Absent parents leave children vacant.
Absent parents leave children vacant.
On weekends I run a D&D game for my son and a few of his friends. We use Zoom, ‘theater of the mind’ style (I’ll show them a dungeon map from time to time to orient them spatially). Last time out, the kids looted the treasure room of the Tomb of the Serpent Kings, finding enough gold and jewels to set them up for a long journey, along with a slew of odd magic items.
My view of D&D magic is this: ‘magic’ entails ‘mystery,’ so I’m not interested in a fully knowable, ‘rational’ system — only a (largely) learnable one. Banshees don’t follow the same ‘rules’ as the PCs, but tomorrow’s banshee should be recognizably the same Kind of Thing as today’s. I don’t care what level spells Gandalf has access to, only that he feels like Gandalf. This fantasy-logic extends to the magic items the kids found in the vault, taken from a handful of OSR blogs:
The kids lucked into killing a basilisk, and in a moment of desperation the bard decided to stick its eyes into his own eye-socket, which was conveniently vacant because he was wearing a magic eye-removing ring he’d earlier found. My quick ruling: replicates the basilisk’s gaze, but only as a one-off effect, and starts to decay pretty fast inside the skull. Gross, rewarding, and now he’s got the other eye in his hat, in case they get into another tight spot. I consider this a big win all around: the bard had a clever, gross idea, and the world got both more knowable/manageable and stranger.
My son, meanwhile, decided he wanted a basilisk-scale cloak. Took the scales to a leatherworker in Bernt Arse. Then robbed the trading post in Bernt Arse along with the thief and the bard. Now he wants to head back into the village to retrieve the cloak — but of course the village watch is looking for them. I don’t wanna hit them with the double whammy of near-death and a useless cloak…so I think the basilisk scales give some kind of light magical protection, but they’re really heavy, interfering with stealth. This means chucking out my original Theory of the Basilisk, but I’m happy to roll with this new ruling as long as it creates interesting choices for the crew.
One of the kids has been crowned Goblin King.
At the turn of the year I finally worked up the courage/energy to run a D&D game for my son and four (soon to be five) of his friends, all 10-11 years old, and we’ve been playing every Sunday since 3 January. I’ve wanted to run a game of old-school 80s D&D since the actual 80s, when it was the new school; normally the phrase ‘a dream come true’ is mere figure of speech, but here it’s literally true.
We’re using the Basic/Expert rules from 1981, in the form of the ‘retroclone’ Old-School Essentials.
I gave them randomly rolled-up 1st-level characters, they concocted a ‘We meet at a tavern’ scenario (the bard was performing, the elves were passing through, the thief was drinking her sorrows away with her small but vicious dog, the cleric was outside talking to his pet rock Josh), and we were off to the Tomb of the Serpent Kings.
Prior to our game, two in the group had no D&D experience but had played Skyrim or World of Warcraft, one (soon two) played a lot of 5e at Pandemonium in Central Square, and two had a couple sessions of table time under their belts.
I won’t run through the campaign in detail — perhaps another time — but I do want to share a couple of observations, by no means original.
I’m loving this game, and while the prep makes me mildly anxious — what if I fail, and ruin my beloved son’s life? — and the play is totally exhausting, it’s been a highlight of my week, every week.
There will be more to say when there’s time to say it.
I remember I liked to [read] more than Amy did. I remember Amy liked to draw and play with things, and partially play with the phones. And I would much prefer being by myself with a book. And that Mom and Dad were basically, “Oh cool, look: David and Amy are different.” They were really ’60s parents, and I don’t think — there was if anything a conscious attempt to not give overt direction. Although of course you end up becoming yourself. (DFW)
You come out clearer than before, hopefully. Not ‘better’ though maybe better suited, so to speak. To the world, the World, and its difficulties. Hopefully the dog makes it as well.
I’m allergic to dogs and grew up with two of them, suffering the entire time from cough and watery eyes and runny/stuffed nose, just misery. My memory of childhood is that I was sick all the time though it can’t have been true, can it, because my memory of childhood is also that I was playing in the woods all the time.
When my son had his first asthma exacerbations I would cry hysterically without quite understanding why, and then the first time we took him to Children’s Hospital and he got his albuterol nebulizer I remembered, suddenly, that in addition to the inhaler I took in high school when exercising, as a kid I’d needed that same mask and medicine. Sitting alone in my room during, what, a party? for ten minutes or twenty with a mask over my face and warm mist condensing and dripping down the plastic tubing. Nothing to do but watch the drip and listen to the pump and smell the medicinal steam and think about lung-death.
I’d like to say that in the exam room at the Children’s Hospital ER I understood something about myself as a parent or my son as a kid or, indeed, anything about people at all but I probably didn’t — and even if I did, I’d only like to say it because that’s the sort of thing a Writer likes to Say in a personal Essay.
What I’d like not to say is that I yell at him more than I used to. But I do.
The Fool isn’t innocent before or after.
I had certain false impressions about this project.
I wouldn’t say the goal of the Fool’s Errand is ‘worldliness,’ though that’d be cute wouldn’t it. On account of The World being the literal destination of the procession of major arcana. I’d even settle for ‘otherworldliness,’ on account of I think I’m clever. Here look, I’ll throw in a quote to demonstrate:
‘Clever dick! Clever dick! Makes me sick…’ (DP)
Picture children taunting a child in the woods. Of course he ends up becoming a writer.
There’s no ‘destination’ either, except death, which symbolically is close to the middle. We’re permitted to take this to mean that it’s not such a big deal. Symbolically anyway.
You die from having too little of something, not too much. What. What’s the thing you run out of. This is an easy one. So how do you make more of it. How do you give more. What a blessing it’d be to receive more.
The Fool isn’t trying to return to innocence because he was never there. He’s in the middle of a curve. Walks around, feeds the dog, meets the boss, dies inside, gets a bit of sun. Although of course he ends up right back who he started.
MAL: Wheel never stops turning, Badger.
BADGER: That only matters to the people on the rim.
If the thunder don’t get you then… Mal gets it. Badger too, in his own little world.
One measures a life, starting anywhere.
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?
There’s just the one story, or so I am told: what you learn and what you fail to learn.
That doesn’t sound quite right, does it? ‘Learning and failing to learn’ shifts the emphasis from what’s in the sack to the adventure that brought you to it, though on the other hand nobody likes a gerund, am I right?
Every time my son needed a nebulizer I’d despair. The form of that despair was: this will happen again and again, it’ll never end, he’s cursed. We’re on a line and paradoxically we’ll keep coming back here (to suffering, to guilt, to the Emergency Room at Children’s Hospital) yet also we’ll never have the chance to do over again. The die is cast, we travel on a straight line. Idiot recurrence (‘foolishness’), powerless.
Meanwhile I didn’t myself need a nebulizer anymore. Hadn’t in years. Holding my son, listening to his laboured breathing clear up slowly, thinking: I change but everything else stays the same. Everything changes but I stay the same.
And I’d simply forgotten — failed to notice, remember, learn — that I’d needed it, so I couldn’t recognize that I was free of it. What I’d learned (internalized, somaticized) was: what’s sick in you will never be well, what’s fallen can never rise. Nothing ever fits.
If you sever the corpus callosum you might make two selves. (Or not, it’s only metaphysics, who gives a shit.)
The saddest part is, they’ll share a body but will never know each other.
Maybe despair is to be sundered from the world, divided against yourself, and its opposite is ‘more life.’
Whenever I wear a mask for a stretch I get a sore throat, raspy voice, a cough. Plaguetime. The mask protects me from one invisible death. My son pulls his mask off, wants to breathe clean air. I lose my temper and forget holding him while medicinal steam opened his lungs and kept him alive under dimmed lights in the exam room at night. I forget that the obstetric nurses had heard me whisper to my newborn son ‘You’re a beauty,’ the first words I spoke to him in quiet, just the two of us for a moment on the way to his first bath, and in a cooing simpering voice one of the nurses said ‘I think someone’s in love’ and anger flared in me and I hated her. Fucking idiot. Fuck you. You stupid piece of shit. Keep your idiocy to yourself. Don’t you understand that this is the blessing. Don’t say inane things when God is here. Of course this is love don’t you understand. It’s bigger than you and your stupid fucking simpering greeting card dipshit voice. I hate you. Why are you here when God is here. Why are you talking in this world we’re trying to make. Do you think your stupid joke matters more than me whispering to my boy. Are you surprised, bored, are you trying to lighten some heavy moment or share a professional moment with your coworker or what is the matter with you. I’m talking to my boy. I’ve heard him breathe and cry and he’s hearing my voice, this is the voice he’s going to hear inside him for the rest of his life at moments of pain or fear or when he abuses himself for unpreventable failures and I need to just talk quietly to him and be here inside a little world that someday I’ll ruin and be unable to make safe for him and I won’t always be here. I just want to tell him he’s a beauty. I want only to whisper and never to vent these feelings or to be ugly for him or to yell and scream or to endanger this perfect feeling in him. I want him to breathe easy. I wanna breathe easy. I shouldn’t ever yell. All of me is trying to be love, let me stay just here.
It was only a second, a fraction of a thought, but I wanted her away.
In the delivery room at midmorning I’d had a vision that every woman who’d ever lived was in the room with me and I felt surrounded and peaceful despite the hour and strain. 10,000 years and more. Billions of souls stretching away into time.
I don’t ‘believe in God’ but there we were. In that room all together past and present and future. Fool.
There’s a plague and he pulls his mask off and I lose my faith and forget, and instead of raising him I raise my voice. The voice he’ll hear forever.
Is this too ugly a thing to say.
Ugly I feel.
Wanting suddenly, sharply, to be other than as I am.
Maybe I’ll go for a walk. You are standing in a field west of a white house. Look over there, a cliff. Here boy. See what we see and mind your step.
Come back soon, we’ll be waiting. We love you.
I love you.
At last they rode over the downs and took the East Road, and then Merry and Pippin rode on to Buckland; and already they were singing again as they went. But Sam turned to Bywater, and so came back up the Hill as day was ending once more. And he went on, and there was yellow light, and fire within; and the evening meal was ready, and he was expected. And Rose drew him in, and set him in his chair, and put little Elanor upon his lap.
He drew a deep breath. ‘Well, I’m back,’ he said.
No not the ‘Last,’ though it does tend to look that way, doesn’t it, and so to feel that way. What if it were? Be glad it’s not.
A couple of years back my father and I worked together on his memoir — we did a good job, please buy a copy. I can’t recommend that kind of familial collaboration strongly enough, both as a form of reciprocal service and to complicate and deepen your relationship to the imaginative elements of your own past. My dad now makes some sense to me as an ordinary man, rather than a fixed star or firmament or feature of landscape. That sense is of course provisional, personal — secondhand — but Dad and I got to some surprising places in our conversations, and aspects of his personality that never made sense to me when I was a boy (or young man) came into focus as we wrote. It was the most important writing I’ve ever done, both in terms of craft — being totally unable to rely on my own written voice — and for obvious emotional reasons…
The most surprising thing about the writing, for me, was and is Dad’s deep gratitude — over and over throughout our work, even when he was frustrated and rushed and annoyed by my various fuckeries, Dad would express a feeling of contentment and clear-eyed recognition. Telling his stories helped make sense of them for him as well, I think, but more than that, it threw a little light on the way they’ve made him. And Dad likes being Dad; his relationship to his past is as complex as yours — perhaps moreso, as he has more of it than you do — but he’s managed a degree of integration and settlement, partly because he had simple consistent goals in his life and he’s actually attained them.
As you come to the end of a project, it makes sense to want to understand what it’s meant and can mean.
My father has had a life and knows it. Telling his stories has been an opportunity to encounter it as a life, a whole (not always coherent), and to share that encounter and understanding with me and my brother and with whoever else might read the book. I believe he understands this story-process the way he understood fatherhood: giving of his life; giving life.
Dad constantly expresses his gratitude to the whole universe — I’m reminded here of Oscar Ichazo — and seems genuinely to believe it has discharged its responsibility to give him things. He was never an acquisitive man, but now he seems to see himself as a store of feelings to be shared.
One way of living passes, a life passes; you make what you can of it, and do something useful with what you make when the next life — the next world — begins.
Spoiler: ‘Heaven’ in our schema will prove to have been the World all along; we’ll be invited to remain, but not required, and the way will be made difficult.
Who the hell wants to get old? Slower, settled, yes of course — but who looks forward to diminishment? I mean these questions sincerely; it’s always been unimaginable to me, and remains so.
I don’t think Dad thinks of it as any great shakes — and I know he abhors the company of old people who’ve resigned themselves to lifeless dependency — but he’s learned to live with being in his 80s. His world is different because he’s different, and so it’s made sense for him to settle into a different way of being-in-his-world. What he knows that I can’t yet is that you get to that age, if you do, and by then you’ve stopped wondering if you could be other than as you are. (Spoiler: no.)
Actually I could know that now, if I wanted; it’s true at any age after all. If I wanted more than I wanted not to… That is to say, I could correctly understand my place in the world if I didn’t cling so tightly to a more palatably painful incorrect understanding instead. But then, that opportunity to know is one of the things that this life offers you; and addiction to falsehood is one of the things that you can’t take with you to the next world, the next life. Which starts tomorrow maybe.
The Waite-Smith Judgment card has a baby with its back turned and a small host of people in the background — the future is unknowable, this is a collective transformation, etc. — but I’ve never been able to care. The dead are rising! So what. Waite sez it
registers the accomplishment of the great work of transformation in answer to the summons of the Supernal–which summons is heard and answered from within
which does sound lovely but it’s good to avoid the edge of self-satisfaction that’s bared: the Errand isn’t final and the accomplishment, the great work, is authentic immersion not attainment or acquisition. Actually living while you can — not how it feels or what it means. It has to be its own reward.
The good news, which Dad has found ways to testify to, is this (his words):
Lately I feel like I live in two worlds: the reality of getting older, little by little — and then, everywhere I look, such beauty.
At times our writing process was tortuous; I let Dad down and avoided the work for a long time, and when I finally applied myself in earnest we would argue, misunderstand each other… My delays and excuses put an unnecessary strain on him, and I regret not taking up the work in all seriousness without the dumb hand-wringing. But while the work concentrated and intensified the difficulties in our relationship, it also brought us past (some of) them. Really seeing him was such a relief. As he became for me the autonomous human being he always has been, as he took on the characteristics of an ordinary man instead of a mountain, I was able to put down some burdens I had been carrying in the name of my own ideas (of him, of us). Understanding the opportunity the work presented was itself an act of — wait for it — adult judgment; reflecting on it now, seeing some of the process for some of the things it was, is a similar sort of act.
After the end of a project, it makes sense to want to understand what it’s meant and can mean. But the past is past, that’s why they call it that. What matters now (I think) is what Dad and I are for one another. Father and son, grandfather and father. And two guys. That wasn’t simply a happy realization, getting there; relief gives pleasure but it isn’t pleasure per se.1 An opportunity, rather. Seeing things at their utmost, all ugliness and beauty. Feeling death’s nearness and listening to a bird. Singing back while there’s time.
One of the project managers at our company sent around something called a ‘five whys’ postmortem: asking five levels of ‘why’ about a given project outcome until you discover a faulty process. It’s jarble, sure, but underneath the usual obfuscatory management-speak (managers must pretend that the ultimate cause of all they do is something other than Money; hence obfuscation) is a useful insight. It’s often that way.
The reason things are fucked, the reason you’re reborn into samsara, the reason you went back to her or missed the appointment or lost the game (even the Great Game), is that you are doing something that you need to stop. ‘But I’m not doing anything.’ Yes, that’s certainly an addictive bad fiction. Not doing is doing, have we learned nothing from Neil Peart in all these years? ‘Not doing’ is a trick of perspective; the alternative to setting out on the Fool’s Errand isn’t inactivity, it’s activity in Error. Complicity and avoidance and hidden cost.
And all increasingly frantic, if my own experience is any guide.
The Fool’s Errand is a cycle; Judgment isn’t final. It’s a ‘why’ but there are more, deeper, out past the past.
This week Dad needed help getting ESPN+ set up on his iPad so he could watch the Premier League. You’re happy ‘unbundling’ your sports programming from your cable TV, a strike ‘against’ (by which I mean for) capitalism, and Dad’s 86 years old and having a hard time getting his head around the multiple devices now required for this favourite daily pastime. Old age means taking fewer things for granted. Again: not solely a benefit. Your mind can only do so much, can only submit so often to the universe’s judgment. Death is near and so forth but it’s also nice to chill out a bit. A break from why.
Heaven will prove to’ve been The World all along: a sane relationship to Things As They Are, which we’ll fall in and out of as things get cyclically unfucked/fucked. The ascent to Heaven, meanwhile, which not at all coincidentally feels a whole lot like the descent/ascent/transformation to Hell, is a Call for Judgment. Painful reckoning. Reconciling knowledge gained in deep nighttime transit (transformation; transubstantiation?) with things seen clearly in boring good-guy daylight.
I’ve been having a hard time writing about the ‘cosmic’ trumps, have you noticed? I certainly have. I initially conceive of these essays as being complicated but coherent, and they end up simple and incoherent and — as in today’s installment — a specific sort of personal that feels misjudged but unavoidable. I’m trying not to think consciously about writing these essays as a kind of Errand, or as a record of such, but it’s difficult to avoid that frame; after all, I wrote the first several installments in 2011, when my son was just a year old (I was a stay-at-home dad in those days) and I’d written two books but not yet one worth sharing.
You remain involved in the process of becoming-yourself. Or ‘selves’ plural, if we take our own implications seriously.
Heaven will prove to be free of — excuse me, freedom from — false distinctions.
Achieving the appropriate simplicity and openness proves challenging, elusive; the Errand will prove to’ve been a helix, maybe, X- and Y-values cycling repeating repeating sinusoidally while we make slow transit of the Z-axis, not spiraling, not simply in a circle, not without Error, but up through whatever’s up there into whatever’s in there.
I’m grateful today and want to share that with you, Reader(s). We keep doing this.
I saw Spirited Away (the English translation/adaptation) last night with my wife and son, and was reminded that this magnificent film would never, ever be made in the United States today — none of our animation studios, not even Pixar at its best, would trust children as Miyazaki does with scenes of such quiet contemplation, dream-logic, languor.
I’m reminded, actually, of Brown/Hurd’s Goodnight Moon: Margaret Wise Brown was both an acolyte of Gertrude Stein and part of the Bank Street Writers Lab, whose members emphasized the concrete details and intuitive surrealism of children’s own imaginative fancies, interviewing young children and mimicking their storytelling rhythms. (‘Goodnight noises everywhere’ is one of the great final lines in our literature.) Spirited Away gives me the same feeling of melancholy dissolution as Goodnight Moon, of drifting down into an inexpressibly vast strange universe, and celebrates the same virtue, the courage needed to face the world and speak the names of things.
Spirited Away is so full of visual invention that a complicated story would render it unwatchable. As it is, after the concise opening movement, there’s very little discrete incident in the entire film: the boiler room, the contract, No-Face’s arrival, the stink spirit, Haku wounded/Zeniba’s debt named, No-Face calmed, and then the extraordinary train journey to Zeniba’s home in the swamp — the last sequence with no obvious parallel in American animation, gorgeous and sad without being about sadness, if that makes sense. After that, naming the pigs is a brief formality — of course Chihiro can do it, the animals have gathered for a celebration not an execution — and what remains is the walk home, a final release of breath. Spirited Away is more than two hours long(!!), but I can easily imagine an American animation studio cramming its action into 90 minutes, complete with 3-D dragon ride around the bath house and more pratfalls from the sidekicks…
I first saw Spirited Away in 2002 when it made the arthouse rounds in the USA, and in all that time certain images have never left me: Kamaji working the boiler, Haku terrorized by the paper spirits, Yubaba wrapping herself in a shawl and flying away. But I’ve always treasured Chihiro’s train ride. I want to say it’s not like anything else I’ve seen, but the opposite is true; it’s like dozens of other sequences I’ve seen, almost exclusively in foreign pictures and ‘art movies,’ which invite the audience to watch the characters watch and wait,to take a long moment to see not what they see but as they do, not pedantically in terms of POV but in their time, so to speak — waiting as they wait, bored or curious as they are.
The train ride lasts three minutes, an eternity in children’s films. Chihiro’s companions fall asleep, No-Face bows its head and rests, and Chihiro simply looks out the window with an expression we haven’t seen before, seeming (to me) tired, resolved, resigned, fully present — I believe this is the moment when the fullness of her family’s outer-world (real-world) transformation, the frightening move to the new house and school, has finally settled in. By choosing to travel out, to assume responsibility for Haku’s theft of the seal, she has become…well, not an adult, that wouldn’t be fair, would it? But she’s transformed all the same. Not knowing what comes next, she changes because she has to. The train ride might be the end of her story, which is a hell of a thing for a children’s movie to dramatize: death as resignation and loss and the final turn of the page rather than glorious climax.1 And to do so wordlessly, as other worlds and stories drift by uncommented-upon, not for spectacle’s sake but because even in the third act of a film that’s just how long train rides (and nighttime soul-transformations) are, and the world is more important than any story we might tell about it…
This, I think, is the bravery that Spirited Away shares with Goodnight Moon, or rather that Miyazaki shares with Margaret Wise Brown. For kids (as I understand things), the world is full of stories, yet it isn’t itself a story — hasn’t yet been instrumentalized. Kids’ worlds are bigger than they are (not least because literally), bigger and stranger and terribly older, impossible to understand and so easier in a way simply to accept. In my experience kids deal with the world more sanely than adults in that specific sense, accepting that the world is a world. Which is why their own stories can at times be absurdly boring, their fantasies so repetitive: the world is enough for kids. The stories they find in the world are enough, and so are the trees, the uncapped pens, full and empty plastic bags, loud sounds, snatches of song, dogs playing, grandmothers, water and its coolness, its way of sneaking into every space… The visual richness of Spirited Away paradoxically serves the same end as the stark simplicity of Clement Hurd’s Goodnight Moon illustrations (and Margaret Wise Brown’s poetry): to see and show a world as it is, merely inescapably real — whether it contains a telephone and a little toy house and a painting of bears, or a flying river spirit and three friendly rolling heads and an eight-legged boiler-room demon.
Their animating principle is honesty; wonder and whimsy and whatever else follow from having resolved to see a child’s world on its own terms. Most kids’ stories (and ‘adult’ stories, now) can’t help but anxiously hang lampshades on their own fabulations, which right away dates them — you can place a story in spacetime by what it’s embarrassed about. But to depict a country of the imagination without embarrassment or self-consciousness, to see even imaginary things as they are, is to create something ‘timeless.’ We use other terms for this quality as well: ‘mythic,’ ‘sacred,’ though honestly I prefer ‘wise.’ Timeless children’s work goes beyond dated, socially contingent ideas of innocence and appropriateness, and discovers that the common element between children Then and Now, Here at home and unimaginably far Away, is the world itself.
Which is to say all great art explores the absolutely specific in order to discover the universal, but you already knew that, right?
If you haven’t seen Spirited Away, you should, you must. It’s beautiful because it’s true and vice versa, which I take to be a straightforward observation about the world rather than empty cliché, and by way of justification I submit the rest of this blogpost and the entire history of art and (why not?) the universe, amen.
My son has gotten really into playing with his 2x2x2 and 3x3x3 Rubik’s Cubes — though I’ll note that they’re not strictly Rubik’s, but rather third-party cubes designed for speed-solving. They are in every respect better, I think, than the Rubik-branded cubes, and no more expensive.
My son’s six years old. He can now solve one face more quickly than I can, though he’s not yet pushing ahead to the next level of the problem, i.e. he doesn’t yet have an orderly approach to solving and isn’t interested in solving (e.g.) a ‘layer’ instead of a face. I’m interested but disorderly, though I’m a bit further along cubewise than he is. Still, I didn’t dive into trying to figure the Cube out for myself until I’d spent some time looking at algorithms — which isn’t ‘cheating’ if you’re interested in the Cube as magic rather than as party trick —
Speed-solvers look at the cube, figure out which series of steps to implement given the pattern of colours they see, then rapidly execute a kind of ‘macro’ from memory. It’s nothing like what you or I would do; the ‘solving’ part of the term ‘speed-solving’ refers to a kind of mastery of self rather than of the mathematical puzzle of the cube. Turns out I have no interest in that — the mystery of it, the sense of enormous complexity undone stepwise by brainpower, is what draws me.
So anyway I can’t solve a Rubik’s Cube without instructions and neither can my son, not yet, and I’ve determined empirically that following a strategy guide to solve the Cube is boring after the first or second time.
For those of you interested in getting better at solving a Rubik’s Cube but uninterested in the (to me) somewhat narrow task of ‘speed-solving,’ I recommend Douglas Hofstadter’s Scientific American columns on Rubik’s Cube, reprinted in his superb collection Metamagical Themas. (Link goes to full text at archive.org.) They’re light on low-level strategy but long on inspiration and analytical cleverness — fans of Hofstadter’s singular body of work already know what I mean, those new to his writing have a treat in store.
Much simpler than Magic, but for players who aren’t already TCG/LCG experts — especially kids — there’s enough tactical business to make for a satisfying experience. The biggest flaw in the game might be its presentation: the prebuilt ‘theme decks’ are essentially useless. I’m offended, frankly, by the difference between casual ‘just got a theme deck for my birthday, let’s see what this game is’ play and actual Pokémon-as-she-is-spoke. Decks are divided into Pokémon (cute monsters that attack and take damage), Supporters (which modify attacks, allow extra card draws and actions, etc.), and energy (which you attach to Pokémon in order to attack); the theme decks include tons of Pokémon because that’s what little kids like, and very few functional but uninspiring Supporter cards. As a result, beginners end up sitting there waiting for the right cards to pop up in the deck. Meanwhile, advanced players will have loaded their decks with draw/shuffle cards to ‘accelerate’ play, without which strategy isn’t actually possible.
Even my son, at five years old, picked up on the overimportance of luck in theme-deck-only play — but once I bought a few hundred random cards online, including lots of Supporter cards, we felt like we were playing a proper game, and both strategic (deckbuilding) and tactical choices began to matter.
If your five- or six-year-old reads well (lots of technical jargon on the cards) and likes the silly characters, this is a perfect starter card game; if nothing else, it’s fun to collect the stupid little Pokémon themselves, as the popularity of the Pokémon Go ‘game’ demonstrates. Be prepared to do some shuffling for your kid, and consider spending $4 on some sleeves to extend the life of the cards. Unlike Magic, you won’t still play this one in ten years, though plenty of kids certainly will.
Exactly what it says on the tin: a subtly re-themed version of Settlers with essentially no strategic choices.
So what’s left? A couple of paths to victory pretty dependent on luck, lots of social interaction during play, and that ol’ familiar feeling of mounting excitement as your settlements generate wealth. Oh, and no reading! Not a factor for my son but kids who aren’t yet comfortable reading will appreciate the design.
Is it a good game for kids? Well, look again at the changes Teuber made to his basic design: changes to setup mean you can’t essentially lose before the dice start rolling as you might in Settlers; no stealing and close-together Lairs means fewer hard feelings, and the clever ports-only trading setup smooths out the social dynamics at the table. Luck plays a big part as in the original game, but the Junior rules mitigate its most frustrating effects. It’s a thoughtful and intentional kids’ design.
If you love Settlers, you’ll get a kick out of this miniature variant edition. Our son (age six) enjoyed our initial play. This is a lightweight German game aimed at kids, much less demanding than Settlers and nowhere near as satisfying, but it does what it sets out to do — and it really does seem to be a perfect introduction to Teuber’s canonical original game. In fact, it made me want to play Settlers right away.
Honestly, I recommend Carcassonne over Catan Junior for kids who’ve played a couple of games beyond Candyland (which, for all its miserable determinism, is still a superb teaching tool). No reading in this classic game either. And best of all, the only subtle strategic decision — whether and when to join the ‘farmstakes’ — can simply be taken out in favour of a dead simple introductory game that more heavily weights randomness: just do cities, roads, and cloisters, and don’t bother with farms. Easy sneezy. The only remaining planning elements, then, are:
Attention spans matter, of course; my son can’t be bothered to attend to the difference between finished and unfinished cities in terms of endgame scoring, and plays tactically rather than strategically (we use the full rules). But tile and meeple placement are addictive and easy to understand, so you can play Carcassonne as a super-casual kids’ game with almost no strategic decision-making if you like.
The expansions are not equally fun. I’ve only played two with my son:
Inns & Cathedrals is to the original as Dominion: Intrigue is to Dominion: a subtler, more powerful version of the base game. An essential expansion, though the big meeples will take a little explaining. The Princess & the Dragon, on the other hand, is more like the Possession card in Dominion: Alchemy, adding a strategy-wrecking element (the dragon, which eats meeples) and making the game more cutthroat. My son loves it, but it makes the game…nuttier, and if the dragon ends up eating the wrong meeple, you risk tears. The River isn’t terribly exciting (we haven’t bothered with it) but it takes nothing away and essentially divides the ‘farm stakes’ into — pardon the metaphor — wholly separate Westeros and Essos games.
I used to like Carcassonne a lot — it’s a fun, relatively light game suitable for non-gamers — but with my son joining in, I’ve come to love it. We’ve got a couple more expansions (The Count, The Tower) that I look forward to revisiting. My son doesn’t yet grasp the various strategic angles, but that’s mostly a matter of him sitting still and paying attention — in terms of cognitive load, the full Carcassonne experience seems readily available to a bright six-year-old.
At this point, my son has played the following tabletop games (in addition to Candyland-style trivial games and some young kids’ games I can’t remember the names of):
We’ve played King of NYC, Munchkin Treasure Hunt, and X-Wing most, and unsurprisingly he’s best at those. MTH has no real strategy to it — it’s meant as a gateway to the not-terribly-deep Munchkin card game — and while it’s a good deal more involved than Candyland (which isn’t a game, strictly speaking), its only real demand on kids is basic arithmetic. An easy recommendation for step two in board-game education. King of NYC is a more involved game that my son seems to have a firm grasp on; he doesn’t play optimally, but his main failing at King is his stubborn refusal to leave Manhattan, which I totally understand. Anyhow, I assume most young kids will wanna be boss monster too…
(King of Tokyo is a simpler game even better suited to kids’ play — indeed I recommend it for families looking to move on to lightweight German-style games — but my wife, son, and I all enjoy NYC more.)
X-Wing is a really great minis combat game, but too complex in its complete form (i.e. including ships and cards beyond the Core Set) for five-year-olds. My son and I have been playing it for months, but I have to help him manage his upgrade cards and special abilities, which are the heart of the expanded game. That said, my son can now plan his moves a turn ahead, which is thrilling to see — I’m proud that he regularly beats me, and no I don’t always give him a squad-points handicap either. This fits well with my first impression of the game: flying awesome spaceships is X-Wing‘s immediate attraction, and the easiest part for little kids to grasp.
Anyhow, the upshot here is that parents looking for interesting games to play with their kids have a wealth of good options today, and I’m really enjoying raising my son to be not only an adventurer, artist, writer, athlete, sage, badass, scientist, engineer, pirate, destroyer of worlds, trustworthy friend, cool easygoing brilliant robot-making dweeb…but also a proper gamer.
My wife had only seen Empire once, my son had only seen A New Hope (once). I’ve seen them a hundred times. OK, press play.
They loved it. You forget what a visually striking film it is — the colours are dazzling, ‘painterly,’ Hoth bleached white crosshatched with livid red and green lasers, Bespin startling sunset orange, Dagobah an organic riot despite being shot in a studio. The fight in the freezing chamber is shot half in silhouette. And that final tableau…
Great film. A peculiar one as well. The middlest of middle chapters, ‘unsatisfying’ in theory but exhilarating and unsettling in practice. Two hours of unremitting tension and trouble (40ish minutes of nonstop movement to begin), culminating in about three minutes of ‘relief’ as the heroes, hanging around in a hospital, vow to fix things. Best dialogue in the series, best direction, richest material design. Contrarians are, in this case, merely wrong — Empire is straightforwardly the best thing about Star Wars.
My son’s reaction was interesting. He made me turn off the sound at two points: hand-removal and ‘Noooo!’ Turns out he has a really hard time watching film of grownups in terrible pain and confusion. (During Finding Dory he went to pieces when Dory spied her mom crying, right before she got lost.)
When we say kids have a hard time separating reality and fantasy in film, that’s partly (mostly?) because we do a poor job explaining what ‘acting’ and ‘filming’ and ‘special effects’ are — there’s so much we adults take for granted in film, never mind the up-down curve of a narrative… How would a kid figure out what a cartoon is, without being carefully told? It moves, it speaks. It feels pain.
Now we’re ready for Return of the Jedi, which he’ll love and I’ll have mixed feelings about. If my son wants to watch the prequels, we will, but I won’t push them. They’re a bit much.
After 10ish plays, the X-Wing Miniatures Game goes from strength to strength. It’s easy to pick up, strategically deep, and tactically engrossing (there’s always something interesting to do, and no downtime) — better yet, there’s a vibrant community online and in person, and no shortage of interesting ‘metagame’ concerns, i.e. what the other nerds are flying these days, to occupy you when you’re not at the table. My son loves it, I love it.
It feels like the perfect starter miniatures wargame.
Read my earlier post so I don’t have to repeat the basics.
On the shelf, it looks like a dogfighting game, and it is; with most lists in a balanced game, you can’t win if you don’t fly skillfully. But it’s also a modern tabletop game played on a 3’x3′ area of your dinner table and aimed at kids raised on Pokémon — which means movement can only make so much difference, expert play is about synergy between ships and upgrades most of all, and building the right list for your playstyle (or adapting the latter to the former) makes all the difference to your chances.
There are three factions: the Rebels, the Empire, and ‘Scum & Villainy’ (bounty hunters, smugglers, ne’er-do-wells of every stripe from the Expanded Universe and games). If you’re just dipping your toes into the game and wanna go beyond the Core Set, buy a small number of Rebel/Imperial ships and leave the smaller, less immediately recognizable Scum faction to the hardcore.
The Core Sets include an X-Wing and two TIE Fighters, which is a pretty even match; there are subtle differences between the original box and and the Force Awakens box. If you’re thinking of trying the game, grab the TFA box, which runs $25ish on Amazon ($40 in stores) and gives you three useful ships, up-to-date rules, and damage cards; the original box includes Luke’s T-65 X-Wing, which doesn’t see much action in organized play — but then c’mon, it’s Luke Skywalker for heaven’s sake! You’ll do well either way.
If you want to move on from the Core Set, buy a second box — if you have the TFA box, grab the original, and vice versa. (Though goofy, this is standard advice for new players.) Here’s why: you’ll need more dice than a single box contains, and the Core Set is an extraordinary value for the money. Plus you’ll be able to fly a swarm of four TIE Fighters against Poe and Luke. If you like Star Wars, that should set your heart racing.
My son generally flies Rebels. We’ve bought a couple more ships this week, and now have the super-maneuverable but lightweight A-Wing, a wonderfully robust B-Wing (both from the Rebel Aces set), an E-Wing (the maneuverability of an A-Wing on an X-Wing-like frame), a sturdy reliable Y-Wing, and of course Han Solo’s YT-1300. The latter two fly differently from the other dogfighting ships: both feature turrets which fire in a 360-degree arc, which makes life much easier on a young pilot. I’ve decided that the Falcon is an ideal ship for kids, because while it’s not very agile (i.e. it’s bad at avoiding damage through defensive dice rolls), it can take a pounding and keep flying, and it can be flown right through the middle of the battle without too much fancy stickwork. The Y-Wing takes more thought to fly skillfully.
I think our Rebel ships are a little more forgiving for young kids than the Imperials — low agility (defense dice) but high shields (hit points) makes for an exciting health countdown but decent survivability.
I’m usually playing the highly maneuverable but generally more fragile Imperial fighters. In addition to the Imperial Aces set (two wickedly fast, fragile TIE Interceptors), four TIE Fighters (Poe was right: they really move, and a swarm of TIEs is a magnificent sight on the table, but a single well-timed shot can turn them into dust), and Boba Fett’s surprisingly fleet large ship Slave-1, we’ve picked up the TIE Advanced package, which gives you Darth Vader, who gets two actions per turn and is in theory an absolute terror. Only ‘in theory,’ though, because The TIE Advanced is considered ‘broken’ without the point-cost fixes included in the $100 Imperial Raider set — we’re not obsessives, so for casual play just implement the fix yourself without buying the damn cards. What’s the point of a Star Wars game without its iconic villain, after all?
If you’re just starting out, buy the ships you like and don’t worry about what’s competitive! That stuff only matters if you’re heading out to the local game store for a tournament or open play night.
The Core Set(s), the Falcon, a Y-Wing or B-Wing, and a couple of TIE variants (e.g. the Imperial Aces set) will make for a good time and give you a variety of choices to make on each side. Large ships handle differently from small ones, but the mechanics of maneuver-template placement are the same — it’s an easy jump, even for kids, who’ll likely prefer the big ships anyway. I’d stay away from the TIE Phantom at first, especially if you’re playing with kids; its cloaking device will frustrate young players and adds a decent amount of mental overhead for whoever’s flying.
Don’t bother with huge ships (the Blockade Runner, the Rebel Transport from Empire Strikes Back) unless you’re an obsessive collector; they hardly see organized store play, add a bunch of additional rules, and really want an extra-large table space anyhow.
If you know you’re going to compete, there are plenty of ‘What to Buy First/Next’ guides online — ‘Bell of Lost Souls’ and ‘Team Covenant’ are good strategy sites (here’s an example of a deep dive on list-building from TC), and there’s a very helpful Reddit guide on this score. But so’s you know, diving in for competitive play means buying something on the order of $150-200 worth of expansions just to get the Ideal Mix of Pilots and Upgrades; some of the most desirable upgrades, for instance, come with Scum ships, and even if you’re not flying a Scum list you’ll end up buying one or more of several ships you won’t end up flying.
This is a very expensive game for hardcore players.
For everyone else, I recommend doing what my son and I did: buy what looks cool and don’t try to optimize for competitive advantage. Maybe grab the Aces expansions, which are good values at two ships apiece, and/or a large ship on each side. (The VT-49 Decimator is an Imperial answer to the Falcon, with no defense dice — it can’t dodge hits without help from the cards — and huge hit points. But it’s less iconic than Slave-1, so maybe less fun in that sense.) Stay away from the Lambda-Class Shuttle at first; it’s a utility vehicle rather than a primary attack ship, and calls for a subtler approach than run’n’gun Imperial ships.
If you’re like me, eventually you’ll want duplicates. (I haven’t yet succumbed.) Swarms of A-Wings in tight formation, a trio of B-Wings looping through enemy airspace, Luke/Wedge/Biggs/Porkins bearing down on a flight of TIE Fighters…if those words don’t give you a tingle than you and I were brought up differently. In terms of point costs (not dollar value), Z-95 Headhunters and A-Wings make for cheap swarms, and six or seven TIE Fighters are still dangerous (chewing up opponent actions with a hail of concentrated attacks), while you wouldn’t field more than a couple of TIE Interceptors at a time. Don’t start buying duplicates until you’ve gotten good use out of your Core Set(s), though.
The term ‘action economy’ comes up often in nerdy game chatter. Broadly, it refers to the dynamics of player actions per turn. The Tutorial rules for X-Wing only involve moving and shooting — but once you’re into the full game, and especially once you start piling up upgrade cards, action economy is everything.
(Historical note: the most popular and influential example of this style of game design is Magic: The Gathering, with its dead-simple basic mechanics and synergizing cards which break a rule or two apiece, but the crazy grandpa of M:TG is Cosmic Encounter, a highly social strategy game and one of the greatest entertainments known to our species. If you’ve never played Cosmic with three or four friends and several bottles of wine, you owe it to yourself to seek out that experience.)
In X-Wing, each ship gets one maneuver, one action, and one shot per turn as a default. Because a ship’s combat effectiveness doesn’t diminish as it takes damage, this means you’ll always concentrate fire on individual targets when possible; it’s much better to aim four guns at one target and take it off the board, reducing the enemy’s ability to return fire, than to spread damage out over four targets and still take four shots on the next go-round. Moreover, say you’re in a 3-on-3 match, and you point all your blasters at one enemy ship: unless she’s got some way of passing actions between ships, she can only alter one defensive dice roll with a token — having spent it, she has to survive the other two attacks with unmodified dice, while the attacking ships’ll be using target locks and focus tokens to improve their odds of hitting. Concentrating fire is one simple way of playing to the action economy. It’s wargaming 101.
Individual pilot/upgrade cards ‘break’ the action economy rules in small ways, and a lot of tactical play revolves around manipulating your opponent’s action economy or your own. Vader, for instance, gets two actions per turn, but it’s sometimes more useful to pass that spare action around with the Squad Leader upgrade. The B-Wing ‘ace,’ Keyan Farlander, gets to convert his stress tokens to focus tokens when he attacks, so he effectively gets an extra action every time he makes a high-stress maneuver like a 180-degree turn, which would normally prevent the pilot from taking an action that turn. That’ll change the way your B-Wings fly relative to other ships. The Fire Control System upgrade allows a ship to acquire a target lock (which can be spent to reroll attack dice) immediately after shooting — a free action which frees the player up to concentrate on ‘focus’ (boost hit/evade chances on attack and defense rolls) and ‘evade’ (extra defense) actions. Push the Limit, a very popular upgrade card, lets you take a stress token to buy an extra action right now, altering the turn-to-turn flow of the game.
And it gets more complicated if your pilot’s special ability triggers an upgrade card which generates an additional action which allows a nearby ship to take another action which…
If you watch videos of high-level X-Wing play (which is more fun than it sounds), top players are routinely averaging more than one action per ship for long stretches. That’s one big reason why competitive play is so different from casual — the action economy is central to, as they say, ‘the maths,’ and addressing probabilities directly by manipulating the flow of player actions is levels beyond the standard fly/focus/fire of beginning play. This is where the money goes, really: into powerful ship/card combinations which allow you to play a qualitatively different game from your opponent. An ‘arc-dodging’ ship with a bonus action can boost (take an additional short banking turn or forward move) and barrel roll (slide sideways) to get out of enemy firing arcs. A hit-point-heavy tank can combine focus and evade tokens to ensure near-invulnerability under heavy fire. A support ship like the Imperial shuttle (or ‘space cow’) can hang back and soak up allies’ stress tokens, granting them the rough equivalent of a boost action each turn and making the entire fleet more maneuverable at low cost.
This stuff isn’t in the rules anywhere, and it’s not obvious from looking at the most basic cards — the opportunities for ship/card synergy only become clear when you look at multiple sets at once.
Which is why X-Wing gets much deeper and more enjoyable the more you invest in it — ‘invest’ here meaning both time and money. This is the great innovation of ‘German-style’ board games and M:TG-descended American games: the idea that very simple rules, graspable by kids, can support complex strategies and a long learning curve without requiring the gigantic player buy-in of, say, classic hex-based wargames of the 70s and 80s. That mix of immediate playability and serious depth, characteristic of the best games of the last couple decades, is one reason why X-Wing seems to be the bestselling minis game in America right now — the others being the Star Wars name, obviously, and the fact that you don’t have to paint the gorgeous minis to start playing.
Speaking of those minis: I bought these two Stanley organizers from Amazon and a 2-inch sheet of Pick’n’pluck Battlefoam at the Compleat Strategist in Boston. (The foam is too tall for the short organizer, almost certainly taller than I needed, but it’s what they had.) I grabbed a bunch of tiny compartments from the shallower organizer to hold tokens during games, picked’n’plucked foam like a madman for an hour or so, and ended up with a superb organizational solution that keeps the ships well protected, easily stores every card and token and movement template etc., but — this is a small thing that does, I confess, matter to me — still looks cobbled-together and not particularly nerdy.
Pick’n’pluck foam is incredible. It just works. Caveat: make sure you spend some time laying out your minis to get a dense packing arrangement.
I considered buying a proper battlemat, which is essentially a 3′ square mousepad, but decided that $40-50 was too much to spend. Instead I found an extra-large yoga mat for just over $20, cut it carefully in half, and made a ‘starfield’ with a silver Sharpie. Looks good, works vastly better than a bare tabletop (no sliding or bumping), and cost half as much as a proper mat. The surface is less perfect for the task than the expensive mat, but I’m totally satisfied.
Be warned that X-Wing requires a large table space! You need a 3’x3′ space for the mat itself (that’s the size of a proper game), with probably 6″ of clearance on two sides for cards, templates, tokens, whiskey, etc.
Our local nerd store has smallish tables to accommodate M:TG play, but they offer huge portable minis tabletops for 40K and such, which are ideal. If you have a small table, this lightweight foldable presentation board is a near-perfect solution, except that it’s so light you’ll surely bump it around, and will therefore need to think about how to keep it stable. (Ask your local science grad student where she got her display board.)
Actually I’m gonna buy one of those boards this week.
X-Wing videos are a great way to figure out the dynamics of the game. Team Covenant has the best production values and surprisingly charming, earnest announcers. (OK now look. There are very very few women in the X-Wing community. The TC announcers are very much dudes, which is fine — dudes are people too — but when it comes to the speech patterns and inflections of nerdboys, forewarned is forearmed. That said, announcer Zach Bunn is particularly knowledgeable, and the hosts’ periodic outbursts of gratitude and affection for the X-Wing community are heartwarming.)
Here’s a 2015 World semifinals match. The three-time champ, Paul Heaver, is extraordinarily good at every aspect of the game. In this video he’s flying a ‘stress hog’ Y-Wing, piling stress onto his targets and interfering with his opponent’s action economy. The challenger, Jeremy Howard, is flying a ‘Palp Aces’ list — two high-pilot-skill Imperial aces and a shuttle with Emperor Palpatine to soak up stress tokens and modify attack dice left and right. Just look at how many tokens all the ships have the whole game — these are carefully optimized lists.
Here’s a mirror match from the 2016 Hoth Open (I think it’s the USA national championships) between Palp Aces lists using Whisper, a cloaking TIE Phantom that gets a focus token after every hit. Superb piloting here, and a handy demonstration of the importance of both human error and ‘pew pew’ noises.
And finally, Nathan Eide, a 16-year-old(?) kid, flying a triple Imperial Aces list against three Jumpmaster 5000 behemoths. From my viewing, Nathan is the best tactical pilot on the scene — younger and more error-prone than Heaver, not surprisingly, but vastly more entertaining to watch. I don’t care for Jumpmasters, but honestly I don’t have a sense of what it takes to fly them well, whereas the dynamics of Imperial aces make sense to me. Either way, this match features two very different lists, which is handy.
Buy the Core Set. It’s a blast. My wife likes it, my son loves it, and I — well, we’re well past 5,000 words on the subject. You know what I think.