Level One Wonk Reviews: Hobby Games: The 100 Best

Are you a Butt-Kicker, a Specialist, or a Story-Teller? There is a huge world of games out there to satisfy every player’s and group’s style. And while there are academic discussions in every corner of the internet, sometimes it’s best to start at level one. Join the Level One Wonk in exploring the possibilities that RPGs have to offer, from Aberrant to Zorcerer of Zo. Today we check out another history, though with a different twist than the others. It’s Green Ronin’s Hobby Games: The 100 Best!

I’ve read several extensive histories of the RPG hobby. Jon Peterson traced Dungeons and Dragons all the way back to its original wargaming roots, while Shannon Appelcline made a solid attempt at writing a complete history of every RPG publisher of note in the hobby’s previous four decades. What James Lowder did when putting together his two ‘100 Best’ collections was different. Hobby Games: The 100 Best is not a scholarly work per se, like what Appelcline and Peterson sought out to do. Instead, Lowder got together 100 well known and celebrated game designers from several gaming formats, and asked them what their favorite games were. The result is an eye-opening, heartfelt, but most importantly different way of looking at games, both many you know and many more that you don’t.

As a caveat, Hobby Games: The 100 Best is about hobby games. This includes role-playing games, traditional board and card games, and wargames. The essay topics were picked by the authors, with some limitations for self-promotion and duplication. That said, the authors didn’t necessarily pick games from within their own purview (though many did). Despite that, all of the writers are clearly game designers, and their writings are all both considerations of their chosen games’ mechanics as well as an attempt to capture the intangible something that made the game their favorite, and made them want to play it over and over again.

Don’t expect to see any revelations here. Some designers extol short and tight board games, while others revel in eight hour campaigns. One role-playing game may be lauded for its storytelling while another for its deeply mechanical rules. 100 designers covering 100 games means 100 opinions, but even with that variety there still is a common thread that makes you the reader want, at least once, to play every game that’s being discussed. While game designers should be at least competent writers as well (these ones all are), I honestly do believe that it’s the enthusiasm that makes this book fun.

My favorite sections of the book were largely about board games. I go to (or at least try to go to) a weekly board gaming night one of my friends hosts, and nearly every board game in his collection is in this book. Bohnanza, Citadels, Power Grid, Ticket to Ride, Fluxx, Carcassonne and Puerto Rico were all fixtures of his game shelf, and all of them were in the book as well. While I may declare myself a wonk about RPGs I know very little about board games, but it was immediately gratifying to see someone closer to the subject than I put into words why these games were great. Seeing someone explain it also helped me start to understand why it was I enjoyed these games, and why I enjoyed the ones I did.

Of course RPGs do factor heavily here. Three essays of note: Steve Jackson writes about Paranoia. Hearing the writer of Toon and GURPS extol the virtues of Paranoia’s special brand of treason just tickled me; not only was Paranoia in some ways a Toon successor, but I can’t get over the image of the designer of GURPS saying “knowing the rules is treason”. I also think Jackson’s appreciation of Paranoia explains Munchkin maybe a little too well. Richard Garfield writes about D&D. Garfield is the designer of Magic: The Gathering, and therefore in addition to being a fantasy nut in his own right is also one of the only true game “inventors” of the modern era (RPGs and CCGs, unlike board games, wargames, or dice games, did not exist before the 20th century). Mike Pondsmith writes about Traveller. In addition to me just liking both Cyberpunk and Traveller, Pondsmith’s essay is the one most connected to RPGs that shows how lovingly designers lift and quote from their favorites. In some ways, Cyberpunk is a master class in how not to write a heartbreaker, because of course it’s nothing like Traveller.

This book is significantly less comprehensive than the other histories I’ve read, but in some ways it’s more important. In one way, this book captures a significant part of why and how RPGs spread. In the 70s and 80s, RPGs spread because people thought that the ideas they presented were different, cool, and fun, and they really felt enthusiastic about sharing. That enthusiasm is what this book captures. While these designers found their favorite games at many stages in their lives, some of the strongest essays were about the games that led the author to become a designer. Never have I wanted a set of the Little Black Books more than when I read Mike Pondsmith saying that without Traveller he’d still be a child psychologist. Thanks to the format, Hobby Games: The 100 Best captures the inspiration and wonder of discovering a game you never knew could exist. And while the book covers board games, card games, and war games as well, I think RPGs in particular owe a debt to this sort of retrospective. More than any of the other formats, RPGs draw you in by promising something you never thought existed.

Hobby Games: The 100 Best can be found in the usual book-buying locales, or on DriveThru Cards in a number of digital formats for $9.99.

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