I had the truly great pleasure of going out to eat with one of the instrumental people in board game design, Donald X Vaccarino. A two time Spiel winner, Donald X is the designer behind Dominion, almost single-handedly bring deck-building into the common lexicon of board gaming a mere 13-odd years ago. I have picked up Donald X, and we are heading off to Ole’s Waffle Shop, a classic diner in Alameda, CA.

DTD: I really appreciate it.

DXV: Thanks.

DTD: There you go.

DXV: It’s a bizarre little adventure.

DTD: [laughs] That’s what I do. Is bizarre little adventures. Are you OK if I take mask off?

DXV: I mean, you’re vaccinated.

This interview occurred in June 2021, and I had been vaccinated that March.

DTD: I am. I’m totally vaccinated, but when I’ve been having dinners, I don’t know how comfortable other people are going to be. I’ve tried to just be polite with it.

DXV: Oh, it’s… I’m just continuing to be amazed at this car with its lack of stuff.

After “waffling” for some time, I had just gotten a new Tesla, and I have to agree – there’s a surprising lack of “stuff” on the dash.

DTD: It’s really strange. The biggest problem I have with it, is there’s no “off” button. When you get somewhere, you just leave. You don’t mind if I record, do you?

DXV: I don’t, but you’re recording already?

DTD: Oh, no – I’m going to start. Oops – Yes, I’ve started.

DXV: Oh, OK. But wait, I was going to say pointless things about the pandemic.

DTD: Oh, please do.

DXV: Do you need those, too?

DTD: You can say anything you want, and if you don’t want it in there… You know, whatever you want. I remember… I thought I had read somewhere that you were in Columbus, for quite a while.

DXV: No, I was never in Columbus. I did, I did… I visited Columbus a few times. Origins was there.

DTD: That’s probably a mix up around that.

DXV: I was born in Ohio in a suburb of Cleveland and I, oh, very briefly lived in Indiana as a kid. And then Oregon and in… There was a time period when I moved to a suburb of Ithaca, NY.

DTD: You were all over the place.

DXV: So, I lived in [the bay area], then Ithaca. Completely boring.

DTD: Well, I grew up on the East Coast and I kept hopping coasts over and over. I think I’m done now. I think I’m settled in California. I just like it better.

DXV: I mean, I like the vegetation more in New York and the Midwest, than in the Pacific Northwest.

DTD: Yeah, my wife was really confused that things just grow on their own on the East Coast, and don’t need help.

Untouched land in my area of California just turns to deset and scrub. Untouched land in New Jersey tends to turn to jungle. Amazing what rain can do.

DXV: And I like, I like having the seasons. But the biggest thing is simply that now there’s a few months of the year when you can’t breathe here.

DTD: Fire season.

Recently, in northern California, wildfires have been occurring every year in the late summer and early fall.

DXV: And how long will I put up with that?

DTD: Yeah, we’ve got a place up in Santa Rosa, and the fire season has been more than a little frightening the past couple of years.

DXV: So, the… So, the thing I was going to say about the masks…

DTD: Oh yeah, please.

DXV: And you were like, “Should you wear the mask?” And it’s just that, you know, I started my game nights back up as soon as there were… Actually, when there were people who had been vaccinated.

DTD: Sure.

DXV: And it didn’t include me. So, we all wore masks. But it was just, it was to protect me from them. And then we took off our masks when we got, when we were all vaccinated. But there was this question I would pose, that kept changing, even though it kept being the same. Of… [looking at the dashboard] Oh, this monitor is… Boy, your car is so alien.

DTD: I’m sorry. It’s new.

I definitely looks like aliens brought it.

DXV: [laughs] There was this question of when people were going to take their masks off, right? First, it’s like, “Are you going to take your mask off? How soon will you do it relative to the people who aren’t vaccinated?” You know, how much will you care about them? And then, you know, and how much will you be worried? I guess first it was, “How much would you be worried?” Then it’s like, “Well, you’re not worried. But how much are you going to be wanting to be friendly to the people who weren’t vaccinated?” Honestly, that does not last long. And at some point, it’s like “You know, if you’re not going to get vaccinated, you need to get it. Because that’s the other way to get vaccinated.”

DTD: I think there’s also the fact that it’s been so long that this has been a normal part of life. Like 18 months. That it’s almost impossible for people to flip a switch, and say “OK, now it’s normal again.”

DXV: Oh, I feel like you could really feel the flip, the switch flipping. I mean, I could feel it for myself. That it was a switch. That it was weird, the first couple times I just didn’t wear the mask outside.

DTD: No, it’s that strange balance between risk and reward. It’s, uh, I used to get told that meteors fall from the sky, but I’m not going to walk outside with a pillow on my head. It’s weighing… And COVID really put it in a different perspective, where the risks are much more real. But I think it’s starting to go back to that whole thing of preventing colds, or preventing flus, or things like that. They’re considered just normal. So people aren’t going to put the extra effort in, even though it works.

DXV: Yeah. And many people got to work from home. And there’s this question of how much will that go back?

DTD: That’s the one that fascinates me. It seems like a lot of people are going to just permanently convert. Especially in this area, because we have such a high precedence of IT people, of computer people.

Working at home was definitely a trial by necessity in the last year, and it looks like it succeeded in many respects.

DXV: Yes. And so, you would think they would all get to stay home. And so far, it seems like a lot of them are going to get to stay home, but not all of them. And some of them will just be quitting, because they don’t get to stay home. One of my playtesters had moved to Seattle. And then his company said, “Oh, no we’re going to make everyone come back.” So he’s looking for a new job that isn’t going to do that.

DTD: There’s so many stories like that.

DXV: And the thing is, in this case though… So, like with the case of the colds, right? It’s like, “Well, the person at the grocery store doesn’t want to wear a mask, and people just don’t care enough.” But in the case of this commuting for your programming job, or for all these other jobs, that are very similar, that aren’t programming. It’s such a boon to society to let the person work at home.

DTD: Absolutely.

DXV: It’s cutting out all of this commuting, which is spending the resources of the planet, and also eats up so much time from people’s lives. And kills people with traffic accidents, and I mean the downside is you, you know, you just need some way of knowing that they’re being productive, which in many cases is easy.

DXV: I do think I’ll miss that you used to be able to just walk down the street, and just tell who the [jerks] were. You were just were able to say, “Oh, no mask. There’s a [jerk].” And now, you don’t know. Who are they? It’s a mystery.

DTD: I know. We need name tags for people to label themselves. I actually, I did that at a convention. I went to a board gaming convention, and there was a really smart Girl Scout cookie seller right outside the gaming convention. That’s a perfect spot. And I bought her out. I bought all of her cookies. And I put them on a table in the Convention. I had a note that said, “Take one box. If you decide to take more than one box, take a name tag so that we know that you’re a [jerk].” And I had the name tags all filled out already.

DXV: And did people take you up on this?

DTD: I saw one or two people who had a name tag that said, “Hi, I’m a [jerk].” So, some people listened. For the most part, those cookies lasted a good chunk of the convention. I was just nervous someone was going to come and take all of them. Yeah, name tags would be really useful.

DXV: So just a very friendly thing. Giving away lots of Girl Scout cookies.

DTD: Yeah, why not? Girl Scout cookies are wonderful.

There was a little bit of animosity to the name tags. But mostly a friendly thing.

DXV: Well, I probably can’t have them. I can’t have many things.

DTD: Oh, I’m sorry. Allergies and things?

DXV: It’s not so bad. It’s three things. It’s first, lactose intolerance. And I know a lot of people decide to just blow that off, but it’s not really great… So, I’m serious about it.

DTD: Oh yeah. No, I get it.

DXV: It turns out I can have cheese that’s been aged two or three years, because it loses lactose in ages. So, I actually, I actually order pizza with no cheese, and then I put cheese on it.

DTD: Alright. Your own.

Lactose in dairy products is really variable. Some cheeses have it, some don’t. Some yogurts have more, some less. Unfortunately, its still mostly trial and error.

This is the delightful Renal Board Game from Focus Games

DXV: And then there’s a few foods, especially soybeans, that I can’t digest, and I don’t know what that is. It’s not lactose intolerance, but it’s something. I narrowed it down, and OK – Don’t eat those foods.

DTD: If you can figure out what it is. That is, that is great.

DXV: And finally, I used to have kidney stones.

DTD: Me too. I had tons of them.

DXV: Oh, and did you do something about it?

DTD: I did a lot of things about it, and I can’t tell if any of them really worked.

DXV: When I had my first one in 1991, the state of the art at the time was that they thought that since the kidney stones are calcium oxalate, you should cut down on calcium.

DTD: Which is terrible.

DXV: It’s turned out to be the exact opposite of what was correct. That calcium deficiency causes kidney stones.

DTD: And I monitored oxalates. There’s a lot of foods with oxalates. Because I’m assuming you get calcium oxalate stones.

In people, kidney stones generally are made of urate or oxalate. Urate stones are rarer, and there is a very effective medicine to stop them. Oxalate stones are much more common and usually require diet changes.

DXV: Yes, that’s it. That is the other thing I’m doing, yes.

DTD: So, oxalates – there’s not a lot out there. I mean, I can live without rhubarb and spinach.

DXV: Yeah, spinach. Those are the two really big ones.

DTD: And there’s a citrate thing, that I don’t think anyone really understands. If you really go gung-ho on citric acid, it can potentiate them. The citrate breaks down into oxalate.

DXV: Oh, I see.

DTD: But it’s so much more complicated than that. I was a graduate student, neuroscience and cell biology, forever. Before I did 100 different things. So when I was getting a lot of kidney stones I tried to do the research, and read the papers and figure it all out myself. And I found out I wasn’t very good at that either.

DXV: I used to eat a chocolate bar every day. And I don’t mean a Hershey bar. I mean a Lindt bar, dark chocolate, and big.

DTD: And that got you, huh?

DXV: And I knew, I used to work for a company that made dialysis machines. And there was somebody down the hall, who I didn’t work with, who I only ever knew 2 facts about. And one was that he had a bunch of kidney stones. And the other was that when you walked by his office, he had made a little structure out of all of his dark chocolate bar wrappers. And chocolate was one of the top high oxalate foods.

Donald X is currently a full time game designer. The dialysis machine programming days are a thing of the past.

DTD: I’ve heard that.

DXV: So, I decided, “OK, I’m gonna cut down on oxalates.” And the doctors aren’t necessarily advising that yet. And maybe they feel burnt, because, well, they’re calcium oxalates, and they told you to cut down on calcium, and that was wrong. And so, they don’t want to say cut down on oxalates. But oxalates are just poisons. They don’t have any benefit to you.

DTD: They’re hard to break down, they really are. But they’re part of the citric acid cycle, the Krebs cycle. That old thing you have to learn in high school.

DXV: Well, I’ll have to research that, but I don’t go gung-ho on citric acid.

DTD: No, no. I used to chug orange juice like nobody’s business, and I think that hurt me.

DXV: I mean, that’s just poison otherwise.

DTD: And I wasn’t good about staying hydrated, and that’s a big one.

DXV: Right. But I’ve known about that. And I had a 1.2 centimeter kidney stone.

This is just huge for a kidney stone.

DTD: Oh, my goodness. [pain noises]

DXV: In the end. And that was what finally got me to change things. And also then I decided I would lose weight, because I didn’t want whatever the next health problem in line was.

DTD: Sure.

DXV: And so, I lost 100 pounds.

DTD: That’s awesome!

DXV: But I’m still doing this thing where I’m avoiding all these foods. And it’s like, it’s all these foods that I ate so much of. Like I would eat a bag of potato chips, and potatoes are one of the high oxalate foods, not spinach rhubarb pie, but much higher than…

Potato chips contain 21mg oxalate per ounce.
Rhubab, for comparison, has 541mg in 1/2 cup.
Cooked Spinach has 755mg in 1/2 cup.

DTD: Right. When you start going down the list, they are the top of the middle.

DXV: Yeah, they’re up there. And so, all these foods I’m just not eating. And then some of the foods that are at the at the bottom of the, of what this particular chart I look at the most often, calls very high, but are way lower. They’re like 15 milligrams per varying serving size, whereas the spinach is like 800 or something.

DTD: Well, the oxalate’s ridiculous. Rhubarb is actually poisonous because of the oxalates. If you eat it uncooked or eat the leaves.

DXV: Right. Yeah, I mean, that’s what it is. And that’s why the plants have it.

DTD: It’s a normal plant product.

DXV: It’s in all of these, it’s in all of these… the parts of the plant, that are… It’s not in, like fruits, which is what plant has produced for animals to eat.

DTD: Yeah, it’s leaves and vegetables.

DXV: It can be in the rind, but it’s in like leaves that the plant did not want you to eat, and it’s poison.

DTD: A couple of them actually use them as physical needles. There’s oxalate needles, and oxalate poisoning in some of these plants that really, really have chemical warfare to keep from being eaten.

Diffenbachia contain raphides, or calcium oxalate needles, in their leaves. If chewed, they cause swelling of the mouth and throat, and the inability to speak, explaining their common name as dumb cane.

DXV: Oh my. But… Oh, I don’t know what nonsense I’m saying. Oxalates. [laughs]

DTD: We won’t order any oxalates.

DXV: Right, so I was saying that whatever was the… You know, what they called the low end of very high. It’s like, it’s it includes all these basic nutritious foods, like carrots. So I’m eating very small quantities of those. I’m not like eating carrots as a snack.

DTD: I haven’t gone that strongly.

DXV: But I’m not like… If it’s in some soup or something, I won’t not eat the carrot.

DTD: Sure. And that makes sense.

DXV: But anyway, yeah, it’s like potatoes. Potatoes and peanuts and chocolate are the big ones that it’s said to cut out. And I didn’t entirely cut out chocolate. I’m still having small quantities of chocolate, like the chocolate chips in a chocolate chip cookie. And not eating a chocolate bar.

DTD: Everything in moderation. Oh sure. And not a, you know, chocolate chip cookie every single day.

DXV: They’re really small. [laughs]

DTD: [laughs] I’m talking like I don’t eat a chocolate chip cookie every day. I mean look at me [slaps belly].

I have been described as healthy, Rubenesque, Botticellian, prosperous. You get the idea.

DXV: Well, I mean when you… You know, the kidney stones were so bad, and it wasn’t that hard to lose the weight. And I mean, I recommend it. I’m going to be having a big meal tonight, but I mean you can tell I’m not a I’m not an overweight person at this point.

DTD: No. I actually, I think I was going off of a picture of you from quite a while ago. I didn’t recognize you when you were standing out front.

DXV: Yeah, because you lose it from your face, too.

DTD: Oh, congratulations. I mean, I would love to lose that much weight.

DXV: Yeah, thanks. Well, my diet which I fell into, which was utterly random, it just came about due to due to the process of being really sick from the kidney stone. And it took so long, so long to get the appointment to have the treatment to get it removed. And the painkillers were so awful. Like medicine is so far, has so not advanced in terms of pain killers.

DTD: Yeah, I’ve been there.

DXV: And so, the diet I fell into was in the morning, I would have a small bowl of fruit, and then I would have a completely ordinary dinner. And I didn’t need anything else. And I would, for a snack I would eat one skittle. And it’s amazing what having like a snack of 1 skittle… Currently my snack is 1 jelly bean. And it’s amazing how that snack plays, after you get used to it. Because it used to be, “Well, I will eat a package of Skittles. Munch, Munch, Munch.” But the one Jelly Bean gives you the experience of a snack. Your brain gives you a little reward because you stopped whatever else you were doing, and ate something, and it’s sugary and you taste it. Like, you didn’t taste them before. [laughs]

DTD: No, no, it makes total sense.

DXV: And I eat pickles, because they’re zero calorie. But you can only eat like one pickle a day because they’re so high in salt.

DTD: Yeah, yeah. So, when I was doing my heavy research into kidney stones, and I don’t know if this is too much info…

DXV: [laughs]

Yeah, I’m going to talk about poop now. Always a plus at the start of an interview.

DTD: But there is a bacteria in your gut that breaks down oxalates. And there’s a lot of evidence now that kidney stones happen because of the lack of this particular bacteria.

DXV: Well, it’s all these things together, right? It’s hydration, calcium, oxalates, this bacteria.

DTD: But this bacteria seems to have a pretty major role, and they’re finding more and more that the bacteria in your gut are a really major influence on a whole ton of things going on with you.

Bacterial flora within the gut have been implicated in diseases such as Inflammatory Bowel Disease, Crohn’s Disease, and even the maintanance of weight, the tendency to be thin or obese.

DXV: Yeah.

DTD: So, it’s Oxalobacter, and most of the research has been on, well, actual Guinea pigs. Not just people being Guinea pigs, but real Guinea pigs. Because they get kidney stones very badly, and it’s directly correlated with this bacteria. So, I was researching that one for a while.

DXV: Right, I mean it at some point though, they’ll be able to give it to you. I don’t know if they can do it now.

DTD: They can, but they don’t like to. It’s icky. Fecal transfers, transfaunation, and all this. The problem is, if you just eat the bacteria, it doesn’t make it to your gut. There’s not enough, and it doesn’t seed.

DXV: I see.

DTD: And so more unpleasant ways have to be done.

Like I said – icky.

DXV: But I’m pretty sure that the cause for me must have been calcium deficiency. Because I was definitely calcium deficient.

DTD: Calcium is really tough, too. Because you have this enormous deposit of it in your body – your bones. And so, a lot of calcium metabolism just has to do with the hormones in the body and being able to move the calcium around. So they’ve actually found with a lot of people with older osteoporosis, that supplementing calcium doesn’t help a lot. Because your body has tons of it in there, in the bones and can move it out whenever it wants. It just doesn’t. So there seems to be hormonal factors that are really important.

DXV: But the, but the kidney stones? Well, my understanding is that with the kidney stones, with the calcium deficiency kidney stone, you’re calcium deficient and your body needs calcium to use, and pulls it out of your bones, and your bones get weaker. And so I also have osteopenia.

DTD: Well, kidney stones definitely suck calcium from your body. Osteopenia is a byproduct of severe kidney stones because it’s acting like a sponge, just sucking out the calcium.

DXV: So, I suspect that that was the problem. Because I… I mean, I definitely had it.

DTD: Having been through so many kidney stones, if you find something that seems to be working you really don’t want to mess with it.

DXV: Yeah, I don’t want to stress test it! You may want to park soon. I’m not sure how far we are, but parking won’t be trivial. And I think we are close.

I know, I know, not a ton of game talk. But this is just the intro! Next time, we reach some goals, physically and metaphorically – Ole’s Waffle Shop, and talk about the creation of Dominion and deck building. Come on back!

%d bloggers like this: