Interview with James Lowder, Editor of Hobby Games: The 100 Best

You conceived Hobby Games: The 100 Best and pitched it to Green Ronin. What was your inspiration for the book?

My own experiences learning about new games provided the biggest inspiration. Typically, a friend discovers how great a game is and then shares his or her enthusiasm. That's how I was introduced to hobby games, particularly roleplaying games, back in the 1970s, and how I learned about a much wider array of board games and wargames after I started working for TSR in the late 1980s. It's how my friends and family share games now. Discussions about games inevitably lead to someone exclaiming "You've never played Acquire?" (Or Mystery Rummy or Struggle of Empires or Ticket to Ride or....) And more often than not, the somewhat battered box will be broken out at the first convenient moment, so the uninitiated can be introduced to that game's marvels. Hobby Games: The 100 Best is, at its foundations, an attempt to capture in book form that process of sharing enthusiasm for great games.

Why did you feel it was important for the authors to write about games with which they were not personally involved?

Writers were asked what games they wanted to write about, not knowing what anyone else had chosen. The only limitations were that essayists could not cover a game they designed or games in which they have a current and direct financial stake—that is, their company currently publishes the game, or they are working on the game line in the near future, things like that. As much as possible, I tried to remove any suggestions of self-promotion. This helped everyone approach the topics as enthusiasts, people who know a lot about the hobby sharing their love of the games they play.

And this is also why there are no Green Ronin titles on the list, right?

Right. In particular, Mutants & Masterminds came up as a possible topic several times. But the potential authors turned out to be designers who would be working on an M&M project in the coming year, or were proposing projects to Green Ronin, or had some other tie to the publisher that could be seen as a conflict of interest. So I had them pick other topics.

These rules were actually a little harsher than the ones used for assigning non-Green Ronin titles; one or two people ended up covering a game for which they had written a supplement many years ago. (They still could have no design role in the core game or have any reasonable expectation of financial gain from that old supplement.) Green Ronin deserves a lot of credit for that willingness to live by even tougher rules than those applied to other participants.

What were you looking for in your essayists?

The essayists all have substantial design and publishing experience with hobby games. In many instances, they are the designers of the games other participants chose as topics. (However the essayists did not know what games were being covered elsewhere as they wrote their entries. They saw the full table of contents for the first time only as the book headed off to the printer.)

I tried to line up writers representing a wide variety of game types—designers of board games, miniatures games, wargames, roleplaying games, and card games. The book succeeds at presenting a variety of perspectives, I think, and I'm thrilled with the list of designers who participated. A few industry notables could not participate because of deadlines, and a non-competition clause for full-time employees prevented anyone from one corporation from writing for the book, but the collective experience of the people listed on the table of contents is staggering.

Were there any conflicts amongst the authors over who got to cover what game?

Games were assigned in the order they were requested, and there were certainly a few titles that came up more than once. In two instances I can recall, a game was snapped up through e-mail less than five minutes before someone else requested it. No one had a hard time coming up with another, equally great option, though. In fact, several authors asked about writing more than one essay, since they were having a tough time selecting only one game.

Dealing with 100 authors and editing all their essays must have been challenging. Was it more or less work than you thought when you started the project?

I've edited anthologies before, some with as many as 25 authors, so I had some idea of what to expect. But the more authors involved in a book, the more complicated a project becomes, and I really underestimated the amount of work HG100 would take. Just keeping track of everyone's game choices and assigning topics required swing tables that ran several pages. Tracking drafts and contracts required several more pages. Review notes for the first drafts of the essays totaled more than 100 single-spaced pages—about 30,000 words in all. That equals about a third of a novel.

Finding current contact information for all the authors I wanted to invite took more time than I had expected, too. Many designers left the paper game industry years ago and are now working for computer game companies. Finding them all took a lot of time. Fortunately, the writers for whom I had contact information were very generous in helping me get in touch with their friends and colleagues, both former and current. The project developed a community spirit very quickly.

What types of games are covered in the book?

I started with a rough definition of what a hobby games is—a game that is designed in such a way that players can devote a lot of time to its strategy or the community surrounding it. Board games, RPGs, card games, miniatures games, and wargames were all possible topics.

Were any games suggested that had to be ruled out because they weren't really hobby games?

Someone suggested Crokinole, but I wanted to keep the book to games released in the last 50 years or so. I also turned down one other abstract game as a topic—I'd have to look at my notes to see what it was—because it seemed to fall outside of the book's general approach. Otherwise, the essayists were generally successful in convincing me to include a game they wanted to see covered, even if it was one I would have considered more of a mass market game than a hobby game.

If I'm a casual gamer, why do I want this book?

The majority of the games covered in Hobby Games: The 100 Best are fun and accessible to even a casual gamer. They're great to break out for a couple of hours with people who are not hardcore gamers. Yes, some of the games discussed in the book require several hours to play, and all of them are games that you could spend a lot of time studying or immersing yourself in the community surrounding them. But paging through the book, you are very, very likely to find several games that you'll want to try, whether you are a casual or devoted gamer. I've purchased quite a few games since commencing work on the book—some because I had not heard much about them before HG100, others because essays convinced me that I was missing out on something fun.

Can you tell us a bit about your background?

I've been a hobby gamer since my teens and have worked in the hobby game industry since 1988, when I published my first gaming-related article in Gateways magazine and landed a job in TSR's book division. Since 1992 I've been a full-time freelance writer and editor; in that time I've worked for many different publishers on all kinds of projects, both game-related and not. As a writer I've published novels (Prince of Lies and Knight of the Black Rose are the ones people might know), short fiction, RPG support material for about a dozen games, comic books, feature articles, and film and book reviews. I've served as line editor for the Forgotten Realms and Ravenloft fiction programs, executive editor for the Pendragon fiction line, and consulting editor for various other publishing programs.

Since you didn't get to write about any games yourself, can you tell us what some of your favorite games are?

In no particular order: Cosmic Encounter, Villains & Vigilantes, Mr. Jack, Empires of the Middle Ages, Once Upon a Time, Call of Cthulhu, AD&D (1st or 2nd edition), Source of the Nile, Pendragon, Kremlin, Wings of War, Swashbuckler, Space Hulk, Mage, Carcassonne, the Crimefighters RPG from Dragon Magazine #47. I'd include Mutants & Masterminds in there. I'm certain I'm forgetting many others. Ticket to Ride, Paranoia, Car Wars.... Had I been one of the writers, I would have had a hard time picking just one game as a topic.

Will we see Hobby Games: Another 100 Best?

Several of the essayists have already expressed interest in specific games that were not covered in the first book and, despite the daunting amount of work required, I think editing another volume would be fun. Green Ronin was terrific through the entire process; they helped make a very complicated project a positive experience for everyone involved. So if the first one sells well, a follow-up is a very good possibility.