Welcome to part five of my burger dinner with designer Gil Hova. Most of the food is gone, and the conversation is getting deep. This week, we talk about obscure games, games from our childhoods, and parents – warts and all. Plus you may learn the name of Oscar the Grouch’s Israeli cousin.
DTD: That would be absolutely fantastic. Alright, so you’re talking about some of the games that you’ve consulted on, and older stuff, so tell me an old game that I don’t know, that you think is amazing.
Gil: An old game that you don’t know, that I think it’s amazing.
DTD: Blow me away.
Gil: Well, let’s start with BasketBoss. Do you know BasketBoss?
DTD: No! I want to hear about BasketBoss!
DTD: Oh Corné, yeah. Cwali Games.
Gil: Cwali Games. And the idea is you’re auctioning, you’re bidding on these basketball players that you put into your team. And the basketball players actually are represented by these really long, thin tiles that you slide into your board. And there’s an arrow that tells you which square on that tile to pay attention to. So, on that long player tile, it’s divided into a bunch of squares that can have between, I think between zero and five basketballs. The more basketballs in that square, the better that player is going to be that season. Some players start bad, get better, then get worse. Some players start really good, then get bad, and so on and so forth. And at the end of each season, you push all the sliders down, and the players change. And then you can hire a trainer to skip a season, like push a player down twice instead of once. Because some players go back and forth. It’s a really really interesting game, and as you could tell, it was a huge influence on The Networks in terms of the aging mechanism.
DTD: Oh, and I love that mechanism. I think that’s really cool. And Corné, Corné’s games are some of my favorites. Factory Funner is my favorite, my very number one favorite game.
Gil: Yeah, that’s a golden game. He’s a good game designer. Street Soccer? Street Soccer is phenomenal.
DTD: I know of it, but I have not played Street Soccer.
Gil: It’s so fun. It’s very simple, but it feels like soccer. it’s a really lovely job. Very lovely game.
DTD: Wow, that’s very cool. Now, I remember talking to… Uwe had a really, Uwe Rosenberg had a really cool story with Corné about how Nova Luna came about. I thought that was really cool.
Gil: Uh huh.
DTD: That Uwe basically was at a family dinner, and one of his relatives said “Here, you have to play this” and brought out Habitats. And Uwe loved Habitats so much, that he said in the hours just getting back home, he had fully designed Nova Luna in his head.
DTD: Off of Habitats. And he called Corné and said, “Can I make this game? And by the way, you’re a co-designer on it. Because I loved Habitats so much.” I thought that was fascinating and Nova Luna is just really fun.
You can hear more about it in my interview with Uwe here.
Gil: I would love to try it.
DTD: I thought those were really cool.
Gil: I would really like to try it. Uwe, he seems like a really cool guy. I met him at a Essen a couple years ago. I had him sign something, but I think I came off as a little too much of a fanboy.
DTD: I definitely came off as too much of a fanboy. I wrote Uwe and said “I’m going to be at Essen. I do this thing with Dice Tower. I take designers to dinner. Would you like to go to dinner?” And he said “yes”, and I was blown away. I fully expected no answer or something. So, I arranged everything, and I even got myself a translator because I can speak German, but I’m so nervous, you know.
Gil: Yeah, I read the beginning of the interview. You got Uli as the translator.
Uli is the greatest person on earth.
DTD: I got Uli as the translator, yes! Anyway, I showed up and Uwe said, “All right, let’s do the interview. Give me the questions. I’ve got a half an hour.” I said “No, this isn’t what I do. You know, I just want to go eat and chat”, and his eyes just blew up like deer in headlights. He had no idea. It absolutely blew his mind.
The truth is, I have no idea what I do either. I make a living out of being completely unprepared. Designers beware.
Gil: You said that he hung out for two hours, so he must have been having a good time.
DTD: He told me he had half an hour, so we went to the cafeteria, and then I reminded him. I said, “You know, you said you only had half an hour”, and he said “No. I’m having a good time.” And he stayed and we chatted. So, we really had a good time. It helped that I brought up some Chess stuff, and he’s really into Chess.
Gil: Oh, that’s cool.
DTD: That piqued his interest pretty good. But it was, it was odd.
Gil: I wonder how many other people in the board game world are into chess, you know?
DTD: It’s a really strange one. It seems that most board game players have this love hate thing with chess. They don’t want to play Chess. They don’t want to hear about Chess. But there’s some that are really into the chess world. It’s funny when you run into them.
The religion of Chess.
Gil: Yeah, it’s really interesting. I think chess is really loaded, culturally, with this assumption that if you’re good at Chess, you’re brilliant. And therefore, if you’re not good at Chess, you must not be smart.
DTD: I tried to explore that with Uwe, and he did not budge. I tried to present to Uwe, that the ability to be good at Chess was likely not just intelligence. And it could not get through, you know. He did not understand what I was talking about. We weren’t even speaking, you know, on the same planet.
I still feel there was a huge translation problem. Something inherently loaded in the English words “smart” and “intelligent”. I decided not to take the time to really try to explain, because I was afraid I was being insulting, and I definitely did not want that.
Gil: Yeah, so much of it is study. Like you get to a certain point, and it’s about study and it’s about experience. But I think even… I think that leads to the second issue, which is I think most people enjoy board games. Like, the meta-activity for most board game groups is playing a wide variety of different games: Playing a lot of different games once, learning a new game for a lot of people is a joy.
Oh, I know. Savvy. Capisce. I comprehend fully. I grok.
DTD: Oh, there’s a huge amount of our hobby that’s about finding the new game and playing it.
Gil: Yeah, yeah, and that’s the opposite of Chess, which is the same thing over and over and over again. Which some people love. Some people really like that familiarity, and they just want to get good and deep, and that’s this one game. A lot of people don’t. A lot of people want to surf, and that’s fine. Surfing is great. I’m a surfer, but it’s not for everyone.
DTD: No, it’s funny. I know some people who go to conventions and every time they go to a convention, they play the same game.
Gil: Yeah, yeah.
DTD: For them, a convention is playing Eldritch Horror. I have group of friends that that’s all they do. They play Eldritch Horror all convention long.
Gil: But, it’s playing Eldritch Horror with their friends. You know, a lot of it is that friend time.
My wise philosopher-editor has stated that the comfort zone in a convention is either playing a known game with new people, or playing a new game with people you know.
DTD: Yeah, it’s so strange. And then in Uwe’s interview he was saying that there’s some people that go to Essen and they play Chess.
Gil: Yeah, I passed a Go… There’s a Go stand at Essen, with speed Go players. And that’s really cool also, you know, teaching and getting more people to play Go.
DTD: Oh yeah. My father is very heavily into chess, and people would come over the house that were not just good at chess, but were “from another planet” good at chess.
DTD: And we had one friend, Mike Valvo, who was ridiculously good. And he played “blind” chess. So, you would just call out moves, and he could play the game in his head.
Mike was a truly extraordinary man who treated me respectfully, as an equal, when I was a rotten teenager and didn’t deserve it.
DTD: He came to the house for a Thanksgiving, and my relatives didn’t believe him. You know, they thought this was a magic trick or something. And Mike was in the kitchen helping cook, while my cousin was sitting in the other room with a chess board, calling out moves. And Mike trounced him. My cousin got very frustrated and threw the pieces on the floor, and Mike calmly walked in the room, set the table back up, put all the pieces back where they went for that moment in the game, and then went back in the kitchen and started cooking more.
Gil: Wow. That is amazing.
DTD: And Mike could do 20-30 games at once of blind chess.
Gil: That’s amazing, that’s an amazing talent.
DTD: I had… the crazy Chess people were around the house all the time when I was a kid. I have played against [Garry] Kasparov.
Gil: Really? That’s a story. Tell me that story.
DTD: There’s no story. I lost very, very badly.
Gil: But how did you get a game against Kasparov?
DTD: Oh! So, my dad is friends with Kasparov and some of the other big chess grandmasters, because my dad did some computer work on Chess back in the day. So my dad solved all of the five and six piece endgames for Chess, I think.
I am showing my Chess ignorance. Ken Thompson extended the endgame tablebases to cover all four- and five-piece endgames in 1995. I believe he is working on six piece endgames now.
Computer Chess is a 2013 independent film written and directed by Andrew Bujalski.
DTD: No, I don’t know it.
Gil: Anyway, it’s loosely based on the tournament in Austria , when my dad won the Computer Chess Championship. And they contacted my dad to be consultant for DVD commentary and stuff, and he wanted nothing to do with it.
DTD: Oh, that’s too bad.
Gil: I know, it’s a shame. But Dad was always involved in the Chess world pretty heavily; he was referee during the Deep Blue match between Kasparov and Deep Blue.
DTD: In New York, and we lived in New Jersey, right across the River. So, a lot of the big players would come stay at the house.
Gil: That’s amazing.
DTD: It was weird. That’s right about when I was ending high school and starting college, so I saw some of it and some of it. I just got in phone calls.
Gil: Now I saw a photo of a bunch of current chess champions like Magnus Carlsen, and that whole crew, and they were playing a game at a Chess convention, like outside hours. But they weren’t playing Chess. You want to know what they were playing?
DTD: What were they playing?
Gil: The Resistance.
DTD: Seriously? Oh, that’s awesome.
DTD: Magnus is a trip. And then the other big one is [Viswanathan] Anand. He was World Chess Champion before Magnus.
Gil: Uh huh.
DTD: And he’s a friend of the family, and he would show up at my parents’ house all the time. This is all friends of my parents. I barely know these people.
Gil: But that’s so interesting that your parents are in that world.
DTD: That’s my tangential, you know, cross into the world of Chess.
Gil: But that’s so interesting that your parents are well. How do your parents feel about modern board games?
DTD: My father has told me point blank that there are no games except Chess.
Gil: OK, Yep. Yep.
DTD: Not in the sense of “I don’t like the other ones”. In the sense that “Those are not even games.” Now, having said that, I have put some games in front of my parents that they absolutely love. My dad became absolutely obsessed with The Game By Steffen Bendorff. It drove him nuts. I can’t say he liked it, but he was absolutely obsessed with it, when I put that in front of him. But little card games like that, they found really interesting. My mom, anything more complicated than Phase 10 or Five Crowns or something along those lines, anything more complicated she doesn’t enjoy. And I think it’s just what she’s played in the past, and what she hasn’t. They’re rabid Rummikub fans. That said, if you’re doing my top 10 games, Rummikub is still up there. That’s a great game.
Gil: That’s really cool. My parents are Israeli, so Rummikub was a staple for them.
DTD: I didn’t realize there’s a connection like that.
I never knew it before, but Rummikub was invented by Ephraim Hertzano, who immigrated to pre-state Israel in the 1940s. Rummikub was the best selling game in the United States in 1977, and won the Spiel des Jahres in 1980, the second year the award was given.
Gil: Yeah, yeah. No, culturally that was a really big game for them. It was everywhere there, yeah. But my dad is very much, “If it comes from Israel, it must be better than anything else.” Like, that’s where my dad comes from, so…
DTD: No, I get it, I get it. My mother is very New York Jewish in attitude, and everything, along that side. But surprisingly, she married out of the faith, and was shunned by the whole family. And then my dad got semi famous and all of a sudden the family wanted back in.
DTD: Yeah, that was interesting. Yeah, when I was a kid the games that were around were… We had Aggravation and Rummikub. I think those were the two.
Gil: And Chess.
DTD: And Chess! Chess was always around, and I never wanted to play it. I wasn’t very good at it. And I wasn’t coddled. So, if I said, “Let’s play chess”, it wass like “OK, [wham!] You lose. Let me tell you what happened.”
Gil: Yeah, there was no idea of handicap, nothing like that.
DTD: No. It just didn’t happen. And I found it fascinating to make up new rules for chess. What if the pieces move this way? What if we did this? What if we did that?
If I was not great at a game as a child, I often played with the rules, somewhat to give new life to the game, but probably also to put everyone on even footing.
Gil: Did you see Really Bad Chess on the App Store?
Gil: Really Bad Chess is Chess, except the pieces are all randomized on the board, right? So, you have to constantly adapt to how it is. It’s a Zach Gage game. I wasn’t too into it, but people really enjoyed it.
DTD: I need to get that for my father.
Gil: I’m sure he would treat it with disdain.
DTD: Oh, he would hate it. That’s why I would get it for my father. It would absolutely drive him insane.
Gil: There’s also Quantum Chess. Have you heard about that?
DTD: Yes, I’ve heard about Quantum Chess, where pieces both are and aren’t. You know about Chess Boxing?
Gil: Of course, yes.
Chess Boxing is simply the hybrid of chess and boxing. What could be more natural?
DTD: Yes, because it is delightful. My father is in favor of Chess Boxing.
Gil: See I mean, I feel like chess boxing, like if you’re a good boxer, you could probably do fairly well with chess boxing. But if you’re a chess player and not a boxer, you’re probably not.
DTD: Actually, both sides do quite well. It alternates the boxing and the Chess, and the boxing and the Chess, so you get people who are really good at Chess, and they just run in circles in the ring during the boxing segment. They just try not to get hit, and then they sit and really quickly just try to win at Chess. And then you get the boxers, who try to take as much time as they can during the Chess, and then just try to pummel the other guy when it’s not Chess. It’s fascinating stuff. What games did you have when you were when you were growing up?
DTD: Well, did your family play games?
Gil: My dad only played games for money. My dad liked Poker. My dad taught me Backgammon and Chess, but he wasn’t really into playing them. Like I said, he’s only interested in games for money. And my mom has no patience for games.
DTD: We had Backgammon. We definitely played Backgammon when I was young. It was around, I knew how to play it.
I still enjoy a good game of Backgammon. Although I never really did the betting part of the game with the doubling cube. Backgammon is currently ranked at #1277 on BoardGameGeek.
Gil: Yeah, but my dad didn’t enjoy it, doesn’t enjoy playing games, you know. And my mom hates playing games. She’s got no time for them. My younger brother brought all my games… My parents have all my games. My younger brother said, “Let’s open them up, I’ll teach them to you.” and I’m like, “Are you sure you want to do that?” He’s like, “Yeah what’s the worst that’s gonna happen?” I don’t think it went well.
DTD: [laughing] Yeah, I think the worst happened.
Gil: I think the worst happened.
Gil: So here is. This is a funny story. This is all you really need to know about my dad. This is such a “facepalm thing”. Number one, you know he’s really crazy about all of his kids, but #2, he’s the kind of person who doesn’t understand the attempt of helping people, does not always help people. And there are times that you can help people by not getting in the way.
Gil: So, my dad is unfortunately a big [Oscar the Grouch] listener. And he keeps on hounding me to advertise there, to which I say, “Hell, no, I am not giving that man any of my money.” But my dad’s like, “He advertises board games. You could get so many listening players.” I’m like, “I don’t want that.” And then finally what he does, is the games that I have… I sent my parents all my games. So, he takes all, the whole game collection. He boxes it up and he sends it to [Oscar the Grouch] with a note saying “These are my son’s games. Try them.” And thankfully, nothing came of it.
Please pardon my ham fisted editing. I need to say that Gil definitely was not talking about that philosophical genius and Sesame Street residential philanthropist Oscar the Grouch. He actually mentioned a controversial political talk show pundit. I felt it best to obscure some names. Once again, I feel that Gil would, in fact, send his games to Oscar the Grouch. I just needed a clever pseudonym.
DTD: That’s just crazy.
Gil: But I had to have a discussion with him. Like, “Here’s another copy of all my games. These games are not to go to [Oscar the Grouch]. These games are not to go to [Moishe Oofnik]. These games are not go to [Gugu]. They’re not even going to go to [Big Bird]. They’re not going to go to anyone. They’re for you. They stay in your house.
Moishe Oofnik is Oscar the Grouch’s cousin, and stars on Sesame Street in Israel. Gugu is the Brazilian Oscar the Grouch. I guess my clever ruse to hide the politically charged names of vocal talk show hosts backfired on me, and I needed to extend the metaphor far beyond it’s life. Although I am very proud of integrating Moishe Oofnik into the website.
DTD: “They’re for you!” And I can see the attitude of “This is helping you. Why are you not happy? This is helping you?”
Gil: Yep, Yep, Yep. He doesn’t understand that he doesn’t always help when he does stuff like that. He can’t really see past his little box.
DTD: No, I get it. Yeah, I get a little of that with my dad. It’s not to that level, but I definitely get some of that.
Gil: Yeah, parents, they try to help, but sometimes their help isn’t great.
Speaking as a Dad currently, we do what we can. But we are pretty lame most of the time.
DTD: Yeah, yeah. Well, I mean my dad was never home. He was one of these obsessive workers. Not for any sense of duty, or that he was supposed to, but if he was awake, he went to work. And when he was tired, he came home and went to sleep. Because that’s what he liked to do.
DTD: And it didn’t register if it was a weekday, a weekend or Christmas. This is just what he did. So, there wasn’t a lot of interaction there. Until, you know, I became an adult and he became a… What is it? A secondary adult.
DTD: Yeah, he set up computer things for me to play with, which was fun. So, I was using computers when I was four, five years old. Fun games.
Gil: Yeah, my dad also set up a lot of computer stuff. We had a lot of computers growing up. I learned Basic as a kid.
Gil: Which, I thought I knew, I thought it meant I knew programming, but it didn’t.
DTD: I have exactly been in that boat. I solved every little problem that came into my head with Basic, and my dad said, “you know you really should learn a real language.”
I still have not really succeeded in learning a real language.
Gil: Yeah. At least your dad knew. My dad doesn’t know anything about computers. He just, he just bought and sold them. You know, he knows a little bit about electronics, little bit about soldering, but he doesn’t… Like modern computers. He doesn’t have the first idea.
DTD: There’s a difference between knowing about modern computers, and actually being able to explain them, or be helpful with them. My dad knows computers. There’s no doubt about that. But he can’t explain them.
The running joke in the family is that every explanation my dad sets up required a page full of drawn boxes connected by lines.
Gil: Yeah, it makes sense.
DTD: So, the man created Unix and the C programming language in the 60s. And he cannot use a cell phone, and he can’t hook up his television.
Gil: Wait, wait, your dad did…? Your dad created UNIX? Not your dad?
DTD: Yeah. I thought you knew that.
Gil: No, I didn’t.
DTD: Yeah, 1969 he created Unix.
Gil: Wow, oh wow.
DTD: And Unix ran off of the B programming language originally. Which was named after my mom.
Gil: Oh wow.
DTD: And then B was… Yeah, do a Google search for Ken Thompson. And that’s… he did a lot of stuff like that. So, I got to play on the Unix mainframes when I was a kid. Four years old, -ish. Me and probably five other kids whose parents worked on Unix.
Gil: That’s amazing, I had no idea. No wonder he’s… No wonder he said learn a real language.
DTD: He gave me the white book on C, and said here “You should learn C.”
Kernighan and Ritchie. THE book on C programming.
Gil: Now I wish I learned C as a kid, that would have saved me so much time.
DTD: I learned it. I’m not good at it, but I can do it. And then my dad’s intern did C++, which my dad dislikes. That was Bjarne Stroustrup. [laughs]
Gil: Why does your dad hate C++?
DTD: Yeah, C++ is not his thing. So yeah, I grew up with, you know, Dennis Ritchie and Brian Kernighan, and all these guys who were the Unix core group. Interesting ones who went off and did stuff with Lucas and Pixar, wrote all their software. And some guys who, you know, went to all corners of the earth. It’s kind of neat.
Gil: That’s amazing, that I didn’t know. Alright, that’s really cool.
DTD: Yeah, he’s… yeah. You want him on a Ludology? I can make it happen. [laughs]
Gil: I don’t know if he would be a great interview.
DTD: He would not. He could talk about chess, and he’s well spoken, and he’d be excited about it, but he wouldn’t know anything else.
Gil: It looks like you’re, you know, sort of mentioned in Wikipedia. “Ken Thompson is married and has a son.”
Factually, very true. He also has a bald cat.
DTD: That’s me! [laughs]. Yeah, the only reason it says that is because, the story of how Unix was made was really interesting. Dad was in the Multics project in the 60s, which was this huge conglomeration. Every big business in the universe got together and said, “we need to make a multi user operating system.” And it was IBM and GE and Bell Labs. It was everybody, hundreds of people. And the thing would crash as soon as a second person logged on. It was bloated, horrible software. And dad quit. And he decided he still needed multi-user operating system, so he packed me and my mom up, and sent us to relatives in California. And he went to work and didn’t leave for like 4 weeks. And he wrote Unix in four weeks.
So I was a little off on my Multics [Multiplexed Information and Computer Services] history. The project was started in 1964, and was a joint effort from MIT, GE (Which became Honeywell) and Bell Labs. Bell Labs left the project in 1969. The Multics platform continued well into the 1990s.
DTD: He one week for I/O, one week for Kernel, one week for memory. It’s… I don’t remember. But in all the stories it talks about “packed up his wife and newborn son, and then spent four weeks and wrote Unix”. And then the Inside Joke at Bell Laboratories was if every business in the universe and 300 people made Multics, then this thing that one guy in a basement made by himself must be called Unix.
In August 1969, ken packed up his wife and kid, and sent them to California for a month. He then spent one week each on the operating system, the shell, the editor and the assembler, and the backbone of UNIX was done. I really should know these stories better.
DTD: That’s where the name comes from. Plus, you know, they liked the pun, and they’d giggle about it.
Gil: Yeah, yeah, that name always made me giggle also. Incidentally, Wikipedia claims that B was derived from BCPL, and this name may be a contraction of BCPL. So, I think you’ve got a scoop here.
DTD: I corrected it before, and the Unix people said I was wrong. I asked my dad, and he’s like “No, it was a fight with your mother.” There was a language called “bon” for Bonnie. B O N. And bon turned into B.
There is a good chance my Dad is trying to protect the happiness of his marriage by sticking to this story. I need to ask him alone one day.
DTD: Now BCPL was an influence because it was the major language at the time, so there’s no doubt that BCPL is an influence on B, and then an influence on C. But the name came from Bonnie. Yeah, I asked him what he named after me. He said, “core dump.”
Gil: [laughs] That’s all… That’s pretty funny. So, you know the Dead Milkmen, right? The group?
Gil: The rock group. They’re a rock group from Philadelphia.
Gil: They’re like a parody rock group. They’re very funny. They had a big hit in the early 90s, late 80s called Punk Rock Girl. Like, that was their one big song that made it to the mainstream, but they have a bunch of really good albums, all very snarky and silly.
Gil: And very dumb, and the singer is incredibly funny. And, he recently, he’s gotten into hurdy-gurdies. And he got a hurdy-gurdy. Have you seen a hurdy-gurdy?
DTD: I love hurdy-gurdies. It’s a string with a wheel.
Gil: Yep, yep. He put his girlfriend’s name on the hurdy-hurdy in big letters, and his girlfriend asked why, and he said, “Oh, because it’s cranky and high strung.”
Rodney Linderman is the hurdy-gurdy man. Or maybe that was Donovan. The hurdy-gurgy is named “Vienna”.
DTD: [laughs] That’s hysterical. I love the weird instruments. I was a music kid, so I was music prodigy and they sent me all over the place, and made me perform here, and go to this camp, and go to these lessons and we traveled all over the place.
Gil: How cool.
Next time, on this completely silent podcast, Gil and I divert into discussions of music – bizarre musical instruments [even weirder than hurdy-gurdies], musical theory and musical stories. Theremins, waterphones, and crumhorns galore. So grab some comfortable headphones and join me in about a week.