Meet Teri Litorco, Who Literally Wrote the Book on Civilized Gaming
My family has been making a habit of unplugging on Sundays; disengaging with tech-based media and spending time cooking, playing games, or even reading books made of paper. To that end, we've been visiting our local library to pick up Sunday reading material. On the last visit, I came across a small tome on the 793 shelf: The Civilized Guide to Tabletop Gaming by Teri Litorco. I flipped through it, quite intrigued as I haven't seen a book on gaming like this one. There are whole chapters dedicated to a wide variety of topics such as hosting game groups, learning and teaching games, and even proper etiquette while gaming. A section titled "Rolling the Dice the Right Way" is a particular favorite of mine.
Interviews have been part of my vision for On Golden Age from the start as there are so many fascinating people to meet and stories to tell, but I didn't know who could really kick it off right. When I read The Civilized Guide..., I knew instantly Teri would be the perfect first guest on my blog, and she was kind enough to meet.
As well as an author, Teri is a contributing editor for Geek & Sundry, a video blogger, podcaster, competitive wargamer, and a tabletop hobby champion (see chapter 11 of the book.)
I'm very happy to have gotten a chance to have a conversation with Teri as we touched on many of the topics featured in both her book and at On Golden Age. Please enjoy!
The following highlights from the audio interview were edited for clarity.
Erik: An obvious question to start, I know, so how did you get introduced into tabletop gaming?
Teri: I was first introduced to miniature wargaming through my partner. We had moved in from university at the time, but before miniature wargaming even hit the scene, my father taught me how to play chess when I was four or five years old. He used to hustle chess on the streets of Manila in the Philippines. So, it was my first real strategy game, or classic board game. And so that was where I fell in love with gaming. I played the classic standard family games growing up. You know, Monopoly and Operation, that sort of thing. But around university, my boyfriend at the time, who I eventually married, we're moving in together and I found this bankers box in the top corner of his closet. I pulled out the box expecting it to be heavy, as if it contained magazines, but a rattling noise came out of it.
And I thought "Huh, this is strange." I was standing on top of a few things to get up there. I'm only 4'8"; my husband is 6'4", and I pulled the box down and there were miniatures inside of it. I said "What is this? Why do you have all of these... aliens?" And at the time they were painted like skittles. (laughter) They tasted the rainbow! They were painted shoddy with craft paint. And I said, "What is this and why have you been hiding this from me?" and he said "OK! Don't judge me, but this is something I found when a young teenager and kept going to Games Workshop with my friend, and spent hours there every day after school. You build these guys, you paint them, and then you play games with them." That's actually pretty cool, like this is kind of my jam! It was this science-fiction miniature game from Games Workshop: Warhammer 40K - it is the biggest miniature war game in the world in terms of sales. And so I said "Hey, well, let's check it out."
There was a local Games Workshop, and then by the time I finished my first paint lesson I was hooked. I was hooked! I started painting miniatures and playing lots and lots and lots of games. At one point just playing competitively and traveling to tournaments, that sort of thing. And then I started expanding my view on games and then realizing hey, we can do this for fun and still really enjoy it. It doesn't have to be a competitive thing can be a really enjoyable experience and it's something that if I approach it from this way, I can share it with more people. So that's where I come from in terms of my gaming heritage.
Erik: Tell me about the book. How did it go from your thoughts onto a shelf at my local library?
Teri: At the time, I had come into creating content for Geek & Sundry. I had done that by making [video] blogs for Geek & Sundry on miniature wargames, showing people how to paint and play these games, introducing them to these types of games that are out there. And it was just at the time when a little game by Fantasy Flight called X-Wing [Miniatures] was just starting to take hold in the tabletop circles, and really just explode. The timing was really fortuitous and everyone was like "Oh, this is cool. How do we get into this world?" And so I was able to get on - I was making content for them, and then we moved away from YouTube as a company. And they're like "Well, we're doing a blog now. Do you want to contribute articles to the blog?" Absolutely. I'll write all sorts of stuff.
I started writing on all sorts of topics. But one of the things that caught the eye of my publisher when they approached me was an article on gaming etiquette at a convention. Because if you're new to tabletop gaming or you are just coming in for the first time, and you're looking at going [to a convention], whether it's a small convention or extremely large rooms like Gen Con here in North America - the thought of playing at these tables or playing competitively or entering a tournament for a game you love, so you know the game very well, but the decorum around that social interaction wasn't really recorded and people hadn't had that experience. So it was one of those experiences that I have had, and because I had done a lot of tabletop gaming, and had broadened my view on games, so I wasn't just a 40K gamer it was, you know, I played board games, I played miniature wargames, I've played all sorts of roleplaying games. I had had this experience, and I had this experience in for a relatively short period of time but I also had experience organizing events. I had worked at local gaming stores, and I had supported events there and organized events to demonstrate games and show games and play games and get people excited about games.
So I had this body of experience where I really just thought, "You know, maybe I could write this." My publisher approached me and said, "We really like this article, do you think you can give me a few chapters on social etiquette. Can give me some some stuff on surviving games? Can you tell me how to protect my games?" And if there's anything a miniature wargamer can do very well is protect their game components! (laughs) Because you spend all that time painting these miniatures, and then you transport them, and that's that's the thing that a lot of boardgamers may not have as much experience in as the idea of: what does it look like to transport this game that you love. In miniature wargaming, it's a lot more common because the space required for those types of games is often much larger. If you want to play in any more than two players you're looking at playing at your local game store, means you have to bring all that stuff. I had a lot of experience in protecting games and protecting components as well. So I drafted up a chapter for that. I drafted up some some general etiquette stuff in terms of the idea of having run events. What is the ideal experience for everyone who attends these events, how can I facilitate that has a tournament organizer, and what kind of boundaries or guidelines can I set for people who attend these events so that everyone has a good time? And that general guidance is what structured my approach to gaming etiquette.
Erik: So the whole foundation behind this book was "We love this article. Could you write an book on gaming etiquette?" As I read the book, however, there's a lot more here than just gaming etiquette.
Teri: There is! Well, I think part of it is because, again, working at these game stores, I had to develop a fluency in games.
How do you explain what a game does without using jargon terms? If someone has never played Magic the Gathering before, they might not understand what that kind of game entails. So how do you explain that? How do you explain what Catan is like? What's the difference between a game like Power Grid and a game like Blood Rage? How do you explain the differences without using terms like "eurogame," where you already have to be fluent in the industry to understand. What does "eurogame" mean?
I put up a tweet recently where I said one of the worst jargony game terms I see constantly, and I wish I didn't see it, was "orthogonally." Why? (laughter) Why did we use this term in game instructions when most people don't know what it means? So you not only have to use this term, you also have to diagram it in your game instructions. Whereas you can say: they can only move in straight lines, not diagonal, or they can move in adjacent spaces that are not diagonal. Most people understand what "diagonal" means, but most people do not know what "orthogonal" means.
Erik: (laughs) I remember once using that term once while teaching a game, My wife said "What did you just say? Did you say 'orthogonally?'"
Teri: It's a great $5 word! Right? (laughs) And that's great in gamer circles because there is a general fluency there. But if I'm describing a game as a eurogame and I say it's a mid-weight eurogame to someone who is coming in looking for a Christmas gift at a store, they'll look at you like I've just I've grown a third eye in the middle of my head that's not the idea. So when I describe games, I describe them using terms that are much more accessible. With an ameritrash game you know there's a lot of luck involved there, and so you can expect some randomness and dice rolls, there is a lot of confrontations and you can expect a lot of player interaction. With the eurogame, you can expect you're probably going to build some sort of infrastructure. You're building a farm, or you're building a power grid, or you're building railway tracks, or something like that. And there's not a lot of clear interaction. You might touch each other in the peripheries, but it's not a lot of like: "I destroy what you just made! And I wreck what you have you've spent the last turn doing!" There's very little of that, and there's also generally a lot less luck.
And so when we talk about those terms a little bit, it's a lot more digestible and, you know, it's a lot easier to describe those games in those terms and have that vocabulary when you go into a game store where they might use those terms. My hope was: if I'm going to write a book to get people to the game store, or even just looking at sites like BoardGameGeek - pull up a game on BoardGameGeek, top search result on Google, you click on a game and it's got all these terms you don't understand - how can we make those terms meaningful? It's really important for me to do that. And the idea ultimately what my guiding goal was: can I explain what I do and all the world that is encompassed, in the things that I work in the industry that I work in, to my mother who is a 74 year-old Filipino woman, who is not from this culture, but can also understand these things and understand what they're about. And that was kind of my guiding principle in that front.
Erik: The Civilized Guide... has been out for a year now. How has the reception been?
Teri: Well, it's been really, really good. I think a lot of people find it through all sorts of ways. Most of it happens through word of mouth, and I think that's the thing: a gamer tells another gamer, "Hey, you know, you should check this chapter out. This chapter is for you." And it's not necessarily the whole book, because I recognize that gamers are on different parts in their journey as gamers. Someone who's coming new into the hobby might be at a very different experience than someone who is looking at, like, hosting a game night and what that entails, or someone who's looking at going to the big conventions and what that entails, or someone who's looking to start a podcast or start a blog or start a video series on games that they love, and what that means to them. Everyone's at a different place. While I try to kind of make general points that would have appeal to a lot of people, I like to think that my book has more specific and aimed chapters, for more specific gamers, based on where they are on their journey.
Erik: In the book, you recommend using a metric to define and determine whether or not a game is worthy of purchase, and for you, it's Galaxy Trucker. So what is it about Galaxy Trucker that makes it a baseline for you?
Teri: Galaxy Trucker, specifically, is the game that I feel has, for me and my tastes, the right mix of player interaction, the right mix of resource gathering, the right kind of dexterity and, you know, engagement element; the right length and play time for me to really enjoy a tabletop game. So when I look at board games that ask me to sit for four hours - Twilight Imperium is not the kind of game for me; it's too long a play. I don't like games that are that heavy. Eurogames, as a whole, I know are not for me. There's not enough player interaction. I feel sometimes, when I play a eurogame game, I'm sitting and playing a game of solitaire. And that's not my style. I know some of my friends, [like] my board games colleague Bebo, she loves eurogames! That's totally her thing. She hates miniature war games, though, because she hates luck. And so there's all these different elements. So Galaxy Trucker has, for me, the right mix of luck, the right play time, and the right amount of player interaction. It scales really well. And so, for me, it's the game that I measure every other game to.
As a result, it's the game that I say, "Okay, if there's one game I'm going to keep in my entire library, if this is the one I'm going to keep, everything else has to at least meet [this standard.] You must be this tall to stay in this collection! When I play a game (I try it out at my game store), a game has to meet that minimum. It has to have some element of it, and just about every game that I really truly love has elements of Galaxy Trucker in it. And so whether it's the luck, it's the confrontation, it's the randomness, it's the sheer level of tension, that game has [it.] That's what makes it for me.