I don’t see that in my Email, so it must have been someone else. I’m sure Anthony [Giovannetti] from Slay the Spire is going to be one of the designers behind the board game.

DTD: Yeah.

Gil: But yeah, I do agree with you that it’s a very, it’s a very curious choice. What must have happened, my guess is that contention must have approached MegaCrit, and said “Here is our Slay the Spire prototype.”

DTD: And impressed them.

Gil: And MegaCrit must have been blown away.

DTD: I hope so. I do. I just love the whole meta of it that you have a video game based on an imaginary card game which is now being turned into a real card game / board game.

Gil: Yep, and hopefully will be turned into an app.

DTD: I absolutely love that it’s the Mechs vs Minions story.

Mechs vs Minions really surprised gamers when it released in 2016, an impressively well-designed board game that came from Riot Games, a video game company, and untested designers.

Gil: Yeah, wouldn’t it be great if the board game got turned into an app, and then it became a video version of a board game version of a video game? That’s based on board games?

DTD: You know it will.

Gil: You know that’s going to happen.

Come back next time for more food and more fun. Gil and I talk about obscure games, games from our childhood, and a newcomer to the boardgame world, Chess. Plus, Dads – can’t live with ’em, legally gotta love ’em.

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