Welcome back to my lunch with Eric Lang during GAMA 2022 in Reno, Nevada. Eric has always been an outspoken voice in the board game industry, quick to point out injustice or insensitivity. I decided early on that I would leave our conversation intact, and allow it to just flow organically. And we do touch on some sensitive topics this week as we talk about childhood, war, and games.
DTD: Honestly, it’s always just, “What would I talk about normally if I went out to dinner with someone?” If we just went out to dinner, there’s no recording, there’s no interview, what would we talk about?
EML: Oh, probably silly s–t.
And we have just gotten straight to the heart of my method.
DTD: Silly s–t. Absolutely. You know, [pointing to self] ex-veterinarian. I’ve gotten to work on, oh perchance, you know Capybaras and Pandas.
EML: Oh my God.
DTD: I was saving that in case things got awkward, it’s like, “Here’s how you get on Eric’s good side…” [laughs]
I won’t lie. I was not beyond using veterinary animal stories to brainwash Eric into tolerating me. And I knew his favorite animals were currently Pandas and Capybaras.
Also, the pictured game is Capybara n Capybara by Hisashi Hiyashi. And I gave Eric a copy at the Gathering of Friends in April 2022.
EML: Oh yes, except this is probably not the reaction you thought. I actually don’t want to hear anything about that.
DTD: Not to worry.
Warning! Warning! Corey will need to rely upon intelligent conversation and discourse! Abort! Abort!
EML: Because here’s the thing. I mean, kudos to you. Veterinary, like, if I could, I would be a veterinarian, because I love animals so much. But I can’t handle any… I can’t handle animal distress. Like I can’t watch videos, even those videos like, “Oh we rescued the poor stray cat.” The distress part of it – NOPE. NOPE. NO. Can’t watch it.
DTD: I get it. There were a lot of people who went to vet school because they love animals, and they left. Because there’s a lot of hard parts, too.
EML: Probably washed out, right? Jesus god, yeah.
Please don’t get me wrong. Veterinary school was hard, and everyone there was incredibly intelligent and capable. But many just did not fully understand what the profession entails. Emotionally, it was very, very taxing.
DTD: So, oh, I totally get it. So, no worries. I won’t burst the bubble.
EML: Capys are… So, my animal obsession… I love all animals, of course. But I get obsessions. Since I was a kid. I would always pick… When I was young, we had this… I think it was Puffin Publishing I think, that did The Blue Book…
EML: You know those, the “Field Guide to <blank>”.
DTD: I know what you’re talking about, yes.
I looked so hard for those exact books, the ones I had pictured in my mind, but came up empty. There are just too many animal field guides out there, that constantly get new covers and new editions. So pretend I have just the exact perfect picture right over there, to the left.
EML: And I grew up with that stuff, but because there were so many. I just picked my favorites. So, my favorites were sharks, birds, and bees. Bees because I’m allergic to bees; I’m terrified of them. So I’m just obsessed with them. And of course, sharks, I am just obsessed with them. Love the hell out of sharks.
DTD: Oh, there’s so many cool ones, too.
I personally love Cookiecutter Sharks. First, the name. Second, their mouths are just hole punches. Third, come on – go look at pictures of them. They’re awesome.
EML: There are. But then of course, then my family is part of three conservation societies. So well, two of which don’t exist anymore, but one which still does. The Natural Conservation Society of Zimbabwe, which is a… They’re amazing.
DTD: Wow. Ok.
EML: Being a part of a culture, right? The culture of conservation and stuff, really makes you appreciate, like… a) it makes you not able to go to zoos. And b) it gets you to appreciate animals in the wild, and the primacy of nature and all that cool stuff.
Veterinary experience certainly puts a different light on zoos as an attraction.
EML: But, I’m also a nerd, who loves to mythologize stuff, right? So, I love… My favorite animals are like the ones that are basically “game nerds.” Like, they’re not elegant…
EML: Yeah, like pandas are like drunk-ass bears.
DTD: They are.
EML: No grace.
DTD: No, they fall all over the place, and they spend all their time eating.
Pandas spend 12 hours a day eating, mostly bamboo. And they only digest about a tenth of what they eat. Their digestive tract still has a lot of bear qualities, and if some small critter happens to walk in front of them, they will not hesitate to grab and eat it. Especially bamboo rats.
EML: And they spend all their time eating, and they’re vegetarians. But they’re bears. Like they could kick your ass anytime they want. But they don’t, because they’re just too busy being clumsy and ungraceful. Capybaras, are basically Stoner…
DTD: Stoner Guinea pigs!
EML: That just hang around.
Capybaras are the world’s largest rodents. 75-150 pounds. And yeah, they’re just chill. Giant Guinea Pigs.
EML: And they’re like a Disney cartoon. Like every animal looks flocking next to them.
DTD: Koalas, they’re so stoned out of their gourd on eucalyptus, every once while they just fall out of trees.
EML: That’s right! And the chlamydia part. That part is just hilarious.
Koalas have a serious chlamydia problem. In some Australian populations, 100% of the individuals have the disease. In Koalas, it is caused by Chlamydia pecorum and Chlamydia pneumoniae, and is not generally infectious to people.
DTD: Well, I mean… So, they’re, you know, they’re stoners who live in in co-ops.
EML: So, I went to Australia, to the Blue Mountains, which is where you get to hang out with koalas in the wild.
DTD: Yeah, my parents lived in Sydney!
EML: And that’s where we got, that’s where I learned that… I don’t remember what the number was – like 60 or 70% of Koalas have chlamydia.
Right now, about 85% of the Koala population is infected, although in many regions of Australia, the populations are 90-100% affected. Vaccination and treatment measures are being tried.
DTD: Oh, it’s so much higher now.
EML: Oh my God. Then when I went [gruesome face], because I was sitting there like playing with them.
DTD: You’re not going to get it.
EML: I was young. But yeah, Koalas are awesome. Basically, all bears are awesome.
DTD: [laughs] No, I was… I wanted to be a zoo veterinarian, and I went through all that, but it’s actually, it’s pretty hard… Lots of nepotism, really hard to get a job.
EML: Not surprising.
DTD: And I ended up just being a dog and cat veterinarian, but I saw weird stuff. I saw exotic stuff; I ended up being the California Bay Area rat veterinarian.
EML: Oh, sure. So, California, plus, I mean, you grew up in the late 70’s, early 80’s, right? Where everybody had exotic pets.
DTD: Well, but California’s got the strongest laws against any of them.
For being a fairly liberal, hippie state, California has some of the most restrictive laws on animal ownership. We are one of only 2 states where ferrets are still illegal.
EML: Oh now, but they didn’t in the 70’s and 80’s, did they?
DTD: I don’t remember too much of it then, but I grew up actually in New Jersey.
DTD: And my parents… My father is one of these super genius people, that he did whatever he wanted to do, and it would end up working. And so, he would randomly just do strange things. So, we raised raccoons and squirrels, in the house. Which, probably a bad idea. But he did it because he wanted to.
EML: Oh cool.
Yeah, that’s me. Senior picture. 1986. Hey, you look at yourself in the 1980’s.
DTD: So that’s… And then I wanted to be a vet. And it was awesome.
EML: Yeah. If you grew up… Like, I can almost always tell, early in the conversation with somebody, if somebody grew up with animals or not.
DTD: A lot of animals, yeah.
EML: And if you do, you have a love for them, right? I don’t know anybody who grew up with animals that doesn’t love them. I mean, any non-sociopath. [laughs]
DTD: [laughs] Let’s just qualify – We’re not talking about the sociopaths that we regularly have interactions with, right?
EML: Right. [laughs]
To all my sociopath readers – no offense intended.
DTD: Oh, man… OK, so how did you get started in all the board gaming stuff? So I mean, I hear conservation, I hear animals, and all that. And I know at some point you were working for FFG [Fantasy Flight Games]. And I don’t know anything in the middle.
EML: So, well, OK. I’ve got like, I’ve got the two-minute… I have got the tight two-minute. I got the five-minute, like will leave you lots of questions, and I’ve got the 30 to 40-minute, actual thing.
DTD: I’ve hit the standardized, “I should have read the Cliff Notes” question, haven’t I?
EML: No, but… Well, I’ll switch it up. My fun here, is now trying to figure out a way to put an angle on it.
DTD: All right!
EML: Sorry, what are you asking? Is it like, how did I get started… Do you mean in the board game industry? Because there’s an origin story that takes up a whole chunk of it. We can bypass that.
DTD: I purposely left it open, because it could be like, “Oh my God, I’ve always loved games, and these were the ones I played as a kid…” And that’s my story.
EML: Right, same.
DTD: Yeah, I sought out the games that didn’t exist in the 70’s and 80’s.
EML: OK. I mean, so I grew up… So yeah, we’re very close [in age], right? So, I was I was born in ‘72.
Yeah, I’m old. I come by my grey legitimately.
EML: Through most of my most of my young life… All of my relatives are German. I’m actually first-generation Canadian in my family.
EML: All the rest of my family is German to… [hand gesture and accompanying raspberry noise]. So, I used to visit my grandmother in Germany. She lived in a small town called Neuss, which is right next to Düsseldorf, which is close to Essen. It’s a tiny, s–ty, little industrial town of less than 100,000.
DTD: Oh yeah, yeah.
Essen is the city that houses Essen Spiele, the largest board game convention in the world. Most discussions of Germany amongst gamers will use Essen as a relative point. Don’t worry – I feel a map of Germany is forthcoming.
EML: Nothing to do. It was part of the area that got the s–t bombed out of it, and Düsseldorf.
DTD: Slaughterhouse 5, right there.
Kurt Vonnegut’s masterpiece novel, Slaughterhouse 5, revolves around the authors firsthand experience with the bombings in Düsseldorf.
EML: Nothing to do, nothing open. But I love my grandmother. So, we spent a lot of time playing games. Now, we played a lot of shitty, mass market German games, like Phase 10, or Mensch ärgere Dich nicht or stuff like that. I loved playing with my grandmother, but I hated those games. I hated them, they were so boring. Like, I’ve been a creative my whole life.
Mensch ärgere Dich nicht is an old and very common family game in Germany. The pictured 75th anniversary edition came out in 1989 – you do the math. It’s kind of like saying “Monopoly” in the US. The game itself is a lot like Parcheesi or Sorry.
EML: So, I did monkey see, monkey do, and I was like… I just took all my other interests, like dinosaurs, and sharks, and music, and so I started just incorporating that s–t at random. Like, “I wanna play Mensch ärgere Dich nicht with dinosaurs!” And the game ends after a minute.
DTD: That’s awesome.
EML: I mean, obviously they were bad, but my grandmother had infinite patience. She just wanted to spend time with her grandson. But I didn’t know it at the time, right? But I was literally designing these games, and playtesting them. And yet, like… And when she was happy, and she was having fun, I was having fun.
DTD: It was that interesting detente we do with relatives; kids don’t want to play the game, it’s not that interesting. The parents, grandparents, don’t want to play the game, it’s a little childish. But neither side will say anything.
What I failed to say is that both sides generally seek out and love the interaction. What they are doing is almost irrelevant. They love doing it.
EML: Right, right. It’s weird, so for me it was the opposite. My parents don’t like games. My parents are… They’re more Prussian – If you can’t learn anything out of it, like directly… If it is not directly, linearly educational, it is pointless and frivolous. Why would you do that? They’ve softened a little bit, because they’ve seen…
DTD: Oh, trust me. I get it.
EML: But my grandparents were the opposite. They loved playing with us and engaging with us. But they just wanted to spend some time with their grandkids, right? So, it was basically… I owe it to my grandmother, right? She saw my creativity. And nurtured it. And kept buying me cool toys to play with, lots of open-ended stuff to play with.
DTD: That’s fantastic.
EML: And I’d always spend my summers in Germany; it was my favorite time of year.
DTD: See, I spent a lot of summers in Hamburg. So, I spent a lot of time in Germany.
EML: OK. But yeah, Hamburg is… Wow.
DTD: So ich kann ein bisschen Deutsch sprechen.
I have found on numerous occasions that I can speak German with about 85% fluency. And that is just enough to really get me in trouble. What I said above was “I fought off the baboons so that I could use the escalator.”
EML: In the city or in the suburbs?
DTD: Outside the city. Hollenstedt.
EML: OK, OK. So yeah, that’s Neuss-ish, except Hamburg was not quite as devastated. So you probably had nicer villages, but…
DTD: It was really nice, and more country-like and quiet-paced. And this was in the 80’s, I was there a lot.
DTD: It’s funny, my mother is very “East Coast Jewish”. And my father is an over-worker. And so, my father knew all these people all over the world, and one of the friends in Germany basically said that he wanted to “rent” me, to teach his children humor. Sarcasm and humor, is what he wanted to teach his children. So, I spent a lot of time in Germany, basically being mean to this guy’s children. For hire. [laughs]
My deepest apologies Tommy and Martin. You experienced an immature, snarky adolescent, who had his behavior professionally validated.
EML: [laughs] That’s a way cool story.
DTD: It was so much nicer than I put it out there. [laughs]
EML: I know so many people that like… So, like I travel to Asia to teach Thai people, Thai children, how to speak English. That sounds so much cooler!
I cannot believe helping children learn English is even in the same category as a young me being bratty in a foreign country.
DTD: No, no! It’s not! I just, I lucked out. My whole life has been very lucky and I end up with these odd situations.
EML: Sure, that’s great, though. You’re a Renaissance man for it, right?
DTD: I try. I think I’ve said a couple times that my perfect job is probably “Victorian man of leisure” – Odd facial hair and a big globe next to me. Big leather chair – I could do that.
EML: Yeah, yeah, yeah. That’s right. A preponderance of grapes, right?
My autobiography will be called “a preponderance of grapes.”
DTD: Yeah, yes, yes. So, I interrupted. You were in Germany with your grandparents and you were making up games to make the games better.
EML: Well, that’s where my love of games came from. Shortly after that, I discovered Stratego. And Stratego blew my… That changed my life. I was like, “Oh my God. I didn’t know games could be like this. This is great,” right? And so, it opened… I mean obviously we don’t, didn’t, have the vocabulary for it back then. But I was like, “Oh my God, super unit deployment. I love the bluffing element. I love how elegant this is.”
DTD: Oh yeah.
EML: And so, I was so inspired by that, of course. I was modifying that for years and years and years. And that’s all we played, forever. I never got into Risk or Axis and Allies. Like, at a young age. I always thought, “That’s boring.” I didn’t have the attention span for that.
EML: And ironically, I attribute a lot of the success I have in the industry to my short attention span.
DTD: I get it.
Shiny things continually disrupt my train of thought, which is definitely a local line with no express route.
EML: And I didn’t have the patience to do that. So I never, ever got… I never went down the historical wargaming path, or stuff like that. I was like, “No no no no. Give me my dopamine now.”
DTD: I kind of avoided them out of principle. I was always a pacifist, and I was raised by hippies.
EML: Oh sure, sure.
DTD: So, Axis and Allies just felt… weird.
EML: Well, and it is real, right?
DTD: That’s part of it, too.
Come to think of it, I have less issues with fantasy battles, or cyborg robot uprisings. Real war, even as a theme, just doesn’t sit right.
EML: That’s funny, yeah. Especially, I mean in Germany, like they’re not… It’s not that they’re not fans of it, but they’re like… It cuts a little to the quick.
DTD: Too close to home.
EML: Especially seeing as my grandparents, my grandfathers, both of them… They fought on the other side. As conscripts, but it doesn’t matter. They fought on the other side, and they carried that with them their whole life, right?
DTD: Oh yeah, yeah. I had a bunch of friends whose parents and grandparents were also in that boat. And I would talk to them about it, but it was uncomfortable. Because, like on my side… You know, my family history on my mother’s side ends right around 1944. There is nothing before that.
EML: Right. That’s right.
DTD: For some reason…
Dice Tower Dish! Light, fun, goofy dinnertime conversation!
EML: So, my dad grew up in Erfurt, Germany, right. Which is… And he was born, he was a kid during the bombings.
EML: So, I mean of course, I wasn’t ready to hear all that. Like, I mean, we talked about it a lot, but as an adult.
DTD: No, you’re never ready.
EML: When I hear about… He can vividly describe what it was like. And the thing with him, it wasn’t the bombings; the bombings were what they were. Of course, it was terrifying. But the thing that destroyed everybody then, was… Because they weren’t exactly bombing these now-east German, then East Germany… They were bombing the borders, right. And so, all of the Czechoslovakians at the time, they were fleeing the bombing, and they ended up… Most of the deaths there were from trampling. Right, because there were hundreds of thousands of people like diving into cities to escape the bombings.
DTD: Food was gone, and shelter was gone. And it’s humanity turning into animals.
EML: Yeah, blameless victim filled stuff. And that’s one of my.. And it’s funny, that’s… So much of the, like… Because I’m sure we’re going to get to a political section, right?
Eric has become one of the more vocal voices for diversity and morality in the boardgame industry. And as such, I think he assumes people will ask him about it. I knew this going into the interview, but I figured if he was tired of talking about that, we could talk about anything.
DTD: We can go wherever you want to go.
EML: So much of my political beliefs, which I believe inform a lot of what I do creatively, are informed by what my parents went through. Which is why I’m left, not liberal. And why I have a hard time listening to like, detached, rational… “Well, just listen to all sides of all this…”. Like, you didn’t live that s–t, right? That stuff, it’s nice… It doesn’t matter. Let’s… That was done, so…
DTD: I’ve read things that you’ve written about that. And I… I agree. And please don’t think I’m pandering or anything, but I think you write well about it. And it’s a detached, rational viewpoint on something that’s really hard to talk about.
EML: That is. And I even go as far as to be sometimes harmful. In the right context, right?
DTD: I know what you mean.
EML: We can’t, we can’t have a rational discussion about, like sexual abuse, with an abuse survivor, right? Like, the stakes are low to us, and they are infinite to them. Like, you can’t. That’s the kind of stuff that… And in gaming, like we… We, you and I, it’s funny. I mean, I’m not white, but I don’t… I was basically raised white. I mean, my parents are white, and all of my family is white. And I was raised in a city called Mississauga, right next to Toronto. Nobody in the states has heard of it, but it’s like 7-800,000 people now. It actually would be one of the top 20 cities in US. But it’s just a bedroom community, that just… all over the place.
Mississauga had a population of 717,961 in 2021, which ranks it at 18.5 in the US, right between Seattle and Denver. It is the 7th largest city in Canada. And no, I had never heard of it.
EML: But it was, it was just a naturally diverse area. All races were represented there. So, like to me, growing up “normal” was – everybody was different. But, it was also, it was also lower middle class, so there’s a little bit… So most people were moderate and apolitical, but also deeply Catholic. So a lot of the dark side of… Because I grew up in the 80’s, right? The 80’s were really bad.
DTD: They were.
EML: Really bad for certain minority groups. I got to experience a lot of that first hand. Like, you know, our pastor was a pedophile.
EML: It’s just one of those things, right. But the point is, I was basically raised as a middle class white kid.
I knew that going to eat with Eric had a strong possibility of getting intense. Eric does not pull his punches, and I do feel that difficult topics should be talked about. And I hope you do not take my childish joking as a dismissal of the seriousness of these topics. It is purely a defense mechanism, and a way for me (and hopefully others) to more easily digest what is being said. Come on back next time for more history, more games, both tabletop and video.